Monday, December 31, 2012

December 31, 2012--No Way to Run Things

Senator Rand Paul is right about at least one thing--as quoted in the New York Times, about Congress, he said, "This is no way to run things."

He wasn't referring to the gridlock he and his Republican colleagues have perpetrated in order to undermine President Obama's agenda or to attempt to eliminate government altogether as his anarchist spiritual mentor Ayn Rand advocated. He was referring to the audacity of Majority Leader Harry Reid calling the Senate back into session, back to work, interrupting their Christmas-New Years vacation.

After all, six or seven congressional vacations a year are not enough for these civic servants of the people. Isn't working 170 days a year more than enough for members of Congress? It should be, considering they have important things to do back home.

In Rand Paul's case, again from the Times, frustrated, "He checked off the various backyard sports he longed to be playing with his children: football, soccer, and some golf." What a wonderful father.

In the meantime, those Americans who do not have a backyard large enough for football or soccer are worried about how they will pay their bills while Congress frolics and fulminates.

In fairness, this frustration with having to work this week rather than vacationing is fully bipartisan. Chuck Schumer, third-ranking member of the Senate Democratic leadership, who one would assume would be deeply involved in fiscal cliff negotiations, looking gloomy, complained after taking the red eye back from San Francisco where he was visiting his daughter, that "I didn't realize how much I didn't want to be here until I got here."

Well, we can fix that--resign. No one is making you work 170 days a year for $174,000, plus generous benefits and expenses. To a lot of folks that sounds like a pretty good deal.

Friday, December 28, 2012

December 28, 2012--Chapter 20: The West End

When I arrived at Columbia as a wretchedly skinny, overgrown, stoop-shouldered freshman, it was just a few years after Columbia’s Jack went on the Road and Columbia-expelled Allen started to Howl. Thinking of myself as their heir apparent, I skipped orientation and the opportunity to learn the words to the college’s fight song, Roar Lion, Roar, to race over to Broadway where at a shop that specialized in “collegiate wear” I bought a tweed jacket with leather patches already sown on the elbows, a pipe, and an beret imported from France.

I was eager to join the Beats and knew that to do so, newly outfitted, I would need to find a place for myself at their haunt, the West End Bar, which was just down the street from the Stag Shop where I bought my existentialist outfit.  This seemed strategic since I saw the putting on of these cultural accoutrements to be essential to the life of the poet.  I had hopes that the bartender there might tell me where Allen and Jack had perched; and while puffing on my pipe (you could still smoke in bars), adjusting my beret to just the right angle, and blowing the foam off my pint (you could drink at 18), I would be inspired.

