The Summer I Got My Union Card

The old Greyhound terminal at 6th and Los Angeles streets in downtown L.A..
The old terminal at 6th and Los Angeles streets.

WHEN I WENT to work unloading buses at the Greyhound terminal in downtown Los Angeles, there were a few guys from the average white Christian suburbs outside the city who didn’t like me. I overheard one of them muttering to one of his buddies, “I hate guys like that.” What kind of guy was I? A verbal guy, a knowledgeable guy, a witty guy, an urbanite. (I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and leave out “Jewish.”) A guy who they could see was out of place unloading buses at Greyhound. The foreman was one of them, a real redneck named Pete who loved playing the cock of the walk. Once when we were all sitting on the low railings at the unloading docks waiting for the next bus, he told us about a fight where he’d taken a tire iron to somebody’s leg and left it dangling unhinged from the knee. He described this with a toothy, ghastly grin, and his boys listened with dutiful admiration. One night Pete brought his date into the hangar where we worked, a vast, high-ceilinged, noisy, greasy, exhaust-fumed expanse, not a terribly romantic place to bring a date, but these Middle American jackasses came through for the boss. “Hey, Pete, how’re you doing, looking sharp, man …” and he just grinned and let his date presumably be impressed. He was a mean bantam rooster, and I was not his kind. Once I was five minutes late getting back from lunch break, which was standard for the unloaders, and I’m sitting on a bench in the terminal and I hear over the PA system, “Larry Derfner, report to door 11 immediately,” and it sounded like an emergency, so I hurried in, and Pete, waiting at the door, says to me, accusingly, “You’re supposed to be back at 8:30, where you been?” California cracker asshole.

This was in the early ‘70s, I was 22, and it was the first real job I’d ever had. Since pre-adolescence I’d worked at my father’s liquor store, which didn’t count, and later at a hot dog stand and briefly at a delicatessen, but those jobs were more or less for minimum wage so they didn’t count, either. Greyhound paid good money, it was a union job and not just any union, but the legendary International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union: “On the Waterfront,” strikers fighting cops, 1930s working-man socialists and communists, my idea of heaven. My ideal self. (That I couldn’t stand the actual white working-class guys right next to me didn’t disturb the image.) My father had been a communist in the 1920s and 1930s, gotten thrown in jail for it in Palestine and Poland, I’d come of age in the 1960s reading Steinbeck and James T. Farrell, but meanwhile my father had made good money at his liquor store in the black ghetto, moved us out to comfortable middle-class West L.A., and so I grew up not as a working-class kid, but as a cushioned kid, which I despised and regretted like nothing else. I’d hated college and dropped out the year before, decided I wanted to be an actor, but I was still working at my father’s liquor store – much longer than I’d ever thought I would. A close friend with a socioeconomic and psychological profile very similar to mine told me they were hiring at Greyhound, and we both got on, temporarily at first. Once he said to me how he and the other workers “sit around bullshittin’ when it’s slow,” with a smile that betrayed his glee at playing the role of the stereotypical working man – while getting paid like a real one – and likewise escaping his middle-class, educated, cushioned self. I didn’t smile back at him, though. This was something we were not supposed to mention.

The work was mindless, but that was fine – I was using my body pretty much to the maximum, tossing suitcases and heavy boxes around for eight or 12 hours a day. At worst, my lungs would burn a little at the end of a shift from breathing exhaust (on top of smoking a pack or so of cigarettes). After that first two-week Christmas trial period, I hired on for the following summer. Pete was gone, the other few white shitheads were gone, and I got along very well with everyone. I felt completely at ease. We all worked hard, except for one Mexican self-described “intellectual,” whom everyone held in contempt, including the two other Mexican unloaders, who worked like maniacs. Until then I’d always worked behind a counter or stocked shelves, using neither my mind nor my body. The shifts at Greyhound left me feeling spent, and feeling good about myself. Plus, the money was great. Also, I’d gotten the job on my own, and kept it. My father was impressed.  I’d always hated working at the liquor store and didn’t try to hide it. “This time it’s different,” he said to me.

