Saturday, April 20, 2013

Part II: A White Woman Remembers the last days of Poppa Rage, Eldridge Cleaver

By Marlene Lily

My closest Panther connection was with Eldridge. In 1968, Eldridge was married and he had jumped bail and left the country, leaving me with a huge reservoir of unprocessed feelings. He contacted me a few times after he left, once to send me a large shipment of unreadable books by Kim Il Sung, once to make arrangements for the return of a pistol he had given me (a pistol that later resulted in the conviction of Panther George Murray) and once to send me a lace face veil from Algeria. He also asked me to come to Algeria, but I had no interest in doing that.
It was probably decades before I knew that Eldridge’s nickname was “Rage,” but I now think I was attracted to him in part because he freely expressed the rage that I didn’t have a clue I was feeling in 1968 when I first knew him, rage particularly toward Jerry, who on the same day he married me told me our marriage was a mistake. Eldridge also had a quality that I observed
most clearly when I saw him with my sister-in-law in 1991 and noticed how she lit up: he was capable of giving another person his undivided attention. It was probably that quality that won the love of Christians and Mormons, blacks and whites, women and men. As for me, I felt that he knew me better than anyone I had ever known. I also loved his sense of humor, his imagination, and his ability with language. Every time I cut a watermelon, I still think of his answer to the question, “Where’s Eldridge?” from the Black Panther paper back in 1969: “He’s free, eating watermelon, and the pigs can’t get him!” No one else would have thought of adding “eating watermelon” to that statement.
And we had moments of hilarious fun, watching Ronald Reagan and SF Mayor Joseph Alioto ranting on television about things Eldridge had said about them (what he called “woofing at the authorities”). Or the time in the early nineties when we collected bottles and cans for recycling in the U.C. stadium after the Big Game, or the time he filled my whole garage with toilets he had taken out of dumpsters at U.C. (I had told him I needed one toilet.) I still have a beautiful hatch-cover table top that we scored on a dumpster dive on Solano Avenue.
I spent a lot of time in the 80s and 90s trying to get to the bottom of my feelings about Eldridge, and also to find out who he “really was.” Was he really a Republican? A born-again Christian? A Moonie? A Mormon? An under-cover leader of the Black Liberation Movement? Once he took me to the Mormon Temple in Oakland and was greeted with warmth and enthusiasm by the congregation there even though the papers had reported that he’d already
moved on to the Moonies. Whenever we stopped at the Black Muslim Bakery for a carrot pie, my favorite, he was received there just as warmly.
I even lived wth him for a few months in the early nineties, when he was a crack addict. He called and said “I have a place for you,” at a moment when I didn’t know what to do. The Savings and Loan crisis had wrecked the housing market and I was no longer making a living in real estate. I hadn’t come up with a new game plan. I went down to Berkeley to see what he had in mind, and Eldridge offered to rent me a room. His only condition was that
I not tell him what to do. His other tenant was William Carlisle, a fortyish Black Muslim who made a living selling T-shirts at large events and peddling frozen meat and fish in the Oakland ghetto out of the trunk of his car. Eldridge trusted William because he didn’t use drugs or alcohol (and neither did I). And having all that protein in the house meant that if worse came to worst, Eldridge wouldn’t go hungry.
The house Eldridge lived in was given to him by Claire Morrison, a childless old lady he and his friend Karen had rescued from a convalescent hospital in the 1980s amid great publicity. When Mrs. Morrison was released from the hospital, Karen gave her an apartment in a building Karen owned near the U.C. campus, where Karen’s own mother also lived, and watched over her for several years until she passed away, helping her with shopping and household tasks. And when Mrs. Morrison died, her will gave Eldridge the house on Allston Way, where she and her husband had lived for many years. Mrs. Morrison’s heirs (the same ones who had tried to lock her up in the hospital against her will) sued, and after several years won the house back. In the meantime, Eldridge had a house rent free—and of course he didn’t pay the taxes or insurance either.
