Posts Tagged ‘Seventeen’

My Big Trip, Part Two

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2013)

“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” Tim Cahill

Staying with friends was the only way I could afford to make my trip to New York in 1976 last more than a week or so, and I wanted to stay in or near Manhattan for at least three weeks. When I left for New York, I thought I had two places to stay, one in Newark, New Jersey with Dan and Janka, and one on West 83rd Street in Manhattan with Scott and Richard, but when Janka’s mother learned I was planning to stay in the area for several weeks, she invited me to use the guest room in her apartment on West 94th Street, three blocks from Central Park.

When I tell longtime New Yorkers where I stayed in 1976, the usual reaction to West 83rd Street is, “A bit edgy in those days, but not terrible,” while the take on West 94th is, “I hope you didn’t walk around alone at night.” By 1983, the last year I visited New York, West 83rd had become a chichi high rent neighborhood and West 94th was considered relatively safe, but in 1976 Richard and Scott’s old apartment building on West 83rd was guarded by a big Puerto Rican guy armed with a baseball bat and West 94th…

Imagine dusk descending in early October as young Todd enters Central Park at West 96th with the intention of walking across the park to meet a friend on the Upper East Side. A few hundred yards into the park, Todd notices two things: the back of his neck is tingling and the park is completely deserted. He walks a bit farther, but stops when his heart begins to pound and he has the distinct feeling he is being watched. At which moment, a police car comes rolling toward him on the wide asphalt path. Todd steps to one side, the squad car stops beside him, and the driver’s window sinks down a few inches so the officers might converse with our quaking traveler.

“Where you goin’?” asks the officer behind the wheel, a portly middle-aged guy.

“I’m meeting a friend on East 85th,” Todd replies, smiling wanly. “Is this not a good idea, walking across the park here?”

“Indeed,” says the officer, nodding. “Not good.”

“Not good at all,” says the other officer, shaking his head. “Where you from, champ?”

“Oregon,” says Todd, hoping the officers will transport him to safety.

“Well,” says the officer behind the wheel, “we’ve had some muggings around here recently. Exactly right here, in fact. Yesterday. So we encourage you to exit the park and take the subway or a cab to meet your friend.”

“Can you guard me until I get out?” Todd asks, nodding hopefully.

The officers exchange smiles and the guy behind the wheel says, “Sure. We’ll follow you out. How about that?”

 “One of the great things about travel is that you find out how many good, kind people there are.” Edith Wharton

Janka’s mother (I will call her M) was a most serious person, her pretty face carved by worry and suffering. She was a medical doctor working in a hospital in a part of Harlem so dangerous she had to be escorted to and from her taxi by armed guards; and how she came to be a doctor was a most incredible story. When she was a teenager living in a small town in Poland, the German army invaded her country, and as the German soldiers approached her town she fled on foot in the direction of Russia, following the railroad tracks. As she ran, a slow moving Russian-bound train overtook her, the cars full of wounded Russian soldiers. A nurse on the train, a young Polish woman, knew M and urged her to jump onboard, which M did.

“Now,” said M’s friend, “you must pretend you are a nurse or they will throw you off. I will show you what to do.”

“And,” said M, telling me her story thirty-seven years after jumping on that train, “by the time we got to Russia, I was a nurse, learning what to do as we went along.”

M was given more formal medical training in Russia and sent to work in a Leningrad hospital, arriving shortly before the German and Finnish armies laid siege to the city, a terrible siege that lasted nine hundred days and resulted in the deaths of more than 600,000 people.

“Many days,” said M, heaping my plate with food, “we had nothing to eat. We would make soup of hot water and anything we could find to put in, sometimes a potato, sometimes nothing but onion peel. We all expected to die. We were living skeletons. To this day I don’t know how I survived.”

When the war ended, M attended medical school in the Soviet Union and then returned to Poland to find that the Germans had killed every member of her family—grandparents, parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, and cousins. She practiced medicine and married a man who became a well-known economist. They had two children, Janka and Helena, and during a brief political thaw, so-called, in the 1960’s, M divorced her husband and immigrated to the United States with her teenaged daughters.

