Harlan Ellison: Non-Fiction

Memos from Purgatory

1st Publication: Pyramid, 1961
Cover Art: Barclay Shaw (Ace Paperback)

Reviews Description and Spoiler Warning

The Langerhans review




(review commentary by K.C. Locke)

A lot can happen in a little over four decades. Hell, in under two seconds, a bullet can leave a gun, enter a human heart, and bring that muscle to a quiet halt. Four decades?

A young man can get out of high school or reform school; father a child (with or without the congratulatory blessing of official wedlock; see Charlie Parker, read his obituary; elect a president, read his obituary; send a son to Vietnam, compose his obituary; elect another president, see him hounded from office, read his obituary a generation later; put men into space, see them walk on the moon, experience relieved disappointment that there is no life, as we understand it, on Mars; put six astronauts and a school-teacher into space (almost), never see them return; lose a grandson in the Persian Gulf Follies; watch the "Drug Culture" rotate from smack to speed to smack to acid to smack to cocaine to smack, always with a little weed handy to smooth those rough, rough edges, and enough booze to keep dry-mouth at bay.

Plenty to do, and plenty of time to do it. Like the midway at a summer carnival. World's Finest Corn-dogs. For your education, edification and amusement.

Forty years is, theoretically, enough time for three generations to graduate from college and get jobs as waiters and convenience store clerks to pay off their student loans.

It continues to amaze me that so much can happen while so little changes.

Granted, I am not exactly predisposed to chipper optimism, but now I find this book, MEMOS FROM PURGATORY. It is tremendous, vibrant, exciting, relevant, and of significant value to our society today, forty-odd years after the original research, thirty-six years after the book's initial publication. It should be required reading for parenting classes and those seeking certificates in education. All of which makes me sadder than I can tell you.

I'll explain that, a bit later.

After reading it, my, head was having a polka party, and I could not think of a reason why the author would be inspired to do such an artistically noble, yet stupid and potentially deadly thing as to research a kid gang by becoming one of them. So I asked him. He asked me, "Did you read the book?" Yes, I read the book the answer is there, in a sense. What Mr. Ellison says in the prologue is this:

...At one point, I decided what the subject of my first novel would be. That point came on the corner of 45th and Broadway in New York City.

It came when I saw a gang of young boys, their shoulders thrown back, their chests covered by black leather, their feet bound up in heavy Army boots just right for stomping. Across their backs they had blazoned in script, BLOODED ROYALS. They were the first members of an organized kid gang I had ever seen, and there was something terrible and uncompromising in them ....

...Their eyes say nothing. Their eyes are dying eyes; embers. Despite the carefully-combed pompadour, despite the cutely cruel and insolent droop of the lips, despite the pasty complexions and the cat-jaunty manner, these kids have no souls left to them.

That was what I saw.

I didn't move. I stayed very silent, because I realized, even then, that what was passing me would be the source of my first work in length.
Which explanation, I'm sure, carries the certain weight of truth.

Somehow, even though I had read the 1975 introduction, and the 1969 introduction, and the prologue, and the rest of this magnificent tome, all that had missed me. So, like I said, I called Harlan Ellison for elaboration.

Sometime in 1949 or '50, Mr. Ellison passed a newsstand and thought he saw his name there, on one of the small paperback novels. Further inspection revealed his error: the author of that book was Hal Ellson. Intrigued by the nominal similarity, he read the book, which turned him on. Ellson was, at that time and for some years, a selling name, with such novels to his credit as DUKE and TOMBOY, and stories appearing in magazines the likes of "Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine," "Guilty!" and "Manhunt." And his subject matter was, more often than not juvenile delinquency.

Thus sparked, Mr. Ellison's interest was further fanned to flame by a beating at the hands of a kid gang in front of the old Paramount Theater in New York City.

All of which information makes Mr. Ellison's adventure a bit more comprehensible, at least to me. On the other hand, the knowledge that he had a greater idea of what he was getting himself into set me scratching my head again.

