Sentencesby David Evanier
We were sitting around one evening at Moskowitz's down on the Lower East Side. It must have been during prohibition days because we were drinking turnip wine.
An intense looking pale black-haired young fellow comes over from another table, plunks himself down in the seat opposite, and announces that he is a high school senior. He gives me a black look through his glasses.
“I've been watching you all evening. What I want to know is why don't you act like a writer?
“How ought a writer to act?”
“You know just as well as I do how a writer ought to act.”
I tried to ease him off. “Suppose I did know,” I answered as mildly as I could. “how do you know I'd want to act like a writer?”
He glared at me through his glasses. He was groping for words. He got to his feet. “Let me tell you one thing,” he spluttered all out of breath, “meeting you sure is a disappointment.”
—John Dos Passos
I used to think there was a majesty about me. At the writers' colonies, I preened. I kept a sensitive look. I gazed off into the distance. I pretended a world-weariness to impress girls, staying up all night writing. I didn't know then how hard it really would be—not to write, but to survive as a writer. The feeling of superiority was delicious in those days, writing in my rented room on West 113th Street.
Writing was my life.
When I was 20 and a front-desk clerk at the Times Book Review, I read Allen Ginberg's Kaddish on my break. The phone rang and it was Ginsberg, calling someone important. I told him what I was reading. “Christ,” he said, “I wrote that years ago. Doesn't anyone read my later work?”
“No, of course not! I tried,” I said. “But this is your best work by far. I'm not being obnoxious. It's important for you to know this so that you'll do better.”
He hung up.
# # #
That may be one reason that at 60 I am as little known as I was at 30.
I was walking along Third Avenue near the Saint Marks Place Bookshop and saw an old man coming toward me, stooped, fragile with the traces of a recent stroke, taking tiny steps, a large white beard, the book bag he must have kept since his hippie days when he was fucking girls left and right. I suddenly realized it was the literary critic and memoirist Joe Lazar, a fine writer, a good man, someone I knew by phone who had never seen me. Then I realized I had a letter with me I'd written to him the night before, pleading with him to review my book. I knew he liked my book, he'd told me so, he'd told my editor so, I'd delivered a galley to the doorman of his apartment house. Why oh why was this piece of shit holding out on me? He was merely a critic, not a creator, and my fate, my livelihood could be changed by a few words he could write so easily.
But when I saw him, I could not give him the letter. He was having such a hard time navigating a few creaky steps.
I would mail him the letter.
This may be another reason for my state of limbo. I am too good. The majesty lingers on.
# # #
I gave a book reading today at Barnes and Noble, a rich opportunity I'd wheedled out of my publisher. One person showed up. She waited politely for me to finish my reading. She smiled throughout. When I finished she came up to me with a book in her hand. It was her own. She wanted to sell it to me.
# # #
Then there were the editors who wouldn't publish me until they were dying of fatal illnesses, committing suicide, or retiring. What the hell, they thought: Be nice. Let him in on your way out. It's too late for him anyway.
# # #
My friend Danny and I, caught in the grinding machinery of time, hurtling toward the end. Danny has been writing for magazines like Heavy Shit , a decent literary journal, since the 60s. Its editors and writers have remained the same. Now its poetry and prose focuses on prostate conditions, cancer, punctured appendixes, gall bladders, deafness, blindness, widowhood, and slow or sudden death.
I sit on the subway staring at the pretty girl. “What is Vitamin F?” she says to three adoring boys. “Now I'm obsessed.” Only a pretty young girl could say that. I look at Danny. Now we're obsessed too. An old lady or a plain girl could say that and we'd be indifferent. Who gives a fuck what Vitamin F is? Only an idiot. But everything that girl says with those pouting lips, that red pom-pom cap on her head, is of great interest.
# # #
All the forgotten writers on the bookstalls in the front of the Strand Book Store, weeping at their fate, as novelist Jennifer Belle has written, filling the streets along Broadway with their wailing. I decided to pick out a book at random, a title no one had read for forty years.
