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.
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.
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…
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.
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.”
As previously noted, the editor of The Broad Street Review insisted I use real people’s names. His belief was that this might trigger connections among readers which would encourage dialogue. My position was, Nobody had heard of these people and if they did, they knew who they were without me telling them and, besides, I’d been using some of these names for these people in work I’d published elsewhere and I didn’t want to confuse the scholars.
So here’s part iii, as it appeared with phoney names intact.
Junior year, Creative Writing 101a was taught by Allen Roberts, a balding, forty-ish bachelor who lived suspiciously alone in an apartment on Beacon Hill. Mr. Roberts lacked tenure. He had published no books. The campus writing heavyweights eschewed him; but we did have the editor of the school paper, a fellow who had sold a story to MAD, and a Theater Arts major who had slept with Mary McCarthy’s brother. There was also this blue-green eyed brunette.
When the sign-up sheet came to me, I noted her name. Back in my dorm, I looked Adele up in the student directory. She lived in Brookline. She was a senior.
That, I thought, was that.
I was not very good with girls. I could not talk to them, for one thing. My best topics guy-wise, Philadelphia high school basketball and do-wop groups, did not get me far. And girls had little in the experience bank to interest me. They had not seen “The Wild One” four times or spent Friday nights, cruising county-to-county, six to a car, looking for parties to crash. They did not have hitch-hiking stories or drunk-and-puking stories or stories about stealing Josephs from Nativity creches on Christmas Eve. Plus, the whole 1950s double-standard, Virgin-Whore thing still had a grip on people’s minds and groins. Unlike most schools, which did not even allow girls in boys’ rooms, at Brandeis, if you had a girlfriend, you could practically live with her; but, otherwise, to get laid, you hoped to score at a nursing school mixer or get lucky on a trip to Bennington or arrange a “study” date with Mary Ellen Plotkin, the campus nymphomaniac. (Yes, we still had nymphomaniacs in 1962.)
I was at my best drunk. Then I could be charming, witty, flirtatious. But if things developed as I hoped, which, I should admit, was seldom, being drunk could lead to humiliations of another sort. I’d never gone steady. I’d lost interest with every girl I’d ever dated – or she with me – after a few evenings.
Brandeis was a small community, and I couldn’t help picking up information about Adele. She had worn a huge engagement ring the year before; she wore no ring now. She roomed with Beverly Isaacs, an attractive, pixie-cut Dean’s List pre-med from Evanston, who was having an affair with a brilliant young Intellectual History professor. She hung out with the guitar-and-book-bag crowd – but had played first singles on the tennis team. She had dated the heir to the Readi-Whip fortune, as well as the lead in the campus production of “Ubu Roi.” Any number of my friends would have given up a minor digit to have gone out with her. Once Don Nussbaum had shoo-ed a bee away from her when she was sun bathing behind the dining hall. He said, “You’re the greatest thing since sliced bread.” She said, “Usually they say, ‘Peanut butter and jelly’” – and rolled onto her other side.
I had spent the summer as a swimming instructor in the Poconos. In the evenings, I had written stories in a three-ring binder. The first story I turned in to Mr. Roberts was about a young man who gives a ride to a stranger who dies in his car. “You have talent,” Mr. Roberts wrote in the margin.
Adele came up to me in the library and told me how much she’d liked my story.
I finished the semester with my first – and the class’s only – “A.”
One night, during finals, I sat on the floor of the Bio. Sci. building, the only one on campus open twenty-four hours. Fortified with an orange soda and peanut butter crackers from its vending machines, I was studying for my exam in African Politics. I was a Politics major, with an unshakable C+/B- average. I had chosen that major because it seemed appropriate for someone who intended to go to law school. I wanted to go to law school because I admired Clarence Darrow and The Defenders and thought freeing the unjustly accused would be a gratifying career. But how, I wondered, in the grip of the Brandeis ethos that one’s grades determined who one was, could I hope to succeed with such a GPA? It seemed to me that for one’s life to be meaningful, one had to excel at what one did. One could not be C+.