I did settle in there, becoming a version of a “regular,” often cutting Comparative Anatomy lab and my dogfish dissection (becoming a doctor was the backup plan to not having my soon-to-be-penned poems published by City Lights or in the Evergreen Review), drank my beers--sometimes seasoned with forced tears--and waited in vain for words to come to me.
Though in Ginsbergian terms I felt sufficiently hysterical and naked, few did. 
*    *    *
So in pursuit of my alternate plan I devoted just enough of myself to my dogfish’s cranial nerves in an attempt to earn at least what at the time were called “gentlemen’s C’s.”   In fact, I was good enough at dissection that my fish was stolen from the tank in which it was stored between lab sessions.  Pre-meds were a competitive lot, seeing themselves in competition with one another for coveted spots in top-ten medical schools; and anything they could do to elevate themselves on the grading curve, including lowering your standing, was something to which they dedicated themselves. 
It was a good thing, therefore, that I discovered that the lab’s side door led to the amphitheater classroom where the great Lionel Trilling held forth on the immortals of Modern Literature—Conrad, Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Lawrence, Nietzsche and of course his beloved Freud.  If I couldn’t find enough inspiration at the West End perhaps I could with Trilling. 
I would poke away at the dogfish for a while; and when the lab technician went out for a smoke I would slither through that door and, wrapped in my rubber apron and gloves, sit on the steps, taking it all in—less his critical insights about Mr. Kurtz than his performance as he gestured in his elegant tweeds (I was clearly right about the importance of the proper clothing), the very embodiment of the Liberal Imagination.  If I was not to be Ginsberg, I at least wanted Trilling’s posture.
He was aware of me—not because of anything I might have offered but, because of my outfit, hungry look, and the piercing smell of formaldehyde that emanated from me.  I noticed him taking note of my presence, nodding as if to say, “It’s all right,” as if he knew the implications of everything that was behind that door and how, if fate had turned out differently for him, this Jewish god of literature might himself, a few decades earier, have been found bent over his own dogfish in that very same lab, and someone else would be astride the lecturer’s platform.
Though I found myself drawn more and more toward the study of literature than its creation, I did not fail to maintain my status at the West End.  Especially since I was at last finding inspiration there—not poetic, but carnal.   For slinking on a stool at the other side of the horseshoe-shaped end of the mahogany bar was a girl all in black—black leotard, black tights (cut off at the ankle), black Victorian jewelry, black nails, black eye shadow, black hair, and, most alluringly, a black beret.  If she was not a muse for poetry, for certain she was one for lust.
She was, I learned, Lydia Lichter from East Orange, New Jersey and was enrolled at Barnard.  She emphasized “enrolled” because she was proud to proclaim that she rarely “attended.”  She was training to be a dancer, a modern dancer, and was “taking” (dancer-talk for studying) with Martha Graham.  This left her no time for plebian lectures and recitations.  Her life was devoted to learning Graham’s intricate technique, sequences of movements composed mainly of violent pelvic contractions, which sounded to me, pre-med that I sadly was, very much like endless hours of childbirth.  Or perhaps something else, excitingly different, that was still not part of my experiential vocabulary.
In my clumsy way, I managed to summon enough gumption to engage this vision in chiaroscuro when I learned with whom she was taking.  Culturally still very much deprived, Martha Graham at least I had heard of.  Attempting to be witty (a highly valued trait of Mr. Trilling’s that I was desperate to acquire), I said, “I thought she was dead.”
“You should be so dead,” Lydia snorted and turned back to her Dance Magazine and Campari and Soda.
From some inner source of resolve, of which I had hitherto been unaware, I pressed on, yet with a stammer, “I know that was stupid.  I’ve never known a modern dancer before and couldn’t think of anything witty to say.”
“You have a lot to learn,” she said, swivelling away from me again, “about both dance and wit.”
Though embarrassed, not attempting to make eye contact, still I pressed on, “I would like to know more about dance.  Modern dance. Are you performing as well as taking classes?”
“I take ten classes a week, all either intermediate or advanced.  Martha even has me demonstrate and so I’m hoping that she might let me join one of her companies.  Not the one that performs in New York.  I’m far from that.  But I’m good.”  She leaned toward me provocatively, I took in her Campari vapors, “Very good.”
I had never known anyone who so unabashedly would claim to be good, much less very good about anything, and who would be so matter-of-fact calling someone as olympian as Martha Graham Martha.  Coming from a world of doubt and equivocation, I was utterly transfixed.
“Do you think, maybe . . .”
“Yes, I would like that.  In fact, this Saturday night there is a Merce Cunningham concert.  I love Merce and for you it would be a good beginning.”  And with arrangements agreed to she ran off.  Actually, danced off.  Though with no visible Graham contractions.
Martha and Merce and beginnings.  I drew hard on my pipe and adjusted my beret.  Allen and Jack and even Lionel will have to wait.
Of course it came to nothing.   Actually, it turned out to be something of a disaster.
*    *    *
We had agreed to meet in front of the City Center at 7:00, buy tickets, see the concert, and then have dinner.  She had been quite precise about the plans, including that she would pay for the tickets and I would pick a place to eat and pay for that.
I arrived ten minutes early and had time to gape at the gathering crowd.  All clearly dancers who seemed to know each other, with everyone sheathed in obligatory black.  Then in a swirl, Lydia appeared, kissing cheeks and air as she weaved her way toward me. 
She was wrapped in layers of coats and scarves and fur tails, and as she glided weightlessly I felt that nothing I was about to see inside would equal this performance—it was as if she had choreographed and costumed her entrance so that she and her layers became a single organism.  But no one but me seemed to notice.
We sat in the third balcony but even from that great height it was evident that Merce was majestic.  I was thrilled to be there, especially at Lydia’s side and as a part of her world, but I did not understand anything that he did on stage. 
Lydia had told me that he believed in chance, to be more precise in “uncertainty.”  That his work was influenced by that of Werner Heisenberg, the physicist who had discovered the Uncertainty Principle.  Merce incorporated those ideas in his choreography, which meant that he provided what she called frameworks within which his dancers were to move but, following chance, they were expected to improvise, allowing uncertainty to inspire and guide them.
To help chance along, Merce worked with the artist Robert Rauschenberg who designed the scenery, which pretty much consisted of a battered bicycle suspended from a rope above the stage (Lydia told me how much she loved Bob’s work) and with composer John Cage, Merce’s lover she whispered, who, at this performance provided “music” (Lydia called him “Cage” and it “sound”) from a series of radios and tape recorders from which, by turning their dials randomly, he produced the cacophonous sound of uncertainty itself.
Merce and his dancers, under the spell of the swinging bicycle and, to me, Cage’s noise, lurched into a series of movements that looked more like twitches than the seamless grace of the ballet dancers I had seen on the Ed Sullivan Show.  It was so discordant, so shrill, so disjointed, and painful, even to the point of boredom (it went on uninterrupted for ninety minutes), that I was certain that I was in the presence of genius. 
Above the sounds that boomed from the amplification system and ricocheted off the fretted arches that supported that doom of a room, I could hear Lydia moaning.   I was convinced then, by that, that I was privileged to be witnessing Great Art.
She hung on my arm as we departed, heading for a place a worldly roommate of mine had recommended, La Cave Henri IV, just around the corner.  “Very French,” he promised, adding with a wink and elbow dig, “And tres romantique.”  I was taking Intermediate French and thought, as Lydia had been my guide to modern dance, I could be hers in gastronomie.
Lydia leaned into me as we fought the wind, her fur tails whipping my face.  It was cold and we were pleased to find, I should not have been surprised--it was a cave--that the restaurant was snuggly below street level.  We descended the steps and entered the dim room.  So darkly romantique that it took a moment for our eyes to adjust and for us to find our way to the table that had been reserved for us.  It was perfect, under a barrel-shaped brick arch that supported the sidewalk above.  We squeezed into the banquette, nestling side-by-side.  I could feel Lydia shivering against me while the voice of Edith Piaf filled the room.  We were no longer in the world of uncertainty.  I was back on the more familiar Newtonian ground of cause and effect.
The table was lit by a candle that was stuffed into the neck of a wine bottle, so encrusted with dripped wax that I was certain it had held candles since the time of Henri IV himself.
The waiter, le garcon, glided over toward us, sheathed in a floor-length white butcher’s apron, shirt sleeves held in place by what looked to me like small garters, a folded towel over one crooked arm, and two menus and a wine list in the other, “Monsieur.  Mademoiselle,” he said with a slight bow as he handed them to us.  “Desire vous a drink, an aperitif before ordering?” 
I answered for both of us, rolling my r’s as best I could, “Non merci. We’ll be having wine with dinner.”  I had brought enough money for food and wine but not aperitifs.
“Let me tell you that to begin we have fresh escargots this evening.  The chef recommends them.  This is very unusual for this time of year.  Le hiver.”  And wth that, like an Apache dancer, snapping his starched apron, he spun on his heel and departed, leaving us to peruse the menus.  Piaf wafted over us.  This was a taste of life as I had only imagined it.
Lydia roused me from my thoughts, suggesting, “Why don’t you order for the both of us, though I love escargots and prefer red wine.”
“I do as well,” I lied, I wasn’t in truth sure just what escargots were, “How about two of them and maybe some trout?”  Truite I knew.
“But I really prefer red wine,” I wasn’t sure what she was signaling, “Maybe some chicken or veal?  That would work.”
I was squinting at the menu.  It was very dark in spite of the sputtering candle but I still needed to see if they had any chicken and how much it cost.  Thankfully, I could make out that they did and it was affordable.  “Sure—I think we’ll have two escargots and deux chickens.”
Before I could call for him our garcon was back at the table, “We’ll have two of the coqs and two of the specials.  Escargots.”
“You mean, bien sur, les coqs au vins as entrées, non?”
“Of course. Oui.”
“And pour boire?”
“Do you have red wine?  Rouge?”
I sensed the beginning of exasperation; and with a nod and perhaps a wink toward Lydia, he said, “Sans doute.  Beaucoup.  Many.”  And with that he unceremoniously reached across the table, picked up the Carte du Vins, and plopped it in front of me open to the Vin Rouge plastic covered page.   As he was doing that, Lydia asked if I would get up so she could slide out of the booth.  She wanted to “freshen up.”
The waiter hovered over me impatiently, tapping his fingers on the menus he clutched against his chest as I scanned the wine list, looking for something that sounded sophisticated yet wasn’t too expensive.  “How is the Beaujolais Village?” I asked in a half voice, not looking up, to avoid eye contact and any hint of chastisement since I wasn’t at all sure of my “j” pronunciation. 
Without responding, he turned on his heel and disappeared into the shadows.
Lydia returned, looking even more radiant.  Whatever she had done to freshen up had worked.   “Did you order the wine?  On a night like this I could surely use some.”  And as if on cue our waiter was back and in an intricate twisting of hands and wrists popped the cork, which he passed to me.   Nervously I began to roll it back and forth on the tablecloth.  He stood there immobile, waiting, looking from me to Lydia, back to me, and then at the ceiling.  Now clearly fed up with me, he wrapped the bottle in a napkin and poured about a half inch in my glass, cradling the bottle in his arm as if wanting me to see and read the label.  It was too dark for that.
I was also beginning to feel exasperated, thinking how improper it was of him to serve me first, pour so little, and then to stand there all puffed up in Gallic hauteur as if he was a potentate. I was getting ready to say something, but thought I would begin by just glaring at him.  Which I did.  We locked eyes.  It was a test of good manners and testosterone. 
He took a step back and I began to feel in command of the situation.  After all we had just been with Merce and Bob and Cage while he had been prancing around in his apron in a basement of a French restaurant.
I turned to Lydia, who I assumed would be feeling almost as much pride as I.  She leaned toward me, under lit by the light of the throbbing candle and thus made more mysterious, whispered, “He’s waiting for you to taste it.”
I was confused, “To what?
“You know, to taste it to see if it’s turned.”
“Turned into what?”  I sensed doom lurking.
“To see if it tastes all right.”  Was I sensing even more exasperation?  “To see if you want to send it back.”
As I was about to say, “But I would never do that,” the garcon poured a splash into Lydia’s glass, sneering in my direction, “Mademoiselle?  Peut-etre vous voudrais le gouter?
And in perfect French, with all “r’s” rolling and every “j” aspirated, Lydia raised the wine toward her blackened lips and said, “Avec plaisir.”  She seemed at first to inhale it, dipping her nose well into the bulging goblet, and then, after swishing the wine from cheek to cheek, she said, “C’est  bienMerciIl est un peu jeune, n’est-ce pas?”  She nodded to him and he filled her glass and, with a further look of rebuke, mine.
Silence descended between us and I barely noticed when the escargots arrived, set in their specially indented dishes with what seemed like surgical instruments on the side.  Needless to say I had no idea what to do with either the creatures in the shells or the tools designed for their extraction.  Without a word, Lydia simply reached across and showed me what to do. 
It would take much more than that to show me what to do.  I clearly did not know what to do about many things.  Though I vowed that come Monday, if I lived through the rest of dinner and the subway ride back to Columbia, I would stop being a chemistry major and switch to English.  I could still be a pre-med, but I needed to learn many, many things from Lionel Trilling.   That much I knew.
*    *    *
I was formally and officially enrolled next semester in Trilling’s course in Modern Lit, along with 150 other Jews and the occasional gentile, the Jews seeking to rise from the cultural shtetls in which they were hatched.  None more eager than I, still raw from the humiliations in La Cave.  
I sat now in an actual chair, no longer huddling on the lab steps.  And in place of that rubber apron I broke out my Stag Shop tweeds, leaving the beret and pipe behind in the dorm, thinking they would draw too much attention to me—I needed to be inconspicuous as I made my way by stealth into this new and hermetic world.
I knew immediately that I was where I needed to be because during the very first class, Trilling prowled the lecture platform, tossing his leonine head, stopping by the window with his great brow aslant so as to catch the flat rays of late afternoon light that illuminated him like an icon, his very first words were something like—
A primary function of art and thought is to liberate the individual from the tyranny of his culture and to permit him to stand beyond it in an autonomy of perception and judgment.”
Do you see what I mean?  The “tyranny of my culture.”  Whatever my parents were paying in tuition, I at least was getting their money’s worth.
Further, now on the other side of the room, my side, turning to us, to me, lowering his head and white mane, Trilling intoned--
“All great art, and today all great artlessness, must appear extreme to the mass of men, as we know them today. It springs from the anguish of great souls. From the souls of men not formed, but deformed in factories whose inspiration is self.”
Do you hear that Lydia?  Merce?  Cage?  Martha?  All of us anguished souls--Vin rouge for everyone.  My treat.
Through that enchanted semester, paying close attention to the texts, Trilling raised questions about how we live our lives (thank you D.H.), about the character of good and evil (much appreciated, Friedrich), about the roles played by culture and biology (Sigmund, thank you), and the ambivalences when making moral choices (T.S., my new best friend).  We came to look for something in Trilling that went beyond the insights of ordinary literary criticism.  We expected something closer to wisdom and transformation.
He was so exalted, so radiant, existing so much in his own world of thought that as mere mortal undergraduates we took in that wisdom crumb by crumb.  Never was any of it directed toward any one of us or the result of anything we might have croaked back to him when he posed a question to the room.  That wisdom was palpably present, like the air itself, a rich oxygen of thought.
