The Underbellyby Gary Phillips
Providing insight on homelessness, political corruption, and the potential effects of gentrification, this urban noir tells the tough story of Magrady, a semi-homeless Vietnam veteran in Los Angeles. As he searches for a friend who has gone missing from Skid Row and who may be involved in a dangerous scheme, Magrady must deal with take-no-prisoners community
Providing insight on homelessness, political corruption, and the potential effects of gentrification, this urban noir tells the tough story of Magrady, a semi-homeless Vietnam veteran in Los Angeles. As he searches for a friend who has gone missing from Skid Row and who may be involved in a dangerous scheme, Magrady must deal with take-no-prisoners community organizers, an unflinching cop from his past, frequent flashbacks of war, an elderly sexpot, the drug culture, and the perils of chili cheese fries at midnight. A rollicking interview with the author wherein he discusses ghetto literature, politics, noir and the proletariat, and the unknown future of books, is also included.
"Honesty, distinctive characters, absurdity, and good writing . . . are here in Phillips’s work." Washington Post
"Magrady's adventures, with a distinctive noir feeling and appreciation for comic books, started as a serialized mystery. An interview with Phillips enhances the package, offering a compelling perspective on race and class issues in South Central L.A." Booklist
Read an Excerpt
The Underbelly Plus
But I'm Gonna Put a Cat on You
By Gary Phillips
PM PressCopyright © 2010 Gary Phillips
All rights reserved.
"Who you supposed to be, old school?" Savoirfaire taunted, flexing his shoulders and shifting his weight onto his back foot. "Captain America don't live here no more."
"I'm telling you it's through," Magrady repeated calmly, eyes moving from the man's hands to his face, locking onto the faux-designer shades the discount desperado wore. "You and Floyd are done."
"You his father, older brother, somethin' like that?"
"You're missing the point, Flavor Flav," Magrady said. "My message is what you should be focusing on. Floyd Chambers is no longer on your loan list. No more vig off his SSI checks."
The two men stood on Wall, smack in the womb of L.A.'s Skid Row. Unlike the street's more notorious incarnation in Manhattan, the West Coast version didn't boast of edifices as testament to giddy capitalism. The bailout around here was of the cheap whiskey and crack rock variety, the meltdown a daily occurrence.
"Oh, uh-huh." The bottom-feeder nodded his head. "You lookin' to take over some of my territory, that it? Don't seem to me like you got enough weight between your legs to be doin' that, nephew. Don't appear to me you got enough left to run this block."
Several homeless people had stopped to watch the show. Both men were about the same height, roughly the same build. But where Magrady's face was lined and his whiskers grey, Savoirfaire's decades-younger features were untroubled and unblemished — the mask of the uncaring sociopath.
"We're done," Magrady said, beginning to step back and away from where the other man stood outside the open door of his Cadillac Escalade. A vehicle with twenty-two-inch gold spinners for rims. Incongruously, Sam Cooke played softly on the vehicle's sound system.
The thug was butter-smooth in whipping out his pruning knife. The blade was vectoring toward Magrady's neck by the time the Vietnam vet reacted, forearm up. The sharp crescent sunk into his sleeved arm.
"What you got to say now, negro?" Savoirfaire gritted his teeth, expecting to easily pull his weapon free while ripping flesh and sinew. But, having been forewarned by Chambers, Magrady had wrapped several layers of cardboard around his arms under his oversized flannel shirt. The knife was stuck.
As Savoirfaire tugged the blade loose, Magrady drove the heel of his work boot into the hoodlum's knee, eliciting a decisive crack. The asshole teetered and Magrady landed a straight left to his jaw. He plopped down heavily on the contoured seat of his ostentatious 'Lade, his sunglasses askew. Magrady swiftly slammed the door three times on Savoirfaire's shins, causing him to drop his knife.
Over the yelping, Magrady repeated, "It's done." He then sliced the hook knife into one of the Escalade's expensive sport tires. Magrady walked quickly away as it hissed flat and Savoirfaire screamed profanities but didn't come after the older man. There seemed to be a collective disappointment that eddied through the small crowd. The dustup over, the aimless now had to return to the crushing dreariness of surviving.
