Dear Friends, Adversaries, Acquaintances, and Strangers:
(I believe that takes in everyone.)
This is a journey in search of identity,
which sometimes isn’t what we think.
We begin in New York City’s Washington Square Park.
It’s high noon on a Sunday, but damp, cold, and cloudy
so no one is around.
I open the rumpled foil wrapped around my lunch,
the remains of last night’s Indian dinner, a scrap of flatbread
and half-eaten hunk of tandoori chicken.
Two neatly dressed people come by
on their church’s mission to feed the homeless.
They see me—in my old jeans and windbreaker,
with scraps of food that look retrieved from the trash—
and they offer me a sandwich, an orange, a bottle of water.
Instead of trying to explain to them
It’s not what you think, I accept an orange,
and everyone’s happy.
That was recent.
It was some time ago that this happened:
Picture me young; a student, in fact.
Every Wednesday from 7 to 9 p.m.,
I’m at an apartment hotel on Central Park South;
you know: liberally applied gold paint, mirrors, and marble.
On the 19th floor a middle-aged, nearly blind businessman
pays me to read to him—legal contracts, novels, a book about equitation.
That’s fancy horseback riding, and he doesn’t tell me why it interests him.
One night he pays me at the elevator, just as it opens.
I’ll see you next week, he says, as I step inside, pocketing the bills.
The elevator man, witnessing this transaction
between older man and youth,
gives me a knowing smirk and a slow nod.
I could have said: It’s not what you think!
but that would mean admitting I understood
what it was that it wasn’t.
And what if he saw that my pay for the session was only four dollars?
(Two dollars an hour for reading aloud wasn’t bad in 1962.)
In any case, he didn’t offer to find me more clients.
Two years ago, we’re filming a satanic ritual for a music video.
The music blasting from speakers is the type known as
“progressive death metal,” which is popular among
emotionally stunted 15-year-olds and a few adults.
I had to ask if the song had words, or were the band members
just groaning and shrieking?
It’s dark, there are burning candles in wide circles on the floor,
monks in hooded robes, and me, as the head monk,
rising from my knees in a posture of inspired power.
The Chinese-restaurant delivery man
hesitates about entering the space.
We should tell him it isn’t whatever he’s thinking.
(The video has been viewed 2.6 million times.)
My search for identity gets complicated
when someone with my name goes to the same dentist,
who luckily realizes this before attacking my mouth.
On the street a woman says, “Oh, sorry, I thought you were someone else.”
“I am,” I say.
Which confuses her.
We’re shooting a true-crime scene for cable television—
the killer will fake a savage attack on me.
The director jokes: “Do you really want to beat up this nice old man?”
I say to myself: “Wait a minute: I didn’t think
I was either an old man or nice!”
There’s a video on YouTube called “Do You Know Who I Am?”
and that is in fact me, although I’m acting and not being me.
I think I have it straight now, who or what I may be.
It could be it’s not what you think.
Though what you think, or I do, maybe isn’t.
I hope that’s clear.
At a certain point, doesn’t everyone want his or her own
one-person show? (You don’t?)
Well, raise your hand if you’ve thought about it.
Think of Hal Holbrook, appearing for decades as Mark Twain.
My psychologist brother used to portray Sigmund Freud.
I have a friend who’s a Louisa May Alcott impersonator
in Concord, Massachusetts. (Where else?)
Another friend can be seen as Bill W, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.
(I can’t think of something humorous to say about that
which wouldn’t be in really bad taste.)
Let me clarify: maybe you won’t perform your one-person show
in a public venue, but in a corner of your own consciousness.
Is that better?
You have to find someone you sort of resemble,
whom you feel comfortable portraying.
That’s why I decided I would pretend to be . . . myself.
Which isn’t easy. Not as easy as you think.
Someone guessing my occupation said: Accountant.
Maybe it’s something in my eyes or my posture. Or what?
But camouflage, along with a low profile,
has always been my rule for safety.
At an early age, I didn’t speak so I could be understood.
There was too much misunderstanding
and the threat of unpredictable violence
if you said anything.
One night, I was alone in the den,
where the floor-model console radio was. . . . Remember those?
I heard a play in which two men were going to murder someone,
which showed me how murders are planned.
I decided my father was going to carry out
his constant threats to kill me.
I saw him whispering to my mother
and decided she would be his accomplice.
So I took a very large knife from the kitchen
and slept with it under my pillow.
I was 3 ½ years old.
At the time, I only spoke vowels.
