Thursday, August 13, 2015



"No defeat is made up entirely of defeat--since
the world it opens is always a place
--William Carlos Williams

Traveling through Europe gave my ideas a chance to simmer...and pop. I thought about all the literature I read, all the philosophers I studied, all the music I heard, the loves I’d won and lost, the influences like Brasz and Ginsberg and Yarber, and decided that everybody’s right, and anything’s possible. When I met Brasz soon after he returned from abroad, he had decided, coincidentally enough, that philosophy was about being right or wrong and essentially everyone was both. He declined the Carnegie and opted instead to go down to New Orleans to teach art at Tulane and begin painting in earnest again. I decided to begin writing a novel I had begun to think about while in Europe and try to publish some of the poetry I was most happy with.
What I didn’t think about, much less consider, was that Brasz had a gig. Donny, Steve, and Tony had jobs. I reasoned that my job was to write the novel, have it published, get money from the book to support myself, get famous, which would enable me to meet a lot of women. Once satiated I’d get up the next morning and start the creative process again. This would furnish me with an identity and, almost as importantly, an income. I would no longer feel like a fake, a leach, and a thief. I’d be real, whole, and legitimate. I would create myself, invent myself, and this would be good.

While in Europe, I met a guy from New York City who told me that he knew of a publishing house looking for new authors. I wrote the name down, got together a manuscript of poetry and sent it to them. At the same time, my next door neighbor in Seagate had a son, a few years younger than myself, who was studying communications at Long Island University while working for the school’s radio station, WLIU. Bullshitting with him one day, I told him of my interest in having a radio program. He invited me to meet with the program manager. I met with him the next week. I showed him some literary credentials, and we talked jazz and poetry and the next week I was slated to do my first show at the station.
The following week I received a letter from Vantage House accepting my manuscript for publication. Boom. Just like that. I thought I could walk on water. It was a big “fuck you” to the people (my father, in particular) who doubted me, minimized me, and made me feel like what I was doing was inconsequential, even worthless. I telephoned Anna in Madrid, imploring her to come now, immediately, tonight. Just pack up and leave. Too much shit was happening. You must be here now, with me, to enjoy all this good fortune. I told her I’d wire her two hundred. She said she’d make time mid-September. She needed to be home in Georgetown anyway, she told me, and would stop in New York first and spend some time with me. I called Brasz after I got off the phone with Anna. “Hey man, what’s up?”
“Nothin’ much...just got back a few days ago. You?”
“Gettin’ published, and I fell in love in Spain man. She’s comin’ in soon. Saw those Goyas at The Prado too, man. Whew! You gonna be home tomorrow, I wanna show you the contract?”
“Yeah man, here all day.”
“Cool; I’ll breeze in 2-3.”

“You can’t do this, man,” he said when I saw him the next afternoon.
“You’re kiddin? Why?” I asked.
“It’s fucked up man. This is a vanity press. You can’t publish in a vanity press if you want to be taken seriously.”
I was stunned, punched in the solar plexus. I needed air. He must have seen the expression on my face. The world had just said a big “fuck-you” to me.
“Listen man, you’re good enough not to need that shit man. Just keep workin’ and sendin’ your stuff out to the presses. It’ll find an audience. It’s good man, just don’t do that shit. You don’t want to be Rod McKuen, do you?”
“Rod McKuen? Shit. Fuck no! We didn’t allow him in our houses man. Listen' to the Warm? don’t make me puke, shit. When ya leavin’ anyway?”
“Thursday, me, Theresa and Yarbs gonna drive down there.”
“Gonna miss ya man.”
“Me too. You got a place down there with us anytime. You should make it. New Orleans is hip.”
“Would like to. Wanna get high? I got some good smoke, smoke and hit Katz’s.”
“Fire it up.”
I was fucking depressed riding home. When my mother offered to pay the price for the book to be published, I had to think twice before saying, “no.”

The following week was almost as bad. WLIU took me off the air. I had read some of Amiri Baraka’s, a.k.a. LeRoi Jones, poetry advocating for the violent overthrow of the American government, sanctioning the looting of Newark in the riots of ‘67, shooting Roy Wilkins, and other assorted acts of aggression to the music of avant-garde jazz. Some of the professors had registered complaints. That’s a good sign, I told the station manager. Not to him it wasn’t.

The week after that it got worse. On Yom Kippur, the highest of Jewish holy days, Anna landed at Kennedy. She, as most any other sane person would be, was very uptight about going into my house to meet for the first time, relatives from both sides of my family, on this day. Not a problem, I told her. But in my heart I knew it was a mistake, a bad mistake. Hell, in for a penny, in for a pound, I reasoned. I pushed harder on the accelerator. Into the lion’s den we went. Only, I lived there, she didn’t.
Upon meeting Anna, my father’s mother, the tough, saloon owning, foul-mouthed life of the party, squeezed her tits. “Oh Norman, ooo, she has such nice tits, you’re lucky.” The living room full of twenty to thirty relatives looked and laughed. Anna’s face first blushed, and then blanched. If there were a hole she would have gratefully fallen in. I grabbed her arm to steady her. I introduced her to my folks. My mom had her social face in place and made the best of a situation she’d rather have not been in, having a Cuban woman, no matter how attractive, involved with her son, sleeping in her house on this of all days. My father gave her a kiss and did what he did with all attractive women. He charmed her.
“She’s a little beat from the trip,” I said. I showed her to her room where she heavily sat on the bed and looked at me in disbelief. “Don’t worry, you’ve been through the worst. You did good. Let’s get out of here, take a walk.” She would have dived into a sea of sharks rather than go back into the living room.
“Norm, I can’t stay here. I don’t belong here, not on a day like this.” We had gone out the back and were walking along the rim of a park looking out over the Atlantic.
“No, it’s O.K. really. Just give it a little time.”
“I think it would be better, for all of us, if I went to see my parents and then, after your holidays are over, come back and stay with you before going back to Madrid.”
“No, no, that ain’t no good. Just stay, it’ll work out. I’m tellin’ you, it’s just a little crazy today, that’s all.” But it was not O.K. The feeling in the house was so tense from all of us that I couldn’t see any sense in prolonging it. Before another day had passed, I told her it would be best if she went to see her parents after all. I drove her to the airport. From the ecstasy of anticipation came the eternity of a twenty minute ride. We hardly spoke. She told me that it just was bad timing this time around and we should try this again, but next time on the same footing we found in Europe. I nodded my head but knew that that was not going to happen anytime soon. She knew it as well.

I was tapped out. Fucked. I looked around. What the fuck was I going to do now? Write, of course. I put all my strength and summoned up all my energy into the novel that had sprung in my head while in Europe. I titled it, Inside These Fences. I modeled it on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I pushed all those recent defeats aside and feverishly began to work.
I needed to work fast, and I mean fast. Get those shitty tasting feelings out of my mouth. Amphetamines! Amphetamines for the head, for the work, for the inspiration, for the imagination, for the furnace. Blackbirds, dexedrine, speed and pure crystal methedrine when I could get it, and pots of coffee. However, speed in whatever form acts as a catalyst in the body to increase glucose production. That would explain how I was able to get away with eating as meagerly as I did without constantly going in and out of insulin shock.
The killing took place in The Albert Hotel on University Place between 10th and 11th Streets in Greenwich Village. Marc Speer, who thought himself a genius, and above the law of mere mortals, killed a woman for no reason other than she had money and happened to be there. Sound familiar?
The Albert, before being turned into cooperative apartments (the ruination of everything really worth a shit in Manhattan) was a hotel for transients, drug addicts, alcoholics, musicians, artists and any combination of the above, was where the woman lived. She was a drug addict/dealer, prostitute/pimp herself but one of the more endearing characters in the work. She was modeled after an older chick I had met many years before whose services I had engaged for an evening.
The inside of The Albert was worn with pain. The front desk was inhabited by Jimmy, a man always on the verge of sleep. Chipped and scarred mahogany wood held up his elbows. Torn and tattered grayish red spotted carpet led to the elevator the black doors of which sometimes closed when those black buttons, chipped from all the times they were pushed and punched, were engaged. The corridors were always dark, even in daylight, lit by red bulbs behind exit signs. I counted the steps from the desk to the elevator to the room to the eventual murder. I used my years spent in Greenwich Village as movement, as landmarks, as character, as the engine that would drive the novel. Back and forth I went in the morning, afternoon, in the dead of night to inhabit the places my characters did. Across the street from The Albert was The Cedar Tavern, the old haunt of the abstract expressionists of the Forties, Fifties and early Sixties: Pollock, DeKooning, Kline. I quickly became friendly with one of the owners, Joey. The Cedar became the saloon that I would drink in for the next 40 years.
I wanted to make the novel tragic, funny, sad, romantic, nihilistic, symbolic and, most importantly, brilliant. I tried to put everything I had ever learned, thought about or could imagine into one work. I raced, I ran, I wrote, I typed, I fantasized, I cooked, I burned and was burning out. Speed and coffee for six months. But I finished the first draft, two hundred and twenty-one pages, in those months.
Perhaps it was delirium, a psychotic episode or break, certainly a moment of temporary insanity, that suggested I show it to my father the day I finished it. He was a reader, and he was my father, but again, like Dostoevsky’s underground man two and two doesn’t necessarily have to add up to four. Unlike the underground man however, in this instance, I wanted the numbers to work out.
“Sorry, Norm, don’t like it; just not my cup of tea.” He handed the 221 pages back to me. I don’t know if he finished it, or how far he read. We never discussed it. You might think by this time I would have been smart enough not to let what he said, or didn’t say, affect me so much, but you’d be wrong if you thought that. My head said one thing but my heart, my stomach, kidneys, lungs, blood, bone and viscera were saying something else in tongues I had no trouble translating. What I could have or should have done is quite beside the point. What I did do was put the book away, not to look at it for years, and never, to this day, able to work a second draft.
Would the benediction of my novel by my father have altered the course my life would take from that point forward? Probably not. I had already started rewiring my neural network long before that rejection occurred, and if he would have said he loved it, was in awe, been changed in fundamental and primal ways, and now looked at me with the respect and admiration one reserves for heroes and certain potentates, would I have acted and reacted to the world any differently from that point forward? Probably not. If the latter would have happened, I would have looked into his eyes, gauged the countenance of his facial expressions, the tone and inflections of his voice, and known, as sure as I know my own name, that he was lying. At this point in time he could not win, and neither could I. And, honestly, in retrospect, I never would have gotten published with the manuscript I sent out. It simply was not ready for print. It was a first draft and even a good, or great first draft is still what it is, a first draft that needs work and more work, something I really didn’t have a handle on.

I was burned out; tapped out, lower than whale shit. My nerves were doing a St. Vitas dance. Everything seemed to hurt. Simon sez, “Take one giant step, backwards.” I wanted out of the harsh light, and into a safe and secure darkness. I dived into a warm and comforting womb.


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