THE HANGAR AT Greyhound was a man’s world. The only women around were the passengers who got off the buses, and the pretty ones naturally became the objects of our jokes and boasting, strictly among ourselves. (Occasionally we’d flirt with them, but I never saw anyone score.) For the most part, we talked like men do when they’re on a crew doing hard physical work out in the open with no boss sitting on top of them: We all acted like macho men to one degree or another. One night an assistant terminal manager, a black guy named Ed, came over and drew a crowd of us around him as he described what he did after his little daughter got raped by some 13-year-old boy in the neighborhood. “I went over to his house and told his folks that when I find him, I’m gonna kill him. Went home, got my shotgun, got in my car, and I see him walking around. I got out of my car,” he said, and mimed aiming a rifle. “Boom, boom, and that was it for that motherfucker. Killed his ass. Didn’t do a day in jail, either.” I was a little taken aback – the kid was 13 years old, after all. Ed didn’t seem too upset about his little daughter getting raped, either, he was just bragging about how he’d taken revenge. (Now that I think of it, he probably was lying. He didn’t do a day in jail? And he just kind of drops that story on us out of nowhere? Ed got fired later on for stealing, which puts his credibility all the more in doubt.) But I wasn’t going to voice any reservations in that crowd. There was one real intellectual among us, a junior college instructor with a master’s degree – and a daughter – making some extra money on the side. “I would have done the same thing,” he said. “Anybody touches my little girl, I’ll blow him away.” This was how we talked on the job.

Another time we were all sitting around on the railing listening to two black workers engaged in a seemingly mild session of what black people used to call “the dozens” and the Sopranos called “breaking balls.” Some of the spectators were laughing and calling out when one of the jousters got off a good line. I was sitting next to my best friend at work, a 30-year-old black dude named Bill, who was joining in the chorus, egging the two on. I quietly told Bill to cool it, and pointed to the older, thinner one in the ring, and said he was about to go off, and you didn’t want to become one of his targets if and when he did. Bill glanced at me, not understanding, and turned back to the match. In a couple of minutes, the older, thinner guy pulled a knife out of his pocket, opened it up and threatened his opponent. The game was over, everyone dispersed, and Bill said to me with wonder, “How did you know that dude was going to get crazy?” I told him the guy was losing and he knew it, he was getting humiliated in front of a hooting crowd, and that’s a combustible situation. “Larry, man,” said Bill in his high-pitched, uproarious voice, “you are the most streetwise white boy I’ve ever seen,” which to this day remains one of my most cherished compliments.

Bill was a charismatic, silver-tongued, brilliant, funny guy, the center of attention at all times among the crew. He’d studied political science at UCLA, but was also a dedicated hustler of older women with money, and his success was a testament to his personality, because from the waist up he looked like Oliver Hardy. Any woman he wasn’t impressed with, or who was clearly out of his league, was a “fly-drawin’ bitch.” At one point he decided that “Bill” was too common a name, he wanted something with a classier sound, so he told everybody to start calling him Charles. Then he wanted to go for something more exotic, so he announced that from now on his name was Ahmad Ishmael. He didn’t drink, smoke or take drugs; his vice was gluttony. “I like to greaze,” he explained. He worked hard most of the time, sometimes crazily hard; he was 6’3,” strong and athletic despite his upper chubbiness, and when he wanted to, he could pretty much clean out a bus loaded with baggage all by himself in the time it would take three guys. When these fits of productivity seized him, he’d get motivational with me, saying, “Get involved, Larry Derfner, get involved!” He had one additional vice – money, which was emphatically not one of mine, so he tried to set me straight: “You got to start hanging around rich women, Larry, and the way to start hanging around rich women is to stop hanging around poor ones.” Once, in connection with my indifference to wealth, he told me, “You’re just a jack Jew.” My ears pricked up and I asked what he meant. “You’re just playing at it,” he said, grinning, and I had to laugh. One late night after work, we sat in the car and he went into a long monologue about racism in America, about what it had done to black people, and I was transfixed; he was gifted, inspiring. Another time a few of us were sitting in a bus, playing a genuinely friendly, harmless game of the dozens, and Bill told somebody, “Man, you look like you been whupped with a sack of quarters.”

