Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg
January 11, 1999
ANNALS OF SOCIETY
She’s a grandmother, she lives in a
big house in Chicago, and you’ve never
heard of her. Does she run the world?
Everyone who knows Lois Weisberg has a story about meeting Lois Weisberg, and although she has done thousands of things in her life and met thousands of people, all the stories are pretty much the same. Lois (everyone calls her Lois) is invariably smoking a cigarette and drinking one of her dozen or so daily cups of coffee. She will have been up until two or three the previous morning, and up again at seven or seven-thirty, because she hardly seems to sleep. In some accounts — particularly if the meeting took place in the winter — she’ll be wearing her white, fur-topped Dr. Zhivago boots with gold tights; but she may have on her platform tennis shoes, or the leather jacket with the little studs on it, or maybe an outrageous piece of costume jewelry, and, always, those huge, rhinestone-studded glasses that make her big eyes look positively enormous. “I have no idea why I asked you to come here, I have no job for you,” Lois told Wendy Willrich when Willrich went to Lois’s office in downtown Chicago a few years ago for an interview. But by the end of the interview Lois did have a job for her, because for Lois meeting someone is never just about meeting someone. If she likes you, she wants to recruit you into one of her grand schemes — to sweep you up into her world. A while back, Lois called up Helen Doria, who was then working for someone on Chicago’s city council, and said, “I don’t have a job for you. Well, I might have a little job. I need someone to come over and help me clean up my office.” By this, she meant that she had a big job for Helen but just didn’t know what it was yet. Helen came, and, sure enough, Lois got her a big job.
Cindy Mitchell first met Lois twenty-three years ago, when she bundled up her baby and ran outside into one of those frigid Chicago winter mornings because some people from the Chicago Park District were about to cart away a beautiful sculpture of Carl von Linné from the park across the street. Lois happened to be driving by at the time, and, seeing all the commotion, she slammed on her brakes, charged out of her car — all five feet of her — and began asking Cindy questions, rat-a-tat-tat: “Who are you? What’s going on here? Why do you care?” By the next morning, Lois had persuaded two Chicago Tribune reporters to interview Cindy and turn the whole incident into a cause célèbre, and she had recruited Cindy to join an organization she’d just started called Friends of the Parks, and then, when she found out that Cindy was a young mother at home who was too new in town to have many friends, she told her, “I’ve found a friend for you. Her name is Helen, and she has a little boy your kid’s age, and you will meet her next week and the two of you will be best friends.” That’s exactly what happened, and, what’s more, Cindy went on to spend ten years as president of Friends of the Park. “Almost everything that I do today and eighty to ninety per cent of my friends came about because of her, because of that one little chance meeting,” Cindy says. “That’s a scary thing. Try to imagine what would have happened if she had come by five minutes earlier.”
It could be argued, of course, that even if Cindy hadn’t met Lois on the street twenty-three years ago she would have met her somewhere else, maybe a year later or two years later or ten years later, or, at least, she would have met someone who knew Lois or would have met someone who knew someone who knew Lois, since Lois Weisberg is connected, by a very short chain, to nearly everyone. Weisberg is now the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs for the City of Chicago. But in the course of her seventy-three years she has hung out with actors and musicians and doctors and lawyers and politicians and activists and environmentalists, and once, on a whim, she opened a secondhand-jewelry store named for her granddaughter Becky Fyffe, and every step of the way Lois has made friends and recruited people, and a great many of those people have stayed with her to this day. “When we were doing the jazz festival, it turned out — surprise, surprise — that she was buddies with Dizzy Gillespie,” one of her friends recalls. “This is a woman who cannot carry a tune. She has no sense of rhythm. One night Tony Bennett was in town, and so we hang out with Tony Bennett, hearing about the old days with him and Lois.”
Once, in the mid-fifties, on a whim, Lois took the train to New York to attend the World Science Fiction Convention and there she met a young writer by the name of Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke took a shine to Lois, and next time he was in Chicago he called her up. “He was at a pay phone,” Lois recalls. “He said, ‘Is there anyone in Chicago I should meet?’ I told him to come over to my house.” Lois has a throaty voice, baked hard by half a century of nicotine, and she pauses between sentences to give herself the opportunity for a quick puff. Even when she’s not smoking, she pauses anyway, as if to keep in practice. “I called Bob Hughes, one of the people who wrote for my paper.” Pause. “I said, ‘Do you know anyone in Chicago interested in talking to Arthur Clarke?’ He said, ‘Yeah, Isaac Asimov is in town. And this guy Robert, Robert…Robert Heinlein.’ So they all came over and sat in my study.” Pause. “Then they called over to me and they said, ‘Lois’ — I can’t remember the word they used. They had some word for me. It was something about how I was the kind of person who brings people together.”
This is in some ways the archetypal Lois Weisberg story. First, she reaches out to somebody — somebody outside her world. (At the time, she was running a drama troupe, whereas Arthur C. Clarke wrote science fiction.) Equally important, that person responds to her. Then there’s the fact that when Arthur Clarke came to Chicago and wanted to meet someone Lois came up with Isaac Asimov. She says it was a fluke that Asimov was in town. But if it hadn’t been Asimov it would have been someone else. Lois ran a salon out of her house on the North Side in the late nineteen-fifties, and one of the things that people remember about it is that it was always, effortlessly, integrated. Without that salon, blacks would still have socialized with whites on the North Side — though it was rare back then, it happened. But it didn’t happen by accident: it happened because a certain kind of person made it happen. That’s what Asimov and Clarke meant when they said that Lois has this thing — whatever it is — that brings people together.
Lois is a type — a particularly rare and extraordinary type, but a type nonetheless. She’s the type of person who seems to know everybody, and this type can be found in every walk of life. Someone I met at a wedding (actually, the wedding of the daughter of Lois’s neighbors, the Newbergers) told me that if I ever went to Massapequa I should look up a woman named Marsha, because Marsha was the type of person who knew everybody. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, the word is that a tailor named Charlie Davidson knows everybody. In Houston, I’m told, there is an attorney named Harry Reasoner who knows everybody. There are probably Lois Weisbergs in Akron and Tucson and Paris and in some little town in the Yukon Territory, up by the Arctic Circle. We’ve all met someone like Lois Weisberg. Yet, although we all know a Lois Weisberg type, we don’t know much about the Lois Weisberg type. Why is it, for example, that these few, select people seem to know everyone and the rest of us don’t? And how important are the people who know everyone? This second question is critical, because once you begin even a cursory examination of the life of someone like Lois Weisberg you start to suspect that he or she may be far more important than we would ever have imagined — that the people who know everyone, in some oblique way, may actually run the world. I don’t mean that they are the sort who head up the Fed or General Motors or Microsoft, but that, in a very down-to-earth, day-to-day way, they make the world work. They spread ideas and information. They connect varied and isolated parts of society. Helen Doria says someone high up in the Chicago government told her that Lois is “the epicenter of the city administration,” which is the right way to put it. Lois is far from being the most important or the most powerful person in Chicago. But if you connect all the dots that constitute the vast apparatus of government and influence and interest groups in the city of Chicago you’ll end up coming back to Lois again and again. Lois is a connector.
Lois, it must be said, did not set out to know everyone. “She doesn’t network for the sake of networking,” says Gary Johnson, who was Lois’s boss years ago, when she was executive director of the Chicago Council of Lawyers. “I just think she has the confidence that all the people in the world, whether she’s met them or not, are in her Rolodex already, and that all she has to do is figure out how to reach them and she’ll be able to connect with them.”
