Issue 52, Summer 1971
The following letters are from James Blake’s The Joint. When the first selection of his letters from prison were published in the mid-fifties, the addressee of many of the letters was referred to simply as “X”... “Dear X.” This device was used to shield the identity of the recipient, who, according to prison regulations, was required to be an immediate member of the prisoner’s family, Blake was in prison on a second hitch when the letters were published. In fact, “X” was Nelson Algren, the distinguished author of The Man With the Golden Arm, who in 1948 met Blake by chance in a Chicago nightclub named The Pink Poodle, Blake was playing the piano in the band, “He came in to look at the girls, I guess,” Blake recalls, and the two became acquainted. After Blake was locked up in Raiford, convicted on breaking, entering, and larceny charges in Jacksonville, Florida, he wrote Algren a somewhat tentative letter, telling him what had happened, and when it was replied to, the correspondence began, Algren’s letters to him were “funny,” as Blake remembers, and, more important, continually urged him to keep on writing. Though comparatively well-read, Blake had had little experience with the written word until the restrictions of prison life left him with no other way to express himself. The stimulation of corresponding with a well- known author was important: it sharpened his efforts, not only in his letters to Algren but also to his other correspondents, largely musician friends.
Publication of the letters came about mainly through the enthusiasm of Simone de Beauvoir, who saw a packet of them while visiting Algren in Chicago. She sent the letters to Jean-Paul Sartre, who had them translated and published in Les Temps Modemes. Shortly thereafter, some of the original letters appeared in The Paris Review. The letters in “The Happy Islanders” were written following Blake’s release from prison after a second term.
Charleston, South Carolina
JUNE 30, 1956
Well, I left the Academy after a simple but moving graduation ceremony, with a big sawbuck courtesy the State of Florida, and literally hit the road. Impossible to describe the mixed emotions I had walking away from the penitentiary. For a considerable stretch, I could still see the Rock, where I had spent two and a half years. Could still see the big recreation field and the path around the edge of it where I had walked so many miles in confusion and anxiety. I could even recognize some of the convicts on the field. And I did not, for a fact, know whether I had been cast out of Heaven or Hell. I had left behind the young Sandy, in a grinding scene of farewell that left a knot in my gut.
But when I crossed the bridge over the river and the road took a sharp tum, I was in the world I had not been able to see from behind the fences. I took a deep breath and said to myself, ready or not, motherfuckers, here I come, and felt exhilaration on top of the apprehension.
The nearest town to the prison, Starke, is about five miles, and I guess I walked about half of it. Just dawdling along, looking at the fields, looking at the cows (feeling myselt watched as I passed the few houses along the road). A pickup truck came along and gave me a lift into Starke. One of the guards at the prison, a decent sort, but there was some grisly conversation that gave me the feeling of being half In, half Out. From Starke, a bus to Jacksonville. I didn’t pause there, it’s a miserable town at best and on Sunday it’s chilling, and I wanted to get on with it, so I took a city bus to the northern city limits.
I planned to go to Atlanta, and I expected to wait a long time for a ride, Sunday being a bad day. To my surprise, I waited only a little while at the side of the highway, when a bigass Chrysler stopped. I ran towards it and discovered, with a shaft of dismay, that the driver was a spade, very black and very rough looking. Not for nothing all that training in the Rock. I jumped in, with a “Thanks a lot, man.”
I told him I was going to Atlanta, he said he was bound for Charleston, but would give me a lift as far as he could. It took me a couple of minutes to surmise this cat was getting blocked. When he told me to open the glove compartment and there was a big jug of Canadian Club, and beer in a cooler on the floor in back, I knew he was getting blocked in a very methodical fashion.
I had a couple of drinks and a beer, and started to get care-free, I hadn’t had any real juice in over two years—man, I was clean. By the time we got to the tumoff for Atlanta, I had decided to go to Charleston with my buddy .What the hell, I had never seen Charleston.