Making sure to move through the back routes, Magrady eventually made his way west on 6th Street. He hadn't been stupid enough to expect a rational discussion with the punk, yet had hoped it wouldn't come to violence. But really, why else had Chambers come to him seeking his help? He passed one of the specialty lunch trucks that were the fad these days in trendy areas. This one was called Goro-Ga and featured Korean-style bar-be-que beef tacos and chili dogs made from smoked andouille sausages, and those of other meats including rattlesnake. The truck would twitter when it was coming to a specific location. The aroma surrounding the mobile eatery was intoxicating but the line was too long, so Magrady pushed past. His friend was in the offices of Urban Advocacy near Union at 8th as had been arranged.
"How'd it go?" Floyd Chambers asked cheerily. His strong arms propelled him forward in his ergonomically designed wheelchair with its slanted-in wheels. A residual smell of some pungent marijuana was evident on the disabled man's clothes. Mr. Chambers did enjoy his weed.
"Great," Chambers bubbled.
"Cut it out," Janis Bonilla chided. Urban Advocacy's lead community organizer was twenty-eight, medium height, and honey-skinned, with several tats and piercings.
Magrady put his hands up. "It went like it went. You just stay off the Nickel for a few days and that chump's radar and everything's gravy, dig?"
"Don't worry about that," Chambers said. "If things work out like it's lining up, I'm on the ones and twos, homey." He popped a wheelie and spun in a tight circle on the coffee-stained carpet.
Magrady and Bonilla exchanged wan smiles. A month didn't go by when Chambers didn't hint at this or that scheme that was going to earn dividends.
Bonilla's cell chimed "Sambita" by the band Kinky. She answered. "Gotta bounce," she said after a quick back and forth over the phone. "We've got a big turnout happening in City Hall over the Emerald Shoals bullshit. Goddamn gala is in less than two weeks."
"The war goes on," Magrady said dryly.
"The offer's still good, champ," Bonilla said, packing files into her messenger bag. She'd asked him recently to consider being an organizer with UA. He'd been sober this time for eight months going.
"I'll sleep on it."
"Sure you will." To Chambers she added, "See you, Floyd."
"You tellin' it," Chambers replied enthusiastically. The three went their separate ways.
* * *
Past one a.m. in the flop he'd scored in his army buddy, Red Spencer's garage for the last few weeks, Magrady awoke with the night sweats, his heart thrumming in his ears. He reached for a bottle of whiskey that wasn't there. The jungle had gone hot and yellow in his head again. Booze. Coke. The meds. The group sessions off and on at various VA facilities. All of it had helped and hindered, but none of it stopped the gnawing from returning. He lay on his back on the couch unable to sleep. He clicked on the portable clock-radio nearby and listened to Art Laboe's oldies show.
He once again read through the homemade comic book on stapled and folded lined paper his son Luke had written and drawn when he was ten. It was the tale of Lionhead Mose, a black jet pilot ace who crash-landed in the African jungle, found the secret Ruby Eye stone, and gained super powers. He fought several villains in the thirty-page epic, aided by his sidekick Roy Boy. Magrady, who hadn't seen the comic book in decades, was surprised to find it in the box of stuff he was storing in the garage.
After enjoying the titanic climactic battle Lionhead has atop the Mountain of the Moon against Cobra Fang, he closed his eyes and tried to drift away, suspended between his nightmares and songs by the likes of Thee Midniters and Bloodstone on the radio. An imitation of sleep finally returned as William DeVaughn sang "Just Be Thankful for What You Got."
"I'd be thankful if I had any shit," Magrady mumbled as calmness descended on him and his mind went blank.
Two days later, a black and white jumped the curb in front of Magrady, and the uniform on the passenger side beckoned him over with a motion of his T-handled baton. The cops ferried him to what had been the Greyhound bus station on 5th and Los Angeles Streets. Inside, amongst the luggage and electronic gadget shops, the LAPD had encamped their Skid Row detail. The cops and the denizens called them the Nickel Squad, as 5th bisected Skid Row.
"How you doin', sarge?" Captain Loren Stover had the haunch of his lanky frame resting on an industrial desk, gym-pumped arms folded. His hair had long since departed the top of his head. His office had no windows and the only adornment was a large map of Oregon displaying old bus routes in faded red on one wall.
