I wrote several articles about the late storyteller Nancy Duncan. Eventually they will all find their way onto this site. There is one other currently on the blog. That piece is entitled “Her Final Story,” and was written when a quite weak Duncan faced her final days with terminal cancer. From the time she was diagnosed with cancer and on through the many rounds of treatments and surgeries she endured over years, she used storytelling as a means of coping with and making sense of her experience. The story offered here was written when she was a breast cancer survivor and still full of energy. Through it all though, she never lost her warmth or spirit or her passion, and that is what I always tried to convey about her when I profiled her. The other thing she inspired me to do was to try and find the right words to describe the art of storytelling and to explain why it was and remains a primal form of communication that we all need for our nourishment. My search for those words made me a better writer. Being around Nancy made me a better person.
Nancy Duncan, Storyteller
©by Leo Adam Biga
This article originally appeared in the New Horizons.
WANTED: Storyteller. Must possess engaging personality, commanding voice, malleable face and ability to relate well with people of all ages. Active imagination a plus. Large repertoire of stories advised. Previous storytelling experience preferred, but not required. Some traveling involved. Hours and fees negotiable.
No, the ad is not real, but the description is true enough. For proof, just catch Omaha storyteller Nancy Duncan in action. That is if you can find her before she hits the road again with her bag full of tales. A seasoned performer, Duncan inhabits a story in such a way that it spills out in animated spasms of sound, expression, posture and gesture. She is as quiet as a whisper or as loud as a shout. As still as a mountain or as antsy as a mouse. Her rubber face bends. Her supple body contorts. Her attentive eyes dart. Her sonic voice booms. She is whatever the story calls for: firebrand pioneer, wily coyote, grizzled witch, fearsome wind, bubbling brook, puff of smoke or, more and more, simply herself.
Duncan left a successful theater career behind to join the professional storyteller ranks in 1987. Since devoting herself full time to spinning yarns, she has developed a kind of fervor for her calling only true converts possess. For her, storytelling is more than a trade, it is a way of being and a means of sorting out the world. As she will tell you, this ancient oral tradition still has the power to hold us enthralled amid today’s digital revolution. Using only the force of her voice and her charisma, she tells stories that variously amuse, inform, heal and enlighten. Since beginning a battle with breast cancer in March, Duncan, 63, has made storytelling part of her therapeutic regimen and survival strategy.
While she did not discover storytelling as a personal artistic medium until the mid-1980s, she says, “I’ve been a storyteller all my life. I was a huge liar as a kid.” From the very start, the former Nancy Kimmel was immersed in stories told by her father, Harley, and maternal grandmother, Emma. “My grandmother shared a bedroom with me from the time I was 5 until I was 16. She was great. She’d smoke a pipe and tell stories. She loved the B’rer Rabbitt stories and could do them with a great dialect. And my father was a great storyteller. He liked to perform the story.”
When she moved with her family from the suburbs of Illinois to the backwoods of Georgia (Buford), she found a ripe landscape for her fertile imagination and boundless energy. She and her playmates organized “safaris” where they roughed-it like natives in the wild. Their only close-call came when moonshiners ran them off. As an imaginative child, she wore different identities like so many hats. “I was a leopard woman for a whole summer. My friend and I made ourselves leopard suits and claws. We would hide in bushes and jump out and scare our friends,” she recalled. She was a fine athlete too, whether scaling hills or playing hoops. Despite her dramatic gifts, when forced to choose between acting in school plays or competing on the school team, she opted for the court over the stage.
With the intent of curbing Nancy’s rambunctious ways and turning her into a proper young lady, her mother sent her to private art and elocution lessons. But Nancy chafed at any attempts to make her a debutante. She would much rather have been tomboying it outdoors with friends. By the time she graduated high school her father had fallen ill and she reluctantly left home to attend Agnes Scott College, a private women’s school in Atlanta. Not long after completing her first year there, her father died. She missed his stories. After grieving, she blossomed in college, majoring in English and minoring in art and theater. She then embarked on being a writer, even completing a fellowship at the famed University of Iowa Writers Workshop, before turning her attention to the theater and earning a master of fine arts degree in Iowa City.
It was there she fell in love with one Harry Duncan, a renowned fine book printer and instructor 20 years her senior. She learned typography from him. She also fell in love with him. And he with her. Student and teacher married in 1960. Despite skepticism from family and friends about their marriage surviving such an age difference, the union worked. The couple enjoyed 37 years as husband and wife and raised three children together. Harry died in 1997 from the effects of leukemia and colon cancer.
What made the relationship click? “The secret of our marriage and our lives is that we both found ways to do what we loved to do and would have done anyway if we didn’t have to work. It had to do with living our dream and not letting anything get in the way of that. Harry was a master printer, poet, editor, designer. He was devoted to his work. We sometimes had to drag him away to go on a vacation.”
After leaving academia behind, Nancy taught theater and directed stage productions at a small Iowa Quaker School. Then, in 1973, she joined the Omaha Community Playhouse staff as associate director. She left the Playhouse in 1976 to serve as artistic director and later as executive director of the Omaha Children’s Theater (now the Omaha Theater Co. for Young People), which she helped grow into one of the nation’s largest and most respected arts organizations of its kind. Burned-out by the demands of keeping a theater afloat, she turned to storytelling, a medium she had dabbled with a few years, as her new vocation.
Drawing on her theater background, her early storytelling was character-based and performance-driven. Her large catalog of stories — some original and some borrowed — include the collections Why the Chicken Crossed the Road, Good Old Crunchy Stories and Nebraska ‘49, which chronicles the true-life adventures of pioneer women. Her most popular incarnation, Baba Yaga, is a grouch of a witch with a golden heart. The old hag has become a sensation with school-age audiences, although some fundamentalist Christian groups concerned about the character have boycotted Duncan and even banned her from performing.
Since becoming a storyteller Duncan has often worked as an artist-in-residence in schools via the Nebraska Arts Council. She is currently one of only 225 artists participating in the national arts residency initiative of the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. Her telling takes her on wide-ranging tours across the country (she recently returned from performing at the National Storytelling Conference in Kingsport, Tenn.). In 1999 the National Storytelling Network presented her with a Leadership Award for her work promoting the art in the North-Central region. She is also a board member with OOPS, the Omaha Organization for Professional Storytelling, a storytelling instructor at various colleges and universities the coordinator of the annual Nebraska Storytelling Festival.
She has seen the 15-year-old Nebraska festival grow amid a general storytelling revival in America inspired by the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn. Duncan said there is a demand for these public storytelling forums because people hunger to hear stories. “We all love stories. We seem to be wired to the narrative form. It used to be everybody told stories. Today, people miss the stories in their lives. It may be they grew up when we didn’t have all these machines do our work and we didn’t have television sap up our time and instead we gathered on our big front porches in the evening to tell stories. Some people never had it in their lives and miss it because they know television is not giving them the stories they want to hear. They want to be present in the story — to recognize themselves — because stories celebrate who we are. They validate us. It’s like identity maintenance.”
