It was a stunning place she had to rent, but far beyond our means. Mona, of course, was determined to have it; it was just the sort of place she had always dreamed of living in. The fact that the rent was twice what we had intended to pay didn’t disturb her. I was to leave everything to her–she would ‘manage” it. The truth is I wanted the place just as much as she did, but I had no illusions about ‘managing” the rent. I was convinced that if we took it we would be sunk.
The woman we were dealing with had no suspicion, of course, that we were a poor risk. We were comfortably seated in her flat upstairs, drinking sherry. Presently her husband arrived. He too seemed to find us a congenial couple. From Virginia he was, and a gentleman from the word go. My position in the Cosmodemonic world evidently impressed them. They expressed sincere amazement that one as young as myself should be holding such a responsible position. Mona, to be sure, played this up for all it was worth. To hear her, I was already in line for a superintendent’s job, and in a few more years a vicepresidency. “Isn’t that what Mr Twilliger told you?” she said, obliging me to nod affirmatively.
The upshot was that we put down a deposit, a mere tenspot, which looked a little ridiculous in view of the fact that the rent was to be ninety dollars a month. How we would raise the balance of that first month’s rent, to say nothing of the furniture and other paraphernalia we needed, I hadn’t the slightest idea. I looked upon the deposit as ten dollars lost. A face-saving gesture, nothing more. That Mona would change her mind, once we were out of their ingratiating clutches, I was certain.
But I was wrong, as usual. She was determined to move in. The other eighty dollars? That we got from one of her devoted admirers, a room clerk at the Broztell. “And who is he?” I ventured to ask, never having heard his name mentioned before. ‘don’t you remember? I introduced you to him only a couple of weeks ago–when you and Ulric met us on Fifth Avenue. He’s perfectly harmless.”
Seemingly they were all “perfectly harmless.” It was her way of informing me that never would they think of embarrassing her by suggesting that she spend a night with them. They were all “gentlemen,” and usually nitwits to boot. I had quite a job recalling what this particular duffer looked like. All I could recollect was that he was rather young and rather pale. In brief, nondescript. How she ever managed to prevent these gallant lovers from looking her up, ardent and impetuous as some of them were, was a mystery to me. No doubt, as she had once done with me, she gave them to believe that she was living with her parents, that her mother was a witch and her father bedridden, dying of cancer. Fortunately, I rarely took much interest in these gallant suitors. (Better not pry too deeply, I always said to myself.) The important thing to bear in mind was–”perfectly harmless.”
One had to have something more than the rent money to set up house. I discovered, of course, that Mona had thought of everything. Three hundred dollars she had extracted from the poor sap. She had demanded five hundred but he had protested that his bank account was almost exhausted. For being so improvident she had made him buy her an exotic peasant dress and a pair of expensive shoes. That would teach him a lesson!
Since she was obliged to go to a rehearsal that afternoon I decided to select the furniture and other things myself. The idea of paying cash for these items, when the very principle of our country was founded on the installment plan, seemed foolish to me. I thought at once of Dolores, now a buyer for one of the big department stores on Fulton Street. Dolores, I was certain, would take care of me.
It took me less than an hour to choose all that was necessary to furnish our luxurious dovecote. I chose with taste and discretion, not forgetting to include a handsome writing desk, one with plenty of drawers. Dolores was unable to hide a measure of concern regarding our ability to meet the monthly payments, but I overcame this by assuring her that Mona was doing extraordinarily well at the theater. Besides, was I not still on the job at the Cosmococcic whorehouse?
“Yes, but the alimony,” she murmured.
“Oh that! I won’t be paying that much longer,” I replied smilingly.
“You mean you’re going to run out on her?”
‘something of the sort,” I admitted. “We can’t have a millstone round our necks forever, can we?”
She thought this typical of me, bastard that I was. She said it, however, as if she thought bastards were likeable people. As we were parting, she added: “I suppose I ought to know better than to trust you.”
“Tut tut!” said I. “If we don’t pay they’ll call for the furniture. Why worry?”
“I’m not thinking of the store,” she said, “I’m thinking of myself.”
“Come, come! I won’t let you down, you know that.”
Of course I did let her down, but unintentionally. At the time, despite my first misgivings, I really and sincerely believed that everything would turn out beautifully. Whenever I became a victim of doubt or despair I could always rely on Mona to give me a hypodermic. Mona lived entirely on the future. The past was a fabulous dream which she distorted at will. One was never to draw conclusions from the past–it was a thoroughly unreliable way of gauging things. The past, in so far as it spelled failure and frustration, simply did not exist.