There was another black guy I was friends with, Claude, who was a couple of years older than me, had a master’s degree in public administration and clearly a big future ahead of him. An evangelist about Jesus Christ and body-building, he was the nicest, squarest, steadiest, hardest-working guy you could find. We used to do Richard Pryor bits together. Yes, I had a special affinity for black people, going back to my childhood, which is another story, and which went together with my hazy notion of what I was doing and who I was becoming by working at Greyhound.

THE BUS TERMINAL was at Sixth and Los Angeles streets, a block from the heart of Skid Row. The passengers waiting on the benches in the harshly-lit, drab lobby and getting off the buses pulling into the hangar were mainly poor people, many of them Mexican. (The main exceptions were the Japanese tourists, with their conspicuously sparkling luggage.) I was the only guy on the crew who spoke enough Spanish to have a conversation with the two Mexican workers (not counting the “intellectual,” whom nobody talked to, and who quit soon enough), which I was proud of and which earned me a few status points. Of the two Mexicans, the insanely hard worker rarely said a word, while the other, merely extremely hard worker limited his conversation with the others to “mucho trabajo.” (Bill naturally started calling him “Mucho Trabajo.”)

We were masters of our domain. Like I said, nobody was watching over us, at least not closely; we could shout, curse, spar and honk with laughter as much and as loud as we wanted. The hangar was so immense that the noise we made echoed. We were free men, hard at work. Unloading buses had a rhythm – when they were pulling in one after another, you couldn’t wait to tear into one and get all the suitcases and boxes onto the carts and into the sorting room, then tear into the next one, then the next. We competed with ourselves to see how fast we could get them unloaded. But that’s when they were streaming in rapidly; when traffic was slow, you’d sort of sink down into the railing, get comfortable and then curse when you heard the sound of another bus coming up the ramp. The greatest day I remember at Greyhound was when the NFL playoffs were on TV, and it was a holiday, which meant there was both very little traffic and time-and-half pay. George, an ordinarily by-the-book assistant terminal manager, came over to the unloading docks and told a couple of us to stay there and mind the store while the rest of us went into the maintenance room to watch the games on a portable TV. At half-time the guys out working would switch with a couple of us in the maintenance room. That day I watched 1½ NFL playoff games and got paid very well for it.

But as free and open as it was unloading buses, there was another job in the hangar that was death: the sorting room. This department was run by Eddie House, a black man of about 60 who’d been working at Greyhound forever and who never talked, only screamed and cursed hoarsely. Actually it was kind of a yowl. Where should I put this package, Eddie? “Put it over there in that Riverside cart, goddamn it,” he’d yowl, storming past you. Nobody took it personally, and everybody, black, white and brown, imitated him behind his back. But Eddie wasn’t the problem in the sorting room, the problem was the work. You stood in one spot in front of a line of conveyor belts coming at you with packages, and you took the packages off one by one and tossed them into the carts standing next to you, one cart for Los Angeles addresses, another for Riverside/San Bernardino, another for Ventura, another for Chicago and so on. You stood there in one place taking packages off belts and throwing them into carts for two hours at a time, with lunch and two breaks per shift. They sent me in there one day and after two hours, I went up to Eddie and told him I couldn’t handle it, I was going crazy, I had to get out of there and go back to unloading. “Then go on, get the motherfuck out of here,” he yowled, and I almost swooned with gratitude.

Being master of your domain, though, can lead to what the late Senator J. William Fulbright called the “arrogance of power.” We saw the words “handle with care” written on packages, often in capital letters, underlined, with multiple exclamation points, sometimes augmented by the word “Please” and even “Of Sentimental Value.” Yeah, well, we didn’t go out of our way to bang those packages up worse than usual when we dragged them out of the belly of the bus and flung them into the carts, but believe me, we did not handle a damn thing with care. Myself, I took a perverse, mildly sadistic pleasure at treating those packages marked with pleas for mercy in exactly the same swinging, swaggering, concussive, rackety, chimpanzee manner as I did every other.