As a creative artist, she naturally feels compelled to explore and express in her work whatever is going on in her life. Lately, that has meant examining her cancer. At a recent telling before a group of prospective medical students she struck up a quick rapport with the audience through her open, honest demeanor and her disarmingly whimsical humor. More than a creative outlet, her cancer stories function both as a coping mechanism for herself and as a forum for others about the risks of the disease and the forbearance of patients like herself. In a recent interview at her handsome, sun-drenched home in central Omaha, Duncan described how her experience with cancer is changing her.
“Breast cancer is transformational. I can feel already changes happening in me because of this, and it’s all based in community. There’s a huge community of people out there who’ve had cancer and because they’ve lived through this they have a relationship other people don’t have,” said Duncan, who, once she was diagnosed, informed friends around the world about her illness and, in turn, received supportive messages about their survival or the survival of their friends and loved ones. “That’s a pretty amazing group of people.” Duncan plans on joining a cancer support group as soon as her summer touring season ends. “I plan to get in one because I believe in efficacy within your own community — of people healing themselves and healing each other through their communications.”
According to Duncan, confronting problems through stories can be curative: “It’s a very healing process because as we turn our own experiences, including very negative ones, into stories and share those with other people, they share back and their comments shape the way we feel about our lives and a community is created. As we story, we heal the situation or solve the problem. It’s very healthy.”
She feels sharing the details of her story, including the mastectomy she underwent March 21 and the loss of hair she has endured during chemotherapy treatments, is her way of fighting the sense of denial and defeat still accorded subjects like cancer. “We need not to hide the fact this is happening. If we hide the fact we have cancer in order to be normal again we’re denying who we are. We’re also making it easier for others to get it because we’re doing nothing to prevent it. That’s why I have decided I’m not going to wear a wig and I’m not going to wear a prosthesis. Part of who I am is going to be a person who’s had breast cancer and who wants to tell stories about it. I hope my actions draw attention to the fact there is breast cancer in the world and that we need to do something to cure it. Moreover, we need to prevent it. Hiding it, to me, says the opposite. That it doesn’t exist. Instead, we need to let women know, You have a job to do.”
She said her anecdotal research reveals many women still do not do not know how to self-examine themselves or are afraid to. Why? “They don’t want to know. It’s maddening. They’re cutting their own throat.” She admits she has become something of a militant in the war on cancer. “There is an epidemic of cancer. Over and over again I keep hear people saying, ‘Well, we don’t know what causes it.’ I don’t believe that. I think we do know — we’re just denying that too — and so we’re writing death sentences for ourselves and for our children. It makes me kind of fiery.” Her decision to go wigless and to refuse surgical and/or cosmetic measures takes some people aback. “It’s threatening. That’s problematic for me because I don’t want to knock anybody’s choices. Women have the right to make their own choices. But at the same time I think denial is a dangerous habit of women. Too often, we deny the depth of what’s happening in our lives and ignore ways to change things for the better.”
In the process of describing her journey with cancer, her mission is to get people to look at the illness in a new way and thereby keep it from being a taboo subject shrouded in fear and morbidity. It is why she uses humor to discuss it and to defuse certain attitudes about it. “I want my stories to be very funny. When you have cancer there are all sorts of tricks your body plays on you. Losing a breast is tragic, but it’s also very funny. For example, without having any breast on my right side I realized that anything I tried eating that missed my mouth had a straight shot to the floor. Before, it didn’t. I always wondered before why there were more crumbs under my husband’s chair than mine. Guys have been keeping that a secret for a long time,” she said with her big wide smile and full-throttle laugh.
“And being able to wash your hair with a washrag is really wonderful,” she added, her hand sweeping back the few brown wisps on her head. “I’m not sure I’m ever going to let my hair grow long again. Also, the whole notion it might come back in red is very appealing to me. These are just little ways of looking at things that make them fun, rather than threatening.
She said storytelling is a perfect means for the teller and audience to explore together personal issues that are universally identifiable. Unlike a lecture where the speaker imparts a rigid message to a passive audience, storytelling is an organic, communal, interactive form of communication. And unlike reading from a text, storytelling springs from the recesses of the teller. Said Duncan, “If you’re holding up a book and reading from it you are not present in the same way you are telling a story. You’re just processing words and your personality doesn’t come through in the same way it does in storytelling, where who the teller is and how they feel at any moment is in what they’re telling. You can’t separate the teller from the story. That’s why there’s such a wide variety of tellers.” Storytelling works best, she said, when a spellbinding teller invites rapt listeners to shape the story to their own ends. It then becomes an individual and shared experience in one.
“You don’t tell stories into the wind. You tell stories to people,” she said. “Because storytelling is a live process, a story is not frozen. It’s like jazz — it’s still living and being shaped — and the storyteller navigates the story with the audience and changes it depending on what they get back from that audience. The audience makes the story in their minds. They create all the pictures to go with the words, and they get those pictures from their own lives. So, by the end of the evening you have as many different versions of the story as you do people in the room because each person has co-made their own part of the story. And when that happens, it’s very powerful and bonding. It’s like going on a journey together to a different place. It’s sometimes deliciously entertaining and funny. It’s sometimes spiritually intriguing and challenging. It’s sometimes moving and bereft with all the memories that get brought to the story.”
When a teller connects with an audience, she said, it is hypnotic. “There are certain stories that take you so deep into an emotion or an event that they are trance-inducing. The audience goes off with you. You can see it in the way the story flows across their faces. Their eyes lock-in and their jaws go slack. It’s as though they are dreaming.”
Duncan said the more emotionally honest a story, the more resonance it carries. For a residency in a Fremont alternative school last year she asked a group of wary students to listen to personal stories told by adult mentors. To their surprise, she said, “the kids were wiped out by the stories.” Students then had to tell the stories back and find a personal link to their own lives. “This time, the adults were in tears. The kids and adults realized they had a real human connection. They wanted to know each other better,” she said.
This Pied Piper for storytelling has encouraged several other tellers. Among them is her daughter, Lucy, a professional storyteller in her own right, and granddaughters, Louise and Beatrice, with whom Nancy regularly swaps tales. “My grandkids are always asking for stories. They’re steeped already in the personal stories and in the more fanciful stories. I have a story I’m working on now that is all about them and their relationship with me. It’s kind of a grandmother story.” Duncan hopes many of the stories she values will be taken-up by her grandkids and told by them.