It took no time to feel perfectly at home in our stunning new quarters. We learned that the house had been owned formerly by a wealthy judge who had remodeled it to suit his fancy. He must have been a man of excellent taste, and something of a Sybarite. The floors were of inlaid wood, the wall panels of rich walnut; there were rose silk tapestries and bookcases roomy enough to be converted into sleeping bunks. We occupied the front half of the first floor, looking out onto the most sedate, aristocratic section in all Brooklyn. Our neighbors all had limousines, butlers, expensive dogs and cats whose meals made our mouths water. Ours was the only house in the block which had been broken up into apartments.
Back of our two rooms, and separated by a rolling door, was one enormous room to which had been added a kitchenette and a bath. For some reason it remained unrented. Perhaps it was too cloistral. Most of the day, owing to the stained glass windows, it was rather somber in there, or should I say–subdued. But when the late afternoon sun struck the windows, throwing fiery patterns on the highly polished floor, I enjoyed going in there and pacing back and forth in a meditative mood. Sometimes we would strip off our clothes and dance in there, marveling at the riant patterns which the stained glass made on our naked bodies. In more exalted moods I would shuffle into a pair of slippery slippers and give an imitation of an ice-skating star, or I would walk on my hands whilst singing falsetto. Sometimes, after a few drinks, I would try to repeat the antics of my favorite zanies from the burlesque stage.
The first few months, during which all our needs were met providentially, it was just ducky. No other word for it. Not a soul popped in on us unexpectedly. We lived exclusively for each other–in a warm, downy nest. We had need of no one, not even the Almighty. Or so we thought. The wonderful Montague Street Library, a morgue of a place but filled with treasures, was hard by. While Mona was at the theater I read. I read whatever pleased my fancy, and with a double awareness. Often it was impossible to read–the place was just too wonderful. I can see myself all over again closing the book, rising slowly from the chair, and wandering serenely and meditatively from room to room, filled with absolute contentment. Truly, I wanted nothing, unless it were a continuous, uninterrupted muchness of the sameness. Everything I owned, everything I used, everything I wore, was a gift from Mona: the silk bathrobe, which was more suited for a matinee idol than yours truly, the beautiful Moroccan slippers, the cigarette holder which I never used except in her presence. When I flicked the ashes onto the tray I would stoop over to admire it. She had bought three of them, all unique, exotic, exquisite. They were so beautiful, so precious, we almost worshiped them.
The neighborhood itself was a remarkable one. A short walk in any direction brought me to the most diverse districts: to the fantastic area beneath the fretwork of the Brooklyn Bridge; to the sites of the old ferries where Arabs, Turks, Syrians, Greeks and other peoples of the Levant had flocked; to the docks and wharves where steamers from all over the world lay at anchor; to the shopping center near Borough Hall, a region which at night was phantasmal. In the very heart of this Columbia Heights stood stately old churches, club houses, mansions of the rich, all part of a solid, ancient core which was gradually being eaten into by the invading swarms of foreigners, derelicts and bums from the outer edge.
As a boy I had often come here to visit my aunt who lived over a stable attached to one of the more hideous old mansions. A short distance away, on Sackett Street, had once lived my old friend Al Burger, whose father was captain of a tugboat. I was about fifteen when I first met Al Burger–on the banks of the Neversink River. It was he who taught me how to swim like a fish, dive in shallow water, wrestle Indian fashion, shoot with bow and arrow, use my dukes, run without tiring, and so on. Al’s folks were Dutch and, strange to say, they all had a marvelous sense of humor, all but his brother Jim, who was an athlete, a dandy, and a vain, stupid fool. Unlike their ancestors, however, they kept a disgracefully slovenly house. Each one, it seemed, went his own sweet way. There were also two sisters, both very pretty, and a mother who was rather sluttish in her ways but also beautiful, and what’s more, very jolly, very indolent, and very generous. She had been an opera singer once. As for the old man, “the captain,” he was seldom to be seen. When he did appear he was usually three sheets to the wind. I have no recollection of the mother ever cooking us a decent meal. When we got hungry she would fling us some change and tell us to go shop for ourselves. We always bought the same bloody victuals–frankfurters, potato salad, pickles, pie and crullers. Ketchup and mustard were used liberally. The coffee was always weak as dishwater, the milk stale, and never a clean plate, cup, or knife and fork in the house. But they were jolly meals and we ate like wolves.
