SOMETHING TO FALL BACK ON
When I was 17, I read a slender, poignant story by Katherine Mansfield that infuriated me. The story was Miss Brill, about an excruciatingly lonely old woman ridiculed by a couple of thoughtless youngsters. To my mind Katherine Mansfield was responsible for the old woman's pain she had done this to her. It never occurred to me the woman was just words, a character; she was real to me and I decided to give Miss Mansfield a scolding by letter. Then I discovered from the book jacket that she had been dead for some forty years. I was startled. To think that the words of a woman so long dead could reach beyond the grave to touch my heart. Neat trick. I decided that was what I wanted to do be a writer.
So I wrote a story. It was about a sad, lonely reclusive old woman named Florence who lives alone with her sister, Constance; then Constance dies and Florence has no one left; it is deep winter, and she goes to bed in their drafty old house without bothering to light the woodstove and freezes to death. The sisters had been victims of their father's concept of femininity which precluded them from acquiring the skills necessary to deal with the world.
My father read the story, and he said, Terrific! Later, I overheard him say to my oldest brother, That kid's got it! So I really was a writer maybe. Dad's only suggestion for amendment was to change my great-aunts' names. My father knew about literature. He was Vice President of a bank but was always reading, and he wrote poems, a couple of which had been published.
I sent my story to the Saturday Evening Post, and their printed rejection form confirmed my feeling that I really was a writer maybe. After all, it was a real rejection slip, thanking me for sending my work and regretting that they could not use it at this time but wishing me luck in placing it elsewhere. They didn't say anything like, You call this a story, you phony? Get real and give up fast, kid. This is bad writing.
So it was settled. I would be a writer. I practically already was a writer. I had read lots of books. Now I only had to write a few. Clearly, all my previous ideas about studying law, being an accountant, teaching were mere idle conjecture. I had found my life's work.
But you'll need something to fall back on, my father advised.
You could be a teacher and write during the summers, my mother suggested.
They didn't understand. They thought I should finish college. John Steinbeck didn't finish college. William Faulkner didn't finish college. J. D. Salinger and Jack Kerouac didn't finish college. For all I knew, my greatest of heroes, Fyodor Dostoevski, never finished college. In college you had to study boring subjects that just took time away from writing. Physics and history and economics and French.
What if you go to Europe someday? Wouldn't it be nice to be able to speak French?
They didn't understand anything!
I had a plan. I would take a leave of absence from college, get a job, save some money, and start working my way around the country, living in different towns, doing different jobs, meeting interesting people, and writing about my experiences. It would be like Adventures in Paradise or Route 66 on TV, but instead of solving mysteries, I would write fiction. My first semester at CCNY was almost over. I was keeping a journal which, my composition professor suggested, after a year or two might become a book. He was very old, and he liked me because I had studied Latin in high school, albeit involuntarily and with much help from a forbidden trot, and he encouraged me to read Graham Greene and Francois Mauriac and to write about questions of divine providence and Catholic faith. He even invited me home to see how a professor lived.
You sure he's all right? my father asked sternly.
In a few months, I would be 18, and I worked up the nerve to tell Dad my plan.
Okay, he said.
We'll try to help you as best we can.
Maybe he just figured I was hopeless. Or maybe he really thought I was right. Maybe he regretted his life working for the bank, making do with what little time he had to write poems in the evenings. In his whole life he'd only written maybe a hundred of them, only published two. He never had time to study literature. I remember feeling sad when I found out he had never even heard of T S Eliot. Actually I had only just heard of him myself, but still. I gave Dad Prufrock to read.
Terrific! he said, the man who had introduced me to Dostoevski and who never heard of Eliot, even fifty years after Prufrock was published, and who dreamed of being a poet.
Maybe he really believed I could achieve the dream. Maybe he had passed the dream on to me. What I couldn't know at the time was that my father had already destroyed his health with drink and cigarettes. He would be dead within three years. But he was only fifty-five then, and I had no idea.
In February 1962, I took my leave of absence and looked for a job so I could save up for my passage west. The classifieds were packed with jobs but they all required experience. The only experience I had was my high school afternoon job as a cobbler's helper for the local Greek shoemaker at one buck an hour off the books, but most of my experience there was sweeping up and listening to him and his Sicilian assistant discuss the women who came into the shop and asking me slyly, What you think, huh? I'd also had a summer job, procured by my father, as a messenger for Auchincloss, Redpath & Parker at 2 Broadway; there, among other things, I would fill the chromium water bottles of the partners before they came rolling in to their spacious offices high above New York harbor to begin buying and selling each day. I also sat in for the receptionist at lunchtime and was instructed to say we were not hiring if any coloreds came in asking for the personnel office. I lived in indignant fear of what I might do if any Negroes actually ever showed up. My plan was to deliver the message, but truthfully: They told me to say we're not hiring. The wise Negroes never appeared.