The worst thing I ever did at Greyhound: During Christmas season, people would send small, brandied Christmas cakes with nuts and raisins in them, packed to stay fresh and moist. During a slow stretch, a couple of guys took a pair of Christmas cakes out of the baggage hold of a bus, kicked back and ate them. Those gifts would not be arriving at their destinations for the holiday. I was sitting with the two guys, and they urged me to take one for myself, and I begged off. But when you’re working with men in a rough environment, you don’t feel comfortable when they’re breaking the rules and you’re playing Dudley Do-Right. Also, I love Christmas cake. So I pulled back the edge of a package and took a little piece. Then another, and then fuck it, I ate the whole thing and threw the package away. I have a friend, Catholic born, who loves Christmas and makes an amazing Christmas cake every year; I told him that story and he gave me a look like Karl Malden gives Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront” for betraying his conscience and going along with the mob.

I WORKED AT Greyhound for a total of four months – two Christmas vacations and a summer, and in the summer I got my union card. I was thrilled. It gave me a feeling of security, and of solidity; I felt like a man. I wasn’t sure, but I was thinking that maybe I could work at Greyhound until I made it as an actor, or a writer. One day at the unloading docks, somebody mentioned a guy named Horace, and a couple of other guys kind of smiled, and I asked who he was. “You don’t know Horace? Oh, you should meet him, you’ll have a lot to talk about – well, he’ll have a lot to talk about, at least.” “Yeah, when he starts talking …” Horace, they said, was a Jehovah’s Witness who worked in the sorting room. I naturally had to meet him, so the next day or so I went up to him, introduced myself and asked why he’d become a Jehovah’s Witness. He was older than me, late 30s, and black. He must have seen a glint of mischief in my eye – another unbeliever who wants to come meet the freak – and he gave me a very flat, serious look. Answering my question, he didn’t talk about religion, he talked about life, a person’s life, what he wants to do with it. “Like you,” he said. “I can take one look in your eyes and see that you’re not going to be working here much longer.” Touche, Horace.

What did he see in my eyes? Intelligence, too much for me to be unloading buses for a career. Maybe sensitivity. Maybe innocence. Maybe a basic sense of well-being, a fundamental, unthinking trust that everything will work out for me, that even if I fall, somebody or something will be there to catch me. No, I wouldn’t be working at Greyhound much longer. Later I would lose that innocence, and realize that I really could fall – for good, beyond anybody’s ability to catch me – and I decided to take my intelligence and do something with it. I’d always regretted that my father had worked his way into the middle class, always wished I’d grown up poor so I’d have to struggle like he did, and when I finally did have to struggle – when I reached my late 20s, saw I was nowhere and that ultimately there was no net underneath me – I fled, terrified, from a future in anyplace like the unloading docks at Greyhound.

I have some highly enjoyable memories of my time there. It also showed me something about the world and its people that you don’t see from inside the bosom of the educated middle class. And I love being able to say I once unloaded buses at the Greyhound terminal on Skid Row in downtown L.A. – it impresses the chattering classes. A lot of the times, it even fools me.

Thank You, Jesus

IT WAS DARK inside Phillips Temple C.M.E. (Colored Methodist Episcopal) Church, except for the light coming from the stage. The church, in the black part of Berkeley, had previously been one of those cavernous old movie theaters. It seated 1,500 people and on this Easter Day, 1972, it looked full. The pianist was alone onstage, pounding out the opening with those glistening, ravishing gospel chords. In a little while we started singing, wordlessly and low – over a hundred of us standing in the lobby that late morning, ready to enter the church’s dark interior. “Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooooh-ooh-oooooooh … ooh-ooh-ooh-ooooh-ooh-oooooooh …” We were three gospel choirs massed as one – two all-black church choirs, and California State University at Hayward’s Afro-American Ensemble, which included a smattering of whites, including me.

The crowd could hear us inside, of course – that was the point, to build up the anticipation, the drama. We made them wait, and then, after the pianist signaled loudly and urgently on the keyboard, we came in, one by one, through the curtains at the back, starting up the aisles in a slow, rhythmic march, singing full out, “We’ve come to pra-a-aise his na-a-a-a-me! We’ve come to pra-a-aise his na-a-a-a-me!” Over and over, until we all made it to the stage and onto the risers. People in the audience were getting up out of their seats, applauding and calling out. Some of those near the aisles turned around to see us, shouting encouragement and reaching out to pat our arms and squeeze our hands as we went by. Choir and congregation together, we filled that great, dark space with glory.