It was the life in the streets that I remember best and enjoyed most. Al’s friends seemed to belong to another species of boys from the ones I knew. A greater warmth, a greater freedom, a greater hospitality reigned in Sackett Street. Though they were about the same age as myself, his friends gave me the impression of being more mature, as well as more independent. Parting from them I always had the feeling of being enriched. The fact that they were from the waterfront, that their families had lived here for generations, that they were a more homogenous group than ours, may have had something to do with the qualities which endeared them to me. There was one among them I still remember vividly, though he is long dead. Frank Schofield. At the time we met, Frank was only seventeen, but already man-size. There wasn’t anything at all that we had in common, as I look back on our strange friendship. What drew me to him was his easy, relaxed, jovial manner, his utter flexibility, his unequivocal acceptance of whatever was offered him, whether it was a cold frankfurter, a warm handclasp, an old penknife, or a promise to see him again next week. He grew up into a great hulking figure, tremendously overweight, and capable in some queer, instinctive way, enough so to become the right-hand man of a very prominent newspaperman with whom he traveled far and wide and for whom he performed all manner of thankless tasks. I probably never saw him more than three or four times after the good old days in Sackett Street. But I had him always in mind. It used to do me good just to revive his image, so warm he was, so goodnatured, so thoroughly trusting and believing. All he ever wrote were postcards. You could hardly read his scrawl. Just a line to say he was feeling fine, the world was grand, and how the hell were you?
Whenever Ulric came to visit us, which was usually on a Saturday or Sunday, I would take him for long walks through these old neighborhoods. He too was familiar with them from childhood. Usually he brought a sketch pad along with him, “to make a few notes,” as he put it. I used to marvel then at his facility with pencil and brush. It never once occurred to me that I might be doing the same myself one day. He was a painter and I was a writer–or at least I hoped to be one someday. The world of paint appeared to me to be a realm of pure magic, one utterly beyond my reach.
Though he was never, in the intervening years, to become a celebrated painter, Ulric nevertheless had a marvelous acquaintance with the world of art. About the painters he loved no man could talk with more feeling and understanding. To this day I can hear the reverberations of his long, felicitous phrases concerning such men as Cimabue, Uccello, Piero della Francesca, Botticelli, Vermeer and others. Sometimes we would sit and look at a book of reproductions–always of the great masters, to be sure. We could sit and talk for hours–he could, at least–about a single painting. It was undoubtedly because he himself was so utterly humble and reverent, humble and reverent in the true sense, that Ulric could talk so discerningly and penetratingly about “the master.” In spirit he was a master himself. I thank God that he never lost this ability to revere and adore. Rare indeed are the born worshipers.
Like O’Rourke, the detective, he had the same tendency to become, at the most unexpected moments, absorbed and enrapt. Often during our walks along the waterfronts he would stop to point out some particularly decrepit fa”ade or broken-down wall, expatiating on its beauty in relation to the background of skyscrapers on the other shore or to the huge hulls and masts of the ships lying at anchor in their cradles. It might be zero weather and an icy gale blowing, but Ulric seemed not to mind. At such moments he would shamefacedly extract a faded little envelope from his pocket and, with the stub of what had been once a pencil, endeavor to make “a few more notes.” Little ever came of these note takings, I must say. Not in those days, at least. The men who doled out commissions–to make bananas, tomato cans, lamp shades, etc.–were always hard on his heels.
Between “jobs’ he would get his friends, more especially his women friends, to pose for him. He worked furiously during these intervals, as if preparing for an exhibition at the Salon. Before the easel he had all the gestures and mannerisms of the ‘maestro.” It was almost terrifying to witness the frenzy of his attack. The results, strange to say, were always disheartening. ‘damn it all,” he would say, “I’m nothing but an illustrator.” I can see him now standing over one of his abortions, sighing, wheezing, spluttering, tearing his hair. I can see him reach for an album of C”zanne, turn to one of his favorite paintings, then look with a sick grin at his own work. “Look at this, will you?” he would say, pointing to some particularly successful area of the C”zanne. “Why in hell can’t I capture something like that–just once? What’s wrong with me, do you suppose? Oh well”” And he’d heave a deep sigh, sometimes a veritable groan. “Let’s have a snifter, what say? Why try to be a C”zanne? I know, Henry, what it is that’s wrong. It’s not just this painting, or the one before, it’s my whole life that’s wrong. A man’s work reflects what he is, what he’s thinking the livelong day, isn’t that it? Looking at it in that light, I’m just a piece of stale cheese, eh what? Well, here’s how! Down the hatch!” Here he would raise his glass with a queer, wry twist of the mouth which was painfully, too painfully, eloquent.
If I adored Ulric because of his emulation of the masters, I believe I really revered him for playing the role of “the failure.” The man knew how to make music of his failings and failures. In fact, he had the wit and the grace to make it seem as though, next to success, the best thing in life is to be a total failure.