In any event, Harlan Ellison made the necessary arrangements and donned the identity of Phil "Cheech" Beldone, and, with leather jacket and freshly-lubed D.A., hooked up with the Barons, a street gang in Brooklyn, NY. More specifically, Red Hook, Brooklyn, an area that, I am assured by friends who used to live near that neighborhood, remains unsafe to travel, particularly at night, unless you have some very good friends who live there and/or are with you.

This is a true story. It is still a true story some of the names and armaments have changed, but the muscles are still supple, the bones of it still straight and firm.

Once upon a time, I worked in an adolescent-specific chemical dependency treatment center. Ten months. Level 5 facility the next step, Level 6, is little more than an above-ground dungeon, with bunks in the oubliettes. The majority of our "clients" were sent to us by the state Department of Youth Corrections and the Child Welfare division of Human services, with a handful of lads and lassies whose tough-loving parents thought they had a Serious Dope Problem and needed this sort of attention-getter, that they might better appreciate their homes on South Padre Island.

None of the kids I worked with is ever going back they will, I hope, learn enough from that experience to order their lives so that they may avoid such institutions in the future; or they will go to Level 6. As devoutly as I hope for the former scenario, I suspect the latter has higher probability rating.

A few notes from that particular Purgatory: zip guns are old-hat it is faster and easier to get a piece off the street. The cost of living may have sky-rocketed, since 1954, but it seems the price of killing hasn't.

Switchblades, while entertaining to play with and handsome to see, are not exactly an effective preference on the street too hard to hide or lose, in the event that Los Patrons grip you and feel you up. Shivs and shanks are both cheaper to make and easier to find (and lose). For serious operations, I am given to understand that melon knives are very popular these little darlings, in case, God bless you, you haven't had occasion to know, look like a filet knife, only narrower, longer, and slightly curved. They have, typically, a handle like an awl or an ice pick (either of which, properly prepared, make handy substitutes). They are also sharper than anything going you don't want to try shaving with one of these things because they will open your face like a fourth-grader's Christmas present, no matter how steady you think your hands are. They are prized because you can open a lung and a couple chambers of the heart, and be a block and a half away before that joto hits the hot-top.

Did you know that you can sharpen the handle of a toothbrush sufficiently that it will crudely lobotomize any opponent? Were you aware that it is possible, and reasonably expedient, to put a cutting edge on a length of coat-hanger wire?

Have I mentioned that the boys I worked with were between twelve and seventeen years of age? Have you ever seen a matching set of puckered dimples, fore and aft, on a fourteen-year-old shoulder? Can you briefly imagine what it's like to sit overnight on suicide watch with a 15-year-old kid who got his HIV test results back that afternoon and didn't say, "Phew! What are they dishing out for supper tonight?"

I could go on; but I think we both prefer that I don't.

There are other surviving traditions. It is still accepted practice, among all the gang-members I talked to, for the rest of the guys to kick the walking-talking shit out of you, by way of initiation. Running a gamut of sharpened belt-buckles is nothing to sniff and titter over but it can be diverted (as Mr. Ellison did) with a little ingenuity, so it seems miles ahead of the nowtypical, all-at-once, crippling dog-pile currently employed.

Sex, too, remains a popular part of the initiation experience. It varies, from gang to gang some set you on one of their "bitches;" some set a mob of those "bitches" on the pledge in question; others leave the "bitches" out of it entirely, and just bend the new guy over while each "fraternal" takes his turn.

There is also a fair amount of "cutting" (scarification and/or tattooing) and bloodletting.

Some of the kids I worked with had a chance I could look into their eyes and see someone looking back. Sometimes, I even saw fear. Some of the others, though, they were the ones I knew were going on to the next level, Level 6, possibly directly from our facility. They rarely started fights, required very little in the way of crisis intervention. They were just waiting for the term to ride itself out.

Eventually, waiting became too much. They were ready to move on so they would "pop" and policemen would come, put them in handcuffs, and lead these 15- or 16-year-old vessels of brutality, these children, away to some cold, hard, brightly-lit, safe place, until the courts decided what to do with them.

More waiting.

I understand waiting.


