…”Five Days at Memorial,” Sheri Fink’s Pulitzer-winning account of what went on at that New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina, a five star recommendation by my pal http://buddshenkin.blogspot.com/, toward whom I turn on all questions of national health policy, as well as why I should give a shit about what goes on in the Ukraine. I could have done without the last bit about the competing theories about disbursing medical care during disasters, but the account of events was compelling, the characters were well-rendered, and my thinking was bounced around quite a bit.
This one was published on-line by “The Broad Street Review,” under the perhaps-improved, certainly catchier title “Let Us Now Praise Obscure Men” on October 19, 2009.
InWa David Halberstam’s chapter on Grace Metalious in “The Fifties,” I learned that “Return to Peyton Place” had been doctored into publishable health by Warren Miller. When I saw that name, I did not immediately associate to “skiers” and “snow.” I thought, “The Cool World.”
Considering the impact his novel had on me, it was surprising how little I knew about its author. Miller came out of the Iowa Writers Workshop. He published nine books between 1958 and 1964. “(O)utspoken political views,” Wikipedia says, combined with a death from lung cancer in 1966, at age forty-five, to leave him “relatively unknown today.”
But “The Cool World” enshrined him within me forever. It appeared in 1959, the first person narrative of Duke Custis, fourteen-year-old War Lord of the Royal Crocodiles, a Harlem gang. I was in eleventh grade and had never – and, to this day, have not yet – read anything that, to my middle class Jewish ear, so well captured the rhythm and language of what-I-took-to-be those streets. (Just the other day, sharpening a scene for a work-in-progress, I turned to it for dialogue enhancement.) Its opening sentence – “They call him Priest because he always wear black” – with its immaculately calibrated dropped “s” – had grabbed me and the friends with whom I had shared other identity-shaping passions – from EC comics through pre-Elvis rock’n’roll – and we had grabbed it back. We were in the process, though we did not know it yet, of trying to become hip – or “hep,” as Duke would have it – to differentiate from our bland surround; and Miller’s book became a piece in the stand-apart assemblages we were effecting. It was so neat to know “shitman” as one word. It was so fulfilling to hold a piece of excellence to which most of the world was blind. With “Catcher” and “Martian Chronicles,” it was among the few books I would carry out of adolescence into adulthood. Before Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Faulkner, I had it.
Long before I thought of writing as something I could do, “The Cool World” planted a flag atop a hill. It was a means of assertion. A badge among a brotherhood. It said if you could render the distinct you would make a mark.
What do “The Hustler” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth” have in common, I used to ask. No one knew. When I said they were written by the same man, they had not heard of him.
Walter Tevis was born in 1928. During the 1950s, he published short stories in “Esquire,” “Saturday Evening Post,” “Colliers,” “Redbook,” “Cosmopolitan.” “The Hustler,” his first novel, was published in 1959. “The Man…,” his second, in 1963. He did not publish another for seventeen years.
I read “The Hustler” first as a short story in “Playboy.” If my memory is correct, I saw it as a TV drama, though no such adaptation is credited on Tevis’s web site. I read the novel more than twice. I saw the movie more than that. In 1963, when a friend and I drove cross-country after our junior year of college, there were two places we had to see in San Francisco: City Lights Books and the Market Street pool hall where, we believed, Paul Newman had played Jackie Gleason. (We were misinformed. In researching this piece, I learned those scenes were shot at Ames Pool Hall in New York City.) “The Hustler” was one of those markers by which we hoped to fight our way clear of the dreary, stultifying grind-you-down, stamp-you-out assembly line time. It pointed a way, we hoped, toward transformative, glorious, flame-burning, soul-saving deviance. To this day, when I describe my first book, I say “It’s an existential sports novel, like ‘Fat City’ or ‘The Hustler.’” I would not be more proud if I was associating myself to “Ulysses.” In about – I am guessing – 1980, I saw a flyer announcing that Tevis was reading at Cody’s Books. This was before authors’ readings were regular events in book stores. (I had been in Berkeley twelve years and don’t think I had attended any.) My recollection is the crowd was small. My sense is nearly all were there because of the David Bowie connection. When Tevis took questions, I raised my hand. I think – at least I’d like to think – I told him what “The Hustler” had meant to me. Then I asked how he had moved from its nitty-gritty realism into science fiction. He said that he was an alcoholic. “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” he said, was his rendition of what it was his life had been like on this planet.
In the next four years, Tevis published four more novels. He died of lung cancer in 1984.
My habit, after my work-out, has been one ounce of dark chocolate, which I have found a better motivator than a carrot on a stick, followed by a five-minute meditation. When the weather is good, I eat my chocolate and do my sit outside, beside the health club pool. Swimmers move through the blue, salted water. Tall palm trees sway. Recently, though, jack hammers have been blasting, not 20-feet away.
I have never been a great meditator. (That I persist, after all these years of practice, in grading my meditations, confirms my long way to go.) And the jack hammers drove me inside. Then the weather got even better.
