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Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Real true story of Jim Christy (Ian Cutler)

The following post is copied with permission from Ian Cutler's fascinating blog. This is just the first half of Ian's first posting on Jim Christy. Jim is a personal friend and the only writer I've met who's lived a more interesting life than I have - although our lives do have many parallels, including growing up in the U.S., resisting the Vietnam draft, tramping Europe in the 1960s & '70s, ending up in Canada and settling within a few miles of each other in Hasting County, Ontario.
- Chris


Tramping—Jim Christy, Part 1

Having now written profiles on twelve tramp writers born before the end of the nineteenth century—and still not having exhausted the list—I've decided to take a break from dead vagabonds and immerse myself in the life and works of one who is still very much alive; in fact, only three years older than myself.

But these are three very significant years. I was only twelve years old in 1960, whereas Jim Christy was fifteen; old enough to be actively involved in the counterculture of the early 60's, even though, as he makes clear, 'I was never a hippie'. Also old enough to have a memory of the jazz, bebop and Beat generation that preceded it, and which had a much more profound influence on Christy's tastes and style. They were three years also that meant one was old enough to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War—of which more later. As the 60s unfolded, I could only look on in envy and admiration at those emerging vagabond musicians and style gurus who were already at the end of their teens and entering their twenties: Dylan, Jagger, Hendrix, etc. But having spent the last two years of the 60s in Africa, it was the repetitive rhythm of Congolese soukous and imported James Brown albums that intoxicated me. The latter preceding 60s rock and also passing it by with his influence on the funk and hip-hop scenes that were already emerging—such is the serendipity of popular culture. End of music digression.

I will, of course, return later to the Beats and other vagabond writers of the first half of the twentieth century, such as Kerouac. But I could not resist the opportunity of writing about a contemporary drifter; all the more so because this time I am able to have a direct dialogue with the object of my interest. So how did I come upon Jim Christy in the first place? It is not as though this modern day vagabond is a household name. Regrettably, although Christy has an impressive list of published books (29 to date), plus plays, art exhibitions, travel, adventure, and yes, like seven of the Victorian vagabond writers in this series, was a pugilist also; even in his adopted home of Canada, he remains as obscure as many of those tramp writers born a century earlier.

This again raises a phenomenon I have discussed previously. Those with no interest in the vacuity of celebrity, whose energy is focused on discovering the world at eye-level and beneath their feet rather than star-gazing; who may even deliberately exile themselves from mainstream society to find solace in the margins of 'civilisation', the odd, the abject, the quirky and the downright weird. In turn, such people are often rejected by 'mainstream' society as weird themselves; a threat to everything that makes life safe and predictable (in Christy's case, this included his father's disappointment that he dodged the Vietnam draft instead of doing the patriotic thing, and deferred from following the family tradition of becoming a gangster). Significantly, in terms of their writing, their books also defy easy categorisation—even if Christy's work has been compared to the 'hard boiled' genre credited to the earlier tramp writer, Jim Tully. This disregard of literary convention poses a challenge for publishers and booksellers alike: how to market their work and where to display them on the shelves—as though that is the primary criteria for great literature! But again, I digress. How did I stumble across this modern day literary vagabond?

Paradoxically, I was introduced to Christy by one of the Victorian born tramp writers I referred to earlier. Well, not in person of course, but during my research into Jim Phelan, I came across a chronicle written by Christy of his connection to Phelan. After Phelan's death in 1966, his third wife, Kathleen Newton (who Phelan had tramped with for the last twenty years of his life), allegedly travelled to Spain. Jim Christy is the last person to have reported a sighting of Kathleen, nearly five years after Phelan's death. The tale continues in Christy's own words:

'In early January, 1970, twenty-four years old, I was on a ferry, traveling to Morocco from Spain.  Most of the passengers appeared to be Arab, many in western garb; the rest, or so it seemed, were young western men and women, hippies, in other words. But walking the deck half an hour after boarding I saw a white woman, older than the rest, and certainly no hippie. She had grey hair, a lined face and to me, she was nearly ancient, fifty, at least. She must have seen me look her way because a minute or so later a voice at my side said, You look different from the rest of them.
            I could say the same about you!
            She smiled and told me her name was Kathleen and we began talking as if old friends who were continuing a conversation wed been having just the other day.
            After a few minutes, she asked me what I did. I shrugged, told her I worked various jobs. She nodded, and said, Yes, but what do you want to do?
            Well I guess I want to be a writer.
            She nodded, as if shed known it all along.
            My husband was a writer. He died a few years ago.
            A real published writer?
            Writers were an exotic species to me.
            Yes, widely published.
            What was his name?
            Youve probably never heard of him, coming from North America. Jim Phelan
            “’Bell Wethers. [short story by Phelan]
            Her eyebrows shot up in surprise, rearranging the deep lines in her face. Her eyes which I remember as gray-blue seemed to sparkle.
            Yes, thats Jims. '

The young and the mature tramp fell into an immediate bond of fellowship, 'by the time the boat docked, we might have been the closest of friends.' And so it was that Jim Christy and Kathleen Phelan became tramping partners for a few treasured weeks in Morocco:
'We avoided Tangiers, tramping the roads and calling at small towns, and all along the way people seemed drawn to her. I saw men who would ignore other foreigners, approach her, smiling, and it was as if they wanted just to be in her presence. People offered us rides on camels and in donkey carts. We had tea sitting in the fields with shepherds. Men and children approached to tell her things. The women regarded her from a polite distance.
We stayed in other small towns, in lodging places that were unadvertised, beautiful rooms behind unmarked doorways, rooms arranged around mosaic courtyards with fountains. Our relationship was chaste, we took separate quarters for five nights. On the sixth night, Kathleen came into my room and asked if she could get in bed with me. She saw the question in my eyes and answered it, “I don’t want to seduce you. I just want to be close. I haven’t been held since Jim died, and that’s nearly five years ago.
     And so we lay there and fell asleep in each other’s arms. And it was the same the night after that.
     Finally, I felt I had to go on my separate way. I should have stayed with her. I have often regretted going off. Before we parted, she gave me a pamphlet of writings by Jim Phelan that she sold along the road to support her travels. She inscribed it on the cover, to commemorate a meeting on the road in Morocco.' (UP)

How Christy ends up on a boat to Morocco, and how he fulfils his ambition of becoming a writer, is a long story. But first, his list of literary achievements to date, and then (with his help) I'll attempt to start telling the story of Jim Christythe last American road kid.
Christy's Bibliography ... and a note on referencing

  1.     The New Refugees: American Voices in Canada, editor (Peter Martin Associates, 1972)
  2.   Beyond the Spectacle, essays (Aline Press, 1973) BS
  3.   Palatine Cat, poems (Four Humours Press, 1978)
  4.   Rough Road to the North (Doubleday, 1980) RR
  5.   Streethearts (Simon & Pierre, 1981) SH
  6.   Traveling Light, short stories (Simon & Pierre, 1982) TL
  7.   The Price of Power, biography (Doubleday, 1983)
  8.   Flesh and Blood, (D&M, 1990) FB
  9.   Letter from the Khyber Pass, CD and intro (D&M, 1992)
10.   Strange Sites: Uncommon Homes & Gardens of the Pacific Northwest (Harbour, 1995) 
       with photographs by Alex Waterhouse-Hayward & Lionel Trudel & Felix Keskula
11.  The Sunnyside of the Deathhouse, poetry (Ekstasis, 1996)
12.  The BUK Book, Musings on Charles Bukowski, biography/appreciation (ECW,  
      1997) with photos by Claude Powell
13.  Shanghai Alley, [Gene Castle Series] (Ekstasis, 1997)
14.  The Long Slow Death of Jack Kerouac, biography/appreciation (ECW, 1998) JK
15.  Junkman, short stories (Ekstasis, 1998)
16.  Between the Meridians, short stories (Ekstasis, 1999) BM
17.  Princess and Gore [Gene Castle Series] (Ekstasis, 2000)
18.  Cavatinas for Long Nights, poetry (Ekstasis, 2000)
19.  Terminal Avenue [Gene Castle Series] (Ekstasis, 2002)
20.  Tight Like That (Anvil, 2003)
21.  The Redemption of Anna Dupree (Ekstasis, 2005)
22.  In the Wee Small Hours, poetry (Lyricalmiracle: Toronto, 2005)
23.  Scalawags: Rogues, Roustabouts, Wags & Scamps—Brazen Ne'er-Do-Wells Through 
       the Ages (Anvil 2008) SW
24.  Nine O'Clock Gun [Gene Castle Series] (Ekstasis, 2008)
25.  Marimba Forever, poetry (Guernica, 2010)
26.  Real Gone (Quattro Books, 2010) RG
27.  Sweet Assorted: 118 Takes From a Tin Box (Anvil, 2012) SA
28.  Jackpots (Ekstasis, 2012) JP
29.  This Cockeyed World, poetry (Guernica, 2013)


