I held a strangely shaped blob of dough in my chopsticks. It didn’t look exactly edible.
“What is this Saul?”
“Don’t ask. Just bite and swallow.”
I bit. It was crunchy, like the deep-fried bones of a reptile. I tried to swallow. The mass in my mouth didn’t go anywhere.
“Wash it down with this.” He helpfully extended a bottle of Yanjing. The beer was warm and stale, as if it had been sitting open in the musty basement for the last three days. The bone-like object slid roughly down my throat, leaving splinters on its descent.
“Pretty great, eh?”
We were in a dim sum joint somewhere in a back alley of San Francisco’s Chinatown. I’d spent many, many weeks walking the streets of Chinatown but had never come across this place, perhaps because the entry was just a rusting red door under a decaying neon sign of a tiger’s head, tucked between a laundry and a locksmith. Saul apparently discovered this place 45 years ago while he was driving a taxi trying to raise money to make films, including an experimental flick with the San Francisco Mime Troupe in which our mutual friend, the Portland poet Barbara LaMorticella, gives birth to a watermelon. He said the dim sum place hadn’t changed much since then, including the waitresses.
“Try this one,” he said, pointing at another menacing sculpture in dough with a tripartite shape, like a pitchfork with claws. “You’ll love it and it’s good for what ails you.”
“Are you sure that’s, uhm … food?”
“Trust me. My grandmother swore by chicken feet. Better medicine than you’ll get from any doctor.”
This was a typical outing with my pal Saul Landau. Surreal, funny and enlightening.
I met Saul in 2000 just after the publication my book with Alexander Cockburn on Al Gore, which Landau called “the most vicious biography ever written about an American politician.” Saul had been writing for CounterPunch for a couple of years by then, sharply written and historically-informed columns about politics, war, Cuba and the weird underbelly of American culture.
Landau was a radical. He’d been trained in history at the University of Wisconsin by the great William Appleman Williams and had played a kind of Boswell role to C. Wright Mills during Mills’ trip to Europe and the Soviet Union in the early 1960s. He helped start the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which brought him under the inquisitorial glare of the FBI and the CIA.
On one trip to London in the early 60s to raise money for the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, Saul first met Alexander Cockburn, who was then helping to organize a mass protest for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The encounter was contentious, not for ideological reasons, but because both Saul and Alex were in pursuit of the same woman, a model, intellectual and revolutionary (it was London in the sixties, remember), who, in the end, shunned them both.
Yes, Saul was a radical, except when it came to presidential elections. He despised Al Gore and adored Ralph Nader. But he made it clear to me that he was “holding his nose” and voting for Gore, because he thought Bush would do more damage. Even though he rejected what he called my “berserker” politics, he invited me down to California for his radio show called Hot Talk. We had a lively debate and Saul gave our book a rousing endorsement. It was the beginning a very close friendship between to two of us, our wives and children and his grandchildren.
When Saul died, Kimberly and I were in Paris and didn’t get the news until we arrived home in Oregon. When we left, we knew Saul only a had a few weeks to live, but somehow never really believed he would die before we returned and were able to speak to him one more time.
I had talked to Saul a few days before we left. He was refusing treatment for his advanced stage cancer. He had just gotten a copy of his engaging detective story, Stark in the Bronx, the first novel published by CounterPunch. He sounded weak, but in good spirits. He told a few Jewish jokes and had lavish praise for our son, Nathaniel, who designed the cover for the book. He had spent many hours with Nathaniel over the years, watching him make his way through college and into the bruising world of progressive politics. Saul signed off by quoting Woody Allen on death: “I don’t really mind dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Saul and I went on many road trips together and even though he was 24-years older than me, it was often hard to keep up. Our first excursion was a trip from Portland to Olympia and then Seattle for a series of talks on the Iraq war. We spent the night in a cheap hotel with bedbugs and no internet connection. Saul rapped on my door at 6 AM.
“Let’s go for a run.”
“A what?” My head was still heavy from a night of blazing Thai food and pitchers of local beer.
“A run. I noticed a nice path by the old brewery.”
I fumbled into my sneakers and took off after him. In ten minutes, Saul had sprinted out of my sight. After an hour of jogging, I was gassed and saw Saul trotting toward me, barely breaking a sweat after six miles. I fell down to my knees in front of him, waving my hands like Roberto Duran at the end of the Sugar Ray Leonard fight: “No mas! No mas!”
“What’s the matter?” he said with a grin, while he jogged in place. “I was taking it easy on you. Obviously, the Left needs to become more health conscious. No wonder we lose.”
I politely told him to fuck off. And he responded with a joke.
“A man goes to his Jewish doctor for a physical. The doctor thumps his chest, squeezes his balls, and sticks a finger up his ass. Afterwards, the man asks the doctor: ‘Well, doc, do you think I’ll live to be 80?’ The doctor replies: ‘I don’t know. Do you still smoke, drink, gamble or whore around?’ ‘No,’ the man said. ‘I’ve never done any of those things.’ The doctor shakes his head. ‘Then why do you want to live to be 80?’”