But there was at least the opportunity to write something for him, actually to him—the term paper about which he gave no guidance whatsoever, particularly how many pages it needed to be.  Just, write a paper of any length about any of the authors we have been reading.  We knew by this that he was taking us seriously.
I decided to take a chance—to write about Kafka, about whom he confessed, after reading The Trial again (he actually, year after year, reread the texts under consideration!), when he confessed that he did not have anything fresh to say about it, though his lectures certainly sounded fresh and imaginative to his disciples.
My paper was on “Farcical Elements in The Trial.”   Whatever was possessing me to take on a book about which he confessed he did not have anything fresh to say?  I dropped all other reading, cut my other classes, and gave up my favorite pastime, sleep, so I could hone and rehone the paper.   After a week of frantic effort, I stumbled to his office, having redrafted and retyped it for the fourth time.  Only his deadline stopped me from working on it until I reached middle age. 
I dropped it secure in its plastic binder into a cardboard carton on a chair outside his office door.   And waited.  It was my first fully fleshed out paper as a pre-med-English-major, and I knew that what he might have to say about it would affect the course of the rest of my life.  He had told us that they would be read by the end of the week and we could come by at that time to pick them up from that same carton.   Rumor had it that he would not actually read them, that they would be read by one of his graduate assistants.  But even what they had to say about them would be life altering—they were his GAs, weren’t they?
With my Modern Lit classmates I waited for hours in the corridor of Hamilton Hall on the day the papers were to be returned to us.  It was obvious that very little showering had occurred that week—we well all that anxious.  It was a hot day and, because of our ripeness, it was with various forms of relief that word spread down the hall that the papers had been placed in the box and we could rummage through the pile to retrieve them.
Though I had been among the first to line up, I allowed everyone to pass me by and was thus the last to look for in my paper.  There it was, seemingly untouched and unread, alone in the bottom of the box.  I gathered it to me, and as I walked back toward my dorm, barely breathing, I thumbed through it. 
I was distraught to notice that the twenty-seven pages were seemingly untouched—there was not one correction or anything underlined in red, much less any comment, however brief, scrawled in any of the margins.   My first thought was that it was such a pathetic effort that the grad assistant hadn’t even read all the way through much less shown it to Trilling.
I was devastated.  All I could think about was how I would need to get back into my organic chemistry studies so I could rescue at least a C grade or for me there would not only be nothing of mine ever published in the Evergreen Review but also no medical school.  I saw my future looming with me hunched in a windowless cubicle at a desk at an insurance company.
I slinked back to my room and collapsed on my bed, wondering if it was too late to get to the lab and work on my titrations
As I lay there staring at the ceiling, maybe even contemplating if the light fixture would support my weight on a rope, one of my floor mates, Gene Adam pounded on the door.  He was a real English major, on a fast track to graduate school, who had taken three courses with Trilling, and was eager to find out how I had done.  The answer was immediately apparent when he found me sprawled in despair on my cot.
“What happened?  Did you flunk?”
“No,” I mumbled, “Worse than that.  He didn’t even look at it.  It came back blank--not a comment, not a grade.  He just tossed it back in the box.”
Gene found the paper on my desk and flipped through it.  I could see him shrugging his shoulders and muttering in confusion as he turned each of the unmarked pages.  But just as he was about to toss it back, he slapped his hand on the desktop and screamed at me, “I can’t believe you.  You’re a total moron.  Look at this.”  He held the paper up to me with the folder open to the blank page at the back that I had inserted to dress up the look of the paper.  “Look at what he wrote.  I mean Trilling himself.  I recognize his handwriting.”
I pulled myself up off the bed and snatched the paper from him.  There in Trilling’s own delicate hand, in pencil, faint but still vivid, and, to my eyes, throbbing was— “Well written.”  And circled, my grade, an A minus.
*    *    *
And so when two weeks later, there was a flyer tacked to all the bulletin boards on campus, announcing that Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, and Allen Ginsberg would be at Columbia for a reading in McMillin Theater, and that Lionel Trilling would introduce them, I grabbed my blanket, pillow, and two boxes of cereal and raced over--it was scheduled for two days hence and I would need to sleep and eat outside the theater entrance so I could be at the front of the line and thus be able to get a seat in the first row. But since so many others with folding chairs and sleeping bags had the same idea, when I arrived, the line was already around the corner.  I knew I would have to settle for the balcony again, as at the City Center, which was all right because these were my people and my world.
And so I squatted in line.  But before my cereal ran out, and the cold rains came, the staff at McMillin took pity on those sprawled outside their door and let us buy tickets.  Or maybe they were just tired of having to step over our ragtag army of Trilling and Ginsberg acolytes.   This, though, took away some of the delicious opportunity to suffer for one’s art.  It felt good, however, to have spent at least one night on the pavement in its service, and I needed to shave.
So, thrice-armed with my ticket, my A minus, and my “Well written,” I took a break for the rest of the week from my sulfanilamide experiment and renewed my acquaintance with the West End, thinking there was no better place to prepare for what was upcoming. 
I had not been there for some time, not wanting to revisit the memories of my time with Lydia; and thankfully did not find her there.  Just the welcoming greeting of Johnny the bartender, who without missing a beat, as if I had been there just yesterday, asked, “The usual?” already pulling on the Watney’s Ale siphon--my “usual.”
And on the napkin on which Johnny rested my beer, I found myself beginning to write a poem.  
Though I had immersed myself in my literature classes, during the prior six months I had suspended all thoughts or even dreams of writing.  I not only had made the pre-med-backup-plan compromise; but, still not knowing what to do with my literary interests, under relentless parental pressure to be responsible, I had not even begun to shrug off that aspect of my culture that kept me tethered to practicalness.  Thus I continued to be confused while straddling my many worlds. 
So from where was this poem spawning?
these wooden streets
wet nimbused now
like starfish
crushed . . .  .
And so on.   Just this small napkin’s worth of words.
*    *    *
For the Ginsberg reading I remembered to bring along my pipe and beret, which I hoped would distinguish me, make me noticeable up in the shadows of the balcony, now that I was beginning to want to emerge from inconspicuousness.
The house was packed.  The entire literature faculty was there, as were the graduate assistants and every English major, graduate and undergraduate, including from Barnard—though I, with relief, again did not see Lydia.
There were four chairs on the stage and a podium.  Nothing else. Then suddenly, as if in a vision, they all appeared at once, in a surge—following the ever elegant Trilling from the wings were Corso, in tattered fatigues; Orlovsky, all blonde and tweedy; and Ginsberg, shuffling, slumping, awkward, sheathed in denim.  I remember the clothes better than the poems, taking more note of how to look the part than the part itself—Would I be Trilling?  Certainly not Orlovsky, reportedly Ginsberg’s lover.  I could be Corso, clearly the minor player, perhaps more suited as a model for my A-minus talent.  Ginsberg of Howl and Kaddish was beyond imagining, though, in addition to my tweeds, I also had the denims.
First up was Orlovsky, happily brief because his writing did not compare with the beauty of his lips or face or hair—“My body turned into sugar, poured into tea.  I found the meaning.”   Nothing special.
And then there was Corso, twisted in a corkscrew at the podium, who read in a sputtering staccato more appropriate for Greenwich Village coffee houses than that baroque room—“I stand in the dark light of the dark street.  And look up at my window, I was born there.”   He read on and on as if lacking the awareness of where he was located in the Beat pantheon or that, as a result, he was to serve as the opening act.
Then at last it was Ginsberg’s turn.  This was his first appearance back at the university which years earlier had expelled him.  Trilling rose to introduce him, smoothing his jacket which had remained buttoned while he sat.  In his impeccable half-British diction he said something about how after going through Howl twice, “I find I do not know how to respond. The poem does not reach me.  Its clue doesn't appear."
At this, Ginsberg, twisting in his seat, tossed one leg up over the left arm so he would be turned aggressively toward his old professor.  Peering at him, with a wry smile on his already lined face.  When he heard Trilling say his name in public for the first time in literary history, amplified in that great room, Ginsberg uncoiled his serpentine self and moved toward the podium with a stride that had been transformed from the shuffle of his arrival to pure panther.  Trilling returned to his seat, sat quickly, crossing his legs with considerable care so as not to disturb the tight crease in his trousers.
Ginsberg began by reading from “The Lion for Real.”   He told us that he dedicated the poem to his former teacher Lionel Trilling and that it described a series of spiritual visions he had had while at Columbia (now I got the lion reference in the title), visions that had launched him on the mystical quest that had become his obserssion had and etched those premature lines in his cheeks.  The poem, he said, turning pointedly to face Trilling, also recounted the difficulty he had had in explaining his visions to his friends, family, and especially his teachers.  I think at that reference, he took a half-step in Trilling’s direction, indicating that the poem reflected his own despair and sense of spiritual isolation while at Columbia.  
I do now remember one or two lines, which he then read, without referring to the tortured pile of his papers on the podium, speaking them in one long breath, off mike, leaning directly toward his mentor-adversary.  We all needed to lean forward to hear them, knowing clearly now that the Professor Kandisky of the poem was Professor Trilling!
sat by his side every night averting my eyes from his hungry motheaten
stopped eating myself he got weaker and roared at night while I had 
Eaten by lion in bookstore on Cosmic Campus, a lion myself starved by
            Professor Kandisky, dying in a lion's flophouse circus
Kandisky/Trilling in a flophouse?  Though there were 1,400 of us packed into that theater, I sensed that everyone had stopped breathing.  Even the great scions of literature gasped, including the ancient Moses Hadas, Columbia’s lion of Greek Tragedy, which for him could have been fatal; and Mark Van Doren, of the Van Doren literary dynasty, which included his disgraced quiz-show son Charles.
Ginsberg turned his back to his professor on the stage, and very much into the microphone this time, looking up especially to those of us breathless in the balcony, “Remember,” he said, imitating Trilling’s clipped style, All great art, and today all great artlessness, must appear extreme to the mass of men. It springs from the anguish of great souls.” 
And without turning back to him, but still to us, Ginsberg asked, “Isn’t that so Mr. Trilling?”   If the Great Hadas had been thinking in a Sophoclean mode, he must have sensed patricide.
*    *    *
For the first time in my life I needed a drink and there was of course only one place to seek it.
Though it was well past 11:00 p.m., Johnny was still on duty and moved to the Watney’s tap as he saw me at the door.  I had raced away from the commotion that ensued at McMillin and when I got to the West End it was empty—every one of the regulars had been at the event.
I was pulsating. 
I had had my own vision.  Though it would not lead to a lifetime-long spiritual quest or probably even many publishable poems, at least right then I knew I would never again set foot in a chemistry lab and there would be no medical school.  I didn’t know where I was headed, but it was surely not there.  Even if to oblivion.
I collapsed onto my stool and in one swallow sucked in half the draft.   I played and replayed the tape in my head of what had transpired—especially Ginsburg’s call to us in the balcony about the “anguish of souls”—actually quoting back to him and to us Trilling’s own words, but as transmuted up to us, through the medium of Ginsberg, they felt as if they had reshaped the very neurons in my cerebellum. 
Thus stimulated, on a second cocktail napkin, in almost automatic writing, as if the words were coming to me from a source outside myself, I wrote, to conclude the poem I had begun a few days ago--
on these I trod
wet now as the wood
after passing the baby clams
but never having asked
if you cried
when your father died
And with that the front door swung open and in a rush of Beats in Army-Navy clothes, at the head of the pack, was Ginsberg, with the radiant Orlovsky at his side. 
“Johnny,” he cried, with arms outstretched as he made his way to the bar. 
And Johnny said, “The usual?” reaching for a bottle of Ballantine.
But Ginsberg paused, as if disoriented, at the horseshoe end of the bar near where I sat frozen to my stool.  Looking around for Johnny who had disappeared below the bar to get Ginsberg’s beer from the cooler where he kept the bottles.  As Johnny’s head reemerged, while still half bent over, he waved to me with the back of his hand.  To get up.  To move.  Move!
I was on Ginsberg’s stool.  Which now felt like a griddle.  I leapt off it as if afraid it would roast and flay my body.
“That’s all right,” Ginsberg said to me, touching my shoulder with the sting of his hand, “Stay where you are.  I can sit anywhere.  After all that, I need a beer, maybe two, and then we’re off.”  With a wink toward Orlovsky, he to me added, “You look as if you belong here.”  He nodded to Johnny, indicating everything was fine with where I was sitting, but Johnny’s look back to me made it clear that I had still better move, and fast.  Not that I needed any extra prodding.
Seeking inconspicuousness again, I ducked into a dark booth on the other side of the bar, not pausing to take my Watney’s with me.   Ginsberg lowered himself onto his stool and was immediately engulfed by the crowd that continued to surge in from McMillin.
Though I was physically present, the surreality of that entire evening, now with Ginsberg unbelievably looming fewer than ten feet away, turned the West End into a mix of dreams and cinematic images, with me more a distant, wishful observer than a physical presence.
Almost immediately, I felt myself slipping out of consciousness.  It was more than the Watney’s taking hold of me.  And as I was literally about to slide off the leather banquette, just as I was about to collapse under the influence, and the bench, I saw as if it was a hallucination, towering before me, the head of Ginsberg haloed in strobes of quanta. 
“Is this yours?” he asked, holding something out toward me. 
“My what?” I somehow managed to mumble, desperately trying to hold on to the table.
“This, this napkin,” his hand was still extended.  “I found it where you were sitting.  At the bar,” he smiled, “At your seat.”
“Yes, my napkin.  Thank you.  I left it there.  Sorry.  I meant to take it with me.  And my beer.”
“You should have it because I saw you were writing on it.”
“I was just doodling.  I’m not really a writer or anything.”  I was hoping I could disappear forever.
“Actually, I thought it wasn’t bad.  I liked the reference to the ‘baby clams.’” 
He turned to his coterie who were watching and listening from the bar, and said to them more than to me, “Its clue appeared to me.”  
Then he was gone, back out into the blare of Broadway, in pursuit of his vision, he and they embracing in fits of ribald laughter.
*    *    *
I did in fact return to the lab and did in fact managed to eek out a C plus in Organic, enough to guarantee at least a fighting chance of being accepted by a second-tier medical school somewhere in the middle of the country. 
I had taken that beer-soaked napkin back to my room and joined it with the first one, feeling that the two parts formed something resembling an actual poem, the clue of which was sufficiently allusive to me to pump me full of enough courage to submit it for publication to a few small presses.  And, to my surprise and delight, before even submitting any applications to Med schools, I heard from the mimeographed poetry magazine, Black Sun, that my crushed starfish poem would be published--if they could get enough money together to buy ink for the printing machine.
Though in fact it was published there, nothing much came of that.  And to this day I wonder what would have happened if Trilling had given me a straight A on my Kafka paper. 
Would that have made any difference?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