Nor is Lois charismatic — at least, not in the way that we think of extroverts and public figures as being charismatic. She doesn’t fill a room; eyes don’t swivel toward her as she makes her entrance. Lois has frizzy blond hair, and when she’s thinking — between her coffee and her cigarette — she kneads the hair on the top of her head, so that by the end of a particularly difficult meeting it will be standing almost straight up. “She’s not like the image of the Washington society doyenne,” Gary Johnson says. “You know, one of those people who identify you, take you to lunch, give you the treatment. Her social life is very different. When I bump into her and she says, ‘Oh, we should catch up,’ what she means is that someday I should go with her to her office, and we’d go down to the snack bar and buy a muffin and then sit in her office while she answered the phone. For a real treat, when I worked with her at the Council of Lawyers she would take me to the dining room in the Wieboldt’s department store.” Johnson is an old-school Chicago intellectual who works at a fancy law firm and has a corner office with one of those Midwestern views in which, if you look hard enough, you can almost see Nebraska, and the memory of those lunches at Wieboldt’s seems to fill him with delight. “Now, you’ve got to understand that the Wieboldt’s department store — which doesn’t exist anymore — was a notch below Field’s, where the suburban society ladies have their lunch, and it’s also a notch below Carson’s,” he says. “There was a kind of room there where people who bring their own string bags to go shopping would have a quick lunch. This was her idea of a lunch out. We’re not talking Pamela Harriman here.”
In the mid-eighties, Lois quit a job she’d had for four years, as director of special events in the administration of Harold Washington, and somehow hooked up with a group of itinerant peddlers who ran the city’s flea markets. “There was this lady who sold jewelry,” Lois said. “She was a person out of Dickens. She was bedraggled. She had a houseful of cats. But she knew how to buy jewelry, and I wanted her to teach me. I met her whole circle of friends, all these old gay men who had antique stores. Once a week, we would go to the Salvation Army.” Lois was arguably the most important civic activist in the city. Her husband was a judge. She lived in a huge house in one of Chicago’s nicest neighborhoods. Yet somehow she managed to be plausible as a flea-market peddler to a bunch of flea-market peddlers, the same way she managed to be plausible as a music lover to a musician like Tony Bennett. It doesn’t matter who she’s with or what she’s doing; she always manages to be in the thick of things. “There was a woman I knew — Sandra — who had a kid in school with my son Joseph,” Lois told me. Lois has a habit of telling stories that appear to be tangential and digressive but, on reflection, turn out to be parables of a sort. “She helped all these Asians living uptown. One day, she came over here and said there was this young Chinese man who wanted to meet an American family and learn to speak English better and was willing to cook for his room and board. Well, I’m always eager to have a cook, and especially a Chinese cook, because my family loves Chinese food. They could eat it seven days a week. So Sandra brought this man over here. His name was Shi Young. He was a graduate student at the Art Institute of Chicago.” Shi Young lived with Lois and her family for two years, and during that time Chicago was in the midst of political turmoil. Harold Washington, who would later become the first black mayor of the city, was attempting to unseat the remains of the Daley political machine, and Lois’s house, naturally, was the site of late-night, top-secret strategy sessions for the pro- Washington reformers of Chicago’s North Side. “We’d have all these important people here, and Shi Young would come down and listen,” Lois recalls. “I didn’t think anything of it.” But Shi Young, as it turns out, was going back up to his room and writing up what he heard for the China Youth Daily, a newspaper with a circulation in the tens of millions. Somehow, in the improbable way that the world works, a portal was opened up, connecting Chicago’s North Side reform politics and the readers of the China Youth Daily, and that link was Lois’s living room. You could argue that this was just a fluke — just as it was a fluke that Isaac Asimov was in town and that Lois happened to be driving by when Cindy Mitchell came running out of her apartment. But sooner or later all those flukes begin to form a pattern.
In the late nineteen-sixties, a Harvard social psychologist named Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment in an effort to find an answer to what is known as the small-world problem, though it could also be called the Lois Weisberg problem. It is this: How are human beings connected? Do we belong to separate worlds, operating simultaneously but autonomously, so that the links between any two people, anywhere in the world, are few and distant? Or are we all bound up together in a grand, interlocking web? Milgram’s idea was to test this question with a chain letter. For one experiment, he got the names of a hundred and sixty people, at random, who lived in Omaha, Nebraska, and he mailed each of them a packet. In the packet was the name and address of a stockbroker who worked in Boston and lived in Sharon, Massachusetts. Each person was instructed to write his name on a roster in the packet and send it on to a friend or acquaintance who he thought would get it closer to the stockbroker. The idea was that when the letters finally arrived at the stockbroker’s house Milgram could look at the roster of names and establish how closely connected someone chosen at random from one part of the country was to another person chosen at random in another part. Milgram found that most of the letters reached the stockbroker in five or six steps. It is from this experiment that we got the concept of six degrees of separation.
That phrase is now so familiar that it is easy to lose sight of how surprising Milgram’s finding was. Most of us don’t have particularly diverse groups of friends. In one well-known study, two psychologists asked people living in the Dyckman public-housing project, in uptown Manhattan, about their closest friend in the project; almost ninety per cent of the friends lived in the same building, and half lived on the same floor. In general, people chose friends of similar age and race. But if the friend lived down the hall, both age and race became a lot less important. Proximity overpowered similarity. Another study, involving students at the University of Utah, found that if you ask someone why he is friendly with someone else he’ll say that it is because they share similar attitudes. But if you actually quiz the pairs of students on their attitudes you’ll find out that this is an illusion, and that what friends really tend to have in common are activities. We’re friends with the people we do things with, not necessarily with the people we resemble. We don’t seek out friends; we simply associate with the people who occupy the same physical places that we do: People in Omaha are not, as a rule, friends with people who live in Sharon, Massachusetts. So how did the packets get halfway across the country in just five steps? “When I asked an intelligent friend of mine how many steps he thought it would take, he estimated that it would require 100 intermediate persons or more to move from Nebraska to Sharon,” Milgram wrote. “Many people make somewhat similar estimates, and are surprised to learn that only five intermediaries will — on the average — suffice. Somehow it does not accord with intuition.”
The explanation is that in the six degrees of separation not all degrees are equal. When Milgram analyzed his experiments, for example, he found that many of the chains reaching to Sharon followed the same asymmetrical pattern. Twenty-four packets reached the stockbroker at his home, in Sharon, and sixteen of those were given to him by the same person, a clothing merchant whom Milgram calls Mr. Jacobs. The rest of the packets were sent to the stockbroker at his office, and of those the majority came through just two men, whom Milgram calls Mr. Brown and Mr. Jones. In all, half of the responses that got to the stockbroker were delivered to him by these three people. Think of it. Dozens of people, chosen at random from a large Midwestern city, sent out packets independently. Some went through college acquaintances. Some sent their packets to relatives. Some sent them to old workmates. Yet in the end, when all those idiosyncratic chains were completed, half of the packets passed through the hands of Jacobs, Jones, and Brown. Six degrees of separation doesn’t simply mean that everyone is linked to everyone else in just six steps. It means that a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those few.
There’s an easy way to explore this idea. Suppose that you made a list of forty people whom you would call your circle of friends (not including family members or co-workers), and you worked backward from each person until you could identify who was ultimately responsible for setting in motion the series of connections which led to that friendship. Imet my oldest friend, Bruce, for example, in first grade, so I’m the responsible party. That’s easy. I met my college friend Nigel because he lived down the hall in the dormitory from Tom, whom I had met because in my freshman year he invited me to play touch football. Tom, then, is responsible for Nigel. Once you’ve made all the connections, you will find the same names coming up again and again. I met my friend Amy when she and her friend Katie came to a restaurant where I was having dinner. I know Katie because she is best friends with my friend Larissa, whom I know because I was told to look her up by a mutual friend, Mike A., whom I know because he went to school with another friend of mine, Mike H., who used to work at a political weekly with my friend Jacob. No Jacob, no Amy. Similarly, I met my friend Sarah S. at a birthday party a year ago because she was there with a writer named David, who was there at the invitation of his agent, Tina, whom I met through my friend Leslie, whom I know because her sister Nina is best friends with my friend Ann, whom I met through my old roommate Maura, who was my roommate because she had worked with a writer named Sarah L., who was a college friend of my friend Jacob. No Jacob, no Sarah S. In fact, when I go down my list of forty friends, thirty of them, in one way or another, lead back to Jacob. My social circle is really not a circle but an inverted pyramid. And the capstone of the pyramid is a single person, Jacob, who is responsible for an overwhelming majority of my relationships. Jacob’s full name, incidentally, is Jacob Weisberg. He is Lois Weisberg’s son.