In my mind I still often sing that song, and still replay that scene, 45 years later. I’m an aged Jewish dad living in an Israeli suburb, and on my way to and from work I’m likely to be going crazy in the driver’s seat listening to The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, or the O’Neal Twins, or the Abyssinian Baptist Church Choir or whoever. I love all kinds of music but nothing gets in my blood like gospel. White gospel is gorgeous, too, but black gospel is the ultimate. I don’t think I was aware of that when I joined the college choir; R&B had always been my favorite music, I grew up on Motown and it went on from there, and I knew, of course, that all the great soul singers came out of the church, and that gospel was the source of their music. But I didn’t go out of my way to listen to gospel, and I certainly didn’t know what it was like to sing in a gospel choir.

It turned out to be not just a musical experience. I also saw people giving themselves to a freedom, an abandon, a wild ecstasy that I’d never known, and that still has a pull on me. I never joined a cult in the ‘70s, but I couldn’t help feeling some envy for those people who, as the saying went, seemed to be high on life, whose minds had reached a freer, certainly more joyous plateau than mine. I just couldn’t cut the rope; I couldn’t surrender my independence of mind, and didn’t want to. It was the same thing with gospel in this way – I had no desire to become a Christian, I just loved the music, and so I had no problem singing about Jesus because I knew I wasn’t going to “get the spirit” and lose control. But in those churches I saw people losing control, and I wanted that to happen to me, too, or at least something close to it – just without the Jesus part.

Then there was my lifelong affinity for black people. Part love, part adulation, part pity. I’d gone to school with them, played ball with them, fought and laughed with them, worked with them, known some of them very well, but ultimately I’d lived in a white, notably Jewish, America, apart from theirs. In culture and style, they were magic. I’d always wanted to get closer to them – but I’d also wanted to go on being who I was.

IN THE CHURCHES and halls where we sang I saw people screaming and crying, writhing on the ground.  Once, when I was watching a choir from the audience, a song ended as they often did, with the energy cranked up so high that nobody could bear for it to end, so the music just kept going, the singers no longer singing but shouting, the piano player bashing the chords with all his strength, people in the audience falling out – and at one point the men’s section of the choir shuffled off the risers, their feet moving incomprehensibly, inhumanly fast. Their feet were moving something like mine do in my happiest of dreams, the ones where I find myself gliding down a staircase or escalator with a freedom and grace that I have known only in my sleep. There was one white guy among them and he went off the risers self-consciously in little clumping steps in time with the music; there was no way he could do that otherworldly shuffling thing. How could he? He wasn’t raised in a black gospel church.

In our college choir there were six whites and one Japanese-American along with about 20 blacks. The early ‘70s were a time of black militancy, but not at nondescript, vibeless Cal State Hayward. There was no black-white tension on campus, and so none in the Afro-American Ensemble. But then it wasn’t just the campus; it was also the particular black students in the choir: Nearly all had grown up in the church and many were still in it, so they were not likely to be black militants and tended to be very good-natured, friendly people (though by no means goody two-shoes types). I never felt a trace of antagonism from any of them because I was white; the pecking order in the choir was based only on musical talent, with Gregory Green at the top, in a class by himself, then Johnny, then Linda (more about them later), then the other soloists, then everybody else, including me.

What brought us six whites and one Asian to the choir? Two of the girls, as far as I knew, just liked the music and probably saw it as an exciting, exotic experience, which is basically what drew me. One guy was a recent exile from a Christian monastery looking for a new spiritual route. The Japanese-American boy was a piano player and singer, and in with the choir leaders. Then there was the fellow who’d gone clumping off the risers; it seemed the main if not only reason he was there was to look after his wife Linda, who was another story altogether.

