Thursday, November 30, 2017

We all need heroes

As a writer, I've had my share of dreams and fantasies. I've long since abandoned some of them--Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, MacArthur Award and various other honors in a galaxy far, far away.

But then there are dreams and fantasies that may be highly unlikely, but not necessarily impossible. One of those is to tell my literary heroes (living, of course) how much they have meant to me. It's hard to describe how intimate a relationship you can have with someone you don't know when you're a writer. Those writers who have inspired you are often the only people who seem to understand what you're trying to do, even though you've never met them. They do, because, by writing, and by writing with passion and dedication, they tell you that what you're doing is worth it all.

Sometimes, they can even rescue you. Which is what happened to me. It was Laurence Wylie who did the rescuing. You probably don't know who he is. He wrote a wonderful book called Village in the Vaucluse about living in the South of France in the early 1950s in the hill village of Roussillon. Today, Roussillon is a hub of tourism, but not back then. Wylie went with his family to see what living in a small French village was like. The result is a sympathetic, fair, compelling and ultimately delightful book that takes the reader through all aspects of French village life, from birth to death. 

So, how did Wylie rescue me? In the beginning months of living in my small village in the South of France, I was lost. I didn't understand a lot of the ways and means of the villagers. They weren't friendly. And they essentially didn't recognize me. I, of course, thought I would instantly become everyone's best friend. There were a lot of books in the house (owned by Americans, it turned out) I was living in, and one of them was Village in the Vaucluse. The landlady recommended it. I read it, and then everything was made plain. I saw my villagers in Wylie's book and understood I was no exception as to how they led their lives. I was fine after that.

When my book about living in that village was published, one of the first things I did was to send Laurence Wylie a copy in care of his publisher. Along with it, I sent a letter explaining how he had rescued me and how his book would live forever because it was true. I had no idea if he was even still alive at that point. It was forty years after Village in the Vaucluse had been published.

Then, one wonderful day, I received a handwritten letter from Laurence Wylie. This, in part, is what he wrote:

"Your letter was important to me because it helped me shove aside a sort of feeling that at 83 my life is dwindling without my having made a difference by living. Your letter made me feel that I had done something, so I thank you."

That was beyond great expectations.

Two years later, he was gone. But his book lives on, and I believe it always will.
                                                                 

Friday, November 17, 2017

Commencing with the simplest things--death


I was cleaning the apartment the other day and had Pandora tuned to the Bill Monroe station.  So it was country, it was bluegrass music, of the truest kind.

I listened for close to an hour.  Then something made me stop and listen to Ralph Stanley sing "Who Will Sing for Me."  Here's the first verse:

Oft I sing for my friends
When death's cold hand I see
When I reach my journey's end
Who will sing one song for me?

Then it struck me--and this is certainly not an original observation--how boldly and movingly country music talks about death.  There are so many great, poignant songs about death in country music.  The most famous is probably "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" by the Carter Family.  This is the first verse of that song:

I was standing by my window
On one cold and cloudy day
When I saw the hearse come rolling
For to carry my mother away.

Country music faces death.  Looks it straight in the eye.  Fears it.  Respects it.  It doesn't serve up any "Death, Be Not Proud" hokum.  (John Donne, it does not work.)

Those people--and here I mean the purebreds, the mountain singers, those from deep in the hollers where there isn't an un-genuine note--tell the truth.  That music will send chills down your spine.  It can be stark, but it's always true, the best of it.

Stark.  What is more stark than death?  I want to look it in the eye.  (Not for too long!)  I want death to know--I see you.  I know I will meet you one day.  And you will prevail.  These songs help me with that.  They give me courage. (And, yes, I am afraid.)  Especially at seventy-two, when I'm starting to hear footsteps.

Ralph Stanley wrote the most chilling, wonderful song about death.  He sings it unaccompanied, a capella, just that pure mountain voice of his.  It's called "O Death."  Some of the lyrics are below.  Nobody looked at death more clear-eyed than he.  But you have to listen to him sing the song. (Click here to do just that.)   It's something I can't describe.

Death, be proud.  Ralph Stanley wrote a killer song about you.

O, Death
O, Death
Won't you spare me over til another year
Well what is this that I can't see
With ice cold hands takin' hold of me
Well I am death, none can excel
I'll open the door to heaven or hell
Whoa, death someone would pray
Could you wait to call me another day?



Ralph Stanley




Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Painters of Crosby Street, Part 1


New York City, 1979.  I'd broken up with my girlfriend and was living in a sublet loft in Soho on Crosby Street for the summer.  I was thirty-five, and I had aspirations to be a writer.  I was an advertising copywriter, though, about as far from being a writer as you can get, despite the “writer” the two words share.    

I’d tried to write for real now and then, but I’d never gotten far.  I’d written stories in college that had won an award, but when I went into the world, I just stopped.  The pen I picked up wrote slogans, not short stories.  I was paid well for those slogans and commercials, and New York City always offered plenty of tempting ways to spend that money.  I still harbored the idea that I was a Writer. When you get to your mid-thirties, however, and you haven’t written more than a few stories since college, you can’t help but wonder: am I deluding myself? Was I ever going to summon the courage to just fucking write?

I didn’t know anyone in my building on Crosby Street.  I would share the elevator with people now and then, but I never said hello to anyone. They all looked like artists, and I guess I was intimidated and maybe thinking of my own lack of resolve.  They wore paint-splattered pants or bib jeans.  A few had children.  I always felt preppy, like I’d stepped out of a Brooks Brothers catalog.  I guess I had.

Then one day I met Arina.  I met her in the building's huge elevator—too vast for just people living in this small building and obviously used for commercial purposes.  I got on at my floor to go down, and she was there.  She looked and me and spoke:

“Are you taking loft of Michael this summer?”

“Uh, yes,” I said.  “I am.  Sublet.”

“I hope they don’t charge you too much.” 
She wore her hair short, a blade of which cut across her forehead on a sharp angle.  Her smile was open and ready, like a child’s.  And that voice.  She had a black-bread-thick Russian accent.  I loved to hear English spoken with a Russian accent, like hers. 

“No, well, I don’t think they did.”

I introduced myself. 

“I am Arina,” she said.  “I know Michael long time.”
The elevator reached the first floor.  There was no lobby, just a small area with wall mailboxes.

“You come for party or to eat something,” Arina said.  “I will tell you when.”
“Oh, yes, sure. That would be great.  What floor do you live on?”

“Seex.”

“Great.  How will I get in touch with you?”

“I will knock on door,” she said, as if that were absurdly obvious.  Then she laughed, and it seemed I heard that crackling in the chest that comes from heavy smoking.  I stole a quick glance at her right hand and saw her fingertips were stained varnish-yellow.  We walked outside into the sunlight.

“I must to buy paint,” she said.
“You’re a painter?”

“Da,” she said.  “Painter.”

She smiled and turned and walked south on Crosby toward Canal Street on her way to the magnificent Pearl Paint Store.  All painters in New York went to Pearl Paint to buy their supplies, sooner or later.  They were pilgrims going to a shrine.  I loved going there myself, even though I was no painter.  It was four or five floors of everything that had anything to do with painting.  The old wooden stairs creaked appealingly as you explored each floor.  I wanted to buy everything, even though I could barely draw a stick figure.  Such an array of things!  I waved goodbye to Arina as she walked away. 
Before I came to Soho, I hadn’t met many painters.  Soho introduced me to painters, and that was one of the great pleasures of living there.  

When I walked into a painter’s studio, I loved seeing the disarray.  I loved the tubes of paint that had been strangled empty, lying side by side, tin corpses.  I loved the dried globs of paint on palettes or on old tables, the remnants of experiments of mixing colors, trying to match what he or she saw.  I liked the appealing chaos of a painter’s studio, with all those old coffee cans filled with upturned brushes, small and large; the unframed canvasses they stretched themselves, the in-progress paintings.  I never saw an un-messy painter’s studio—thank God.  It gave me a jolt of freedom when I saw this wild work.  Painting was physical.  Everything was action.  I always felt more buoyant in a painter’s loft—even if I wasn’t floored by the work. 

It wasn’t too long afterward that Arina knocked on my door.  It was around ten o’clock at night.  I found out she was a night owl, and, for her, the night, at ten o’clock, was hardly beginning.  I opened the door. 

“Reechard, we having party Saturday.  I want you to come.”
“Well, sure.  What time?”

 “I don’t know.  Maybe five.”
“The afternoon?”

“We begin early.  We go until there is no one left.”
“Ok, great.  Thanks.”

 She looked past me into the loft.  “You don’t move nothing?”
“No, no, it’s their place.”

“So?  Move things for you!  It’s your place for next three four months.”
I laughed.  “I’ll think about it.”

“Are you with woman?” she asked.
“No, not now.”

“I see if I can find you woman,” she said.  And then she turned and left.


Arina


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

WSB


On a bright September day in 1972, I walked up to an apartment building at 8 Duke Street in London. I looked at the list of names next to the door, and I found who I was looking for. I nervously pressed the buzzer next to the name. Pause. Then I heard, through the intercom, a nasalized, even-keyed voice.

"Yesss?"

"Uh, it's...Richard...Goodman.  From America."

"Come on up."

Buzzzz. Door released. I walked inside.

I walked three flights up, and, arriving at the door, I knocked.

