I STEAL MY FIRST BOOK
It’s 1961 and the Godless Communists are on the move. Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man in space. “Now the Antichrist can rain death down on us from the heavens,” evangelist Nelson Bell warns. “America is in the gravest danger in its history.”
I’ve gotten a second notice for my Army physical. This one is mildly threatening. “You are ordered to report on…Failure to do so may result in fine and imprisonment…”
The Castro regime beats back a US proxy invasion at the Bay of Pigs. The East Germans build a wall. New president JFK advises all “prudent” families to get a bomb shelter. “Won’t be long now,” my philosophy prof says. “Your generation will have its war…”
I put the notice in a drawer under my socks.
I was always a reader, but now I’m am an addict. A book is the first thing I reach for in the morning. I can’t get out of bed without finishing a chapter and often doze with the clock radio blasting rock and roll in my ear, only to awake in a panic and stumble late into class, disheveled and blurting lame excuses.
I can’t eat without a book or a newspaper propped against a glass. Friday night dinner at my parents’ house is a torment because reading at the table is strictly forbidden. I hide a magazine on my lap and drape the tablecloth over it. My mother whisks it away with a worried look. “This isn’t healthy,” she says.
I can’t go to the toilet without something–anything– to look at. I scramble for reading matter, coming perilously close to crapping my pants.
Can’t go to bed without a book, but can’t sleep until I finish a chapter. I blink like an owl when I begin to nod, bite down on my lip and pull the hairs out of my chest. Then, the lamp is glaring in my face and the book is on the floor and I realize I’ve been asleep. So I find my place and begin reading again. When I finally decide to call it a night I have confused my brain with so many false starts that I lie in ragged exhaustion until the night turns gray and I drop off. An hour or a minute later I awake, haggard and unrested and begin to read again.
Ernest Hemingway, my instructor in male honor and courage, blows his brains out with a shotgun. Captured Nazi Adolph Eichmann claims he was only “the transmitter” of the Fuhrer’s orders, but he admits he did say: “I will jump gleefully into my grave knowing I have killed five million of my nation’s enemies…”
I’m living in a sub basement ($53 a month) on Barrow Street in Greenwich Village. It’s gloomy and the pipes sweat and the mice resent sharing the makeshift shower with me. I can barely see the street from my window. A sliver of sun tells me it’s daytime. I’m safe. Not even Adolph Eichmann could find me here.
I come home at dawn with a meatball hero and a Pepsi that I paid a buck seventy-five for at Whitey’s Pizzeria. I light up the joint I got for a dollar outside the subway on Sheridan Square and open the paperback I picked up for a quarter from an old guy with a book pushcart on Seventh Avenue. I read fiction, voraciously and uncritically. Irving Wallace, Franz Kafka, Jim Thompson—it’s all the same to me.
The 19th. century– Dostoevsky, Dickens, Balzac, etc.–is the best “reefer read.” Marijuana helps keep track of the characters and navigate the narrative switchbacks.
Dexedrine gets me into the rhythms of the moderns, especially Joyce and Faulkner. I finish the USA TRILOGY in a weekend.
In deference to all the alcoholic writers I am discovering I get drunk. But when I try to read I get the spins.
President Kennedy creates the Peace Corps and thousands of idealistic young people volunteer to help the natives of the Third World shed their ancient ways and become middle-class Americans. My mother urges me to join. “You could really find yourself in a program like this.”
Instead, I find a folk singer named Maxine who is willing to come home with me. It’s okay to smoke a cigarette, but reading in afterglow is a flagrant violation of post-coital protocol. When I open a book Maxine jumps up in revulsion. “God, I feel like I’m in bed with my dad.”
Vice President Johnson calls Vietnamese Premier Diem, “the Churchill of Asia,” and vows to defend his regime with American power. JFK increases “military assistance” to Vietnam, sending 16,000 “advisors.”
Maxine is throwing a party. Potato chips, gallons of Gallo California wine and somebody passing a joint in the kitchen. An older crowd. Workshirts and beards. Black tights, poorboy sweaters and Rapunzel hair. Maxine strums and sings Sloop John B, serenading a guy in a corduroy sports jacket, complete with patches, wavy graying locks and the smug look of every English professor who ever gave me a C-. I browse her paperback shelf and find a book by an author I never heard of— Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West.
After three pages I’m hooked. I barely hear the snatches of conversation around me. Maxine segues into Rock Island Line, then Cotton Fields Back Home. There’s another West book on the shelf–Day of the Locust.
I’m lost for hours. Then I sense movement. The party is breaking up. Maxine and the corduroy guy are in a clinch on the couch. He is whispering urgently, patting her on the shoulder like her dog just died.
I have to finish this book. And read the other one. I grab the two slim paperbacks. Can’t take them out. Someone might see me. I go into the bathroom and shove them down the back of my pants. Maxine bursts in, teary and distraught.
“What are you doing here?” she demands
“Just going to the bathroom,” I say.
“You can stay if you want.”
“What about your friend…?”
“Do you want to stay or don’t you?” she says and slams the door.
I know if I take my clothes off, Maxine will see the books. I slip them into the hamper and go out. The apartment is pitch black. Maxine is already in bed.
The first thing I think of in the morning is those books. I’m a good stealth dresser. In minutes I’m in the bathroom searching in the hamper. The books must have sunk to the bottom.
There’s a knock and a giggle.
“What are you doing in there?”
“Uh, just taking a shower…
Maxine comes in…”I’ll scrub your back…”
I jump back, but not fast enough. She sees the hamper cover on the floor and grabs my arm.
“What are you doing?”
A pair of black panties is hanging from my wrist.
Maxine is outraged. “You disgusting pervert. Are you stealing my underwear?”
“Well, I just wanted something to remind me…”
“Take anything you want,” she cries, running out. “Just get the fuck outta here…”
I find the paperbacks. Wrap them in a pair of black panties. Then, in another pair to be on the safe side. Maxine’s bedroom door is closed and probably locked. She won’t come out until I’m gone so I have time to check out her book shelf.
I find The Rosy Crucifixion, Sexus, Nexus and Plexus by Henry Miller and tiptoe out the door.
NEXT: I STEAL A BOOK FROM JAMES BALDWIN