I think it was self-protection.
If I left out the consonants, I wasn’t committing myself.
Doctors assured my parents I wasn’t deaf or retarded;
They said I would grow out of it.
When I started first grade, I began to speak normally,
and I moved up from the Bluebirds reading group to Robins.
But something had happened when I was four.
My uncle and aunt, and Cousin Judy, lived in the apartment downstairs.
My father always said Uncle Martin married Beatrice
because her family was rich.
Judy was just six months older, so we were often together—
till one day I came upstairs crying.
My mother investigated, and Aunt Beatrice said something astounding:
Judy’s elocution teacher said she shouldn’t play with me—
because of my speech problem.
Elocution was one of those refinements, like piano and tap dancing,
that parents forced on their little girls in those days.
As I got older and went around the neighborhood,
I saw a sign in a first-floor window:
“Olivia Merlof, Elocution Lessons.”
I knew Elocution meant some kind of recitations
and that it spoiled a portion of my early years.
Since Judy was a bossy child –
I could spend time with her now that my speech was okay—
I didn’t know why the loss of her companionship ever bothered me.
Fast-forward 60 years.
Aunt Beatrice and Uncle Martin died years before.
Judy had a successful career, managing many people.
My mother had just died, so people were coming by to pay their respects.
A woman said she was Mrs. Merlof from the old neighborhood.
“I was a dear friend of your Ahnt Beatrice,” she said.
“Oh, my God,” I said. “Did you used to teach elocution?”
“Yes, I did,” she said. “Ages ago.”
“And you said my cousin shouldn’t play with me because of my speech?
I only said vowels,” I reminded her.
The 90-year-old former elocution teacher
claimed not to remember the incident.
I could see I’d made her very uncomfortable.
Now, it’s possible my aunt made it all up,
afraid of downward mobility
if Judy picked up speech habits
from someone who sounded like an imbecile.
And maybe the desire to avenge past wrongs
can spoil your present life.
Since I hadn’t thought about the incident over the years,
this simply felt good, especially on that somber occasion.
Besides, Mrs. Merlof had to have noticed how nicely I spoke.
I don’t have a theory about the effect of early life on what we become.
There’s a difference anyway between mulling something over
and giving a damn about it.
But I was watching a film, transferred to a DVD—
it’s the reception for my older brother’s bar mitzvah.
We’re wearing tuxedos, us Gardner men, even 4-year-old me.
You wouldn’t believe how cute I am, with curly hair
and a little black bow tie and dinner jacket.
My father isn’t judging me, or anyone else, for once.
He smiles, maybe from drinking Seagram’s,
and dances with me. Which means he holds my hands
as we stomp around and around in the social hall.
The film is silent, but I remember the band playing
that year’s hit song, Papa, Won’t You Dance With Me?
In the show it’s from, Papa is what the leading lady calls her husband—
Do you know it?
Papa, won’t you dance with me?
Oh, dance with me,
Please, dance with me . . . .
There’s a famous poem by Theodore Roethke
about his drunk papa, who clutches him roughly
in a waltz around the kitchen.
And a novelist wrote about his dad, boozing as always
and playing a tape of the Patsy Cline song Crazy.
Here’s what he wrote:
“I let him take my hands and guide me across
the cracked and yellowed linoleum.”
Who would imagine so many fathers dancing with their little sons!
I remember, or think I remember, holding my young son
and moving, rhythmic and happy, to something on the stereo.
Maybe I’d been drinking.
Like Hasids, like Greeks in tavernas—fathers and sons,
dancing—dancing—till time stops the music and spins us apart.
Someone heard an earlier version of this . . . itinerary of a journey,
and pointed out there’s a lot of violence in my stories.
I never noticed! But it was there.
This is about the summer of 1943,
one of the years when pennies were made of zinc
instead of copper.
Boston is surrounded by drumlins, which are hills
the Great Glacier forced from the Earth.
The grandfather I was named for bought a house on one of those hills,
large enough for everyone to live and squabble in, even after he died—
his widow, one daughter, three sons, their wives,
and their children, which included Cousin Judy and me.
From the hill you could see, in the distance,
the Boston of art, music, and culture,
which was not where we lived.
Meanwhile the Second World War was raging.
In Europe, my cousins were being killed.
I was 6 months old.
The citizens around Boston were tuning their radios
to Father Coughlin and Father Feeney
(who was Boston’s own instigator of bigotry)
and one citizen, one sunny nap-time, threw a rock
through a window of that house on the hill.
