THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 549, December 20, 2009
"The United Nations must be destroyed."
Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise
My friend from college, Ted Rall, has written and artist Pablo Callejo has illustrated, a new book. The Year of Loving Dangerously is a graphic memoir, in many senses of the term.
You know there has to be something right about the guy when you see that he has Xaviera Hollander, aka "The Happy Hooker" writing an introduction to his book. And when you see that his "solution" to being kicked out of the dorms at both Columbia and Barnard is to trade on his charm with women to find ways to have a place other than the streets to stay, you understand why Hollander was the best person to write an introduction.
First off, it is really very graphic, in the sense of graphic depictions of human sexuality. It doesn't mince words or try to call sex by silly Victorian-proper terms. Legs and other body parts are correctly identified. Men and women are shown in sexual positions. Obviously, if that is not something you like, or want, in a graphic novel, this book would not be for you.
Second, it is very nicely drawn. The art is really good. Having lived through much of the same period with Ted, having gone into the subways with him searching for good signs, having liberated public property for private use, and having shared some good times with Ted, I can speak to some of the scenes depicted. There really were "rats as big as cats" in the East Campus dormitory when it was first built and opened to student occupancy. There really were a lot of complete jerks in Columbia's administration. And New York in the 1980s really looked the way Callejo shows it.
It was a lot dirtier, a lot grungier, a lot more decorated with street art. Ed Koch was proposing to keep wolves at the subway yards to attack graffiti artists. And Ted looked nothing like the drawings.
Which is not exactly a criticism. I mean, if you want to see how Ted looked, check out the depiction of his student ID on page 15 of the memoir. Part of it is cut off, but it is clearly from a photo of his actual ID, and he really did look gangly and dorky and not nearly so sophisticated as this charming fellow in all the rest of the frames in the book. Which is all to the good, frankly. A graphic novel should make men look better, and women more alluring. If you want photo journalism, get a "Life" magazine out of the library.
Third, the book is very frank about crime. It is frank about Ted's own criminal behavior. He stole things. Some of them were pre-stolen things, bought with stolen (taxpayer) money. But some were things he could lift. Ted did some vandalising of things and places. He tossed water balloons from high places, causing some damage. In his desperation, he broke laws. He lived on campus in janitor closets, once in his old room before the new students arrived. He stole laundry cycles from other students, and a few socks. He bought and sold pot and other drugs, or at least knew where to get coke and heroin. He joined the police auxiliary at one point, and gave me my first police handcuff key (which came in handy in Deer Park, Texas in 1993). And, of course, as the book explains, he engaged in sex for rent, as often as possible.
But the book is also frank about other crimes. Insider trading. Fat cat deals. The city stealing people's homes to make way for big developers (Kelo versus City of New London aka Pfizer wasn't the first; check out radio city and the World Trade Center). Non-violent and consensual acts of trade and commerce, such as prostitution, drug sales, and the like being demonised and turned into rackets for the police. An Ivy League university putting students in substandard housing infested with rats and roaches. (He neglects to mention the exorbitant rents charged by Columbia's trustees on tenement housing in Harlem to fund student scholarships.) Effective wage rates below minimum wage and below the poverty line. Hazardous working and living conditions. All sorts of political outrages. New York was a stinking cesspool of corruption, crime, violence, and oppression, and still is.
It was a gritty, nasty, unpleasant time to be living on the streets. And, sadly, Ted never called. He was always welcome to crash at my place. Of course, he had a more interesting life doing things his way.
Fourth, the men and women come in various shapes and sizes. I think there's some serious commentary on body image that our culture badly needs.
The best thing about this book is that it isn't pretentious. Ted isn't asking you to like him, admire him, enjoy his practical jokes (though some are very funny), or agree with his actions. He isn't saying that he has the moral high ground, and you should be like him. It isn't even clear that he wants to be understood. There is a complexity to the order of events, and if you don't like how he strings things together, try "Pulp Fiction" or "Reservoir Dogs."
He's this guy who did these things. Some were things he could get away with, some were things he was arrested for. I wouldn't have wished all these choices on him, and he clearly didn't like the choices as they were presented in many instances. But he lived through it.
And that's common ground for everyone who went to Columbia, I think. It was an unpleasant experience, deliberately made more so by aggressive jocks, kooky fraternity shenanigans, a sans souci attitude by the campus police toward violent crime on and around campus, really bad policies by the university administration, and a lot of ugliness. Economics courses taught by Marxists who couldn't teach their way out of a paper sack. Astronomy students getting more knowledge from breaking into the telescope dome atop Pupin hall than we learned in lecture hall. Mass hysteria over nuclear war. Anti-apartheid protests taking over Hamilton hall. A weird dedication to single-sex "tradition" happily ended during my sophomore year. The joy that is one of the most expensive cities in the world on the budget of a studentthe international symbol for poverty being a picture of a student with books (he just came from the bookstore and has no money left). Plus all the hostility and angst that New Yorkers generate from being jerks toward each other on the street.
We lived through it. Some of it was fun, a lot of it was miserable, maybe we learned things, incidentally. A degree, which Ted earned a bit later, from Columbia is a badge of courage. It isn't much of an honor, it isn't an accomplishment, but it took courage. And time. And a good bit of suffering.
Would you enjoy this book if you didn't live in New York in 1984? I don't know. Indeed, I can't know. But I enjoyed the book, and hanging out with Ted.