Which is probably the truth. What redeemed Ulric was a complete lack of ambition. He wasn’t hankering to be recognized: he wanted to be a good painter for the sheer joy of exceling. He loved all the good things of life, and only the good things. He was a sensualist through and through. In playing chess he preferred to play with Chinese pieces, no matter how poor his game might be. It gave him the keenest pleasure merely to handle the ivory pieces. I remember the visits we made to museums in search of old chess boards. Could Ulric have played on a board that once adorned the wall of a medieval castle he would have been in seventh heaven, nor would he have cared ever again whether he won or lost. He chose everything he used with great care–clothes, valises, slippers, lamps, everything. When he picked up an object he caressed it. Whatever could be salvaged was patched or mended or glued together again. He talked about his belongings as some people do about their cats; he gave them his full admiration, even when alone with them. Sometimes I have caught him speaking to them, addressing them, as if they were old friends. What a contrast to Kronski, when I think of it. Kronski, poor, wretched devil, seemed to be living with the discarded bric-a-brac of his ancestors. Nothing was precious to him, nothing had meaning or significance for him. Everything went to pieces in his hands, or became ragged, torn, splotched and sullied. Yet one day–how it came about I never learned–this same Kronski began to paint. He began brilliantly, too. Most brilliantly. I could scarcely believe my eyes. Bold, brilliant colors he used, as if he had just come from Russia. Nor were his subjects lacking in daring and originality. He went at it for eight and ten hours at a stretch, gorging himself before and after, and always singing, whistling, jiggling from one foot to another, always applauding himself. Unfortunately it was just a flash in the pan. Petered out after a few months. After that never a word about painting. Forgot, apparently, that he had ever touched a brush.”
It was during the period when things were going serenely with us that I made the acquaintance of a rum bird at the Montague Street Library. They knew me well there because I was giving them all kinds of trouble asking for books they didn’t have, urging them to borrow rare or expensive books from other libraries, complaining about the poverty of their stock, the inadequacy of their service, and in general making a nuisance of myself. To make it worse I was always paying huge fines for books overdue or for books lost (which I had appropriated for my own shelves), or for missing pages. Now and then I received a public reprimand, as if I were still a schoolboy, for underlining passages in red ink or for writing comments in the margins. And then one day, searching for some rare books on the circus–why, God knows–I fell into conversation with a scholarly looking man who turned out to be one of the staff. In the course of conversation I learned that he had been to some of the fancy circuses of Europe. The word M’drano escaped his lips. It was virtually Greek to me, but I remembered it. Anyway, I took such a liking to the fellow that there and then I invited him to visit us the next evening. As soon as I got out of the library I called Ulric and begged him to join us. ‘did you ever hear of the Cirque M’drano?” I asked.
To make it short, the next evening was given over almost exclusively to the Cirque M’drano. I was in a daze when the librarian left. ‘so that’s Europe!” I muttered aloud, over and over. Couldn’t get over it. “And that guy was there” he saw it all. Christ!”
The librarian came quite frequently, always with some rare books under his arm which he thought I would like to glance at. Usually he brought a bottle along too. Sometimes he would play chess with us, seldom leaving before two or three in the morning. Each time he came I made him talk about Europe: it was his “admission fee.” In fact, I was getting drunk on the subject; I could talk about Europe almost as if I had been there myself. (My father was the same. Though he had never set foot outside of New York, he could talk about London, Berlin, Hamburg, Bremen, Rome as if he had lived abroad all his life.)
One night Ulric brought over his large map of Paris (the M”tro map) and we all got down on hands and knees to wander through the streets of Paris, visiting the libraries, museums, cathedrals, flower stalls, slaughterhouses, cemeteries, whorehouses, railway stations, bals musettes, les magasins and so on. The next day I was so full up, so full of Europe, I mean, that I couldn’t go to work. It was an old habit of mine to take a day off when I felt like it. I always enjoyed stolen holidays best. It meant getting up at any old hour, loafing about in pajamas, playing records, dipping into books, strolling to the wharf and, after a hearty lunch, going to a matinee. A good vaudeville show was what I liked best, an afternoon in which I would burst my sides laughing. Sometimes, after one of these holidays, it was still more difficult to return to work. In fact, impossible. Mona would conveniently call the boss to inform him that my cold had gotten worse. And he would always say: “Tell him to stay in bed another few days. Take good care of him!”
“I should think they would be on to you by this time,” Mona would say.
“They are, honey. Only I’m too good. They can’t do without me.”
‘some day they’ll send someone over here to see if you’re really ill.”
“Never answer the doorbell, that’s all. Or tell them I’ve gone to see the doctor.”