I looked at my list of African political leaders: Talfala Balewa; Nmedi Azikwe; Moise Tshombe. I realized that if the exam consisted of nothing more challenging than matching a column of first names to a column of lasts, I was unlikely to sparkle.
I returned to my dorm. I told my roommate I was not going to law school. I was going to write.
Second semester, I had two courses with Adele: Creative Writing 101b and Modern American Lit. Both were taught by Mark Harris, author of The Southpaw and Bang the Drum Slowly, a visiting professor from San Francisco State. He was the first “real” writer I had met. I absorbed everything he said: “Wrapping yourself in the flag, does not mean you are well-dressed.” “Someone who would write the same book twice could not write it once.”
My first story for him was about a young man who tries to pick up a girl at a party and is told she hopes to become a nun.
Everyone liked it – especially Adele.
One morning, she sat next to me in Am. Lit. The next class she did it again. The following class I sat next to her. After that class she asked if I wanted to have breakfast at the snack bar. She had an English muffin and tea. I had grilled cheese and tuna.
I was not a total fool. I was working up the nerve to ask her for a date. I planned to ask after the next Creative Writing class. She came wearing a black sheath skirt and black, mink-trimmed Persian lamb jacket. She looked like she was being picked up by Porfirio Rubisrosa.
That set me back several weeks.
That spring, Brandeis began a literary magazine. Folio gave special consideration to submissions from undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni. I attended the meeting where selections were announced. It was in Ford Hall, a brick building in which I had panic-ed during a Soc. Sci. I exam and failed to correctly identify what had happened in 1066. It was where I had taken Math 10, the only course to lead me to consider whether it would be wiser to jump from a window and break an arm than to take the final.
I sat in the back row. There were three dozen others present, none of whom had I played ball with or gone into Waltham for a pastrami sub. Two stories by undergraduates were accepted. One was by Virginia Fass, a Phi Beta Kappa, who had made her name freshman year by blistering John Steinbeck in a review in the Boston Globe. Her effort was a surrealistic narrative, the first half of which occurred within the womb. The other was about a guy who tries to pick up a girl at a party and learns she wants to become a nun. When that author’s name was announced, no one on the editorial board knew who he was.
One morning in May, I loaned Adele a dime for her English muffin. That afternoon I was walking past her dorm when she called. “Hey, B-awb, want your money?”
We sat on a rock. She told me about how she and Beverly would sit in the bar at the Ritz Carlton and let old men buy them drinks. About the experiments her cousin Richard and his Harvard colleague Timothy Leary were doing with something called LSD. About the guy in the T-bird who had offered her $1000 to model for “Playboy” when she was sixteen. About her ex-fiancee, a Harvard law grad. Six years older than me, I figured.
I had never met anyone like her. Once school ends, I told myself, you may never see her again. I asked her to the second night of the folk festival, Saturday, at the gym.
Saturday afternoon, I drove into Waltham for a pint of Gilbey’s gin, a six-pack of Schweppes, a lime. When I got back to the dorm, Teddy Zook told me Adele had been looking for me.
Shit, I thought.
“You won’t believe me,” she said, “ But I am psychologically incapable of going on dates.” We sat on a sofa in her dorm lounge. The tip of an ice cream cone lay in an ashtray on the table before us. “For months, I wouldn’t even make a date. Now I make – but break them.”
There are moments in movies when someone points a gun at someone. The person at whom the gun is pointed has an instant within which to make a decision and act. If he makes the right decision, he lives and is the hero. If he makes the wrong decision… “Let’s not call it a date,” I said. “I’ll come by around 7:00. If you’re here, we’ll walk down to the gym.”
How did I ever think of that?
I left early so the phone would not ring.