December 27, 2012--"Lincoln" & Obama

Steven Spielberg made Lincoln in part to influence current political discourse.

In fact, one day last week the U.S. Senate adjoined early so everyone could go to a private screening and then engage in a discussion with Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis, Spielberg's Lincoln. Talk about art imitating, or maybe influencing life.

Not only did Spielberg's Lincoln (and the historical Lincoln) form a cabinet made up of rivals who contested with him for the presidency in 1860--Seward who became Secretary of State; Chase, Treasury Secretary; and Bates who became Lincoln's Attorney General (like what Obama did by selecting Hillary Clinton to be his Secretary of State)--but Spielberg's Lincoln, also like Obama, to pass the 13th Amendment (the film's central narrative element), needed to work in a bipartisan way.

And also like Obama, the opposition hated Limcoln viscerally (saw him to be a crypto-tyrant as some of Obama's extreme haters see him to be the Antichrist); but unlike Obama, Lincoln's version of bipartisanship was not negotiated or carried out through the spirit of compromise, but forced by blunt offers of patronage jobs and the exchange of cash.

In the election of 1864 a raft of members of the House of Representatives, especially Democrats, lost their seats. However, during the rump session of the 38th Congress, during January 1865, those who were defeated were still members and could vote on legislation, including the 13th Amendment which, if passed, would end indentured servitude and, the rub, slavery.