Remember Myron Brinig? How could you forget? He is on the stacks at the Strand. He wrote The Flutter of An Eyelid, The Street of Three Friends, Footsteps on the Stair, The Sun Sets in the West, Madonna Without Child, Singermann and fourteen other books. Singermann is about a Jewish family of sock-sellers in Montana.
I chose Brinin because the name sounded like a nobody. Here I was, the only person in the world holding this book in my hand at this moment.
The first line of The Street of Three Friends reads “`And you must come and have a cocktail with us one day very soon,' said the woman with whom I'd been conversing for the past half hour.” The last line reads, “Still, one must die sometime. Sooner or later. And it is better to `pass over' in love, than to `pass on' unloved and alone.” There must have been cocktail parties and book launches.
The promising young writer I'd met at the MacDowell Colony who'd worked as a construction worker, jolly and fat. When I first saw him, other writers were asking him what he'd been doing before coming to MacDowell. “Actually, I've been on the dole.” On the dole! I'd never heard anyone use the word before, it was out of the Bowery Boys, Bukowski and James T. Farrell. I was so impressed, so humbled. We all were. What proletarian honesty and simplicity! Ain't that grand? We hugged him, we bought him a Brooks Brothers suit and a bowler hat and a cane. Now twenty years later, I met him on Third Avenue in Manhattan. He'd lost his Cockney charm and buffoonish freshness and now he really had the scent of the Salvation Army on him. “I've come back to New York to see my friends die,” he said, and cackled. He thought it was funny.
When I first began writing, writers still had an aura to them. Kay Boyle, with whom I studied at the New School, had gone to Paris as a young woman and been an expatriate, carving out a literary career of her own. Like many writers who were once phoenix-like, she will probably only be remembered for her memoir with Robert McAlmon, Being Geniuses Together and a short story called “Black Boy.” But in those days she carried with her the sense of a path-breaking life truly lived, and one day she came into the classroom and read every word aloud of an essay by a young writer, James Baldwin, “The Fire Next
Time.” And she was kind.
In the long run, perhaps I was not hungry enough, the hunger that Hamsun wrote about. I was not a starving writer at 18. My father begged to see me and would bring my weekly copy of Variety, every issue with raffish stories about the old-timers Durante, Cantor, Jessel and Jolson, as well as a kosher hot pastrami sandwich on rye topped with potato salad that left me dizzily sated and content even if it wasn't the sex I craved. And I could always walk away from a job because of my father's measly support. But in my breakaway writing days I lived on a few dollars in that boarding house room on 113th Street near Columbia. One day, miserably alone and completely uncertain of what I was trying to do but desperate to do it, the desk clerk at the front desk called to me and, while I waited, reached up to the little mail cubicle and he held out a telegram for me. I thought it must be a mistake, but it wasn't. It was from Kay Boyle, praising a story of mine. “Well done, young man,” she wrote, and I was not hungry that night or for a long time afterwards. And there were many others: Emile Capouya, Denise Levertov, Eleanor Hakim, Harvey Shapiro, Charles Simmons. Everyone reached out and confided in me; after all, I loved them all, and I was so young and needy and harmless. “There was a time I could fuck a snake,” a mid-level writer told me, complaining about the onset of impotence.
“Respect life,” wrote Dostoyevsky. And he meant that the characters and their sentences are all around us, ready for the taking. J.M. Synge began to write when he overheard the village girls talking through a crack in his attic. The beggar on the subway spoke to us when he entered the train: “Some teenage girls were laughing at me before. Teenage girls, please don't laugh at me!' As the passengers guffawed, he continued: “There was a man sitting right over there. He said to me: `I'll never leave you! I'll never leave you!' Maybe he was talking to the girl next to him.'”
“You can't change a girl by pouring a glass of water over her head.” I wrote that sentence down on a napkin in a coffee shop in San Francisco thirty years ago, not sure I'd actually heard it. And I've been thinking of it for thirty years.
Many years later, I was searching for Natalie, my first girl friend. I found her last address and I went to it. It was an abandoned house near Chinatown, the kind of area she loved. This was long before the yuppies moved in. It was dusk; Chinese smoke and fog and incense and swirling paper in the air. I went up the steps and peered through the boarded windows, looking for Natalie.
