I’m watching a documentary about wolves.
The narrator calls one of the wolf packs The Jets,
which of course makes me think about West Side Story,
where a gang called the Jets sing:
When you’re a Jet,
You’re a Jet all the way . . .
From your first cigaret
To your last dyin’ day
This makes me remember being on Long Island
and sitting through my niece’s Sunday-school play,
a parody of the TV show Welcome Back, Kotter.
In this version, a Hebrew-school class
stood in for the sitcom’s high-school class of Sweathogs.
The concept might have had promise,
but Mr. Kotter had become Mr. Kosher
and the children sang:
When you’re a Jew,
You’re a Jew all the way
From the day of your bris
To your bar mitzvah day . . .
(I’m not making this up; if you don’t know what a bris is, ask your neighbor.)
The actual Welcome Back, Kotter song was written by John Sebastian,
who I remember meeting one day at Maria’s,
the coffee shop in our town where artists and other citizens
gather in the morning.
And that reminds me: another time at Maria’s,
I was reading a collection of excerpts from famous writers’ diaries.
As I sat at Maria’s, I read Gail Godwin’s account
of buying her lunch at Maria’s!
Isn’t that amazing!
It’s definitely the same Maria’s, since Gail Godwin lives in our town
and I see her at the health club where we both exercise.
Now I remember that the collection included pages
from Norman Mailer’s diary.
He mentions that his first mother-in-law called him a pisherke.
This means “little pisser”
and is the Yiddish version of “too big for his britches.”
(If you look up pisherke on the Internet,
Google directs you to this story. Yes!)
My mother also used that word, which is not just a coincidence,
since my mother and Mailer’s first mother-in-law were friends
and had grown up in the same town.
In addition, the in-laws lived next door
to the beautiful young woman who played my mother
in the first play I acted in.
That was a community-theater production
of a thriller called Blind Alley. I played a wise-guy little boy.
A pisherke, in fact, although the family in the play
wouldn’t have known or used that word.
When I asked the former in-laws about Mailer,
the former mother-in-law said, “He was a jerk”—
so the pisherke remark was probably not as affectionate
as Mailer assumed.
The former father-in-law thought Mailer was a genius.
Then they told me something that a graduate-school friend
considered a contribution to American literary history.
They said their daughter was the real author of The Naked and the Dead.
That was the best-seller that established Mailer’s reputation.
Naturally I asked what they meant.
She did his typing for him, as wives did in those days,
and she made a lot of editorial suggestions.
Although she may not have written the book,
her ideas could have played a part
in the book’s literary and commercial success.
His next books may have suffered
from the loss of his former wife’s guidance.
So—about those wolves:
you can do a documentary about wolves
without giving them cute anthropomorphic names.
A wolf pack is inherently fascinating
and doesn’t behave like a singing, dancing street gang.
As for literary history,
please spell my name correctly in your footnote.