In the second half of this book, Mr. Ellison relates his experiences during his first trip to the hoosegow. Not much has changed there, either, I'm afraid.

I have, only spent one night on the wrong side of the bars (though where I went, bars had been replaced by large, thick, plexiglass windows, with hurricane wire mesh laced through them).

This is how it happened:

Half past two in the morning, on 2 January, 1987, I was driving home after my first prowl of the New Year. I had just moved back to Dallas, Texas, still had my Oklahoma plates and license. I hadn't been drinking, or doping, or any of that nonsense; just looking for a little, um, intimate company.

Lights go on in my rearview mirror.

Apparently, one of my taillights had gone out (I later discovered that it wasn't out, just out of its socket and burning merrily in my trunk). The officer ran a check on my licence and found that I had four warrants out for my arrest, dating from 1985. I had written some checks, you see, thinking they were good. I know, that's what they all say; nonetheless, the grand total of my criminal haul came to under $25, an average of, say, $5.75 per check. Little did I realize how much that chocolate milk would eventually cost. It was a lot like how they finally collared Al Capone, don't you think?

The arresting officer was a right guy. I was a block and a half from my house, and, bless him, he let me drive my car home so I wouldn't have to cough up the impound fee. Then, he cuffed me, and we rode to the Dallas City Clink, me in the front seat, both of us talking about classical music. Nice guy.

He presented me for booking, and we parted company. He was the last nice guy I was to run into for the next eighteen hours.

Should you ever be so unfortunate as to take that vacation from the Land of the Living, all I can tell you is, you'll probably be okay, as long as you mind your own business and keep your right shoulder against the wall until directed otherwise. They don't really even look at you they keeps tabs, but they do not see you.

All that jolly stuff about "innocent until proven" is fine, but at that early stage everyone's in for the same thing: they got caught. You are there because you are guilty of getting caught, and they treat you accordingly. As long as you stay in line (and "HEY! Keep your right shoulder against the wall!"), you do not exist.

You do not exist. In the absence of outside windows, clocks and wristwatches (which was delivered up with your personals at the check-in desk), time does not exist. Let me explain that for you, if I can:

Perhaps, when you were young, very young, someone took you to a carnival or an amusement park. You wanted to go through the Fun House no, no, alone, like a big kid! And you went in, and it was weird and spooky and fun until you got to the mirror maze.

You stopped for an instant. Hesitated the slightest fraction of a moment. And you lost your way. You kept bumping into mirrors and windows, until it seemed you were trapped in a tall box.

And there was that moment. A moment between the panic and the tearful hysteria, a moment so small and so infinite that you could slip a dozen such moments into the duration of a snap of one's fingers, or a gunshot, or a breath drawn to fuel a scream.

In that moment, that nightmarish instant, you were outside of time. Everything stopped, no roar of silence, no thump of heartbeat, you could feel the fluid drying on your eyeballs, feel the tiny hairs at the back of your neck shift slightly in their follicles. Time has fled your scene, and you are caught in a sticky, bug-strip forever that you don't want.

That's time in the can: infinity in a tall, transparent box.

There's plenty to occupy one's mind, of course the freezing water in the shower; the indignity that they assume that you require delousing; the meaning behind the looks you get from your roommates while you contemplate whether you're really hungry enough to eat either of the days-old bologna sandwiches (with the red, plastic ring still on the "meat"); the ill fit of the white, cotton coveralls and the shower thongs that allegedly fit either foot, but don't.

And I assure you, when you can no longer force your body to wait, while you sit on that frosty, stainless-steel commode, you will give a certain amount of thought to who your friends are going to be, once they have you transferred to and settled in the County cooler.

I never saw a judge.

I discussed the price of a bail bond with a pleasant woman, after printing and mugging. I had access to a telephone, from which I could make only collect calls, so I could let people know where I was and didn't want to be. But no judge. No arraignment.

The checks were bad, so I was bad. We were all extremely naughty: we got caught.