It landed in my crib, but next to me.
So I survived.
Joseph Campbell would have called that
the first step in becoming a hero,
though that’s not what I ever thought
I would be.
When you’re not satisfied with your life,
do you think about living a different one?
How about Herb Philbrick?
He’s the one who wrote I Led Three Lives.
(Leading three lives is like being one-third of a cat.
It’s one more than Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
And Philbrick wasn’t psychotic, like Eve with her three faces.)
This is the context: everyone in my generation
had nightmares about the atom bomb.
One summer night, a close flash of lightning
and a huge clap of thunder woke me,
and I ran through the house yelling: “Air raid! It’s an air raid!”
In school the physical-education lady taught us
how to survive a nuclear attack—by lying under your desk.
Even us third-graders weren’t sure
that Ducking & Covering would save us.
They also sent us home with dog tags to wear
made of indestructible metal, so that after a nuclear attack,
our remains could be identified.
A TV show depicted a Russian child
who reported her parents for saying un-Soviet things.
After the parents were dragged away by the police,
the girl hanged herself.
No wonder they wanted to kill us—
what if their people wanted the freedoms that we could take for granted!
A series I always watched—and according to the Internet,
so did the young Lee Harvey Oswald—
was I Led Three Lives, based on Philbrick’s book.
He was a Communist and FBI informant in Boston.
(His third life was as a “citizen,” or at least as someone
who worked in advertising.)
They were always planning terrible things,
like killing members who defected, or poisoning a reservoir.
Philbrick’s Communist Party cell met in the town
next to where I grew up.
I met someone who was mentioned in the book.
He was a genial man, whose small house was filled with books—
one room had the kind of stacks you find in a public library.
So I finally read I Led Three Lives.
This man and Philbrick did some work together
on Communist Party activities,
which mainly involved labor organizing and civil rights.
And do you know what the un-American activities were
that they engaged in? I bet it’s not what you think.
Mostly they . . . handed out . . . leaflets.
When I was 18, I learned the value of pretense.
In other words, lying. But not in the ordinary sense—lying as a survival skill.
This was at the Middlesex Dairy, which was only a dairy
because ice cream was made on the premises.
You know the kind of place—windows to line up at,
which meant you didn’t have to go inside,
where you’d sit at a table and have to tip a server.
The owner and his wife traveled the U.S. in a Winnebago.
The business was run by the manager, Brad,
who lived in another town with his wife and five kids.
All we knew was he’d been in Korea
and we kidded him about his former life as a Mister Softee,
driving a truck to sell cones to little children.
Every afternoon I took out the garbage, mopped the floors,
and filled the coolers with ice cream from the freezer out back.
By the time people finished supper at home,
Mary, Cliff, Alice, and I would be working non-stop.
On hot nights 10 people could be lined up at each of the windows.
They ordered sundaes or frappes—the local term
for a milkshake made with extra ice cream—
and banana splits.
For banana splits to go,
we used the big frappe containers, plopping everything vertically into the cup:
split banana, three scoops of ice cream, two toppings
(usually hot fudge and strawberries, or butterscotch and pineapple),
and then whipped cream or marshmallow,
plus nuts or a cherry, if requested.
One day I came to work with a Band-aid on my finger.
As I got water on it, and fried-clam batter, it became dirty and frayed.
I tried to keep it out of sight, handing out cones and change with my other hand.
(There weren’t any rubber gloves or, for that matter,
a directive in the restroom to wash our hands.
These were the good old days.)
Late in the evening, at the end of a busy hour,
I had just put up five banana splits to go.
I wiped the sweat from my forehead,
and I saw that the Band-Aid was gone.
(Did you see that coming?)
Every spare moment, I scanned the floors, the sinks, the storage room
for that revolting chunk of plastic and gauze.
The kids took my desperation lightly:
“It’s all right—no extra charge!”
“I asked for chopped nuts, not toenails!”
I couldn’t avoid the next step. I went into the kitchen.
“Brad, I came in with a Band-Aid on my finger.
It’s missing since I put up five banana splits to go.”
The miracles I’ve witnessed have been people’s unanticipated actions.
This was one of those miracles. Brad didn’t fire me. He didn’t yell.
He said: “Well, if somebody comes in, send ’em to me.
I’ll say, ‘What do you mean, sayin’ we put that in your order?’ ”
He went on filtering the fat from the deep fryer—
he took on the dirtiest jobs himself—and I thought:
Of course! You overwhelm them with totally false assuredness.