We sat back-to-back on the floor through The Jim Kweskin Jug Band and Jackie Washington. The headliner was Pete Seeger. He sang “Guantanamero” and “John Henry.” “Now I’m going to sing a song by a young man who performed here last night,” he said. Then he sang “A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall.” I had never heard anything like it. I had never felt anything like I felt that evening.
I felt a new world being born.
The mindful reader will recall that my series by this name began on-line in The Broad Street Review until I would not abide by the editor’s demand that I use people’s real names. Ms. Medvedev (See installment one) got by him, but Dr. Leviathan raised his suspicions. Anyway, here’s the chapter that did me in.
Sophomore year, I had Humanities II with Miss Steinberg. She had a moon face, tortoise shell glasses, brown hair braided into a bun, and sat one George Eliot thesis short of a Harvard PhD. (If we were alone, I thought, and I was Humphrey Bogart, the glasses would come off and the hair shake free.) She liked me, but I tried her patience. The biggest trial was my explication of Nat Hiken’s superiority to Moliere. My thesis was simple. Comedies were supposed to be funny; Sergeant Bilko made me laugh; Tartuffe did not. (The term “sophomoric sense of humor” may have been invented for me.) Then I compared the unpremeditated murder in “The Stranger,” which I dug, to that in “Lafcadio’s Adventures,” which I really dug. “You should consider a creative writing course,” Miss Steinberg said.
She would have startled me less by announcing that Andre Gide thought he could take me off the dribble. No one in my family – parent, uncle, or aunt – wrote or painted, sculpted or composed. My family did not seem a fertile breeding ground for writers. It contained no alcoholics or drug addicts or sexual or physical abusers. No one at our seder had even committed infidelities or contemplated divorce. (Or if they had, no word of it had reached me.) My relatives were doctors or lawyers or school teachers. It was expected if my cousins and I did not become (or marry) doctors or lawyers or teachers, we would starve. The most on-the-job creativity was represented by my mother’s half-brother Abe, who mixed paints at Glidden’s.
Then there was the Brandeis perspective. Writers wore black turtlenecks and jeans. They played guitars at Chomondeley’s, the campus coffee house. They went to Cambridge for New Wave festivals at the Brattle. They carried, for God’s sake, green book bags. I wore crew necks and khakis. I played three-on-three in the gym. If I went to Cambridge, it was for roast beef specials at Elsie’s. (I knew someone who saw “The Four-Hundred Blows.” “Not even one,” he reported.) The only person of my acquaintance with a green book bag, Mike Gaunt, had lifted it from a shelf in the book store to fill with texts he wanted to swipe.
But I had the judgments of Mrs. Medvedev and Miss Steinberg in my head. Plus, something Brandesian was working on me. A rebel stream had run through the 1950s sea of repression and conformity in which I’d grown. It had flowed through the books and movies in which the protagonist woke up, at age 40, with a wife and 2.4 kids, a house in the suburbs and station wagon in the garage, and realized he had lost his soul. Anyone who had applied to fraternity-free Brandeis – yes, we had a coffee house but no fraternities – had already been carried some distance by that current and being there, no matter how uncomfortably, accelerated its rush. I still planned to go to law school, but law school was for sell-outs, and writing…
Writing was cool.
Brandeis offered two one-semester writing courses. The most highly regarded was taught by David Leviathan, PhD. He was a gaunt, chain-smoking Brit, who was given to brilliant pronouncements that came out sounding like, “Kafkamumblemumbledespair mumblegrumble-futilityofexistencemumblerumblemumble: OBLIVION!” His one published novel – New Directions – about a patricide, exceeded the output of the rest of the faculty within the prior two decades. All the striving would-be writers on campus fought for room at his sandaled feet.
I made an appointment with Dr. Leviathan. He wore a black suit, white shirt, bolo tie. He looked up from “Journey to the End of Night” and regarded me as a botanist would a new species of lichen. I explained my Hum. II instructor had suggested I take his course. My English Comp. teacher, I said, buttressing my presentation, liked me too. These straws hovered in a draft from the void. “But I haven’t actually written a story since 11th grade. Do you think that would present a problem?”