After a bit, though, the paranoid caution I’d acquired in the Rock began to take over, and I started to worry about his driving, which was becoming fairly free-form. A pusher friend of mine in the joint had given me some bennies as a bon voyage gift (talk about pagan decency) and I started to ply him with an antidote to all that juice. It seemed only to intensify his anarchical mood.
He was called Stony, he told me, he had been to Jackson-ville trying to get his wife to come back to him. He ran a shrimp boat out of Mount Pleasant, across the harbor from Charleston, and was on his way to acquiring another boat. Devoting himself to rising above his station had cost him his wife, and he was a bitter somber black man.
By this time, we were well into Georgia, and started hitting all the small Deep-South towns; somnolent at their brightest, on Sunday they were graveyards withtrafficlights. Westopped in one for gas, Darien, I think it was, at a combination gas station and general store. The usual loafers and stooges were hanging around. Stony’s manner as he ordered gas was peremptory (the air of a “smart nigger”) and the air was full of knives.
We got away from that, though expecting them to call ahead and have the state troopers on our ass. It was odd, too, how the vibrations between Stony and me changed for quite a while after we pulled away firom that pool of ugliness.
Somewhere along the road in the afternoon, we saw a truck, decorated with bunting, parked on the shoulder ofthe road. Stony slowed down, saw it was some kind of black picnic (it was a church outing) and he stopped. Instantly all kinds of black gals, high on beer, were sticking their heads in the window. (“Lookit that beautiful breed. Come outa there, boy!”) I found myself surrounded by shrieking satirical black women, found myself dancing with one on a stretch of concrete from some abandoned building, while a radio brayed rhythm-and-blues.
When we finally got away from that, after an eternity of strain and embarrassment for me. Stony said drily, “You don’t dig broads, do you?”
“I don’t mind broads. I just don’t like loud broads.”
When we got to Charleston it was night, and raining like hell. Stony knew that I was just out of the joint, had no bread, and no place to go. Without a word he drove through Charles-ton onto the long high humpbacked bridge that crosses the Cooper and Ashley rivers to Mount Pleasant. It was pitch dark, and I could smell the fish and salt smell ofthe ocean. I followed him out on to a wharf, and we were on board his boat. I spent the night there with him. By the light ofthe oil lamp in that small fishy cabin, I felt a tenuous security—and a strong sense of brotherly love such as I had not known before.
In the morning we faced the facts—it was impossible for me to Stay there. He drove me back to Charleston, and I spent the day missing the strength of Stony, and casing the town. There was no doubt in my mind I had to move fast and I looked for a joint to break into.
That night, prowling, I was picked up on suspicion (I didn’t know that Charleston had two fuzz for every citizen) and taken to the station. They shook me dovm and found my discharge from the Florida joint. The sergeant was indignant.
“Just got out and trying to get back in, huh? Well, you ain’t gonna do it, not here.” He calls up a mission on Skid Row and tells somebody I’m coming over. They even gave me a ride.
And that’s where I am now. An Irishman, the Reverend Ryan runs it, and he seems, I would say, intrigued by my case. Besides, I worked like a dog cleaning up the dormitory they got here, and I play piano for the phony services he holds every night for the winos and drifters. (It’s a highly polished grand piano, in good shape, and when all the saints are away, I get to play it.)
I have moments of speculation, about my friends. Permit-ting me to be run though the grinder, once again. (Out of curiosity, to see what I’d look like, reconstituted?) I think you could say I’m a little different.
That bridge, incidentally, between confinement and free-dom—it’s a suspension bridge, and it hangs by a thread. Very difficult from the one that leads the other way. That is a triumph of engineering, soUd as a rock. I seem to be on the other side of the bridge now, but I’ll be goddammed if I know where I am.
Charleston, South Carolina
JULY 26, 1956
Remember the song that “nothin’ could be finah than to be in Carolinah”? Lies, all lies, the guy that wrote it lived in Far Rockaway. In fleeing from the Reverend Ryan and his coun-terfeit Christians, I’ve become entangled in a new set of Carolina complications. I got so depressed and fed up with the Rev and his Holy Bobble that I svrang with the collection one night (a cool 83 cents) and went out looking for trouble.