Why invite trouble by expressing doubt or offering an apology?
I walked out of the kitchen on a cloud of wide-eyed admiration.
I would never again kid Brad about being Mr. Softee.
The rest of the evening, the fluorescent lights were brighter,
the night air was exciting—because of my anxiety, Brad’s audacity,
and the awareness that my welfare could depend on a bald-faced, immoral act.
After we closed, I was sweeping the floor
and I found the Band-aid at the foot of one of the coolers.
It wasn’t as filthy as I remembered it. . . .
Around the same time, I knew I had to get away.
For my sanity . . . for any chance of surviving.
I did as well as I could in school, with all the terrible teachers.
I didn’t rebel—I did what they asked, in their ignorance and cruelty.
It’s not what you’d think an adolescent would do, but I was desperate.
My strategy was to get an A or A+ in every subject,
since the key to escape was a scholarship to a college far from home.
It was my senior year of high school—January 10th,
the deadline for my scholarship application,
which included a financial form for my parents to fill out.
I heard my father in the next room:
“Why should we tell them that? Who the fuck are they,
askin’ that? I’m not gonna write that shit.”
He could rant like that for hours.
A listener could have admired the eloquence and creativity
of his paranoia. He hollered every morning and night
about everyone’s persecution of him.
His usual targets were my mother, and all her relatives,
That night, hearing him, I snapped. My years of holding on—
to sanity, even to life, and I’m not exaggerating—
my accommodation to those teachers,
surviving the boredom, the brutality of the students,
coming home with dread to this house . . . .
Now my future was exploding, every possibility going up in smoke.
“You have to! You better!” I yelled, and ran outside.
I didn’t have a destination—I needed to run in the cold night.
I heard a car following. It stopped. I heard the door slam.
When he grabbed me, I started punching.
In our heavy winter jackets, the blows didn’t hurt,
but my mother was yelling: “He has a heart condition! Don’t!”
It would be easy, I realized, to kill him, this weak, small man.
I could strangle him with my hands . . .
but why do that to myself?
I have no recollection of the ride back home,
but the form was filled out,
I got my scholarship. I could leave.
I need to clarify something, to point out: It’s not what you think:
I always try to be optimistic.
Okay, maybe it’s like the Monty Python movie, the man on the cross
who sings about always looking on the bright side. . . .
But I try to remember that our thoughts are only in our minds;
they’re not reality.
And I try to see something positive in whatever happens.
Or the humor in it.
All right, don’t believe me.
This is a guaranteed true story:
I worked in a shop for imported goods in Harvard Square.
That’s in Massachusetts, near Boston?
The shop was called IMPORT CARGO.
(You remember it!)
This was before everything sold everywhere
was imported from other countries.
When you came inside, the entire place
smelled of sandalwood, cork, and jasmine.
Well, in the early days of liberated consciousness—
1967, to be exact—I was the cashier in that shop.
One cargo included hand-carved wooden sculptures from Taiwan
of a hand with an upraised middle finger.
This wasn’t the plastic gewgaw they later sold everywhere,
but something crafted by woodcarvers who must’ve thought
this strange object had religious significance for Americans.
One night a little old lady—since this was Boston,
a very Bostonian old lady—carried six of them, two at a time,
to my counter. “Such lovely ring-holders,” she said.
Just the thing for my grandnephews this Christmas.”
So early in the days of liberated consciousness—
and in Massachusetts besides—I didn’t know how to tell an old lady
these items were neither ring-holders
nor suitable gifts for her grandnephews.
(I didn’t know how to say, “They’re not what you think.”)
So I rang up the six “ring-holders” and bagged them.
Besides, I really enjoyed imagining this:
It’s Christmas morning in Back Bay or Duxbury
or Manchester-by-the-Sea, the smell of pine branches
and fresh-baked muffins in the air, as one by one
six grand-nephews open neatly wrapped packages
sent with love by Great-Ahnt Prudence.
I don’t think people are surprised by how old I am.
You’re not, are you? But I’m surprised.
I let it happen—the way you let your car run out of gas
or the fire go out in a wood stove. You didn’t intend
to let it happen, but somehow it did.
Maybe I can trace my difficulties
to never running away
to be a clown in the circus.
The seven-year-old who played my grandson in a film
asked, “Are you really old?”
He was confused because I didn’t need the cane I was acting with,
and I was more agile between takes than the character I played.
I told him: I’m just acting old.”
Although I always regretted not becoming a clown,
would I have enjoyed being one?
