It was midnight in Manhattan in the 1980s, the murder rate was three times what it is today, and I was wearing a sweater made from virgin wool…
Here’s my true, coming-of-age story that appeared on Inauguration Day in the Observer — a newspaper owned by Jared Kushner:
Roy Innis, the militant black separatist turned Giuliani Republican, died last week and suddenly his violent YouTube hits were hot. There he was at the Apollo Theater shoving Al Sharpton onto his ample rump, and then on Geraldo Rivera’s television show choking a young white racist, which sparked an on-air fight that left Geraldo swabbing his broken and bloody nose with a white towel. One evening in the 1980s I nervously entered a radio studio in New York to face off against Innis and his nemesis, an Italian-American vigilante from Newark named Tough Tony Imperiale. It was a combustible setting.
For me, though, it was one of those magical, hazy late nights when a young man feels that he’s been allowed to sneak behind the curtain into the swirling, weird world of self-made adult men. I had befriended legendary New York City radio host Barry Farber, he of the silken, North Carolinian drawl and perfectly crafted metaphors. Barry’s show was broadcast live at midnight from a studio in a green-glass skyscraper on the corner of 7th Avenue and 57th Street. On the ground floor of that building now sits the Brooklyn Diner, at which you can order a tasty pot roast.
I showed up 30 minutes early for the show, thereby exposing my amateur status. Real radio pros slide into their studio chairs and slip on their headphones at the last possible second, just when you think the introductory musical vamp will run out. Five minutes before airtime, at 11:55pm, I was still alone in the studio, pretty sure that I would have to take over the program by myself and save New York talk radio from utter silence. It would be the greatest shock in radio since Orson Welles scared the hell out of housewives in 1938 by announcing that Martians had landed in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.
Then a tall, balding black man strolled into the room, accompanied by a bevy of backup singers. I thought it might be Isaac Hayes, whose recording of Shaft topped the charts ten years earlier. But it was Roy Innis, who forcefully plopped down in a swivel chair and made a few revolutions, each time his gaze catching my eye. One of his backup singers dressed in something gold and slinky looked me over. I’m sure she was impressed with my Joe College getup. I was probably wearing something very cool, like that beige, cable-knit sweater my parents brought back from Dublin. No doubt made from virgin wool.
Then the studio door opened again, and a different world opened up. Three young, muscular men with thick necks strode in. One of them – or maybe all of them – were named Augie. Behind the Augies ambled a fat, middle-aged guy with big meaty hands. He nodded at Roy and then came towards me, grabbing me by the elbow. Not in a nasty way. He might have been checking out how tender I was before deciding whether to eat me. It was “Tough Tony,” who had swung a baseball bat to defend his white neighborhood during the 1967 race riots. He appeared in Newark’s Columbus parade dressed as a gladiator, alongside a real lion. As I glanced over at Innis, I recalled Tony’s warning that “when the Black Panther comes, the white hunter will be waiting.” And who were the members of Tough Tony’s muscle-bound crew? Probably his sons. What kind of kids were they? My father’s sons delivered newspapers and stacked Campbell’s soup cans at the Shop-Rite supermarket. One of Tough Tony’s son’s was sentenced to nine years in prison for shooting a teenager who was rustling leaves outside his bedroom window. Another son was shot by a police officer. So I felt an immediate kinship with the younger Imperiales. We could share stories. I could tell them about cream of mushroom soup; they could teach me about Glocks and gunpowder.
Was Barry setting me up to witness a rumble? Was I going to end up knifed like Riff in West Side Story or swatted with a Louisville Slugger? After all, it was, midnight on the West Side of Manhattan in the 1980s, crime was raging, and the murder rate was three times today’s.
Finally, Barry slipped into the room, winked at all of us and began his opening monologue, somehow studded with references to freedom-fighters in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, as well as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. I sat back and watched as Roy and Tough Tony began to parry Barry’s verbal thrusts. Would Tough Tony defend vigilantes? Would Roy defend Black Panthers? Would Roy’s backup singers burst into a MoTown number? Would Tony’s sons retort in a Frankie Valli falsetto?
Before Roy and Tony guests could come to blows or to bluesy harmonies, something remarkable happened. They found a common enemy. It was not me, or I would not be around to write this. The enemy was: the media. Roy and Tough Tony began lobbing verbal blows at the New York Times, national television networks, local reporters, and anyone else they could think of who had slighted them or mischaracterized their views. It went on for awhile, and I occasionally lobbed in some salvos of my own: That darn Bill Moyers!
As the clock ticked later, Barry’s guests became more and more animated. Then, at about 1:30am Tony came up with the quote of the night:
“I’m tired of the media auspicizing me.”
Huh? Now, I was not used to appearing on the radio in the wee small hours of the evening, so I thought I might have misheard. Then I figured it out. Tony, who had served as a New Jersey Assemblyman, had brilliantly mixed up the word “ostracize” with the word “auspices” and created his own neologistic mixed metaphor. I did not point this out to him or to his pistol-packing sons.
When the broadcast ended at 2am, we all stood up and I had a problem. I needed a ride down to a friend’s apartment in the Village. There was no Uber back then, and I wasn’t sure about taxis at that hour.
“Either of you guys headed downtown?” I asked.
Roy and his backup singers smiled at me with a look that said, “Young fool, we go uptown. Harlem.” Tony reached out his meathook and grunted, “Sure, Todd, come wit’ us.”
Tough Tony’s getaway car, a Fleetwood Cadillac with deep, dark velour seats, was waiting on 57th Street. I hopped in and we sped down Seventh Avenue. At that hour, the traffic lights were timed nicely and we could’ve reached the Village in ten minutes. But we didn’t because we had to pause at nearly every corner from 47th down to 27th to heckle the prostitutes. Tony’s boys rolled down the windows and shouted, “Hey baby, show us some more!” and “You wanna come home with us?” I would’ve slinked down into the velour but I was too closely wedged between the shoulders of Tony’s beefy boys.
Finally, I reached my friend’s apartment. As I yanked open the Castro convertible sofa, I wondered whether Tony’s Cadillac would pull an about-face and head back to the hookers, and whether Roy and his bevy would go dancing at the new Cotton Club. They lived in a different world, and for them the night was young and untamed.