Issue 92, Summer 1984
They’re nothing new, you can read about the Leather Man for instance, a hundred years ago making his circuit through Westchester, Connecticut, into the Berkshires in the summer, seen sitting on the roadside, glimpsed in the woods, he had these regular stops, caves, abandoned barns, riverbanks under the iron bridges in mill towns, the Leather Man, a hulk, colossally dressed, in layers of coats and shawls and pants, all topped with a stiff hand fashioned leather outer armor, like a knight’s, and a homemade pointed hat of leather, he was ten feet tall, an apparition. Of course it’s the essence of these people that they’re shy, they scurry at the sign of confrontation, never hurt a soul. But it was said of this fellow that when cornered he would engage in quite rational conversation, unlearned of course, with no reference to current events, and perhaps with a singular line of association that might strike one at times as not sequential, not really reasonably sequential on first audit, but genial nonetheless, with transitions made by smile or the sincere struggle for words, even the act of talking one assumes is something you can lose the knack of. So there is a history. And though the country of western New England, or the farmlands in the north Midwest will still find one asleep in the plains, a patch of wheat flattened in his contours, say, and although they’re common enough in the big cities, living in doorways, wiping your windshields with a dirty rag for a quarter, men, or the baggers, smoking butts from the gutters, women, or the communities of them, living each in a private alcove underground between subway stations, in the nests of the walls alongside tracks, or down under the tracks in the hollows and nooks of the electric cable conduits, what is new is the connection they’re making with each other, some kind of spontaneous communication has flashed them into awareness of each other, and hell they may as well have applied to the National Endowment as a living art form, there is someone running them but I don’t know who.
I don’t know who and I don’t know why. Conceivably it’s a harmless social phenomenon, like all the other forms of suffering, that is to say not planned for a purpose but merely a natural function of everything else going, and maybe it is heartless to look askance at suffering, to be suspicious of it, southern church blacks, welfare recipients, jobless kids around the pool halls and so on, but that’s the job, that’s our role, I don’t think I have to justify it. We know how danger grows, or for that matter large intangible events, spiritual events, there were five six hundred thousand, yes? at that farmer’s field twenty years ago, and fifty of them were us, you remember, one part per ten thousand, like the legal chemistry for a preservative, one part per ten thousand to keep the thing from turning bad. I was there myself and enjoyed the music. My favorite was Joan C. Baez, the most conservative of musicians, ultra-liberal pacifist peacenik, remember peaceniks? That was a coining we did ourselves and gave it to some columnist in Denver I think it was, spread like wildfire. But she sang nice, early in the game, everyone stoned on sun, chemical toilets still operative . . .
We found a girl there, incidentally, who was doing these strange spastic pantomimes that drew a real crowd. Beginning with her arms over her head. Brought her elbows down over the boobs, seemed to push the elbows out, pushing at something, and then one arm went around the back of the neck, and then all these gyrations of the head, it was the weirdest thing as if she was caught in something, a web, a net, so intense, so concentrated, the crowd, the music disappeared, and then she went down on her knees and knelt through her arms like they were some kind of jump rope, and then when her arms were behind her that was not right, she tried to get out that way, get out, she was getting out of something, enacting the attempt face all twisted and red to get out, you see. So we took some pictures, and then we diagrammed the action and what we came up with was very interesting, it was someone in a straitjacket, it was the classic terror enacted of someone straitjacketed and trying to break free. Now who can you think of, the person who in fact could do that, the person who could get out of straitjackets, who was that, he said.