Wonderful while it lasted. Just ducky. I had lost all interest in my job. All I thought of was to begin writing. At the office I did less and less, grew more and more slack. The only applicants I bothered to interview were the suspects. My assistant did the rest. As often as possible I would clear out of the office on the pretext of inspecting the branch offices. I would call on one or two in the heart of town–just to establish an alibi–then duck into a movie. After the movie I would drop in on another branch manager, report to headquarters, and then home. Sometimes I spent the afternoon in an art gallery or at the 42nd Street Library. Sometimes I called on Ulric or else visited a dance hall. I got ill more and more often, and for longer stretches at a time. Things were definitely riding to a fall.
Mona encouraged my delinquency. She had never liked me in the role of employment manager. “You should be writing,” she would say. “Fine,” I would retort, secretly pleased but putting up a battle to salve my conscience. “Fine! but what will we live on?”
“Leave that to me!”
“But we can’t go on swindling and bamboozling people forever.”
‘swindling? Anybody I borrow from can well afford to lend the money. I’m doing them a favor.”
I couldn’t see it her way but I would give in. After all, I had no better solution to offer. To wind up the argument I would always say: “Well, I’m not quitting yet.”
Now and then, on one of these stolen holidays, we would end up on Second Avenue, New York. It was amazing the number of friends I had in this quarter. All Jews, of course, and most of them cracked. But lively company. After a bite at Papa Moskowitz’s we would go to the Caf” Royal. Here you were sure to find anyone you were looking for.
One evening as we were strolling along the Avenue, just as I was about to peer into a bookshop window to have another look at Dostoevski–his photo had been hanging in this same window for years–who should greet us but an old friend of Arthur Raymond. Nahoum Yood, no less. Nahoum Yood was a short, fiery man who wrote in Yiddish. He had a face like a sledgehammer. Once you saw it you never forgot it. When he spoke it was always a rush and a babble; the words literally tripped over one another. He not only sputtered like a firecracker but he dribbled and drooled at the same time. His accent, that of the “Litvak,” was atrocious. But his smile was golden–like Jack Johnson’s. It gave his face a sort of Jack-o’-Lantern twist.
I never saw him in any other condition but effervescent. He had always just discovered something wonderful, something marvelous, something unheard of. In unloading himself he always gave you a spritz bath, gratis. But it was worth it. This fine spray which he emitted between his front teeth had the same stimulating effect that a needle bath has. Sometimes with the spritz bath came a few caraway seeds.
Snatching the book which I was carrying under my arm, he shouted: “What are you reading? Ah, Hamsun. Good! Beautiful writer.” He hadn’t even said, “How are you” yet. “We must sit down somewhere and talk. Where are you going? Have you had dinner? I’m hungry.”
“Excuse me,” I said, “but I want to have a look at Dostoevski.”
I left him standing there talking excitedly to Mona with both hands (and feet). I plunked myself in front of Dostoevski’s portrait, as I had done before many a time, to study his familiar physiognomy anew. I thought of my friend Lou Jacobs who used to doff his hat every time he passed a statue of Shakespeare. It was something more than a bow or salute I made to Dostoevski. It was more like a prayer, a prayer that he would unlock the secret of revelation. Such a plain, homely face, he had. So Slavic, so moujik-like. The face of a man who might pass unnoticed in a crowd. (Nahoum Yood looked much more the writer than did the great Dostoevski.) I stood there, as always, trying to penetrate the mystery of the being lurking behind the doughy mass of features. All I could read clearly was sorrow and obstinacy. A man who obviously preferred the lowly life, a man fresh from prison. I lost myself in contemplation. Finally I saw only the artist, the tragic, unprecedented artist who had created a veritable pantheon of characters, figures such as had never been heard of before and never would be again, each one of them more real, more potent, more mysterious, more inscrutable than all the mad Czars and all the cruel, wicked Popes put together.
Suddenly I felt Nahoum Yood’s heavy hand on my shoulder. His eyes were dancing, his mouth ringed with saliva. The battered derby which he wore indoors and out had come down over his eyes, giving him a comical and an almost maniacal look.
‘mysterium!” he shouted. ‘mysterium! Mysterium!”
I looked at him blankly.
“You haven’t read it?” he yelled. What looked like a crowd began to gather round us, one of those crowds which spring up from nowhere as soon as a hawker begins to advertise his wares.
“What are you talking about?” I asked blandly.
“About your Knut Hamsun. The greatest book he ever wrote–Mysterium it is called, in German.”
“He means Mysteries,” said Mona.
“Yes, Mysteries,” cried Nahoum Yood.
“He’s just been telling me all about it,” said Mona. “It does sound wonderful.”
‘more wonderful than A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings?”
Nahoum Yood burst in: “That, that is nothing. For Growth of the Soil they gave him the Nobel Prize. For Mysterium nobody even knows about it. Look, let me explain.”” He paused, turned halfway round and spat. “No, better not to explain. Go to your Carnegie chewing gum library and ask for it. How do you say it in English? Mysteries? Almost the same–but Mysterium is better. More mysterischer, nicht?” He gave one of his broad trolley track smiles and with that the brim of his hat fell over his eyes.