Irritably Magrady said, "Surely you must have something better to do with your oh-so-valuable time." When he'd last seen Stover, Magrady had been lying on the sidewalk in front of the Watchtower bar. The side of his head was soggy from where it had contacted the concrete after being chucked out of the dive. And there was the captain, all grins and eyes shiny like he was high on the Buddha, the tip of his spit-shined shoes poking the wasted one-time non-com.
The police captain pleasantly asked, "Why'd you do it, sarge, why'd you kill Jeff Curray?"
It took Magrady a beat to realize Curray was Savoirfaire. "I didn't kill him. I defended myself."
"Yeah?" Stover began, getting off his desk. "Well somebody broke his arm in two places, caved in his sternum, then pounded his skull flat like a landing strip at his crib in Ladera Heights. Coroner figures it was a heavy-duty pry bar that some bughouse butthead wielded on the unfortunate." No matter who the deceased was, a pious nun or pederast, Stover referred to those dead by homicide as "unfortunates."
"Bit out of your jurisdiction, isn't it?"
"Savoirfaire had his loan shark and dope hustle on from Inglewood to here. But you're my person of interest." Stover grinned and poked a finger at Magrady. "My theory is after your public altercation, you went away to toast your victory and holed up with some crack ho skank. Sexed up and blitzed out, you got the bright idea you'd better do Curray before he did you."
Magrady was inclined not to argue. What good would it do? He knew Stover was going to remand him to central booking, if for no other reason than because he wouldn't let go of the past.
"When the hell are you going to get over it, Stover?" Magrady said anyway. "It's been so many miserable decades ago, man. We were all just a bunch of scared kids, for God's sake. Kids playing GI Joe."
For a brief moment, glaring at each other, they were transported back to that bubble of time, seconds before that hellacious firefight in that no-name village off the banks of the Drang River. Magrady the green sergeant, Stover the corporal, and his hometown buddy Mike Niles among the other privates in the recon. Mike who Magrady ordered on point that day, and who caught the first VC round, the high-caliber burst turning his brains to spray.
But that flushed away like pissed-out cheap gin as Stover leaned a sneering face into his. "Have a good time in lock-up, sarge. Too bad you screwed up your life and don't have a family or your business partners anymore, huh? Can't hold your liquor. Can't hold onto your woman or the respect of your children."
"Kiss my black ass," Magrady said, getting closer, teeth clenched.
"Don't worry, there'll be plenty where you're going who'll do that for you, honey."
Both breathed hard, each ready to lash out at the other. The door opened. "Get him out of here," Stover seethed to the patrolman, "Get him the hell away from me."
Sixteen hours later, Bonilla arranged for Gordon Walters, a public interest lawyer from Legal Resources and Services of Greater Los Angeles who knew Magrady, to spring him from the Twin Towers jail facility.
"Thanks, Gordy," Magrady said shaking his friend's hand, the large envelope with his possessions tucked under one arm. They stood in front of the facility on the ten acres of the jail grounds, as tatted vatos and pretty girls in low-rise jeans with eyeliner on thick as spackle handed out color postcards advertising the various bail bond services located nearby on Cesar Chavez or Vignes to the steady stream of mostly women and children 7coming in and out for visits.
"So far there is no physical evidence and no eyewitness connecting you to Savoirfaire's murder, but of course the investigation is ongoing," Walters informed Magrady.
"Spoken like a true lawyer."
Walters, a handsome walnut-hued man who stood two inches taller than Magrady smiled. "I'm not suggesting you did it, Em."
"But you wouldn't be surprised if I did."
The lawyer clapped him on his bicep. "I'm supposed to run you over to the UA office. Janis wants to see you."
Walters dropped him off, and Magrady and Bonilla went to lunch.
"Floyd's gone missing," Bonilla said, as she and Magrady shared lunch at the Bent Clock on San Pedro after he'd taken the downtown Dash bus to the location.
"You think he's on the run?" Magrady munched on his couscous. If there was any benefit to the gentrification of downtown, where sweatshops converted to lofts and General Relief recipients and the working poor were being squeezed out, at least the caliber of eateries had improved.
She hunched a shoulder. "The day after your run-in with Savoirfaire, Floyd's Section 8 apartment came through. I reached him on his cell and he was, like, nonchalant."
"Still hinting about his big deal?"
"I guess. Anyway I kinda got angry. We'd managed to help him get the damn voucher in less than two years." They both knew of people waiting more than eight years to obtain the designation considering the obtuse Soviet-style bureaucracy of the housing department. Bonilla added, "So he never came in to get the paperwork, and now his cell is disconnected."