My first evening with M, she cooked enough food for ten. “I know, I know,” she said apologetically, “I have problem with food. I buy more than I need, I cook more than I need, but…when you starve for so many months and years, well…”

I liked M very much and I liked hearing her stories of life in Poland and Russia and America, and I liked her guest room and the fabulous food she served me, but I had to leave after three nights with her because she was miserable when I didn’t have supper with her, and she would wait up for me because she was worried about my safety.

On the second night I stayed with M, I came home after midnight and found her cooking up a storm. “I made nice roast and mashed potatoes and green beans and chocolate cake. You are hungry, yes?”

“Actually, I’m stuffed,” I said, hating to disappoint her. “And I’m exhausted, so…”

“Oh, stay up a little while, please? Talk to me. Have something to eat. I want to hear about your day. Did you go to Museum of Modern Art?”

So we stayed up until two, and before she left for work early the next morning, she wrote me a long note describing what she was cooking for supper, though I had told her I was dining with friends. And when I came home that night, she was waiting for me with mountains of food and insisting I eat and stay up with her; and if I hadn’t already made other plans, I might have stayed with her for weeks and months and grown tremendously fat, but that was not why I thought I had come to New York.

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” Martin Buber

I thought I had come to New York to immerse myself in what I imagined would be a scintillating literary scene, and to make friends with other people passionate about writing. So when my agent Dorothy Pittman invited me to a party at her Greenwich Village pad and said she had invited writers and editors and theater people, I felt certain I was about to walk through some magic portal into a world I had long dreamed of inhabiting.

This would also be my first meeting with Dorothy in the flesh, though we had spoken on the phone and exchanged many letters. I had no idea what she looked like, this being long before the advent of computers and Google and sending photos in emails; and I’m fairly certain Dorothy didn’t know what I looked like either, so there was excitement about that, too—finally laying eyes on the great advocate of my writing.

Dorothy’s husband John—a handsome man recently transplanted from California—answered the door and ushered me into their crowded little flat, the air dense with cigarette smoke. “How you holding up?” he asked, giving me a knowing smile. “This city can knock the shit out of you.”

Which was true. I’d only been there five days and I was totally worn out and longing to do nothing but sleep for a day or two.

And here was Dorothy, tall and slender with short silvery hair and shining eyes—a radiant being illumined from within—beaming with pleasure. “Well there you are,” she said with her marvelous Georgia drawl. “I am so happy to see you.”

She took my hand and led me into their little living room and introduced me to the dozen or so men and women gathered there—every last one of them smoking a cigarette—and I was sure I was going to pass out from lack of air. But worse than the smoke was how deeply uninteresting I found these people—save for Dorothy—and how obviously disinterested they were in me, so that when the party was over, I rode the subway back to M’s place feeling downright sad.

Nearly all the talk had been about money and who had gotten how much of an advance and how much someone else hoped to get for an advance and how big a paperback sale someone else had made; and when they weren’t talking about advances and sales they were talking about, I kid you not, cigarettes and where they bought them and how they were going to quit smoking or how they had given up trying to quit smoking—and nary a word about the books and plays I hoped they were writing or reading, works of divine imagination that had conquered their psyches and taken over their lives.

“A wise traveler never despises his own country.” William Hazlitt

The next day I had lunch with my editor from Seventeen magazine in a swank restaurant a few blocks from the towering office building wherein Seventeen shared a floor with TV Guide, both magazines owned by the same massive media conglomerate—our lunch costing that conglomerate more than I spent on groceries in a month. My editor was an attractive, fast-talking woman with short blond hair who surprised me with a beautiful color proof of the delightful illustration for my upcoming Christmas story.

“Everyone loves your story,” she gushed. “Isn’t this picture a knockout?”

“I love it,” I said, glad I didn’t have to lie. “Perfect.”

“So, listen,” she said, taking a deep breath, “there was a problem with space. Some big last minute ads came in so…I had to do a little cutting. On your story.”