This isn’t to say, though, that Jacob is just like Lois. Jacob may be the capstone of my pyramid, but Lois is the capstone of lots and lots of people’s pyramids, and that makes her social role different. In Milgram’s experiment, Mr. Jacobs the clothing merchant was the person to go through to get to the stockbroker. Lois is the kind of person you would use to get to the stockbrokers of Sharon and also the cabaret singers of Sharon and the barkeeps of Sharon and the guy who gave up a thriving career in orthodontics to open a small vegetarian falafel hut.
There is another way to look at this question, and that’s through the popular parlor game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. The idea behind the game is to try to link in fewer than six steps any actor or actress, through the movies they’ve been in, to the actor Kevin Bacon. For example, O. J. Simpson was in “Naked Gun” with Priscilla Presley, who was in “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane” with Gilbert Gottfried, who was in “Beverly Hills Cop II” with Paul Reiser, who was in “Diner” with Kevin Bacon. That’s four steps. Mary Pickford was in “Screen Snapshots” with Clark Gable, who was in “Combat America” with Tony Romano, who, thirty-five years later, was in “Starting Over” with Bacon. That’s three steps. What’s funny about the game is that Bacon, although he is a fairly young actor, has already been in so many movies with so many people that there is almost no one to whom he can’t be easily connected. Recently, a computer scientist at the University of Virginia by the name of Brett Tjaden actually sat down and figured out what the average degree of connectedness is for the quarter million or so actors and actresses listed in the Internet Movie Database: he came up with 2.8312 steps. That sounds impressive, except that Tjaden then went back and performed an even more heroic calculation, figuring out what the average degree of connectedness was for everyone in the database. Bacon, it turns out, ranks only six hundred and sixty- eighth. Martin Sheen, by contrast, can be connected, on average, to every other actor, in 2.63681 steps, which puts him almost six hundred and fifty places higher than Bacon. Elliott Gould can be connected even more quickly, in 2.63601. Among the top fifteen are people like Robert Mitchum, Gene Hackman, Donald Sutherland, Rod Steiger, Shelley Winters, and Burgess Meredith.
Why is Kevin Bacon so far behind these actors? Recently, in the journal Nature, the mathematicians Duncan Watts and Steven Strogatz published a dazzling theoretical explanation of connectedness, but a simpler way to understand this question is to look at who Bacon is. Obviously, he is a lot younger than the people at the top of the list are and has made fewer movies. But that accounts for only some of the difference. A top-twenty person, like Burgess Meredith, made a hundred and fourteen movies in the course of his career. Gary Cooper, though, starred in about the same number of films and ranks only eight hundred and seventy-eighth, with a 2.85075 score. John Wayne made a hundred and eighty-three movies in his fifty-year career and still ranks only a hundred and sixteenth, at 2.7173. What sets someone like Meredith apart is his range. More than half of John Wayne’s movies were Westerns, and that means he made the same kind of movie with the same kind of actors over and over again. Burgess Meredith, by contrast, was in great movies, like the Oscar-winning “Of Mice and Men” (1939), and in dreadful movies, like “Beware! The Blob” (1972). He was nominated for an Oscar for his role in “The Day of the Locust” and also made TV commercials for Skippy peanut butter. He was in four “Rocky” movies, and also played Don Learo in Godard’s “King Lear.” He was in schlocky made- for-TV movies, in B movies that pretty much went straight to video, and in pictures considered modern classics. He was in forty-two dramas, twenty-two comedies, eight adventure films, seven action films, five sci-fi films, five horror flicks, five Westerns, five documentaries, four crime movies, four thrillers, three war movies, three films noir, two children’s films, two romances, two mysteries, one musical, and one animated film. Burgess Meredith was the kind of actor who was connected to everyone because he managed to move up and down and back and forth among all the different worlds and subcultures that the acting profession has to offer. When we say, then, that Lois Weisberg is the kind of person who “knows everyone,” we mean it in precisely this way. It is not merely that she knows lots of people. It is that she belongs to lots of different worlds.
In the nineteen-fifties, Lois started her drama troupe in Chicago. The daughter of a prominent attorney, she was then in her twenties, living in one of the suburbs north of the city with two small children. In 1956, she decided to stage a festival to mark the centenary of George Bernard Shaw’s birth. She hit up the reclusive billionaire John D. MacArthur for money. (“I go to the Pump Room for lunch. Booth One. There is a man, lurking around a pillar, with a cowboy hat and dirty, dusty boots. It’s him.”) She invited William Saroyan and Norman Thomas to speak on Shaw’s legacy; she put on Shaw plays in theatres around the city; and she got written up in Life. She then began putting out a newspaper devoted to Shaw, which mutated into an underground alternative weekly called the Paper. By then, Lois was living in a big house on Chicago’s near North Side, and on Friday nights people from the Paper gathered there for editorial meetings. William Friedkin, who went on to direct “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist,” was a regular, and so were the attorney Elmer Gertz (who won parole for Nathan Leopold) and some of the editors from Playboy, which was just up the street. People like Art Farmer and Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie and Lenny Bruce would stop by when they were in town. Bruce actually lived in Lois’s house for a while. “My mother was hysterical about it, especially one day when she rang the doorbell and he answered in a bath towel,” Lois told me. “We had a window on the porch, and he didn’t have a key, so the window was always left open for him. There were a lot of rooms in that house, and a lot of people stayed there and I didn’t know they were there.” Pause. Puff. “I never could stand his jokes. I didn’t really like his act. I couldn’t stand all the words he was using.”
Lois’s first marriage — to a drugstore owner named Leonard Solomon — was breaking up around this time, so she took a job doing public relations for an injury-rehabilitation institute. From there, she went to work for a public-interest law firm called B.P.I., and while she was at B.P.I. she became concerned about the fact that Chicago’s parks were neglected and crumbling, so she gathered together a motley collection of nature lovers, historians, civic activists, and housewives, and founded the lobbying group Friends of the Parks. Then she became alarmed on discovering that a commuter railroad that ran along the south shore of Lake Michigan — from South Bend to Chicago — was about to shut down, so she gathered together a motley collection of railroad enthusiasts and environmentalists and commuters, and founded South Shore Recreation, thereby saving the railroad. Lois loved the railroad buffs. “They were all good friends of mine,” she says. “They all wrote to me. They came from California. They came from everywhere. We had meetings. They were really interesting. I came this close” — and here she held her index finger half an inch above her thumb — “to becoming one of them.” Instead, though, she became the executive director of the Chicago Council of Lawyers, a progressive bar association. Then she ran Congressman Sidney Yates’s reëlection campaign. Then her sister June introduced her to someone who got her the job with Mayor Washington. Then she had her flea-market period. Finally, she went to work for Mayor Daley as Chicago’s Commissioner of Cultural Affairs.
If you go through that history and keep count, the number of worlds that Lois has belonged to comes to eight: the actors, the writers, the doctors, the lawyers, the park lovers, the politicians, the railroad buffs, and the flea-market aficionados. When I asked Lois to make her own list, she added musicians and the visual artists and architects and hospitality-industry people whom she works with in her current job. But if you looked harder at Lois’s life you could probably subdivide her experiences into fifteen or twenty worlds. She has the same ability to move among different subcultures and niches that the busiest actors do. Lois is to Chicago what Burgess Meredith is to the movies.
