Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Recruitment of Bob Woodward or How I Learned Where to Hide Your Drugs When You End Up In The Tombs. 

Is it summer already? I’ve never been able to keep straight when one season starts and the other leaves off. I’m not even sure it makes much sense to have fixed dates for these things. On Sunday, when the girl I was talking with on the lawn along the Hudson near battery park tugged off her white peasant skirt and pink Polo shirt, revealing a green Dulce & Gabana bikini beneath, I could see that the small of her back and the long length between her knees and her hips had gone slick with perspiration. That’s summer enough for me.

We had hoped that sitting in the shade beside the river would provide some relief from the warm sea of humid air that had washed over the city but no winds were blowing off the Hudson harbor. After twenty minutes or so, she decided to abandon our plan to spend the day in the sun. I was sorry to see her slip back on the skirt and shirt but I could see her point. Only mad pigeons and Eurotrash would stay outdoors in this kind of heat.

“I’m rethinking this plan not to spend the summer in East Egg,” she told me as we walked toward Chambers Street. “Right now we could be drinking bloody marys at Nick’s, feeling the wind blow over the surf and sand.”

“I couldn’t handle it. Out there I smoke too much, drink too much, spend too much and barely get any fishing done at all. You don’t even like to swim,” I said.

“ I like swimming fine. But even more I like opportunity. It’s nice to know the beach is there when you need it.”

She handed me a cigarette from the pack she had fished out of the beaded bag she was carrying. The smoke stabbed into my lungs and the nicotine ignited tiny sparks of dopamine in my brain.

“We’ll visit our friends out there. It’s better not to have a place of one’s own anyway. More social. Also, you don’t feel the obligation to be out there every weekend,” I said.

“I never feel obligations. That’s you. I feel opportunities.” She liked the way that sounded. I was a man of obligations. She was a woman of opportunities.

Patriotism Is the Last Refuge of Drunks

We said goodbye on Chambers Street. She had an early dinner with an old friend. I had nothing in particular to do—no obligations, all opportunity.

I walked up Chambers Street toward Church. A bus rolled by and belched hot, black smoke on me. My skin was going pink beneath the sheen of sweat, and my stomach was turning in on itself from too much heat and not enough to drink. I passed a chalkboard and read the words written in green chalk.

“Let’s play a game,” it read, “One Tequila, Two Tequila, Three Tequila…Floor!”

Just beyond the chalkboard was a glass door covered from within by a thick black curtain. This was the entrance the Patriot. I decided that I might as well have a drink there because I knew it was owned by Tommy McNeil.

Tommy ran one of the best bars in New York City for about ten years. It was called the Village Idiot. It was a big bar of a place on fourteenth street near the corner of ninth avenue. A long bar ran down the right side of the front room. The bar was broken in places, held together by makeshift repairs, and I doubt it was ever cleaned. If you leaned an elbow against it, you came away with black spots on your shirt sleeves. The backroom was filled with uneven tables, broken chairs and the worst pool table in New York. Signs hung up on the wall warning customers against the constant thefts that went on in the place. “You’re friends are not watching your stuff,” read one. The waitresses and the bartenders were girls who looked like they were too young to walk into the bar, much less pour whiskey and take money there. When Tommy wanted to hire a new one he hung a sign outside: “Drunk sluts wanted. No experience necessary.” The Idiot closed last summer.

The Patriot resembles what the Idiot might have been like if it had ever been cleaned, had been built out of durable materials and wasn’t patronized by the worst drunks on earth. The barstools stayed upright when you sat on them, the glasses were clean and no-one seemed to have been sick in there that day even though it was already four in the afternoon. The bartender was a friendly girl from Los Angeles, and offered to by me a shot after I ordered my first beer. The jukebox was playing a song about Texas and some girls at the other end of the bar were singing along. One of them was on her way back to Texas tonight. There weren’t many other people drinking that early. The Texans had attracted a couple of guys in band t-shirts to their end of the bar. A fat kid with crooked glasses midway down the bar. To my left, a couple of stools down, sat a guy in a white t-shirt, blue jeans and thick but agile hands that made me guess he was a plumber or a carpenter.

The music went quiet after my first beer so I walked over to the jukebox and pushed a dollar in the slot. All the old songs from the Idiot were there. David Allen Coe’s “You Never Call Me By My Name.” Hank Williams Jr. “Family Tradition.” I suppose these are the songs that drunkards sing along to everywhere, although you won’t find many jukeboxes playing them in New York City. Most importantly, the jukebox had “Shut Up and Drink” by the Rogue’s March, a song written about getting drunk with Tommy McNeil in the Village Idiot.

When I got back to my barstool the bartender was pouring three shots of tequila.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said. “It’s early to start this strong.”

“Fuck off and drink. On me,” said a guy sitting to my left. I nodded my consent and did the shot with him and the bartender. We started talking a few moments later. He was an electrician, down from Connecticut to visit a girl who worked in the real estate section of one of the daily papers. I told him I sometimes wrote book reviews and lifestyle pieces for newspapers and magazines but not as often as I’d like. This seemed to make him like me less than when he thought I was just a daytime drunk.

The Illustrated Man

When we had finished our beers and were ready to order another, I summoned over the bartender. It was my round for the shots, so I ordered whiskey. Not my usual Jameson’s. I like to drink Irish whiskey on the rocks. For shots I prefer bourbon. Wild Turkey 101 to be specific. I like it to hurt a little bit going down.

As the LA girl was off grabbing the bottle, the door to the bar opened, letting in a rush of hot air, sunlight and a man whose black vest revealed arms covered in tattoos. One of them read “Wealth is a prison”—which, if you really think about it, is not at all true. He took the stool to the left of the Connecticut electrician. When the bartender returned with the Wild Turkey, I told her to pour a shot for the newcomer as well.

