Source: Imagine the World Without Guns.
In the late 1970s and early 80’s my art director and I had the pleasure of working with Lester Bookbinder, a photographer and commercials director from New York. A perfectionist, he arrived in London with a large plate camera, an unerring eye for visual drama and a Buster Keaton level dead-pan delivery. A man with a mordant wit, not to say a maudlin soul.
He made women look sensational for Chanel No 5 and Pretty Polly tights, and somehow made Angel Delight, a dessert made from powders in a box, look edible.
I am staring at his picture of Harpo Marx, in costume, a crazy old man mugging crazily to camera.
Lester cared little for product and nothing for message. He liked objects, form. The way a horse looked up and was suddenly more alive, the way an earing’s small movement created drama is what excited him. To make inanimate things stunning and surprising, that was Lester’s métier. And he never just hacked it out. Once, when he seemed to linger overlong over a pack shot when we were antsy to go to lunch, I asked him what was wrong with the beautifully-lit shot he had lined up.
“It’s a perfectly fine pack shot” I offered.
“It’s last year’s pack shot”, his eye never leaving camera.
One day he asked if I wanted hear the joke about the American Dream.
I bit, even though it was clearly an ambush.
He said the American Dream was 14 million negroes (this was before they were blacks) swimming back to Africa.
“That’s it”? I asked.
“They each had a Jew on their back.”
“How could they swim with a Jew on their backs?”
“That’s the Dream.”
When I told this to my father, a man who had slipped out of Europe in 1939, left everything end everyone behind, and arrived in New York with hope, he was shocked. Its cynicism offended him on multiple levels. It was in bad taste. It offended him as a Polish-born Jew. And it outraged him as a relatively newly minted American. He was patriotic and full of faith in America as only those who find survival, salvation and success on the American shore can be. He had the belief in America’s promise of an immigrant.
He was example of America’s once undoubted power to resurrect people.
Watching the long line of torches marching through Charlottesville in the night, and the “superior” white men with their home-made Nazified outfits, like some Chaplin film without a decent wardrobe budget, I wanted to reach through the screen grab each and shout in their faces: look in the mirror, fuckhead! Superior to what? Superior to whom? Can you play centerfield like Wllie Mays? Can you make music like Duke Ellington? Can you play the piano like Nina Simone? Can you write like Ralph Ellison or Toni Morrison? Can you speak in complete sentences like Barak Obama?
You white guys aren’t surperior, you’re pathetic.
Randy Newman, in that stupendously great American album, Good Old Boys (“Good old buys from LSU; went in dumb came, out dumb too…”), described what you are superior at:
“We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks: we don’t know our ass from a hole in the grand. We’re rednecks: we’re keeping the niggers down”.
I’ve been re-thinking Lester’s joke.
It wasn’t very funny then, but more Importantly, it seemed untrue.
Unhappy white men are out for satisfaction and justice, their “birthright”. And that means blacks and Jews and immigrants and anybody who doesn’t look like them beware.
And you can forget the protections of the Constitution and the rule of law when the head of state is their inspiration and cheerleader.
There’s a line from The Second Coming in which Yeats summed up much of the dark side of the 20th century.
“The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Now the ranks of the worst include the President of the United States.
Sophia Loren once explained that Carlo Ponti never acted old, never ached and pained, or “krepsed”, as one might say in Yiddish, and that’s why she remained in love with him. I’ve tried but it’s difficult not to moan when you want to rip your sciatic nerve out and shoot it. But one of the truly hurtful things abut one’s decline and fall is not what happens to your body, its what happens to other peoples. You don’t just lose friends and relatives and great dogs, old girlfriends and bete noirs, you lose witnesses. You lose those you can share memories with and those you rely on to set your memory straight. After a while you realize that when they die, bits of you die. Bits of your mother, bits of your first car, bits of that walk in the woods high above the Hudson when the thunder rolled in and the heaven opened. Remember Dr Clark? Now nobody does. He no longer exists in any sense and a piece of you died with him. In a film it would be like a big room or dance hall emptying out one person at a time until the place echoes with approaching emptiness. It’s almost time for carriages.
Just out of high school I went to sea.
The Merchant Mariner’s ID issued by the US Coast Guard arrived by mail just after my 17th birthday.
As good as a passport, it came like a driver’s license, the black-and-white subway booth picture with its unshaven, unsmiling, face framed by a dark roll-neck sweater preserved in plastic.
I stared down whatever was out there. I was Joseph Conrad, I was O’Neill’s Bound East For Cardiff. I was tough. I was ready.
I hoped I looked it anyway.
A few days later I put on my second-hand US Navy pea jacket, $15 from Army-Navy on Orchard Street on the lower east side. (This was when Orchard Street stores spilled half their wares onto the sidewalk.)
The jacket’s original owner’s name and rank was inked on the inside chest pocket. I felt with that jacket I put on a piece of his experience, borrowed some authenticity and power, like guys who lace up their Air Jordans before a basketball game.
His credentials would be my credentials.
In the privacy of my Bronx bedroom I did a final inspection. I adjusted my dark wool watch cap so it skewed slightly to one side, a mysterious and slightly intimidating look.