Lois was, in fact, a friend of Burgess Meredith. I learned this by accident, which is the way I learned about most of the strange celebrity details of Lois’s life, since she doesn’t tend to drop names. It was when I was with her at her house one night, a big, rambling affair just off the lakeshore, with room after room filled with odds and ends and old photographs and dusty furniture and weird bric-a- brac, such as a collection of four hundred antique egg cups. She was wearing bluejeans and a flowery-print top and she was smoking Carlton Menthol 100s and cooking pasta and holding forth to her son Joe on the subject of George Bernard Shaw, when she started talking about Burgess Meredith. “He was in Chicago in a play called ‘Teahouse of the August Moon,’ in 1956,” she said, “and he came to see my production of ‘Back to Methuselah,’ and after the play he came up to me and said he was teaching acting classes, and asked would I come and talk to his class about Shaw. Well, I couldn’t say no.” Meredith liked Lois, and when she was running her alternative newspaper he would write letters and send in little doodles, and later she helped him raise money for a play he was doing called “Kicks and Company.” It starred a woman named Nichelle Nichols, who lived at Lois’s house for a while. “Nichelle was a marvellous singer and dancer,” Lois said. “She was the lead. She was also the lady on the first…” Lois was doing so many things at once — chopping and stirring and smoking and eating and talking — that she couldn’t remember the name of the show that made Nichols a star. “What’s that space thing?” She looked toward Joe for help. He started laughing. “Star something,” she said. “‘Star…Star Trek’! Nichelle was Lieutenant Uhura!”
On a sunny morning not long ago, Lois went to a little café just off the Magnificent Mile, in downtown Chicago, to have breakfast with Mayor Daley. Lois drove there in a big black Mercury, a city car. Lois always drives big cars, and, because she is so short and the cars are so big, all that you can see when she drives by is the top of her frizzy blond head and the lighted ember of her cigarette. She was wearing a short skirt and a white vest and was carrying a white cloth shopping bag. Just what was in the bag was unclear, since Lois doesn’t have a traditional relationship to the trappings of bureaucracy. Her office, for example, does not have a desk in it, only a sofa and chairs and a coffee table. At meetings, she sits at the head of a conference table in the adjoining room, and, as often as not, has nothing in front of her except a lighter, a pack of Carltons, a cup of coffee, and an octagonal orange ceramic ashtray, which she moves a few inches forward or a few inches back when she’s making an important point, or moves a few inches to the side when she is laughing at something really funny and feels the need to put her head down on the table.
Breakfast was at one of the city’s tourist centers. The Mayor was there in a blue suit, and he had two city officials by his side and a very serious and thoughtful expression on his face. Next to him was a Chicago developer named Al Friedman, a tall and slender and very handsome man who is the chairman of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. Lois sat across from them, and they all drank coffee and ate muffins and batted ideas back and forth in the way that people do when they know each other very well. It was a “power breakfast,” although if you went around the table you’d find that the word “power” meant something very different to everyone there. Al Friedman is a rich developer. The Mayor, of course, is the administrative leader of one of the largest cities in the country. When we talk about power, this is usually what we’re talking about: money and authority. But there is a third kind of power as well — the kind Lois has — which is a little less straightforward. It’s social power.
At the end of the nineteen-eighties, for example, the City of Chicago razed an entire block in the heart of downtown and then sold it to a developer. But before he could build on it the real-estate market crashed. The lot was an eyesore. The Mayor asked for ideas about what to do with it. Lois suggested that they cover the block with tents. Then she heard that Keith Haring had come to Chicago in 1989 and worked with Chicago high-school students to create a giant five-hundred-foot-long mural. Lois loved the mural. She began to think. She’d long had a problem with the federal money that Chicago got every year to pay for summer jobs for disadvantaged kids. She didn’t think it helped any kid to be put to work picking up garbage. So why not pay the kids to do arts projects like the Haring mural, and put the whole program in the tents? She called the program Gallery 37, after the number of the block. She enlisted the help of the Mayor’s wife, Maggie Daley, whose energy and clout were essential in order to make the program a success. Lois hired artists to teach the kids. She realized, though, that the federal money was available only for poor kids, and, Lois says, “I don’t believe poor kids can advance in any way by being lumped together with other poor kids.” So Lois raised money privately to bring in middle-income kids, to mix with the poor kids and be put in the tents with the artists. She started small, with two hundred and sixty “apprentices” the first year, 1990. This year, there were more than three thousand. The kids study sculpture, painting, drawing, poetry, theatre, graphic design, dance, textile design, jewelry-making, and music. Lois opened a store downtown, where students’ works of art are sold. She has since bought two buildings to house the project full time. She got the Parks Department to run Gallery 37 in neighborhoods around the city, and the Board of Education to let them run it as an after- school program in public high schools. It has been copied all around the world. Last year, it was given the Innovations in American Government Award by the Ford Foundation and the Harvard school of government.
Gallery 37 is at once a jobs program, an arts program, a real- estate fix, a schools program, and a parks program. It involves federal money and city money and private money, stores and buildings and tents, Maggie Daley and Keith Haring, poor kids and middle-class kids. It is everything, all at once — a jumble of ideas and people and places which Lois somehow managed to make sense of. The ability to assemble all these disparate parts is, as should be obvious, a completely different kind of power from the sort held by the Mayor and Al Friedman. The Mayor has key allies on the city council or in the statehouse. Al Friedman can do what he does because, no doubt, he has a banker who believes in him, or maybe a lawyer whom he trusts to negotiate the twists and turns of the zoning process. Their influence is based on close relationships. But when Lois calls someone to help her put together one of her projects, chances are she’s not calling someone she knows particularly well. Her influence suggests something a little surprising — that there is also power in relationships that are not close at all.
The sociologist Mark Granovetter examined this question in his classic 1974 book “Getting a Job.” Granovetter interviewed several hundred professional and technical workers from the Boston suburb of Newton, asking them in detail about their employment history. He found that almost fifty-six per cent of those he talked to had found their jobs through a personal connection, about twenty per cent had used formal means (advertisements, headhunters), and another twenty per cent had applied directly. This much is not surprising: the best way to get in the door is through a personal contact. But the majority of those personal connections, Granovetter found, did not involve close friends. They were what he called “weak ties.” Of those who used a contact to find a job, for example, only 16.7 per cent saw that contact “often,” as they would have if the contact had been a good friend; 55.6 per cent saw their contact only “occasionally”; and 27.8 per cent saw the contact “rarely.” People were getting their jobs not through their friends but through acquaintances.
Granovetter argues that when it comes to finding out about new jobs — or, for that matter, gaining new information, or looking for new ideas — weak ties tend to be more important than strong ties. Your friends, after all, occupy the same world that you do. They work with you, or live near you, and go to the same churches, schools, or parties. How much, then, do they know that you don’t know? Mere acquaintances, on the other hand, are much more likely to know something that you don’t. To capture this apparent paradox, Granovetter coined a marvellous phrase: “the strength of weak ties.” The most important people in your life are, in certain critical realms, the people who aren’t closest to you, and the more people you know who aren’t close to you the stronger your position becomes.
Granovetter then looked at what he called “chain lengths” — that is, the number of people who had to pass along the news about your job before it got to you. A chain length of zero means that you learned about your job from the person offering it. A chain length of one means that you heard about the job from someone who had heard about the job from the employer. The people who got their jobs from a zero chain were the most satisfied, made the most money, and were unemployed for the shortest amount of time between jobs. People with a chain of one stood second in the amount of money they made, in their satisfaction with their jobs, and in the speed with which they got their jobs. People with a chain of two stood third in all three categories, and so on. If you know someone who knows someone who knows someone who has lots of acquaintances, in other words, you have a leg up. If you know someone who knows someone who has lots of acquaintances, your chances are that much better. But if you know someone who has lots of acquaintances — if you know someone like Lois — you are still more fortunate, because suddenly you are just one step away from musicians and actors and doctors and lawyers and park lovers and politicians and railroad buffs and flea-market aficionados and all the other weak ties that make Lois so strong.
