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Monday, February 23, 2009

Herman Slater

Living in NYC is unique. You see famous people up close on the street. Sometimes, you work for one.

Herman Slater was my boss on and off for 5 years, then he died too early of AIDS. We fought a lot; I quit twice and he fired me twice. The last time he fired me I determined not to speak to him for 6 months. He died in month 5. We never got to make up.

He founded and owned The Magickal Childe, a well-known witchcraft and occult publisher and retail store in Chelsea. It had been on Henry St in Brooklyn when I was a kid and named The Warlock Shoppe. Herman and Ed Buczinski, his partner, founded the Welsh Tradition of Witchcraft in the US there. My mother took me there when she went shopping for money oil or candles. A tiny store, crammed full of books and incense and candles. People winced at the use of "Warlock". In the early seventies the new Wiccan movement was trying to establish itself as a religion apart from Satanism and black magick. The term "Warlock" is defined as a traitor and never used by Witches except derisively. But once Herman moved to Manhattan, changed the name to the Magickal Childe, the business became an institution. A legend, even, to East Coast Pagans. Though a self-proclaimed "Snake Oil Salesman", Herman and the Childe prospered.

Buying rights to or finding public domain occult titles, Herman built up his publishing list of titles. He began a paper, Earth Religion News, and from it did worldwide catalog sales, wholesale and retail in all flavors of magickal traditions. He used the backroom of the store as a temple, where Pagan Way classes and OTO members mingled. Even the entrance to the back (no longer a temple by the time I went to work there) was classic- what looked like a shallow closet holding robes was a door on a hinge. People would shriek when it opened and someone emerged from out back.

Which brings me to the atmosphere of the shop. Over the years and a huge number of employees, shelves were built, an oil office evolved, antique showcases were bought at auction. The walls themselves were brick, the ceiling pressed tin and nothing had ever been modernized. The flooring was a patchwork of linoleums. The impossibly loud rattling air conditioner sat in aisle 1 between the candle shelves and audio tape showcase. It was 7 ft X 3 ft and regularly broke down on the hottest days. But aside from the eclectic look to the place, it had the aroma of hundreds of oils, incenses and herbs. One wall held the herbs in gallon size glass jars on irregular dark wood shelves. Under the shelves ran a 20' counter that held our own blends of incense and the antique scale. Under all that were the herb bins, where bags of every herb carried were held in stock, which fed the healthiest mice in Chelsea. Part nasty old New York store, part whimsical and dark yet Disneyesque (indeed, they filmed there) spookhouse, the Childe was enigmatic.

Behind it all was Herman, hiding at his desk in a makeshift office in the front corner. From there he'd bellow orders, insult everyone and now and then charge out to throw a customer out of his store. If someone asked if something really worked, he'd answer, "Not if you ask that question." If someone balked over a price, he'd take it from them, say, "You can't have it!" and throw it in the trash. Then throw them out. One boring afternoon he and I had fried chicken for lunch. Herman, with a twinkle in his eye, said, "I can sell these bones." I argued. It was a crappy thing to do. People wouldn't fall for that; we'd look like bastards. He won, of course, and put them on a piece of velvet in the showcase by the register. "Bones for your Magickal use" said the sign, "Only 2 dollars!" They were gone before dark. And Herman made back twice what he'd paid for our lunches.

I can't now think of one employee there who wasn't a character. True, it wasn't a place people thought of as a useful tool to a career, or even much where you'd work for the experience. And the money wasn't the best. Working for Herman was tough. He got his every penny's worth of everything. That included people he employed for the shop or his bedroom. Herman had certain affinities that nobody would do for love. "I sent him home to eat beans," he'd say of some new hustler he'd found. These guys would also have a job with the store in some capacity for as long as his interest held. Usually they'd be the general gopher, but they'd sometimes end up the Shipping Clerk or floor worker. The regular staff referred to them as "The Dogwalker". That was partially correct, as Herman had 2 or 3 Salukis all the time and couldn't walk them with the tuberculine hip he had. So someone had to walk them. Herman's apartment on West 16th St was a revolving door of hustlers, drug addicts, clingons and admirers. People thought he was rich, which he wasn't. He spent money too foolishly. And he had no care for appearances, his own or anyone else's. My memories of his apartment are all brown and odiferous.

Herman was an unique man. Very bright, almost schizophrenic, fiercely loyal one moment, then your brutal enemy the next. I loved and hated him so many times in turn that it's all a blur. He'd call and get my answering machine and in a whining moan say, "This is your spiritual father." And in a lot of ways he was. I learned a lot about life, love and survival from him. See ya, Herman. BB & 93.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Man That Got Away

Well, there's more than one. But the one that's classic, the "have to say goodbye but don't want to" kind, is who I'm writing of this Valentine's weekend.

It was March of 1998 and I was in Englewood, Florida. On the beach at Englewood's island I saw him. He was on a dune buggy, dressed in the green uniform of the Parks Dept. He was big and tan with wavy brown hair, cut like Morrison's in the Staver's pix. In fact, if Morrison had cleaned up and not died, he may have looked like him. Him's name, I misunderstood, was Nick.

I was working on a friend's property, doing heavy landscaping. Nick was working along the coastline and brought me the piers they were replacing. We cut them down and used them to line the driveway. On afternoons when it was too hot to work I went to the beach, and he'd be there. My heart would jump when I'd see him appear out of nowhere. His big smile under the reflective sunglasses made me smile.

Then one day he stopped by the house to say goodbye. He was going back to his ex-girlfriend's mother's house to live in mid-Florida. I was in no place to say, "No, stay here." I barely knew him, really. We stood in the dark, looking at each other, lost for words, mosquitoes feasting on us. I said, "Well, then good luck, Nick." He smiled that smile and said, "My name's Mick, as in Michael." I laughed and asked why he'd never corrected me. He said it didn't matter. He said maybe he'd stop by again before he left. Then he was gone. I never saw him again.

Ah, well. It's long ago and far away. But I felt and knew he felt, that we really knew each other. There was something beyond our chance meeting, but not something we'd work out at that time or maybe even this time around.

Wherever you are, Mick, Happy Valentine's Day.