So here is this book, MEMOS FROM PURGATORY. It is well written. No punches are pulled. It brims with emotion and objectivity, a difficult combination to achieve. As a book, it is without peer. But the truth of it, the being, the relevance and immediacy...well, it makes me very sad, and if you don't know why, perhaps you should read this review again, and watch the evening news and read your newspapers and open your eyes. Because as much as I would like to tell you that time has made this a grim faerie tale, it is even more valid today, more necessary.

CROSS & THE SWITCHBLADE, my ass. We still feed each other the Big Kielbasa.

There is this thing called the "cycle of abuse," and it refers to how abused children grow up to become abusive adults. The roles and results continue to perpetuate themselves. It's no different at the societal or community level. And, just as with the individual abusers, it just keeps on going until the abuser says "Holy shit, look at what I'm doing this has to stop!" and gets some help. More gasoline will not put out the fire; it will not burn itself out, because there seems to be no shortage of kindling; praying for rain hasn't seemed to accomplish much, either.

If this fire can be stopped at all, it's going to take more water than mere tears of grief, rage and regret can supply. It's going to take a bucket brigade. At least. And there are too many sick children with a jones for playing with matches.


Let's talk, for a minute, about Frankenstein and his creature.

Cause and effect.

Let's talk about results.

Because these empty-eyed, stony-hearted children aren't the problem. The mindless machines of government and law enforcement and the penal system are not the monsters.

We are.

That includes you. And you. And you, and you, and you. And, yes, some of the responsibility can be assigned to those kids and cops and guards, because they're part of us, too, by virtue of flesh, blood and spirit.

I'm a part of it too, so put those torches and pitchforks down.

Complaining about it isn't a bad thing. It's just another sort of signal from one's conscience that something's up, something's out of whack, and that something must be done. Our trouble is that we have fallen into the habit, a deadly, destructive habit, of expecting, indeed demanding, that someone else take care of the situation. But that's not how it works: the blows do not fall on someone else's body; the con-men and muggers do not take someone else's rent money; other people's children are not killing themselves and each other (with dope and bullets).

The eviction notice comes to you. The cuffs go on your wrists, the ink gets all over your fingers, those coveralls ride up the cleft of your buttocks, and when the tired, weak, Velcro closure (not zippers, or snaps; too expensive) ceases to do its job, it is your tender flesh that is exposed to over-refrigerated air, fluorescent lights, and the gentle eyes of your new best friends.

We build our children. We build them as much as we build our government and our institutions for the maintenance of order in our society. They are not perpetual motion machines, not self-cleaning ovens; they require care and maintenance and attention. They arrive among us as unfinished products physically complete, yes, but there's more to them than that. The body is the easy part the minds and hearts and spirits continue to grow, and they require food and light and exercise as much as the vessels that house them.

I have never met a juvenile delinquent who has read TREASURE ISLAND or SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. I have never met a child who thought he or she might dare to dream of better things that possessed that coldness behind their eyes.

We might call it "attention," or "quality time," or "a chance," but that seemingly elusive term we're looking for is "soul." And I have yet to meet a soulless child who would not create unspeakable mayhem to get one.

It is a thing that neither government nor law enforcement can rightfully provide because, currently, neither has one of its own. And the more people insist that such institutions possess or acquire one, the less likely it is that the situation will alter for the better. It's like trying to grip a handful of sand the more control and power we try to foist upon them, the more corrupt and soulless they become. Trust me on this as a former warder and assistant brain-washer, it is killingly dangerous to care about one's charges too deeply.

Our ills cannot be cured by a trip to the library, certainly. There is simply too much fuckery in the human spirit for that. What I suggest is that we give our children the gift of time, our time. Read to them, with them, go to movies with them, watch teevee with them, play games, or talk. Just talk not to them, but with them. I don't recall where I first heard this, or who said it, but, "Most stories go untold, not for lack of a teller, but for want of an understanding ear." "Talking with" demands "listening to."

Give them time, give them hope give them soul.

If you don't give them time while you are able, rest assured: the State will give them more time later on. That infinite moment. In a tall, transparent box

K.C. Locke
San Francisco, CA
January, 1998


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