“My goal is that one of them will be telling those stories at a festival somewhere. I’m trying to pass that love of story onto them.” She feels senior citizens have an obligation to be storytellers, but finds too many isolated from this traditional familial-societal role. “It’s a great loss to our society when seniors are separated and devalued. They have a responsibility to pass on knowledge and they have a need to be validated,” she said. Whether told at a fireside, a bedside or a festival, she said stories tap a deep well of shared human experience. “Storytelling is the best-kept secret in the world. It’s not just for children. It’s for anyone. We all have valuable stories to share.”
So far, Duncan has not allowed her illness to limit her busy, independent lifestyle. She said friends and family urge her to take it easy.
“They keep saying, ‘You need to slow down, to stop, to rest’ I haven’t quite accepted that yet. I tend to listen more to what the holistic medicine people say, which is — do what you want to do…do what makes you happy.” At a recent telling about her cancer, she said, “Now, this story…doesn’t have an ending. Not yet. I don’t know if I’ll truly know the meaning of this experience. But I have learned many things. One of them is, you cannot lose something without getting something else back. You don’t get back the same thing you lost, but you get back something that might be better. For example, I may not be a grandmother with a great shelf of busom, but there are other kinds of shelves. There’s the comforting shelf of story.”
- Healing with Story: Healing the Storyteller (health-psychology.suite101.com)
- Creating a Youth Storytelling Community One Kid at a Time (storytellingadventures.blogspot.com)
- Storytelling (aztecexploration.wordpress.com)
- The Importance of Telling Kids Stories (prathambooks.org)
I got to know the late Nancy Duncan better than I do a lot of my profile subjects. You might even say we became friends. I had written about her and her work as a professional storyteller. We hit it off. When she developed cancer and began undergoing a regimen of treatments and surgeries, she began doing what came naturally to her — putting her experiences into stories. When told she was terminal, she and I eventually arrived at the idea of her telling one last story, in effect, by sharing her odyssey with the public. The piece appeared in The Reader (www.thereader,com). Not long after the article appeared Nancy died peacefully, having said all her goodbyes and having left the gift of her humor and intelligence and grace with thousands in the form of her stories, which will live on forever.
Nancy Duncan, Her Final Story
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Professional storyteller Nancy Duncan felt the tell-tale lump on her right breast in 2000. She recalled it being “about two digits long, as round as a pencil and as hard as a rock. I knew the minute I touched it what it was.” Doctors soon confirmed her suspicion. Cancer. “Somehow it had just sneaked through the mammograms.”
After a mastectomy and chemotherapy, her illness appeared under control. Then, in April 2002, she found “a little chip of a tumor” under her arm pit. “They told me it had recurred, and when they found it there they figured it was somewhere else. They did a CAT scan and there were these little specks everywhere in my liver — like from a shotgun blast,” she said. Her cancer had spread. “Metastasized. It’s a nasty word. Nobody wants to hear it. You never know where it’s going to go when it gets outside the breast,” she said. “It’ll go to your bones or to your lungs or somewhere else. Mine just happened to go to my liver.”
“Well, Nancy, you’re a terminal,” is what her doctor told her. Terminal. Aren’t we all? — Duncan wondered. The only difference between me and my doc, Duncan thought, “is that she thinks she knows what I’m going to die of.” That, and the fact the malignant tumors carrying Duncan’s death sentence play a cruel game with her. “They grow and then the chemo shrinks them. Enough so you can barely see them or they’re not visible. In about four or five months, they figure out how to get around that drug and then they come back. That routine is what I’ve been doing the past two years,” said Duncan, the Nebraska Arts Council’s Artist of the Year.
Her four-year “dance with cancer” has propelled the former theater maven into a journey of self-discovery that’s informed every aspect of her life and work. Her unfolding death is the subject of her final, most profound story.
“Storytelling is always a process of learning about yourself,” said Duncan. “The story transforms along with you and that’s exciting to realize that and to let that happen. It’s a dialogue you maintain with that story for the rest of your life.”
The most surprising thing to happen in the narrative of her evolving death, she said, is the tranquility she’s found. “It’s totally taken away the fear” she had of dying. Her late husband, Harry Duncan, an acclaimed poet and fine book printer, died at home under her watch. That experience is helping her prepare for her own death.
When she first got news of her terminal illness, she panicked. “Then, I remembered what Harry did. He just stopped eating and drinking and he was unconscious after three days and gone in a week. From the day he decided he didn’t want to live anymore, he went in this kind of graceful state. It wasn’t like he was a beaming idiot or anything. He just seemed totally at peace. Very relaxed. Loving. It was like he was teaching us all that when you’re ready, you don’t have to hang around and be tortured to death. So, I thought, I always have that option. My kids have agreed they’re not going to mess with that choice.”
The comfort Duncan gained in contemplating her own blissful exit carried over to a new freedom she felt on stage. “The interesting thing is I totally lost my fear in performing. I became completely relaxed,” she said. “It was such a gift to be able to perform two years without any fear. Yahoo! Because that is what your audience really wants. They want you embodied in that art form. They want to see you, the most they can possibly see you, broken open. And fear just gets in the way. It’s a barrier between you and the audience. It’s a good thing, because it tells you this is an important occasion and you need to be present for it. It helps you stay on your toes. But it’s also a bad thing because then you’re editing, and you don’t want to edit. What you want to do is listen to your audience and remember things and let them pop into the story. Why did I have to have cancer in order to lose that fear?”
She’s considered her cancer from every conceivable angle. She’s talked frankly about it in stories. In the published Losing and Getting, her cancer-ridden breast converses with her healthy left breast in a stream of bitterness, guilt and humor. She’s talked about losing her hair but gaining a new appreciation for life. She’s performed her cancer story for many audiences, but especially for women who are cancer survivors, patients and potential victims. She knows firsthand their fear.
“There’s also a lot of lessons you learn…” Like the harsh reality of health care in America. “If I didn’t have supplemental insurance I wouldn’t be alive today because I couldn’t afford all these chemo treatments. And a lot of people can’t afford them. They don’t have a choice. They’re not given the opportunity to have their lives extended like mine has been. Given the fact there’s so much money being made treating cancer and that cancer is growing exponentially in the world, there’s no incentive to find a cure…and definitely no incentive to prevent it. I think we don’t really want to prevent it because we don’t want to change our lives. We’re too lazy. We don’t want to give up our fossil fuels and our fatty foods. We’re so complacent. I’m as bad as anyone else. That makes me mad sometimes.”
Since finding she’s terminal, she’s tried maximizing the brief periods she feels well between her taxing treatments, stealing moments here and there to work and to spend time with the many friends and relatives who comprise her extended care team. She’s also managed performing occasionally and nurturing some of the storytelling festivals she’s helped found and grow, particularly the Nebraska Storytelling Festival in Omaha. She’s annually given 600-plus hours of volunteer time to Nebraska Story Arts, the organization that puts on the festival.
