I have been reading the second volume of Sidney Blumenthal’s four-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln (“Wrestling With His Angel”) without having read the first (“A Self-Made Man”).
One interesting thing in Blumenthal’s approach is how few of the first 125 pages (out of 850) of the book are directly about Lincoln. Blumenthal spends more time on other figures of the time, setting the stage for what is to come. Anyone with a high school course in American history probably possess a sentence or two’s worth of information about many of them — Calhoun, Clay, Webster, Stephen Douglas — but others, including President Tyler are even lesser known. Old Rough and Ready, who had been expected to be a nonentity when elected but turned out to be a strong foe of slavery. If he had not contracted cholera, after staying out too long in the sun, history might have turned.
In comparing the language and knowledge in the speeches and writings of these figures to contemporaries on the political stage, one can’t help but feel we are the downward arc of an evolutionary slide. But some actions make it seem civilization is advancing. Take one of my favorite characters so far. An anti-slavery state legislator in Kentucky and newspaper publisher, he engaged in one political debate in which pistols were fired. (Neither he or his opponent hit the other.) Another public appearance led to a brawl where he sliced off an opposition figure’s ear. And in a third, after a disputant’s gun had misfired three times, he gutted the fellow with a Bowie knife. None of this seemed to sully his public reputation.
In fact, a future heavyweight champion of the world was named after him.
Cassius Marcellus Clay.
A satisfied “Cheesesteak” reader (“Overall, I enjoyed it very much…”) advises he has ordered a copy for his writer-son. He did, however, note objection to my use of the word “Faggot” in the title of one of my pieces, and he posed several questions. For most of these (“Why did you not write more about your brother?” “Will there be a sequel?” “Why did you go to Brandeis?”) I had answers ready with which to parry, slip-and-move. But one landed on my jaw.
Why, he asked, did I end the book with an old, lost friend asking by phone, “This Spruce Hill Bob?”
I thought, I did what?
Didn’t I go on for a sentence or two? Didn’t the phrase “If anyone had told me…” begin one of those sentences?
If “Cheesesteak” ended as my reader said, had the printer missed the sentences which followed, and had I failed to catch its error? Or had I omitted the sentences from the pdf I sent the printer? Either way, the fault was mine, and I felt humiliated. I considered denying a mistake had been made, saying the ending was intended, and providing justifications for it. It provided an openness, I would say. It implied a renewal or new beginning.
Dreading what I would find, I opened a copy of “Cheesesteak.”
The reader was correct.
I went to my Documents file. I opened “Cheesesteak.” The ending was as printed.
Then I searched for the phrase “had told me.” It was there – but seven lines earlier.
So the reasons I had just come up with for this ending must have been the reasons that moved me two years before when I finished the book but, when confronted by my reader’s question, had forgotten.
In a week when 36-year-old memories (which, by the way, I do not doubt) are the focus of much attention, I find this experience of interest.
A woman flagged me down on my way to the café.
It had been a long time between hitchhikers. But if she was willing to take a chance on my backwards-facing baseball cap and faux letterman’s jacket and enter the Mustang, I was willing to take a chance on her many-colored cardigan and red leather boots.
Where are we going? I said.
Safeway? she said.
It turned out her sciatica had flared up on her way to buy the paper.
In the four- or five-block ride, it also turned out she was 72. She had been a teacher or a substitute teacher or a part-time substitute teacher for 20- — or was it 30- — years, but now she lived on $800/month. She had married a man, who had lied to her, and then she married another man, who had lied to her too. She had three children, who did nothing for her, and she had a son with adult-onset schizophrenia whom she took care of. This son’s behavior was causing her neighbors to try to force her from her home. I do not recall the specifics of the neighbors’ efforts, but if she had been a farmer in a western and they had been cattlemen, they would have poisoned her well and slaughtered her chickens and burnt down her barn.
But her neighbors were not cattlemen. They were members of the synagogue.
At this, I shifted my profile – and nose – from view.
The other day, she said, even though I could not afford it, I decided to do something special for myself. I bought a bouquet of flowers to put beside my son’s bed, so when he woke up, he would have something beautiful to look at. But when I came back into his room, someone had broken into my house and stolen all the best ones.
At this, I checked the accessibility of The Club, with which I lock the Mustnag’s steering wheel, in case she went for my throat, and I had to beat her to death.
Why are all people so evil, she said.
All people aren’t evil, I said.