These defeated congressmen for the most part were not wealthy and needed jobs come March when they would no longer be in office; and Lincoln and his men could offer to exchange jobs for votes, which they effectively proved able to do. Postmasters were named as were customs collectors and harbor masters. All to secure Democratic votes for the amendment.

This is where the historical parallels break down. In spite of Spielberg's hope that Obama might watch the film and then decide to pull up his socks and be more like Lincoln, as difficult as congressional relations were for Lincoln, they are much worse now.

Obama as president may be the most powerful man in the world as commandeer in chief of our armed forces, but when it comes to dealing with Congress--especially if he wanted to try to twist arms, threaten, and bribe--he doesn't even have the power of one vote.

If a representative retires or in the rare case is defeated for reelection, rather than needing a patronage job he moves over to K Street and signs up, for big money, to be a lobbyist.

Because of gerrymandering, almost all House members are in safe districts, where, when they are inexorably reelected, they receive 60 to 80 percent of the vote. So it is hard to put pressure on sitting members since their jobs are more secure than the president's.

And then we effectively did away with earmarks and as a result congressmen can't be "bribed" with the offer a new dam or federal office building in their districts.

So, in all, if Lincoln today was trying to get an amendment passed and, as the Constitution requires, needed a two-thrids majority, he would have no cards to play and no postmasterships to pass around.  Thus, the current mess.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

December 26, 2012--Snowbirding: Collision Center

"Where're you from?" he asked, glancing over at me. We were both in the waiting area of the Sawgrass   Mall Shopping Center Neiman Marcus dressing room where Rona and presumably his wife were trying on clothes.

"From your accent," I said, not really wanting to be distracted from the paper I was reading, "I can tell you're from Texas.

He smiled. "And I can tell you're from New York. Not from any accent--you don't seem to have much of one--but from that paper of y'alls." He tapped on the first section of the New York Times I had placed on the side table between us.

Here we go, I thought. To avoid a discussion about the "liberal" Times and left-wing media--I had already stereotyped him as apparently he had me--I said, "I think I lost it along the way. My accent, I mean. When I went away to college."

"No dezdem's, or doe's for you," he chuckled, putting on his best Brooklyn accent and slapping his thigh.  I laughed too, still a little worried where this might be heading. "The one time we were in New York, I loved goin' to restaurants there and listenin' and watchin' all those Jewish people there talkin' so loud and gest'rin'," he imitated this as well, laughing deeply in a tobacco-thickened way.

Now I had real cause to be concerned. But before I could or had time to come up with how to respond, he quickly added, "Don't get me wrong, I love the Jews. I had one grand-pappy who was one and he was my favorite."

I decided to take his word for this. After all we were in a dressing room and in less than half an hour I'd never see him again. So I picked up the Arts section of the Times and buried my face in it.

In spite of this he asked, "Do you live in the city?" I didn't look up, pretending I hadn't heard him. "The Big Apple? Any idea why they call it that?"

I realized my attempt to ignore him wasn't working, so I decided to take a minimalist approach. "Yup," I said, trying to sound Texan, thinking that might shift us into some less tense territory. I was also hoping that Rona would hurry up finish trying on clothes so we could leave.

"Yup to what?" he wasn't going to let go of me that easily.  "That you're from the Apple or you know why they call it that?"

"I'm from there," I mumbled into the fold of the paper.

"Wha'ja say?"

Still not looking up, I mumbled a little louder, "I'm from there."

"Sorry to hear that." Was he mocking me, I wondered. And then in a different tone, "Did you get hit by that storm? Sherry, I think it was."


"Sandy then."

"Personally, not that badly."

"It sure looked bad on the TV."

"It was."

"Back in Lubbock, where Mary Ellen and I come from--up there in the panhandle--we get storms blowin' through all the time. They can be real big ones. Come the summer tornadoes rip the place up pretty good. But, I'll admit, they're nothin' like what that Sandy did. That was some lady."

"Especially for people living along the coast." I was glad we were no longer talking about dining out in New York.

"Did those folks have any insurance?"

"Some did," I finally put the paper down, "and some didn't."

"S'pose they now want the government to bail 'em out."

"Like the banks?" I wondered if he would get my full meeting.

"I'm not sure I believe in the government bailin' anyone out--banks or folks with houses built right up by the water. I'm thinkin' that if they don't have insurance they're on their own."

"Even after a line of F-3 or F-4 category tornadoes rip up places like the panhandle pretty bad?"

"You got me there, pard'ner." He gave me a dramatic wink and reached out to slap my hand. I didn't extend mine to reciprocate. "We did get some government help from time to time. I do have to admit that."

Thinking that maybe we could reach some common ground, I said, "You shouldn't think that a majority of the people most effected by Sandy are rich with second homes along the coast. Some in New Jersey, yes, but most of the people who live there are modest. Many are first responders. And on 9/11 dozens who lost their lives were from those communities. So maybe that too is important to consider when thinking about what the government should and shouldn't do."

"I take your point, but still, shouldn't they have been expected to have insurance?"

"Probably, yes. But a lot of those people don't make enough money to pay for replacement insurance. The cost of insurance after 9/11 skyrocketed in the area and for most of these people their income hasn't kept pace. Especially for the police, firemen, and sanitation workers. They do important work for us, even putting their lives on the line, so shouldn't we help them out when, through no fault of their own, disaster strikes?"

"You know, back in Lubbock where, like I told you, we're from I got a collision center and . . ."

"Sorry, but what's that?"

"A collision center?" I nodded. "It's a body shop. And as you might 'magine, I work lots with insurance. And even for cars it's not a pretty picture."

Now I was fully engaged. "How's that?"

"To tell you the truth," he whispered to me, "I'd rather not say."

"No problem, but I think I know what you mean." He was nodding vigorously.

"One more thing about those poor folks who lost their houses."


"You got me half persuaded," he said, "that the government should probably give them help so they can rebuild. But . . ."

"What's your 'but'?"

"But just once." I looked at him not understanding. "I see I have you confused. I mean, help them once but after that they're on their own. No more government help. What's that old sayin'?--'First time, shame on you; second, shame on me'?"

"That's about it. And I think I get your drift--one bailout per family. I can live with that." In fact, I could.

"See there--you're one of them liberals from New York and I'm a redneck from Texas, but in fifteen minutes we could work this out."

Rona, thankfully, had reemerged from the dressing room and I stood up to head for the cash register with her. She had a few things she planned to buy.

"Now if only the folks in Washington could do the same thing," he smiled, "where would we be?"

"In a better place," I said, reaching out to shake his hand.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

December 25, 2012--Christmas

Hear this Bill O'Reilly--

Merry Christmas everybody!

Peace on Earth!

Monday, December 24, 2012

December 24, 2012--Coalition Government

Now that our federal government has proven itself unable to govern (which suits Tea Party folks since they, in the words of their guru Grover Norquist, want to shrink the size of the government so much that it can be "drowned in a bathtub"), now that they have opted to ignore the ramifications of going over the fiscal cliff and went home for the holidays (at full pay), what to do?

Reset the apocalypse clock again and wait for the end of at least the United States as we know it or figure out how to get some important things done?

I prefer the latter and have a serious suggestion as to how to proceed that you may think is delusional--

Democrats in the House of Representatives should make sure John Boehner is reelected Speaker of the House once the 113th Congress convenes January 3rd, and then work with him to pass a spate of  legislation that will do us some good. All of us, but especially the struggling middle class.

Here's how it would work--

Boehner may very well need Democratic votes to retain the speakership because enough of the ultra-rightwing members of his party may choose not to vote for him in the hope that if he fails to get the votes required, one of their darlings, Eric Cantor or Paul Ryan, will become Speaker.

If you think Boehner is bad just think what it would be like to have either Cantor or Ryan in charge of the House. Is your passport still valid? I just checked mine, and I'm good to go.

The reason John Boehner may very likely need votes is because in order to become Speaker one has to get a majority of 435 votes, the total number of House members, not just a majority of one's own party.

Do the arithmetic--the next Congress will be made up of 233 Republicans, 200 Democrats, and then there are two vacant seats which will not likely be filled come early January. To be elected, Boehner will need 218 votes. That means if only 19 members of his own party vote against him or vote "present," he will not be Speaker.

Nancy Polosi should right now be privately rounding up 20-25 Democrats to vote for Boehner if necessary.

(She can extract her price, or revenge, two years hence when Democrats defeat a dozen or so incumbent Republicans and she herself retakes the speakership.)

And let's hope Boehner needs this help because if he does we will have a truly coalition government that has a chance of working.

