Risqué Business

How John Van Means Wound Up Selling Sidewalk Erotica

As early as the 1960s, Van Means was starting to see how beautiful erotica could be from an aesthetic point of view and began to collect what he calls "alternative literature." At the same time, he says, he was designing and making clothes for Lord & Taylor, Bonwit Teller, J.R. Hudson, I. Magnin. "I was one of the few black guys doing it and I made a lot of money."

Lou Gossett, who lived with Van Means on and off throughout the decade, says, "I called him the black Beau Brummell. We'd meet up and sit in his Rolls Royce at Sixth Avenue and 14th Street eating watermelon," Gossett says. "I can't remember if I met him through the theater scene or the folk-music scene, but we were all there—Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Jimi Hendrix, and John Sebastian."

Another good friend, Gordon Parks Jr., would jump-start Van Means's next career in the early '70s. Parks had made the seminal film Superfly and was in the process of directing another movie. Appalled at how much money Parks was paying his screenwriter, Van Means says he bought a book on screenwriting and wrote a screenplay entitled Come to the Table. "It was about pool hustlers, which I knew a lot about. It was eventually sold to James Brown for $25,000, but they never made the movie." (The Writers' Guild has no record of Van Means's script, but the organization only keeps track of scripts that have been produced.) "I finished the screenplay and I took it to Gordon and he said, 'You're going to get your ass in trouble,' and I said, 'What do you mean?' and he said, 'You're plagiarizing, you're putting your name on someone else's work,' and I said, 'No, I wrote it.' He said, 'John, you can't even talk.' I said, 'I don't trust you. Show this to your father.' "

Gordon Parks Sr., a Life magazine photographer and the director of Shaft, said he'd certainly seen worse. That was all Van Means needed to hear. Van Means says he ultimately wrote 13 scripts and sold 11. Two were made into low-budget movies so bad they weren't released.

In 1976, Gordon Parks Jr. was hired to direct a film in Africa based on the writings of a Zambian cabinet minister. John Van Means wanted in. "I heard that Zambian officials had given Gordon two writers that would be acceptable: One was Lonnie Elder, nominated for an Academy Award for Sounder, and the other was a drunk named Chuck Gordone, who won a Pulitzer Prize for No Place to Be Somebody. He was the most wretched nigger that God has ever let live. When I found out that Chuck had won the Pulitzer Prize, I went home and threw myself on the floor, biting the fucking rug, cursing.

"I called Gordon Parks Jr. and said, 'Let's have lunch.' " They agreed that among Elder, Van Means, and Gordone, Van Means would need the least baby-sitting. "So now I was going to Africa. My agent at the time told me not to go, but I wasn't going to let a white man tell me what to do. I wanted to go to Africa to be with my people. We flew to London, and diplomats met us at the plane. I got nervous when I found out the pilots were black but when we got to Zambia, I thought, 'I'm with my people, I'm happy.' Africans never let you forget that you're American, even if you are black, but I was happy." Van Means says he'd been promised $75,000 for the script. "I'm there a month when they tell us that they're having problems in Zambia and if they send that much money out of the country the people will rise up. I turn in the draft, they pay me $75K in local money that can only be spent in Zambia." The movie was off, but Van Means remained in Africa for most of the next decade, until his longing for the States grew too strong to resist.

Van Means returned to New York in 1987 to find that the person handling his finances had blown his savings on currency trading and a brutal drug habit. He ended up in a church-run shelter, refusing to ask anyone for money. That year, he got the idea of selling literature on the street while walking down St. Marks and seeing books and magazines spread out on tables and blankets. His own extensive collection had been stored in a friend's loft, and he cut a deal directly with the suppliers. "They were paying the suppliers 25 percent, and I offered 35 percent. I said that, and I was in." Today, Van Means runs his stand like a business and makes a very good living, though he is reluctant to supply hard numbers. He has a license from the city to sell literature, and the cops leave him alone. "I have a hell of a clientele—it's embarrassing. People from all walks of life, learned people, famous people I can't mention. At my salon, friends come to say hello: actors, models, bankers, lawyers, doctors from international relief organizations. I'm very discreet. If I don't have it, I can get it."

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