I figure I gave the Rev more than 83 cents worth of happiness. Twofold happiness, in fact.When he first saw me, he thought he’d found the 13 th Disciple. Later, when the true nature of the beast became apparent, he was able to say he had personally encountered the Anti-Christ. So it was kicks coming and going.
Anyway, I went looking for mischief, and found Dan Cooper. He ovwis a night club called the Magnoha Room, which is the haunt of the racier element in Charleston aristocracy. And when it comes to genealogy-conscious stuffed owls, Charleston can show the Beacon Hill interlopers a thing or two; everybody I meet descends from a Huguenot.
Dan is one of the Charleston pioneers; the Coopers were on hand to greet the Huguenots and sell them the acres of malarial marshland they settled on. Only Dan is a renegade; instead of living in genteel decline, and hocking the family ormolu, he gets rich running a saloon.
He’s a combination of Old South punctilio and dockhand aggressiveness. Thirty-eight years old, stocky, muscled, rugged-ugly, with an unsettling charm that comes from a poetic, perverse, avidly curious mind. Disturbing because while his talk is compelling, fantastic, hypnotic, I can never be sure how much of it is mendacious and satirical.
Last night he transfixed me with a tale of shooting a kangaroo in Australia. He shot him (he said, with passionate sincerity) against his fmer instincts. Which also forbid him to shoot deer and elephants. “You couldn’t make me shoot an elephant,” he declared, and eyed me accusingly as if I had tried. “An elephant is a gentle tender animal.”
The kangaroo, shot squarely between the eyes, gave a prodigious leap of more than thirty feet, and died.
“Imagine, a death leap,” he said. “But you couldn’t make me shoot another kangaroo, not for a million dollars!” And he surveyed me challengingly, as ifi had the money ready in my pocket.
What bothered me was that I knew he actually had spent considerable time in Australia, and that he was a crack marksman. He practices often on a pistol range he has out here. But I speculated that this yam was simply a savagely contemptuous way of proving to himself that I was a gulhble fool, or too cowardly to say I thought he was a har. He and I have had this particular passage before, with variations. Then too, it’s a peculiarly southern thing, they have perfected the fine art of lying with flair.
Anyway, when I drifted into the joint (with the price of one beer in my pocket) and auditioned, he hired me to play the piano. For the first week, during intermissions, I sat and drank with him, while he questioned me about myself Did it so deftly, deviously, sympathetically, that I gave him more of the truth than I otherwise might have.
His drinking is a methodical, curiously joyless affair, leading to moods that veer from lyrical to sardonic to ugly. The next day, with the same cold precision and concentration, he lifts weights, rides a horse, shoots a pistol, swims, and shows no trace ofthe night’s dissipation. I drink only moderately now, and I don’t join him in getting bagged. In a way I’m afraid to.
I had only worked a few nights at the club when Dan informed me that he didn’t want me living at the Reverend Ryan’s. Actually I’d been prowling a little on my own, and wanted to move into the Dock Street Theatre building (Charleston’s bohemia; I met a couple interesting types there). But he moved me out on the island with him.
It’s about twenty miles out of Charleston, in the Sound, the open ocean nearby. These are the haunted brooding Carolina lowlands, the tidewater country where the stalwart pioneers displayed false shore lights in order to wreck and plunder ships. Our Murcan heritage. Dan pointed out another island, low on the horizon, which still has Civil War fortifications. The South will rise again.
I’d say this island is only some twenty-five acres, if that. Dan owns the whole tiny continent, the fief of his ancestors. There’s a big house where Dan stays, beautiful, ghostly, decadent (sinking into the sand), and I live in an old slave hut “fixed up.” There are never any callers, not so far, and we are the sole inhabiunts, outside of the “Nigras.” All day the stillness is massive, pervasive, dense, except for the pistol shots when he practices, and these trifling noises seem to drown immediately. The atmosphere seems to be waiting, waiting.
