in The Bamboo Chronicles, Writing

Chasing Bambu — Why Reality is a Choice (and not an obligation) for any Writer that has Lived Life on the Edge.

(more thoughts on issues I’ve run into while writing The Bamboo Chronicles)

As anyone that has ever run with musicians knows, there are many unwritten rules and truths but only a few that are somewhere between the two. One is that Crime and certain styles of Music seem to run hand in hand.

Prohibition-era Jazz and Blues bands played at Speakeasies run by mobsters. Crooners like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin were buddy-buddy with mafiosi like Chicago boss Sam Giancana. Every major music legend with an addiction from Billie Holiday to Billy Idol always had a connection looming somewhere nearby like one of the many moons orbiting Jupiter. For decades, the tastes of the listening  public were secretly guided by rampant payola to get records on the charts.

The Crime and Music relationship has been such a convenient plot device in so many books and films that I’m not sure if it’s a case of Life imitating Art or vise versa.  While going through some of my journal entries and deciding what to include in The Bamboo Chronicles, I realized that both Crime and the Music had become characters unto themselves, almost sentient because their demands seem to have just as much of an affect on the ensemble as any other characters in the stories. I didn’t want to write a memoir but, instead, tout it as fiction “based on a true story”. I figured that changing some names and places would be enough to allow me to incorporate some events I witnessed without worrying about any repercussions — and then I learned otherwise…

In early 2006, shortly after I decided to take on the Next Stop manuscript as BGP’s second book project to publish, I met with the author, Ivan Sanchez, after work for a few drinks to discuss particulars that were going to affect which editor I paired him up with. My biggest concern was that he had used real names and street names for almost everyone in the book, including  some of the more nefarious characters. It was a toss up because by treating this book as a memoir we would have been within our legal rights to tell the stories as they happened, names and all. The trick would have been to make sure everything was 100% accurate but not disclosing so much that it would invade anyone’s privacy. Even with all that I knew we were still at risk of being sued. My thinking was that if anyone filed a lawsuit I’d simply start cranking out press releases using the shock value of the lawsuits as a means to drum up publicity for the book. On the other hand, there was at least nine months of editing and prepress work ahead of us; I figured we had plenty of time to change the names if necessary. Ivan and Jada (the editor) were so deep into the editing/revision process and I was busy with other design projects that the subject didn’t come up again. After reading the stories over and over again I even had a few nightmares about some of the murder victims, a sign that I might have grown too close to the project to maintain a pragmatic perspective. Against my normal business sense and tendency to avoid liabilities, the idea of changing all the names had become almost sacrilegious — some of the stories also served to memorialize those who were slain. It seemed like the right thing to do and worth the risk.

December 16th, 2006 arrived, the day of the Author’s Release party for Next Stop. The turnout was fantastic, everyone enjoyed themselves and we sold almost half of that first shipment of books, all of which made the event one of the greatest nights of my professional life. Once word of the book spread back to the Bronx, the next 15 days ushered in something neither of us had predicted — over a dozen phone calls with threats on Ivan’s life. The young fledgling gangsters in the stories had grown up. Some of them had been in and out of prison and still running the same criminal hustles they were doing over a decade earlier. Others had grown to become kingpins in their own rights. All were pissed that the book had hit the streets for a variety of reasons, including the fact that one or two of the stories connected some people to certain unsolved crimes with no Statute of Limitations.

The calls weren’t from some anonymous jerks. They were very real. They made sure Ivan knew who they were. We didn’t have to worry so much about the callers. They were all about his age and the ones that weren’t locked up for the next few decades were still on the street, deep in the game with too much to lose. The likelihood of one of them showing up to do a hit was slim. Instead, they would’ve handled it much like the older gangsters back in the day — scope out a couple of 14 year old kids tryin’ to get a rep, slap a wad of cash and a couple of burners in their hands, give them a map to the target and tell them don’t come back till it’s done. The big difference is that the kids today have things like Tom Toms, Mapquest, iPhones and Google; even Jimmy Hoffa could be tracked down with the right keywords.

With the intention of protecting himself and his family, it wasn’t until Ivan attempted to obtain a concealed weapons permit did things take another turn. Apparently there was still a case on his record that had been open for almost 17 years; all charges against him had been dropped but it was still on the books. Since he had recently made contact with the Virginia Beach Gang Unit with the intention of being part of a community outreach program, he mentioned about the need for protection and asked if they could help find out what was going on. Ivan gave a copy of Next Stop to each of the officers. One happened to let his supervisor take a look at it who, in turn, made some calls to the New York Police Department and the NYTF (New York’s equivalent of the DEA) to see if this stuff was real. Suddenly Ivan was under investigation again. Once the word got out that the cops were checking him out, all the death threats ceased. After a few weeks of nerve-wracking waiting and wondering if Ivan (and possibly myself) would end up in legal hot water, nothing came of the inquiries. In a roundabout way the cops proved the authenticity of Ivan’s book.

When I finally got back around to working on Bamboo, I realized that I had some more tough decisions to make.  My dilemma was that I had been privy to some illegal activities that were so outrageous they were better than anything I’d ever seen on television — reality far better than any fictitious spin that I could’ve written. Some of the gangsters I wrote about in my journal entries had been in and out of prison since I last saw them. In one case, when the DEA finally took down the Big Man, all the young guys he had on the street went to war over his territory and some of them became kingpins themselves. In all cases, my biggest concern wasn’t whether or not they would read Bamboo and see themselves. I never saw most with a book in their presence unless it was a ledger or an old family Bible on the table for show. The threat was from someone else reading the book, recognizing one or more gangsters and their crimes, then letting the rumor out about them being in my book. Some of them might have been flattered about being “famous” while others might have been ready to give me a one-way ticket to the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay.

I finally came to a conclusion: when it comes to a book — whether its a book I’m writing or a book BGP is publishing — Life is much easier as a writer if you treat Reality as a Choice and learn to walk the fine line between Defamation, Disclosure and Distortion. If you play it too safe, you lose the impact. If you play it the other way, the risks may not outweigh the gains. Either way, if you don’t play it smart there’s no telling how it will play out. Reluctantly, I started going back through everything I had already written, marking every illegal act that was harsher than smoking a joint. At times even today I’m still double-checking the liability factor behind some of the most interesting passages. It’s better than being an author whose book forced me to walk around strapped with a gun.

— Max Nomad

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