It turned out jack hammers were not determinative. I could not tune them out. But they did not prevent my having the old familiar thoughts which keep me – or don’t – from following my breath. They did not unplug the light show, flashing yellow, red and green on the inside of my eye lids. They were just another noise.
All around us wars and plagues blast. But we can keep on doing what we do.
…Edward St. Aubyn’s “Lost for Words” and Janet Malcolm’s “Forty-One False Starts.”
I am a great fan of St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. This was not one.
I am a great fan of Malcolm’s anything. I had read nearly all of this before, some of it twice. My admiration only grew.
My latest piece has gone up at http://broadstreetreview.com/books-movies/a-flag-for-robert-stone
There was a period I read his novels as soon as they came out. Hall of Mirrors. Dog Soldiers. A Flag For Sunrise. Children of Light. Outerbridge Reef. Damascus Gate.
Well, not exactly. I read the last four after Max Garden, who had bought them, finished.
Okay, back to 1957, ’58, originally published as “Hanging Out in the ’50s” by the Broad Street Review on May 9, 2009. Got some good reactions, establishing my West Philaelphia street cred, as I recall.
The hamburger came with grilled onions and cost 35 cents. French fries cost 15 cents and a coke a dime. Or you could pile into a booth with your friends for nothing. The juke box played “Poinciana” and “To the Aisle” and “Mr. Lee.” You could do that till curfew chased you home.
In the mid-1950s, West Philadelphia, from 63rd to 30th, from Market Street to Baltimore Avenue, became a “changing neighborhood.” Negroes moved in, and whites (mostly Jews) moved out. Since the changes first manifested on the perimeter, in 1957 Barson’s, on 60th Street, ceased to be the area’s main hang-out, and Dewey’s, on Spruce, below 48th, replaced it. I lived three blocks away and, at 15, was entering my hanging-out years.
Dewey’s had a counter, a double row of booths down its center, another row along its west wall. The core of the Dewey’s crowd was from West Philadelphia High School, a block to its north – mostly white kids – and mostly Jewish – like Buzzy Scolnick, the varsity quarterback, still best known for having enlivened a grade school trip to the zoo by lobbing cherry bombs at the crocodiles, and Steven Pomerantz, who already smoked individually wrapped Garcia Vegas and wore a full length vicuna coat and homburg, like his father the bookie, and stylish Sam Goodman, who had made black turtlenecks under blue buttondown shirts de rigeur in certain circles. These luminaries layered upon a contingent of older, even more worldly semi-criminals, like the Egan brothers, Biff and Bow Wow, who consorted with whores; and Cowboy Dineen, who had been thrown out of three schools I knew of despite the ability to hit a baseball over the Passon’s field fence; and Troy Something-or-Other, a swarthy, oily haired, rock-muscled guy, whose girlfriend was Carol Blitz, the prettiest girl in the senior class (Why, I wondered, would she be interested in him, when boys who were going to Penn to become orthopedic surgeons would have given 25 points off their College Boards to date her), and Donny Rumble, who drove a silver T-bird. That was all I knew about him Donny Rumble. Silver T-bird. What else was there? What could better that?
I did not drive. I had never spoken to a whore. I was happy to line a ball past shortstop. I was not exactly at Dewey’s red hot center. I was tall and skinny and wore glasses and shy and, even worse, when I was ten, my parents had transferred me from the public elementary school, where I was about to be taught by Jacqueline Susann’s mother, a ferocious woman with a bun of severely dyed black hair, known for disciplining pupils by having them copy pages from the dictionary, into Friends’ Central, a Quaker school across City Line Avenue. So I was a “private school kid” on top of everything else. I came to Dewey’s because some of my neighborhood friends, like Max Garden and Mickey Kipper, did. Max and Mickey’s own defects left them only a little closer to the center than me, but they had friends who were closer still, and this provided enough rideable coat tails that I could feel comfortable.
The thrill of hanging out at Dewey’s was primarily in the echoes of that “out.” “Out” meant away from the family. It meant away from the confining, conformist, predominant 1950s cultural attitude that scorned all non-grade-bettering, non-money-earning, devil-courting idleness. We might not actually be doing anything at Dewey’s, besides idling, of which the family or the culture disapproved; but at least we were giving ourselves the chance that we might. That counted for something, we believed. We knew nothing of interest was going to happen if we stayed in.
The devil might roll up in a silver T-bird. He might have a dishwater Nash. We just wanted to hear the purr of his exhaust when his motor revved.
The most exciting times at Dewey’s were when news arrived of a party. Someone would have heard from someone in Wynnefield or Oxford Circle or Lower Merion, and we would pile four or five into a car, chip in $2 for gas, and off we would go.
One Saturday evening, in the spring of 1958, word came of a party in Newtown Square. Newtown, ten miles to the southwest, was a long way to go for a party. It was also foreign and exotic terrain. All I knew of it or its inhabitants had come from the arrival at Friends’ Central the preceding fall of a graduate of its high school, Joe “Hondo” Wayne, a crew cut, six-foot-four, 220 pound, All-Delco tackle, whose need of additional education could nicely fill holes in our offensive and defensive lines. He was someone we sophomores regarded with awe – especially those amongst us who were 150 pound JV defensive ends. Who was hosting this party or how word of it had reached Dewey’s I did not know, but Mickey Kipper had his father’s Plymouth, and off we went. (Mickey and I were sufficiently off-center that no one else rushed to join our crew.)