Even as her condition’s worsened, she’s continued being the state’s most visible and vocal advocate for storytelling. Omaha sculptor Catherine Ferguson called Duncan “one of Nebraska’s most treasured women. She has dedicated her professional life to connecting people to the arts and humanities. Nancy’s performances have always gone beyond entertainment to become educational.” Story Arts president Jim Marx said, “Her gift is to imagine possibilities, inspire others to join her vision and to will them into existence through tireless effort and encouragement.” Nancy’s daughter and fellow storyteller, Lucy Duncan, said, “She has a great generosity of spirit in her teaching of storytelling and wanting to spread the art form. Her support of my telling is a direct example. Instead of feeling, This is my territory, she says, Let’s share this. She’s done that with a lot of people — not just me. She’s also very beloved in the national storytelling community.”
Lately, Duncan’s good spells have grown fewer. The artist has been homebound since the end of May, when she gave her “last” performance at the Darkroom Gallery in the Old Market.
Her three grown children and several grandchildren are staying with her now in the big mid-town house she and Harry shared. It’s where he died of cancer in 1997. It’s where she intends dying, too. As the debilitating rounds of chemo have taken her longer and longer to recover from, she’s considered not undergoing them again, knowing full well stopping them will mean certain death.
“I have to pay such a huge price to feel good for about two months,” she said.
For now, at least, she tarries on, telling stories to her grandchildren or soaking up
the good vibes of her army of friends who flit in and out of her place all day long. Some come to do chores. Others bring her things. Some just come by to chat.
Reminders of her friends are everywhere, most poignantly in the paper, silk and rubber hands adorning the inside of her front door. Each “helping-healing hand” was sent or delivered to her and is adorned with a message that’s variously funny, outrageous, wise, enigmatic, just like the stories Duncan’s told since 1984, when she turned away from a career in the theater to pursue storytelling professionally.
Some visitors come to say goodbye, although few use that word, because even though Duncan is physically frail now and needs around-the-clock support, her effervescent spirit shines through, making it all the harder to imagine her gone. The light-up-the-room sparkle is still there in her eyes. So, is the ear-to-ear smile. And the cascading laugh. Ah, The Laugh. It’s an irrepressible cackle that starts in her chest, rolls up her giraffe neck and spills out her crescent mouth in a high-pitched sound that recalls the coyote-witch figures she portrays in tellings.
Then again, there’s a chronic fatigue that didn’t used to be there. Every now and then she catches her breath, swallowing hard to stem the pain from the stints in her liver. Her body, once as expressive an instrument as her animated face and voice, is gaunt and still, betraying the fight she wages to keep death at bay.
Her impending death is being recorded by Omaha videographer George Ferguson. The documentary she asked him to make is meant to help other dying individuals in their search for healing. It’s only natural that Duncan, who’s used stories as a way to interpret life, should use storytelling as a means of understanding her own end.
“I thought it might be useful to somebody else who’s dying the same way, but also to see how useful storytelling can be in helping you go through this process,” she said. “where grotesque things happen to you and people are poking your body here and there. And, where, in the middle of having stints put in your liver, people around you are talking while you’re drugged. And the craziness of discovering systems that you are either a victim of or you have to figure out how to defend yourself against. Not to mention a whole new vocabulary you learn.
“I’ve met people who, when diagnosed with cancer, kind of isolate themselves and live at home quietly and some who sadly get really angry and stay angry until they die. And to me dancing with cancer has not been like that. I was angry the first weekend before the biopsy results came back. That was the weekend when I fired God and hired HER back a couple times. But then I got over that because I’ve always believed that in every trauma there’s some kind of a grace at work and you just have to open yourself to it and figure out what it is. It doesn’t make you a better person, but it says, Wait, stop, who do you really want to be? And, so, cancer gives you some time, mostly, to do that and that’s a great privilege. I mean, I think it would be a great privilege to drop dead of a heart attack, but it wouldn’t be for your family because it’s so traumatic.”
Her decision to have her odyssey filmed was one she came to after much thought. “It took a long time to decide what my motives were here. Was I just doing this out of ego? Was it really a good idea? I talked to a lot of friends about it before I talked to my family. Most of my friends said, ‘Oh, yeah, you better do this because it will give you something to keep you busy.’ My kids in the beginning were thinking what it would be like to have somebody around filming during the last week of my life. I wasn’t thinking about that at all. I was thinking about talking about the things that happened to me in terms of my cancer, but also in terms of how the cancer affects my life and the stories. So, finally, I think my kids have all come around to it.”
Storytelling, she said, constitutes the way we make sense of things. The story of her cancer and dying, she said, is “no different. Every time you narratize your story to explain something to yourself, that’s healing, because then you’re no longer so confused or befuddled by it. Then, when you tell it to somebody, they give it their own meaning based on their lives.” This search for identity and meaning is one she thinks America suppresses in its instant gratification apparatus.
“I think all my work with storytelling has been trying to fight that tendency in our culture that does everything to avoid having people talking deeply to each other, especially about death or anything important. As a society, we want to be entertained and we avoid things that might make ask us to think or deal with situations going on in the world. Problems are not going to get solved until we sit down with somebody else and really listen to their stories, so we can get to understand each other rather than blowing each other up. The more we put labels on people, the more we’re destined not to know them. When you really know somebody’s else’s story, you can’t hate them anymore. It’s a wonderful tool for peace,” said Duncan, whose residencies in schools and other settings have used storytelling to break down barriers, to build self-esteem and to promote diversity.
“But nobody trusts it (storytelling), partially because nobody has ever listened to our stories. We narrow ourselves so much by not knowing each other. Storytelling works against that. That’s why I keep working on storytelling.”
She said too many of us seek the cold isolation of mass media diversions as substitutes for interpersonal communication around the dinner table or fireplace, where gathering with friends to talk and tell stories is a communal event and a celebration of our shared humanity. “That’s what storytelling is all about.”
Her many tales, from the repertoire of “platform” stories she’s crafted for performance to the private stories she’s passed on to loved ones, are sure to live on through her family members, all of whom, she said, are born storytellers. That’s why her dying is more celebration than requiem. “Not only is it a celebration,” she said, “it’s a transition. It’s a very important transition from my versions of the stories to everybody else’s. Now, they’re all going to own these stories. I would love to someday eavesdrop on them, although that’s probably not possible.” Her performance stories are available on CD.
Duncan’s love for stories extends back to childhood. Born in Indiana to “depressed-alcoholic” parents, she did most of her growing up in Illinois and Georgia. A tomboy with a big imagination, Duncan roamed the woods in back of her Georgia house to act out the dramas in her mind. It was her pipe-smoking grandma, with whom she shared a room and found refuge with for eight years, that introduced literature and storytelling to her. “She read books to me until she dropped. She was not a big talker, but she told very well-honed stories all about her life. She was the unconditional loving parent in my life and my rock of stability,” Duncan said. “If I hadn’t of had my grandmother, I think I would have ended up in a booby hatch.”
