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Lenny Bruce and My Uncle Dave – revised version, posted 1/13/2019

January 13, 2019 1 comment

Six years ago, I wrote an earlier version of this piece which I have now revised and updated substantially. I tried to get the Philadelphia Inquirer to publish it, without success. Jon

When I was 10 years old, I had my first experience with the law. My dad took me to court in downtown Philadelphia. It was the early 1960’s and it was not just any court. It was the court where my uncle, the Honorable E. David Keiser, presided. Uncle Dave was a magistrate in the lower courts in Philadelphia.

I do not remember much about that day but some details remain vivid. It was right after New Years Day. I sat up on the bench with Uncle Dave which I thought was cool.

The only case I remember was a case where the defendant was a transvestite. I think he was being prosecuted for being a transvestite. The case involved some New Year’s eve revelry. For a sheltered kid from the suburbs, this was eye-opening stuff.

One other thing I do remember. My dad pointed out a guy in the back of the courtroom. My dad said.”That’s the bag man”. I did not know about courts or bag men. My dad explained it to me. The bag man was the guy who took bribes and payoffs. Apparently, the magistrate got a cut, as did others.

I puzzled over that. The bagman was so publicly out there and he appeared to be just another part of the normal court proceedings.

Uncle Dave was not a lawyer. Back in those days, being a lawyer was not a necessary prerequisite for becoming a magistrate in Philadelphia. Uncle Dave first got elected magistrate in 1941 and he was continuously reelected through 1965.

My mom told me Uncle Dave was a neighborhood bigshot, kind of a mini-rock star. He circulated and gave away small amounts of money and candy to neighborhood kids. He and his girl friend Tina lived in the same building as my grandmother at 2601 Parkway in Philadelphia.

I found out some years back that the legendary comedian Lenny Bruce had appeared before my Uncle Dave. It turned out that Lenny has a long bit about his Philadelphia bust and court appearance on his album “Lenny Bruce Live at the Curran Theater”.

For those who may not know anything about Lenny Bruce, some explanation is in order. Before there was Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Chris Rock, there was Lenny Bruce. It seems tame to say he was an original bad boy. Lenny was a fearless boundary pusher, way ahead of his time. He was committed to exposing The Lie.

Readers might have seen Lenny’s character in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. He shows up as a character in the show.

Lenny upset many people in that unforgiving era. I suppose he was most famous for talking dirty but that is a shallow perspective on his artistry. He was a compulsive, no-holds-barred, truth teller. He prided himself on not repeating the same dopey routines. As his career evolved, he went free form in comedy, talking about whatever was on his mind. In this respect, he was a forerunner of comedians like Carlin.

During the 5 year period from 1961 until the year he died in 1966, Lenny was actively persecuted and he faced a number of narcotics and obscenity charges. The Philadelphia narcotics bust, along with another 1961 obscenity bust in San Francisco, provide much of the the material for his Curran Theater performance.

Lenny came to Philadelphia in September 1961 to perform at the Red Hill Inn in Pennsauken. The Red Hill was a nationally famous jazz club of that era.

When he arrived in Philadelphia, Lenny went to a local doctor and then a pharmacy to have his prescriptions filled. Lenny was a serious drug addict.

As Lenny recounts, four Philadelphia police officers came to his hotel room and repeatedly knocked on the door. Lenny was in bed and he yelled back that he did not want to be disturbed. The cops broke the door down. The cops had a search warrant and they were hunting for drugs and drug paraphernalia. One cop said,

“Hey, whaddya doin’ with all these books here? Hee-hee!“, as he read the titles. Lenny replied,” I smoke them at night. They’re all dipped in secret sticklach…I’ll tell you something if you’re ever in a strange town, just clip the ad for the local jazz club out of the paper, roll it up and smoke it – and you’ll be right out of your kayach.”

After being bailed out, Lenny started calling lawyers. He said he went through 15. He got referred to a criminal defense lawyer named Gary Levy. Lenny asked him, “Okay how much is this going to cost me?”. Levy replied, “Lenny, this will cost you $10,000.” “What”.Lenny exploded, “That’s a telephone number! Are you crazy?”

Levy responded that he had to give money to the D.A.’s Office, to Magistrate Keiser, to the police, the bail bondsman, and he, of course, needed his fee. Lenny then tried to bargain Levy down from $10,000 to $5,000 and then $3,500. No deal was reached and Lenny said he was going to sleep on it. That night he decided to fire Levy and he went to the press. He told reporters, “Magistrate Keiser is a crook”. He had decided to name names and quote prices. He explained that Attorney Levy had made the offer.

When Levy was asked about Lenny’s allegation, Levy said, “He’s a liar. He’s a sick kid. The kid’s crazy.” Levy said he would sue Lenny for slander. Levy went on to say: “I wouldn’t know who to pay off. Payoffs certainly are not going on in the courts of our land.”

When Magistrate Keiser was asked about the bribery charge, he said, “This is the first time I have heard anything of this nature…But it sounds ridiculous”.

Lenny had never been to court before the Philadelphia bust. He described his view of judges this way. “I thought judges were …”I listen, I am wise, the scales. I listen to all, then I weigh what I hear”.