Shift and Glitter SG
Reet, Petite, and Gone RP

NOTE: The letters in bold after certain books above, are for referencing quotations from
Christy's writing in my own text. In addition, EM refers to emails written by Christy, and UP to unpublished works not identified above.

So far on this site I have not used any form of referencing published works, most of which are out of copyright anyway. But the hell with it, I'm not writing for the academic market, not for any market. My work is out there for free. So I will beg, borrow and steal as the fancy takes me.

But in Christy's case, I am not writing about a long dead author. Even though, as I have already mentioned, like those long since passed-on vagabond authors' books, Christy is no more a household name or best-seller than they. But then that is my mission in writing this Philosophy of Tramping: to slowly but surely shine a light on writers who deserve to be better known. And the reason they are not better known is because—as the tramps they are, their writing simply reflects the world they inhabit and the way they see it. Real literature defies the artificial genres that feed the appetites of a reading public who have to be told what to read. The life we live between being born and dying isn't a plot driven narrative with a beginning, middle and an end. Vagabond literature reflects life as it is, which for the most part is just the present passing—like the view out of a moving, open boxcar door.

But again I digress. I have referenced Christy's writing because this biography is a work in progress of a life in progress, and a work that might require several 'chapters'. I might well wish to return as the writing progresses, change bits and add others. I am not referencing passages to comply with the protocols of copyright, nor because I expect scholars to cite them in their dissertations—even if, like the other tramp literature on this site, Christy's work has far more to offer than many who are cited in scholarly texts.  

Vagabonds, Mobsters, Gunslingers and Freaks
Angelo Christinzio
Jim Christy was born in Richmond, Virginia on July 14 (Bastille Day), 1945. His father, Angelo Christinzio (born in Philadelphia just after his parents arrived in America from Molise in Italy) met his wife, Kathleen Dolby, a native Virginian, while Angelo was stationed there during World War II. Christy describes his father as, 'an Italian street guy who couldn't be separated from those streets'. Those streets were the tough Italian neighbourhood of South Philadelphia, chronicled in Christy's novel Streethearts (1981) and also Sylvester Stallone's Rocky films—Christy would appear as an extra in Rocky IV at the age of forty-nine, but more of boxing and Stallone anecdotes later.

And so, after his discharge from the army, when Christy was little over a year old, Angelo Christinzio returned to the streets of South Philadelphia, where he lived with his wife and new son in a second floor apartment on Seventh and Catherine streets: 'My father had inherited a job from his father in the Democratic political machine, which was controlled by what some people insist on calling the "mafia".' Philadelphia's Godfather, Angelo 'The Gentle Don' Bruno, was Christy's actual godfather.