“Oh, well I’m sure…”

“Just eighty lines,” she said, smiling and wincing simultaneously. “I don’t think the cuts really hurt the story, maybe rushed things a little here and there, but…”

“Eighty lines? How many words in a line?”

“Six to eight,” she said, giggling nervously. “I took out about, oh…six hundred words, but it’s still great. You’ll see.”

“Out of three thousand?” I was incredulous. “How could…” And then I caught myself, remembering how lucky I was to be published at all. “I’m sure you did a fine job. Can’t wait to see it.”

After lunch we returned to Seventeen and a young intern took me on a tour of the editorial offices. The intern turned out to be Howard Cosell’s daughter (you remember Howard Cosell, the famous sports journalist); and she did, indeed, look very much like her father. We peeked into the mail room where two young women were rifling through the several hundred unsolicited manuscripts they received each week, and then we came to a big room where the magazine was laid out (remember these were pre-computer days) and I was amazed to see the walls adorned with dozens of lascivious photos of scantily clad young women in highly suggestive poses—outtakes from Seventeen fashion shoots—worthy of the most risqué Playboy spreads. Now there was a bestseller waiting to happen: Nasty Seventeen.

“To travel is to take a journey into yourself.” Danny Kaye

On my sixth day in Manhattan, I went to stay with Scott and Richard in their commodious rent controlled apartment on West 83rd Street, Scott being one of my very best friends since Fourth Grade, Richard his longtime partner. In 1976 Scott had yet to come out as a gay man to any of his old friends or to his parents and siblings who lived on the West Coast, though I had known he was gay since we were teenagers, and I am fairly certain he knew I knew. Even so, this was a big deal, my staying with them and being shown that they shared a bed and the physical intimacies of a sexual couple.

When I set my suitcase down in their living room and Scott dashed to his grand piano and started playing Willkommen from Cabaret and belting out those welcoming words in his best imitation of Ethel Merman, I felt I had finally and truly arrived in the Big Apple.

My Big Trip, Part One

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2013)

“To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan but also believe.” Anatole France

In 1976, when I was twenty-six and working as a landscaper in southern Oregon, my big dream was go to New York and meet my literary agent Dorothy Pittman for the first time, and also say hello to the magazine editors at Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, and Gallery who had bought my short stories; and to rub shoulders, I hoped, with others of my kind. For those of you unfamiliar with Gallery, it was a low rent offshoot of Penthouse with lots of raunchy photos of naked women and quasi-pornographic letters-to-the-editor and the occasional marvelous short story by Todd Walton. I was somewhat embarrassed to have my stories therein, but thrilled to be paid for my writing.

Standing in the way of my dream was lack of cash. When I worked as a landscaper, I made six dollars an hour, which was good pay for physical labor in those days, but the work was sporadic and I often made just enough to cover my rent and groceries. Then one day my boss called to say he’d landed a contract to landscape both sides of a freeway overpass in Medford and would need me fulltime for two months, and since it was a state job he was required to pay me ten dollars an hour. So I moved out of my room in Ashland and into a bunkhouse adjacent to my boss’s house in Medford where I could live for free and only have to pay for food. I figured to clear over three thousand dollars and be able to fly to the Big Apple instead of hitchhiking. Little did I know the job would last three months and not only finance my trip to New York, but also keep me solvent for the next two years.

“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” Martin Luther King

I remember two things most vividly about those three summer months of landscaping that gargantuan freeway overpass—the remarkable increase in my physical strength, and the heartbreaking young prostitute who worked the northbound on-ramp from early afternoon and into the night.

I dug over eighteen-hundred-feet of deep ditch by hand, and I climbed up and down steep inclines carrying heavy loads for hours on end, six days a week. I went from being a trim 165 pounds to a heavily muscled 180, and by the end of that job I could pick up a ninety-pound sack of cement as if it was a modest bag of groceries. I slept the sleep of the dead from eight every evening until my boss roused me at six every morning, except on Sundays when I would sleep into the afternoon.