Coalition governments in other countries come into existence when there is a crisis--as there surely now is in America. Israel, for example, is in a permanent crisis and they have a Likud prime minister (Benjamin Natanyhau) and a Labor defense minister (Ehud Barak).

Britain has a Tory prime minister (David Cameron) and a Liberal Democrat deputy-prime minister (Nick Clegg).

And Lincoln, when our country faced its ultimate crisis, assembled a "team of rivals."

Things with Lincoln turned out pretty well--the United Staes still exists. So maybe we should try this coalition approach now.

Friday, December 21, 2012

December 21, 2012--Chapter 19: The Pickle Boat

I was the Number Seven oar in the freshman Pickle Boat.  Though none of the eight of us had ever rowed before, except perhaps in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Lake, crew coach Al Boone, a frog-voiced decorated ex-Marine, declared, “Four years from now, men, we’re going to the Olympics in Rome.  I can see you in your shell on the Tiber River.  That’s in Italy, in case you forgot your geography.  So practice your rowing technique, work hard, eat the right food, and above all, men, no smoking.  And then we’ll be off to sunny Italy.”  
He always ended this speech with a flourish,  “Arrivadecci Roma!
His Italian was better than his coaching--his arrivadecci turned out indeed to be goodbye, but his dreams of glory sank one day on the Harlem River, 4,300 miles from the Tiber. 
To begin, you may require some background since crew as a sport hasn’t as yet attracted many followers.  Just fanatics, of which I at the time was one.  You also probably need some background about how a Jewish pre-med-English major with a tweed jacket, pipe, and beret wound up each afternoon at crew practice dressed in Columbia blue shorts, sweatshirt, and rubber rowing booties, rather than brooding over a beer at the West End Bar on Broadway, the Beat poets’ favorite hangout, or in chem lab learning the techniques of titration.
Crew is the quintessential prep-school sport since, among other things, to participate one requires—a very expensive boat or shell that seats eight plus a coxman, equally costly ten-foot-long oars (eight of those), a fieldstone boathouse in which to store the shell, and above all access to a river or lake that isn’t polluted. 
Before I proceed, think about how a high school in my native Brooklyn would have attempted to participate in crew.  Even assuming that a public school could have gotten its hands on a shell, oars, and a place to keep them, where would the rowing take place?  The lake in Prospect Park is no more than a few hundred yards in length or breadth and crews need at least two thousand meters (not the way things were measured in non-metric Brooklyn) for practice and races.  