As though connections to Philadelphia's crime family were not provenance enough for the fledgling vagabond, his cultural heritage on his mother's side (described in the chapter titled 'It Ain't OK' from Between the Meridians) is even more notorious. Christy is great-nephew of Billy Clanton who, along with Tom and Frank McLaury, were murdered by Wyatt Earp, two of his brothers, and Doc Holliday, in the one-sided 'Gunfight at the OK Corral'. Billy was only nineteen when he died, and although unarmed at the scene, Christy's other great-uncle, Ike Clanton, escaped with his life; only to be shot in the back six years later by a lawman straight out of a mail-order private detective course and 'wearing the tin badge that came with the course for 25 cents extra.' The Clantons, their older brother Phineas, and the McLaury brothers, were part of a loosely knit gang of over 200 known as the 'Cowboys'. So called because they rustled cattle across the border in Mexico to sell back in the US—hence the genesis of the term. But this is all well documented elsewhere—so long, that is, as one avoids the Hollywood myth created by Earp himself. 
Bodies of Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton (right), displayed in their caskets in the mortuary window
Christy was unaware of this aspect of his lineage until, at the age of thirty-six, drifting through Virginia on his way up country from Florida with a friend, he stopped off at the house of his aunt:
'There, drinking coffee at the kitchen table with my aunt Louise, was my mother. After the surprise, we took to reminiscing about my grandmother who had passed on two months earlier at the age of 95. "She left plenty of papers about the family history, all sorts of stuff about the Clantons," my mother announced.
     "Who are they?"
     "I declare! You know who I mean. The 'Clantons'."
     "We're related to the Clantons?" I thought she meant Jimmy Clanton, the guy who sung "Venus in Blue Jeans."
     She leaned across the table and whispered conspiratorially, "The outlaws. The OK Corral?" ' (BM 218)

And so, after pouring through pages of documents confirming that Billy's father, Newman Haynes Clanton, was his great-great-grandfather (not to mention defamatory information that is not expanded on), Christy made the pilgrimage to Tombstone:
'I stroll into an old Wild West hotel with polished tile floor, marble-topped registration desk and wide, dark wooden stairs that swoop away in a sweeping curve. I half expect to see Katy Jurado slinking down the stairs, fingernails like weapons trailing along the banisters. It could be 1947.' (BM 219)
Newman Haynes Clanton

Later, after climbing the rise to Boot Hill, Christy stood by the graves of Newman and Billy Clanton, before returning to the Crystal Palace saloon in town for a well earned drink. In Between the Meridians, there follows thoroughly researched particulars about the Cowboys and the Earps. Christy takes on the legend, dispelling the lies that have been handed down as historical facts. Not least, because the author (via his proxies) of the events of 6th October 1881, and perpetuated in at least twenty film and TV versions, was none other than Earp himself—mightily edited to present himself as a hero, or, as the opening line of 'It Ain't OK' ironically suggests, 'Brave, courageous and bold.' Christy's actual characterisation of Earp, ably assisted by recent forensic evidence of the real facts (including a hand written transcript of the Earps' trial for murder following the shootings) presents a very different picture.

Having previously been in trouble with the law in several other towns, the Earps and their cronies were latecomers to Tombstone, and ready to take advantage of, rather than eliminate, the lawlessness of the town; in particular to control the towns gambling and levy taxes of which they would be the main beneficiaries. Christy portrays the gang as scheming (Republican) political opportunists. Wyatt was soon fired from his job as deputy sheriff and took up a job as a saloon bouncer, where he continued to organise the gambling. Virgil Earp was defeated in his bid for the Marshall's job, and a long feud commenced with those who had displaced the Earps. The rest of the events leading up to the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral are better read in Christy's book. Below is Christy's characterisation of Wyatt Earp:
'the thing with Wyatt was, he had to be real close to kill you. It is a fact that Wyatt liked to sidle right up, usually accompanied by two or more brothers, and preferably when you had your back turned. Wyatt let off seven or eight shots at Ike, who was about ten feet from him, and missed.' (BM 215)
Of Doc Holliday, Christy describes him as Earp's, 'alcoholic, tubercular, lying, cutthroat, Georgia peckerwood, dentistry college graduate sidekick'.