None of this much translated as experience. An employment agency sent me to the Bank of New York at 48 Wall Street where I excelled on the battery of multiple choice tests for the position of filing clerk. My father told me The Bank of New York was a very good bank. They put me to work sorting and filing documents in their stock transfer department. Everyday I filed hundreds of stock certificates and stock-transfer slips. The slips were small and white with a red, multi-digit number in the upper right hand corner. My job was to place them in numerical order. Each transfer slip was pinned or clipped to a stock certificate printed on a large colorful sheet of money-quality paper, representing shares in large corporations. The slips had to be unpinned or unclipped from the stock certificates and both had to be filled in cardboard boxes that lined a labyrinth of shelves. Then the pins and clips had to be sorted out from one another and recycled back into the system. I also filed dividend checks printed on IBM punchcards; they went into deep narrow metal drawers designed precisely for the purpose. The stock certificates were filed by date of transfer, but sometimes they were undated. My supervisor, Bob Grimaldi, a middle-aged Italian man with an underslung jaw, pencil moustache and pigeon toes, told me in that case simply to write current date on the transaction. It was weeks before I realized that he meant to write the actual current date, not the words current date. In a sweat, I pored through the files erasing those words and replacing them with a made-up date. The job was already involving some fiction writing.
Bob never noticed. He had other things on his mind. The air of the enormous landscape office was awash with lilting muzak melodies which gave one the impression of fairly dancing through the day. The department was filled with beautiful young women who would have been desirable dance partners but left me tongue-tied. Bob had no such problem. He used to go around holding a box of nut-filled dates concealed behind his back to single out one of the girls and ask, with an adoring smile, if she would like a date with a nut. And when she expressed her inevitable surprised disappointment with him Oh, Bob, and I thought you were such a nice man! -- he would proffer the box of dates and laugh with underslung glee and get a hug while I watched, envious of his corny prowess.
Riding the subway to Wall Street from Queens took 45 minutes each way. I used the time to read. I read during lunch hours, too, and in the evenings and on weekends. I read a lot. Four or five books a week. All of Sinclair Lewis and Aldous Huxley, all of Dostoevski and Steinbeck. I read hundreds of short stories and novellas and poems. T.S. Eliot and J. D. Salinger and Jack Kerouac. I read James Joyce and Harold Robbins, Franz Kafka and Jack London. Andre Gide, Albert Camus, Turgenev, John O'Hara, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, James Jones, James Gould Cozzens, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Dylan Thomas, William Goldman and William Golding. My reading was, you might say, eclectic and undirected.
My weekly salary was sixty dollars gross, forty-eight net. I gave my mother five dollars a week and was able to save about twenty. Then I turned eighteen, which was the legal drinking age in New York at the time, and started frequenting Walter P. Sheas Bar & Grill where some of my friends spent their evenings drinking tap beer at fifteen cents a glass. I walked in on my birthday and ordered a beer, and the tough Irish bartender glowered at me. You're not eighteen! I whipped out my birth certificate, and he studied it, looked at me with rueful disgust, Eighteen today and drinking already. Get out! But I persisted and got the beer. I also got a driving permit and thought about how inspiring it would be for me as a writer to have a car so I could drive around and observe things and maybe attract some female company. For seventy-five dollars, I bought a brown '54 Pontiac whose incipient fins had been adorned with Imperial tail lights. I took my Ponty out on an unposted strip of the Long Island Expressway to see how fast it would go and got it up to ninety-five miles an hour before the engine blew. When you fall off a horse you've got to get right back on, so for another 150 bucks (a yard and a half we used to call that sum), I replaced the Pontiac with a peppy little '53 Olds. It was faster than the Pontiac. I cranked the needle up to a shaving past 100 before the engine threw a rod on the expressway. I got five dollars apiece from the junkyard for the two car husks, and the money went right into my savings.
In those days you got an actual bankbook with a savings account. Mine showed deposits of twenty a week for twelve weeks, then withdrawals of seventy-five and 150, followed by deposits of five and five, leaving a balance, as my summer of freedom approached, of twenty-five dollars.
Not even enough for a one-way bus ticket to California, let alone to set myself up there while I found work. Then I heard about the U.S. Foreign Service, how they would send you around the world, even a file clerk. I had read Gide and Camus and Mauriac. Maybe I would get posted in France or North Africa, drink tea in the medina, live like M. Meursault. I passed the State Department file-clerk test and was interviewed. The interviewer asked many questions about my sex life. Had I ever had normal sexual relations with a woman, abnormal sexual relations with a woman, sexual relations with a man (all of which were abnormal), sexual relations with an animal (which were unspeakable)? He seemed unhappy to have to ask these things, but explained that the questions were important because if you had abnormal sexual habits you would be tender prey for communists trying to get state secrets from the files you would be responsible for. He told me it was unusual that I had never had normal sexual relations with a woman, but because I had never had sexual relations with a man or an animal and was only eighteen, the situation was not yet abnormal. If I were twenty-one, however, it might be abnormal unless, of course, my reason was that I had religious convictions.
Religious convictions, I lied.
Furthermore, I was well qualified for a job as a filing clerk, but wouldn't be eligible for a foreign posting until I was twenty-one presumably, however, conditional on my having had sexual relations with a woman, though not with a man or an animal, between now and then. I wondered how the situation would be defined if all I managed between now and then were abnormal sexual relations with a woman. I didn't even know quite what that was, but was pretty sure I wanted it.
By then I would probably have been drafted anyway. So I rode the El train to Long Island City and told the great big black woman there that I wanted to push up my draft. Honey, we don't be pushing nothin' up here! You mean you want to apply to be called. That worked. Within a couple of weeks I received a telegram from the President of the United States sending greetings and ordering me to report. Scotch-taped to the telegram was a subway token to get me to the Whitehall Street Induction Station. One token.
After basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, I was sent for AIT (Advanced Individual Training) to TAGSUSA (The Adjutant General's School, United States Army) to learn my MOS (Military Occupational Specialty). My experience as a file clerk apparently made me an attractive candidate for the stenography school there. I felt like a traitor to my sex, particularly given my recently-revealed, dicey sexual normality, but my father was enthusiastic.
Stenography is an excellent skill for a man to have, he told me.
My mother said, Do you remember Mr Wall? He started as a stenographer and worked his way up to become Secretary-Treasurer of Borden's Milk!
You get to sit in on important meetings and learn the company's confidential dealings, my father added.
In the Army I continued to do a lot of reading and maintain my journal. I even wrote a few stories, and I saw a number of cities Indianapolis, Indiana; Fort Lee, Virginia; Alexandria, Virginia; even Washington, D.C. where I was assigned to the Executive Office Building at the White House for a while (I was, I regretted, really good at stenography), but on the pay of a PFC, the adventurous, fiction-fueling experiences I hungered for seemed constantly to elude me. In my free time I rode buses into town and wandered the streets to experience life. I remember being propositioned by bus station pimps and, once, outside the Soldier's & Sailor's Monument in Indianapolis, by a very visibly pregnant young woman from Kentucky who asked me to buy her a glass of milk, and being fleeced on another occasion by fortune tellers in a gypsy storefront. But usually I ended up at the Armed Forces Service Club where kindly, elderly women served coffee and home-baked cookies and I read the stories in back issues of The New Yorker. Or I drank bottles of cheap port with my buddy Ben who was an intellectual and introduced me to Thomas Wolfe and to ideas such as that the intelligence of porpoises might exceed that of homo sapiens and that the American way of life was of questionable validity.
He was six years older than I, black Irish, lean as a hobo with a ruddy-faced sardonic grin. One evening after our second bottle of Wild Irish Rose port wine, he told me that he had done time in jail. He dared me to ask him what for, but cautioned me he would despise me for knowing.
What? I thought. Murder? Rape? Assault? I said I'd rather not know, and he laughed his dark sardonic chipped-tooth laughter and passed the port.
In this way, time passed until 1964 when I was discharged as a PFC with no distinction beyond a marksman's medal and a certificate of excellence in stenography. I was determined to get an interesting job and save enough on top of my separation pay to get me out to California where Ben was studying social anthropology at Berkeley and participating in the Fuck, Verb movement there. The New York job pickings were slim. All I was offered was work as a stenographer.
Remember Mr Wall at Borden's! my parents urged me. Stenography is really something to fall back on!
Actually I had been hoping to lunge forward, but back I fell. After half a year doing shorthand for the Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Authority on Randall's Island (where Robert Moses was God and the personnel were bussed into Harlem for lunch each day a half chicken and two glasses of draft beer for forty-five cents at a bar & grill on Lex and 125th, I had saved enough to take off on a Trailways Bus headed as far west as the continent extended.