He chewed some more as he considered this. "It's not like Floyd could get the drop on Savoirfaire."
"Because he's in a wheelchair?"
"I know I'm not being all PC and whatnot, Janis, but come on, that mufu wasn't no pushover."
She swallowed some of her smoked salmon and eggs and observed, "A would-be player like Savoirfaire might let his guard down around a handicapped man."
"Stover said Curray's head was bashed in. That would mean he'd have leaned down and let Floyd wail on him."
"He could have sucker-punched him in the gut and when he doubled over, bip," she brought her fist down fast like she was holding a club.
Magrady chided, "Sure, slugger."
The younger woman made a face at him and they chuckled.
After lunch he used Bonilla's cell to make a call, then walked over to the Chesapeake, one of the few remaining Single Room Occupancies in the area. He passed the Weingart Center on San Pedro at 5th Street, a multi-purpose facility serving the homeless. Magrady recalled something he'd read in Holy Land, both a memoir and an accounting of how the suburb of Lakewood, about sixteen miles from downtown, was developed. The book was written by its native son, Don Waldie.
Ben Weingart was a Jewish orphan named Weingarten. He was raised by Christian Scientists in the South. He left school in the third grade and would go on to make his money in real estate, helping to build Lakewood along the way.
According to his nurse who also became his lover, Weingart didn't read much save the classifieds to see how his rentals were doing. Where the Center was now had once been a hotel he'd owned called the El Rey which back then had come to be trafficked by prostitutes.
There was hope to be found in that, Magrady reflected. We could all make something out of nothing. After lunch he paid a quarter and took another Dash bus to the Chesapeake. He went up the narrow stairwell to the second-floor landing where the entrance was. A security mesh screen door blocked his way. Magrady put his eye to the mail slot. Asher, the one-armed desk clerk, looked from the doorway back to the older lady doused in perfume standing next to his desk counter. She wore a thirty-year-old cocktail dress that fit her like she'd just come off the runway. "No hanky-panky," Asher advised Angie Baine, the one standing next to his counter. He waved his prosthetic pincers.
"No, baby," the seventy-four-year-old former actress assured him. Her skin was leathery from years of imbibing, but still a kind of haunted glamour radiated from her. "He's here to fix my dresser. You know how handy Magrady is."
Asher made a disagreeing sound in his throat but buzzed Magrady inside. In one of Baine's two tiny rooms, Magrady went through the three cardboard boxes Floyd Chambers had left with her. Among the items, such as a crockpot and the Best of the O'Jays CD box set, was a brochure from the archeology department at the University of Southern California and some flavored blunt wrap papers.
"What'd you find?" Baine asked, looking over his shoulder, whiskey fumes palpable. She twisted the cap open on the short dog of Jack and had a healthy sample. Magrady had declined a taste. On the dresser near them, alongside her outdated cell phone, was a glamour shot of the ex-bombshell from nearly fifty years ago. She'd had reasonable parts in two Sam Fuller films, The Crimson Kimono and Shock Corridor, co-starred in several drive-in second billers in the '60s and early '70s, and even had some guest star work on old shows like The Big Valley and the original Fugitive.
Magrady held a magnetic swipe card with a familiar logo on it. "You recognize this?" he asked her, indicating the stylized lettering on the mag card.
"Nope. But you can worry about that later, hot stuff." Baine was sitting on the bed, legs crossed, patting the spread.
"There's no time for that now," Magrady pleaded.
"I didn't have to let you in when you called, big daddy." She removed her uppers and winked theatrically.
"Lord have mercy," Magrady grumbled. But he did his duty.
"Why do you care where Floyd's gotten to?" Angie Baine snuggled closer, kissing Magrady on the neck. "You don't plan to turn him over to the fuzz do you?"
He chuckled, kissing her lightly on the lips. "It's not like that, Angie. I just, well, shit, I just don't want to be sitting around waiting for more liver spots to appear."
"I know the feeling."
He took her in his arms and squeezed.
Excerpted from The Underbelly Plus by Gary Phillips. Copyright © 2010 Gary Phillips. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Gary Phillips is the author of Bangers, The Jook, and Violent Spring. He is a former union representative and south central Los Angeles community organizer. He lives in Los Angeles.
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