Expressive by nature, Duncan first heeded her talents as a writer, earning a scholarship to the prestigious University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1958. It was there, as a student, she met and married Harry, then a teacher and fine arts press director. Eventually, she and Harry moved to Omaha, where he ran the Abattoir Press at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She acted on area stages and served as associate director of the Omaha Community Playhouse and as artistic director and, later, executive director of the Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater (now the Omaha Theater Company for Young People).
She applied drama techniques to her early storytelling. She built her signature story performances around Baba Yaga, a witch character adapted from Russian literature, and a chicken. “Baba Yaga was really the one who broke me open because she could say anything,” Duncan said. During the Fundamentalist Right’s rise to power, Baba Yaga got her in hot water with some area school districts that outright banned or picketed her shows. She was even spat at once.
Dissatisfied with her hybrid of theater and storytelling, Duncan began shedding makeup and costume to explore and expose more of herself on stage. Once she made herself more present in her increasingly personal stories, she found her voice as a teller. She never looked back at the theater, which she found limiting. “In the theater, you’re really not in charge of the material. The playwright or director is. In storytelling, there’s no separation of yourself from the story. You have to take total responsibility for it. You can’t blame it on the writer or director. It’s a different kind of bareness-nakedness, but also a different kind of responsibility.”
Speaking of responsibility, she hopes her militant views on cancer increase awareness. It’s why she doesn’t wear a wig or a prosthesis. “We need not hide the fact this is happening. If we hide the fact we have cancer…we’re denying who we are. We’re also making it easier for others to get it because we’re doing nothing to prevent it,” she said. “I hope my actions draw attention to the fact there is breast cancer in the world and that we need to do something to cure it. Moreover, we need to prevent it. Hiding it, to me, says the opposite. That it doesn’t exist. Instead, we need to let women know, You have a job to do.” She said many women don’t self-examine or are afraid to. Why? “They don’t want to know.”
Duncan’s curiosity, passion, concern and whimsy have made her a timeless teller and, when she’s gone, her life and work will endure as a never-ending story.
- Tall tales: Meet the storytellers spinning edgy new yarns for the digital age (independent.co.uk)
- Healing with Story: Healing the Storyteller (health-psychology.suite101.com)
UPDATE: The memorable subject of the following story passed away June 9, 2011. I didn’t know Clyde Waller well, but I spent enough time in his company that I am confident he will alway be one of the most unforgettable characters in my life.
Here’s a story that two Omaha news weeklies turned down because the subject’s rather epic criminal boasts could largely not be corroborated.
Omaha’s African-American newspaper, The Omaha Star, did run the story, in two parts, but I wasn’t satisfied with the way they were laid out and positioned — they just kind of got lost or swallowed up in a sea of type.
I wrote the piece in a way that takes it all in with a certain grain of salt and leaves it up to you, the reader, to decide for yourself what’s credible and what’s not. In the end, I didn’t really care if what Clyde told me was the truth or not, because he and his stories, and most importantly, the way he told them, were too compelling for me to dismiss or walk away from.
Clyde later hired me to conduct a series of interviews, executed at his motel room, so that he could get his life on tape to inform a biography and a screenplay that another writer had begun but that he wasn’t happy with. In all, I amassed something like 15 hours of interviews with Clyde. The way he paid me, with a stack of bills in a plain white envelope that he slid across the bed to me, made me fill a bit like I was part of some criminal intrigue. I got the same feeling when he had his brother deliver some documents to me for my story project. His brother told me to meet him in the parking lot of a supermarket. I got there a bit early and waited in my car, having told Clyde’s brother the make and model and color of my ride. Before I knew it a Cadillac pulled up alongside me with two men in it, and the fellow in the passenger seat indicated I should slide my window down. I did as I was told, and the man handed over a manilla envelope thick with content. Barely a word was exchanged, except for me commenting how much the driver, who I took to be Clyde’s brother, resembled Clyde. Then the messengers drove off just as mysteriously as they’d arrived.
If I can ever get the interview tapes from Clyde I plan to write a one-man play whose entire monologue would be extracted from those sessions I had with him in the motel. I could never duplicate his streetwise patios and embellishments and poetry. It’s a project I hope to get to sooner rather than later.
Well, anyway, here’s a version of his story:
Omaha’s Own American Gangster, Living Urban Legend Clyde Waller, Spills His Crime Stories
©by Leo Adam Biga Originally published in the Omaha Star (2008)
NOTE: This two-part story about Omaha native Clyde Waller is based on interviews I conducted with him. Waller described to me a multi-faceted criminal life whose sheer scope makes much of what he said he did difficult to confirm. Given Waller’s underground world and urban legend character, I do not purport the story is entirely factual. Rather, it is an interpretive, as-told-to account that, whenever possible, uses Waller’s own words. Make up your own mind.
Part I: Clyde Waller’s Education in The Life
Long before you meet living urban legend Clyde Waller, you hear the stories. When you finally talk to the man, he confirms a criminal past of mythic dimensions.
He describes growing up fast on the mean streets of post-World War II Omaha, where next door to each other his father ran Count’s Pool Hall and his uncle the after-hours Count’s Joint in south O. His dad and uncle had legit businesses, but always had some extra action going on the side, from moving bootleg liquor to boosted merchandise. Young Clyde soaked it all in.
Dodges came naturally to him as a kid. He resold comic books and costume jewelry for a profit. He supplied his mom with handkerchiefs he’d cut into swatches for her to crochet. Then he peddled the doilies on the street, at school, wherever. On his first train ride he hustled the sandwiches he packed to hungry GIs, for whom he spent the rest of the trip running errands, earning cold hard cash in tips. “I kind of had a hustling quality about me as a child,” he says.
When not looking for an edge, he roamed many a haunt. His south O hangouts included the banks of the Missouri River, the stockyards, Ak-Sar-Ben race track, Riverview Park, Playland Park and the Chief and Roseland theaters. When his family moved to the north side, he was a regular at the Crosstown roller rink and Reed’s Ice Cream stand. Downtown, he took in show after show at the Tiverly, Brandeis, Omaha and Orpheum theaters. He swears the movies’ glamorous portrayals of crime only reinforced his own way of life.
In the early 1960s the high school drop out led more or less a straight life. He ran errands for patrons at a hotel and worked as a janitor at the old St. Joseph’s Hospital. He even joined the Naval reserves. All that conformity ate at him. Just as the Vietnam War was about to grow hot, active duty called. When he went AWOL before his Navy hitch began, he fled to Kansas.
When he felt the heat was off he came back to Omaha a few weeks later, got married and started a family in the Spencer Street housing projects. But the MPs caught up to him and he soon found himself on the USS Procyon, a supply ship, bound for Nam. To teach him a lesson, he says, “they shipped my ass out with no basic training or nothing.” He reported for duty in his fly duds. The Navy proved a rude awakening, but some things never changed, as he soon found the angles in this bad situation to do a handsome trade in black market Naval stores.