Pulling my collar up, I adjusted my Ray-Bans. Ready.
I opened the door, went down the elevator and took the #11 bus to the A Train on 207th and Dyckman Street.
50 minutes later I was walking through deepest Brooklyn.
This Brooklyn wasn’t cute. It was not something you named your kid or dog. It was not where you went to seek the perfect macchiato.
It was not yet an option for West Village people escaping rents and real estate prices that had become fit for the very rich or the lucky few who had clung to rent control.
This Brooklyn was a timeless, beat up place, clapboard houses sagging from the weight of the electric and telephone lines that ran overhead. Tram line tracks ran down the streets. The only espresso machines were in dark Italian bars where food came oozing tomato sauce, delivered to tables on which bottles of red pepper flakes and grated cheese stood ready.
This was working class Brooklyn, a place Walt Whitman would recognize. People walked slowly and looked tired. Clothes were old. They lugged their groceries back home with toddlers in tow or stood under shop fronts waiting for the rain to stop: that Brooklyn. A Brooklyn that still remembered the Dodgers and would never forget or forgive the slight of their departure.
The Seafarer’s International Union headquarters and training center was an old, large multi-story that suddenly appeared down a non-descript street.
Inside was a classless society as long as you were working class.
Everyone dressed in old leather jackets, baseball caps, overalls or beat up jeans. There were mostly men, mostly white, mostly older. Bigger guys, and bigger bigger guys.
Woody Guthrie could have wandered through or sat strumming, at home and unnoticed. Perhaps he did. I’ve seen pictures of him playing his guitar in McSorely’s, an old bar in a similar neighborhood in Manhattan.
Everyone was hanging around, except at the front of a large auditorium a small crowd of interested parties gathered.
Every once in a while someone called out ships and crews. But nobody else paid much attention. At the union, it seemed, you could get hired or you could hangout. It was a job center and social club. Maybe people listened with one ear.
Clutching my union card in my pocket I sat on one of the long benches in the back and tried to look bored, like I’d done this before. Many, many times.
Eventually another ship’s crew was called.
“The SS Bradford Island. Coastwise. Oil. East and Gulf, 4-6 weeks. Wiper, Oiler, 3rd Engineer, Cook’s Mate…”
I raised my hand.
Two days later, duffel bag on shoulder and a 4-day start of a beard, I marched up the narrow steps and stepped on board, trying to channel Marlon Brando.
Launched in 1945 in Portland, Oregon, the ship was a T-2 tanker. Rated at 10,000 tons gross tonnage. (Current super tankers weigh in at 275,000+ tons).
It was one of over 2700 cargo ships made with standardized, pre-fabricated parts from all over the US in the effort to win the war.
The Nazis had their Wermacht, Lufwaffe and Wolf’s Packs, but we had Detroit and its assembly line. Detroit won.
FDR said it was ‘the arsenal of democracy’. He was right.
When Detroit turned its attention to war it turned out tanks, planes and ships like nobody’s business. It produced ships exactly the way it produced cars: by the thousands: faster than the U-Boats could sink them.
That’s why 3000 miles away the Allies stayed in fuel and Britain stayed afloat.
American energy and know-how produced these ships. FDR made Henry Kaiser production czar and he applied the same principles to building ships as he had to building his cars.
He built them fast.
Some went from on the drawing board to on the water in under 4 days.
Now, a decade and a half later the Bradford Island sailed under the Cities Service Oil Company banner. She was looking her age. She appeared to me, at least, ungainly. Too long and too narrow, with superstructures in the middle and at the back, she looked like she might snap in heavy weather.
She was high in the water. I learned later that being high in the water was a sign of an empty tanker. An empty tanker is a floating bomb. It’s filled with highly volatile fumes from past loads. Nobody smoked on an empty tanker. We were careful about open flames and making sparks. Loaded, a tanker is low in the water and completely safe.
The Bradford Island was held together by the know-how and constant attention of the 3 engineers—the Chief, the First and the Second Engineer: all white southern men, all tall and rangy, all pretty silent. And they all knew what they were doing. I worked along side the Second Engineer. I never knew his name. He was called “Second” by me and everyone else.
These engineers had never been to a gym, had never “worked out”. They had no bulging muscles. But they were hard, as hard as any tough guy I knew. Work was their workout. They could fix things with their hands. They seemed to be able to repair anything mechanical and anything they couldn’t repair they made. They understood machines.
Like the rest of us they worked 12-14 hours in the heat of summer.
It was often 110F and above in the engine room.
The crew were mostly Mexican with a few Puerto Ricans thrown in. They were brown, short, loud and stocky. They had muscles made for t-shirts. They looked a different race. Where the southerners talked quietly if at all, the Mexicans never stopped. The southerners hardly smiled. The Mexicans smiled, joked, and gesticulated all the time. They too worked like demons. They never complained about the work or the heat or the hours. They enjoyed their own company and their well-paying jobs: the union wages, and plenty of over-time to keep the old ship going.
They also liked, I thought, the freedom of being at sea: out of sight of land and out of reach of society. They had, briefly, escaped to their own world, a world they ran.
