Puddles

This is an expanded version of a piece that appeared on-line at The Broad Street Review, October 4, 2009, misguidedly titled “For the Love of a Dog,” the second of what became an initially unplanned series about growing up in the 1950s.

Until I was three, we lived with my father’s parents in South Philadelphia, at 10th and Baimbridge. My grandfather’s parents had arrived in South Jersey, with a group of Jewish emigres from Russia, for whom the Belgian-born Baron Maurice Hirsch had acquired land to farm in accordance with Socialist principles, though none of the Jews had ever owned land or farmed. My grandfather ran away as a teenager and worked as a machinist, up and down the east coast. (What he thought of the baron’s principles may be divined from his naming his first born, my father, Herbert Spencer Levin.) When my grandfather returned to South Jersey, he married the first girl in the community to have graduated high school.
She had plans for my grandfather and encouraged – some would say forced – him to become a doctor. This was not as difficult as it sounded since, in those days, there were medical schools which advertised on the equivalent of matchbook covers. My grandfather succeeded and established his offices on the first floor of his house. (I remember only its cabinets, whose shelves were enclosed behind glass doors, which folded upwards and which we inherited and two algae-choked fish tanks which returned, occupied often by mutant albino creatures, in my dreams for decades.) His patients, usually first generation Jews, Italians, and Negroes up from the South, whose ranks included Moms Mabley and Peg Leg Bates, paid him in cash or backyard produce or homemade wine. He was also, I learned much later, a drinker, a philanderer, abusive to his wife and children. But I was his first grandchild, and had favored nation status.
My grandfather always had dogs, usually chows or huskies or a mix, and usually mean. (My father spoke with rare respect and awe of Ming, a black chow from before my time, who, if his basic disposition was any indication, had been named for the villain in “Flash Gordon,” not the dynasty.) I grew up among such beasts. My favorite childhood picture is of me in a box, peering over the edge, surrounded by several drooling pups. I was completely at ease with dogs. I petted every one I met on the street or in Rittenhouse Square. And I loved stories about dogs. Dogs who rescued owners from fires and floods. Who fought off wolves and cougars and bears. Who, stolen or lost or cruelly sold, found their way across vast wildernesses to where they belonged.

After my sister Susie was born, we moved into a row house in West Philadelphia, on 46th Street, off Pine. (My grandmother, I also later learned, was to come with us, but she died shortly before the move took place.) When my Uncle Manny came home from World War II, he lived with us. So for a while did my Aunt Esther and Uncle Bernie and their baby daughter Elizabeth. My brother Larry arrived a year after that. One of my earliest correctives to my erroneous thinkings occurred in our first years on 46th Street. Because Susie was blonde, I had reasoned that was what distinguished boys from girls. No one had bothered to correct, but then I met a five-or-six-year-old boy who lived across the street, a Quaker, who was even blonder, so I had to reconsider the issue.
One day, I’m unsure when, my grandfather arrived unexpectedly and announced he had a present for me in his overcoat pocket. I pulled out a squirming, yipping ball of fur. Uncle Bernie, reacting to one of the puppy’s primary proclivities, named it Puddles. Puddles grew into a handsome dog. He had a barrel chest, a thick reddish brown coat, with a white ruff and white paws. He was intelligent, loyal, trustworthy, reverent, clean (within limits), obedient (ditto), and, I am sure, had we only been able to recognize it, as witty as Oscar Wilde. I certainly found him a more valuable addition to the household than my sister or cousin or brother. Then my grandfather arrived to borrow him. (This was not discussed with me at the time either, but Puddles had become old enough to breed.) He put him in his car and off they rode. But when my grandfather opened the door on 10th Street, Puddles, recalling who knows what traumas of his youth, or what confidences his mother may have shared with him, bolted.
There were no tracers-of-lost-dogs then. No one festooned fences with flyers or organized phone banks of inquiry. My parents, exercising the proper standard of care, alerted the pound. My grandfather was remorseful, and I was bereft. “He has tags,” my parents said. “Someone may call.” But when the phone rang, it was only Mrs. Kipper or Mrs. Hartz to discuss ORT with my mother. Then, several days later, the sun not yet risen, Uncle Bernie, readying for work, heard a scratching at the door. A somewhat thinner, somewhat bloodied Puddles, relying on some blend of instinct and intuition and the knowledge gained in his one journey to our house as a six-week old and from it on the occasion of his (to his mind) abduction, had found a street that crossed the Schuylkill and made it the four miles back. He had not crossed the Great Plains or the tundra, but in our lives he loomed heroic.

Puddles lived with us another two or three years. It was a time without leash laws, and urban dogs roamed free to ravage garbage cans, risk crossing Walnut Street, rendevous with one another, and encounter mankind’s varying dispositions. And one day an older, red-headed boy, whom I knew from the Lea School playground, where I was not in attendance, said Puddles had bitten him. Uncle Bernie, Puddles’s greatest champion, could hardly bring himself to think what the boy must have done to have provoked the attack. (For decades, when revisiting the story, he would link it with his walking into the living room and seeing Elizabeth gripping Puddles’s tongue in both hands, seeing how far she could stretch it, and Puddles stoically communicating his wish that this experiment be concluded.) But biting dogs could be gassed upon an unverified accusation and a magistrate’s order.
Somehow, my father brokered a deal. It may have involved payment to the bitten boy’s parents. It may have involved the political capital he had accrued as a Democratic party loyalist. By then Uncle Bernie’s family had moved to Overbrook Park, which was far enough away that Puddles would not endanger the red-headed boy or anyone else within the magistrate’s jurisdiction. It was agreed that if Puddles was banished, charges would dissolve.