Back stateside in the mid-’60s, he settled in Oakland, Calif., where he fell in with a proverbial den of thieves. They used the Color Me Natural barbershop on 98th Avenue as a front for their illicit operations. With its juke box and its hip cutters, the place was a gathering spot for people in “the life.”
“Gamblers, hustlers, pimps, dope dealers, you name it, they come through there. And some of it rubbed off on me,” he says. He learned the “honorable” craft of barbering along with less reputable pursuits, like how to pull off various frauds. He helped design West Coast scams that bilked companies and individuals alike. His crew staged accidents they then collected disability insurance settlements on or they filed false discrimination lawsuits defendants gladly settled out of court. The gang found ways to embezzle or otherwise redirect monies from private financial accounts.
“I always had some game going…running one scheme after another. Then we got into drugs. We were selling weed, cocaine, heroin and every damn thing else. So we were living on easy street. We got a nice barber shop and we’re selling drugs and driving Cadillacs and blah, blah, blah, livin’ on top of the world. Living way beyond the means of cutting hair,” he tells you.
His first marriage failed. He married again, only to see it crumble as well. Besides the children from his two wives, he fathered more with other women.
He’s captivated you with his tales over the phone. This natural storyteller’s rich, profane language is just what you expect from an old-school gangsta. He sounds like the real deal, too — a man wise to the ways of the wicked. When he comes to Omaha for an August family reunion, the legend doesn’t disappoint. He looks the part of an outlaw with his world-weary slouch, muscular arms, graying pony-tail, stylish clothes, Ray-Ban shades and gold bling-bling that drapes his ears, neck and wrist. You imagine Samuel Jackson or Terrence Howard playing him if his story ever finds its way on screen, which it just might. It’s one of the reasons he’s in town.
You sit down for lunch with him in the Old Market and he spills out details from his story in loud, expletive-laced riffs that you’re sure will turn heads, but don’t. It’s easy to see how he could manipulate people to his advantage with the way he seduces you into feeling you’re the only one in his gaze at that moment. There are glimpses of a compulsive man whose hunger for more gives him a desperate edge.
No matter how much he made, it was never enough. Too many middle men cut into the profits. Especially with coke. “So we devised a way to bring it up out of Bogota,” he says matter of factly.
He purports to, in the ’70s, being perhaps the first African-American drug lord with his own direct connection to the Colombia cartel of Pablo Escobar. Of being made “a godfather” by a Colombian family. Of being a big-time supplier. “I never dealt drugs directly. I never sold $50 worth. I sold no less than $50k in drugs,” he says. “But I never got away from the haunt of it.” Of how, in the ’80s and ’90s, he made San Francisco and Hawaii his new bases of crime, running drugs, pulling scams, laundering and counterfeiting monies. How he breached monetary security walls. How his graft finally caught the attention of state and federal authorities. How federal judge Henry Fong called him “the most serious threat to the American monetary system.” How he cut a deal with then-U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese to tell the Secret Service’s Fraudulent Crimes Division “all” he knew in exchange for himself and two brothers not serving any part of a stiff sentence.
His ego was hurt when the government doubted that he, a lone black man, could mastermind such sophisticated criminal enterprises. In a warped way, he was both a victim and a beneficiary of racism.
The key to his rackets was having the smarts to see and slip through what he calls “the blind door.” He refers, for example, to a period when in-transit credit card transactions are exposed to spying crooks who, by using devices and/or inside information, tap the WATTS line and pilfer accounts when no one’s aware. Poof, it’s gone. He intimates that his Omaha connections gave him access to figures with knowledge of the systems that made Omaha then, as now, a telecommunications-telemarketing hub.
“The blind door is the door you open that no one ever thinks about,” he says. “Nobody’s even conscious it’s there and that’s the one I use, and it makes me invisible. Man, there’s a blind door to every damn thing. There’s a part where nobody sees nobody, and that’s where I come in. I figured out when it was. And unless I tell you I did it, you’ll never know how I did it.”
He says he kept right on stealing even while in the employ of the Secret Service. He says he only escaped the distasteful world of informant by making himself an addict and thus a degenerate nobody wanted anything from anymore. That his life only found meaning once he stopped looking for an edge. He talks with pride about making himself clean and sober and raising, alone, his two sons with ex-wife Lola.
Millions in ill gotten gains passed through his hands, he says, as he never intended on accumulating wealth. Others speak of his generosity in sharing what he made.
Trina Smolen, a Phoenix, Ariz. writer he worked with to turn his story into a book and a screenplay, was a jobless single mother in Hawaii when Waller adopted her and her little girl in the late 1980s. She speaks of his “big heart” and his “Robin Hood quality.” She says, “He paid for operations for people. If somebody needed to make a rent payment, a mortgage payment, bail kids out, he was generous that way.” She also says he and his second wife Lola shared a coke habit and that his “criminal enterprise” employed dozens of people and raked in loads of cash.
“I‘d just make it and spend it, give it away, just (expletive) it off,” he says. “Eighty-ninety thousand dollars in the trunk of my car. And after awhile it became a burden. The money was not only illegal, the s___ was heavy. Then I had to hire people to count it. Then they stole a little bit. I was going through misery.”
He’s seen it all, done it all, short of killing. That’s where he says he drew the line.
“I stayed away from guns…murder. I didn’t want to be involved in nothing like that. I did it my way by not allowing anyone in with these tendencies. And it worked. I’m walking here a free man,” he says on a walk in the Old Market. “I did something right. But I really should be either dead or in a penitentiary for the rest of my life.”
Violence was all around him growing up, first in south O, then in north O. On the south side, young Clyde navigated an Eastern European immigrant turf dominated by rough and tumble men who drank and fought hard. He saw gun play and knife fights. He once came upon a frozen corpse in the snow. He developed street smarts to fend off pervs and other predators. When his family moved to the near northside, things only got worse. The Wallers lived across from the Apex Bar, commonly known as “the bucket of blood” for all the stuff that went down there.
“I witnessed a lot of violence. I witnessed people getting shot, people getting cut. I was paranoid from the time I was 7 until I was 33 because I knew what people would do to one another and the extent to what they would do. That made me go the opposite direction. It kept me from it because to me it was ugly.”
From the time he was a little kid, he learned how to talk his way out of any jam, even practicing his lies in the mirror. He learned too that being on the make was a way of life. Hanging around his dad and uncle’s places he learned to hustle suckers with words, cards, dice or a pool cue. He could take you any way he chose.
He knows he comes off a braggart, but he insists baring the darker side of himself wears on his soul.
“It’s only because of the way I tell the story it sounds glorified, but it actually hurts to tell the story. The emotions are still there. When I leave you I will be literally worn out,” he insists. “I want people to understand I not only have remorse about what I’ve done, I wish I had done something else. I’m telling this story because it needs to be told. This story will answer a lot of questions to a lot of people somewhere, somehow.”