As I walked back down the steps, a woman on the street (she'd stopped walking and must have been observing me) called out to me, “Looking for a long lost love?” Now it feels like a dream, but it happened.
# # #
I learned early the power of the printed word. The first piece I ever published was an interview with Sophie Tucker, the last of the red hot mamas, in the Kishke Post. I was 12. Poems in The Nation and Ramparts, an ode to Adlai Stevenson in The New Republic at 14. I impatiently waited for the magazines to appear with my name in them at the newsstand outside the Public Library at 42nd Street. I waited every day, bought 12 copies and stared at my name over and over again. The teacher at the military academy my father sent me to for a summer spied my copy of The Nation, his Irish face red and bristling, took it off my desk and said, “Who do you think you are? I bet you can't understand a word of this atheistic bullshit.” In my forties I still carried a shitload of books wherever I went, tumbling out of my old high-school book bag. The stack made industrious people angry. My Sicilian therapist, who charged me ten bucks for three hours, got drunk and didn't recognize me at the end of a session, had warned me, “Heshel, carry your books in a brown paper bag, or people will hate your guts.” The old codger stared at me with my armload of library books on the subway and shouted at me, “You show-off! You cur! You'll never read all of those books.” I retaliated by calling out, “Calm down, Pops.” “Pops!” he screamed, enraged, chasing me down the platform. “You pettifog!” But of course he was partly right: I was a show-off. A sensitive flower, an example to humanity. The books made me feel so elevated, so superior, they protected me from life, from the riffraff. And, of course, the Communist reporter on the Rosenberg case who, after an evening of drinking, told me, “When I visited the Rosenbergs at Sing Sing, I always took a girl with me. And I always got laid later.”
Once upon a time there was a writer named Lucas Steinbeck who'd written some 12 novels. He was neither known or unknown, the mid-rank guy. I was at my perch at The Times Book Review in the outer hallway when Lucas whirled in. He'd gotten a bad review from Christopher Lehman-Haupt, one of the Times' daily book reviewers. “Lehman-Haupt!” He shouted, his face beet red. “That mother-fucker. Where is that creep, that son of a bitch? I want to kick him in the balls! I'm going to kill him with my bare hands.“ Two editors restrained Lucas and talked to him gently.
Now Lucas is gone, his shadow reposing on the Strand book stalls.
I wrote my first good short story when I was 28 and living in a boarding house in Vancouver and going to “creative writing school.” Johnny Boy, my roommate, was a Southern boy who'd bolted the military life to become a writer but who wound up playing with girls who sat on his face. As I read my story aloud in the workshop, I felt that absolutely certain that I'd gotten it right for the first time in my life. I finished with a flourish, and felt the approving vibrations in the room.
“You should be embarrassed to read that junk,” a quavering voice said. It was Johnny Boy. Tears welled in his eyes. “That's the worst piece of trash I ever heard. What garbage. I hate to say this, Hesh, because I like you and I think you have potential.” Now the tears poured down his face. “I hate that story, I really do.” And he ran out of the room.
Lil, a hooker trying to go straight, lived in the room above mine. When I had finished writing that story an hour before the workshop, I could hardly wait to read it aloud. I bounded into the kitchen where Lil sat reading the paper, smoking, her legs crossed. She was a hard blonde, pretty but sodden.
Lil was like a pal, a sister. It was not the way I wanted it. She wasn't hooking and she was broke. I bought her hamburgers at the White Spot. She had a soft spot for me: “I can hear the clink of your glass when you pour your liquor,” she said once. The soft spot eliminated any erotic impulses she might have had. Until that day. When she saw my excited face, my happiness, she asked what had happened. I told her about the story and that I was taking it to read to the workshop.
She sidled up to me at the table, sitting close. We read the newspaper together as if nothing was happening. She pressed against me. She bullshitted about Marilyn Monroe, the subject of the article. My pulse, as usual when I was near a woman, was pounding.
She realized that something was more powerful than her pussy. What was stronger: my love for my writing or my desire for her? Her breast brushed against my shoulder. She pressed against me. I held my breath. But she acted as if she was just reading the article. She just had to get closer to read that fascinating article.
I would finally get laid in Vancouver.