Their quarters are small and squalid, and would smell of sweat.
You need to know at least one stunt,
which could be dangerous or at least hard to learn.
Success as a clown means hundreds of children screaming with pleasure,
and I hate the sound of screaming children.
It began at age eight, in a community-theater production—
the rest of the cast were grown-ups.
I liked having an audience paying attention to me,
laughing at my lines and later, of course, applauding.
I retired recently from regular employment,
so I’ve had the time to do plays, music videos, comedy videos,
short films, feature films, commercials . . . .
Maybe you saw me in the opening scene of a program on cable television—
I was stretched out, without any clothes, on an autopsy table.
You probably wouldn’t remember my face.
I did a pornography video, but it was comedy—
we kept our clothes on, and we faked the sex.
Acting is an excellent way to make money,
and sometimes an excellent way to not make money,
but to do something that feels creative, or is creative.
Which is a good way to spend time,
even for those who are really old
and not just acting.
Are you ready for my confession?
Does it surprise you that I’m a member of an oppressed minority?
I grew up knowing I was different.
I heard names, stereotyping, taunting chants in the schoolyard.
I hope you won’t find this too sensitive a topic—
it’s the minority who have red hair—
yes, we who are called carrot top, copperhead,
We’re accused of being hot-tempered—And, boy, does that make me mad!!
—Also, wildly lecherous. I won’t comment about that,
since we’re also supposed to be untrustworthy and devious.
Who would I identify with—the villains in Charles Dickens ‘s novels?
Bozo the Clown?
(You know . . . why not!)
In England, they have a term for violence against the red-haired:
they call it “ginger-bashing.”
No other group is singled out this way—except, of course, blondes—
who are accused of being dumb and having more fun.
You may think I’m looking for sympathy, but no:
there are those who find red hair very attractive—
sometimes to the point of obsession—
or, in fact, perversion—but you take what you can get.
There’s even a loving term for a specific region
of body hair: “fire bush.”
Despite centuries of vilification, we of the fiery four percent
are gracious and welcoming. All you need to join our colorful cadre—
Vincent van Gogh, Sarah Bernhardt, Henry VIII, and the current Prince Harry—
can be found at the drugstore or your hairdresser.
So stand with us in expressing Ginger Pride.
You won’t be sorry—you know what they say about us.
This is something I wonder about:
how do you get people to realize how unassuming you are?
You could wait a lifetime for them to notice.
Here’s another question:
if we care about other people, and their stories,
does that keep us from being overly concerned about ourselves?
A wise man said: Keep your narcissism where it belongs—in your mirror.
Anyway, this is common enough: someone we meet
has a story that’s not what we think.
Just as I do, and you do. Right?
I was visiting my parents in their small town
and needed to see a physician, so I was directed to Dr. Plotkin’s house.
You followed a dirt road to his cottage.
When you sat in his office, what was that sound
coming from under the floor? What did he keep in the cellar?
It was chickens!
He was a kindly man, and he cured what I picked up
eating beef stew from the steam table in a barroom.
(I was young and reckless then.)
I asked people about him, and I imagined him telling his story:
One day when I was an intern,
I came home from the hospital
and my wife was hiding.
She had slit the baby’s throat in his crib,
and was crouched on the pantry floor off the kitchen.
That night was the first she slept in the asylum.
She never slept anywhere else
the 30 years she lived on.
I moved away from my parents and friends
and the city I always loved.
I found a house deep in the woods.
I found a woman to share the house with me
without hope of marriage
since, by the laws of the Commonwealth,
you couldn’t divorce a psychotic.
My reputation has been that I’ll treat anyone,
even the deadbeats who never will pay.
It’s because that evening in Brighton
I lost any arrogance I had
about my importance on the Earth.
In the 1960s, I lived in an SRO in New York.
SRO didn’t mean “Standing Room Only”—although they had that reputation.
It was a Single Room Occupancy hotel,
where the corridor reeked from the exterminator’s last visit
and grease from the kitchen we shared.
In the room next to mine was Mrs. Mifflin.
She seemed ancient—she may have been 75 or 80. But I was 19.
She went out once a month for her arthritis shot.
Before Christmas and Easter, a great-niece came by with her little son.
With the weekly rent collection, and someone bringing in groceries,
these were her only human contacts.
Except for me.
I tried to be quiet unlocking my door,
but she’d be waiting to fling open her door,
releasing her room’s old-lady essence
of face powder, saltines, and oil of wintergreen,
and she would talk to me
till I could find a reasonably polite chance to escape.