Suddenly he realized that he had collected an audience. “Go home!” he shouted, raising both arms to shoo the crowd away. “Are we selling shoelaces here? What is it with you? Must I rent a hall to speak a few words in private to a friend? This is not Russia. Go home” shool!” And again he brandished his arms.
No one budged. They simply smiled indulgently. Apparently they knew him well, this Nahoum Yood. One of them spoke up in Yiddish. Nahoum Yood gave a sad complacent sort of smile and looked at us helplessly.
“They want that I should recite to them something in Yiddish.”
“Fine,” I said, “why don’t you?”
He smiled again, sheepishly this time. “They are like children,” he said. “Wait, I will tell them a fable. You know what is a fable, don’t you? This is a fable about a green horse with three legs. I can only tell it in Yiddish” you will excuse me.”
The moment he began talking Yiddish his whole countenance changed. He put on such a serious, mournful look that I thought he would burst into tears any moment. But when I looked at his audience I saw that they were chuckling and giggling. The more serious and mournful his expression, the more jovial his listeners grew. Finally they were doubled up with laughter. Nahoum Yood never so much as cracked a smile. He finished with a dead-pan look in the midst of gales of laughter.
“Now,” he said, turning his back on his audience and grasping us each by the arm, “now we will go somewhere and hear some music. I know a little place on Hester Street, in a cellar. Roumanian gypsies. We will have a little wine and some Mysterium, yes? You have money? I have only twenty-three cents.” He smiled again, this time like a huge cranberry pie. On the way he was constantly tipping his hat to this one and that. Sometimes he would stop and engage a friend in earnest conversation for a few minutes. “Excuse me,” he would say, running back to us breathless, “but I thought maybe I could borrow a little money. That was the editor of a Yiddish paper–but he’s even broker than I am. You have a little money, yes? Next time I will treat.”
At the Roumanian place I ran into one of my exmessengers, Dave Olinski. He used to work as a night messenger in the Grand Street office. I remembered him well because the night the office was robbed and the safe turned upside down, Olinski had been beaten to within an inch of his life. (As a matter of fact, I had taken it for granted that he was dead.) It was at his own request that I had put him in that office; because it was a foreign quarter, and because he could speak about eight languages, Olinski thought he would earn a lot in tips. Everybody detested him, including the men he worked with. Every time I ran into him he would chew my ear off about Tel Aviv. It was always Tel Aviv and Boulogne-sur-Mer. (He carried about with him post cards of all the ports the boats had stopped at. But most of the cards were of Tel Aviv.) Anyway, before the “accidents,” I once sent him to Canarsie, where there was a “plage.” I used the word “plage” because every time Olinski spoke of Boulogne-sur-Mer, he mentioned the bloody “plage” where he had gone bathing.
Since he left our employ, he was telling me, he had become an insurance salesman. In fact, he hadn’t exchanged more than a few words when he began trying to sell me a policy. Much as I disliked the fellow, I made no move to shut him off. I thought it might do him good to practice on me. So, much to Nahoum Yood’s disgust, I let him babble on, pretending that perhaps I would also want accident, health and fire insurance too. Meanwhile, Olinski had ordered drinks and pastry for us. Mona had left the table to engage the proprietress in conversation. In the midst of it a lawyer named Mannie Hirsch walked in–another friend of Arthur Raymond. He was passionate about music, and particularly passionate about Scriabin. It took Olinski, who had been drawn into the conversation against his will, quite a while to understand who it was we were talking about. When he learned that it was only a composer he showed profound disgust. Shouldn’t we go maybe to a quieter place, he wondered. I explained to him that that was impossible, that he should hurry up and explain everything to me quickly before we left. Mannie Hirsch hadn’t stopped talking from the time he sat down. Presently Olinski launched into his routine talk, switching from one policy to another; he had to talk quite loudly in order to drown out Mannie Hirsch’s voice. I listened to the two of them at the same time. Nahoum Yood was trying to listen with one ear cupped. Finally he broke into an hysterical fit of laughter. Without a word he began reciting one of his fables–in Yiddish. Still Olinski kept on talking, this time very low, but even faster than before, because every minute was precious. Even when the whole place began to roar with laughter Olinski kept on selling me one policy after another.
When I at last told him that I would have to think it over, he acted as if he had been mortally injured. “But I have explained everything clearly, Mr. Miller,” he whined.
“But I already have two insurance policies,” I lied.
“That’s all right,” he retorted, “We will cash them in and get better ones.”