This sounds like a reformulation of the old saw that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. It’s much more radical than that, though. The old idea was that people got ahead by being friends with rich and powerful people — which is true, in a limited way, but as a practical lesson in how the world works is all but useless. You can expect that Bill Gates’s godson is going to get into Harvard and have a fabulous job waiting for him when he gets out. And, of course, if you play poker with the Mayor and Al Friedman it is going to be a little easier to get ahead in Chicago. But how many godsons can Bill Gates have? And how many people can fit around a poker table? This is why affirmative action seems pointless to so many people: It appears to promise something — entry to the old-boy network — that it can’t possibly deliver. The old-boy network is always going to be just for the old boys.
Granovetter, by contrast, argues that what matters in getting ahead is not the quality of your relationships but the quantity — not how close you are to those you know but, paradoxically, how many people you know whom you aren’t particularly close to. What he’s saying is that the key person at that breakfast in downtown Chicago is not the Mayor or Al Friedman but Lois Weisberg, because Lois is the kind of person who it really is possible for most of us to know. If you think about the world in this way, the whole project of affirmative action suddenly starts to make a lot more sense. Minority-admissions programs work not because they give black students access to the same superior educational resources as white students, or access to the same rich cultural environment as white students, or any other formal or grandiose vision of engineered equality. They work by giving black students access to the same white students as white students — by allowing them to make acquaintances outside their own social world and so shortening the chain lengths between them and the best jobs.
This idea should also change the way we think about helping the poor. When we’re faced with an eighteen-year-old high-school dropout whose only career option is making five dollars and fifty cents an hour in front of the deep fryer at Burger King, we usually talk about the importance of rebuilding inner-city communities, attracting new jobs to depressed areas, and re-investing in neglected neighborhoods. We want to give that kid the option of another, better-paying job, right down the street. But does that really solve his problem? Surely what that eighteen-year-old really needs is not another marginal inducement to stay in his neighborbood but a way to get out of his neighborhood altogether. He needs a school system that provides him with the skills to compete for jobs with middle-class kids. He needs a mass-transit system to take him to the suburbs, where the real employment opportunities are. And, most of all, he needs to know someone who knows someone who knows where all those good jobs are. If the world really is held together by people like Lois Weisberg, in other words, how poor you are can be defined quite simply as how far you have to go to get to someone like her. Wendy Willrich and Helen Doria and all the countless other people in Lois’s circle needed to make only one phone call. They are well-off. The dropout wouldn’t even know where to start. That’s why he’s poor. Poverty is not deprivation. It is isolation.
I once met a man named Roger Horchow. If you ever go to Dallas and ask around about who is the kind of person who might know everyone, chances are you will be given his name. Roger is slender and composed. He talks slowly, with a slight Texas drawl. He has a kind of wry, ironic charm that is utterly winning. If you sat next to him on a plane ride across the Atlantic, he would start talking as the plane taxied to the runway, you would be laughing by the time the seat-belt sign was turned off, and when you landed at the other end you’d wonder where the time had gone.
I met Roger through his daughter Sally, whose sister Lizzie went to high school in Dallas with my friend Sara M., whom I know because she used to work with Jacob Weisberg. (No Jacob, no Roger.) Roger spent at least part of his childhood in Ohio, which is where Lois’s second husband, Bernie Weisberg, grew up, so I asked Roger if he knew Bernie. It would have been a little too apt if he did — that would have made it all something out of “The X-Files” — but instead of just answering, “Sorry, I don’t,” which is what most of us would have done, he paused for a long time, as if to flip through the “W”s in his head, and then said, “No, but I’m sure if I made two phone calls…”
Roger has a very good memory for names. One time, he says, someone was trying to talk him into investing his money in a business venture in Spain, and when he asked the names of the other investors he recognized one of them as the same man with whom one of his ex-girlfriends had had a fling during her junior year abroad, fifty years before. Roger sends people cards on their birthdays: he has a computerized Rolodex with sixteen hundred names on it. When I met him, I became convinced that these techniques were central to the fact that he knew everyone — that knowing everyone was a kind of skill. Horchow is the founder of the Horchow Collection, the first high-end mail-order catalogue, and I kept asking him how all the connections in his life had helped him in the business world, because I thought that this particular skill had to have been cultivated for a reason. But the question seemed to puzzle him. He didn’t think of his people collection as a business strategy, or even as something deliberate. He just thought of it as something he did — as who he was. One time, Horchow said, a close friend from childhood suddenly resurfaced. “He saw my catalogue and knew it had to be me, and when he was out here he showed up on my doorstep. I hadn’t seen him since I was seven. We had zero in common. It was wonderful.” The juxtaposition of those last two sentences was not ironic; he meant it.
In the book “The Language Instinct,” the psychologist Steven Pinker argues against the idea that language is a cultural artifact — something that we learn “the way we learn to tell time.” Rather, he says, it is innate. Language develops “spontaneously,” he writes, “without conscious effort or formal instruction,” and “is deployed without awareness of its underlying logic…. People know how to talk in more or less the sense that spiders know how to spin webs.” The secret to Roger Horchow and Lois Weisberg is, I think, that they have a kind of social equivalent of that instinct — an innate and spontaneous and entirely involuntary affinity for people. They know everyone because — in some deep and less than conscious way — they can’t help it.
Once, in the very early nineteen-sixties, after Lois had broken up with her first husband, she went to a party for Ralph Ellison, who was then teaching at the University of Chicago. There she spotted a young lawyer from the South Side named Bernie Weisberg. Lois liked him. He didn’t notice her, though, so she decided to write a profile of him for the Hyde Park Herald. It ran with a huge headline. Bernie still didn’t call. “I had to figure out how I was going to get to meet him again, so I remembered that he was standing in line at the reception with Ralph Ellison,” Lois says. “So I called up Ralph Ellison” — whom she had never met — “and said, ‘It’s so wonderful that you are in Chicago. You really should meet some people on the North Side. Would it be O.K. if I have a party for you?’” He said yes, and Lois sent out a hundred invitations, including one to Bernie. He came. He saw Dizzy Gillespie in the kitchen and Ralph Ellison in the living room. He was impressed. He asked Lois to go with him to see Lenny Bruce. Lois was mortified; she didn’t want this nice Jewish lawyer from the South Side to know that she knew Lenny Bruce, who was, after all, a drug addict. “I couldn’t get out of it,” she said. “They sat us down at a table right at the front, and Lenny keeps coming over to the edge of the stage and saying” — here Lois dropped her voice down very low — “‘Hello, Lois.’I was sitting there like this.” Lois put her hands on either side of her face. “Finally I said to Bernie, ‘There are some things I should tell you about. Lenny Bruce is a friend of mine. He’s staying at my house. The second thing is I’m defending a murderer.’”(But that’s another story.) Lois and Bernie were married a year later.