It was a ranch house on a dead end street. Biff Egan and Buzzy Scolnick were drinking Ortlieb’s in the kitchen. Troy Something-or-Other, in a fish net t-shirt, was on the living room couch, his arm slung over a Barbara Steele lookalike in a pink V-neck and slit skirt. The record player was running “I Got a Woman” over and over, and Bow Wow Egan, an upended wastebasket between his knees, was pounding the beat on its bottom. The entire scene was bathed in red light. The cigarette smoke was as thick as mucous. Bedroom doors were clicking shut. I suddenly thought: No parents are home. I had never been at a party when no parents were home. I settled with that revelation into a conversation with Artie Gottlieb, a junior councilor at my summer camp just back from Paris Island, until it became clear he had more important things on his mind than describing the obstacle course to me.
I was staring at the refrigerator, wondering if you just took an Ortlieb’s from it, or if you had to ask someone’s permission, and, if you did, whom you asked, and, if they granted it, how you opened the Ortlieb’s without it spurting all over your Banlon shirt, when it fell upon me that the several cars that had pulled to squealing stops out front had dislodged several sets of running feet that were massing at the front door, and that several of those already in the house, like Biff and Bow Wow and Buzzy, were running toward this mass and that others, like Mickey Kipper, were retreating toward me. It occurred to me that a number of girls at the party were from Newtown and that a number of Newtown guys had arrived to register their objection.
“Vamanos,’ Mickey said.
Those who had remained behind returned to Dewey’s later, loud, laughing, slapping backs, a legion rotated to Rome after destroying the Goths. I hung on the edges of their conversations, hungry for details. I could not wait for Monday when I could report to classmates at Friends’ Central. I felt like I had hopped a time machine and glimpsed a dangerous future.
It was Wednesday that Hondo raised an arm to stop me on the stairs. “Heard you were at the Omega Drive party.”
“Yes,” I said, hoping he would not smite me to avenge a fallen comrades.
“You West Philly boys are tough.” His smile offered a suit – black leather, gold lame’, or three button worsted – into which I might yet grow.
Michal, a friend since college, called from Seattle during the Colts-Broncos game, because he thought my connection to the comics world might have left me more affected than most by the Charlie Hebdo shootings. I told him I didn’t think so. I was, I said, trying to take the long view, relocating from the planet, looking down.y latest piece has gone up at http://broadstreetreview.com/cross-cultural/charlie-hebdo-and-other-bad-news
It begins: Michal, a friend since college, called from Seattle during the Colts-Broncos game, because he thought my connection to the comics world might have left me more affected than most by the Charlie Hebdo shootings. I told him I didn’t think so. I was, I said, trying to take the long view.
EUREKA! Robert Levin is pleased to announce the first direct purchase of books (2) from this very web site. The discriminating buyer is a resident of Toronto, Ontario, where, incidentally, lives another writing, basketball playing Bob Levin, who even more weirdly graduated 10 years after me from my very own 70-classmember high school, leading to some confusion when my first novel, about a basketball player, appeared; but let’s not get into that now. Instead we’ll pass along the tip to aspiring web site merchandisers that, when setting your item prices be sure tyo consider the implications of non-domestic postage. I didn’t, but if the Mounties at the border seize my wares, whose illustrations certainly raise the possibility, the resulting word of mouth may make it worthwhile.
Visitors to this very web site increased from 5.4/day in November to 6.7/day in December. I even sold a book to a fellow from the wrench cafe. But he thought I wanted too much money, so he bought it from Amazon.
On the down side, the average time someone spent at my site decreased from 34 to 21 seconds. I considered that I might have been a better (i.e. speedier) class of readers, but further analysis led me to a different conclusion.
If I understand Google Analytics, one of my most viewed blogs was “Sex and the Single 11-Year-Old,” a rebroadcasting of an article I wrote for THE COMICS JOURNAL in 1997, reflecting upon my fascination with a comic book story, “50 Girls 50,” which I read in 1953. Combined with the fact that two of my most fertile sources for visitors were domain names that it is likely the FBI is keeping an eye on led me to suspect that once these visitors had familiarized themselves with what I was about they had opted for more gratifying climes.
My latest piece is up at http://broadstreetreview.com/cross-cultural/on-the-sending-of-christmas-cards
I began sending Xmas cards when I was an attorney. Every current client received one. I hoped the gesture would prevent their yelling at me for at least a week. If I received a card from a client, I sent that client a card the following year, even if their case had ended. I sent cards to friends who lived outside the Bay Area too. I kept a record in my address book, allowing each to go three years without sending me a card before I dropped them. Some friends I kept on the list longer, like I was dropping messages in bottles into the ocean of time, hoping for an answer. Some friends returned cards forever and ever… then stopped. Some resumed, but others were left to my imagination to account for.