I was the odd one: the kid with a high school diploma and college on the horizon. I was amazed they didn’t give me a hard time. But after initial inspections they saw that I worked and kept my head down. So they accepted me.
They didn’t throw me overboard.
We stopped in Wilmington, North Carolina and I saw the first of many refineries from the business end. Endless lights, a jungle of superstructures and pipes belching flames. The smell became part of my clothing.
After a while I didn’t notice.
When we turned west past the Dry Tortugas and into the Gulf the sea changed; it became completely docile, a lake on tranquilizers. There was no wind, no waves. There was no movement except for the path the ship cut through the water.
At night the Gulf seemed like glass: a perfect mirror for the stars. We spent airless and mostly sleepless nights in hammocks on deck, hoping for a breeze and that the horn on the smokestack didn’t suddenly blow. It did.
On the ship nothing mattered but how hard and well you worked. Get the job done, don’t let anyone down.
I had signed on a Wiper, the lowest rung on the engine room ladder.
It was a misnomer. My job was not to wipe machinery but to chip away the rust and the ancient layers of paint on everything you could see with a hammer and chisel. And then re-paint the bare metal with Red Lead. Red Lead was a rust-inhibiting paint. It was also health-inhibiting, noxious. In the dark claustrophobia of the engine room the fumes had nowhere to go but up your nose.
Rust was everywhere. From 8 to 8 every day, rust was me. I banged away at it and the sound reverberated around the hull and back again, a percussive rhythm with the deep hum of the turning drive shaft in the background. It was hot, repetitive work as well as noisy and not a little dangerous. I could have refused the overtime but I would have been the odd man out. I had no intention of being frowned on by the crew.
Day by day the crew got richer on paper. There was no place to spend their increasing pay. No Amazon to surf. No online porn. Some waited for the first port of call, sometimes the first bar, sometimes the first woman, to become broke again. Most had arranged for some money to be held back for their families so they couldn’t blow it all.
Work, eat, sleep; there was not much else to do. At the end of the day you climbed into your bunk and collapsed.
Alcohol was taboo. Strictly not allowed on board.
In Port St Joe, Florida, I watched a crewman struggle up the ladder dragging an enormous suitcase. Near the top it popped open and dozens of bottles of beer shattered onto the dock and into the water.
The small mess where everyone ate together was open 24 hours. The meals were good and they were gut-filling.
Steak and eggs, beef and potatoes. All you could eat. Appetites were big, calories needed replacing.
The refrigerator was always full of cheese and cold cuts. You helped yourself. There were large jars of hot peppers with their owners name taped on, prepared by mothers and wives of the Mexicans, which they delved into, even at breakfast.
I tried one, once.
One of my jobs was to haul buckets of old engine oil on deck and toss the contents off the fantail. The first time I did this a small crowd gathered to watch.
I launched it into the air. I was immediately covered in engine oil. Much laughter. Someone threw me a rag. After that, wet finger in air, I checked the wind direction several times before even spitting.
Even though we were coastwise the ship was sometimes out of sight of land and other ships too. Seagulls always and occasionally dolphins kept us company, the seagulls for scraps off the fantail, the dolphins for fun off the bow or in the ship’s wake.
At sea the Mexicans felt out of reach and free. A spirit of anarchy seeped in. Their constant refrain when anything or anyone annoyed them was: “over the side”.
And stuff did go over, from garbage to old chairs to the rare dish they didn’t like. But no people, to my knowledge.
The sea was therapy, their outlet: both emotional and real. I’ve sometimes thought that it would be a good thing to have in life: an instant disposal for whatever bothers you. Bury your problems and annoyances.
Over the side.
Throwthesonofabitchpoliticanovertheside. Throwthesonofabitchwhoroganizedthatmeeetingovertheside. Throwthesonofabitchclientovertheside.
It took me a while to figure out when and if they were serious. Because if something did go over the side, that was it. The ship couldn’t stop.
The image of the ship disappearing in the distance stuck in my head. I stared at the churning water quickly disappearing behind us.
The single screw was turned by a huge shaft at the bottom of the engine compartment. It revolved hypnotically. I used to wonder how long would take to stop turning if someone or something became caught in it down there. You didn’t need years at sea to know that keeping your hands, feet and clothing to yourself was a good idea around that shaft.
I filed this thought right behind keeping my mouth shut until you know what you’re talking about as the best advice for working on a ship.
Another piece of advice I received gratis while waiting to toss another bucket of oil in to receding ocean a I stood there idly whistling “Do not Forsake Me Oh My Darling”.
Miguel, the older Mexican who had happily offered me one of his mother’s peppers (and sat back to enjoy my first bite) sidled up.
“Listen Tex, only two people whistle on a ship, the bosun and the cocksucker. And you’re not the bosun.”
It was a joke but he was serious. Why take chances? I never whistled again.
We hit all the high spots, discharging and charging cargo in Wilmington, North Carolina, Port St Joe, Florida, Mobile, Alabama, Port Arthur Texas, New Orleans.