Some years later I published the following.
The reference to the Uris Brothers was a joke;
they were major developers of that era, but I also knew one of the family:
The pile drivers are pounding things
into the ground outside.
Mrs. Mifflin sighs, says she hasn’t slept two nights—
“And what are they doing?
Putting up more office buildings!
Don’t they know New York is an island?
Some day with all these buildings, it’ll break off
and float out to China.”
For Mrs. Mifflin then,
Uris Brothers and all your constructive brotherhood,
for then we’ll all go sailing
on our enchanted heap of stones and glass,
under Verrazano Bridge,
slowly across currents and plateaus,
into the sunrise forever.
Mrs. Mifflin would tell me—frequently—
how she came to live at the Club van Cortlandt.
(It wasn’t what you think from its name—it was far from grand,
and was full of roaches and . . . large rodents.)
Her father was a judge in Pennsylvania,
where she became a widow at an early age.
A young woman invited her to move to New York
and then abandoned her—to get married—
and Mrs. Mifflin was alone.
I had a job collecting data from the city’s Department of Welfare,
so I looked up Mrs. Mifflin. She wasn’t in the random group
I was supposed to research, but my excuse was
I was a writer, a scholar of humanity.
Each client had a card with handwritten entries.
Her case was opened the year that Home Relief began,
in the early 1930s.
Her address at the time—never updated—
was the Club van Cortlandt.
She had been in that room for 30 years!
I know that people can stay in bad places longer than 30 years.
But I was young, and looking forward to many situations—
and locations—in the decades ahead.
In those decades, I remembered the SRO and my neighbor,
and how important it is to stay out of those rooms.
Okay, it’s time for some deep conceptualizing. Are you ready?
You could call this an extended metaphor or a literary conceit.
That’s if you want to.
You saw it in others but never thought it could happen to you.
Now some of your parts are missing
and others have been replaced.
It’s been years since your finish was glossy.
Tune-ups are more expensive now;
it’s harder to keep humming along.
This is the time to worry:
Will you be traded in for a newer model?
Will you be shipped with other undesirables
to a lot where plastic pennants rustle in the wind
on Rt. 46 in New Jersey?
Will you be left to rust somewhere
with all the other wrecks?
Take a deep breath now.
These are only your thoughts—they’re not reality.
Do you ever think you’re stitching together a life
from scraps at hand and patches you’ve sought out?
We want to be more than the sum
of what we assume we are.
But if I’m not what you think, or I think,
what am I?
For me, there may be clues in these,
which could be called
My Career Highlights
Not always what you’d think are the high points
or the proudest moments of my past—
but among the more interesting:
In a play at La Mama, one of the first off-off-Broadway theaters
(and long before my work off-off-off-off-off-Broadway),
I played the uncouth manager of a burlesque theater.
A newspaper praised my performance as:
(I’m quoting) “the personification of American sleaze.”
I was proud of that.
Here’s another path I was on:
I invented a new kind of textbook series for a publishing company.
It brought in millions of dollars in profit every year.
After it was launched, my entire staff and I were laid off.
We found out later this was a maneuver by my boss
to cover up his sexual harassment of one of my assistants.
With no union to protect us, we had no idea
the law may have been on our side—
if in fact it would have been.
To attract visitors to a museum I worked at in Newark, New Jersey,
I developed a tourism program called A Day in Newark.
It combined a visit to us with lunch in the Portuguese neighborhood
and a tour of another museum.
We got national publicity
because newspapers found the idea of tourism in Newark
I realized that a student in my class couldn’t read.
“How did you get to the 10th grade?” I asked.
He said he’d always been polite and quiet,
so the teachers—usually nuns—passed him from grade to grade.
I worked with him, and two years later he was writing short stories
and playing the lead in his senior-class play, which I directed.
In a West African seaport, I painted murals in a bar
that was owned by the son of Rasputin’s private secretary.
As a young boy at the Tsar’s court in St. Petersburg,
he sat on the knee of the Mad Monk himself.
They planned to hire actors for a training video
and have puppets made that looked like them.
This turned out to be too expensive,
so they bought some puppets
and then looked for actors who resembled them.
That’s how I got the job—I looked like a puppet.
I was summoned by a famous director,
so he could tell me what he thought of a play I wrote.
A theater company had asked him to read it.
This widely respected, honored, and even revered director
hated my play.
To express his contempt in the strongest possible terms,
he said: “What is it? Autobiography?”
