How I Became a Writer III

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.