If a crew somehow managed to drag itself and its gear from my Brooklyn Technical High School to the Gowanus Canal or the East River by the Navy Yard, in less than half an hour, the toxic chemicals in these waters would eat their way through the quarter-inch thickness of laminated wood of which shells are constructed and then immediately move on to attack and infect the oarsmen.
Then you would have to have someone to compete against.  It is totally unimaginable that Tech could have found competition in a league consisting of proletarian Tilden, Madison, Lincoln, Erasmus, and Aviation Trades High Schools.  Thus one finds crews at bucolic riverside schools such as Exeter, Andover, Lawrenceville, and St. Paul’s.  What are also found there are six-foot four-inch gentiles—as essential to a winning crew as the sleek shell itself.
Columbia, my college, without a quota, thus at the time the “safe” Ivy League college for over-achieving Jewish Brooklyn public school graduates, had a crew, which was an Ivy requirement.  But without any prep school freshmen, no one who tried out for the Columbia crew knew their starboard from their port much less that as a crew member you had responsibility for just one oar, on the left (port) or right (starboard) side (forget any rowboat experience), or that you were probably guaranteed to finish last, considering the prep-school-prepared nature of the competition.
Therefore it is a good and legitimate question why anyone at Columbia would try to join the crew.   What could possibly be behind this case of mass masochism? 
In my case, which I subsequently learned was representative, I was told to do so by my father.  As he dropped me off for freshman orientation on a hot day right after Labor Day, when I asked him for any last minute advice he might offer as I was about to embark on a college education, we had not spoken one word to each other except about the Dodgers on the long drive from East Flatbush to Morningside Heights, an intercontinental trip in cultural terms, he said, “Make sure to go out for the crew.”
Though I had almost no sense of what that meant much less what a crew did, after I learned about the inner world of crew, especially who participated, I was reminded again that my father was a master of the occult pathways to assimilation.  If I was to make it in the second half of the 20th century, he knew, I had better learn their ways and if necessary how to “pass.”
So not only did I find my way to the Baker Field boathouse at the very northernmost tip of Manhattan Island, I also took the precaution to cover other bets by outfitting myself in proper collegiate attire, which featured a tweed jacket, pipe, and beret because, if all else failed, if I couldn’t get into medical school, I could always become a poet.
*    *    *
All twenty-four of us who tried out made the crew.  We were equally inexperienced and without anything resembling muscle tone.  There was room for all of us since there were three separate and very distinct freshmen crews, each group of eight assigned to its own boat—the Varsity, Junior Varsity, and the Pickle Boat.  Though I was relegated to that latter boat, it wasn’t until many years later that I realized that by naming it after a pickle, Marine-tempered Coach Boone might have been expressing latent feelings about our ethnicity.
How, you might wonder, did he make his distinctions since we were in crew-terms indistinguishable to the untutored eye?  Though it would have been quite different and easy to divide us between pre-laws, pre-meds, and math geniuses.   Retrospectively, I have to assume, it was by the subtle differences he was able to detect in our still half-developed bodies. 
Crew is about technique, coordination, power, and endurance.  The power derives from legs and backs.  But all of our legs were bandied and grossly underdeveloped and our backs displayed the poor posture that was characteristic of young scholars from the ghettos of Brooklyn.  Therefore, neither our legs nor our backs were of any use in either the shell or as a help to Coach Boone who needed to find a metric that he could employ to place us in one boat or another. 
Endurance, on the other hand, could be measured in a clearly physiognomic way—by a comparison of our chests, which by their sizes and configurations would reveal our lung capacities and thus our ability to endure the stress of rowing thousands of meters.  Coach Boone, who also appeared to be an expert eugenicist, by just a glance at our shirtless, shivering bodies, was able to assign us to our proper shell and separate us into port and starboard oarsmen merely by comparatively measuring our chests. 
Our chests revealed all he needed to know—those not distorted by allergies or covered with pimples were candidates for the Varsity boat; those who caught frequent croups or had post-nasal drips found themselves in the Junior Varsity boat; while the Pickle Boat was reserved for those of us who suffered from chronic strep throat or bronchitis.
Try as he did, poor Dr. Holsager, the extended family’s devoted pediatrician, who was still my doctor even though I was a college freshman, could not seem to protect me from a continuous onslaught of diseases of the eyes, ears, nose, throat, or lungs.  At least once a month since I was three I would be plagued with fits of wheezing, blowing, dripping, coughing, chocking, and spitting.  All of which, by the time I was seventeen, assured that I would have what my father called a “sunken chest,” just the sort of upper body that would doom me to the Pickle Boats of the world.  Or make certain that I would lead a sedentary life.  Thus the Plan B poetic beret that I purchased at the Stag Shop on Broadway on the first day of orientation.
True, I had played basketball because I was prematurely tall, and this gave my father hope that I also had the potential to become what he thought of as a man.  But my greatest basketball skill was standing flatfooted, towering over everyone else on the court, waiting for rebounds to come my way.  The coach, Mr. Ludwig, taught me just where to stand and to be sure to always keep my arms extended above my head, easily well above everyone else’s.  This was hardly preparation for the very different, much more athletic and arduous requirements of crew.  Nonetheless, I was determined to persevere since I knew what was at stake for me—everything.
*    *    *
The coach arranged for his own version of orientation—just for the men of the Pickle Boat.  He told us to meet at 10:00 pm the night before the first practice in the Lion’s Den, the college’s version of a rathskeller, set in the dingy basement of John Jay Hall.  There, with all light supplied by candle stubs, with the walls sheathed with smoke-stained Teutonic stucco, the eight of us seated at a heavily carved beer hall table, with Coach Boone at the head, we received his charge: 
“Men, and I call you that in spite of the way you may have up to now been thinking about yourselves.”   He then muttered, chuckling to himself, “After all, look at you.”  And none of us, even without sneaking looks to our left and right, could not have disagreed with him. “But you are the sort of recruits I will mold into men.  You know about the Marines, don’t you?  Well, I was a Marine after leaving college.  I didn’t graduate, though I was on the varsity crew.  I wasn’t ready for college.  I was still a boy.  No need here to go into why I left college with a year to go.  Let’s just say it was because, thanks to crew, I was turned into a man and it was as a man that I was asked to leave college.”  More chuckling for reasons it was also easy for us to imagine. 
“It was hell there.  In Korea. We were up by the Yalu River one winter.  It was so cold, the proverbial Witch’s Tit, that I lost three of my toes to frost bite.  Couldn’t have rowed after that.”  He grunted.  “One guy in my company, he, well, I’ll tell you about him another time.  Forget his name to tell you the truth.”  We sat there careful to keep our eyes averted.  “Where was I?  Ah, yeah, right.  About the Marines.  Like I was saying, in the Marines I learned one thing—it’s not enough to be just a man.  It’s what you do as a man.  You will learn that from crew.  You will not need to join the Marines for that.”  Now his amusement was no longer suppressed—he burst into overt laughter, even pounding the table.  It was obvious to all of us that the prospect of any of us even thinking about becoming a Marine was to him an appropriately hilarious idea. 
“I know you have to go to class and do your studying.  After all, what would we do if you people, you men I mean, didn’t become our doctors and lawyers,” he winked at us.  “I’m sure you get my meaning here.”  Another wink.  “But I bet you’re wondering why I arranged this meeting for just the members of the Pickle Boat.”  Indeed, we had been wondering about that. “Well, let me relieve you of that one.  I know where you come from and I know as a result that none of you are natural athletes.”  And he added as another aside, “Not that the other two crews are much better.”  
He had a huge stein of beer and, as if contemplating his sorry situation, assigned by fate to be the coach of such a hopeless bunch, he took a moment to empty it.  “But I am just the man to turn you into a winning crew because I know who you really are and what you really think about yourselves and how desperate you are to leave your old ways behind and make something different of yourselves and therefore how hard you will work at this and will do everything I tell you to do without asking questions.  Because you know who I am and how you really want to be like me and not like the members of your families, who tomorrow morning will drag themselves back to their desks and spend the whole day squinting through their glasses at their ledger books.” 
He looked around the table at each of us slumped and squirming in our tooled-leather chairs, pausing at each of us until we with trepidation looked up to return his gaze and nod in silent compact.
“And so men, tomorrow will be the beginning of this new life.  Through the exercise routine I will teach you and our workouts on the river and the food I will tell you to eat (forget about the stuff your mothers made you eat at home).  If you do all of that, within six months, when you look in the mirror, you will no longer recognize yourselves.” 
If he had taken a vote, all of us would have agreed to give up even our mothers’ beloved noodle kuggel and brisket of beef if after six months, or for that matter six years, we would be unrecognizable to ourselves.
“And finally men, I forgot one thing—medications.  We’ve got to get you breathing.  So our trainer will get everyone all the antihistamines you need.” 
And with that, as a man, we leapt from our seats and spontaneously began to sing Columbia’s fight song, Roar, Lion, Roar.
*    *    *
Every afternoon at 3:30 a bus would pick us up outside our dorms, on Amsterdam Avenue, right by Saint Luke’s Hospital.  That you will see was fortuitous—to be picked up and dropped off right there at the entrance to the Emergency Room, which over time, considering the condition of my chest, lungs, and other fragile body parts was to become an important destination for me.
We would pile onto the Campus Coach bus, schlepping math and chemistry books along with us so we could cram in some homework on the long ride up the granite spine of Manhattan.  Every one of us was leading at least a dual life—crew member and academic grind.
At that legendary 1926 Boathouse, after changing, each crew would lift its shell from its rack in the shed and carry it, supported on our shoulders, down the steep and slippery hill to the launching dock where we would, in a single coordinated movement, drop it to our waists and then lean over to place it in the murky waters of the Spuyten Duyvil.  The fact that it took us a full two months to master this technique while building the muscle and long capacity so as to not pass out from the effort, and the fact that we also hadn’t mastered the coordination required to put the shell in the water in such a way as not to half fill it with river water, this should have alerted us to the fact that we weren’t to the crew born and we would never attain the even subtler forms of coordination required to become an effective crew.
And we should have looked up the meaning of the Dutch spuyten duyvil.   That would have alerted to another fact--that the 17th century Dykman family who owned the nearby and and named the waterway were prescient—for a spitting devil it indeed was to be.
Coach Boone rode in a power launch, positioning himself in the midst of his three crews, shouting instructions to us through a megaphone—
“Goldberg,” he roared, “You need to feather your oar.  You’re dragging it in the water and slowing the boat.”  (Goldberg was bent like a pretzel over his oar since his spine was rigid from some rare childhood disease of the spine.) 
“Gottlieb,” the coach boomed so powerfully through the megaphone that he could be heard all the way to Riverdale, “How many times have I told you to keep your eyes straight ahead?  By moving your head from side to side you’re rocking the boat.”  (Gottlieb wore glasses with lenses so thick that if held up to the sun could be used to start fires and were thus so hot that on the water they were always completely misted and he couldn’t see anything unless he looked out of the corners of his eyes by swiveling his head from side to side.) 
“Goodman,” in a voice filled with so much frustration we thought he was addressing all of us, “Use your legs, that’s where you get your power.”  (Goodman, even if he used his legs, which he didn’t since they were always a mass of cramps, would never be able to supply much power from his Number Five position, which was supposed to be the shell’s “engine room,” since his feet were so flat that he was required to wear steel arches even in his rowing booties, and as a result his feet kept slipping out of the boot stretchers that were secured to the bottom of the shell in order to anchor our feet in place.)