“Bloodymumblefumblemumbleinsurmountable, I should imagine.” He blew me away like ash from his Gauloise.
Several years ago, at the now defunct Red Room, I blogged a seven-part series entitled “How I Became a Writer.” The first four of these were published on line by “The Broad Street Review, but then the editor discovered I was not using people’s real names. He insisted I do so. I insisted I wouldn’t. It was his court and his ball, so the other three never played.
So I will blog the complete set here. This is the first.
Brandeis accepted me on a Thursday, April, 1960. Friday, it dropped football. I had two varsity letters. I should have read the sign. I was leaving a land that valued touchdowns and jump shots for a preserve where the only score that brought respect was your G.P.A. “A place,” said Don Nussbaum, a disgruntled power forward from Rockville Center, “run by the first ones out in dodgeball.”
I should add, at Brandeis in 1960, everyone was as unhappy as Don Nussbaum. The athletes were unhappy because most of the student body regarded them as on an intellectual plain with elm trees. The party people were unhappy because the school’s idea for a for a blow-out weekend headliner was Odetta. The political activists were unhappy because of unfair play for Cuba and the bomb. The scholars were unhappy because the library closed at 11:00 and they only had exams twice a semester. And the artists were unhappy because their art demanded that.
Based on a free-choice writing sample, freshmen were exempted from English Comp. or assigned a section. The sample was to determine if we could organize simple, declarative sentences into coherent paragraphs. Only no one had told me. My lyric essay about a West Philadelphia pool hall won me a slot with Mrs. Medvedev.
She was a green-eyed redhead, with a tattoo on her wrist from Auschwitz. She was married to Yankle Medvedev, the chairman of the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department, and, according to worldly sophomores in my dorm, having an affair with an untenured abstract expressionist from Fine Arts. She was also, when it came to grades, “Brutal.” After our first assignment – describing how to tie one’s shoes – she flailed us like Xerxes the Hellespont.
The second assignment was to describe a character we admired. That, let me tell you, set competitive juices flowing. Irwin Selzman was doing Paul Tillich. (I had never heard of him.) Victor Goldblatt had Reinhold Niebuhr. (I had never heard of him.) Celia Peltz chose Eleanor Roosevelt. (Okay! One for three.) I picked Garnet “Sugar” Hart, a Strawberry Mansion welterweight, who had earned my fascination by spicing his training regimens with emcee-ing gigs in Ridge Avenue bars.
I sat beside Rick Feldman, an aspiring Beatnik from Darien. (He had gone with Jean-Paul Sartre.) “These papers are not bad,” Mrs. Medvedv said. “They are abominably bad.” My eyes were on my desert boots. I would have settled for a C, easy. “But one of you shows promise.”
I saw a familiar paper clip.
“That’s mine,” I said.
“That might be yours,” Rick Feldman said.
“‘He was tall and thin and could hit with either hand,’” Mrs. Medvedev said.
A major new piece by Adele (or as she is also known to readers of my comic-related writing, “Ruth Delhi”), entitled “Roger and Me,” concerning her relationship with Mr. Federer, the only man, she writes, she’d leave me for, and a minor one by me has gone on line, along with other articles of merit, at www.firstofthemonth.org. The full announcement begins thus:
New Posts at www.firstofthemonth.org
Read protests (against racist atrocity in Israel and “industrial” medicine in America), fans’ notes (on the World Cup, “fierce and athletic girls,” Roger Federer, LeBron James, Zinedine Zidane and Al Green), a critique of Buzz, musings on modern romance and post-heart-attack style at www.firstofthemonth.org.