One day as we were having breakfast at Alta Bates Hospital, his favorite breakfast joint (good food at rock bottom prices, and a black staff that was always happy to see him), he said this, which I took to be the “truth,” maybe because I wanted it to be: “We had a war and the good guys lost.” The flicker of anguish that crossed his face, just for a second, answered my question about who he really was to the extent it ever got answered.
One of the things that often happened between us was a subtle process of language education. He would use words or phrases with double meanings and check with his eyes to see whether I got it. This was an entre into a level of black culture that I never received elsewhere. Some of the phrases were those slave owners had used on their slaves (though of course he never told me that, I had to figure it out), some of them were the current ghetto slang. I had heard other blacks “talk the talk” for many years and I had never “got it.” Much of it was “signifying,” or metaphor. And of course with metaphor, nothing is nailed down. You catch the drift, but you don’t have a “statement of facts.” You get the emotional effect, rather than information.
One day when we were in the dining room at Allston Way, he showed me a little brush. It was about six inches long, and came in a case. He told me it was what the house slaves used to brush off the master’s table. Seeing how he and William felt about that brush—it was an antique precious to them, but they also loathed it--gave me an inkling of the burden from
slavery that black men still carried, more than a hundred years after Emancipation. They wanted to share it, but just a little.
Drugs were the entry requirement for the lumpen black world of the 80s and 90s, which is the world he came from and the world he loved. (His parents, however, were not lumpen, nor is Kathleen, whom he still loved, even though they were divorced; nor are his children.) And highly addictive crack cocaine became the lumpen drug of choice. It was cheap, ubiquitous, and potent. Gary Webb’s San Jose Mercury series, “The Dark Alliance,” tells the story **. Those of us with a little distance could see the likelihood that crack was the weapon that succeeded Cointelpro in the government’s effort to eliminate any chance of a Black Liberation Movement. But Eldridge was an addict, and the world that became the crack world was his world. I went with him often into West Oakland,
where he scored his crack at corner stores, homes, apartments. He wouldn’t wait to get home to light the pipe, even if a cop car was right behind us. His after-midnight friends were prostitutes and hustlers. I know because I sometimes drove them home. One of them,expecting me to be jealous, was afraid I was going to push her down the porch stairs.
Once he told me that he smoked crack because it “opens the doors of perception,” a quote from Aldous Huxley. What I observed when he was stoned was not heightened perception but an advanced case of hallucinations and psychotic paranoia. I would come back to the house on Allston Way to find every light blazing, with no shades or curtains. He took off the
lampshades to make the lights brighter. As I walked through his office to get to my room, he would point and say “Look at that! Do you see that?” And of course I saw nothing. He was seeing the monsters from a Bosch painting.
A Chinese family lived across the street and he was so paranoid about the Chinese man I was afraid he might act on his threats and shoot him. Fortunately, that never happened.
Maybe a year before I went to live at Allston Way, he had asked me to buyhim a truck. His previous truck was confiscated by the police because he had been using it to steal the items left at the curb for recycling and recycling them himself for money—i.e. stealing garbage--and he had been warned to stop. But he hadn’t stopped. His request, “Buy me a truck,” caught me at a moment when I was mentally unstable from overdosing on a homeopathic remedy (it’s definitely possible!) and I simply asked him what kind of truck he wanted, bought him a Chevy pickup, put it in his name, and delivered it, asking for nothing but a ride back home.
When I moved to Allston Way, I took my furniture to my brother’s basement in San Francisco so I could rent my side of my Santa Rosa duplex out for income. After a few weeks, Eldridge said, “Let’s go get your furniture.” I was fine with that, and wasn’t suspicious when he said he wanted to take two cars.
At my brother’s house, as we were loading my stuff, my three-year-old niece asked me about some bells that were on the top of one of my boxes. “What
are those?”
“Camel bells.”
“Do you have a camel?”
Eldridge: “Yes you do!” I met his eyes, wondering what he was talking about. “The camel in your mind.” He was into Religious Science in those days.