From my windows I can see for unbroken miles—miles of water and sky and lonely marshland. Nothing moves but the fishing birds, wheeling languidly in the air, and the palmettos, fanning themselves in the heat. Waiting, waiting.
I try to tell myself toujours faudace, but I don’t like at all what I feel. You should have sent me the bread, and by now I’d be safe with some Rush Street Mafia hoodlum in Chicago. I don’t know about these southern aristocrats. There’s an old Arabian proverb I just made up: “Lie down with the adder, alors, Jim get up sadder.”
Charleston, South Carolina
Because I’m thinking of you and wishing I could be with you in Chicago this morning, I’m making do with this. If it gets rather magenta, forgive, this exile is a much-tried pilgrim.
It is five a.m., the birds are stirring in the palms outside and from the windows I can see the first smoke-gray light of day, turning to silver the dark quiet waters of the sound.
The grizzly who owns this island departed about an hour ago, pleased with himself and his world, and I’m left vibrating and wishing myself far from him and this hostile geechee country.
His name is Dan, one of the Huguenots of Charleston, thirtyish, muscled, an arresting ugliness, befurred like the bear. Nor was it the physical charms that put me where I am. Rather it was the cunning, intelligence, deviousness and imagination of the scoundrel that arrested me. That and the need for bread to maneuver on this burning deck.
He owns the Magnolia, the joint where I play. It’s a reproduction of a Carolina-style patio, common brick and wrought iron, deep leather booths, murky darkness, and I furnish the unobtrusive piano music. Aside from a discreet sign outside, there’s no indication at all of a night club. Underplayed all the way, which results in SRO all the time, and the host’s consistently inimical attitude towards customers merely charms them the more.
Wouldn’t you think, from all this, as many gutters as I’ve been in, that I would gather there was a mind at work? Not that there was a hell of a lot of choice at first, I fell into the joint one night, a month or so out of jail, broke and on my ass, played the piano, was hired. Beautiful piano, sharp club, cordial reception from the aristocrats assembled. Terms were attractive, and I felt I’d finally landed, escaping disaster and the looming threat of return to jail. Somewhere over the rainbow bluebirds fly.
I wish now I’d never left the Rock in Florida, but this maniac didn’t come on like a maniac at first.
I should have suspected something from the attitude of the rich rebels that haunt the joint, touched with awe, patthetically glad when he warms to cordiality and offers them a drink. Methodically, he plies everyone around him, occupying his booth like a throne at a levee, the wit and charm flows freely, and there is laughing it up while he sparkles.
Not till he drove me home the first night, sober in an instant, did I discover the wiliness, the savagery of his method. In their innocent faith and drunkenness his companions were but specimens for observation. With cold satisfaction he estimated in what way this or that friend was vulnerable and dispensable, how far from ruin and collapse. This engaging misanthrope was compiling for them a dossier of doom.
I was intrigued by such bland villainy, but chilled, and de-cided to keep as much distance as was compatible with keeping the job.
It took some skating. Being lonely and strange, I looked about for something interesting in a southern gent. They all seemed to adore my playing and were eager to be friends. I settled on a couple of actors from the Dock Street Theatre. The older one, improbably called Julian Ravenal, had a face ancient with weary satiety; his beautiful young companion a face of placid dreaming wickedness. There was not a doubt in my mind that we three could wind up in some piquant erode arrangement, the winter seemed made, so hungry was I for just such raffish companions after a long survation.
The three of us seated at the bar, Dan passed by, swept us casually with a glance, stopped, said to Julian, “I want to see you.” Julian murmured, “I know what the son of a bitch will say.” I never discovered what that was, but that night after work, Dan said, “If you’re really in earnest about wanting to write, Charleston’s not the place for you. I want you to see where I live.”
He brought me out to the island that morning. It was still dark, the stars were on top of us, the Atlantic breeze murmured in the palms, the waters of the sound whispered liquidly. Naturally, I was enchanted.