Sprawled on the grass, I wanted to dry heave, but I cracked up laughing instead. After that, I started compiling a notebook of Saul’s jokes. Now I tell them as if there were my own.
My wife Kimberly and Saul grew very close over the years. She is an academic librarian and ran the Artist and Writers lecture series at Portland State University’s Millar Library. Saul was a frequent guest, giving talks about his books, including the wildly popular A Bush and Botox World, and screening films on Iraq, Syria, the Zapatistas and Cuba.
During these visits, Saul would stay at our house in Oregon City for a few days and he and Kimberly would debate novels and films, talk about how the city of DC had changed for the worse since the 1970s, chat about the old Jewish communities of the Bronx and exchange recipes and homeopathic remedies of sometimes questionable efficacy. Saul used to say that he and Kimberly were from the same tribe, though this is yet to be verified by DNA analysis.
Saul would talk to anyone and write about anything. In 2005, he took me down to Bombay Beach, the decaying resort town on the sterile banks of the Salton Sea in the unforgiving desert of southern California. The town had become a community of desert anarchists, outcasts and outsiders, refugees from the vicissitudes of American capitalism. For Saul, this weird outpost was a metaphor of sorts for the dead end of the American dream. But to him Bombay Beach wasn’t just a symbol. Saul cared about the eccentric collection of people who lived there and wanted to meet them, talk with them, and record their stories.
It was that unrestrained spirit of inquisitiveness that took Saul to Syria and the Golan Heights, to Nicaragua and Chiapas, to Venezuela and the fields of the Central Valley, to the maliquiladoras and to Supermax prisons. But most of all it took him to Cuba, again and again.
His many films and articles on Cuba give us perhaps the best documentation we have for the history of Cuba since the revolution and not just politically but culturally: the nation’s music and changing sexual attitudes, its race relations and food, its poetry and environmental policies. Saul was a fervent supporter of the revolution, but he didn’t look at Cuba through rose-colored lenses. He saw the flaws in the economic system, many exacerbated by the cruelties of the embargo. He saw and documented the problems of a stultifying bureaucracy and stagnant leadership. His films on Fidel Castro provide some of the most intimate interviews the Cuban revolutionary has ever given. These filmed portraits reveal the many dimensions and contradictions of Castro’s character: his charisma, his intellect, his physical bravado, his intransigence and petulance, his wit and fierceness of resolve.
Saul’s last great project was his film on the murderous campaigns waged by right-wing Cuban exiles since the revolution, often staged from Miami with the explicit backing of the Americans, which culminated in the tragic case of the Cuban Five. The film, titled Will the Real Terrorists Please Stand Up?, is a searing indictment of the people Saul used to call the Geezer Assassination Society, the gang of anti-Castro zealots, lead by Luis Posada Corriles (a former CIA operative), who have over the last 50 years plotted assassinations and bombings against Cuba, including the downing of Cubana Air Flight 455 in 1976, which killed 78 people.
The film also definitively clears the so-called Cuban Five, five Cuban intelligence officers, convicted of espionage against the United States. Landau’s film reveals that the Cubans were in fact monitoring the activities of Posada’s gang of thugs, which had initiated several bombings in Havana. The Cubans had even forwarded intelligence about plans for future terroristic plots to the FBI.
Saul and the actor Danny Glover, who helped produce the documentary, struck up a friendship with the operational leader of the Cuban Five, Gerardo Hernandez, who had been cruelly sentenced to life in a maximum-security prison. Saul and Glover visited Gerardo numerous times, took his phone calls, wrote him letters, and in a series of stark dispatches for CounterPunch, vividly sketched the inhumane conditions of his incarceration. This wasn’t just another story to Saul. He cared deeply.
Saul Landau and Alex Cockburn, who had met at the beginning of their careers, were diagnosed with cancer within months of each other. Alex kept his illness close to the vest until the very end. He had his reasons, most of them good. Saul didn’t advertise his affliction, but he talked about his experience openly. His descriptions of the brutal treatments where Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (a kind of liquefied form of the tuberculosis bacterium) was pumped through a catheter into his bladder were both horrifying and hysterical.
Last year, our daughter was diagnosed with a rare lymphoma. Saul, who lived across the San Francisco Bay in Alameda, said, “Tell Zen to call me. I know what it’s like. I can talk her through it.” And so he did. Saul helped take much of the fear out of facing the disease. He searched for doctors, advised us on how to handle the insurance companies, talked about diet after treatments and recommended an excellent acupuncturist. He called every week to ask how Zen was doing. He never forgot, even as his own health began to deteriorate. That’s the kind of friendship that you can’t fake … or replace.
On the day Saul died, Kimberly and I were in Paris, walking along the Seine near the Paserelle des Arts looking at books, gravures and old postcards in the green stalls of the bouquinistes. There I came across a beautiful copy of Saint-Expuréry’s Terre des Hommes. Thumbing through the slim volume, I was struck by a passage, which I roughly translated into my Moleskine as: “Authenticity has no meaning except when it is seen through a craft.”
Saul Landau was exquisitely authentic. You can see it all over his craft.
Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature, Grand Theft Pentagon and Born Under a Bad Sky. His latest book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He can be reached at: [email protected].