It was opened by William Burroughs.

William S. Burroughs himself. The author of Naked Lunch, The Yage Letters and Junky. This was the same William Burroughs who had been called the father of the Beat Generation, the friend and mentor of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. There he was, smaller than I had imagined from the photographs, wearing a dark turtleneck, gray hair pulled over to cover some baldness. He beckoned me in.

I had written my Master's essay on Burroughs, and, during the process, had written him in care of his publisher with some questions. He replied!  We struck up an irregular correspondence. When I wrote him I was coming to England and asked if I might come see him, he said yes.

That is how it came to pass that I was in William Burroughs' London apartment. At first, he seemed shy, even a bit awkward. He sat on a stool in the center of his small living room with a cigarette almost always pressed to his lips or dangling from his hand. Ashtrays seemed to grow hills of butts quickly, and soon the room was very smoky. What was I going to ask him? There were so many questions. Thankfully, he began.

"I just got back from New York," he said. "I flew over there with the film script of Naked Lunch. Terry Southern and I were working on it. A producer said he was interested: I think he does ‘The Dating Game’ or some quiz show. So, Terry and I flew out to LA at his expense. When we arrived, this big black shiny Rolls-Royce met us at the airport, whisked us on into town. Well, it turned out he wasn’t interested. He said we’d have to cut out all the sex scenes and a lot of the scenes with violence. But what’s Naked Lunch without sex and violence?"

He spread his arms to indicate "nothing."

"Terry and I did some cutting, but he still wasn’t satisfied, so we gave it up. When we went to leave, the Rolls had shrunk considerably, down to some kind of mini. I said to Terry, 'We’d better get out of here fast before he decides not to pay the hotel bill.'"
                             

He talked more and, gradually, he loosened up. (I'm not sure I ever did. It all seemed so unbelievable to me. I was just twenty-seven.) This was helped by the fact that friends of his began showing up all through the day. 

I told him that I liked The Yage Letters very much (a book consisting of an exchange of letters between Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg) but that I didn’t like Allen Ginsberg’s contribution. I thought it was self-indulgent. (God, that sounds insufferable now.)

"Oh, well," he said. "Allen has this idea that the whole world is love. Everyone is everyone’s brother, that kind of thing. He’s always felt that way. But I have a different view. I think there are sinister people about, trying to do you harm."

What about the revolver the character Lee (an early pseudonym for Burroughs himself) carried in Junky? Did Burroughs himself ever carry a gun? I was not going to ask him directly about his shooting his wife dead during a William Tell game gone wrong when he was living in Mexico in the early 1950s.

"Ohhh, yeah. When I was in Mexico City. I used to have this big ol’ .380 automatic. Used to stick it in my pants, right here." He pointed to his stomach-belt area. He was getting into character. "I remember one day I went into this pissoir, and I was waiting for my turn, when this man comes in — a typical punk — and he pushes his way in front of me. So, I opened my coat and tapped the handle." Pause. "He didn’t go into that pissoir ahead of me."

At a certain point, everyone decided to go to a restaurant in Soho. A caravan formed, and we headed out.  It was, ironically, a Mexican restaurant.  We ate and drank a lot.  I'm not sure why now, but I asked him about Norman Mailer.

"I like Norman,” he said slowly and precisely, "A lot of people say they have trouble with Norman, but I don’t. Get along with him quite well."

He seemed distant, so I let him be. Afterwards, we all walked out into the London night. Burroughs seemed a bit wobbly to me, and I was worried that he might have trouble finding his way back to his apartment building. He was going to walk. He was in a bright mood now. He shook my hand warmly.

"Ok, Baby," he said. "You’ve got my address. Next time you’re in London, look me up."

He waved and ambled off down the street. We all watched him disappear into the blackness of the night. Then we turned away and began walking.

"Will he be all right?" I asked one of his friends.

"William? Oh, sure. Somehow he always seems to find his way home."

                                                               
William Burroughs at the time I met him

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Vanishing


I find the world is divided into people who want to remember family and friends who have died, and those who don’t.

Take my family.  I’m always eager to talk about family members who have passed away.  My parents.  Uncles, aunts.  Grandparents.  Cousins.  I want to summon them back with stories, with smiles, exasperation and sighs. And, yes, if warranted, with a bitter taste.

My family's not interested, though. I can get them to talk about the long gone for a minute or two. Then it's quite clear they're ready to move on. 

I find a surprising number of people do not want to talk about the dead, even those who were close to them.  Sometimes it’s because the memories are too painful.  I understand that.  But more often it’s because they simply have no interest in it whatsoever. 