When Lenny appeared in court, Magistrate Keiser led off with, “This looks like a sinister character to me.” He was so prejudiced that Lenny said there was no need for a D.A.. Lenny described Keiser as ” a momser, my first villain, and my first lover who did me in and told a lie.”

This is how Albert Goldman, Lenny’s biographer described Keiser:.

“On a salary of $18,000 a year, he has become a rich man, presiding over his business in bribes and gratuities from a palatially furnished office better suited to a big corporation head than it is to a local judge.”

Lenny realized that if he paid a bribe he would become a mark for crooked cops and judges all over the country. There is a tradition in America of big-name entertainers and politicians settling problems by payoffs in order to salvage their careers. Donald Trump’s payments to silence Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal are very much in this tradition.

Lenny wanted to fight it out on the law which he believed in. I do not know for sure but I would not be surprised if Lenny’s famous saying, “In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls” comes from this experience. The case against Lenny was eventually dropped by a grand jury but this was just the beginning of his troubles.

It is now over 50 years past the events I have described. I saw the bag man in Magistrate Keiser’s court. Lenny did not deserve the persecution he received. Years of legal battles broke him and turned him into a self-described “drug addict meshuganah”. All the fights cost him a fortune and stressed him beyond the breaking point.

As for my Uncle Dave, in 1966 he received a 21 count indictment for bribery, extortion, and perversion of public justice. In 1971, after a lengthy court battle, The Pennsylvania Supreme Court removed him from the bench.

Albert Goldman accurately wrote that Lenny worshiped the gods of spontaneity, candor and free association. I think he is an insufficiently appreciated American hero and comic genius. In writing this piece, I wanted to honor his memory and encourage people to listen. He is still funny.

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It is past time to restore and raise the minimum wage in New Hampshire – posted 1/6/2019

January 6, 2019 Leave a comment

Back in 2012, a small group of fast food workers in New York launched the Fight for $15 movement. In the six years since the movement started, the success of the effort to raise the minimum wage has been remarkable.

Twenty-two million low wage workers have gotten a raise. The National Employment Law Project estimates the movement has won $68 billion in raises. Twenty states and two dozen local jurisdictions have dramatically upped their minimum wages, including all New England states, with the exception of New Hampshire.

All the dire predictions about the adverse consequences of minimum wage increases have proven to be false. Contrary to the doomsayers, the sky has not fallen and in many jurisdictions, employment has actually increased.

Massachusetts and Vermont are raising their state minimum wage to $15, effective in 2023 and 2024 respectively. Massachusetts is now at $12 an hour and Vermont is now at $11.50 an hour. Maine has approved a $12 an hour minimum wage, effective in 2020.

So what is with New Hampshire? The minimum wage in New Hampshire is $7.25 an hour. It is not enough to say we are contrarian. That is too nice. In this instance, New Hampshire government is anti-worker, callously out of touch with what it costs to live today.

Low wages translate into workers living in poverty.

In 2011, our state legislature repealed the state minimum wage law. Because the federal minimum wage pre-empted state law, New Hampshire was prevented from crashing under the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. If not for the federal law, New Hampshire would have had no wage floor.

Exploitation could have become the new normal.

I recall earlier minimum wage fights in New Hampshire when advocates fought to raise the state minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 an hour. It took five legislative efforts over a period of ten years to achieve that raise which passed in the 2007 legislative session.

So many of the old arguments against a minimum wage increase are the same as you hear now: it will hurt business, especially small business. It will require price increases and it will cause hourly cuts and job losses. If those arguments have merit, how come so many states have successfully raised the minimum wage with good economic results?

For low wage workers, raising the minimum wage is a much needed step to help overcome decades of stagnating wages. Both low wage and middle income workers have experienced stagnating wages for the last forty years.

While the harm has been significant for both low and middle income workers, it is low wage workers who have been particularly hammered. The cost of living, especially the cost of housing, health care, and higher education have outpaced wages. The terrible crisis of homelessness is one outcome.

Recognizing that low wages is a problem is something that those with the most income, wealth, and political power have tried to obscure but weak wage growth is a result of deliberate and intentional policy choices by the powerful. The income of the one percent has not been stagnant – it has skyrocketed. Policy choices can be reversed as many states are showing.

I have to say I am struck by the fact that Massachusetts is implementing a minimum wage that is double the New Hampshire minimum. How to explain that? The disparity is enormous.

When I previously worked as a lobbyist in the New Hampshire legislature, I learned the rule to never use a Massachusetts example to make your case. Massachusetts was Taxachusetts. It was the Big Satan to the south, full of rules and regulations. You have to ask though: how can one state be so much more generous to its workers than the other?

Polling shows that raising the minimum wage to at least $12.50 an hour is massively popular with Americans across the board. Even raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020 is supported by 63% of Americans. Those who believe this is just a blue state phenomenon are wrong.

In the 2018 mid-terms, voters in Arkansas and Missouri approved ballot initiatives raising the minimum wage. Arkansas is moving up to $11 an hour and Missouri, through some steps, is going from $7.85 an hour to $12 an hour.

I saw that there are bills in the upcoming New Hampshire legislature to restore and raise the minimum wage in our state. With the Democratic majorities in both Houses, passage of minimum wage legislation is an almost certain likelihood. It will be interesting to see how Governor Sununu responds.

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