The lesson of this story isn’t obvious until you diagram it culturally: Lois got to Bernie through her connections with Ralph Ellison and Lenny Bruce, one of whom she didn’t know (although later, naturally, they became great friends) and one of whom she was afraid to say that she knew, and neither of whom, it is safe to speculate, had ever really been connected with each other before. It seems like an absurdly roundabout way to meet someone. Here was a thirtyish liberal Jewish intellectual from the North Side of Chicago trying to meet a thirtyish liberal Jewish intellectual from the South Side of Chicago, and to get there she charted a cross-cultural social course through a black literary lion and an avant-garde standup comic. Yet that’s a roundabout journey only if you perceive the worlds of Lenny Bruce and Ralph Ellison and Bernie Weisberg to be impossibly isolated. If you don’t — if, like Lois, you see them all as three points of an equilateral triangle — then it makes perfect sense. The social instinct makes everyone seem like part of a whole, and there is something very appealing about this, because it means that people like Lois aren’t bound by the same categories and partitions that defeat the rest of us. This is what the power of the people who know everyone comes down to in the end. It is not — as much as we would like to believe otherwise — something rich and complex, some potent mixture of ambition and energy and smarts and vision and insecurity. It’s much simpler than that. It’s the same lesson they teach in Sunday school. Lois knows lots of people because she likes lots of people. And all those people Lois knows and likes invariably like her, too, because there is nothing more irresistible to a human being than to be unqualifiedly liked by another.
Not long ago, Lois took me to a reception at the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Chicago — a brand-new, Bauhaus-inspired building just north of the Loop. The gallery space was impossibly beautiful — cool, airy, high-ceilinged. The artist on display was Chuck Close. The crowd was sleek and well groomed. Black-clad young waiters carried pesto canapés and glasses of white wine. Lois seemed a bit lost. She can be a little shy sometimes, and at first she stayed on the fringes of the room, standing back, observing. Someone important came over to talk to her. She glanced up uncomfortably. I walked away for a moment to look at the show, and when I came back her little corner had become a crowd. There was her friend from the state legislature. A friend in the Chicago Park District. A friend from her neighborhood. A friend in the consulting business. A friend from Gallery 37. A friend from the local business- development group. And on and on. They were of all ages and all colors, talking and laughing, swirling and turning in a loose circle, and in the middle, nearly hidden by the commotion, was Lois, clutching her white bag, tiny and large-eyed, at that moment the happiest person in the room.
A Journey Into The Mind of Watts
June 12, 1966
A Journey Into The Mind of Watts
By Thomas Pynchon
The night of May 7, after a chase that began in Watts and ended some 50 blocks farther north, two Los Angeles policemen, Caucasians, succeeded in halting a car driven by Leonard Deadwyler, a Negro. With him were his pregnant wife and a friend. The younger cop (who’d once had a complaint brought against him for rousing some Negro kids around in a more than usually abusive way) went over and stuck his head and gun in the car window to talk to Deadwyler. A moment later there was a shot; the young Negro fell sideways in the seat, and died. The last thing he said, according to the other cop, was, “She’s going to have a baby.”
The coroner’s inquest went on for the better part of two weeks, the cop claiming the car had lurched suddenly, causing his service revolver to go off by accident; Deadwyler’s widow claiming that it was cold-blooded murder and that the car had never moved. The verdict, to no one’s surprise, cleared the cop of all criminal responsibility. It had been an accident. The D.A. announced immediately that he thought so, too, and that as far as he was concerned the case was closed.
But as far as Watts is concerned, it’s still very much open. Preachers in the community are urging calm—or, as others are putting it: “Make any big trouble, baby, The Man just going to come back in and shoot you, like last time.” Snipers are sniping but so far not hitting much of anything. Occasional fire bombs are being lobbed at cars with white faces inside, or into empty sports models that look as if they might be white property. There have been a few fires of mysterious origin. A Negro Teen Post—part of the L.A. poverty war’s keep-them-out-of-the- streets effort—has had all its windows busted, the young lady in charge expressing the wish next morning that she could talk with the malefactors, involve them, see if they couldn’t work out the problem together. In the back of everybody’s head, of course, is the same question: Will there be a repeat of last August’s riot?
An even more interesting question is: Why is everybody worrying about another riot—haven’t things in Watts improved any since the last one? A lot of white folks are wondering. Unhappily, the answer is no. The neighborhood may be seething with social workers, data collectors, VISTA volunteers and other assorted members of the humanitarian establishment, all of whose intentions are the purest in the world. But somehow nothing much has changed. There are still the poor, the defeated, the criminal, the desperate, all hanging in there with what must seem a terrible vitality.
The killing of Leonard Deadwyler has once again brought it all into sharp focus; brought back longstanding pain, reminded everybody of how very often the cop does approach you with his revolver ready, so that nothing he does with it can then really be accidental; of how, especially, at night, everything can suddenly reduce to a matter of reflexes: your life trembling in the crook of a cop’s finger because it is dark, and Watts, and the history of this place and these times makes it impossible for the cop to come on any different, or for you to hate him any less. Both of you are caught in something neither of you wants, and yet night after night, with casualities or without, these traditional scenes continue to be played out all over the south-central part of this city.
Whatever else may be wrong in a political way—like the inadequacy of the Great Depression techniques applied to a scene that has long outgrown them; like old-fashioned grafter’s glee among the city fathers over the vast amounts of poverty-war bread that Uncle is now making available to them—lying much closer to the heart of L.A.’s racial sickness is the co-existence of two very different cultures: one white and one black.
While the white culture is concerned with various forms of systematized folly—the economy of the area in fact depending on it—the black culture is stuck pretty much with basic realities like disease, like failure, violence and death, which the whites have mostly chosen—and can afford—to ignore. The two cultures do not understand each other, though white values are displayed without let-up on black people’s TV screens, and though the panoramic sense of black impoverishment is hard to miss from atop the Harbor Freeway, which so many whites must drive at least twice every working day. Somehow it occurs to very few of them to leave at the Imperial Highway exit for a change, go east instead of west only a few blocks, and take a look at Watts. A quick look. The simplest kind of beginning. But Watts is country which lies, psychologically, uncounted miles further than most whites seem at present willing to travel.
On the surface anyway, the Deadwyler affair hasn’t made it look any different, though underneath the mood in Watts is about what you might expect. Feelings range from a reflexive, angry, driving need to hit back somehow, to an anxious worry that the slaying is just one more bad grievance, one more bill that will fall due some warm evening this summer. Yet in the daytime’s brilliance and heat, it is hard to believe there is any mystery to Watts. Everything seems so out in the open, all of it real, no plastic faces, no transistors, no hidden Muzak, or Disneyfied landscaping or smiling little chicks to show you around. Not in Raceriotland. Only a few historic landmarks, like the police substation, one command post for the white forces last August, pigeons now thick and cooing up on its red-tiled roof. Or, on down the street, vacant lots, still looking charred around the edges, winking with emptied Tokay, port and sherry pints, some of the bottles peeking out of paper bags, others busted.
A kid could come along in his bare feet and step on this glass—not that you’d ever know. These kids are so tough you can pull slivers of it out of them and never get a whimper. It’s part of their landscape, both the real and the emotional one: busted glass, busted crockery, nails, tin cans, all kinds of scrap and waste. Traditionally Watts. An Italian immigrant named Simon Rodia spent 30 years gathering some of it up and converting a little piece of the neighborhood along 107th Street into the famous Watts Towers, perhaps his own dream of how things should have been: a fantasy of fountains, boats, tall openwork spires, encrusted with a dazzling mosaic of Watts debris. Next to the Towers, along the old Pacific Electric tracks, kids are busy every day busting more bottles on the street rails. But Simon Rodia is dead, and now the junk just accumulates.
A few blocks away, other kids are out playing on the hot blacktop of the school playground. Brothers and sisters too young yet for school have it better—wherever they are they have yards, trees, hoses, hiding places. Not the crowded, shadeless tenement living of any Harlem; just the same one- or two-story urban sprawl as all over the rest of L.A., giving you some piece of grass at least to expand into when you don’t especially feel like being inside.
In the business part of town there is a different idea of refuge. Pool halls and bars, warm and dark inside, are crowded; many domino, dice and whist games in progress. Outside, men stand around a beer cooler listening to a ball game on the radio; others lean or hunker against the sides of buildings—low, faded stucco boxes that remind you, oddly, of certain streets in Mexico. Women go by, to and from what shopping there is. it is easy to see how crowds, after all, can form quickly in these streets, around the least seed of a disturbance or accident. For the moment, it all only waits in the sun.