I was sorry to see Puddles go, but I recognized the greater good. His new home abutted Cobbs Creek Golf Course, which provided eighteen holes to explore, a rivulet in which to splash, an actual patch of woods with rabbits to chase and skunks by whom he would be saluted. (Hell, at seven or eight, I could have enjoyed such a life myself.) For a time, we visited nearly every weekend, and I believed myself remembered and welcomed. I had other dogs, though none attained his stature. (The most notable was a fox terrier-like mutt who once demonstrated her regard for me by delivering three puppies on my bed without disturbing my sleep.)
Puddles lived a full and happy life. In the end, as with Rocky Raccoon (almost), Jay Gatsby (indirectly), and Stanford White (but without the kinkiness), it was love that did him in. He and a neighboring boxer regularly fought for the affections of a local chippy. On the last occasion, the boxer nearly chewed off one of his ears. After its repair, Puddles developed an infection of the brain. He was old then, and, following the vet’s recommendation, Uncle Bernie and Aunt Esther had him put to sleep.
They wished later they hadn’t, but I am certain that Puddles would have told them it was fine. They had made things fine for him for a long time.

Cards

[Somehow I got confused, so "Treasure," which was blogged two days ago, was deleted and had to go up again. Now here's what was intended to go up today.]

The Packet
The other day I received a package from my brother. He had been cleaning out his house, preparing to sell it, and found things my parents must have given him when they sold their house 40 years ago and moved into a one-bedroom apartment.
This material began with my birth and continued into my early adulthood. Some of it I had; some I was familiar with; but some astounded me. I had no idea they had collected it. I felt great delight at having it before me – and great guilt for having allowed disgruntlements and discontents from preventing me from demonstrated the reciprocal consideration and kindness toward my parents that this appreciation of me deserved.
But someone has told me that all children feel they have not done enough for their parents, and all parents feel they have not done enough for their children. And as my brother said, when he admitted sharing some of my feelings, they could not help being themselves and more than we could help being ourselves. (Also when I mentioned my experience to a woman of my age, with whom I chat at the Wrench Café, she thanked me. She saved similar material for her sons and was pleased to know they would receiving it. Maybe, it occurred to me, all parents have this “hoarding” gene and, not being one, I had not known this until what was in my mailbox bit me.)
Anyway, I have a series of pieces I’ve written about growing up in West Philadelphia in the 1950s, which I had intended to re-blog here. Now my plan is to do that but to intersperse them, more or less sequentially, as I work my way through this box.

Cards
Among the things my parents saved (See blog of August 15) were cards from when I was born, my first through fourth birthdays, and my bar mitzvah. The bar mitzvah cards, for reasons to be explained, were not of much interest.
I was a first born son of a first born son. My father, Herb, had two brothers, Babe and Manny, and one sister, Esther. My mother, Rebecca, had a sister, Mary, a brother, Leon, and a step-brother, Sam, all of whom, except Manny who was in the service, lived in Philadelphia, and none of whom, as yet, had any children. So I was a big deal.

There were not only cards but telegrams, hand-written notes, and penny postcards. (The cards probably cost a nickle or less.) Cute animals abounded, ducks, kittens, and many puppies. One had Bambi and Thumper and one Superman. (For whom were they intended, I wonder. By the time I would recognize them, they would have long been packed away, if not discarded.) In the spirit of the times, one could be folded into a soldier’s cap, and one afforded a slot within which to save pennies, accompanied by a note from the sender, my future dermatologist, expressing his wish to my father that they be used “to shoot all the Nazis.”
[Another item of interest was my mother’s hospital bill. She had been in Pennsylvania Hospital 15 days, at $8 per. The delivery room had cost $10, as had my circumcision. Lab costs were $2, the phone $.83, and newspapers $.40. Her physician charged another $150. “Fifteen days in the hospital,” a friend said. “You must have been a handful from the start.” “Hey,” I said. “At $8/day, including meals, it was probably better than moving back into 10th Street, with her in-laws.”]

Both sets of grandparents and all my aunts and uncles sent cards. So did people who remained friends of my parents the rest of their lives. But many came from people I did not know and can not recall ever having heard mentioned. Who were “Goldie and Raymond,” “Aunt Frieda and Uncle Ben,” “Mrs. Herman Wierle,” “Sarah Pincus,” “Mr. & Mrs. H.J. McGlade, Sr.”? How did they connect to my family, and when and how did this connection end? Did they peer at me in my crib, and what did I think? Dream? Hallucination? Demon? When I did not know what dreams, hallucinations or dreams were.
They are all gone, of course, as is everyone who could tell me.