“Thanks, friend,” he said. We all lifted our glasses and swallowed down the whiskey. “Hot as a bitch out there today.”

Hot as a bitch. No doubt about it. Over another round of shots and beers, the four of us—the tattooed newcomer, the electrician, the bartender and I—fell into conversation. First about the weather, then the seasons (and how there aren’t any in LA), and finally about politics. The week earlier Vanity Fair magazine had published a story revealing the identity of the man who gave those two Washington Post reporters, Carl Berstein and Bob Woodward, so much information during the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. His name was Mark Felt, and at the time he had been the number two man at the FBI.

“I was struck by how instantly innocent the media become on this thing,” I said.

“Hmm. How’s that, hon?” the bartender asked.

“Well these days everyone knows that secret sources aren’t all heroic whistle-blowers. The assumption is that they are trying to advance their own agenda, I said. “Take the Valerie Plame case. It’s hard to imagine anyone thinking that her role in the CIA was leaked to reporters by a disinterested person who just wanted to get the whole story out. Don’t we all figure it was leaked as a part of an intergovernmental struggle?"

“Good point. But what was Deepthroat trying to do?” the electrician asked. “I mean, couldn’t he have been just some guy who discovered corruption in the White House and wanted to make sure it didn’t go unpunished. What was he supposed to do?”

“I don’t buy it for a minute. He had an agenda. He had been in the FBI for something like forty years at that point. Under Hoover. Through the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He saw a lot worse than Watergate during that time. Why come forward now? It’s because he had it out for Nixon,” I said.

“I’ve heard he was passed over to run the FBI,” the bartender added.

“Not just that. Nixon was trying to get the CIA to go into domestic spying. Felt wanted to protect the FBI’s turf. It was just an ordinary bureaucratic fight for money and power,” I said.

The tattooed man coughed. It was fierce and sharp and got out attention. He said, “You’re all too innocent by half. You have no idea what was going on, do you?”

No one said a word. He looked like he had something to say and we all wanted to hear it. “Buy me another shot, and I’ll tell you a story,” he said.

The bartender brought the shot. It was on the house. He took it down and chased it with a swallow of beer. “Deepthroat was an operation. Mark Felt was not just an FBI agent. He was a spy. He had recruited Bob Woodward years beforehand. The thing with recruiting intelligence assets is that half the time they don’t even know they’ve been recruited. You go on having them think you are just friends, and that they’re just doing what they would do anyway. But they’re yours,” he said.

“Sounds far-fetched,” the electrician said.

“Of course it does. All true spook capers are far-fetched. Otherwise someone would figure them out and they’d get exposed. Judge for yourself. Woodward says he met this sixty year old guy in a waiting room when he was in his twenties, and that they stayed in touch, became friends, over the next couple of years. This old FBI hand just befriends some navy kid? Either Felt was recruiting him, or Felt was a faggot.”

Someone laughed.

“It has all the markings of an operation. Take all the tradecraft hocus-pocus—secret meetings, moving plants to arrange for meets, marking up newspapers. Felt was second in charge of the FBI. He was the top spook, running all the other secret police. No one was following him around. This was all done to convince Woodward he was doing something important and dangerous,” he said. “Look at it from the other side. Woodward signals him by moving a plant, and Felt finds out in time to meet him by 2 am that night. How the Hell did he do that? I’ll tell you. He had agents working on the operation. It was an operation, Operation Deepthroat.”

Out of the Tombs

I wanted to know what the purpose of the operation was. Could it to have been to preserve the FBI’s jurisdiction, as I was saying. Was it a silent coup, as someone once said. I didn’t get the chance to ask because just then two guys came rushing into the bar shouting.

“Yo. Yo. You got food? Food? I need food!” one shouted.

The bartender offered them a place at the bar but the other insisted, “Food, bitch. Food.”

The Patriot serves burgers and fries, and this seemed to satisfy the two. I’d never seen two men so hungry, so I asked about it.

“Just got out of the Tombs, man,” one told me. He introduced himself as CD. His friend was called Bones. They’d been in central booking since Thursday night, and had been let go after a few days because they hadn’t been brought before a judge to be arraigned. I didn’t ask about how they got arrested. I asked about the food.

“No good. Stale bread and baloney. Every day. Three times,” CD said.

“That wasn’t baloney. That was mystery meat. Nasty,” Bones said.

The electrician asked a couple of questions about the Tombs. The roughest guys there are the ones who find out they are on their way to Rikers. They start robbing other prisoners of basic items so that they have supplies to barter when they get to Rikers.

“I thought I was going to have to shank this one guy who wanted my coke,” Bones told me.

“You didn’t have a shank,” CD said.

“Good think he didn’t know that.”

I interrupted. “Hold on. You had coke in jail.”

“Yeah, man. Good thing, too. I bought myself a nice bunk, and could have bought me a shank with it too.”

“How did you get coke into the Tombs?”

“That was easy man. Cops search everywhere. They never look one place though.”

“Where’s that?”

He put his foot on the stool beside him. He was wearing blue Nike running shoes. He pulled back the tongue and showed me the little space behind the label. “Right there. Never look there.”

“Holy shit. Look at that,” CD said. He was pointing at the Texas girls. They had climbed up on the bar, and were dancing along to another song about Texas.

The tattooed man was gone. I hadn’t seen him leave but he wasn’t in the bar anymore. Maybe he thought drinking with these two coke dealers just out of lockup after four days wasn’t the wisest way to spend the afternoon. I decided he was probably right. I said goodbye to the bartender, the Tombs boys and the electrician, and walked through that curtained door back into the heat of the New York summer.