Overhead, big jets now and then come vacuum-cleanering in to land; the wind is westerly, and Watts lies under the approaches to L.A. International. The jets hang what seems only a couple of hundred feet up in the air; through the smog they show up more white than silver, highlighted by the sun, hardly solid; only the ghosts, or possibilities, of airplanes.
From here, much of the white culture that surrounds Watts—and, in a curious way, besieges it— looks like those jets: a little unreal, a little less than substantial. For Los Angeles, more than any other city, belongs to the mass media. What is known around the nation as the L.A. Scene exists chiefly as images on a screen or TV tube, as four-color magazine photos, as old radio jokes, as new songs that survive only a matter of weeks. It is basically a white Scene, and illusion is everywhere in it, from the giant aerospace firms that flourish or retrench at the whims of Robert McNamara, to the “action” everybody mills long the Strip on weekends looking for, unaware that they, and their search which will end, usually, unfulfilled, are the only action in town.
Watts lies impacted in the heart of this white fantasy. It is, by contrast, a pocket of bitter reality. The only illusion Watts ever allowed itself was to believe for a long time in the white version of what a Negro was supposed to be. But with the Muslim and civil-rights movements that went, too.
Since the August rioting, there has been little building here, little buying. Lots whose buildings were burned off them are still waiting vacant and littered with garbage, occupied only by a parked car or two, or kids fooling around after school, or winos sharing a pint in the early morning. The other day, on one of them, there were ground-breaking festivities, attended by a county supervisor, pretty high-school girls decked in ribbons, a white store owner and his wife, who in the true Watts spirit busted a bottle of champagne over a rock—all because the man had decided to stay and rebuild his $200,000 market, the first such major rebuilding since the riot.
Watts people themselves talk about another kind of aura, vaguely evil; complain that Negroes living in better neighborhoods like to come in under the freeway as to a red-light district, looking for some girl, some game, maybe some connection. Narcotics is said to be a rare bust in Watts these days, although the narco people cruise the area earnestly, on the lookout for dope fiends, dope rings, dope peddlers. But the poverty of Watts makes it more likely that if you have pot or a little something else to spare you will want to turn a friend on, not sell it. Tomorrow, or when he can, your friend will return the favor.
At the Deadwyler inquest, much was made of the dead man’s high blood alcohol content, as if his being drunk made it somehow all right for the police to shoot him. But alcohol is a natural part of the Watts style; as natural as LSD is around Hollywood. The white kid digs hallucination simply because he is conditioned to believe so much in escape, escape as an integral part of life, because the white L.A. Scene makes accessible to him so many different forms of it. But a Watts kid, brought up in a pocket of reality, looks perhaps not so much for escape as just for some calm, some relaxation. And beer or wine is good enough for that. Especially good at the end of a bad day.
Like after you have driven, say, down to Torrance or Long Beach or wherever it is they’re hiring because they don’t seem to be in Watts, not even in the miles of heavy industry that sprawl along Alameda Street, that gray and murderous arterial which lies at the eastern boundary of Watts looking like the edge of the world.
So you groove instead down the freeway, maybe wondering when some cop is going to stop you because the old piece of a car you’re driving, which you bought for $20 or $30 you picked up somehow, makes a lot of noise or burns some oil. Catching you mobile widens The Man’s horizons; gives him more things he can get you on. Like “excessive smoking” is a great favorite with him.
If you do get to where you were going without encountering a cop, you may spend your day looking at the white faces of personnel men, their uniform glaze of suspicion, their automatic smiles, and listening to polite putdowns. “I decided once to ask,” a kid says, “one time they told me I didn’t meet their requirements. So I said, “Well, what are you looking for? I mean, how can I train, what things do I have to learn so I can meet your requirements?’ Know what he said? ‘We are not obligated to tell you what our requirements are.’”
He isn’t. That right there is the hell and headache: he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to do because he is The Man. Or he was. A lot of kids these days are more apt to be calling the little man—meaning not so much any member of the power structure as just your average white L.A. taxpayer, registered voter, property owner; employed, stable, mortgaged and the rest.
The little man bugs these kids more The Man ever bugged their parents. It is the little man who is standing on their feet and in their way; he’s all over the place, and there is not much they can do to change him or the way he feels about them. A Watts kid knows more of what goes on inside white heads than possibly whites do themselves; knows how often the little man has looked at him and thought, “Bad credit risk”—or “Poor learner,” or “Sexual threat,” or “Welfare chiseler”—without knowing a thing about him personally.
The natural, normal thing to want to do is hit the little man. But what, after all, has he done? Mile, respectable, possibly smiling, he has called you no names, shown no weapons. Only told you perhaps that the job was filled, the house rented.
With a cop it may get more dangerous, but at least it’s honest. You understand each other. Both of you silently admitting that all the cop really has going for him is his gun. “There was a time,” they’ll tell you “you’d say, ‘Take off the badge, baby, and let’s settle it.’ I mean he wouldn’t, but you’d say it. But since August, man, the way I feel, hell with the badge—just take off that gun.”
The cop does not take off that gun; the hassle stays verbal. But this means that, besides protecting and serving the little man, the cop also functions as his effigy.
If he does get emotional and say something like “boy” or “nigger,” you then have the option of cooling it or else—again this is more frequent since last August—calling him the name he expects to be called, though it is understood you are not commenting in any literal way on what goes on between him and his mother. It is a ritual exchange, like the dirty dozens.
Usually—as in the Deadwyler incident—it’s the younger cop of the pair who’s more troublesome. Most Watts kids are hip to what’s going on in this rookie’s head—the things he feels he has to prove—as much as to the elements of the ritual. Before the cop can say, “Let’s see your I.D.,” you learn to take it out politely and say, “You want to see my I.D.?” Naturally it will bug the cop more the further ahead of him you can stay. It is flirting with disaster, but it’s the cop who has the guns, so you do what you can.
You must anticipate always how the talk is going to go. It’s something you pick up quite young, same as you learn the different species of cop: The Black and White (named for the color scheme of their automobiles), who are L.A. city police and in general the least flexible; the L.A. county sheriff’s department, who style themselves more of an élite, try to maintain a certain distance from the public, and are less apt to harass you unless you seem worthy; the Compton city cops, who travel only one to a car and come on very tough, like leaning four of you at a time up against the wall and shaking you all down; the juvies, who ride in unmarked Plymouths and are cruising all over the place soon as the sun goes down, pulling up alongside you with pleasantries like, “Which one’s buying the wine tonight?” or, “Who are you guys planning to rob this time?” They are kidding, of course, trying to be pals. But Watts kids, like most, do not like being put in with winos, or dangerous drivers or thieves, or in any bag considered criminal or evil. Whatever the cop’s motives, it looks like mean and deliberate ignorance.
In the daytime, and especially with any kind of crowd, the cop’s surface style has changed some since last August. “Time was,” you’ll hear, “man used to go right in, very mean, pick maybe one kid out of the crowd he figured was the troublemaker, try to bust him down in front of everybody. But now the people start yelling back, how they don’t want no more of that, all of a sudden The Man gets very meek.”
Still, however much a cop may seem to be following the order of the day read to him every morning about being courteous to everybody, his behavior with a crowd will really depend as it always has on how many of his own he can muster, and how fast. For his Mayor, Sam Yorty, is a great believer in the virtues of Overwhelming Force as a solution to racial difficulties. This approach has not gained much favor in Watts. In fact, the Mayor of Los Angeles appears to many Negroes to be the very incarnation of the little man: looking out for no one but himself, speaking always out of expediency, and never, never to be trusted.