Louise, she said when we reached the front door of the Safeway.
Bob, I said.
My “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Andy Kaufman” will be published in a future Full Bleed. I feel good about this because it seemed a conceptual – maybe risky – stretch and the best piece I’d done in years. Also it means I have four different new pieces coming out in four different print or on-line magazines and another, older one being reprinted in a forthcoming collection. I don’t have any parents left to feel proud of me, so I will feel proud of myself.
And when I think of the hospital beds I was lying in a few years ago…
As my pal Wildwood Bob Ingram signs off his e-mails, “Keep punching.”
Swapped a “Best Ride” to a poet at the café for a copy of his new collection. Heard from a semi-“cousin” in NYC he was ordering a “Cheesesteak” from Amazon. And a woman looked at all four books I had on display and walked away with nothing.
She said she used to work in publishing. She had shoulder-length brown hair, a flower-patterned skirt, a black “Los Angeles” sweatshirt.
“Those two are novels,” I said. “That’s a true-crime story. That’s a memoir about growing up in Philadelphia. Five-to-fifteen dollars.”
“Oh,” she said, “I’m broke.”
I guess, I thought, that’s what a career in publishing will get you.
The swap, I would note, which had begun with a feeling of unifying camaraderie and esprit de corps, quickly tumbled into a humbling reminder of my place in the literary firmament when, later that same day, the poet announced on FB that he had given his book away in a café – but it was another café, and the recipient was another writer, whom he named with pride, while cloaking our transaction in silence. Sure, the other guy once won a Pulitzer, but he didn’t even give him a signed napkin.
In other news, it turns out the owner of the café knows of our reading series. In fact, he has been so pleased by our effect on business he is considering adding a karaoke night. It is the poster announcing the readings which must be kept from him. It must throw off the feng shui or something.
Sold one “Schiz.”
The buyer had been brought to my table at the café by P_____, a mutual friend. He was a tall fellow, dressed all in black, with a full black beard and black horn-rimmed glasses. He had been injured while working on a party boat, received an award or settlement, and had run into trouble between SSI and a Special Needs trust. Or rather he’d had trouble when P_____ told him about me, but by the time she introduced us, things seemed to have straightened out. I said if he had questions in the future, I’d be happy to chat and/or steer him to a lawyer, and he bought the book.
Things should have flowed so smoothly when I was in practice
In other news…
The monthly reading series at the café has been rolling merrily along. (We are now booked into February.) The other morning, I ran into a former regular, whom I hadn’t seen since it reopened.
I told her about the readings.
She asked when they were.
I pointed over my shoulder, behind me, toward the poster.
The poster was gone.
When I asked the manager, he said the owner was coming in that day. “You know how he is,” he said, “He likes things a certain way. I’ll put it back when he’s gone.”
Hosting a series of underground readings has a certain cachet, don’t you think?
“Don’t let anybody tell you there’s no money in crime. There’s plenty money in crime.” The philosopher had a stained green bag over one shoulder. He carried a blue plastic sack in one hand and a walking stick in the other. He wore a soiled baseball cap and Cal t-shirts.
“Any bargains?” he said.
“I can give you a deal.”
He picked up a “Best Ride.”
“$5,” I said.
He looked at my photo on the back cover. “What happened?” he said.
“I still have the same sweater and jacket,” I said.
“Are you from New York?” he said.
“Philadelphia. I came out here in ‘68.”
“I just graduating high school. San Leandro. I’m fifth generation Californian. My mother’s a Daughter of the Golden West.”
He handed me a crumpled bill. I signed his book.
“To Monroe,” he siad. “Like the movie star. My grandfather’s company copper plated the Catholic church. They blessed each piece because we were Protestant.”
On the way out, he dropped the book.
But he picked it up and kept going.
In Other News…
Adele stopped by the café on her way to a doctor’s appointment. This was a different morning. She had forgotten to bring something for while she waited. She chose “Best Ride” too – a loaner.
She hadn’t read it in 40 years. Me either. She hasn’t been able to get over how good it is. She asks me where its depth came from. I say, I haven’t a clue.
Sold one “Schiz.”
The buyer was a tall fellow, balding, glasses, black t-shirt, blue shorts. He had been, I learned, a successful TV writer, then a teacher, now a mail carrier. Sort of a reverse career arc, but he liked the outdoors, the freedom of no-one-looking-over-his-shoulder, the nothing-following-him-home-to-interfere-with-his-writing. And fortunately, he volunteered, his husband’s job paid well.