I thought of what it would be like if I didn't go to the workshop, how devastating that would be.
I jumped up and ran out of the kitchen.
Lil never brushed against me again.
# # #
That first story I wrote for the workshop was about Herman Lichbtblau, a college guidance counselor, and a German Jewish refugee I had cultivated at City College in Manhattan so I could stay out of the draft. He wrote to the draft board every six months and got me endless deferments. But I couldn't understand half of what he was saying. He spoke in torturous, circuitous, lyrical sentences; he had a kind of paranoia about finishing a coherent sentence so that it could be understood, and he inspired laughter among the students. His sentences were a mirror of his empathic, bewildered, suspicion-baked brain—he had fled the Nazis and now he wouldn't even name the restaurant where he ate pizza. But he kept deferring me so he could have me around to talk to and not be laughed at.
Many years later, I published that story about him in my first book. When I returned to New York, I ran into Herman Lichtblau at the Donnell Public Library. He had been fired and he hung out there. He asked me if I could recommend a cruise ship he could take. When we said goodbye, I went to the card catalog and looked for my book. It was there, and I found it. One story was missing, the story about Lichtblau, carefully excised by a tiny razor blade
# # #
I kissed the books that met the test and I hunted down their authors: I found Henry Roth in Maine, Ralph Ellison on 168th Street in Harlem, Daniel Fuchs in Fairfax, L.A. by the Farmers Market where the old Jewish show business types hung out, Arthur Miller at the Chelsea Hotel, Langston Hughes on Sugar Hill in Harlem, Bukowski on Delongpre Avenue in L.A., Charles Reznikoff on West End Avenue (I read his poetry on the Brooklyn Bridge in the wind to my wife) and Harvey Shapiro on Hicks Street in Brooklyn Heights.
# # #
And then I met Danny Ballinzweig again—we had known each slightly in our youth. I glimpsed him on the street one time, and then, in the early `80s, I become an editor Deja Who? and I began to hear from Ballinzweig constantly. His single-spaced typewritten postcards filled every inch and spilled over the edges—he only stopped typing when he went over the edge of the card, just like in his passionate, obsessed fiction. At first I thought he was nuts, but gradually soaking into my brain was the realization that Ballinzweig was the real thing. And with the real thing you got a spindly bunch of damaged goods. Thirty years later, we were still friends. Me and Ballinzweig, over the years. We sat talking on the bountiful West Side in the crowded Hungarian pastry shop on West 114th Street where the writers hung out, blocks from Riverside Drive, in the shadow of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and near the Riverside Church, near the West End Bar, near Julius Rosenberg's partner, Morton Sobell, just released from prison, on West 109th Street, one of the pipe-dream Jews I was drawn to, not far from the historian Lucy Dawidowicz on West 86th Street, close to the apartment I lived in at 610 West 110th Street in the same building where the poet Paul Zweig lived with his beautiful wife and children and suddenly, inexplicably died—all emblems of the city I loved.
Last year Danny published his 47th book, a 650-page novel, full of juice and life, if a mite overlong, and I published my fifth. Two hundred and fifty pages. Danny was also repolishing a five-volume collection of stories never in book form before. I published one or two stories a year.
When I read Ballinzweig, I was frequently in that zone where words were fresh cherries, mint-fresh; the feeling and the observation was pure and funny and unalloyed. He never lost it; he was too neurotic to lose it by dwelling more in the material world. Nothing meant anything to him except the writing and his family. He told me more than once, “I don't care where I stand as a writer and I can't stand individual attention on me.”
But he was a writer that people loved or hated. Some did not get him at all. He left them clueless. “I am a hangnail in the fashionable literary critics' estimation,” he told me. 'I don't exist, except maybe as an irritation. And that's fine with me. I do my work and then I'll be finished with it one day. I just want it to satisfy me.”
We circled around each other, meeting when Ballinzweig was in town. The vast stretches of the Columbia University streets and library and the view of the Hudson from Riverside Drive, where Ballinzweig and his wife still kept the little musty apartment for their New York trips where they met, where his wife had first lived, furniture falling apart, Ballinzweig calling up to the window when he courted her, ringing her doorbell.