Of course I never really got to see any of these places. I saw hot refineries at midnight and, with any luck, air conditioned bars with their cold beers and local ladies. We all rushed down the gangplank given a couple of hours in port.
The refineries were mini-cities, worlds to themselves.
We’d arrive at night.
On moonless ones the stars would be matched by thousands of twinkling lights from the refinery. We’d pick up the pilot and slowly make our way up the dark channel, sometimes docking hours later. The heat, humidity and chemicals smell grew stronger.
The ship got as far as Port Arthur, Texas. It’s where Janis Joplin grew up and felt the need to leave. When we got back to New Orleans, I did too.
I had had enough, not of the ship and the crew but of the monotonous hard work. Red Lead can drain the romance of the sea. I wanted an egg cream.
I signed off. Pocketful of cash in hand, I spent a few days walking around looking for life. Finding little, I bought a Greyhound ticket for the 28 hour trip to New York.
The bus took us into a different and uglier world.
The gas stations and road stops had two water fountains, one for “Whites Only” and one for “Blacks”. The same for the toilets. Some “blacks” on the coach, unwilling to go in these stops, asked if I would bring out sandwiches or ice cream for them.
On the ship there was the equality of work. Here skin color defined everything.
Finally, we entered yet another world, my world. The bus rose up out of the Lincoln Tunnel and we were back in Manhattan. New York.
My home port.
Abe and Teddy ran a luncheonette, soda fountain and candy store on Johnson Avenue. It was known amongst us 13 year-old aficionados as Abe’s Cage.
Long before Starbucks or McDonald’s became “America’s stop away from home”, Abe’s was ours.
That’s too modest. For us, for a few critical years, it was our headquarters, our retreat, our lair, our clubhouse, where we made our plans.
Louie Wexler, Stevie Roth, Howie Cantor, Eddie Klein and me was us.
We grew up playing stickball together, then basketball and softball. Then we grew into a group who played poker on Friday nights, first for pennies, then 5¢–10¢–25¢, then quarter/halves, then dollars. And then we discovered the attractions of the larger world outside, including the girls.
Boyhood over, we went our separate ways.
The early group often repaired to Abe’s after the the Battles of the Schoolyard.
It’s where we nursed losses and celebrated victories and the heroic feats that made them: the over-the shoulder-catches, the game-winning jump shots, the hail-mary passes that actually found receivers.
Abe’s is where we worshiped Mantle and the Yankees, and and mourned the Giant’s Y.A Tittle. Serial losers, the Knicks of Richie Guerin, Willie Naulls, Ray Felix, Kenny Sears and Harry Gallatin weren’t worthy of our hopes. The Knicks of Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley (Senator Bradley to you), Dick Barnett and, especially, Willis Reed definitely were.
Magazines, newspapers and comic books lined the front of Abe’s.
Towards the back were telephone kiosks with folding doors that allowed semi-private conversations or very public arguments.
Occasionally someone raced out to the cash register for more coins, and raced back.
Several booths sat against the wall across from the lunch counter where people with squirrely kids could lock them safely in and enjoy their coffee, or quietly listen in to deals going down, marriages on the outs, or men on the make in the phone kiosks.
At one end of the lunch counter was a much-visited jar of long pretzels. At the other, a gathering of ketchups and mustards.
Abe’s functioned as a kind of town square, a meeting place, a news, gossip and rumor distribution hub. It was our Social Media with a real address, where men picked up Bering Straights cigars or Mixture 79 pipe tobacco and women their Pall Mall, Philip Morris and Winston cigarettes.
Kids were sent to collect daily newspapers. Mothers escaped domestic boredom and the cleaning lady, and pacified protesting toddlers. (Those pretzels, Tootsie Roll lollipops and long sheets of semi-waxed paper with dots of sugar candy you bit off).
Cops stopped to schmooze and enjoy coffee and cake, free of course, leaving their patrol car by the fire hydrant in front.
In spite of the role his place played, Abe was not a welcoming host or community type.
A bear of a man, he was an ex-New York cop, retired early and going comfortably to seed. We knew he had been a cop. Every once in a while he would show us his badge or flash the 38-caliber police special he kept under the counter.
There was little need for it. Crime on Johnson Avenue was almost non-existent. Everyone believed Abe was connected with the local hoods as well as he was with the local station house. It would have been as not smart to try something on his turf—amidst the mingling mothers and baby carriages and countless kids in front of and in the store—as it would have been in Little Italy.
You never saw Abe behind the lunch counter. Short-order cooking was not his thing.
Serving was not his thing.
Working was not his thing.
Taking the money while sitting Buddha-like behind the cash register, that was his thing.
The only job he embraced with enthusiasm was policing the magazine rack. His radar for young felons sneaking previews of the latest Marvel comic without paying was unerring.
“Hey kid, you buying that?’ he boomed as you were just getting into in the newest adventures of The Fantastic Four or the gothic horrors of The Elevator From Hell.
But where Abe was a born bully, large, gruff and lazy, his partner Teddy was small, friendly and hard working. He greeted you by name. And behind the counter in his white apron he was Mr Short Order.
We live now in the era of Fast Food, where a uniformed mindless dummy takes your order and turns to transfer something from a cold store or shelf, warms it in an automatic oven and makes you forget what an artist a short order cook can be.
The right man (or a woman), an apron, a spatula and a grill and magic can be made.
Teddy turned any number of those quarter-inch thin hamburgers peeled from wax sheets, which had gone on to the grill at different times, at just their right moments. They landed on your plate juicy and moist, never dry, with a slice of raw onion in a roll that had spent a minute on the grill, and a sour pickle that puckered your lips.
Hamburgers were 35¢.
Teddy lowered, raised and shook the fries basket countless times until they were perfectly golden and tumbled out onto your plate.
His bacon was crisp and his BLTs, swathed in mayo, left little to be desired, except a second BLT.
But Teddy’s claim to immortality rests not on his short order skills but something else: he made consistently great egg creams.*
We instinctively knew a talent like his was special, it took sensitivity and the hand/eye coordination of an athlete.
Let me explain.
An egg cream has only three ingredients, but the order and how they are introduced makes all the difference.
How Teddy made egg creams.
First, he poured an inch of cold milk into the bottom of a chilled 8 oz glass.
Then he pumped the syrup dispenser twice for an inch of Fox’s u-bet chocolate syrup.
And (and this is where so many fountain mavens fall short) he pulled back the lever of the soda fountain so gently the seltzer flowed without aggression. It didn’t attack the milk and chocolate, it caressed them. He buffered it into the glass with an upturned spoon. (Some people turn the glass on angle, like pouring beer to avoid the foam. He did not.)
This seltzer-fall, almost in slow-motion, conjured the egg cream into life.
A brief stir with a long spoon and the ingredients transformed in a swirl that rose in the glass, stopping just at the top.
As the emulsion grew, all shades of beige, a foamy white head appeared. Then, as everything settled, thousands of tiny droplets fell to the bottom, like snowflakes.
Later, there were fewer and fewer egg creams in our lives. But there was beer, then girls, then women. Finally, and much later, the downbeat welcome of dark bars, John Coltrane and a well-made Martini.
But no more us and no more Abe’s.
At Abe’s, egg creams were 15¢.
* Food historian Andrew Smith writes: “During the 1880s, a popular specialty was made, probably in Brooklyn, with chocolate syrup, cream, and raw eggs mixed into soda water, In poorer neighborhoods, a less expensive version of this treat was created, called the Egg Cream (made without the eggs or cream).”
Dr Martin Weinbaum
Tall, grey, thin to the point of bony, he moved slowly and rather ominously into the noisy classroom, head and body bent as if in deep thought. In fact he was a jolly man, with a wicked sense of humor and an unexpectedly booming laugh. He began each class with a slowly unfolding story in a voice both so quiet and heavily accented it forced you to listen and listen hard.
The classroom at Queens College went silent as he approached the front. Everyone waited for the wit and bite of his introduction, hoping it wouldn’t be directed at them. His tongue could sting.
A middle-aged naughty boy was Dr Weinbaum, one from a world quickly fading into the past.
He was German and spoke the way Germans sounded in the movies. Oscar Homolka, perhaps. Or Kurt Jurgens.
He called the university he went to Leipschhig.
Dr Weinbaum was a link in the long academic lineage of begats and taught-bys going back to Marx and Leibniz and Hegel: the Exodus list for 19th and 20th Century Historians and Philosophers. Such a linked tradition defined for us what it was to be European, when European was a culture and not a geography.
(Curious now, that when the EU is practically Europe Incorporated, there seem to be so few “Europeans”: plenty of French, Swedish, Dutch, Hungarians, and of course Germans, and all to some degree Americanized. As for the Brits–or more pointedly the English—they were never Europeans and never wanted to be. For them Europe was always an economic proposition.)
Although it was not his native tongue, Dr Weinbaum spoke English perfectly, deliberately, always in complete sentences. His mind and mouth were in sync. There were no ahs, or ups, no contractions. And no lazy slang. Compared to the buddiness culture shared by students and the younger faculty at Queens, he was all formality. Male students were addressed as “Mister”: females, with great courtesy, were “Miss”.
In his voice you could hear Weimar and Oxford. Or in his case, Manchester. Clearly an Anglophile, the English came with slightly archaic expressions: chums, piffle (a significant put-down if directed at at a paper you produced) and kerfuffle were favorites. But for his Germanic gravity you might have thought he had recently spent the weekend with Bertie Wooster.
When it came to history Dr Weinbaum was all business. History was written and spoken with a capital H.
Ideas and arguments were as real as the chairs in the room. Those of and between Hegel, Marx, Feuerbach, Karl Popper, Ernst Cassirer and Martin Buber populated his head and therefore ours. He and many of his soul brothers were refugees, or perhaps one should call them escapees. One by one his contemporaries had abandoned the intellectual hothouses of German universities and turbulent cafés of Europe for the less intense and more democratic airs of London, New York and Tel Aviv. Some with luck and foresight went in the early 30’s. Some scraped under the (barbed) wire to the sound of guns.
