I’ve been asked a great deal about the Cool Nation Trilogy, what it’s about, and how it came to land me a NY agent–although I wound up leaving him. Man, that’s a big question. Much easier to simply run excerpts, and let you all make your own assessments. So from here forth, as long as it fits, I will run a brief excerpt each Friday. All of these will be from the first of the three novels: Cool Nation. Each excerpt is titled. I hope you dig reading them as much as I dug writing them.
OLD KANSAS CITY
The grinding table had been built in a fenced lot in the West Bottoms, not far from the river, just beneath the high bluffs of the city. The two hundred or so acres of stock yards were in the bottoms also, with their reek of dung and blood and general putrescence. So were the main lines of the Santa Fe, the Burlington Northern, the Union Pacific. So too were a variety of warehouses, factories, vagrants asleep under bridges, small armies of rats. This was where the grinding table was.
Two men worked the table in the rain that night, one of them white, the other black. With pitchforks they fed the insulation scrap onto a conveyor belt, which carried the scrap into the grinder, which pulverized it into blowing wool, where it would later be used to insulate the houses of Mission Hills, Prairie Village, Leawood, and all other extensions of the post-war boom. Fine particles of fiberglass floated in the air, sticking to the faces and arms of the men and setting up an unbearable irritation that neither ever spoke of.
Although covered by a tin roof the grinding table was damp from the slant of the rain. So was the insulation. So were the men.
The white man forked enormous piles of fiberglass out of a semi-trailer that had been backed up to the table. These he pushed toward the black man, who with one foot on a side-shroud fed them onto the belt. The grinder was shrill and screaming and prevented any amount of discernible conversation. Nonetheless, for what was not the first time but what would be the last, the white man shouted in the black manï¿½s ear, ï¿½You ought not do that, Charlie.ï¿½
ï¿½Leave your foot there that way.ï¿½
ï¿½But Mr. McKenna, my footï¿½s sore. You know it is. It done got messed up in France. If I set it up like this it donï¿½t hurt so bad.ï¿½
The white man looked at the foot and at the rain-slicked shroud and the whining jaws of the grinder. Again he said, ï¿½You ought not to do it.ï¿½
Charlie Adams smiled. ï¿½You just feed me that insulation, Mr. McKenna. I feed it in. I always feeds it in.ï¿½
My father fed him another big pile, then jumped down to go to his ï¿½57 Nomad. There he poured coffee from a thermos for both of them. It was as he was capping the thermos that he heard the grinder jam and the hum of the electric motor at full stop and then the screaming. The screaming and the screaming and the screaming.
When he got to the table Charlie Adams was thrashing up and down the way a snake does when its back has been broken. His foot and ankle had disappeared into the grinder, and he was screaming the insane scream of those who know theyï¿½re going to die, or who at least wish they would.
My father shut off the motor and took a railroad bar and jammed the grinder wheels apart and pulled out what was left of the other manï¿½s leg. Charlie was whimpering now, his head cast back, he whimpering.
ï¿½My god, Mr. McKenna! My god!ï¿½
The blood poured onto the table as if from a spilt pitcher, soaking into the yellow insulation that was always everywhere. My father tied a tourniquet and swathed the leg in his shirt and, shirtless, carried Charlie to the Nomad and laid him in back, blood coming through the shirt now. Then like a madman my father drove.
He went first to St. Maryï¿½s, up on the hill by the Great War memorial, where in the glare of the little circle drive he brought one of the doctors out and the doctor looked in the car and saw Charlie and shook his head and said, ï¿½Iï¿½m sorry, buddy. We canï¿½t take him. You know we canï¿½t.ï¿½
My father took a step toward him and the doctor backed away, my father being very big and red-faced. ï¿½You will take him, you sonofabitch.”
The doctor looked over his shoulder at the two waiting orderlies. ï¿½Call the cops.ï¿½
Like a madman again my father drove, to Trinity, then to a hospital near the Plaza. Both turned him down. It was at that third hospital that he began to lose it, grabbing that last doctor by the arms and shaking him, as if trying to shake sense into something senseless.
ï¿½Goddamn you! Heï¿½s dying. Heï¿½s dying. What the hellï¿½s the matter with you people!ï¿½
The doctor pulled away. ï¿½Itï¿½s policy, buddy, and you damned well know it. Theyï¿½ve got their own hospitals. Go to one of theirs.ï¿½
But they didnï¿½t have, at least not in the same way, and the one that they did have was by now too far across the city.
In the wet black of the night my father screamed through the Country Club District, heading to the last hospital he could think of. Charlie now was semi-conscious, fading, never even having questioned why he had been turned away, probably knowing beforehand that he would be, and leaving my father to see for himself what he, Charlie, had known practically since birth.
It was Menorah in the end that took him, a dark-haired doctor with glasses and round features and a soft face coming out, glancing at the bloody mess in the back seat, then yelling for the orderlies to carry Charlie in, and after that telling a nurse to find a shirt for my father.
Yes it was the Jews who took him in. Of course it was the Jews. They understood what it was like to be excluded then (and sometimes even now). Some of those Jews, the ones recently moved to America from Europe with numbers tattooed on their forearms, even understood what it was like to face slaughter. Any of them who lived in Kansas City thenï¿½or Chicago or Atlanta or Bostonï¿½understood. Unfortunately there was nothing those Jewish doctors could do to save Charlieï¿½s leg, but they did at least save his life.
That was 1957, the year the 82nd Airborne escorted nine black kids past a mob of screaming whites and into a Little Rock high school; the year the Soviets sent Sputnik into space and another wave of reactionary fear through us; the year Elvis recorded ï¿½All Shook Upï¿½ and again appeared on Ed Sullivan, Ed having already told us that this boy was okay, okay, rock and roll was okay. It was also the year of my birth. This last event was of no consequence to anyone except my mother, for her reasons, and my father, for his, but the events surrounding it do I hope place it somewhat in perspective.
Anyway, into such a world I was born.