We were no Hemingways, New York Jewish boys, both of us. We nibbled at the crumbs on our clothes. My father had served time in prison; my mother taught typing. Danny's mother was also a teacher; his father a tailor.
I had watched Danny at the kitchen table holding his baby and writing. The baby was sleeping in his lap and he would type away. He kept tapping a vein and he would always find something.
We compared notes, complaints about editors, thirty years of rejection by The New Yorker, Harper's and The Atlantic, grievances, grievances, the editor of Hasty Pudding losing my manuscripts, Happy Prostrate returning Danny's manuscripts with walnut shells in them.
We lived in different cities, me in Manhattan, Danny in Boston, and kept in touch by mail and phone and once-a-year reunions. In the latter stage of my life, this was the relationship that counted for me.
He dedicated a book to me and invited me to be guest of honor at his university writing workshop and give a reading, and named me in a major literary magazine as the best unknown writer he knew of. An enemy of mine, a neocon at Mass Punishment Magazine, wrote about it and described me as “Unknown, Unappreciated and Unreadable.” He headlined his article, “Unknown Writer Names Favorite Other Unknown Writer.”
This tribute was extremely unusual behavior for Ballinzweig. Danny was cranky; he hated Philip Roth. This was, to me, suspicious, since you couldn't hate Roth without really being jealous of him. In fact I should have been grateful; Danny wrote that my writing “makes p. roth look like a grosbeak writing with his nose.” I looked up grosbeak in Webster's; my knowledge of birds was nil; smoked fish was about as close as I came. Ballinzweig actually liked almost no living writers, famous or unknown, except perhaps Sebald and Dybek. When he read at the Bouwerie Poetry Club, he whispered to me he'd taken notes of what the other writers had read: “`He had forty years under his trim build, or belt.'” “She felt her pulse quicken.” “`She kicked up her heels in delight.'” When Danny left, I stood on the corner and wrote down what Danny had quoted.
Danny's contempt for so many fine writers made his dedication of his book to me—and to a second writer, who was in a mental ward—a little suspect.
He had gone out of his way to make the reading at his workshop happen. It was the feeling that day of the reading with Danny's students on the old campus, the battered seats, the wooden desks with names carved into them by generations of students, the weatherbeaten chairs and desks, the eaves, the carrels, the old brown wood of Ballinzweig's office with his superb paintings of his parents and his beloved wife. Everything old and worn; the prototypical professor's office, sun streaming in, bright colors, old walls.
I had sat in with Danny and his students first in the writing workshop before his reading, and it was the way it had almost never been for me in my own teaching; the trust between Danny and his students, the openness, the sense of things unfolding, breathing moments, the process happening right there. It was the feeling of writing as an act that mattered, the students just starting out, and neither I nor Danny could tell them just how hard it would be. We couldn't tell them just how hard it would be if they had an original bone in their bodies—that nothing would make them enemies as much as that glimmer, or fact, of talent, that sense that what they were doing was the first time anyone had ever done it and no one could do it quite the way they did it. If they didn't have that nice comforting, numbing, derivative quality, or that highflown murkiness that the academics and the critics craved, it could be over for them before it began. I couldn't tell them about the first experience I had in a creative writing workshop in Vancouver when I'd written of failing to have sex with a small, friendly black maid. The teacher, a writer of Canadian content, as he put it proudly, glared at me and shouted, “You mean to tell me that a little guy like you fucked that big strapping black girl? You trying to con me, brother?”
“But she was petite! That's what I wrote,” I pleaded with him. After all, I'd written of a sexual defeat, and I was alone in a city I loathed. “You're fucking with me, man. You never fucked that big black motha. Let's get real here.”
# # #
Danny gave all he had. I always wanted to be somewhere else when I taught: actually, in my life, I usually wanted to be somewhere else. Danny, in his old jeans, his tall athletic body, getting a kick out of doing this for his old friend. When Danny had given me the little party after the reading at the university club, I watched even pure Ballinzweig, the purest writer I knew, at last, for once, enjoying the slight perks of teaching that he got for giving so many years to the students who respected him and loved him for not grinding them down and giving them care and giving them an example of the writer as non-asshole: free cocktails, a nice steak, toasting his wife, her cane in her lap. A little flicker of joy in earthly things from Ballinzweig. But the party was for me, not Danny. That's the way he was. Here were the trappings of academe Danny had spurned all these years—the martini toasts, the manly slaps on the back, the backbiting gossip of the graduate students.