Treasure

The other day I received a package from my brother. He had been cleaning out his house, preparing to sell it, and found things my parents must have given him when they sold their house 40 years ago and moved into a one-bedroom apartment.
This material began with my birth and continued into my early adulthood. Some of it I had; some I was familiar with; but some astounded me. I had no idea they had collected it. I felt great delight at having it before me – and great guilt for having allowed disgruntlements and discontents from preventing me from demonstrated the reciprocal consideration and kindness toward my parents that this appreciation of me deserved.
But someone has told me that all children feel they have not done enough for their parents, and all parents feel they have not done enough for their children. And as my brother said, when he admitted sharing some of my feelings, they could not help being themselves and more than we could help being ourselves. (Also when I mentioned my experience to a woman of my age, with whom I chat at the Wrench Café, she thanked me. She saved similar material for her sons and was pleased to know they would receiving it. Maybe, it occurred to me, all parents have this “hoarding” gene and, not being one, I had not known this until what was in my mailbox bit me.)
Anyway, I have a series of pieces I’ve written about growing up in West Philadelphia in the 1950s, which I had intended to re-blog here. Now my plan is to do that but to intersperse them, more or less sequentially, as I work my way through this box.

How I Became a Writer (vii)

Law School (3.)
Penn replaced numerical grades with adjectives. That made it nearly impossible to flunk out. I failed Tax. I received “Excellent” in Fed. Courts. I was mediocre everywhere else.
My main interest was extra-curricula. I had a skill. I wanted to make a contribution. I volunteered to interview clients and do legal research at the Voluntary Defender’s and Community Legal Services. I taught “Your Civil Rights” in a public high school. (“The kids’ll want to know,” someone told me, “what to do if a cop wants to look for drugs up their asshole.”) And I rode as a civilian observer in a patrol car on its evening tour.
I never caught a violent crime or kicked-in door. Mainly I saw DUIs and domestic beefs. One night two young officers shoved a broad shouldered, 40 year old against the booking desk. He smelled of alcohol. He wore a houndstooth cap. The fly on his slacks was down. He had a four-inch scar over one eye. The charges were Loitering and Prowling.
He had $.62 and a billfold stuffed with papers. On a job application, he had penciled, “Have attain some excellence as a boxer.” “Hey, Pete, watch out. This guy was a fighter,” one officer said. Pete laughed. “What’s your name?” “Charley Scott.”
“Charley Scott?” I said.
The man nodded.
I had seen him the best night of his life. He had knocked out Sugar Hart in the ninth in a fight they still talked about. Then, for Christmas money, he’d gone up to New York and lost 5-4-1 to Benny Paret, and Paret got the title shot. Within a couple years, Paret was dead, killed in the ring by Emile Griffith, and Scott was on his slide.
He left for Detective Division, light on his feet, a fighter’s bounce.

The bar that year was The Aftermath.
Chuckie Tusk, Billy McDonnell’s ex-cop uncle, had a cheesy Italian restaurant a block from Lorna’s. He let Tommy and Max open up the basement on his liquor license. They hung posters of Belmondo and Dylan and James Dean on the walls. They put a lava lamp by the register and “Good Vibrations” and “Rainy Day Women” and “Spend the Night Together” on the jukebox. A couple times Max let me card people, which was cool.
But we weren’t like before. I was still scared of acid and had quit meth once I heard how bad it was. Max was shooting it. I was playing basketball in an alumni league with stock brokers and endocrinologists. He was getting high in apartments smelling of cat piss with people who saw a night shift at the post office as a step up. I was headed toward the Bar. He had dropped the French he needed to graduate. “Whatever happened to you, man?” I said. “I’m happy,” he said. He told me pot would be legal within five years; the major tobacco companies had already registered the groovy brand names. (With the same assurance, he would tell me a few years later that heroin was not dangerous. The overdoses the media reported were really suicides. “You’ve seen the notes?” I said.)
One snowy night, we closed the bar early and, loaded with beer and Dex, headed his old Buick to the East Village. The car floated back and forth across three lanes. We couldn’t see two feet through any window. Back in his apartment, we laid our score across a Daily News headline: “$50,000 College Dope Ring Smashed.”
I saw that in my story too.

I read Tortilla Flats, Confessions of a Shy Pornographer, The Magus. (“There comes a time in each life like a point of fulcrum,” I wrote in my journal. “At that time you must accept yourself. It is not any more what you will become. It is what you are and always will be.”) I dated a teacher of deaf children, a go-go dancer Hesh fixed me up with after I put in a word for him with the judge assigned his latest bust, a divorced cellist studying at Curtis. “I could care about you,” she said. “You’re intelligent, sensitive, attractive, together; and you’re not a head. Could you care about me?” I didn’t say anything. “Have you ever cared about anyone?” “There was this girl in college.” The next time I saw her, she was in a booth at Frank’s pressed against a French horn player with a paisley necktie and purple, wide-wale corduroys.
Johnson bombed Hanoi and Haiphong. Students seized buildings on the campuses of Northwestern and Cheyney State. Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, Tampa, Newark, Durham, Memphis, and Detroit burned.
Dylan crashed his motorcycle and broke his neck – or didn’t.