A Christian like her husband, she was a soloist in our choir as well as in the Voices of Christ, both of which were directed by Helen Stephens, one of the leading lights in the history of Northern California gospel. Linda was an extraordinary singer, and blind. She sang as simply as could be, right on the beat, not changing or adding a note, no improvisation, just singing it straight every time – and once her singing literally made me shiver, which I can’t remember any other music ever accomplishing. She had a thin soprano that sounded fragile, yet didn’t break. Her voice had purity and innocence – and she killed audiences, black and white. Okay, maybe she got a point or two for blindness, but it can’t be we were all just imagining that tenderness and vulnerability, that beauty, and reacting the way we did because she was blind. The proof was on the Voices of Christ’s second album, “Fill My Cup,” with Linda singing the title song as evocatively as ever, and on record you didn’t know she was blind. I don’t know where she was from, but she sang “white,” musically and verbally, in a completely black musical setting, and there was no problem, no clash of styles at all. Her singing was so pure I think it would have fit in anywhere.

But a couple of years later I heard the Voices of Christ’s third album, “I’m Glad,” again with Linda singing the title song – and it was a disaster. Suddenly she was trying to sing black. She was playing around with the melody, she put a bit of the South into her pronunciation, she was trying to wail, she threw in “yes he did” a few times – and it was so inauthentic. She was trying to give the impression of being spontaneous, of surrendering to the freedom of the black way of singing – and every trill and every “yes he did” sounded rehearsed. Was this her idea? I can’t believe it was Mrs. Stephens’ idea; she was too serious, she had no tolerance for gimmicks and nonsense. But for whatever reason, Linda, the most real singer you could ever hear, started singing like an imitation black person. She couldn’t be herself, couldn’t stay herself, in that surrounding. Not even Linda.

NEITHER COULD TIM, the Japanese-American boy. He’d be rehearsing his solo with the choir and start wailing “oh lawd,” and it was just wrong. He’d get into the song and start carrying on at the microphone like Mick Jagger or somebody, and Mrs. Stephens would have to stop him – gospel singers, certainly hers, sang it very upright and dignified.

The ex-monk, whose name I forget, was about the squarest young man in the San Francisco Bay Area of the early ‘70s – short hair, straight-legged pants, a placid smile always on his plain-featured face, a perpetually pleasant, earnest man in his 30s starting over, trying to find his way, and he’d come looking in the Afro-American Ensemble. At first he tried to convert me to Christianity – he’d tell me what was coming over him, how in all those years as a monk he’d had to keep his vow of silence, and now he felt like a baby learning to talk, he was becoming a whole new person, a Christian in a way he’d never been before,  he was discovering joy. After awhile, though, he changed. He’d attached himself to some of the young black people in the choir, and it turns out they were very cynical about religion, the church and its leaders – and the ex-monk adopted their attitudes and language. Now he no longer believed in Jesus or any other God. He denigrated the black preachers as phonies or “fags.” He’d begun to curse. One day he told me with that glowing smile of his that “nobody loves their children like a black man.” All right. So the ex-monk bit the dust, too – like me, he was drawn to this world because of its unsurpassed beauty and freedom, but ultimately he had to erase himself, or felt he did, to become a part of it.

Where was I in all this? I was one of the hoi polloi, a baritone with a pretty good voice, but that was it. My moment of glory came when Mrs. Stephens asked me to sing a couple of bars to see if I was getting it right, and I sang, and one of the black girls said, “Ooh, you’ve got a pretty voice.” Once I somehow got the crazy idea to suggest to Gregory Green, in passing, that I’d like to do a solo some time, maybe “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” the “Negro national anthem.” We were standing in a school rest room and as I recall, he smiled and said, “Yeah, that’d be great,” and headed out the door.

As for the spiritual or emotional side of gospel singing, I have to admit I was very pleased when, during the time he was trying to convert me, the ex-monk said he could see from the expression on my face that I was being carried away up there in the choir, and so why not take one more step and accept Christ? A couple of my friends who came to one of the concerts said the same thing – not about accepting Christ, but about the visible effect the music was having on me while I sang. All right, so I wasn’t Sam Cooke, but I wasn’t a completely hopeless, stiff-assed white boy, either; I did have at least a little bit of soul.