And not a touch of pretension, of pomposity. No one-upmanship, no torn jeans, no writerly traits like a slight English accent or a proletarian look with a bus driver's or Yankees cap. Not the noble savage look either or the big cocksman or the naif or the snarling macho Irish-Scotsman. Just tall, muscular, aging Ballinzweig, gentle, slightly stooped, little wisps of hair atop his head, with a look of pain on his face for his ailing wife, in a dungaree jacket and corduroy pants.
Bukowski had written, “It's the dead that rule the world,” and proved it in his later work. Writers started out with high ambitions, so many thrashing egos, huge plans and plots to conquer—most of them making little waves, contracts, deals, and disappearing never read. Sometimes when I gazed at the books on the Strand stalls, I recognized the covers from a quarter of a century ago.
# # #
Lamont LePiche, editor of Deja Who?, had a transatlantic accent like Bill Buckley's from his boarding-school days. LePiche fought off boredom engendered by his great wealth. Bicycled around the city, drank wine out of gold goblets and spat it out to show it really wasn't that desirable. Liked to set his country homes on fire to watch the flames, came running in a firetruck, dressing in a fireman's outfit custom-made with his initials on it, jumped off the truck with a hose and doused them out himself. Rambunctious fun. Then a party to celebrate with the Kennedys and Kissinger.
In the `80s Lamont had given me generous recognition for my stories, published me in the magazine that was considered the height of literary fashion. Lamont had first called me to accept a story of mine while dangling from his plane in midair. At night I dreamt that Lepiche could fly.
Then Lepiche hired me as an editor and paid me a pittance to edit, had liked my taste, told me I had a “built-in shit detector,” but complained, “You're publishing a bunch of Jews.” Put me in a pit with the other editors, usually fey kids from “good families” who could barely read or write and disliked me. They greeted me at the door with paper bags of manuscripts, telling me to be “quick as a bunny with them,” and “We would have called you but we thought it was Yom Kippur or something.” Walking down the street with the six-foot five, radiant LePiche—I was five feet seven—to lunch, I watched the women bow and scrape before him—they even gave me a passing glance because I was with LePiche—and I understood for the first time what it meant to be rich and powerful and charismatic and famous. And I was fucking jealous.
LePiche urged me to join him at his parties for the magazine and at Elaine's for diner, and got piqued at my resistance. He wanted to help me; he was not entirely put off by my shabbiness or Jewish angst. His boring wealth made him appreciative of eccentrics. Was I superior to Elaine's, to being seen and allowed access to these gold-rimmed, dazzling literary types hobnobbing with bankers and doctors and real-estate moguls and lawyers (Lepiche's own lawyers and doctor were always Jewish and very plain looking and bald—including the women) and Warhol and Roy Cohn and whoever else was around? Did LePiche really like them himself? Styron was a pal, but when I said I found Sophie's Choice bloated and forced, LePiche said, “Oh well yes, my word, of course, you know, Bill has that rococo style of writing.”
I spurned the LePiche crowd and their parties because I felt inferior to them. I was bald with scraggly bits of hair on top that resembled a burned-out alley in Harlem or the South Bronx—I didn't know how to dress—I looked like a Kafka Jew, or thought I did, didn't know how to hold a salad fork, didn't see the point of setting fires with LePiche, had little panic attacks, was full of passion, all kinds of passion. In my 30s and 40s my eyes still burned with misery, high-mindedness and self-doubt.
And then Danny Ballinzweig, hungry Ballinzweig, reappeared in my life for the first time since childhood, with his typewritten, single-spaced postcards, the unfinished words spilling off the edges, rapping at the window, banging on the door, bugging LePiche and me, hanging by his thumbs, poor, threadbare Ballinzweig, but always clean and kind and straightforward and direct, a gentle voice, never humble or obsequious but not arrogant or obnoxious either, just sure of his talent. And, with my help, LePiche let Ballinzweig into the magazine, recognizing the talent immediately. Ballinzweig with his dozens, hundreds of manuscripts, stories and novels.