Stanley Kessler was married at the Bellevue and took a job in mergers and acquisitions at a thirty member firm on Broad Street. Tim O’Cullinan was married under a tent in Scarsdale, and Tank Nonnanucci in a church in Boston, and Mick Magyar a country club in Wilmington.
Max married Rose in the living room of a Justice of the Peace’s in Upper Darby. The bride wore pink hot pants and a halter top. The groom wore shades and a Day-Glo painted ankle cast he had earned jumping off The Aftermath’s bar. (“He thought he could fly,” Billy said. “What else?”) Gino and Flossy and Goatley and Hickey and Moates and Hesh and Will and Billy Harley and Sally and Bernie and his old lady were there. We were in suits and Levis and madras and minis. We came in cars and on bikes. “I pronounce you man and wife,” the J.P. said. “You owe me $10, young man.” Then we went to the Center City Sheraton and turned on.
I was doing nothing I liked. I was hanging with people to whom I no longer connected. I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t studying. I was thinking nothing new.
Mark Harris’s new book mentioned Adele twice.
I grew another beard.

The main preoccupation third year was the draft.
It worked like this. You registered when you were 18. You were eligible until 26. Each local board had a quota, but you were safe if you were physically or mentally unfit, if you were an alcoholic, drug addict, homosexual, felon. That didn’t help most law students, but your board could also defer students or if your work was important to the nation. Since most of us had gone straight from high school to college to law school, we were 25 and needed one more year.
Vietnam had quotas rising, so guys from small towns or rich suburbs were eye-ing the Reserves, the National Guard, and JAG. But I was from a neighborhood where boys didn’t go to college, let alone law school. And my board’s chairman’s son was a second year student at Temple, and what it did with me would set precedent for him.
I thought about a Masters degree (“Boring”), a clerkship (“Been there”), the Peace Corps (“Two years”). One afternoon, I picked a copy of Ramparts off a desk in the library. It had a color spread on the Haight Ashbury. I could not believe people walked around in public like that. (What is now known as “The ‘60s” did not hit most of the country until some time between the Democratic Convention riots in August 1968 and Woodstock a year later. Philly had about six hippies in 1967. They hung at Rittenhouse Square, where the police rousted them for freaking out old ladies.)
I decided to let VISTA send me to San Francisco. I thought I was promising material. I hung with Al Hickey. I was for the exclusionary rule. I opposed capital punishment and the NBA’s de facto-ed half-white rosters. “I still might end up,” I wrote on my application, “working for a Philadelphia law firm, but at least it would not be because I had taken the easy road simply because it was easy and well-traveled and there.”
It did not escape me that Adele was in San Francisco.
It did not escape me she was my insanity.

Max shot speed for ten days before his pre-induction physical. He wore to it a fatigue jacket, filthy jeans, loafers without socks. When they passed out questionnaires, he dropped his pencil. He picked it up but dropped his paper. He picked it up but made such a mess, he crumpled it into a ball and demanded another sheet – yelled for a new sheet he was so into the questions. Max was shaking and sweating so badly, the sergeant sent him to the medical officer. The officer asked if he wanted meds.
Then he certified Max as crazy. Max went home and everyone else stepped closer to the rice paddies.

The call woke me one morning in June. “Robert Levy? Terrence Killeen. Assistant counsel to the Office of Economic Opportunity. Congratulations. You’ll be providing legal assistance to community action groups in Chicago. And tell your local board General Hershey says we’re in the national interest.”
I had no idea what community action was.

How I Became a Writer (vi)

I took an apartment in Powelton Village, a neighborhood to Penn’s north, of sycamore-shaded streets and big houses broken into tiny apartments for poor blacks, un-gallery connected artists, unpublished writers, out of power agitators, and assorted misfits, eccentrics and madmen. (Ira Einhorn, the hippie guru/trunk murderer-to-be, was already there, spouting off about Marshall McCluan and who killed Kennedy to a crowd of six. John Africa, who would build MOVE into an organization whose members’ home a future mayor would deem it necessary to bomb, wasn’t yet.)
My apartment had splattered floors like Jackson Pollock had been its previous tenant. Each time I went out, I thought every Negro I passed would offer me a joint, each long-haired girl would comment on the book I was carrying and invite me to her pad.
Never happened.

Law school was looking up though. We could choose some courses. (I went with Advanced Criminal Procedure, Evidence, Con. Law.) The professors tempered the bullying and ridicule, as if our re-enrolling had earned us that much.
First semester, my average went up eight points. Second, it dropped four but was respectable. One night I dreamed I was living in a shack in the Keys with a sign in the yard: “Robert A. Levin. Bait. Tackle. Attorney-at-Law.”
It seemed the best I could imagine.

I was smoking pot with Max every weekend. And snorting meth-amphetamine.
I liked drugs because they set me apart. (I knew only one other law student who did them.) I felt part of this dangerous, elite vanguard. It was cool to be at a party, knowing you were high and no one else was. But soon Max was turning on more people – and dealing on the side. Instead of drugs being something cool guys did, it was as if turning on made you cool. Like if somebody you always thought was an asshole passed you a joint, you were supposed to dig him.
Then LSD hit. Max grabbed onto it too. Those were the days of stories about teenagers burning out corneas staring into the sun and English lit instructors jumping through windows and running naked down the street and being at parties with a girl trying to flush her foot down the toilet or a naked guy, a top hat over his cock, tipping it to everyone who walked in.
That was not how I wanted to be remembered.
Or maybe I was chickenshit.