Ego played a big part in his getting caught up in the whole drug scene. Circumstances too put him in a position where he could be a player, a somebody. He said coming of age the way he did, amid shrewd black men who lived large from vice, he developed a distorted view of the world and a corrupt confidence in himself. Magnifying this was a loving father who told Clyde “you can do anything you want to do” and a police department, not far removed from the corrupt old Dennison political machine, that got a piece of the action.
“In the back, my father always had a card game going on. When the police would come in my older brother would take ‘em back to my father who would hand ‘em an envelope and they’d walk out. I’m not saying this to offend people, but I was taught something the average black child today don’t get instilled in them. When I went on my three-decade odyssey I was not inhibited by white people or their laws. I was free — up here,” he says, rapping his temple with a finger, “and that’s why it was so easy for me to do it.
“I could have been anything. It’s just very unfortunate that at the time I chose to express my talents…coke was a recreational drug and everyone was doing it…doctors, attorneys, politicians, sports greats,” he says. “I actually stuck the needle in some of these arms. It put me on the same level with them. They, and I’m not lying, envied me. Ain’t that a b_____? They envied me. I done something they would never be able to do. They made me think what I was doing was important and, of course, I believed ‘em. I felt important.”
End of Part I.
Omaha’s Own American Gangster, Living Urban Legend Clyde Waller, Spills His Crime Stories
©by Leo Adam Biga
Part II: The Rise and Fall and Redemption of Clyde Waller
The way Clyde Waller tells his life story of dodges and deceptions, it’s a riveting saga. He has a way with words anyway. That, combined with his urban slang, and his Old School G appearance makes it easy to believe he’s seen his share of hell. You don’t doubt for an instance his street cred. But still…
Can his tale really be believed when so much of it must be taken on faith? Author Trina Smolen of Phoenix, Ariz. has known Waller for years. Up until a year ago or so she was writing a book and a screenplay about his life. But he parted company with her when he felt she wasn’t being authentic to his experience. What she did write about his various criminal scores and enterprises was largely based on extensive interviews with him. Her chapter summaries for the book Blind Door read like the narrative from some arresting crime fiction.
Family and friends either have direct knowledge of Waller’s larceny or anecdotally confirm he was into some kind of heavy stuff. Had to be. Why else would a barber from Oakland, Calif., by way of his hometown of Omaha, be hauling ass on repeated trips to South America just as the cocaine trade came of age?
An Omaha cousin who got caught up in Waller’s dealings on the coast describes going to the L.A. airport to meet Clyde on one of his return flights from Bogota. The cousin, who lived above the Color Me Natural shop in Oakland Clyde operated out of, asked him, “Where is it?”, meaning the drugs, whereupon Clyde told him, “You’re holding it,” referring to the large radio he’d handed his cousin. Clyde explains he gutted most of the radio’s insides to hold the stash of cocaine, leaving just enough wiring to let it still play. Good thing, Clyde says, as customs agents tried the radio. It played, just barely.
Then there was the “lavish lifestyle” that didn’t jive with cutting heads. “So they knew I had money,” Waller says. “I even paid doctor, hospital, pharmacy bills, down payments for homes and college tuitions for family and friends.”
Omaha actor-director John Beasley grew up with Waller and his brothers here and says it was common knowledge Clyde’s “always been into something. We used to hear these stories about him. We used to wonder about him.” Therefore, he believes what Waller says may be true. “The reason I don’t doubt it is I remember years ago when I’d ask his folks, — ‘How’s Clyde doing?’ — I’d hear, ‘He’s a barber out in Oakland, but he’s got some kind of scheme going on.’ Or, ‘Clyde’s been in Hawaii or South America again.’ I knew cocaine was involved. I’d hear tales back.”
Waller’s only sister, Larceeda Jefferson of Dolton, Il., said while never involved with Clyde’s misdeeds she learned of them from her brother or others as they played out. “You can trust it, it’s true. He did everything he said and then some probably…At the time I had mixed emotions. I didn’t feel like he failed anybody in what he was doing, I just felt like he wanted something and he wanted it so bad he didn’t care how he got it. He’s always been that way. He’s still that way now, except he don’t do that (crimes) anymore. He still has that pie-in-the-sky attitude that one day he wants to be somebody. I don’t know who he wants to be. It was all a matter of survival for him. He survived the best way he found.”
He involved select family and friends in some of his criminal pursuits. At the very least a cousin and two brothers. Indeed, his ex-wife Lola, the mother of his children, got sucked into “the life” of a drug runner and addict. But mostly he kept that world a secret, a pattern he began in childhood.
“It’s like I was living in two different worlds,” he says, “but I never let those worlds meet. That made my life not only paranoid, but hard.”
Some official documents allude to his life off the grid and just how far his assorted mischief went, but nothing concrete. Otherwise, all you’re left with is Waller’s own claims of criminal exploits. All you have is his word. The irony doesn’t escape him. That a man who owns up to making and losing a fortune through elaborate deceptions raised to high art should be trusted that what he says now is how it was then. The past tense is deliberate, for Waller says he’s gone straight for the past dozen years. He says he’s paying taxes and following both the letter and spirit of the law. He recently opened a barber school in Oakland, where he’s widely seen as a mentor in the community. A 2004 Oakland Tribune feature paints him so.
He’s telling his story, he says, as the final piece in his recovery. Then again, you must take some of it with a healthy dose of skepticism when he says things like, “See, I come off to a whole lot of people as slow-witted, dumb. But that’s my game. That I’m just an old country boy from Omaha. That I ain’t going to hurt you,” he says with a smile, adding, until you realize “I’m going to take your house.”
He’s a master at taking people into his confidence for his own devices. He says he “learned” a long time ago “the average person is constantly looking for something for nothing, and I used that against them.” Could his spill-the-guts confessional be another “blind door” to some pay-off? But why would he risk the sterling rep he enjoys today by spinning a false story?
If this is a con, it’s hard to say how he’ll benefit unless a book deal gets inked or until the movie rights are sold. At one point, Waller and Smolen said major publishers had expressed interest in the outline for the manuscript. John Beasley”s convinced enough by Clyde and his story that he’s bidding to acquire the screen rights for his company, West O Films. Beasley’s currently preparing to mount a feature film on football great Marlin Briscoe, an Omaha native Beasley and Waller grew up with.
Waller knows how improbable it all seems. He says it seemed that way to him too as he was living it. From the moment he made his first trip to Colombia in 1978, it all unfolded as in a dream.
“I used to sit there at night looking up at the stars, saying, ‘You this little (expletive) from Omaha, Neb. down here in the (expletive) jungle.’ And I did it willingly. It wasn’t like the army sent me down there. I did this s___ on my own. When I first got there, I was actually crying. I’m saying, ‘(expletive). man, I’m back in Vietnam. What person in their right mind would even put their ass in a situation like this?’”