At last my life as a writer had begun. For 72 hours, I sat by the bus window with my journal in my lap and watched the country rolling up to meet me. I wrote notes about everything, the people on the bus with their pocket pints and missing teeth, mutterers and lonely Dostoevskian mothers with infant babies, discharged soldiers and released prisoners got on and off while the snowy blacktop of Route 66 unfurled beneath our wheels, roaring through all the places the Rolling Stones would be singing about two years later, the bus station lunch counters and roadside cafés, iron donkey oil pumps bobbing up and down on the flats of Oklahoma, mysterious quiet Indians in lumberjackets on dark Flagstaff streetcorners, shooting stars in the sky over New Mexico and Arizona, morning sun illuminating eerie desert shapes, the strong brown god of the Colorado River!
My first stop was in Long Beach, California, to visit a girl I knew who'd moved there and, two months before my 2st birthday, I had both normal and abnormal sexual relations with one of her girlfriends, securing a possible future with the State Department. From Long Beach I hitch-hiked north through places whose names reeled past like poetry Oxnard, Santa Barbara, Pismo Beach, Arroyo Grande, San Luis Obispo, San Simeon, through Big Sur, even more beautiful than Kerouac or Henry Miller ever described it! I spent my 21st birthday in a sleeping bag alongside the Big Sur River, wondering if there were bears. On through Steinbeck country, Salinas and Monterey, and up through Santa Cruz which sounded like a movie, to San Francisco where Ben, now married with an infant daughter, helped me find a tiny studio room on Mariposa for forty dollars a month. For another five a month, I rented a Smith Corona manual typewriter and started typing up my journals to see if they were a novel while I looked for work. I couldn't find anything.
As my money dwindled, I sponged off Ben and his wife Vickie in their apartment on Prospect. Vickie fed me hamburger stew and pickled pumpkin rinds, and one evening while the three of us sat over a gallon jug of Mountain Red, Ben asked if I remembered the night in the army when he challenged me to ask about his crime. How could I have forgotten? He told me that the night before he and Vickie got married, he'd extended the same challenge to her, and she answered as I had. But after the baby was born, she woke him one night and demanded to know. He told her: he had been arrested when he was 17 years old in a parked car on a dark street wearing his sister's clothes. The laws were such at that time that it was up to the judge whether or not to release Ben's name to the press. The judge chose to do so. Ben lived with his family in a small town; he had no real option but to leave.
So what do you think? he asked with his sardonic smile. I shrugged. I'm surprised. It's pretty strange. But it doesn't make me want to puke or anything.
Vickie said, I just can't bear it. What thrilled me about Ben was his masculinity. It just all seems like such a lie now. I can't bear it.
My money continued to dwindle. I wandered North Beach, nosed around Fisherman's Wharf and City Lights, listened to Ferlinghetti and Rexroth recite their ironies of American life to the Jazz Cellar background rhythm, ate a lot of rice and popcorn and fried onions. One afternoon sitting morosely in a sloppy-counter diner over one of those endless cups of California coffee, I got talking with a waitress who, when she heard I had a typewriter and knew short-hand and could write, hired me to write letters to the government for her. She wanted me to help her convince the selective service authorities that they had illegally drafted her son who was not yet twenty-one and thus not of legal age. She paid me a dollar a letter. I could eat for two days on a dollar or buy a gallon of wine or 12 cans of generic beer, but there were just so many letters and so many dollars involved, and soon I was broke.
Back to New York on my thumb most of the trip in a '55 Ford with a hook-and-eye latched side door, driven by a middle-aged guy named Al who had been ordered out of California by a judge as part of his divorce settlement; he was headed back home to his mother in Indianapolis, and I was headed to mine in Jackson Heights. This time I surrendered without a struggle. Free-falling back on stenography, I got work at an import-export company named Epic, Inc. on Nassau Street, owned by two expatriate Czechoslovakians. There, in the agreeably noir, dim and dingy offices, the chain-smoking vice president, Mr. Lettica, dictated to me all morning letters about the calibrations of technical devices of which I had no understanding, and I typed them up all afternoon on an IBM selectric. Like Al and Jack Kerouac, I lived with my saintly, uncomplaining, recently-widowed mother and saved until I had enough for another Trailways ticket to the coast with a little left over to live on. When the money ran out, I returned by thumb to New York to fall back again and type more letters for Mr Lettica or for Marsden Offset Printing on West Broadway in the East Village, run by a sexy divorced woman named Claire, or an array of others, a tuna boat company in Ocean Beach, the San Diego School System, more places than I can remember even a stint as a Kelly Girl, writing letters for hotel guests. I shall never forget the poor diamond merchant who had me write a letter for him to his wife's psychiatrist, imploring her shrink to convince her to stop making him sleep in the bathtub. I think all he really wanted was to tell his story to somebody; afterwards, he thanked me warmly and tucked ten bucks into my breast pocket.