And we'd become friends, and Danny came to mean more to me than all of LePiche's pals put together.
# # #
My first writing workshop, when I was 23, had been in summer at Columbia with J.R. Humphreys, and a woman in the second row with a shopping bag took off her shoes and rested her fat feet on the chair in front of her.
And the writing life remained the only life I knew. It was a spoken life; I had not been silent or entirely a mystery to myself. I found out by writing. For others, it could be torturous. And there were the successes who climbed above me. Danny said, “You got to start off big from the start or you're finished from the beginning.” I only remembered him saying that thirty years later; perhaps because I finally understood it. There were writers turned on by rewriting Chekhov or Turgenev. Writers writing ideas with wispy costumes in the guise of characters. Writers churning out dry derivative prose you knew you'd read before, but then they'd had juice in them. Writers so supercool and postmodern you couldn't keep your ass warm reading them. Satires on the Holocaust. Funny names instead of funny characters. Far-out sex as the cutting edge. Bukowski writers. Holocaust writers who'd never experienced it, claiming a special status because of their subject matter. And then, out of nowhere, a pure, pristine work, as Hemingway's was in In Our Time, as Delmore Schwartz's in “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” like nothing ever written before. But on top of this, when you turned to the gifted author, expecting to find your brother or sister, this friend for life, more often than not, it was this nasty, measly puffcake.
# # #
Danny kept at it, and I kept getting distracted, even though I kept writing. Hiding behind my books, I shot through the 1960s, attaching myself to the fringe. When their eyes burned, men or women, I was drawn to them and they were drawn to me. I caught the last act of the Communists, even as they left the stage. They had no friends and I popped up, a representative of the youth, looking for girls. I always had a home with them.
As a writer, I was a natural spy, pretending to be on their side. Even at 60, I still see them, the comrades, in their flannel shirts and jeans walking slowly now, bent over, eternal graduate students, their backpacks weighing them down, I see their young faces on their old faces, sitting in college libraries or student centers, attending lectures at the Brecht Forum, with their social security cards. I waved at one of them on the street and the boy man of 70 lit up and shouted “Wochika!” at me, which was a Communist camp like Camp Unity and Camp Midvale. But I did see Martin Luther King, Jr. speak at Boston University when I was 22, and I stumbled out into the sunshine of Commonwealth Avenue. I was missing the real things, but I couldn't help myself, I was destined for the freaks for a long time. I was lost and the only way I could begin to find myself was with a notebook, writing by the Charles or walking through the Boston Garden and the swan boats and the Boston Common and reading Kazin's “A Walker in the City” and Dylan Thomas and Thomas Mann and Frank Norris, the music wafting out of the windows in that city of light and romance—and there were moments those writers and even my own tentative writing made me leap into the air with joy and embrace life. And I tried to find my way out of the permanent dark night.
Failing at life and revolution, I became a writer.
# # #
Ballinzweig had been abandoned by many women because he didn't have health insurance into middle age and couldn't support the kind of family he wanted, with at least three kids. These were women fleeing a man without a pot to piss in. Danny had desperately wanted a wife, a stable family and kids, sitting at that Hungarian Bakery shop with me over a pot of coffee and strudel reading Dovlatov and Borowski in the late 70s.
Danny first courted his future wife at her tiny apartment on Cranberry Street in Brooklyn Heights, rickety furniture falling apart, Danny calling up to the window, ringing her doorbell repeatedly, all the stuff he pulled with all of his women. I loved the parts of his stories where he lifted his women up against the wall and fucked them and inadvertently banged their heads against the wall. When he realized what he was doing, he'd be shocked and cushion their heads. Susan, Danny's wife, who had a chronic, terrifying, wasting disease, was haunting. I was quiet in her presence: this was one of the most creative, radiant women I'd ever known, kept alive by Danny, who wrote about it, complained about it, getting up in the middle of the night (and, later, every two hours) to move her, feed her, having to be at her beck and call and with almost no time away, but really did it magnificently, gladly. Usually. Danny had written about every moment of their lives, again and again, sometimes in some of the best prose of his time.
