Cold Dead Hands Around My Throat by David Evanier
day he remembers riding in the back of a car with his father. Daniel was
watching swallows fly from the window and said “Swallows can fly without
moving their wings.” His father said that scientifically that was
impossible. Mike said “But--” and his father reached back and punched him
hard across the face. “And I remember when I was three and a half, my father
slapping me across the face with the entire Sunday New York Times, which was
bigger then, not just because I was smaller.”
What I also recall most of those early radio days is Daniel walking to the end of a hallway and slipping a plastic disk inside a door. He entered a hidden room. Here lived many of the station engineers, the techies, who had not gone outside since the murder of Robert Kennedy. They were all Americans from the lower East Side. They slept with each other on the floor or alone on cots. They ate from hot plates and small refrigerators. Strung out or stoned, they were very thin, their faces usually pockmarked, wrinkled and oozing, little old men and women in their twenties.
They stared worshipfully at Daniel. He functioned in the real world. They relied on him for a dose of reality. They touched him and urged him to stay for a few minutes. They gathered at his feet. “How’s the old married life, Daniel? What does she feel like, man? How’s the kiddo? What do you feed him? How do you talk to him, man? Daniel--what is it like out there?”
The naked women caressed him. “Tell us. Tell us stories, Danny!”
And he did. He ‘d done that with his mother in their dark bedroom where she lay crying, before she killed herself and left a note blaming him.
# # #
Whatever the extent of WFCR’s audience (even whether it transmitted at all), Daniel ultimately got a career out of it. I wrote a profile of him for The Times that gave him visibility. He went on to network radio (he was compared to Jean Shepherd) and to star at the Public Theater and then on the Broadway stage in “What I Learned At the Zoo,” his series of monologues about his experiences at the station that captured the wildness of the place. He got the title of the play, and a lot more, from me. He half-knew the place was a zoo, but he also happened to agree with much of what the station was about until the board of directors began to expunge Jews from the station, claiming they were “haunting” other staff members, smelling up the place, secretly controlling the station and running the government. The crisis came when the director, Herr Herman von Mechstein, confronted Daniel in the bathroom, blocked his way, and locked the door. He wanted Daniel to physically attack him so that he could call the police and have him arrested. Daniel realized it was time to get out.
“What I Learned at the Zoo” was a hit, and Daniel treated his old friends like shit. Including me. He never returned my phone calls.
# # #
After the play closed, Daniel went to Hollywood and I did not hear from him for a few years. When I did, he was back in New York and had begun his slow slide. He now had a cable TV show and sold books on the street. He was marking his 45th year in therapy. (I was marking my 49th.) He’d met a woman who loved him--one of many over the years who took him in, supported him, and cared for him. He had read my books and genuinely liked them and had me as a guest on his show many times. I was surprised that his letters were full of genuine feeling and affection for me, and that he did not remember how he had treated me on his way up the ladder, and I never mentioned it to him.
In 2005 Daniel hospitalized himself in the mental ward and I visited him there. By then he had retreated from most of his friends. Some of the old characters from WCFR visited . (They knew the place; many had been patients there themselves). The manic Wind Berge, spoke with a breathless velocity. He’d followed Dylan around the world, actually showing up on stage behind him, until he ran out of money. Wind remembered his epiphany at the Palladium in 1978: “I was watching Johnny Savage and the Phantoms. I would manage him, make rock-and-roll history. Now Johnny’s been diagnosed with cancer of the throat, nose and tongue.” Wind had converted to Lubavitch and worshipped Rebbe Schneerson on Eastern Parkway, and brought Daniel a blessed matzoh in a box with Hebrew lettering. He handed it to Daniel as a precious object. He translated the message on the box aloud: “The bread of affliction, bread of healing, bread of life.” Daniel tried to look at the matzoh with reverence. He was always looking for a savior. I remembered the first time I met him at the radio station. His wife was about to give birth, which was very annoying to him, but he had a few phone calls to make first before he went to the hospital. He called three seers he knew: a doughnut man in Queens, a computer maven in Rockland county, and a hot dog king in Bensonhurst. He asked them all the same question: “How do you make it through each day?”
Armand Whitcomb, another storyteller, arrived at the hospital and sat down beside Wind. He brought Daniel a banana. Whitcomb looked like a gnome or an elf, with a mottled and pimpled impish face, impish. Daniel told me that Armand’s therapist traveled anywhere, any time to see him. Armand was the quintessential old leftie west-sider, with his gray cordoroy jacket and elbow lapels. I felt the old warmth of the WCFR days creeping up on me--corduroy makes me melt--the feeling around the studio of these compelling losers you could snuggle up to and listen to forever. It was a common language we all understood, even if you felt it was obsolete.. These guys were like old shoes, comfy. I knew their memories and associations and favorite books--Bread and Wine-- and movies--Bicycle Thief, Paisan--, camps--Camp Nitgidaiget (Yiddish for Feel Good). They (and I) had all jerked off when they were kids to A Stone for Danny Fisher and Zola’s Nana. Armand collected Nixon memorabalia. He’d interviewed Nixon and a woman had given Nixon chocolates for Valentine’s Day. Nixon, he said, held up his two hands in farewell and said “I’ll tell Pat I bought these for her.” We three old Jews discussed schmaltz and gribben, which are the fried innards of the chicken, delicious and perfect for a heart attack.