He brought out the liquor and stayed to talk (in the small house he said I should “try”). Talked amiably, winningly, mostly of the arts, and without halting the flow of urbanity, complained of the heat and stripped to his shorts. (It may have been the record, “Alborado del Gracioso.”) He kept the talk spinning, but the bronzed hairy maleness of him was making the air crackle around me, as difficult to inhale as noodle soup. And while the bastard was gauging his effect, my treacherous face was selling me out. Even while I reached frantically for a coherent reply to some danmable observation he’d made on Christopher Fry, I could read a small tinge of pity in the green eyes as they weighed the imminence of my collapse.
Oh well. I encountered some variations he must have picked up from a Bedouin camel-skinner in one of the murkier streets of Tangier. Even in the holocaust, it crossed my mind that he could not bear to be bested in anything and was satisfying himself that in this, too, I was a mere dabbler. It was an excursion into eroticism along roads I never saw on any map. The calm steady dispassionate degradation and debasement, sure, strong, relentless. When it was done—this silent,contemptuous and curiously onanistic performance—the first daylight was rising over the water. I had been coolly employed, crumpled and discarded like a Kleenex.
Sated, sure of one more egg in the basket, he paced the floor, outlining a program of reclamation and renovation. Regarding me with mixed distaste and pity, “Your hair is too long, too—musicianish.” Twined spatulate fingers in it, nearly lifting my scalp. “Uglier than I am,” he mused. “You’re a find, a positive find.” Then, “Cut your hair. At the Magnolia, you won’t look hired. You should look like a performing amateur, like a guest sitting down to amuse your friends. Then your professional sound will come as an irritating surprise to your listeners.”
He looked at me with distress. “And your clothes... well, tomorrow we’ll cut your hair and get you some sunburn.” On, and on.
He paused, only then aware of my anger and embarrassment, and measured it. I had a strength he knew nothing about: I was wishing I was back in jail. Sensing the hidden reserve, he retreated. “It’s only sensible, Mr. Blake—” He brayed the long A as Charlestonians do, and drew a smile from me. “I won’t have those moribund bastards sniping at you while you’re working for me. I intend to see you succeed in the job, and while I’m behind you they won’t dare anything but like you. And nobody but me understands what you’re doing.”
A formal bow. “I’ll be over in the aftemoon, if it won’t disturb you at your writing. If you need anything, press the button, and one of the Nigras will come.”
The Nigras... Thus I was appropriated, another weapon 111 his war with Charleston. When I awoke, it was to gunfire. He was killing the phantom enemy on the pistol range.
Numb with shock, catatonic with dread, I ventured timidly into the kitchen to make myself some coffee. There was brandy left in the bottle, I had a couple of Dexies, and I gulped it all against the fearful appearance.
When he showed, it was in riding habit, looking as wide Mid high as Cyclops. He coolly recorded the degree of my confusion, but his manner was bantering, lightly paternal, there was no sign of the previous night’s fever. ”’Jupiter and I had a good ride, I feel great.” He looked closer at me. “Maybe you should eat something. I thought we’d go into town later.”
Benevolent commands. The grand seigneur and the poverty-struck transient he has just remembered sheltering in the storm. A nuisance, but noblesse oblige.
Rattled, distrait, I scrambled to escape. “No need to hurry, I brought some trunks, thought we might swim a little first. It’s good for a hangover.”
So we swam and lay in the sun while he talked quietly, putting the unaccountable waif at ease. Showed me the big house. “My brother left some clothes here. He’s about like you. Try them on, those trousers of yours sag in the ass. Is that what they gave you when you left the pen? A shame.”
I stand for inspection. He appears to have forgotten me. “Oh yea, much better. By the way. Did you register as an ex-convict when you came into Charleston? State law, six months and a fine. I can probably arrange something. The cops in this town are venal as hell. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
I look at him. The velvet threat.