Danny had cried at his own wedding, and of course he had written about that too.
He wrote of waking up and finding Susan dead, and how helpless he would be at her loss, and no one had written love stories that convincing and moving, as far as I knew. Danny never stooped to sentimentality—he did what Hemingway, Wolfe, none of them could ever do, he knew, understood and loved a woman, and devoted every living minute to his marriage—except for the writing and the teaching—to taking care of his wife. Susan, with whom Danny forged an astounding life, both of them teaching, reading, writing, summers at the broken-down house in Oak Bluffs, traveling to Italy and Paris and Russia, carrying Susan in his arms, impossible odds, cars breaking down without brakes and no real money, and Danny's temper tantrums and screaming fits sometimes just like any normal person because he had a Job-like existence.
He'd lived in a garret in Paris as a young man. He'd sold candied apples at the circus. He'd been a cantor in a synagogue, an actor, a crossing guard, a waiter.
And of all the writers I had ever known, Danny was the only one who most cared about me, took note of me, recognized me publicly, drew attention to me. This was my best friend, the most significant friend I'd ever had. I doubted that was true of Danny's feelings about me. But that didn't matter. What mattered was the existence of something so basic and true and real. How to hold on to this, how to give back, how not to be jealous of Danny's achievements, how to root for my pal-- “pal,” a Ballinzweig usage from the last century—buddy, friend.
# # #
When I was 28, I hadn't seen Danny in years, not since our youth, and I saw him again. We had both just published our first books. Danny was working as a busboy then, and really struggling. I was in my car, driving down the street, and taking a peek at Danny's book, which I held on the dashboard. And I suddenly saw Danny close by through the car window, walking down the street reading my book.
# # #
Now it's near the end. Meeting at the Hungarian pastry shop, he said “nothing will get my work attention. It's too late for that. They won't let you in except as an eccentric or a curiosity. It's the same names that get attention and are alluded to and hyped. I've always thought that stuff killed good writing.”
He will stick to it to the end. Did I mention my anti-Communist phase? My Italian phase? There's no mystery to my changing my name to Mario. Yearning to be part of “this thing of ours.” Do you know what it feels like for people to come up to you and say, “You have friends. Can they do something about somebody who's bothering me?” My taking a long significant pause, looking around, taking the guy by the arm and whispering into his ear, “What can I do for you, my friend?” I can tell you that talking like this was a thrill beyond measure.
All this stuff takes time. So: five books to Danny's 47.
My friend David Twersky died a year ago of cancer. He was 60. He grew up in the Bronx in the Sholem Aleichem Cooperative housing project. His father was an ardent Socialist and Zionist. Once, when David was five, he sent his son to purchase the Socialist Jewish Daily Forward. David unknowingly brought home the Communist newspaper, the Freiheit. His father threw him out of the window. This was how David told it, leaving out the fact the apartment was on the second floor.
David was a member of Habonim, the Labor Zionist Youth, and went to City College. In 1974 he went on aliyah to Israel. He served in the artillery unit in 1982 in the Lebanon war. He worked for the American Jewish Congress. He was a journalist and a peace activist. These words, of course, tell nothing of why he was so unique.
And David was one of five people who praised a novel of mine in 1991. He called me up to tell me and we became distant friends. Then, three years ago, I published another novel and he loved it and reviewed it. And so, in the last year of his life we became closer friends. He knew me.
David phoned me a week before he died. I have kept his message on my cell phone since, and it's possible I will never remove it.
He said: “Mario, it's David Twersky. Just checking in. It's 3:30 or something like that. I can't see the clock and I lost both of my watches two Passovers ago and I still can't find them. And in the hope I'll find them I didn't buy another one. I had a friend back when we were in our twenties before I moved to Israel. He was in a big rush and we were on 34th Street. Some Scientologist, not EST, something more wacky—came up to him in the subway station while he was impatiently waiting for the train and said `Would you like to go to a seminar?' My friend goes, `Thanks, but I don't have the time.' And the guy goes, `Time? What is time?'”
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