The Economic and Youth Opportunities Agency (E.Y.O.A.) is a joint city-county “umbrella agency” (the state used to be represented, but has dropped out) for many projects scattered around the poorer parts of L.A., and seems to be Sam Yorty’s native element, if not indeed the flower of his consciousness. Bizarre, confused, ever in flux, strangely ineffective, E.Y.O.A. hardly sees a day go by without somebody resigning, or being fired, or making an accusation, or answering one—all of it confirming the Watts Negroes’ already sad estimate of the little man. The Negro attitude toward E.Y.O.A. is one of clear mistrust, though degrees of suspicion vary, from the housewife wanting only to be left in peace and quiet, who hopes that maybe The Man is lying less than usual this time, to the young, active disciple of Malcolm X who dismisses it all with a contemptuous shrug.
“But why?” asked one white lady volunteer. “There are so many agencies now that you can go to, that can help you, if you’ll only file your complaint.”
“They don’t help you.” This particular kid had been put down trying to get a job with one of the larger defense contractors.
“Maybe not before. But it’s different now.”
“Now,” the kid sighed, “now. See, people been hearing that ‘now’ for a long time, and I’m just tired of The Man telling you, “‘Now it’s OK, now we mean what we say.’”
In Watts, apparently, where no one can afford the luxury of illusion, there is little reason to believe that now will be any different, any better than last time.
It is perhaps a measure of the people’s indifference that only 2 per cent of the poor in Los Angeles turned out to elect representatives to the E.Y.O.A. “poverty board.” For a hopeless minority on the board (7 out of 23), nobody saw much point in voting.
Meantime, the outposts of the establishment drowse in the bright summery smog: secretaries chat the afternoons plaintively away about machines that will not accept the cards they have punched for them; white volunteers sit filing, doodling, talking on the phones, doing any kind of busy-work, wondering where the “clients” are; inspirational mottoes like SMILE decorate the beaverboard office walls along with flow charts to illustrate the proper disposition of “cases,” and with clippings from the slick magazines about “What Is Emotional Maturity?”
Items like smiling and Emotional Maturity are in fact very big with the well-adjusted, middle- class professionals, Negro and white, who man the mimeographs and computers of the poverty war here. Sadly, they seem to be smiling themselves out of any meaningful communication with their poor. Besides a 19th-century faith that tried and true approaches—sound counseling, good intentions, perhaps even compassion—will set Watts straight, they are also burdened with the personal attitudes they bring to work with them. Their reflexes—especially about conformity, about failure, about violence—are predictable.
“We had a hell of a time with this one girl,” a Youth Training and Employment Project counselor recalls. “You should have seen those hairdos of hers—piled all the way up to here. And the screwy outfits she’d come in with, you just wouldn’t believe. We had to take her aside and explain to her that employers just don’t go for that sort of thing. That she’d be up against a lot of very smooth-looking chicks, heels and stockings, conservative hair and clothes. We finally got her to come around.”
The same goes for boys who like to wear Malcolm hats, or Afro haircuts. The idea the counselors push evidently is to look as much as possible like a white applicant. Which is to say, like a Negro job counselor or social worker. This has not been received with much enthusiasm among the kids it is designed to help out, and is one reason business is so slow around the various projects.
There is a similar difficulty among the warriors about failure. They are in a socio-economic bag, along with the vast majority of white Angelenos, who seem more terrified of failure than of death. It is difficult to see where any of them have experienced significant defeat, or loss. If they have, it seems to have been long rationalized away as something else.
You are likely to hear from them wisdom on the order of: “Life has a way of surprising us, simply as a function of time. Even if all you do is stand on the street corner and wait.” Watts is full of street corners where people stand, as they have been, some of them, for 20 or 30 years, without Surprise One ever having come along. Yet the poverty warriors must believe in this form of semimiracle, because their world and their scene cannot accept the possibility that there may be, after all, no surprise. But it is something Watts has always known.
As for violence, in a pocket of reality such as Watts, violence is never far from you: because you are a man, because you have been put down, because for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Somehow, sometime. Yet to these innocent, optimistic child-bureaucrats, violence is an evil and an illness, possibly because it threatens property and status they cannot help cherishing.
They remember last August’s riot as an outburst, a seizure. Yet what, from the realistic viewpoint of Watts, was so abnormal? “Man’s got his foot on your neck,” said one guy who was there, “sooner or later you going to stop asking him to take it off.” The violence it took to get that foot to ease up even the little it did was no surprise. Many had predicted it. Once it got going, its basic objective—to beat the Black and White police—seemed a reasonable one, and was gained the minute The Man had to send troops in. Everybody seems to have known it. There is hardly a person in watts now who finds it painful to talk about, or who regrets that it happened—unless he lost somebody.
But in the white culture outside, in that creepy world full of pre-cardiac Mustang drivers who scream insults at one another only when the windows are up; of large corporations where Niceguymanship is the standing order regardless of whose executive back one may be endeavoring to stab; of an enormous priest caste of shrinks who counsel moderation and compromise as the answer to all forms of hassle; among so much well-behaved unreality, it is next to impossible to understand how Watts may truly feel about violence. In terms of strict reality, violence may be a means to getting money, for example, no more dishonest than collecting exorbitant carrying charges from a customer on relief, as white merchants here still do. Far from a sickness, violence may be an attempt to communicate, or to be who you really are.
“Sure I did two stretches,” a kid says, “both times for fighting, but I didn’t deserve either one. First time, the cat was bigger than I was; next time, it was two against one, and I was the one.” But he was busted all the same, perhaps because Whitey, who knows how to get everything he wants, no longer has fisticuffs available as a technique, and sees no reason why everybody shouldn’t go the Niceguy route. If you are thinking maybe there is a virility hangup in here, too, that putting a Negro into a correctional institution for fighting is also some kind of neutering operation, well, you might have something there, who knows?
It is, after all, in white L.A.’s interest to cool Watts any way it can—to put the area under a siege of persuasion; to coax the Negro poor into taking on certain white values. Given them a little property, and they will be less tolerant of arson; get them to go in hock for a car or color TV, and they’ll be more likely to hold down a steady job. Some see it for what it is—this come-on, this false welcome, this attempt to transmogrify the reality of Watts into the unreality of Los Angeles. Some don’t.
Watts is tough; has been able to resist the unreal. If there is any drift away from reality, it is by way of mythmaking. As this summer warms up, last August’s riot is being remembered less as chaos and more as art. Some talk now of a balletic quality to it, a coordinated and graceful drawing of cops away from the center of the action, a scattering of The Man’s power, either with real incidents or false alarms.
Others remember it in terms of music; through much of the rioting seemed to run, they say, a remarkable empathy, or whatever it is that jazz musicians feel on certain nights; everybody knowing what to do and when to do it without needing a word or a signal: “You could go up to anybody, the cats could be in the middle of burning down a store or something, but they’d tell you, explain very calm, just what they were doing, what they were going to do next. And that’s what they’d do; man, nobody has to give orders.”
Restructuring of the riot goes on in other ways. All Easter week this year, in the spirit of the season, there was a “Renaissance of the Arts,” a kind of festival in memory of Simon Rodia, held at Markham Junior High, in the heart of Watts.
Along with theatrical and symphonic events, the festival also featured a roomful of sculptures fashioned entirely from found objects—found, symbolically enough, and in the Simon Rodia tradition, among the wreckage the rioting had left. Exploiting textures of charred wood, twisted metal, fused glass, many of the works were fine, honest rebirths.
In one corner was this old, busted, hollow TV set with a rabbit-ears antenna on top; inside where its picture tube should have been, gazing out with scorched wiring threaded like electronic ivy among its crevices and sockets, was a human skull. The name of the piece was “The Late, Late, Late Show.”
Thomas Pynchon is the author of the highly praised novel “V” and of the recently published “The Crying of Lot 49.”