Weinbaum was of the former. After a spell at the University of Manchester in the 30’s where he studied, wrote, and became a leading expert on, of all things, English Borough Charters in the Middle Ages*, he landed in New York and began teaching at Queens College.
It now seems I met him at the moment the optimism of post-World War II America ran smack into the fractiousness of Viet Nam America, which was to grow into the fractiousness of the culture wars, the Iraq War and its extensions.
Campuses became mini war zones with daily demonstrations. Seminars on historicism inside, war protesters outside.
Around this early in the Viet Nam War (1964) many of the protestors were recently returned ex-army, and loudly for it. Noisy Patriots, they wore their army jackets and medals. They demonstrated against those of who were against the war, the Un-Americans, who could have been their younger brothers. They had army jackets too, but ratty old ones emblazoned with “Hell no! We won’t go!”: more concerned with street style and ironic commentary on allegiance.
Amidst the commotion it was hard to tell if Dr Weinbaum took in what was going on.
But never fear. He was a man who had seen the old world untethered, disintegrate and fall at his feet. He knew what to look for. Could the same be happening here in this, his second adopted country?
One day he walked into class and a dropped a new magazine on his desk. It had just launched. It was called “The Common Interest”.
Dr Weinbaum asked us about competing definitions of freedom and liberty and what elements of common belief held a democratic society together, or kept it from breaking apart?
He was fascinated with the magazine’s name.
What exactly, he asked, with the ruckus outside, was our common interest?
In retrospect. with the advantage of 20/20 hindsight—and especially the experience of the Obama years and the 2016 election—one might today answer that the magazine appeared at the very moment in America when there stopped being any.
*British Borough Charters 1307 – 1660.
Paul Mann woke up to find a number on the inside of his forearm.
It hadn’t been there the night before but all the same it was somehow familiar, as if it had always been there, as if it belonged there.
Then he remembered the numbers on the arms of his parents’ friends who had survived the war.
A woman in the neighborhood who worked at Mother’s Bakery had such a number on her forearm which she seemed to wear proudly. She never wore long sleeves. Each time he went to buy a seeded rye sliced the number was there.
“Go wash it off,” his wife commanded. “You look like you just got out of the camps.”
He washed and scrubbed away, but the number would not budge. His arm became raw.
He tried shampoo, dish-washing liquid, and even solvents. Nothing worked. He sprayed it with WD40, but the number remained and his arm smelled like the garage.
His doctor prescribed what his doctor always prescribed. “Leave it alone and it will go away”. It didn’t. Unable to think of what to do, he remembered a tattoo parlor downtown.
He had passed it for years on his way to work. Now he lingered across the street before finally going in. A large man, not young, came out from behind the curtain, wiping his nose with a well-used handkerchief. He was a walking advertisement for, or against, tattoos. His shoulders and arms were immense, but the skin, covered in images of crouching boxers, and triumphant champions with their arms raised, was beginning to sag. Rocky Marciano, “Undefeated Heavyweight Champion of the World (49 wins-0 losses)”, just looked droopy.
The man inspected the number for a long time. Eventually he said, not unhappily, “This might sting a bit.” He set about the forearm with a vibrating needle. It hurt like hell and bled a little. Then it bled some more. Each time the man paused he wiped it with his handkerchief. The number remained, unmoved. It’s stubbornness only encouraged the man to press harder.
Finally Paul pulled away. “Jesus!”
As time passed it became clear that Paul was not alone. Other people woke up to their own numbers. Each was different. Some were on their forearms, some on their upper arms, some just below the shoulder. A few were on the back of the neck. A young woman discovered hers on the inside of her ankle. It seemed to be an epidemic.
There were always 8 digits.
At first people panicked. They ran to their their doctors, consulted specialists, went back to church, and consumed the views of minor celebrities. The Kardashians claimed the numbers were a lottery from another world, heaven perhaps. The military scanned the skies for extra-terrestrial evidence.
“The Day The Earth Stood Still”, the original 1951 Robert Wise version, was re-released and played to big audiences. Fox news quickly set up a Psychics Hotline. The sale of Ouija boards took off. Right wing politicians called on people to pray and the government to do something. Pundits opined.
Eventually nothing happened. Life went on. People no longer went to the beach and the sale of short sleeved shirts and tops declined radically. But mostly people stopped worrying. The television stopped mentioning the numbers, even on the local news. Water cooler conversation turned back to football.
Then one day an older man with a number on his left bicep, was crossing a busy street. He looked carefully both ways for cars, saw none, stepped off the curb, and was wiped out by a cyclist powering away with his head down in what passed for a cycle lane.
The cyclist broke his collar bone. The man broke his existence.
The undertaker, taking a break from cleaning the corpse, sat smoking a cigarette and reading the newspaper. Looking up, the number had started to fade. Soon it was gone, but not before he noticed the date in his newspaper.
In the natural course of things other deaths followed.
People died of cancers, heart disease, strokes. Most died at night, some on country roads a few miles from home, their alcohol-inspired brains surprised by the sudden appearance of a tree. Old people slipped on the ice and slipped away in hospital. Soldiers died in what were once called wars but were now called “conflicts”. Babies died in their cots and children died for no good reason.