When Wind left, Daniel said, “When he’s talking, it’s like a power mower beside you.”
Later Daniel and I sat alone in the hospital cafeteria. “I’m okay when I’m talking to people,” he said. “It’s when I’m alone... I feel like nothing, that I don’t deserve to exist, like I’m worthless.” An old woman stared at us, edged closer and tried to take a slice of his bread. “Oh no,” he said, holding on to it. Later he felt guilty about it. “I feel like a two-year-old,” he said. “I’m glad they keep the lights on for 24 hours; the staff is there if I need them.”
“I’m the most entertaining person, I know that. But I’m stingy, I resent it. I do everything the same way. I walk the same streets, reread the same books, watch the same films. I hate anything new. After everyone leaves here at night, the young ones in their twenties come out to play. Get out their candy bars. I don’t know what they’re celebrating. `Children,’ I say, `please settle down for the old people.’ They like me.
‘I guess I resent entertaining people because that’s what I did for my mother. I told her stories about the world outside to keep her alive. That’s how I became a storyteller. If my mother were alive today, I’d put her on that little island across Broadway at 72nd Street and throw a piece of meat at her. I’d like her to be alive so I could kill her again. “We say goodnight and I embrace him. “Your visit has been bracing,” he says.. The attendant comes, unlocks the door and locks it again. We wave.
# # # #
Daniel becomes a volunteer in nursing homes, bookstores, suicide-watch phone lines, feeding the homeless, reading to the blind. None of it works. He is getting closer to falling off the cliff, or pushing himself over it. He refuses himself any pleasure. “I often feel,” he says, “as if I can’t get involved in any seirous artistic endeavor or emotional experience (even getting into a great book or movie) because if I do that I am letting down my guard somehow. It’s as if I have to maintain a kind of perpetual vigilance, like a soldier on guard, and if I let this vigilance flag for a second, disaster will ensue. I can’t even sleep. Sleep is for people who are good.” He laughed. “ And of course, what seems to most pull my attention from guard duty is Love, Art, Work. Any of this make any sense to you?”
I don’t understand it but I fear that one day Daniel will not be here anymore, and I will be left with this sense of never understanding him. Because I don’t know what’s happened to him. He is so conscious of it, he’s not a lunatic who’s blissfully unaware of what he is going on. He knows he is going under. He doesn’t want to, and even when he describes it, there is still the actor in him, another layer that secretly protects him, keeps him beautifully articulate, as if the disaster is happening to someone else. He used to give me these long litanies of disaster, and suddenly, the next day, as if pulling a rabbit out of a hat, he had some success, some TV show, some book contract, that he told me about. It’s not happening now.
I remember when he loved the city, when he walked Riverside Drive and Central Park, when he talked on network radio of the arrival of spring, the young girls in their short summer dresses blown by the breeze, their beautiful tanned legs, their bodies gleaming,, how much he loved the reappearance of the cycle of the seasons, and how they lifted his spirits. I remember his trying to be a good father, of watching the fathers in Central Park get on the merry-go-rounds with their children, watching them “join the carnival of life,” watching with envy the normal, “boring” stock- broker, lawyer fathers, and making the decision to join his daughters on the merry-go-round. And then, of course, he would play merry-go-round music, or Sinatra. I loved him then, as I loved Jonathan Schwartz and Joseph Mitchell and Peter Allen and Woody Allen and Bobby Short and Harvey Shapiro and Charles Reznikoff and Tony Bennett singing or painting in Central Park as they celebrated the city.
And even when the downward spiral began and he left his wife and was living in one room near Central Park and sleeping on the floor on a mattress, and his mother was back in his head, her hands around his throat, I remember he would get up early in the morning and walk for four or five hours, walk the anger and fury and hatred, the lump of fear, out of himself. He walked, the buzzing of fury in his ears, not seeing the falling leaves or hearing the whispering trees.
And still there were mornings when he got up early and his ears and eyes were open. He walked over to Riverside Drive and saw the morning sunlight on the trees, the rolling Hudson, the grass lit up by the sun, white gold and fresh green. He smelled the grass. The leaves were falling, turning yellow. And he could see all the shapes and sounds.
He heard the birds calling--he recognized bluejays and robins and thrushes, wrens, sparrows, sometimes a cooing pigeon, doves. And with the loosening of his fury, he felt himself fitting into the harmony of the river and the trees. And he could breathe.
And when he fell, I wasn’t there, for he had abandoned me.
# # # #
© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas