Tag Archive for 'Hemingway'


It’s 1961 and I’m living in a theocracy that brutally stifles dissent–Greenwich Village.

In Brooklyn, the backwater of my birth, people disagree violently– and coexist grudgingly. But across the Brooklyn Bridge the local Bohos enforce a rigid cultic orthodoxy.

The politics are easy enough to master. You’re safe anywhere from JFK to Joe Stalin with side trips to Trotsky and the brand new hero of the world revolution, Che Guevara. A Republican can’t even get in as comic relief.

The culture is more complicated. The Pantheon changes daily, new names added and subtracted. The criteria are what you read, wear, watch and listen to, who you know, what you’ve done or what you will do. In all of these I am judged and found wanting.

One night everyone is rushing to the NYU Student Center. I trail along, trying to impress Amelia, a poet with long, tawny hair–tall, broad-shouldered, wearing nothing under her granny dress. “You remind me of a lioness on the prowl,” I say, trying to be poetic. She gives me the arched eyebrow of disdain. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

A skinny kid with frizzy hair and an annoying nasal voice is singing Corinna Corinna.

I like Joe Turner’s version better,” I say, playing the purist card.

“Dylan is singing it the way it was originally written,” says a kid who’s famous for his collection of .45′s. “Joe Turner was just doing a Rhythm and Blues cover.”

A week or two later I’m in a crowd in the Art Theatre on Eighth Street watching Godard’s latest, A Woman Is A Woman.

It looks like they’re trying to do a Gene Kelly movie, but they can’t sing or dance,” I say loudly to impress the lioness.

“It’s not a conventional musical,” a fat kid corrects. “It’s an interrogation of the musical form.”

“It’s neo realism set to music,” someone else says.

This is the year of Kahlil Gibran, of smoking pot and trancing out to Wanda Landowska playing Bach on the harpsichord. Everybody’s carrying Franny and Zooey. I brandish Sons and Lovers. In secret I read best sellers, The Carpetbaggers, The Agony and the Ecstasy.

I try for the right note, but keep hitting clinkers.

Dave Brubeck?

Wrong…” Miles Davis says he doesn’t swing…”

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers?

Clunk. “Cold War propaganda, designed to cause an anti-communist panic.”

Old Man And the Sea?

Clang..”Patronizing, stilted…Hemingway blaming the world for his flagging powers…”

I walk the streets looking for celebrities. Here’s a face I think I’ve seen on a jacket cover. Wasn’t that guy in West Side Story? That little bald guy could be e.e. cummings. Or Yul Brynner. A couple on Sixth Avenue–tall, hunched guy with a tiny chattering lady. “That’s Edward Hopper,” somebody says.

I stand outside the San Remo Bar on MacDougall and Bleecker, watching the Boho nobility, the men laughing and waving drinks, the women intense and attentive.

Sports give me partial cachet. On weekends handball is the hot item at the playground on Waverly Place. Played at top speed with a hard black ball, it’s my game. In Coney Island the old pros ran me ragged, but in the Village I’m a star. I hook up with a Puerto Rican kid named Benny and we hold the court as a doubles team for hours. On the hot days we roll our pants up over our knees and take our shirts off. The other guys have tapered waists, tendoned biceps and muscles rippling on their backs. I’m stoop-shouldered and you can count my ribs, but I play with vengeful arrogance and no one can beat me. The “parkies” hook up a hose and we run cold water over our heads. The lioness and her friends walk by swinging their shopping bags and stop to watch us through the fence. We shout and play harder. Lust swirls like summer dust.

On my way home from work one night I pass Benny and the lioness, making out on a bench in a dark park off Sixth Avenue. He jumps up. “Hey, man, wanna go to a party? Where’s the party at Ammie?”

She glares. “It’s at James Baldwin’s. For his new book.”

Baldwin is an angry, eloquent black writer, author of The Fire Next Time. I’ve been reading his essays. I’ve taped one of his quotes to my typewriter. “I am what time and circumstance and history have made me, but I am also more than that. So are we all.” I want to tell him how much that means to me.

” I don’t want to bring a lot of strange people,” Amelia says.

“He’s my boy,” Benny says and grabs my arm. “C’mon, man, it’s cool,”

Benny has to reach up to get his arm around Amelia’s shoulders. He ignores her and talks to me about the handball players and do I want to play in the money games on Essex Street on the Lower East Side? She is docile and quiet, a far cry from the oracle whose poetry intimidates and whose pronouncements settle all disputes.

“Why are you wearing that suit?” Amelia asks me.

“I work in a funeral parlor,” I say and– anticipating her scornful disbelief–”I really do…”

On Horatio Street the party crowd has spilled onto the street. James Baldwin lives up a narrow flight of rickety stairs. We squeeze past the people coming downstairs and push through the crowd in the hallway into a cramped apartment . There are more black faces than usual, but otherwise it’s the same people, nose to nose, shouting in each other’s faces. A Charley Parker record is tinkling somewhere. The walls are lined with bookshelves.

“Look at all the books he has,” I say.

“Makes sense, he’s a writer,” Amelia sniffs.

She puts a jug of Almaden Red on a bridge table. I try to follow her and Benny, but the crowd keeps closing around them.

A kinky-haired man with curling nose hairs and thick moist lips puts his hand on my shoulder.

“Just coming from a wake?”

“I work in a funeral parlor,” I say.

“Really…” He clutches my sleeve. “There’s something I’ve always wanted to know. What do they so with all the blood they pump out of the people?”

“Nothing,” I say.

In a corner James Baldwin is trying to pour vodka into a dixie cup and hold a cigarette at the same time. He’s a small man with a large head and bulging eyes.

Benny turns and giggles. “Cat looks like a fly, man…”

Benny’s eyes are red. He’s stoned. So is Amelia, but the weed has just made her obsessive. She towers over Baldwin. “Congratulations on the book, Mr. Baldwin…”

“Thanks, uh…”

“Amelia, from the Hudson Church Poetry Project? We met at the benefit?”

“Oh yes…” He gives me a quick look, dismisses me, and turns to Benny. “Are you a poet, too?”

Amelia slides over between us with a don’t try to talk to him look. I step away, starting to sweat in my woolen suit. I see a thick hardcover book–The Most of S.J. Perelman. I’ve seen that name as a screenwriter on a Marx Brothers movie. I read the inscription: “To Jimmy/Humbly/ Sid…” In a minute I’m shaking with repressed hilarity. This is a revelation. The way Perelman uses language, the mixture of puns, Yiddishisms and esoteric references. I had no idea that prose on a page could be so funny. I have to have this book. I jam it down the back of my pants.

Nose Hair heads me off at the door. “Can I ply you with alcohol? In vino veritas?

He gives me a Dixie Cup full of sour white wine. “Seriously,” he says. “What do they do with the blood?”

I try to slide by him, anxious to get home and continue reading. “They let it drain out into the sewers.”

“Blood in the sewers,” he says. “The blood of the city’s dead…”

“And shit and piss, too,” I say.

“You’re a hardboiled realist, I see…” He puts his arm around me and feels the book.

“Is this a gun?”

” What do you think i?”

Now he’s intrigued. “I knew you weren’t an undertaker… You’re a cop, aren’t you?”

I give him the Bogey hard look. “What do you think…?”

He steps back, hands in the air. “Don’t shoot I’ll come quietly…” And shouts: “Everybody hide your drugs. the cruise is canceled. The polizei have landed…”

All eyes are on me. Astonished looks. The crowd parts to let me through.

“A cop…”

Across the room I see Amelia’s startled face.

Behind me, somebody giggles.

“You believe Amelia brought a cop to Jimmy’s party…?”






PARIS, 1961. Grown ups run the world. Nobody has heard of Vietnam. Doris Day is Number One at the box office. Every time Mickey Mantle hits a home run the Yankees send 5000 cartons of Camels to the Veterans hospitals. Men wear fedoras and couples hold each other when they dance. The big thing is to be a “non-conformist.”

Jean Paul Belmondo in Breathless is my role model. I’m going to be cool, doomed and irresistible. I drop out of Brooklyn College in my first semester, cash in my $800 Regents Scholarship and hop a German freighter to Bremerhaven. Two weeks later I’m in a fleabag on the Left Bank, wondering what do with the bidet.

A group of beautiful young girls live on the floor above me. They shrug coldly when I pass them on the stairs. I see some of them in the streets with older men, who I take for their fathers. Is this a “dormitoire for the universitay?” I ask the concierge. “It is a maison for zee prostitution,” he replies.

My plan is to follow in the great tradition of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and sit at a cafe, Gauloise dangling from my lips, adoring demoiselle at my side, writing the next Great American Novel. But the coffee makes me jumpy, the cigarettes make me nauseous and after a few weeks the demoiselles still haven’t gotten the memo.

I pick a cafe on the Boulevard St. Michel and sit for hours, nursing a cafe creme. The waiter, an elderly, vinous professional in a starched white jacket fights a desperate battle to keep me away. He puts the chairs on his tables and shouts “Ferme! ” at my approach, mops ammonia around my feet to chase me and makes disparaging remarks which I don’t understand to shame me into giving up my table to a tipping customer. I am oblivious to his efforts, although years later I remember and suffer a pang of guilt for the money I cost him.

Maurice, a Moroccan with no visible means of support, befriends me. We are a funny duo–he, short, dark and voluble in dark woolen suits no matter the weather and me in the khaki denim-blue workshirt uniform of the Greenwich Village Boho, stooping and and squinting to understand his pidgin English. One night he knocks at my door.

“We are going to the discotheque,” he says. “Vite, I have twin Austrian sisters who are”–he kisses his fingers–”magnifigue.”

Visions of giggly, buxom blondes, dancing in my head I run downstairs to find a pair of Lipizzaners in their mid-thirties. I can tell my date from her sister because she’s wearing the tinted bifocals. She looks at me like I’m a piece of blutwurst. She tells me her name, but it sounds like “gonorrhea” to me so I call her “Greta.”

We go to a restaurant with red banquettes where real French people are eating. I reach into my pocket to check my funds, but Maurice grabs my wrist under the table. I realize that in Paris “magnifique” means the ladies are picking up the check. Also, that at some point in the evening I will be called upon to perform a service. Greta is starting to worry about this, too. She plies me with oysters and white wine. Then orders biftek tartare au cheval. The waiter raises an eyebrow. A few minutes later a ball of raw meat appears with an egg yolk quivering on top of it , garnished with a scoop of mayo, some pickles, capers and onions. Everyone attacks it with gusto and the carafes keep coming so I join in. Luckily, I don’t know that cheval means horse.

Next, Maurice announces we are going to La Discotheque. This is a huge deal and everybody is thrilled. I put the words together and come up with “library for records.”

Maurice springs for a taxi to the Rue La Huchette. We make a bizarre foursome–the hyper Moroccan,two hefty Austrian twins in print dresses and me in my blue serge high school graduation suit. We never would have made the cut in a New York club, but the captain understands immediately and takes us to a booth in the corner. The room is dark. A dim light plays over the dance floor where well-dressed couples are dancing to a primitive play list, mixing Sinatra, bouncy swing and French crooners.

I am used to live music. The only time I’ve ever danced to records was at house parties so this all seems kind of cheesy to me. I can dimly make out the DJ changing records in a kind of glassed-in studio.

It’s all very decorous and subdued. The French take their fun seriously. Even the strip joints have a solemn, ritualized air about them. I’m a kid from Brooklyn used to vulgar, blatant displays. I am seeing the future and don’t know it.

After a few dances Maurice says: “let’s go to the scopi.”

He leads us into another room where people are clustered in front of a kind of movie juke box. You put in a coin and see a short dramatized film of a hit record. It’s called a “scopitone,” and only has about ten songs on it. The films last three minutes and feature quick cutting and girls in bikinis and lingerie. Maybe it’s the music or the stars–Johnny Hallyday and Sylvie Vartan are much too French for a kid who grew up on “Speedo”, and “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”–but I find the whole thing incredibly tedious.

By now the oysters and the horse are fighting an artillery battle in my stomach. An elderly female attendant sits outside the bathroom door reading France Soir. I give her twenty centimes for a slug to open the door.

The toilet requires bombardier training. There are two footprints over a hole in the tile floor. The idea is to place your feet in the prints and squat over the hole. I figure that out, but neglect to move my trousers away from the target area. The attendant is lighting a Gauloise as I come out. I find a back stairway that goes past the kitchen into an alley and hurry back to the hotel. I never see Maurice or the Austrians again.

I spend six months in France and never go to a discotheque. In New York a few years later I see a scopitone in a bar downtown. It’s a cute novelty, but doesn’t last because the films cost too much to make, I’m told.

I was present as the disco and the music video took their first faltering steps on the way to revolutionizing popular culture. I never did write that Great American Novel. But I did learn how to use a bidet.

Now, twelve years later, I get a chance to work at the hottest disco in New York.