I also gave away a “Cheesesteak.”
This deserves some historical background. My father’s grandfather was among a group of poor Russian Jews brought to America by a wealthy German Jew who planned to settle them in socialist-style farming communities (despite their having been forbidden to own land by the tsar) in either New Jersey or Oregon. Since all the poor Jews knew about Oregon was that it was populated by Indians and had eagles that swooped down and carried off your babies, they opted for Jersey.
My father’s father ran away from home as a teenager and ended up in South Philly, but his two brothers remained. (He later demonstrated his feelings for the community ethos by naming his first born, my dad, “Herbert Spencer…”) We visited their farms occasionally, and in the 1950s, a Cousins’ Club formed among my father’s generation. I last saw any of the New Jersey clan at a picnic in 1960. Then a couple weeks ago, I hooked up with one through FB. She is a poet, a gardener, a maker of one-of-a-kind clothes, and since the ‘70s, “a back-to-the-land hippie” in Arkansas.
She is swapping me a CD of her reading her work.
Sold one “Cheesesteak”; gave one “Cheesesteak” away; had two inquiries of note.
The buyer was a previously resistant café regular, a bright guy, an attorney who’d quit to teach high school (now retired). The tipping point seemed to have been an explanation I was giving involving the book’s cover, its portrait-of-the-author, and the t-shirt I was wearing, establishing the circularity of all things.
The gift was to an editor at a university press. He’d e-mailed me praise for “Palestra,” a piece which I’d written for BSR nine years ago. A few years my junior, he’d gone to West Catholic, LaSalle, and worked on the Temple University Press’s history of Big Five basketball, which I keep within arm’s reach of my bed. With that background – and the thoughtfulness demonstrated by writing me – how could I keep the book, of which “Palestyra” formed a part, from him?
One inquiree was a 30-ish fellow, who worked on international development projects for a non-profit – and also wrote/drew/played music. He was attracted to my table by my sign – but had not heard of S. Clay Wilson, who had drawn it. I said one book was a black comedy and one a memoir about growing up in West Philadelphis in the 1950s and he said “That must have been intense,” and I said, “Intense? The 1950s?” He said he would be back when he had cash on him.
The other, toting a backpack and pushing a roller suitcase, told me, in an affected brogue, that he was 85% Irish from Connaught, which he pronounced for me twice. He said he had written two books, one on agriculture and one on secret government agencies, neither of which had been published, so, for one of mine, he would trade me the Lou Reed bio (marked $3.98) a woman had given him as soon as he finished it. After he left, he spent some time inspecting, as if for treasure, the squares of dirt around the newly planted trees in front of the office building across the street.
“Are you the Bob Levin who’s married to Adele Levin?”
“I am,” I said.
Mendel (as I shall call him) had been a boyfriend of Adele’s friend Rhonda (as I shall call her) before I’d arrived in Berkeley in 1968. A free-spirit, he had supplanted the income from a family trust by driving a cab then and, as the trust income had not increased along with inflation, by driving for Uber now. The age of the women with whom he had become involved with had not changed much either. The last one, 50-years his junior, had given him a son before returning to Thailand.
His rumpled khaki suit would have fit one of Graham Greene’s displaced. His eyes still twinkled – but behind glasses that slid halfway down his nose. His still curly hair needed a trim. “Isn’t Adele your cousin as well as your wife?”
“She is not,” I said.
Of the books before me on my table, he picked up “Most Outrageous.” This was the choice least commonly made. He looked at the photo of the smiling teenage girl with her arms around the smiling bearded man.
“The two principal characters,” I said. “A true crime story.”
He gathered his thoughts.
“$15,” I said.
“I look forward to discussing this with you, but now I’m late for shul.” He put down the book. “You know, I was once at a seder with Adele and Rhonda and Baba Ram Dass.”
I knew that Adele, when she had been a teenager and Ram Dass had still been Richard Alpert, had been at a seder together, but I had never heard of one that included Mendel or Rhonda. When I got home. I asked her.
“Never happened,” she said. “Mendel must have heard my story from Rhonda and decided he deserved to be a part of it.”
I wondered how many people in Berkeley Mendel had told of his seder with Ram Dass.
Then I wondered how many people he had told that Adele had married her cousin.
Now I wonder how many people I will tell about Mendel.
As I have called him.