“That’s what I want to think about,” I countered.
“But there is nothing to think about, Mr. Miller.”
“I’m not sure that I understood it all,” I said. ‘maybe you’d better come to my home tomorrow night,” and therewith I wrote down a false address for him.
“You’re sure you will be home, Mr. Miller?”
“If I’m not I will telephone.”
“But I have no telephone, Mr. Miller.”
“Then I will send you a telegram.”
“But I already made two appointments for tomorrow evening.”
“Then make it the next night,” I said, thoroughly unperturbed by all this palaver. “Or,” I added maliciously, “you could come to see me after midnight, if that’s convenient. We’re always up till two or three in the morning.”
“I’m afraid that would be too late,” said Olinski, looking more and more disconsolate.
“Well, let’s see,” I said, looking meditative and scratching my head. ‘supposing we meet right here a week from today? Say half-past nine sharp.”
“Not here, Mr. Miller, please.”
“O.K. then, wherever you like. Send me a post card in a day or so. And bring all the policies with you, yes?”
During this last chitchat Olinski had risen from the table and was holding my hand in parting. When he turned round to gather up his papers he discovered that Mannie Hirsch was drawing animals on them. Nahoum Yood was writing a poem–in Yiddish–on another. He was so disturbed by this unexpected turn of events that he began shouting at them in several languages at once. He was getting purple with rage. In a moment the bouncer, who was a Greek and ex-wrestler, had Olinski by the seat of the pants and was giving him the bum’s rush. The proprietress shook her fist in his face as he went through the doorway headfirst. In the street the Greek went through his pockets, extracted a few bills, brought them to the proprietress who made change for him and threw the remaining coins at Olinski who was now on his hands and knees, behaving as if he had the cramps.
“That’s a terrible way to treat a person,” said Mona.
“It is, but he seems to invite it,” I replied.
“You shouldn’t have egged him on–it was cruel.”
“I admit it, but he’s a pest. It would have happened anyway.” Thereupon I began to narrate my experience with Olinski. I explained how I had humored him by transferring him from one office to another. Everywhere it was the same story. He was always being abused and mistreated–”for no reason at all,” as he always put it. “They don’t like me there,” he would say.
“You don’t seem to be liked anywhere,” I finally told him one day. “Just what is it that’s eating you up?” I remember well the look he gave me when I fired that at him. “Come on,” I said, “tell me, because this is your last chance.”
To my amazement, here is what he said: ‘mr. Miller, I have too much ambition to make a good messenger. I should have a more responsible position. With my education I would make a good manager. I could save the company money. I could bring in more business, make things more efficient.”
“Wait a minute,” I interrupted. ‘don’t you know that you haven’t a chance in the world to become a manager of a branch office? You’re crazy. You don’t even know how to speak English, let alone those eight other languages you’re always talking about. You don’t know how to get along with your neighbor. You’re a nuisance, don’t you understand that? Don’t tell me about your grand ideas for the future” tell me just one thing” how did you happen to become what you are” such a damned unholy pest, I mean.”
Olinski blinked like an owl at this’ ‘mr. Miller,” he began, “you must know that I am a good person, that I try hard to’”
“Horseshit!” I exclaimed. “Now tell me honestly, why did you ever leave Tel Aviv?”
“Because I wanted to make something of myself, that’s the truth.”
“And you couldn’t do that in Tel Aviv–or Boulognesur-Mer?”
He gave a wry smile. Before he could put in a word I continued: ‘did you get along with your parents? Did you have any close friends there? Wait a minute” –I held up my hand to head off his answer–’did anybody in the whole world ever tell you that he liked you? Answer me that!”
He was silent. Not crushed, just baffled.
“You know what you should be?” I went on. “A stool pigeon.”
He didn’t know what the word meant. “Look,” I explained, “a stool pigeon makes his money by spying on other people, by informing on them–do you understand that?”
“And I should be a stool pigeon?” he shrieked, drawing himself up and trying to look dignified.
“Exactly,” I said, not batting an eyelash. “And if not that, then a hangman. You know” –and I made a grim circular motion with my hand–”the man who strings them up.”
Olinski put on his hat and made a few steps towards the door. Suddenly he wheeled around, walked calmly back to my desk. He took off his hat and held it with his two hands. “Excuse me,” he said, “but could I have another chance–in Harlem?” This in a tone of voice as if nothing untoward had occurred.
“Why certainly,” I replied briskly, “of course I’ll give you another chance, but it’s the last one, remember that. I’m beginning to like you, do you know that?”
This baffled him more than anything I had said before. I was surprised that he didn’t ask me why.