The above-titled piece, co-written with my wife, the fabulous Adele, is up at http://broadstreetreview.com/cross-cultural/compassion
Gordie, Adele’s brother, an AmCiv professor at Amherst and a lovely man, began his weekly call by dolefully announcing that his wife’s closest friend’s divorced daughter’s significant other had been murdered – perhaps by his ex-wife. I received this bulletin by speaker phone and Adele’s responsive “That’s awful!” direct. We had met the friend once, and I had exchanged e-mails with the daughter seven or eight years ago. We had not known that she had married or divorced or that the significant other existed.
When Ephraim arrived at his hotel in New York, the sidewalk had been cordoned off, limos were parked at the curb, and ominous, dark-suited men in dark sun glasses abounded. Ephraim knew that a conference of the leaders of Jewish organizations was being held in New York that week. When he asked himself who would warrant such security, he answered, “Netanyahu!”
When Ephraim asked the desk clerk if he was correct, he was told, “I’m sorry, sir, but we keep the identities of our guests confidential.” Some hours later, when Ephraim asked the concierge the same question, he received the same answer. “But their body language,” Ephraim told me, “confirmed my reasoning.”
That wasn’t all. Neither the evening television news or the morning papers reported Netanyahu’s presence in New York. They maintained the fiction that he was in Israel, where, as it happened, an invasion of Gaza was about to launch. “It shows,” Ephraim went on, “the media can not be trusted to tell us what is happening in the world.”
I don’t know how many times Ephraim told his story. I don’t know to how many people he passed along his lesson. But the next time I heard him tell it, he added that his cab driver’d said, “I think it’s Peres.”
When I got home, I Googled “New York City Shimon Peres.”
It was Peres. But I only have the word of the New York Times and Wahington Post for it, and we know who they’re in bed with.
Plus, the guy telling you all this still thinks Oswald shot Kennedy.
Since I may be getting into my daily life, I ought to provide some background. So here’s something I wrote two years ago. The first editor who saw it didn’t think it would play outside of Berkeley. The next one was sure it would, but hasn’t found the right mix with which to surround it yet. But not wanting to deprive my faithful readers any longer, and knowing he won’t mid…
The Wrench (not quite itsw actual name), my coffeehouse of choice, occupies the ground floor of a two-story, red brick hotel which, when I arrived in Berkeley from Philadelphia in 1968, housed a laundry. The cobbler, hardware store and gas station that had been nearby have been replaced too, by designer women’s clothes, a unisex beauty salon, a Pilates studio. Peet’s was already in place, but Chez Panisse had not arrived. The neighborhood, then too undistinguished to be named, is the Gourmet Ghetto now.
The Wrench faces east. A bulletin board announces that a relaunched Sopwith Camel can be heard, spiritual transformation obtained, peace still fought for. The fire engine red San Marco espresso machine draws greater interest. It is the ceiling of this Sistine Chapel, its deliveries masterpieces of viscosity, strength, and flavor. The barristas, Bartolo, thirty years in residence, and Leon, with tenure slightly less, adorn the steamed milk of the favored, whether “Maestro,” or “Chiquita,” with chocolate roses and breasts. News of marriages and children pass above the biscotti jars. The one-pint tip glass fills.
For decades, I came to the Wrench weekend and holiday afternoons. But since my retirement from the practice of law, I arrive mornings, usually before eight. The sidewalk offers tables; but most action, though still not free of inconvenience from the elements, is within. The back room’s glass roof admits rain. Its windows do not close, so the fog chills; and when it lifts, the rising sun glazes the eyes of the seated. The view this costs is of a supermarket’s parking lot. The front room has its own flaws. One of the four heavy wood tables, strung single-file along the south wall, is too near the door; one is cast aslant by a lopsided floor; one is perversely small and one dimly lit. Four additional tables stand perpendicular to it, before a mirrored wall. At three of these, a bank of folding chairs links the seated too closely, and the fourth reposes directly across from the hotel clerk’s ringing phone. Music from a Spanish-language station caters to the staff, rather than the jazz or classical which would suit the clientele. If you do not mind edges to your bagel, these toxicities bemuse.