Each time their 8 digits slowly disappeared.
Their time was up.
Sometime around 1965 I scored some “special” grass.
The word grass dates me. Today it would be called, disrespectfully, weed. But there was nothing weedy about it.
I remember complaining, holding up the transparent bag with what looked like a thin line of fine, golden pubic hair at the bottom: “Is that all you can sell?”
My source looked at me pityingly.
“You’ve heard of Panama Red and Acapulco gold? This is better. It’s unbelievable.”
Of course everything he ever sold me was “unbelievable”, so I walked away unbelieving.
On Saturday night we all tried it.
My sister Marcia and her boyfriend George Minervini, George’s brother Dennis, Dennis’ girlfriend, and Neil Berg, who that morning was supposed to have started his first job but decided to take the day off.
We all shared a single thin joint. Everyone thought I was holding back. When had I gotten so stingy?
Then Marcia and George went out.
Sometime later, and suddenly it was impossible to say how long later was–10 minutes? Two hours?—the phone rang. It was Marcia.
“George is on the floor of the Chinese restaurant and he thinks he’s dying.”
The rest of us somehow made our way down Johnson Avenue to the restaurant just south of 235th Street. We found the dying George, now in a booth, un-dead, and starry-eyed.
“Wow.” He said.
And then a little later, “Wow”.
George did not have a large vocabulary at the best of times. He suspected words, and thought the fewer the better. Strong and silent, he was sort of the Hemingway of Yonkers. Not that he could write.
But now “Wow” was the full extent of his vocabulary. And at that moment it felt surprisingly adequate, articulate even. “Wow” seemed to cover all possible sensations, insights and emotions, even if it made for a rather repetitive conversation, interrupted by the occasional, wistful, “Can you get any more?”
For years afterwards people referred to “that stuff that Gerry scored”.
It was my fame in the neighborhood: my unique, small light at the center of the dark universe. All subsequent stuff didn’t measure up. The grass had become legend.
What everyone meant by “wow” was this: as you inhaled for the first time your body physically rose, 6 to 8 feet into the air. Whoosh. And there it stayed, floating. You were at peace with the world below as you would never be again.
The great globe and the golden future it promised was at your feet.
Wow is right.
So you get passed Mantle and Maris and you walk Skowron, only to get to Yogi.
He stands at the plate smaller than the others, a fire plug of a guy, no relation to the bulging gym-made specimens of today. But there’s gym strong and there’s the son-of-Italian-immigrants strong. The kind of strong that sits on its haunches for nine innings day after day and year after year, and still rises to get the clutch hit.
And bats the better part of .300 his entire career.
Now, pitch after pitch, nothing reaches the catcher. Strike after strike, ball after ball is fouled off. In the stands people fidgit. The pitcher gets frustrated. He whacks the ball into his glove, kicks the dirt turns to the bleachers, and looks up at the sky for relief, but there isn’t any. He’s thrown all his best stuff. He’s thrown all his stuff.Mr Berra is still there, waiting.
The umpire calls for more balls.
The pitcher tries to waste one away. Maybe Berra will chase it. He does. The greatest bad ball hitter the world has ever seen, a man who always left his nerves at home before coming to the ball park, uncoils and reaches out for a ball a mile high and half a mile outside and punches it into the right field stands.
When I was a kid on 167th Street and the Grand Concourse (which was 6 blocks from 161st Street where you take a right at Joyce Kilmer Park, go passed the Bronx County Court House and walk down two blocks to River Avenue and Yankee Stadium) we would play stickball on McClellan Avenue while listening to the games and dodging cars (radio is the only way to “watch” baseball if you are not in the Stadium).
When the Yankees were 6 runs down in the 7th we’d idly wonder how they were going to pull this one out, never doubting they would. And they usually did.
You can love the man, laugh at his malapropisms, but never, never forget the ballplayer.
No more Yogi? It’s official: the 50s are over.
The cabin is dark. My reading light is the only one on. It’s been on all night, all the way across the Atlantic. I have been trying to keep my voice down in deference to the uncomfortable sleepers around me. But the laughter escapes.
It is early in the morning of September 18th 1966. I will be 22 in two days and I I am reading Catch-22 for the first.
All too soon the BOAC 707 prepares to land at Heathrow. I am flying to Britain to do an MA at the University of Sussex and avoid Viet Nam. Yossarian, Dunbar, Nately, Major Major and the Soldier in White are my companions. They would have done the same.
I am also emigrating, and in my father’s foot steps.
In 1939 my father left Poland a few months ahead of the Blitzkrieg. His family and friends, except the few who got out before him, would soon be, in the words of Dunbar, “disappeared”. London was a stopping off before he boarded the Queen Mary, the one with three smoke stacks, left for New York. It was the last trip west the ship would make before being turned into a troop carrier for the duration of the war. Stepping out into the afternoon sunlight from Brighton station after the coach into London and the train from Victoria, I was predisposed to like what I found. And I did. The boisterous paranoia of Heller’s men in the caught in middle of the Med melted into the extraordinary surface ordinariness domestic life in Brighton. Neat terraced houses marched in formation down the to the sea. Smoke curled from ceramic chimney pots as if choreographed. It was a movie set, on the surface at least without dissonance, and strangely familiar.