As a matter of fact, it wasn’t.
In the hospital I worked at, I pointed out that a particular framed poster
was not a good piece of art for patients and visitors to encounter.
It was a travel poster that included, in big letters,
the words DEATH VALLEY.
I worked with one of the greatest American actors
late in her life.
When we tried out a play of mine at a summer theater,
I realized that even if the project went no further
(and in fact it didn’t),
I would never hear words of mine spoken
more beautifully and movingly.
Isn’t this what happens:
You catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror,
and of course you recognize yourself,
but what would the person you used to be
think of what you’ve become?
First you deferred what you wanted to do
because of what had to be done.
The reasons were natural and normal:
keep your job to feed the family, to pay the bills;
never make waves.
The first time you did something wrong and hurtful—but practical—
was difficult; the second time was easy.
And so you’re someone your earlier self
wouldn’t waste a moment with.
Have you the skill and courage to be your own mediator?
Set a meeting up between the two of you,
encourage compromise to foster mutual respect?
And hope it’s not too late.
George was an engineer at the U.S. headquarters
of a major German automobile company.
When he tested a new model they were about to sell,
it started vibrating very noisily
at 60 miles an hour.
He reported this to his boss, who convened a high-level meeting.
They could either demand that the factory in Germany
fix the defect, or—
and this would be a stroke of marketing genius—
they could advertise that driving the car gave you
“the feeling of power!”
Can you guess what they did? . . . I’ll tell you later.
It’s not that nothing is what we think.
It’s that nothing has been what we thought it would be.
Could anything live up to the grandiosity of our expectations?
Nothing is as good as we hoped
and we hope it won’t be as bad as we’re afraid it could be,
but somewhere in the ordinary middle.
I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t only alcoholics
who need protection from comedy—
from abuse by comedy.
Some subjects may simply be off-limits.
For example, I want to say a few words now about . . . cancer.
Is it in bad taste to joke about it . . . ?
At some point you ask: Is it your body’s betrayal of itself,
or the consequence of where or how you’ve lived,
or maybe it’s something that developed
after you were abducted by aliens?
No matter how much you’ve thought about it,
or watched it destroy people you’re close to,
or imagine the collapse of someone
who used to dance, laugh, share love—
it’s never what you think.
When I was diagnosed, since I had insurance from Aflac—
that’s the company with a duck as its spokes-model—
I started getting checks—all kinds of money—
just for having a life-threatening disease!
It was like winning the lottery!
Next, I had to look at my life in perspective.
I decided it had been pretty good.
If there wasn’t going to be much more of it,
well, I couldn’t really complain.
Don’t get me wrong—it took a while to get to that point.
Being okay is like finding unexpired time on a parking meter—
a bonus, a gift, not rare, not remarkable,
but a kick in the existential pants.
You’re getting more chances to enjoy
the purple world at sunset and the blue light before dawn.
There’s something that can happen when you’re acting.
You go through something in a play or a film,
and you start thinking you’ve done it.
Last year, I played a man dying of cancer, with his daughter at his side.
Our scenes were intense and emotionally draining to perform.
Afterwards, I caught myself thinking:
Hey, that’s it—I’ve done . . . dying.
I won’t have to go through that again!
Which goes to show that delusions
can be really comforting, can’t they?
I haven’t said much about history, or social concerns,
not even as far as I’ve witnessed them,
and not much about ordinary matters of love and family.
I’m leaving those for another chapter.
Meanwhile, ladies and gentlemen, and children of all ages
(with the exception of those for whom parental guidance is suggested):
On this platform—right before your ears—
I am going to trace for you
the actual train of thought I traveled one day—
my voyage on a stream of consciousness!
How the Wolves Reminded Me of My Contribution
to American Literary History
I’m watching a documentary about wolves.
The narrator calls one of the wolf packs The Jets,
which of course makes me think about the gang called The Jets
in West Side Story. They’re the ones who sing:
When you’re a Jet,
You’re a Jet all the way . . .
From your first cigaret
To your last dyin’ day
Then I remember Glen Cove, Long Island, and my niece’s Sunday-school play.
It’s a parody of the TV sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter.
In this version, a Hebrew-school class
stands in for the show’s high-school class of “Sweathogs.”
The concept might have had promise,
but Mr. Kotter has become Mr. Kosher and the children sing:
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 that up.)
(If you don’t know what a bris is, ask your neighbor,
but don’t expect us to show you.)
The real Welcome Back, Kotter song was written by John Sebastian,
who I remember meeting one day at Maria’s.
That’s like another song from West Side Story,
but it’s also the coffee shop in our town where artists and other citizens
gather in the morning.
And that reminds me—as I continue drifting down
my stream of consciousness—another time at Maria’s,
when I’m reading selections from the diaries of famous writers.
As I sit 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.
Next, I remember the collection includes pages
from a dairy kept by Norman Mailer.
In it, he mentions that his first mother-in-law
called him a pisherke.
This means “little pisser” and is the Yiddish equivalent
of “too big for his britches.”
If you look up the word on the Internet, Google directs you to this story. (Yes!)
And that’s ahead of references to Mel Brooks and Pauline Kael.
I remember 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 grew 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 at age 8.
That was the community-theater production I mentioned before—
I played a wise-guy little boy. A pisherke, in fact,
although the family in the play wouldn’t have known 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.
Maybe it was too much to say she actually wrote the book,
but she could have played a big part
in the book’s literary and commercial success.
And his next books may have suffered
from the loss of his former wife’s guidance.
Now—about those wolves: you can do a documentary about wolves
without giving them cute anthropomorphic names like “The Jets.”
A wolf pack is inherently fascinating
and doesn’t behave much like a singing, dancing street gang.
As for literary history,
please spell my name correctly in your footnote.
This last story is about how people connect in ways we may not expect.
It refers to one regret in my past,which will have to stand for all the other regrets.
And remember, regrets are not reality—
they’re just a variety of your negative thoughts:
We were producing something I wrote
about an old canal in New England.
My friend Geoff was preparing a musical score.
He was stuck in writing music to accompany an essential passage,
which was this:
At Lowell, near the end of the Canal,
in a mill building restored for history and culture,
a beautiful Cambodian
demonstrates a blessing dance of her country.
She wears embroidered silks and dances barefoot,
all curves, stillnesses, and concentration.
The dance blesses this place and us.
It has survived her country’s tragedies.
The audience represent two hundred years of immigration
from most of the continents.
It was just an interval, the Anglo-Saxon hegemony in New England,
though not quite finished yet, an interval between the Indians
and then the hungrier nations, each in its turn—
as the Canal was an interval between ox teams and the railroad—
as each patch of Earth belongs,
as each second of light belongs
for a moment to each of us.
Curves, stillnesses, concentration.
The problem for Geoff was:
What did Cambodian classical dance music sound like?
Today we would find examples on the Internet, which wasn’t possible then.
But I was planning to visit my mother,
and her town had a Cambodian neighborhood,
including stores that sold imported goods.
(No, none of those Taiwanese ring-holders, I’m glad to say.)
I went to three of the stores. The music being played—and sold on CDs—
was Cambodian popular music, a blend of East and West,
which wasn’t the music the dancer performed to.
At the last of the stores, the kid at the music counter
pointed to an old man at the other end of the store,
near the tables of clothing and silk cloth.
I managed somehow to explain what I was looking for.
He smiled and disappeared for a few minutes,
returning with a tape cassette, with text on its case
in Cambodian and English.
I assured him this was what I was looking for, and he smiled again.
I recognized that smile from other encounters I’d had.
I was sure I knew what it meant:
that I respected his culture;
that I wanted to share some part of it;
that this stranger on the other side of the world—me—
honored something of what he’d left behind.
He asked me to wait. He brought out something
from the back of the store, a small hand drum.
He explained what was clear when I looked more closely:
it was handmade and covered with snake skin.
The price of the beautiful drum was more than I could afford.
But I’ve always been sorry I didn’t buy it.
I think this is the question to ask about regreats:
Whatever different path you might have taken,
and whether the path you followed
is anything like what you’d have thought,
wouldn’t you be the age you are, with the face you wear,
and maybe in the place where you find yourself ?
Maybe, if you’re lucky,
driving the car that gives you
“the feeling of power”?
This is one more observation:
The astrophysicist talks about dark matter
and how it must exist although it hasn’t been found,
and I remember hearing that this universe
may be only one of an infinite number of universes,
and then I think that,
despite that practically unimaginable vastness,
we usually think about how much fiber we should eat daily
and how will we pay the tax bill
and where did I leave the tack hammer
and how we touched each other
that night in February
I just got a note from someone I’ve known since we were both 16.
She says: “You always seem to be happy
and are doing so many fun things.”
I could reply: “Oh, hey, it’s not what you think”—
but . . . maybe it is.