And every day that beautiful young woman with long auburn hair would come walking up the hill from the Motel Six—strong and graceful—dressed as the college girl she was pretending to be, with sensible shoes and long stockings and a knee-length skirt, a well-ironed blouse, and a sweater to match her skirt, her hair in a ponytail. She carried a notebook and what looked like a textbook to complete her disguise, and she did not hold out her thumb to simulate hitchhiking, but simply stood there waiting—and she rarely waited more than half-an-hour before a car or pickup truck would stop beside her, the driver—almost always a single man—would roll down his passenger window, and the young woman would come closer to talk business. And sometimes the young woman would get in the car and drive with her client down onto the freeway and have him take the next exit and circle back to the Motel Six, and sometimes the client would drive away without her and she would walk down the hill to meet him at the motel, and sometimes the man was dissatisfied with the price or whatever limitations she imposed, and he would drive away and she would resume her waiting.

We were intrigued by her, my fellow workers and I, and when we’d take breaks for snacks or lunch, if she was waiting there, we would offer her a cookie or a drink of water or a handful of nuts (no pun intended), and sometimes she would graciously accept, and sometimes she would politely decline. And one time our boss brought us cheeseburgers and fries and shakes from the nearby MacDonald’s, and when we told our girl we had more than we could eat, she sauntered across the road and ate a quick lunch with us.

“You guys are great,” she said, revealing a slight lisp and a sweet southern accent. “I like having you nearby. Makes me feel safe.”

To which I wanted to reply, “How can you ever feel safe having sex with strangers, so many strangers, so many men you know nothing about?” But I was speechless standing close to her, marveling at her beauty and bravery, so I said nothing and spent those moments memorizing her face and figure so I might never forget her.

“What things are the poem?” D.R. Wagner

About a month into the freeway job, Dorothy Pittman called to say my editor at Seventeen wanted to commission a Christmas story for which she would pay me five hundred dollars. She needed a three-thousand-word story as soon as possible, and I almost declined because I was so tired every day from my physical labors I didn’t see how I could muster the strength to write anything good. But I didn’t want to burn that little publishing bridge, so I accepted the commission and hoped for the best.

Now one thing about ditch digging, especially the digging of very long ditches, is that the mind is largely free while the body works, and so I used that laboring time to tell myself Christmas stories until one of the stories took hold; and then I told the story over and over to myself through the hours and days of digging, refining the tale with every telling until I had each descriptive passage and every line of dialogue just as I wanted them, the story memorized. And on a Sunday afternoon I typed the whole thing up, shipped the manuscript to New York the next day, and thought no more about it.

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

I decided to visit family and friends in and around San Francisco before flying off to New York in mid-September. Weary of hitchhiking, and feeling flush, I took the Greyhound bus, which in those days was an inexpensive and relatively comfortable way to travel, with stations and stops in thousands of towns and cities where today the buses no longer go.

My companion for eight hours of the ten-hour journey was a roly-poly guy in desperate need of a bath. He was forty-something with a baby face and curly brown hair and crooked brown teeth. He wore shiny brown polyester slacks, a faded T-shirt featuring green parrots, and red high-top tennis shoes. After we introduced ourselves and I learned he would be getting off in Sacramento, he launched into a discourse on the origin of humans on earth, his voice gruff, his narrative punctuated by bouts of coughing and chuckling.

“So the smartest advisor to these highly civilized aliens on a planet way over there says to the emperor, ‘Sire, all these barbarians do is kill and kill, no matter what we do, your lordship, and so I ask you to let me transport them to the planet of the dinosaurs where they will be eaten.’ But then the dinosaurs got zapped by a meteor and humans bred like gerbils and…here we are.”

“Could those aliens who brought humans here,” I inquired, “travel faster than the speed of light?”

“Of course,” he said, nodding emphatically. “Through molecular reconfiguring. The military sees their ships all the time with infrared fiber optics, but they don’t want regular people to know about the aliens because the government is a front for the secret warrior clan that has ruled the world since before the Pharaohs and are at war with the aliens.” He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. “As a matter-of-fact, the aliens gave me mathematical proof of molecular reconfiguration in my dream. The equation is X over Real Time minus the Weight to Mass ratio per pound of Nega-Gravity doubling in Reversed Space in which slow is fast and vice-versa.”

