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.

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.