We loaded up the pickup, and that was the last I ever saw of my furniture. A couple months later, when I sensed that my car was next to go, I took off and came back to Santa Rosa. (I had been warned about him by two black men, one a complete stranger, who saw us talking at Andronico’s. The other, a former Panther from the Huey faction, someone I knew and liked,
said “Still got your car?” when I ran into him on Telegraph.) Without a car I wouldn’t be able to work, and I was going to need some kind of work SOON. Once Eldridge told me I had better work habits than he did. As far as I could tell, he didn’t have ANY work habits.
He never found a way to make a living, other than giving occasional speeches or hustling his “friends.” He would sit on his porch stairs with one penny on the step next to him, and when I showed up, he’d say, “That’s my bank.” We’d chat for a while, and then he’d say, “Let’s go to Andronico’s.” We’d walk the couple of blocks to the store, and of course I would buy him lunch. Then maybe it was time for a trip to the ATM machine.
He did that with everybody—or everybody who would put up with it.
Early on, he made money from *Soul On Ice*, and after he came back from exile he had speaking engagements—whether they were his born-again Christian testimony, Black Panther reminiscences with Bobby Seale, or ecology polemics. But after *Soul On Ice*, he never wrote a major book. Karen bought him computers more than once, more than once he sold them to buy drugs or in one case threw the computer out the window when she urged him to use it to write. Writing requires discipline and willingness to be alone. He was a social animal, and being locked up was what enabled him to write *Soul On Ice*. Once he was free, the discipline just wasn’t there.
Even as early as 1968 he lacked discipline. The reason I stole his typewriter was that he had promised to give me one for the Observer office and about the same time had invited me over to his house to help put out the Black Panther newspaper. Instead of working on the paper, we sat around all afternoon with Bobby Seale and Emory, shooting the shit. My friend Jennifer, who was visiting from Chicago, was with me with her two little girls, 4 and 6. As the afternoon segued into evening, and it was time to eat, the Panther servants, women of course, called the men into the kitchen. Bobby and Eldridge got up and left, leaving Jennifer and me, invited guests with children, sitting in Eldridge’s office, unfed. Emory had his head down on the arm of his chair, but I never thought he was asleep. Either he was too polite to walk out and leave us, or he was the guard. I was pissed, and picked up the typewriter on Eldridge’s desk, covered it with our coats, and walked out. If Emory was the guard, he wasn’t guarding the typewriter.
In the summer of ’92, Eldridge asked me to reserve spots for us at Robert McKee’s script- writing class, to be held in the fall in Los Angeles. I bought the tickets, then didn’t see or talk to Eldridge for several months. When the time for the class came, I flew to L.A. alone, rented a car, and spent the night at a Youth Hostel in Santa Monica, the cheapest accommodations I could find. The next morning I walked down the aisle to my seat, and there he was. I didn’t really expect him to pull himself together and make it to L.A., but he did—after all, L.A. was his home. We spent the weekend together. Eldridge took me to Spike Lee’s store and to one of his own favorite teenage hangouts, Pink’s Drive-In, with me picking up the tab for expensive restaurant meals, the gas, the motel room. I had a great time, but when I went home I didn’t go back to Berkeley, I was too deeply in debt by that time. I couldn’t afford Eldridge.
A few months later, during a drug buy, he got mugged--clubbed on the head and robbed of his earnings from a speaking engagement; his Chevy pickup was also missing. I got a call from Karen saying that he was in Alta Bates with a severe head injury. I went down and sat at his bedside for several days. When he was transferred to rehab in San Leandro, I went there, too.

It appeared to me he was brain damaged. But he refused to go to Delancey Street when a friend pulled strings to get him admitted, even though his son, Maceo, then about 24, pleaded with him to go. Instead, he went right back to his addiction. The last time I saw him, maybe 1994, it was midday, we were in my car on University Avenue, and I stopped to make a copy at Kinko’s. He was afraid to be left alone in the car for a minute or two while I went into the shop. The fearlessness I had so loved in him was gone. In the spring of 1998, I got a call from William Carlisle, who told me Eldridge had died in Southern California--on May Day. Despite Carlisle’s urgings, I didn’t go to the funeral.

See Marvin X's memoir of Eldridge Cleaver: My friend the Devil, Black Bird Press, 2009. Search this blog or

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