“Nega-gravity? How…”

“I went to a psychic once,” he said, interrupting me, “and she said the main obstacle to my happiness is my mind and the gateway to freedom is to tell the world my dreams.” He closed his eyes and sighed heavily. “I haven’t slept in a couple weeks because they follow me everywhere since I got back from Vietnam because they know I know about their secret operations, so I’m gonna take a little nap and talk more later. Okay?”

To my great relief, he slept the rest of the way to Sacramento, waking when the bus driver announced, “This is Sac-ra-mento. We’ll be stopping here for fifteen minutes before continuing to San Francisco.”

“Do you remember the four things I told you?” asked my odiferous companion as he got his battered suitcase down from the overhead rack.

“Tell me again,” I said, smiling up at him.

“Acceptance, forgiveness, love and logic,” he said, frowning gravely. “These must be taught through all the media to ignite a revolution of thought to repel the forces of darkness.”

“Amen,” I said. “Safe travels.”

“Won’t help,” he said grimly. “I’m destined to meet the warlocks. Any day now.”

“What does it mean to pre-board? Do you get on before you get on?” George Carlin

My United Airlines flight to Newark, New Jersey was scheduled to lift off from San Francisco at midnight, but a few minutes before takeoff we were herded off the jet and told we would have to wait for another jet to arrive from Los Angeles because our first jet was experiencing mechanical difficulties. Thus we did not take off until three in the morning, and shortly thereafter my seven-mile-high snooze was interrupted by the announcement that “we will be landing in Chicago at O’Hare Airport in fifteen minutes where this flight will terminate.”

“Excuse me,” I said, trying not to panic as I hailed a stewardess. “I thought this flight was going to Newark, New Jersey. That’s what my ticket says and I’ve got a friend waiting for me there.”

“Sorry,” she said with a pleasant shrug, “they’ll fix you up with a new flight once we’re on the ground.”

O’Hare Airport is as big as a medium-sized city with myriad terminals located miles apart from each other, or so it was in 1976. When I was informed by the harried person at the United Airlines counter that if I wanted to continue to Newark I could do so on an American Airlines jet leaving in twelve hours or I could do what most of my fellow travelers were doing and change my flight to some other New York or East Coast destination. But since I was bound for New Jersey to stay with my friends Dan and Janka, and not being a savvy air traveler, I took the ticket he gave me and set out on the long trek across O’Hare with the intention of bivouacking at the appropriate American Airlines boarding gate until summoned to board.

Then a funny thing happened, and by funny I mean odd and perplexing. As I entered the vast American Airlines Terminal, I looked up at one of the many television monitors announcing flight arrivals and departures, and I noticed one of the departure announcements was blinking to indicate that flight would be departing in just a few minutes. And the number of the blinking flight was the number of the flight I had been told would be leaving in twelve hours—destination Newark, New Jersey.

So I ran as fast as I could for a good half-mile, thankful to be in such superlative condition from three months of grueling physical labor under the hot Oregon sun, and I arrived with my briefcase and knapsack at the appropriate boarding gate just as a dapper fellow in an American Airlines uniform was about to close the double doors to the ramp leading down to the soon-to-depart 747. He took my ticket, pulled off the appropriate pages, and sent me down the ramp to a smiling stewardess who ushered me into the virtually empty jumbo jet, empty save for me, four other passengers, the pilot and co-pilot, two stewards and five stewardesses.

Now that was a fun flight. Once we had attained cruising altitude above a vast sea of snowy white clouds, a stewardess invited the five passengers to move up to the First Class section—my one and only experience of such airborne luxury. We dined lavishly, were taken into the cockpit to say hello to the pilot and co-pilot, and I enjoyed a rousing game of Hearts with three of the stewardesses. Everyone was curious as to why I alone of the hundreds of United Airlines passengers had made it onto that jumbo jet that had been called up expressly to take us (and our hundreds of pieces of luggage) on the second leg of our journey to New Jersey.

And I said, “Just lucky I guess,” though in truth I felt angels were actively taking care of me.