So here I am—trapped, beset, lonely, bored, frightened and confused. I don’t know anybody except momentarily. We live alone on the island with only the jigs, all starry-eyed for Mistah Dan. “Pappy wuhk for Mistah Dan’s daddy. He a caution, Mistah Dan, yuk, yuk, yuk.”
But you know something? When I play piano, he listens. And he understands. Que voulez-uous?
Charleston, South Carolina
...The natives of this geechee territory eat rice three times a day, and all the time in between, and they talk about a certain kind of black that is a “good southern nigra, always uses ’Mister.’ ” Ugh. The fools. 1 do not think they have taken I a good look at blacks as persons for some time, these ingrovioi insular aristocrats of Charleston. I look closely at the spades as I walk the streets—they are really so much better looking than whites, black is a more suitable color for skin, and in the great majority of them, I sense a secret merriment, an amused contempt. Charleston blacks, many of them, ride around in gigantic new automobiles. I daresay this is because the econo-my is rather frantic down here, and credit is easier. For every-body but musicians.
I think perhaps the spades are better off here, the weather is kinder, and certainly there is something softer about the Cat-fish Row type of thing as contrasted with the grim phalanxes of tenements one sees in Chicago. At least there is room for , small kitchen gardens, and there is not the grinding pressure I of urban existence. Then, too, the blacks have taken refuge in ’ the masquerade of “good nigras” and if there is anything [ satirical in calling everybody Mister the benighted whites are not hip to it.
I’ve met several students at the State College for blacks at Orangeburg, rather straight-up types, in a way, from the ones I knew in Florida, but of course that’s understandable; the spades I knew in the Rock were felons. These are waiters at the Magnolia, and they seem to be on the track of onward and upward and easy does it. From them there is little talk of revolt and equal rights, they allow the Carolinians their heavy paternalistic role as protectors of “good nigras” from the NAACP. It’s possible they don’t relate to me because they know my relation with Dan. But one of them who hangs a little looser told me that Dan pays their tuition at college. According to this cat, Dan told them, “If you’re going to hang around here, you’re not going to remain niggers all your lives.” It’s a clue, but what do it mean?
I’ve been dabbling around with writing a few little things, out my obsession with Dan hangs over me and keeps me off balance, and I’ll probably never do anything until I’m away from him.
To please him (or rather because I daren’t displease him), I have become the complete piano player of the Magnolia Room, clipped, sunburned, my summer suit as rumpled as any on the Battery. He is pleased at his handiwork, sardonical-ly amused when the frosty Charlestonians inspect the Out-lander who has come so mysteriously to resemble a native, an object of speculation instead of “Dan’s itinerant.”
Maybe if we were not so much together... I go into town with him in time for work, come back in the morning with him. We tum the phonograph on, leaving the music to wail as accompaniment for anarchy in the dark. He uses the sexual pull he knows he has for me like Pentothal, on the theory that what I evade in the light I will confess in the dark. It would he idle to disabuse him of this notion, in view of the fact that I’m so bloody hooked.
And yet when we lie quiet and the shaggy heat of him is beside me, I feel a precarious love and desire for this tormentor, and I could cry at the wrongness of the reasons we are together. Once I pressed my lips into the tangled hair of his wrist, a silent plea for him to be different. It made him furious, his scom was horrible, it withered me, and petrified me lest he send me away.
Thus the happy life of the carefree childlike islanders. How many times I have wished myself back in the joint, the perfect peace I had and did not value. The time to read and write, and goof in the sun, to play the piano indifferently or ferociously as I chose. There are nights at the Magnolia when I’m hacked, or simply inert, and can’t play, and he stops at the piano and says, what’s wrong with you? And there are other nights, when I have really been wailing. The joint closes, he locks the doors, and I play for him. His taste is impeccable, it is a joy. And I think, this motherfucker is attuned to me, but for what, a quoi bon? For the sardonic, hateful regard we have for one another?
Sometimes I think all this tohu-bohu is superficial, meaningless, that I am pointed inexorably toward Florida and Jemeurs, Jim fated to return there.
Charleston, South Carolina