Bogota was as scary and foreign to him as Vietnam had been. The surreal nature of it all sank in as soon as the plane landed in a militarized airport.
“Guns everywhere. Dogs. I couldn’t speak Spanish for s___. I took a cab to the Hilton and they put me up in the Presidential suite. I wouldn’t come out for three days. I was crashing on the floor, freezing from the high altitude climate.”
He called home, desperate he’d made a terrible mistake. He told his wife Lola, “’Baby, I’m coming home. I gotta get out of here.’” She calmed him down, reminding him he “hadn’t done anything” yet,” he says, laughing. “I can laugh about it now, man, but there was a time I couldn’t even think about it.”
An African-American looking for a major drug connection in Bogota made him an object of suspicion, at least in his own mind. It was weeks before he met the young man, Foris, who would initiate him into the drug culture or “lifeline” of Colombia.
Before Foris and his people could trust Waller, they tested him. Having him hole up in the hotel for 30 days only disoriented him more for what came next.
“What they do is they take you out in the jungle and they leave your ass out there,” he says. “I didn’t know what the hell I was out there for and that’s what be getting you. Brother, you just go crazy. You just lose it. And that’s what they’re looking for — to see how fast you can get yourself back in control. At first I thought maybe they’d given me some kind of drug because I went out and pitched a b____. But I got under control in like 10 or 15 minutes and I passed the test.”
Another test he says he passed came in the presence of Pablo Escobar himself, only Waller asserts at the time he didn’t know who The Man was, only that he was an associate of Foris’s. Escobar came to the home of Foris, bodyguards stationed outside. Waller recalls Escobar as quiet and carefully “observing me.” The men whiled away the night drinking beer and smoking PalMals stoked with coke, each measuring their manhood by how much they could consume.
“They wanted to see how strong I was,” he says. “The next morning they were laying on the floor and I was stepping over their asses, still drinking, still smoking. The final result was, ‘I was a helluva black American.’”
Clay, as he was called there, lived with Foris, his wife and their extended family. His immersion in the coca culture brought him deep into an alternate reality. “It’s a world of it’s own down there,” he says. “See, everything down there is opposite here.” His acceptance in this underground gave him cachet but that didn’t mean he still wasn’t afraid. “I was always thinking they was trying to kill me,” he says. When told how the drugs were carried out — in small plastic bags to be ingested and then expelled — he was sure of it. “I thought they was crazy.”
Now he needed a sign of trust. It came on a road trip to Cali. “The police stopped us. Foris tried to bribe the cop and he took our asses straight to jail,” he recalls. Drug convictions bring stiff penalties in Colombia. “Down there if they caught you with a zig-zag in your pocket you’d do 30 years,” he says. “Any paraphernalia, you go to prison. If it’s coke, you never get out.” It’s why Waller made a decision while stewing in jail. “I sat there and thought, ‘If this man (Foris) get our asses out of this, then I know I can put my life in his hands.’ And he got us out of it. That’s when the trust came in. After that, I didn’t have to ask no more questions.”
Smuggling smack out of the country was a crucible of logistics and rituals and mind games. When Foris brought Clyde his first shipment, he avoided it for three days. “They said, ‘It belongs to you now.’ I did not touch it, I walked around it, I tried to ignore it, I even tried to act like it wasn’t there,” he says. “It was a helluva an experience.” As prep for each trip Foris’s wife communed with spirits to protect Waller on his mule run. “She’d come out from a closed room and say, ‘Clay, it’s time to go,’ and I knew it. I’d just get up and go. And it happened like that seven times. She always told me, ‘Everybody around you will help you.’ I didn’t know what she meant. But it happened just like she said. Everybody around me helped me…”
Once, when carrying into the U.S., he says he saw that drug-sniffing dogs were on duty. “I knew this day I might have a problem,” he says. Rather than panic he seized the moment when he sized-up a young girl aboard as someone special. He was right — she was a diplomat’s daughter. By insinuating himself into her entourage, neither his body nor luggage was searched.
He refers to the Zen-like “control” and presence of mind it takes to complete a drug run. “Pure control,” he says. “You have to be able to do it or go to prison. It got easier and easier. I was like an actor on the set getting ready to do his part…go into his character. You have to be able to live your cover.” He could have easily “lost it” on his first run if not for how he’d steeled himself. Going over “every scenario that is possible” in his head. “What it boils down to is thinking logically,” he says.“That first trip of mine, man, they made us sit on the plane for two hours before we could get off of it (in Miami). They turned off the air, we were sweating. All I could see outside was dogs and federal marshals.”
He nearly began tripping, until he reminded himself “they don’t know I’m coming through here with this unless I tell them.” In order to not betray any tells, he says, “you have to have the ability to take that fear away from you. I was always able to surmount it and get over it and get past it without being shaken. Nobody can teach you that. And when you get out you are so mentally exhausted.” He says making runs with someone else, as he did with Lola, is even harder and riskier. He had to “maintain” her and himself to avoid a slip. He says the two of them would assume fake identities, once even posing as missionaries. “We couldn’t do it the same way every time. We had to keep coming up with new ideas. I was very creative.”
Waller says he came to know the major drug routes and was courted by crime organizations, including a group he calls “the black mafia.” But he kept the drug business a sideline to his financial chicanery, eventually setting up base in Hawaii, where the feds finally closed in. Busted, he faced serious jail time. Rather than do time, he cooperated.
By the time he walked away from it all, he says he was spent from the pressure of being a user and being used. It’s why he “allowed” himself to get hooked.
“A way of paying penitence. The more hooked I became, the more my importance diminished — importance to the authorities and to the dealers. I never let anyone know that I was using. Only Lola knew and my brothers. But my concentration on ‘the game’ was waning, just like I wanted it to do. I made a conscious decision to do this. I couldn’t handle being in charge of so many other people’s lives and welfare — 15-20 people depending on me to feed their kids -– not including the users who were depending on my product.”
Sealed documents contain the threads of some of his criminal escapades. He and Smolen tried gaining access to those records without much success.
If things go the way he wants, his story will break big — as a book, a film, a play. He’ll be immortalized as an American Gangster. He’s fine with that, although he’s concerned his sons, the new women in his life, Ruby, and the young men and women he mentors at his barber school will learn disturbing things about him they don’t know.
The old life is not completely out of his system. Although he swears he’s mostly gone legit he acknowledges he’s still got some action going on in his capacity as a kind of liaison or procurer who can, for a price, get you anything you want. No questions asked.
Every one who reads or sees his story will have to make up their own mind about this living urban legend. Perhaps he says it best:
“Man, I’m telling you it’s so heavy and deep it’s almost like this s___ was a dream.”
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