My life continued in this way for several years, back and forth and around the United States, falling back again and again on my stenographic skills. The summer of love came and went in fact, it seemed to have been gone before it ever even had a name. I memorized all the lyrics to all of Bob Dylan's songs and accumulated valuable experiences like smoking pot (and inhaling), dropping acid (and hallucinating), eating meth-amphetamine (and learning the depths of disconsolate misery that followed its ecstatic heights).
I suppose I was trying to find the action, the real action, but always had the feeling that I barely just had hold of the fringe on a buckskin sleeve. My communes never seemed like real communes, my hippie chicks (few as they were) never seemed like real hippie chicks, even my anti-Vietnam protests hardly felt authentic. Even when, drunk to my socks, I walked on the outer ledges of the roof of my six-storey apartment building, dangling out over thin air, I didn't feel as though I were really touching nihilism. Even on those couple of occasions when pistols were shoved into my face, I didn't feel as though I were really on the edge well, the time I looked into the barrel of a .45, I did surmise from the size of the bore that it might be serious. But it was no more real than the narrow escape at the Mexican border with bennies stuffed into my underpants or the from the Arizona State Trooper with joints in my socks or the flipped Ford on the snowy roads of Ohio, followed by the all-night diner harassment by long-hair hating rednecks or the whisky-pint passing crooks that picked me up on an icy road toward Detroit. My experiences never seemed like the experiences Kerouac described, although in fact they probably were, just as basically dreary. I felt as though I were too young to be a beatnik and too old to be a hippie. Another illusion. This was the action, but all I really wanted now was a warm and clean well-lighted place.
One desperate night in San Francisco, clinging in my mind to the Fitzgerald litany about the real test of a first-rate intelligence when it is three in the morning and you've forgotten to pick up a package at the post office, sliding down into the valley of meth, I wrapped myself in a blanket and slept, shivering, for twenty-four hours tucked against the blazing heater of a dollar-a-night Mission Street hotel room. Next day I woke and it was still dark, or dark again, and the attaché case in which was locked virtually everything I had written since I was 17 had been stolen by some poor junkie who thought it contained something of value. All of it gone, including my magnum opus, a 48-page novella entitled The Sternwheel, based on an acid vision, most of my journals and notebooks, perhaps a dozen stories, even including that very first story, Florence, which my now dead father had said was terrific. These were, of course, the only copies of everything in those pre-computer days when making a carbon copy was something which, like Bartleby, one preferred not to.
I was sad, even if it was, in retrospect, not much of a loss really. There seemed then nothing left to do. I got a haircut and I fell back into college, a 25-year-old freshman. I also fell back into a stenography job to finance the remainder of my education and through that job finally worked my way up, just as my parents had predicted, to the equivalent of a job as Secretary-Treasurer of Borden's Milk.
My father and mother had been right all along. Stenography really was something to fall back on. It had saved my butt through thin and thick and ultimately opened doors that opened doors that opened other, more interesting doors. Really it was all just a matter of time, and time had been on my side. Everything is just a matter of time. As Eliot suggested, It would be the same at the end of the journey
If you came by day not knowing what you came for
And what you thought you came for is only a shell, a husk of meaning
And it only took me twenty years from that Katherine Mansfield day to publish my first story, another seven to publish my first novel, another dozen or so to publish the next fifteen or so books. Not a moment too soon. And it was, you may say, satisfactory.
So my advice to any young writer is to find something to fall back on. I understand, however, that stenography is now an obsolete skill so you'll probably have to find something else. Good luck, and try to have fun.
THOMAS E. KENNEDY's books include novels, story and essay collections and literary criticism. His most recent volumes are the four novels of The Copenhagen Quartet: (Kerrigan's Copenhagen, 2002; Bluett's Blue Hours, 2003; Greene's Summer, 2004; and Breathwaite's Fall, 2005; all published by Wynkin de Worde: www.deworde.com), an essay collection on the craft of fiction, Realism & Other Illusions (Wordcraft of Oregon, 2002), and a collection of travel essays co-written with Walter Cummins, The Literary Traveler (DelSol Press, 2005).
[copyright 2005, Thomas E. Kennedy]