We had a new place to drink.
Lorna’s was on Walnut, two blocks from the law school. A circular bar filled most of the room. There were stools around it and booths along the east side. The juke box played “Midnight Hour” and “Summer in the City” and “Devil With the Blue Dress On.”
Lorna was a black haired, blue jeaned mother of two, who’d got title in a divorce. Her bartender, Billy McDonnell, was a hatchet-faced, pompadoured sociopath from Fishtown, the worst white neighborhood I’d ever seen. Her bouncer was Hesh Berkowitz, a 35-year-old clammer from Absecon Island, who’d once shot up with Lennie Bruce. Her base clientele were cops and felons and beauticians and Penn football players looking for fights and the occasional copy writer down from New York or blues guitarist up from New Orleans who’d heard this was a scene.
Then there was us. “Us” was me and Max and Rose. I brought Travis Cost, who was studying Tolkien, while hustling chess and pool around Powelton Village, and Al Hickey, the only black guy in my class to come back second year. Al brought Ray Goatley, a Negritude-inspired collagist, and Don Moates, a runner for Titus Blood, a p.i. lawyer and local CORE chief; and Don brought Will Tottenham, the dental school’s major doper. Max brought Flopsy and Mopsy Goldstein, daughters of a neurosurgeon, whom he’d known since Labor Zionist camp, and Pumps, who brought Dan Indio, a stock clerk who’d helped him steal the safe. Flopsy’s husband Randy, who was AWOL from the army came; so did Mopsy’s, Gino DiPieto, who’d served two years on a Nike base on Guam. Gino brought Reds Wolf, another West Philly guy he’d been in the service and who was working as typesetter; and Reds brought Bernie Blumberg, who had a Mexican import business in New Hope he was thinking of converting into a head shop; and Bernie brought Pete the Pipe, a diesel mechanic from Upper Darby, and Billy Harley, a biker with no teeth, and his girlfriend Sally, who didn’t talk; and Sally brought her girl friend Annie, whose father played first violin with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and who slept with Tommy and Hesh and Tommy again.
One of them would be stabbed to death in prison and one jailed for smuggling guns and dope and one die in a car wreck on his way back from a Black Panther meeting and one after falling off a cliff while drunk and one from infections secondary to intravenous drug use and a few simply dissolve into time; but I didn’t know any of this then.
I once went 36 nights in a row.

I went out with a Negro girl I’d met in high school, a salesclerk at Wannamaker’s, a girl who’d led cheers at Overbrook for Walt Hazzard and Wally Jones; and, some nights, after leaving them, I took long rides out Baltimore Pike and thought about Adele. I read Cuckoo’s Nest and Tenants of Moonbloom and Sot Weed Factor. (“One must needs make and seize his soul, and then cleave fast to it, or go babbling in the corner,” I wrote in my journal. “One must assert, assert, assert or go screaming mad.”) ) I wrote the “Bars, Jazz Clubs and Coffee Houses” chapter for The Collegiate Guide to Philadelphia. (When the copy I submitted included Drury Lane, a Center City gay bar, the editor showed newfound interest me that didn’t quite register.) I bribed an usher to sneak me into a sold-out Academy of Music and saw Dylan plant himself at the stage’s edge and spit “Like a Rolling Stone” into his audience’s teeth. I began a story about a college basketball player whose roommate is arrested for stealing a safe. By its end, the player was to lose his friend, his girl, and basketball.
Lyndon Johnson ordered the DMZ bombed. 200,000 anti-war demonstrators marched in New York. Omaha, Chicago and Cleveland burned.

I turned down a summer job with the Law Students Civil Rights Research Committee to clerk for a Common Pleas Court judge. LSCRRC would have shut me in a library. Clerking gave me people to experience.
Like the 13 year old boy who accused his next door neighbor of forcing him to commit oral sodomy. Like the deaf and dumb 19 year old who communicated only through a sign language understood by no one but his grandmother. Like Willy Smith, imprisoned since 1948 on a confession beaten out of him by police. I wrote the opinion that set Willy free.
I thought, You get one life. If you do not do things in it while you have the chance, you never will. Why then, I thought, do things that substantially increase your chance of losing that life? Why, for instance, fight a war that will make no difference?
The next march, I stepped off the curb.

Kentucky Bonded

My latest piece, a review of “Despair,” vol. 2, by J.T. Dockery, has gone up at http://www.tcj.com/reviews/despair-vol-2/

It begins like this:

In the dark corners of art labor those driven by integrity or madness, devotion to personal vision or consequential blindness to produce what they must.
J.T. Dockery has been at it most of his thirty-eight years. He is from Grey Hawk, in rural eastern Kentucky, baptized at eight, out of the church by ten, diagnosed at twenty with psoriatic arthritis, caged within its pain since. Heavy drinking was replaced by heavy reading, when his liver quit on the former. The tuburcular novelist Hubert Selby, Jr. became an inspiration, the noir-enraptured author Nick Tosches another, the manic depressive, psychobilly one-man band Hasil Adkins, a third. Dockery draws, writes, and plays in garage bands. He has said, “(T)he only gods I believe in are concepts of endless mystery, endless questions, and guiding precepts of love, compassion and forgiveness…” He has been to Berea College, UK, and Morehead State and, after a lengthy stop in White River, VT, lives in London, KY.