OUR COLLEGE CHOIR wasn’t as good as the Voices of Christ, who had about twice as many singers as we did (and who, as far as I’m concerned, were even better than the Southern California Community Choir, which was the headliner at that Easter concert I described, and was chosen by Aretha Franklin as the choir for her legendary “Amazing Grace” album, and was led by the premier gospel music figure of his generation, Rev. James Cleveland). But we were real good. We sang at churches around the Bay Area, and we shook those congregations, some of them white, some integrated. We lifted them like they weren’t used to being lifted. “You can come back any time you want,” a church leader said at the end of our concert, and the congregation laughed because it was such an understatement. We’d lit a fire in that place.

Our closing number was “Witness for My Lord,” with Johnny, a talented all-around musician and the unofficial class president, singing lead. By the end of the song, it was like we were flying: “My soul is a witness … my soul is a witness … my soul is a witness for my Lo-o-o-o-o-o-rd!” We had several soloists who were every bit as good as most R&B singers you’d hear on the radio. But Gregory Green was on a different level entirely. I don’t know if he wrote and arranged songs, and even if he did I’m sure he wasn’t as good at it as Stevie Wonder – but he was a better singer and a better pianist than Stevie Wonder. He sang baritone and tenor with equal genius, and did a brilliant falsetto, too. Power, grace, warmth, verve that reached ecstatic dimensions – he was the best singer I’ve ever heard, certainly up close.

Once we sang at Cal State Hayward’s main auditorium, which seated several hundred, and Gregory was at the piano, playing and singing “The Name of Jesus,” and the microphone went out. He just carried on singing without it – and it was like you could see his vibrato rolling out into the audience. He didn’t look like a star – thin and plain-featured with short-cropped hair and a hint of a mustache. He didn’t act like one, either, being awfully well-behaved and friendly. But around Mrs. Stephens he had this naughtiness about him – he’d obviously grown up as the golden boy of the church choir, adored by all the matrons, and it left its mark on him. He felt at home in gospel music. I have no idea what happened to Gregory. I’ve checked from time to time, and as far as I know he didn’t become a professional gospel or R&B singer; I like to think that whatever day job he held in the decades after college, he went on making magic in a church somewhere.

AS FOR ME, things would take a bad turn. The only reason I was going to college was to please my father, and one day I went to campus high on marijuana, the first time I’d ever done that, and, being under the influence, it became so palpable to me how much I hated being there, and I took myself to the administration building and dropped out of Cal State Hayward. I was miserable, lost, loveless, balled up inside. I started dropping in and out of college and working menial jobs, trying my hand at acting, getting nowhere. I’d studied journalism and done some freelance articles in the past, and one day I saw a notice that gave me an idea for one. Rev. Milton Perry, whom I’d never heard of, was coming to the Los Angeles Convention Center for a revival meeting – with special guest Rev. James Cleveland. I would go there as a writer, but at the same time I was tempted by the possibility that I would end up – to a limited, safe extent – being a participant, too.

On revival night in the sterile, harshly-lit conference room, there weren’t more than 20 people in the audience, all of them black. Cleveland opened the meeting with a song, which he prefaced by telling his listeners, “It’s not about Milton Perry, it’s not about James Cleveland, it’s about giving praise to Jesus.” The biggest name in gospel music showed up to sing and preach humility to an audience of 20 people.

Then Perry started preaching and singing in front of an instrumental trio, and soon the spirit started moving in the audience. A stiff, seemingly repressed black woman of about 40 sat by herself in a prim blue suit, looking like Shirley Chisholm or a Salvation Army lady. She didn’t move a muscle for the first 15 minutes or so – and then, in an instant, as the chords of the organ rose, she lost her mind, exploding out of her seat, shrieking like she was being slaughtered, convulsing violently and helplessly. It took a good while for her to calm down, with the help of a couple of other believers who’d gotten down on the floor with her to make sure she didn’t hurt herself. Afterward, she didn’t look so stiff or repressed anymore. She looked like she’d had history’s greatest orgasm, which in a way might have been what she’d had.

PERRY’S ASSISTANT TOOK over at the podium, telling the audience that at the end of the night the reverend would be calling people up who were suffering, and he’d heal them. “That young man in the blue shirt – I know you’ve had your eye on him, Reverend,” the assistant said. He was talking about me. Why did he single me out? I don’t think it had anything to do with my being white, it was the misery I’m sure I was projecting, one brought to the surface by all the shedding of misery and rising of joy in the room.