I discovered pubs and pints and that I could speak a version of the language. I learned to pay in pounds, shillings and pence. And how to make £5 almost last a weekend. People were friendly. Being American barely 20 years after the war still had some (declining) caché. 1966 was like 1789, as Wordsworth noted, a good time to be alive. Revolution was in the air. Spirits and hemlines were rising. Grey, wet afternoons were leavened by psychedelic visions walking up East Street. Basil Spence’s university, red bricks rising cold and muddy from the Sussex clay midway between Brighton and Lewes, was new and exciting. (A place of “hectic heterosexuality” reported Time Magazine.) It felt more like an experiment in the future than a place to swot through the night. Predictably, I did not.
Brighton cast a spell. An old madam with too much rouge and lipstick that wandered passed her lips, tarted up many times and crumbling around the edges. It put on a gay front. Beneath the seaside architecture’s hardened arteries it was lively, raunchy. Still a place of pleasure, with the genes of Prinny’s Regency and its underground passages to a mistress’ door. Older executives in large motor cars ferried young secretaries passed the Royal Pavillion to weekend “conferences” at the Metropole or Grand. Brighton’s English language schools attracted young women from all over, especially Scandinavia. And the young women attracted young men. You could learn Swedish riding the buses. The new university added thousands of young people to lower the average age and raise the temperature of the town. The university itself was a building site. There were not nearly enough dorm rooms for the students, so most, like me, lived in bedsits or guest houses in town.
One such was Bon Accord in Dorset Gardens, which led down to St James’s Street, the main thoroughfare of Kemp Town. Bon Accord was all-girls, including one young woman I was attracted to and she, unlikely as it seemed, to me. Bill and Doris, its two older, unsmiling landlords, were padding their retirement by renting out accommodation to young people they did not approve of. It had a proper kitchen as opposed to the tiny Baby Bellings—single burners with a small “oven” underneath– supplied to most bedsits, including mine. One evening I decided to cook a meal for us, but after the evening’s wine I somehow left for bed without washing up. I came back early the next morning before people were up to make amends. The door opened a crack. “That American with the blue Mini? He’s not allowed,” Doris’s high, thin witchy voice declared somewhere inside.
Occasionally I called my parents in New York. I went to the post office on North Street and booked one of the cubicles and pre-paid for the first three minutes. You could hear the signal traveling across the Atlantic, a high, static whoosh: Brighton to London to the Bronx.
Many seconds later a small, familiar voice from a great distance said “Hello…?” and the anxious interrogation began. My mother (shouting so as to be heard 3000 miles away): “Are you all right?” “I’m fine.” “Are you eating?”
“Are you sure you’re eating enough?”
“Yes, Mom, I’m sure.” “Are you warm enough?”
“Yes,” I lied.”
“Should we send you anything?”
“No, I don’t need anything. I’m fine.”
And finally. “When are you coming home?”
If they had known how long it would be they would have disowned me. (If I had known how long it would be I would have disowned me.)
In the following weeks a box would appear with Crest toothpaste, Oreos, Hershey’s chocolate and other mainstays of American life.
Once a whole cheesecake from Lindy’s on 51st Street arrived. It must have weighed 8 pounds. I wondered what kind of cheese did Lindy’s put in that cake? Because, like “the salami you sent to your boy in the army”, it lasted a remarkably long time. Even divvied up amongst my “starving” English friends and a few homesick Americans some remained. And remained.
I spent the first year of my one-year MA course majoring in life in Brighton. I was an excellent student. I studied the rasaam soup at the Madras on Prince Albert Street in The Lanes, and pints of bitter at Dr Brighton’s by the Royal Albion. (“When you’re tired of Brighton you’re tired of life” read the sign above the bar, appropriated from both Dr Johnson and London.) Weekly I studied the menu at the Kebab House on Trafalgar Street where the portions were huge. I made careful inspections of the gardens at Lewes Crescent, especially on weekends when my friend Edward, who was in the import business dealing in products from Afghanistan, came down from London to for a quiet smoke. A fox lived there. To see that long, loping form, floating across the grass in the late afternoon crepuscular light as the water became the sky and as the sun lowered itself west over the Channel, seemed pretty magical. (This was before foxes learned what day people’s rubbish was put out for collection. Now there is anything but romance seeing them lurk around dark city streets.)
Eventually I decided my true interest was not the History of Ideas but what was then contemporary fiction: those authors whose picaresque heroes, manipulation of time, mocking absurdity and black sense of humour made sense of the horrors of the latter part of the 20th century. Writers like Vonnegut, Pynchon, Grass and, of course, Joseph Heller. Today no spoof, parody or satire by even those giants could keep up with current craziness. Catch-22 is no longer a dystopian fantasy. It’s the daily news. It’s here we are, back in Iraq. A one-year MA eventually took me three years to complete. Had I been smarter it would have taken even longer. Brighton was a great place to spend Viet Nam. Like Yossarian, I had made it to “Sweden”.