Public Service Announcement

Maybe you’ve read about the 900-author protest letter to Amazon about its treatment of Hatchette Books. Here it is, along with the e-mail address of Jeff Bezos, so you can add your two cents.

Authors United
P.O. Box 4790
Santa Fe, NM 87502
For information, email Douglas Preston
at doug@authorsunited.netA Letter to Our Readers:
Amazon is involved in a commercial dispute with the book publisher Hachette , which owns Little, Brown, Grand Central Publishing, and other familiar imprints. These sorts of disputes happen all the time between companies and they are usually resolved in a corporate back room.

But in this case, Amazon has done something unusual. It has directly targeted Hachette’s authors in an effort to force their publisher to agree to its terms.

For the past several months, Amazon has been:

–Boycotting Hachette authors, by refusing to accept pre-orders on Hachette authors’ books and eBooks, claiming they are “unavailable.”

–Refusing to discount the prices of many of Hachette authors’ books.

–Slowing the delivery of thousands of Hachette authors’ books to Amazon customers, indicating that delivery will take as long as several weeks on most titles.

–Suggesting on some Hachette authors’ pages that readers might prefer a book from a non-Hachette author instead.

As writers–most of us not published by Hachette–we feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want. It is not right for Amazon to single out a group of authors, who are not involved in the dispute, for selective retaliation. Moreover, by inconveniencing and misleading its own customers with unfair pricing and delayed delivery, Amazon is contradicting its own written promise to be “Earth’s most customer-centric company.”

Many of us have supported Amazon since it was a struggling start-up. Our books launched Amazon on the road to selling everything and becoming one of the world’s largest corporations. We have made Amazon many millions of dollars and over the years have contributed so much, free of charge, to the company by way of cooperation, joint promotions, reviews and blogs. This is no way to treat a business partner. Nor is it the right way to treat your friends. Without taking sides on the contractual dispute between Hachette and Amazon, we encourage Amazon in the strongest possible terms to stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business. None of us, neither readers nor authors, benefit when books are taken hostage. (We’re not alone in our plea: the opinion pages of both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, which rarely agree on anything, have roundly condemned Amazon’s corporate behavior.)

We call on Amazon to resolve its dispute with Hachette without further hurting authors and without blocking or otherwise delaying the sale of books to its customers.

We respectfully ask you, our loyal readers, to email Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon, at jeff@amazon.com, and tell him what you think. He says he genuinely welcomes hearing from his customers and claims to read all emails at that account. We hope that, writers and readers together, we will be able to change his mind.

Sincerely,

Megan Abbott
Robert H. Abel
Rachael Acks
William M. Adler
Elisa Albert
William Alexander
Sherman Alexie
Mike Allen
Jonathan Ames
Laurie Halse Anderson
Roger Angle
Carol Anshaw
Anne Applebaum
Debby Applegate
Kelley Armstrong
Rilla Askew
Rick Atkinson
James David Audlin
Paul Auster
Ellis Avery
Avi
Barbe Awalt
Gillian Bagwell
Blake Bailey
Deirdre Bair
Jo Baker
Kevin Baker
Mishell Baker
David Baldacci
Melissa Bank
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Women and Children, First

My latest piece is available at

How I Became a Writer (v.)

Okay, here’s the first in the series that didn’t make it into Broad Street Review due to previously discussed editorial disagreements. It was on my old blog, but practically an entire generation has come of age since then.

v.
The deal was if I went to Penn, I wouldn’t have to live at home.
I took a ground floor apartment, 40th and Chestnut, six blocks from the law school, eight from my parents.

Of the 190 students in my class, 188 were white, two black, and six were women, who, the rest of us assumed, were stalking husbands. No one was openly gay. None of us had hair as long as John Lennon’s.
Our professors stood behind a podium on which rested a seating chart with our names. The professors would call a name and ask that person to recite a case’s holding. He would ask if the student agreed. No matter what the student said, the professor would, by altering facts or shifting premises or taunting or ridiculing or bullying or lying, prove him wrong. If the student changed his position, the professor would prove the student had been correct the first time. The professors were brilliant, peculiar men, whose styles ranged from borscht belt comedian to concentration camp commandant. “There is an elite,” one told us, “to which I belong and you do not.”
Law school was all about class rank. The higher you finished, the bigger the firm that hired you, the more money you made. If your average was below 70, you flunked out. If you were in the top tenth, you made law review. Since, it turned out, only one of us flunked out and 78.6 put you on review, the other 170 of us scrapped for positions within 8.6 points. “Anyone can study eight to ten hours a day,” Al Lepke, who sat next to me, said, “The trick is to do it consistently.”
I thought him and the system insane.