In a little while, the sermon and songs over, people started lining up to get healed. There weren’t many of us, and I’d been chosen especially for this  gift, plus I was the only white person there, so what was I going to do – say, “No, that’s all right, I’m fine, you just go ahead without me”? It would be such an affront, such a betrayal of our instant fellowship, and such a mood-killer – I couldn’t do it.  So I waited my turn. Perry was telling people one after another that they had agonizing pain in their legs, they had a debilitating intestinal disease, they were suffering terrible guilt and sorrow, and one by one they nodded their heads yes, many of the women crying. Then Perry told each one that they had to give their lives to Jesus, and were they ready to do that? And when they nodded or cried that they were, he suddenly smacked his palm on their forehead, and they fell to the ground, writhing, whimpering, wailing.

Now it was my turn. “Go on up there,” those around me urged. With everyone’s eyes on me, I stood before Reverend Perry – and felt absolutely nothing. I think he must have sensed that because he looked a little puzzled – he couldn’t get a line on me, couldn’t get a vibe about any ailing part of my body, which was an accurate reading because nothing was wrong with me physically, I was just visibly miserable and lost. So he worked with that. “You’re searching for your path, you haven’t found it. You have a great work ahead of you – but you have to make a very strong decision for Christ,” he told me. And I nodded my head. Then he slapped his palm on my forehead – and what was I going to do? I fell to the floor and started writhing and kicking my legs; maybe I made some noise, I don’t remember. After a decent amount of time, two or three minutes, I stopped kicking, lay there until they started helping me up and congratulating me on letting Jesus into my life. I thanked them, tried to look beatific, sat around until it was over, shook some hands and left.

That’s one journalistic article I sure as shit never wrote. And it was the last time I toyed with the flame of spiritual surrender, because I really do not want that fire to consume me, so who was I trying to fool?

SOME YEARS LATER I started to settle down – gave up acting, became a journalist, a supposedly serious person. I even became less miserable. But gospel music still drove me crazy. In the early ‘80s I went to a concert at the Greek Theater to hear the Walter Hawkins Singers and Al Green, who was then singing strictly gospel. Once again I was by myself, this time not the only white person in the crowd, but one of the very, very few. It was a midweek night, so the adult, workaday audience was pretty low-key. Walter Hawkins couldn’t rouse them, and Al Green hardly tried – until the last couple of songs. Al Green is a volcano, and when he finally erupted, I found myself jumping up out of my seat and shouting “yeah!” and “all right!” with everybody else. No playacting, no pretending to be anyone but who I was, no faking of unruly passion. Maybe that’s all the spiritual experience I was ever really looking for.

The last time I heard gospel music in person was before Christmas in 2005, in Israel, on the Jordan River near the Sea of Galilee at a place called Yardenit, where hundreds of thousands of Christians go every year to get baptized. I went there to write a story about the scene, but you didn’t have to have a special attraction to religious ecstasy to be affected by the spirit at that place. Congregations from Mississippi, New Jersey, India, Colombia and elsewhere were wearing white robes, waiting their turn to wade in and be reborn. As the members of a Toronto church, a thoroughly integrated procession of blacks and whites, entered the water in silence, the church’s trio of black gospel singers sang them on their way. It was sunset, and the hundreds of people sitting on benches waiting to go in stopped what they were doing and listened or sang along. I started singing too, out loud and free:

Precious Jesus, sweet rose of Sharon,

There’s peace and triumph when we speak His name.

Loving savior, my sunshine in the midnight,

My guiding star that’s shining all the day.

Since then, the only gospel music I hear is on recordings, usually when I’m driving alone. I’m standing up on the risers with the choir. The piano and organ sound the opening chords and they go right through you. In the darkness the audience is ready, they want it. The choir director looks at me, and I start making my way down through the rows of singers, who are shouting words of encouragement at me. I reach the stage and walk up to the microphone. The crowd is fired up. It’s Larry Derfner, the white phenomenon of black gospel music. They love me, they accept me as one of them. And we sound like heaven.