“Listen, Dave,” I said, leaning towards him as if I had something very confidential to propose, “I’m putting you in the worst office we have. If you can get along up there you will be able to get along anywhere. There’s one thing I have to warn you about” don’t start any trouble in that office or else” –and here I drew my hand across my throat–”you understand?”
“Are the tips good up there, Mr. Miller?” he asked, pretending not to be affected by my last remark.
“No one gives a tip in that neighborhood, my good friend. And don’t try to extract one either. Thank God each night when you go home that you’re still alive. We’ve lost eight messengers in that office in the last three years. Figure it out for yourself.”
Here I got up, grasped him by the arm and escorted him to the stairs. “Listen, Dave,” I said, as I shook hands with him, ‘maybe I’m a friend of yours and you don’t know it. Maybe you’ll thank me one day for putting you in the worst office in New York. You’ve got so much to learn that I don’t know what to tell you first. Above all, try to keep your mouth shut. Smile once in a while, even if it’s painful. Say thank you even if you don’t get a tip. Speak just one language and as little of that as possible. Forget about becoming a manager. Be a good messenger. And don’t tell people that you came from Tel Aviv because they won’t know what the hell you’re talking about. You were born in the Bronx, do you understand? If you can’t act decently, be a dope, a schlemihl, savvy? Here’s something to go to the movies with. See a funny picture for a change. And don’t let me hear from you again!”
Walking to the subway that night with Nahoum Yood brought back vivid memories of my midnight explorations with O’Rourke. It was to the East Side I always came when I wanted to be stirred to the roots. It was like coming home. Everything was familiar in a way beyond all knowing. It was almost as if I had known the world of the ghetto in a previous incarnation. The quality that got me most of all was the pullulation. Everything was struggling towards the light in glorious profusion. Everything burgeoned and gleamed, just as in the murky canvases of Rembrandt. One was constantly being surprised, often by the homeliest trifles. It was the world of my childhood wherein common everyday objects acquired a sacred character. These poor despised aliens were living with the discarded objects of a world which had moved on. For me they were living out a past which had been abruptly stifled. Their bread was still a good bread which one could eat without butter or jam. Their kerosene lamps gave their rooms a holy glow. The bed always loomed large and inviting, the furniture was old but comfortable. It was a constant source of wonder to me how clean and orderly were the interiors of these hideous edifices which seemed to be crumbling to bits. Nothing can be more elegant than a bare poverty-stricken home which is clean and full of peace. I saw hundreds of such homes in my search for vagrant boys. Many of these unexpected scenes we came upon in the dead of night were like illustrated pages from the Old Testament. We entered, looking for a delinquent boy or a petty thief, and we left feeling that we had broken bread with the sons of Israel. The parents had no knowledge whatever, usually, of the world which their children had penetrated in joining the messenger force. Hardly any of them had ever set foot in an office building. They had been transferred from one ghetto to another without even glimpsing the world in between. The desire sometimes seized me to escort one of these parents to the floor of an Exchange where he could observe his son running back and forth like a fire engine amid the wild pandemonium created by the crazy stockbrokers, an exciting and lucrative game which sometimes permitted the boy to make seventy-five dollars in a single week. Some of these “boys’ still remained boys though they had reached the age of thirty or forty and were the possessors, some of them, of blocks of real estate, farms, tenement houses or packs of gilt-edge bonds. Many of them had bank accounts running above ten thousand dollars. Yet they remained messenger boys, would remain messenger boys until they died.” What an incongruous world for an immigrant to be plunged into! I could scarcely make head or tail of it myself. With all the advantages of an American upbringing had I not (in my twenty-eighth year) been obliged to seek this lowest of all occupations? And was it not with extreme difficulty that I succeeded in earning sixteen or seventeen dollars a week? Soon I would be leaving this world to make my way as a writer, and as such I would become even more helpless than the lowliest of these immigrants. Soon I would be begging furtively in the streets at night, in the very purlieus of my own home. Soon I would be standing in front of restaurant windows, looking enviously and desperately at the good things to eat. Soon I would be thanking newsboys for handing me a nickel or a dime to get a cup of coffee and a cruller.
Yes, long before it came to pass I was thinking of just such eventualities. Perhaps the reason I loved the new love nest so much was because I knew it could not last for long. Our “Japanese” love nest, I called it. Because it was bare, immaculate, the low divan placed in the very center of the room, the lights just right, not one object too many, the walls glowing with a subdued velvety fire, the floor gleaming as if it had been scraped and polished every morning. Unconsciously we did everything in ritualistic fashion. The place impelled one to behave thus. Made for a rich man, it was tenanted by two devotees who had only an inner wealth. Every book on the shelves had been acquired with a struggle, devoured with gusto, and had enriched our lives. Even the tattered Bible had a history behind it.”