I spent most of my time with Max Garden. We had been friends since 4th grade – through EC comics and rock’n’roll and keg parties. He had been expelled or dropped out of Haverford, Penn State and Temple. He had taken psychology course at Penn and done so well, it had admitted him to pursue a B.A. He was living on referral fees from steering girls to Robert Spencer, M.D., the noted upstate abortionist, and hand-outs from Rose Steinkampf, a PhD candidate in sociology, with whom he was shacking up. “It’s fun now, but I wonder what it’ll be like when I’m twenty-seven,” he said.
Max and I believed that education did not come solely from books and classes. It entailed – indeed, demanded – “experience.” We spent a lot of time seeking that experience in bars. Smokey Joe’s was for Penn frat boys. After one visit, we turned our back on it. We preferred The Deck, which drew an afternoon crowd of professorial alcoholics, or The Tip Top, a primarily black establishment across Market Street, which sold four shots of gin for $.85, and was lit so that its ice cubes glowed in its dark. But our favorite was Frank’s, in Center City, with its $.15 drafts and girls from Moore and Philadelphia College of Art. (Unfortunately, if you said you went to law school, their eyes went dead.) We would drink until 2:00 and then head to Pat’s or Jim’s for a steak.
Our quest for experience also led us to Father Divine’s. His followers had a hotel in whose dining room, for $.50, you could get meat loaf, potatoes, greens, a plastic tumbler of sugary iced tea. We ate there several times a week. Then I came down with a 103 degree fever, which had me question the nutrients I was receiving.
I was sick a month. When I returned to school, it was like someone had told my classmates what law school was about, and no one would share the secret. For three years, I walked out of exams with no idea how I’d done. I could think I had done well and done crap. I could think I had done crap and done well.
Usually the former.

I was doing no better trying to figure out my life. Law school seemed a giant conveyor belt designed to drop me off at the other end with everything about me standardized, from by sideburns (short) to my shoes (wing-tipped). I wanted out, but I had no idea to where.
I read Raymond Chandler and A.J. Liebling and The Horse’s Mouth. (“Dangerous thing to tell people about yourself,” I wrote in my journal. “They try to put you in a box. Keep you for the dining room table.”) I dated a psych. grad student, a Skidmore drop-out, a girl who knew Andrew Wyeth. I applied to Columbia Journalism School, which rejected me, and the Job Corps, which told me its staff positions for the program I desired were full.
“No one is happy about what they’re doing,” Teddy Zook wrote, “but everyone is happy to be out of Brandx.” He and Tim O’Cullinan were in analysis. Don Nussbaum had quit grad school, married a Catholic, and was about to become a father. “If you happen to find out what absolute truth is or what we’re supposed to be doing with our lives, please let me know,” Mick Magyar wrote. “Right now, I don’t care if they drop the Bomb, so long as it doesn’t wake me.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. led civil rights demonstrations in Selma and Montgomery. Lyndon Johnson sent combat troops to Vietnam. Watts burned. I heard Bob Dylan sing “Mr. Tambourine Man”and “It’s All Right, Ma” acoustic, at Convention Hall, and was astounded.

In April, Penn held its first anti-war demonstration.
A few dozen marched. Not many people suspected the president did not know – or, if he did, would lie about – what he was doing. I certainly didn’t. I believed he was keeping dominoes erect. The only law student in the line was Al Bonnet – and everyone knew his father had defended Communists in the ‘50s.
I stood on the sidewalk with Stanley Kessler. We had played some basketball but hadn’t seen each other much. He belonged to a law club. He did not hang out in bars. He was engaged to the daughter of an Oxford Circle furrier. “She’s rich. She’s good looking. She says she loves me,” he’d said. “I guess I’ll marry her.”
I told him I hated law school.
“Hang in there,” he said, “because practice is nothing like it. Go back where you came from!” he yelled at Al Bonnet – and waved. “The way I see it… The world is one big amusement park, and your bar card the ticket for its rides.”


Two other things happened that spring.
Pumps Pomprey, a high school buddy of Max’s, was arrested with two other fellows for stealing a safe from an A&P. Pumps, who had a track scholarship to St. Joe’s, was expelled.
Max and I ran into him at Frank’s. One of the other guys had given him a chance to pull out, but Pumps had asked, “How much is in the safe?” “Fifteen or twenty thousand,” the guy said. “Hell,” Pumps said, “That’s too much excitement to quit.”
It sounded like a story I could write.

Then I received a letter postmarked “Berkeley.”
“Let’s get married and join the Peace Corps,” it began. “I am that way this week. Unable to attach to anything here. I feel like I’m hanging in a ladder of my own hair. I want to break my nose rubbing it into a smooth table or the ceiling would be better, having to fly first and last.”
I bounced off my apartment’s walls. I drove to The Deck and had a couple beers. What would Steve McQueen do? I thought.
I waited a week before I answered.
I did not hear from Adele again.

I flunked two courses out of five. I finished two spots out of my class’s bottom tenth. Good enough, I figured, to tell prospective employers I was in the middle.
I considered a summer job in a Las Vegas casino. But I had my future to consider. I took a job with the Democratic City Committee. My primary duty was coloring in a map of the state to demonstrate the party’s plan for redistricting.
One night, when I dropped by, Max and Rose had a water pipe bubbling. I had wanted to try marijuana, but I did not smoke, and this, Max explained, made inhaling easy. The next thing I knew I was unable to move or speak. I bit my lip to focus on pain. I tried to vomit. I focused on a clock. I saw things were not going on forever. Slowly, I learned what might happen and what might stop it. Slowly, I discovered levels I could move between.
I could not wait for next time.