But if we don’t talk about them, the departed, they vanish.  We exist after death only in photos and, I think more vitally, in the mouths of others.
I worry that I will vanish forever, like some vapor out of a tea kettle rising, then gone. How long does it take to be forgotten?  How long before they don’t recall my birthday, the way I walked, my face, my voice?  How long before my name is brought up once a week, once a month, once a year, then never?   
I would like to imagine that after I’m dead and gone, my sister or my brother, or a friend, or just someone who knew me, would be sitting in an outdoor café in New York City and, apropos of nothing, just because the thought hit them, might say, maybe with a touch of wistfulness and small delight, “Nobody loved New York more than Rich.  He would sure love to be here right now looking at the crowd going by.”  There would be a small pause. The thought would linger very briefly, and then it would be gone. The day would continue, living lives would go on.  But for a small spotlight of time, I would be there, not exactly alive, but with those who were. 
Talk about me when I’m gone.  Don't let me vanish.


Sunday, November 5, 2017

Improv


My daughter has been taking improv classes for a while now.  She’s loving it.

“You should try it,” she said to me.  “It would be good for you.”

Why would it be good for me?

Because I’m basically a shut-in, for one thing.  Not to mention I can be suspicious, timid and judgmental.  All qualities that make successful social interactions somewhat elusive on occasion.  She reckoned this situation might be helped by an improv class.

“You have to interact,” she said.  “And trust is a big part of it.”
“Trr...trr…trr…”

“Do it, Dad.”
So, I did.  I enrolled in a “Level I” improv class at the New Movement Theater in New Orleans where I live.

Yes, the first class was scary.  Here were seven people, complete strangers, I was going to have to improvise with in an intimate basement theater.  The urge to flee was at DefCon4.  But so was the lovely desire to encounter an adventure and let it take me where it would.  Passing that up felt unseemly.
What have I learned in improv class?  I’ve learned they don’t ask you to pretend you’re a tomato.  Although the teacher said that if we wanted to be a tomato, it was fine with her.  But the exercises she gives us don’t really call for, or lead to, produce roll-playing.

They lead to walking on air.

Basically, I have learned, improv is about listening.  And about saying yes. And, yes, about the afore-stuttered trust.
 

I’ve learned you never crush someone’s scenario.  If the person sitting next to me says, apropos of nothing, 
“Who knew Costa Rica had so many barbers?”

You do not say, “They don’t have a lot of barbers.”  Or, even worse, “We’re not in Costa Rica.  We’re in Schenectady.”

You are in Costa Rica, señor.  Both of you.  And you have no idea what comes next, but you have to trust that the two of you will figure it out.  Or not.  
My friend Molly Peacock--poet, memoirist, inspirer--said something relevant about this.  She was talking once about writing in a genre she wasn’t familiar with.  “It’s scary,” she said.  “But that fear makes you feel young.”  I have to say, I do have a spring in my step walking home after class.

Now here's something really scary. My class will have a showcase on Monday, November 20 at 8pm at the New Movement Theater on 2706 St. Claude Avenue.  And I'm inviting you.  All of you.

Meanwhile, you can find me in Costa Rica.  At the barbershop.


Saturday, November 4, 2017

Reinventing yourself, if not the wheel


Flashback:  2010, New York City.  Yours truly was sitting in an apartment I hated, in a part of Manhattan I felt no affinity for, age sixty-five, no full-time job and no prospects for the future.  No idea how to get out of this place.  State of mind: black. The future: visions of riding the subway all through the night, disheveled, pee-stained trousers, discovered by my daughter as she gets on with some friends.

Read an ad for a one-year visiting professor job in English at the University of New Orleans.  Applied.  Why not?  By this time, it's all rote anyway, these job applications.

A week or so later, got a call from the chair of the English Department at UNO.  Chair wanted to set up a phone interview with himself and his colleagues.

Another week later, after said interview, I was offered the job.

Huh?  Pick up and go?  I'd never been to New Orleans.  Have no place to live.  And have to begin teaching in three weeks.  Remember: only a one-year appointment. (Read nine months. The gig is just for the teaching year.)  Then what?

Who knows?  But I do know one thing: sitting in that room in upper Manhattan one year from now would make me up my anti-depressant dose twenty fold.

I said yes.

Packed my car (this is the shortened version), got in, and went.
                                


Three days, three overnight stops and 1350 miles later, I arrived in New Orleans.  I didn't know a solitary soul.  Pulled my car up to 729 Ursulines in the French Quarter where I would live that first year in a furnished apartment. I'd found the place on the fly.

But I was feeling like I'd shed fifteen years.  I was alert, scared, charged, and suffused with wonder.  No idea what was ahead.  But I knew one incontrovertible fact. 

It would all be new.  And I was through with that dingy apartment in New York City.

I was on my way to reinventing myself.