The Wrench is tres Berkeley. Customers include an anaesthesiologist, cartoonist, contractors (two), fine artists (several), folk musicians (several more), high school teacher, mathematician, mime (retired), photographers (several), plumber, professor emeritus (anthropology), psychotherapists (several), river rafting guide (retired), roadie (formerly of the Allman Brothers, now homeless), union organizer, yoga instructor. I can identify delegates from Brazil, Bulgaria, Ethiopia (or Eritrea), Israel, Poland, Syria. A Thai waitress, Vietnamese grocer, Chinese auto mechanic get theirs to go. I can count four octogenarians named “Sam,” all with Greek fishermen’s caps. I hear “Guten tag,” “Bonjour” and “Buon giorno.” Robert Reich stands behind an obese woman with matted hair, bare midriff, and flip-flops.
As coffeehouses go, the Wrench is of the social persuasion. By offering only two electric outlets, it deters the roosting of the silent, studious, lap-top dependent. The chatter level dissuades attempts at chess or go. (But not the two scholars who translate Homer to each other.) There is a morning crowd, an afternoon’s, an evening’s; overlap occurs. Groups as large as twenty congregate; others confine themselves to trios or quartets. A minority customarily solo. We learn each others’ schedules and habits. If our favored tables are taken, we know upon whom to keep an eye and when to grab up cup and pounce.
I read; I write; I stare out the open door at passers-by. I accept recollection’s jolts or the encounter that will generate conversation. Memories of marches, three-on-three games, hot tub parties surface and fall away. This week’s discussions included the Oakland A’s, Billy Collins’s poetry, and the social consequences of growing up haole in Hawaii.
The first coffeehouse I entered in Berkeley, back when less milk steamed in the entire city than now hisses within a mild ramble from the Wrench, was the Mediterranean, on Telegraph. My youthful forays into Philly’s Guilded Cage had not prepared me. The Med’s bill de fare, posted on the wall, clubbed me dizzy. I had no clue what to order, which required cream or permitted sugar. I was certain an error would mark me as a narc or F.B.I. informant. The bearded, black turtle-necked assembled, huddled together as if plotting to storm the Winter Palace. I clutched a spoon to wield in case the nearby Hell’s Angel, full colors flying, lunged for my throat.
But time has transformed me as well as my surround. Berkeley now seems more threatened by mountain lions than Hell’s Angels, and real estate more frequently discussed than revolution. I have become proudly bi-lingual when it comes to “short double espresso” and educated to more than choice of beverage. I came to the Wrench, as one comes to many things in life, from chance and circumstance, experience and process of elimination. Then, with fit established, as with wife and home, I ceased to wander.
Without an office or the links profession forges, the Wrench provides a new community. It called for shifts in dress and speech and eliminated entire channels of concern; but it more than supplied what I sought. (I am not alone in this regard. “The Wrench is my church,” I heard Pug, who fenced for Columbia and fought in Vietnam, explain to his grandchildren one Sunday morning.) People find companionship, encouragement, affirmation of belief – even romance – all good reasons to look forward to rising for another morning when reclining at night. Patrons display art, announce gigs, and publications. Sections of the Times and Chronicle pass hand-to-hand. Hugs happen.
The Wrench hosts memorial services too. I have known those who passed from lung cancer and heart failure and their own hand. I see those who labor with pace-makers and the ravages of chemotherapy. Arrivals became dependant on canes, then walkers – then ceased. A friend visiting from across the bay told me of the hip, young people filling the cafes on Columbus Avenue. “You mean we aren’t the hip, young people any more?” I said.
That was years ago – and is still difficult to swallow. But once down, an expanded vision may follow. As one may find a new place to repair heels and soles and learn to bridge the gap left by each departed pal, one may focus on the table at which one sits, shuffle aside the attendant discomforts, and focus on the wonders that remain.