How I Became a Writer (iv)

As a compromise of our two preveiously referenced, intrangisent positions, the editor of The Broad Street Review, where this previously appeared, brought this series to an end, following this piece’s publication. The next three will be new, except for having appeared at my old blog. But until then…

4.
I came back senior year with a beard.
Adele and I had dated the rest of the spring. We had spent a weekend together over the summer. In the fall, she was living at home and taking statistics at B.U. for psych. grad. school. We dated until November, when an old boy friend got out of the army and wanted to marry her. She wanted to give it a chance. I couldn’t argue. I had not enough of an idea where my life was going to offer it to anyone.
Well, I argued, but it did no good.

I went into Park Square with Mick Magyar, whose girl friend had broken up with him, and got drunk to the Lilly Brothers at The Hillbilly Ranch. I stopped going to class, slept until noon, went drinking with Mick or Tim O’Cullinan or Tank Nonnanucci. I skipped out to Mardi Gras with Tim. I got caught in a girls dorm with Tank and made Social Probation. I joined the lacrosse team because hitting people with sticks seemed a good idea.
I relished my emerging hoodlum persona. (Being a hoodlum at Brandeis was easy. You only had to be over five-eight, hang out with Gentiles, and drink beer.) At parties, I leaned against walls, scraping the labels of Miller’s quarts, awaiting a replacement girl-of-my-dreams. I told myself I was soaking up valuable experiences. I was having a heart-broken good time.
The only thing was I wasn’t writing. The only other thing was that, by the standards of writers I admired – Algren, Hemingway, Lowry – never having shipped out on a freighter or shot a lion or experienced D.T.s – I had nothing to write about. I was still a nice Jewish boy, whose family was less enthusiastic about his wanting to be a writer than it had even been about his beard. “Go to law school,” my father said. “You can write in your spare time.” “Go to law school,” my Uncle Murry, to whom I had gone for a sympathetic ear, said. Known for having slowed his advancement through the public school system by his commitment to “principles,” he warned me against hurting my mother.
The final only thing was that while going to law school meant that I would be – by Brandeis standards – selling my soul, not going to school somewhere meant I would be spending two years doing push-ups at any redneck sergeant’s whim. So I took the LSATs.
I had celebrated our basketball team’s opening night twenty point loss with a drunk that had me up at four, six, eight, and ten to vomit. I came out of the shower at noon, wet, cold, hung-over, and Mick handed me my mail. I tore open the envelope from the Princeton Testing Service. I saw a 70 on the green paper. Shit, I thought, mediocre again. Then I saw this grid.
“You’re shaking,” Mick said.
“I think I got a 99,” I said.

That changed the situation. There was a chance the people at Princeton knew more about me than I did. This view was only somewhat shaken by my appointment with an assistant dean of admissions at Harvard Law School. I had hoped to convince Bailey Biddlebanks that my grades in writing course captured my worth more accurately than the rest of my transcript. “I am so tired,” he said, “of you C+ people waltzing in here with your pitiful 99s.” I added Penn, Northwestern, NYU to my list.
Christmas break, at the Holiday Festival, I ran into Stanley Kessler. We had met at summer camp in 1956. He had been the basketball star (Every camp had one); and I the tall, skinny, uncoordinated kid with glasses (Every camp had one of me too). He had overlooked my tendency to clang lay-ups off rims because of my knowledge of sports trivia and our shared passion for rock’n’roll, and we had become friends. (His favorite song was “Pledging My Love” and mine “Speedo,” which measured the gap in our levels of sophistication. Stanley had made out with more girls than I had spun bottles at.) Because we lived in different neighborhoods and he was a year older, we saw each other infrequently; but we had kept in touch. He had become a starting forward at Central High School, where he had once out-rebounded Earl Proctor and out-scored Howie Turnoff. He had graduated Penn and was in his first year at its law school.
Stanley was also philosophically inclined. At camp, he had clued me into one of life’s truths: How Good You Had To Be To Be Good. He had illustrated his point with our counselor, Hal Weitz. Hal had been All-Public at Lincoln. Now he couldn’t even start for Yale.
“How’d you do on your law boards?” Stanley asked.
I told him.
“Penn’ll grab you.” He punched my arm. It’ll be fun.”

Every couple months I ran into Adele, when she was visiting Beverly. There was still no one I could talk to like I talked to her. There was still no one who spoke to me like she did. Each time, I thought, Maybe she will go out with me.
But, no.

The last time was after a Ralph Ellison reading. The army guy had not worked out. Neither had statistics. Just when my hopes had revived, she told me she was going to San Francisco to study with Mark Harris. Do you know how far away San Francisco was in 1964? At Penn State, where I visited friends on party week-ends, the hippest guy on campus was a Negro called “Coast” because he had been there. When Richie Lieberthal, a guard on our flag football team, told us he was going to Stanford Med. School, everyone assumed he must not have gotten into Flower.
I told her I was thinking of Penn.
She told me if I wanted to write, I would.
At lacrosse practice, I slammed the butt end of my stick into Dusty Mizrahi’s belly. “C’mon, asshole,” I said. “C’mon.”