My latest piece is up at http://www.tcj.com/why-does-the-12-inch-tall-piano-player-sing/
“Is Dan O’Neill our age or older?” Adele said.
“Older?” I said.
“Well, he’s still got all his marbles,” she said. “Or as many as he ever had.” The occasion for these remarks was our receipt of his first book in 30 years, “The House Next Door” (Hugh O’Neill & Assoc.). “It’s the first time I’ve understood the relationship between gold and money.”
“You understand it?” It is part of Adele’s charm that I generally must identify for her who the person is that has outraged Stephanie Ruhle that morning. She returns the favor by identifying for me each Czechoslakian teenager who had made the quarterfinals of the tennis tournament of the week.
“Gold. Money. Corporations. The environment. It’s bigger than his fight with Disney.”
None of the three people mentioned in last week’s adventure have reappeared. It is like expressing interest in my books is grounds for deportation by alien invaders.
But another brave fellow picked up a “Cheesesteak.” He was a very thin and very pale, with red hair and in white shorts and a white t-shirt. He looked about 12 but was studying piano at the Jazz School. I asked who he liked.
“Monk,” he said. “Bud Powell. Horace Silver.”
“Bill Evans?” I said.
“Why do people from the east always like Bill Evans?” he said.
I asked if his parents had been supportive. He said their only advice had been not to become a lawyer because lawyers were only paid by the hour. Well, it seemed they would not to have to worry about that.
He read two chapters while eating a bagel with cream cheese.
In other news…
To promote our forthcoming “I Will Keep You Alive,” Adele and I had sought cover blurbs to honor both its spiritual and medical qualities. Through someone who knew someone who knew someone, we got Ram Dass to satisfy the first. But physicians affiliated with heart care-related foundations would not support a commercial venture, despite the unanimity among literary agents we’d queried that “commerciality” was not its paramount feature, and the best-selling author of non-fiction, who belonged to our health club, said he received too many requests to accept any. Then I tossed a last-minute Hail Mary letter to a similarly successful physician/author, and he offered to read a pdf and consider it. That was unexpected and gracious and – no matter how it turned out – appreciated. So I bought his new book, a gesture I did not extend to Mr. Too-Busy-To-Even-Ask-Your-Name-Or-What-Your-Book’s-About.
Finally, the cartoonist/philosopher J.T. Dockery has written, not only the first review of “The Schiz,” but a semi-overall Levin career assessment. It will be published soon in the fringe-of-the-fringe ‘zine “Pop Wasteland,” whose selections draw from the pens of the enraged, the displaced, the misaligned, those who do not fit or care or tolerate the crap the rest of us do, and who with a bit less luck or talent or bio-chemistry would be like the fellow outside the café at this very moment, bouncing from leg to leg, gesticulating with arm upon arm, screaming at the newspaper racks. Several of these contributors, sensing a sympathetic je ne sais qua in my own writings, have sent me their work to review. Becoming the toast of this town had not been within contemplation when I first walked into Creative Writing 101a 55-years ago, and I look forward to reading what J.T. has to say with renewed appreciation of – and smiles at – the rugs upon which life sets out for us to slip.
Three expressions of interest.
One was from a pianist, a man of about 70, who plays contemporary classical music with symphonies and chamber music groups. We planned a swap: one of his CDs for one of my books.
One was from an Asian-American woman, a first year grad student in psychology at UC. She is from Scranton, had gone to Penn, and lived a few blocks from where I grew up. She loved West Philadelphia for its abundance of good restaurants, which was news to me since it was not until I was in junior high that even chicken fried rice arrived within walking distance and, until I left, a drive to the Hot Shoppe at 69th Street was required for upscale dining. She wanted to buy a “Cheesesteak” but only through electronic transfers of funds that were beyond me, so she promised to return with cash.
The third tapped associations of a different kind. When my mother visited Berkeley, she never failed to remark about (a) the variety of produce in the supermarket (her father had sold vegetables from a horse-drawn wagon) and (b) how schleppily women dressed while walking about in public. Now the latest in eggplant does little for me, but while I sit in the café, I am alert to its patrons’ couture. Recently someone has been ordering to-go of whom my mother would have approved.
She has precisely cut, collar length black hair, which she compliments with black suits or accents with white sweaters above black slacks. Her coloring – and the exoticness of her appearance in this sweat-shirted, Yoga-pantsed surround – makes me think, Persian – perhaps royalty. The other day, while awaiting her order, she turned and picked up a book.
When a panhandler (male or female) compliments my boots or hat, I am appreciative – and usually good for a buck. But these are times when men – even old and likely harmless ones like me – must be circumspect. (I am half-certain one woman avoids the café due to her having read my mind when I complimented her sense of style, a style which, I must add, featured tresses falling below her waist, micro-mini-skirts, and black fish net stockings.
“Thank you,” the woman with my book said. “I work in I.T. and sometimes have conferences to attend. Otherwise, I’m in jeans.”
We chit-chatted. No, she did not write; but she read.
No, she did not wish to buy; maybe next time.
“Felicite,” she said – and extended a hand.
Adele nodded when I told her of this gesture. “She must be comfortable with who she is.”
In other news, it was time to order new business cards. I decided to sacrifice the name recognition of the “UTNE Reader” with its eye-catching but problematic testimonial (“Lurid and fascinating… loathsome… (and) compelling”) for the lesser known but cozier “Everyone… should read everything Bob Levin has ever written” by Jog the Blog.
All well and good, until I received 750 cards with my name spelled wrong. Not that this hadn’t happened before. My publisher did the same on the spine of my third book At least, this time I caught it and received replacements at no charge.
But you think Ernest Hemingweigh or Sol Bellow ever had this problem?
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.