As a descendent of the Clantons, one might think well, he would say that wouldn't he. But Christy has a track record of saying it like it is, regardless of personal interests. Indeed, as a journalist, he has a history of going against editorial bias and political partisanship, even to his own disadvantage (see Christy's report from the Rhodesian Highlands on the Elim Mission massacre in 1978). And as a cynic of the Diogenes school, Christy would not let anything so arbitrary as family affect his mission of exposing the truth. As with most of the tramp writers I have discussed on this site, Christy is first and foremost an individual. If, on the face of it, his politics appear to veer to the left, he is not a member of any tribe, political or otherwise. He despises politically correct, left-wing liberals as much as he does right-wing bigots, and chooses his friends from across political and cultural divide. Even as a journalist, he maintains his personal integrity and speaks for no one but himself, attacking hypocrisy and public lies wherever he finds them.

But although Christy does not subscribe to any particular tribe, he can equally feel right at home with any tribe he chooses to identify with. Nothing about Christy is predictable, even at the age of twelve he took pleasure in defying cultural norms such as music and fashion. Indeed his way of dressing was so individual that, at the time, it defied any recognisable classification: as one schoolmate observed, "Christinzio, you dress like a nigger", while downtown, 'The wops on the corners laughed at me. Called me a hillbilly. Screw them.' (SH 176) Difference sometimes made him the cool dude, other-times a suspiciously, suspicious character—which in provincial America is not that difficult to achieve. And so, as well as finding himself in the company of minor and major celebrities, from an early age Christy often also sought out and befriended the underdog, the cripple, the tramp, the circus freak, etc. For example, at ten years old, when his mother, brother and himself, had to take a trip to visit her family in Virginia while Christy's father was clearing up some 'business' at home, he befriended a kid with polio. Their adventures are described in Streethearts, as are Christy's first acquaintance with hoboes (SH 67-81). But like all genuine tramps, Christy was equally comfortable with his own company and more than able to distract himself in the most banal and abject of circumstances. Below is the existential Christy contemplating his immediate surroundings from his New York apartment room in 1967:

'My room was at the back and my window looked down into a vast courtyard, as did all the other back windows of the entire block of tenements. The open space was filled with concrete rubble, bricks, plumbing pipe and whatever had been thrown out the back windows, including kitchen chairs and huge records. I used to sit at the window and ponder those records. On what kind of machine could they have possibly been played? There were no doors that gave onto this courtyard. One day I saw a dead cat sprawled across the top of an old-fashioned cabinet radio, and over the course of several weeks, I watched as it decomposed and became a skeleton.'  (RG 53)

Ancestors aside, Christy describes 'weird folks and oddities' as being a normal part of his childhood, and so encountering them when he hit the road or travelled with carnival 'freaks' seemed nothing out of the ordinary:

'They just seemed natural to my environment and so I took them for granted later and throughout my life. There was an Italian barber, perhaps a distant relative, who had what seemed like a little more than half a leg, attached to the leg was a huge well-polished black ankle boot. He had a buxom, bleached blond wife. My father's mother and his sister, were big gun carrying women who took numbers (illegal lottery). That sister, my aunt Lena, and her husband Joe, had a monster child that they kept in a locked room There was an iron-grill doorway. He could only grunt. Ran around in there all day like a highly energized gorilla. They called him "Boom-Boom." There was a deaf and dumb couple, aunt and uncle. My uncles Angelo and Pasquale owned a tavern where, at age ten, I saw a guy, a crook, of course, shot and killed in front of me [described in more detail below]. There was an old piano in the back-room and sawdust on the floor. My first girlfriend had a brother who had suffered some brain injury at birth and I have vivid memories of my laying in this sort of elongated baby's crib. I would have been nine, ten, eleven, and he would have been sixteen or seventeen. He had limited movement. It was a horrible sight. A skeleton head with thin skin stretched over it. Then I'd go to the southland and everyone there was straight out of an Erskine Caldwell novel.' (EM)
The event that prompted Christy's change in surname and his first foray into tramping, is described below:

'Eventually when I was twelve, he [Christy's father] got into some sort of trouble and we had to get out of the city. In just a couple of months, we left the city, had a brand new vehicle (a Buick, automobile of choice for Mob typesknown as "Those People") and we had a new name. I was not Christy until then; the name on my birth certificate, and still my legal name, is Christinzio. Not long after moving, I ran away from home. I was a month or so short of my 13th birthday. In the city I had shined shoes outside a burlesque House, associated with crooks, young and old, strippers, hookers, etc. ... I spent my first night at large, sleeping in a trash bin in an alley at back of a department store in Allentown. I was taken in by police two and a half months later, apprehended whilst sleeping on a bench in the park adjacent to Independence Hall, of Liberty Bell fame, in Philadelphia.' (EM)

The email fragment above summarises how Christy first turned to tramping at the age of twelve. The events leading up to this event are comprehensively described in Christy's fifth book, Streethearts, from which most of the following is now referenced.

                                       ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

On 2015-01-07, at 1:22 PM, Ian Cutler wrote:

Hello there Chris, got no problem with you reposting this from my website, and good of you to spread the word. I just don't want folk to think that I would tag it 'The Real True Story of Jim Christy.' Sounds a bit sensational and is not my style. It was just my version of a version of other versions that Jim told me. It might well be that most, or all, of the stuff in there is real or true, but that's not really the point. It's the storytelling that's important, not facts, even if they add to the power of the tale.

Cheers, Ian

                                . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 

my reply:

Hi Ian,
Thanks again for letting me post your bio of Jim on my blog. "Real true story" is just my way of drawing ironic attention to your piece, with hopes of attracting more interest in Jim & your & my blogs. From what I've read & know, it's all very, very true what you've written about Jim - thanks for the thorough research - Jim has told me he's learned stuff about his past because of it  ;  )

Yeah, there's far more to Jim's 'real true story'. He's the only person I know of who'll start a casual conversation with, "When I was sweeping mines in Cambodia", or 'I had a horrible nightmare about an African massacre - body parts in the bushes everywhere'. Jim's a no bullshit guy, & there are tales I've heard which I'm not sure I'm supposed to repeat. Nothing wrong, just there is a large measure of modesty & even self-deprecation with Christy. I wish I were allowed to tell the tale of Jim & another icon of Canadian poetry, but alas. Or Jim will be reminiscing about his wives and girlfriends, & he'll casually mention when he was walking in Yorkville with Janis Joplin at the height of her fame. Press him on his South American adventures - some incredible and even very scary stuff there!

I can definitely foresee your careful research & well-written storytelling evolving into a book on Jim Christy. It'll be a credit to both of you, and an inspiration to those writers who choose to live lives outside the boxes society places on most people.

peace, literary tramping & poetry power!

                          ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

On 2015-01-08, at 1:15 PM, Ed Baker wrote:

Ed Baker has left a new comment on your post "Real true story of Jim Christy (Ian Cutler)":

this is terrific !
and I see that JC was born here-abouts 5ive years after me..
it also struck me that 1968-1970 I too was "tramping around the Mediterranean Sea also.

I like the attitude of this piece:
" the tramps they are, their writing simply reflects the world they inhabit and the way they see it. Real literature defies the artificial genres that feed the appetites of a reading public who have to be told what to read. The life we live between being born and ..." Neat stuff.

Posted by Ed Baker to Riffs & Ripples from ZenRiver Gardens at 8 January 2015 at 10:15

                          ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

On 2015-01-08, at 2:28 PM, guess who wrote:

here is one for your next issue ( and a little background)

this morning with the wind-chill and this arctic blast down
from Canada I call this “shortie”) :

How Cold Was It

it was so cold
that my hard-on
froze to my blow-up doll

(guess who)

                          ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

1 comment:

Ed Baker said...

this is terrific !
and I see that JC was born here-abouts 5ive years after me..
it also struck me that 1968-1970 I too was "tramping around the Mediterranean Sea also.

I like the attitude of this piece:
" the tramps they are, their writing simply reflects the world they inhabit and the way they see it. Real literature defies the artificial genres that feed the appetites of a reading public who have to be told what to read. The life we live between being born and ..." Neat stuff.