“Goldfarb,” the coach barked, “How many times do I have to tell you to breathe in when reaching forward and out when you pull on your oar?” (Goldfarb, the coach should have known, was so afflicted by fall allergies that he was lucky to be able to breathe either in or out when reaching with or pulling on his oar, even when supplied with a double-dose of the trainer’s antihistamines.)
“And Gutterman,” Sergeant Boone bellowed, almost snapping us to attention though we were slouched over our oars, “If you keep catching crabs whenever you try to lift your oar from the water, there will be no Olympics, no Roma for any of us.”  (The coach did not know that Gutterman was the only member of any of the three crews who ate strictly Kosher food; and so to keep picking on him for catching crabs, though it was an appropriate technical crew term for not extracting one’s oar smoothly from the water, to Gutterman it was still treyf, forbidden, unkosher, and got him so agitated that it assured he would catch enough crabs during every practice to keep even the busiest restaurant in Chinatown fully supplied.)
I did not escape.  As the coach seemed to do things alphabetically, after all the Gs, he finally got to the Z: “You, Number Seven, Zaslow,” he hurled at me in what sounded like mockery, “I was talking on the phone with your father last night and he told me that you skipped your workout last weekend.  No wonder you’re rowing like a girl.” 
My who?  On the phone with . . . ?  Rowing like what?  Though we were nearly done for the day, having already turned toward the boathouse, and everyone was so exhausted that our collective panting was more coordinated than our rowing, all those crunched behind me still managed to gather enough oxygen to be able to choke out sputtered bursts of laughter at either the fact that the coach was talking about my father or that he said I was rowing like a girl.  Even I knew that both were equally humiliating and perversely hilarious.
*    *    *
Perhaps it was psychosomatic, the result of knowing how Coach Boone and my father were conspiring, but at the end of the next day’s practice I needed to be lifted from the shell by my crewmates and carried up to the trainer’s room in the boathouse because I found that I couldn’t get out of the shell on my own—my body seemed rigidly locked in rowing position.
The trainer, Ray Fullerton, who was a Columbia fixture (campus wits claimed he had been with the college since it was named King’s College, after King George II), was waiting for me and was very reassuring, telling me that my condition was so common that he had seen dozens of crew members over the years bent just as I was, like a right angle bracket, and that he had a liniment he himself concocted many years ago that would fix me right up, “You’ll see,” he said with a slap on my back that sent a flame of pain down my left leg, “You’ll be back in the boat tomorrow afternoon.”   This was indeed reassuring since I had been worrying that it would take until at least the end of the year before I would be able to lie flat. 
After two of my crewmates dropped me onto the training table, Ray Fullerton rolled me onto my side and managed to pull down my sweatpants and rowing shorts to get to my throbbing hip even though he was afflicted by shakes so severe that the liquid he had compounded was splashing out of the bottle and onto the table.  I realized how potent it was since the leather where it dripped was already becoming bleached.  
And from that, I assumed it would burn right through me when he applied it to my left hip.  I knew, however, that if I could endure it, as did so many athletes before me, it would straighten me out and get me back into that boat.  And so I was relieved that it felt cool rather than hot when he rubbed it in with those knurled hands of his that had kneaded the muscles and joints of so many illustrious alums--some who had been on the Columbia football team that achieved the greatest upset in sports history back in 1934 by beating Stanford 7-0 in the Rose Bowl; others who had gone on to pro careers with the New York Knicks; and maybe even he had ministered to the great Lou Gehrig, who had played first base for Columbia in 1921 before becoming the Yankees’ Iron Horse.  I was indeed in good hands—Lionel Trilling for modern literature and Ray Fullerton for crippled backs. 
He told me that he would be applying a stick-on patch to cover the affected area and that later that night I might feel some heat beneath it.  I would know from that that it was working its magic.  He cut a huge circle about the size of a basketball from what looked like a rubber sheet and peeled off one layer to expose the gummed surface, which he then plastered to my hip joint. 
I already was experiencing some relief and thus feeling optimistic, as I was able to hobble to the bus without any assistance, still bent over to be sure, but ambulatory.  I did, though, need help getting into bed and once settled there immediately fell asleep on my side, still pretty much twisted in the shape of a right triangle.
*    *    *
At 3:00 A.M., emerging from a dream inexplicably set in a restaurant, I thought I smelled steak sizzling on a grill.  Just as I was marveling at the vividness of my dream, I realized, in panic, that the meat I smelled was me.  The flesh below the patch was broiling.  I was on fire. 
I tore at the patch and ripped it off, horrified to see a circle of skin adhering to it.  My skin.  And saw as well that my hip was now a enflamed mass of raw flesh.  My screams roused my room- and crewmate, Arty Gottlieb, who after groping for his bottle-thick eyeglasses was able to see the carnage.  He remained calm--he was after all a pre-med—and dragged me from my cot to the Emergency Room at St. Luke’s where, because I was triaged to the front of the line ahead of a teenager from Harlem who had been shot on the leg, I realized that my condition was either serious or that Columbia students were given automatic priority over anyone who lived down the slope and east of Morningside Park.
Sad to say, it turned out to be the latter because though my situation was nasty it was not as life threatening as a gunshot wound.  They patched me up and sent me back to the dorm, wrapped in gauze, telling me I needed to get x-rayed the next day to see what was really wrong with my hip.  It was suspected that what they would find would be beyond the experience of even a trainer who in the 1930s had treated the great quarterback Cliff (“Monty”) Montgomery.  I needed a doctor, not a trainer, and, I felt, a Jewish one at that.
*    *    *
It turned out that I needed more than a doctor— I needed a specialist, an orthopedist, and one that my family would consider the “biggest.”   In this case, he was a Doctor Phillips, decidedly not Jewish, who after a raft of x-rays determined that my hip muscle, the body’s largest and most powerful he informed me, that the gluteus maximus, from the strain of rowing and, he hinted, because of my faulty technique—one of the diplomas on the wall of his office was from Andover Academy, another from Princeton—that most powerful of muscles, even powerful in someone as weak as me, was in the process of pulling apart two of the fused pelvic bones that were supposed to remain fused, he said, if one was to avoid becoming a cripple for life.
He told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to refrain from crew practice for a few months and not do anything more strenuous than walk in a straight line.  “But what if I have to turn the corner from 116th Street onto Broadway?” I asked.  “I have my lab there.”
“Be sure to make a big circle,” he responded, sweeping his arms in a wide arc and then demonstrated by pacing off such a grand left turn in his huge waiting room that he had to ask someone to get up out of her chair and move it so he could complete the circuit and his instructions.  To drive them home, as he opened the door for me, indicating that that too might put too much strain on my pelvis, he said, “If you do what I say, when you come back to see me in a week maybe, just maybe you’ll still be able to walk.  Otherwise, it will be a wheelchair you’ll be needing.” 
I had not told my father about having to see a doctor much less a specialist.  When I initially injured myself I did tell him about it and he dismissively said, matter-of-factly, “All it needs is some Bengay.  Rub some in and you’ll be fine.”  Since I had been careful not to tell him about what the trainer had done, I certainly wasn’t going to bring up x-rays much less orthopedists.  So I did not mention my new technique for turning right and left or the specter of the wheelchair.
When a week later I returned to Dr, Phillip’s office on Park Avenue, Columbia had an arrangement with him to treat their athletes as part of the student health plan, I waited for another patient to arrive who was better able than I to open the door so I could slip in behind him.  When it was my turn to see the doctor, I reported that during the previous week I had been so diligent in following his instructions that I made only six left and four right turns.
This did not seem to impress him nor did the fact that I arrived without the assistance of a wheelchair.  He sat at his desk, half turned away from me, swiveling from side to side, not looking up but with his eyes riveted to the x-rays in my file.  After a few minutes of awkward silence, I managed to ask, “So, what’s next?”  He didn’t look up, “I am feeling much better.”
Still without looking at me, and in a voice quite different than the commanding one of the first visit, he spoke now in a subdued monotone, “I talked with Coach Boone yesterday and told him you could go back to practice next week.”  Stunned equally by his change in demeanor and the news, I felt myself stiffening.  “That is, as long as you go to St. Luke’s every afternoon before practice to get a Diathermy treatment.  That is a deep heat treatment.”
“But,” I interrupted, “I thought you told me last week that it would be at least a month before I could maybe resume practice.  You said, that is, if I hadn’t already turned into a cripple.”  In confusion and desperation, I peered at him.
Then almost in a whisper, he said, “I also spoke with your father . . . “
Who?” I exploded, not able to contain myself.
“. . . who told me,” he continued, looking down, “how important it was for you to get back to practice.  That the coach was getting the crew ready for the Olympics and it would soon be rowing season.  That without you . . . “
*    *    *
And so I found myself the following Monday in the Physical Therapy unit of St. Luke’s, where for a half hour I lay under the beam of the Diathermy machine, induced by it into a form of delirium that was perfect preparation for the trek to the boathouse and our practice, which I sensed the coach shortened that afternoon in deference to my condition.
This routine went on for two weeks.  As if I had been transformed into an automaton, before getting on the bus, I would go up to the fourth floor of the hospital where I would lay on an electrical plate inserted beneath my hip, what the technician called an “indifferent electrode,” which would serve as the “receptor” for the electrical current they shot through my body to produce the desired inner heat.  Though the contraption within which I was placed looked like a cross between Rube Goldberg and Dr. Frankenstein machines, it seemed to work because I was feeling better and was able to participate in the workouts that were gathering in intensity as the coach sensed I was strengthening.  And because the rowing season was just two months away and he needed to get us ready for the first race, which was against dreaded Yale and terrifying Harvard.
*    *    *
It was freezing on the river that February, so much so that when the ice pack began to break up in the Hudson River, some of it flowed through the Spuyten Duyvil and down into the Harlem where we practiced.  There were so many miniature icebergs in the river that our coxman was hard pressed to keep our fragile shell clear of them.
Just as I was about to be fully restored, and began thinking that maybe I could taper off the treatments so I could get back to the chemistry lab I had been cutting, very late one Thursday afternoon at the end of the month, as we were sliding up to the dock, shivering against the stiffening wind, Coach Boone pulled his launch right up alongside our shell.
Leaning toward us, without needing his megaphone he was so close, he spoke in a weary voice, one we had never before heard, “Boys,” he said, “Remember that night in the Lion’s Den when I told you that I knew you better than you knew yourselves?”  We nodded our heads in such unison that the shell did not rock, “And how I said to you that if you did everything I told you to do you could have a life about which you were only just imagining and were even afraid to acknowledge?”  More nodding, still no rocking, but now with our eyes, as then, averted.  “Well, I am worried about you now.  I am concerned that that dream will elude you.  As mine did.  Remember I told you about that too?”
We sensed he was now talking even more to himself than to us.   “You may think my life was very different than yours.  Well, you’re wrong.  You know nothing about me.  My real name isn’t even ‘Boone.’  My father changed it when I was two years old.  He wanted a different life for me than his own.  And look what I did with it.  I threw it away.”  Though he then turned away from us, we still could hear him, “So as a result here I am, what, coaching a Pickle Boat.”
He then wheeled back toward us, his face suddenly aflame with rage, “Goldberg,” he spat, pointing at him with such ferocity that to Goldberg and the rest of us it felt as if his finger was piercing our chests, “You of all people, I have learned that you were smoking.  I told you that was absolutely forbidden.  You’re pissing away all the hard work.”  He had never used that kind of language before, “You, with that spine of yours.  You don’t even belong in this pathetic boat.” 
With a look of disgust, he turned to the rest of us, “And what’s the matter with you—Goldfarb, Goodman, Gutterman?”  His string of G’s stung like bullets.  “And you, you, Zaslow, with your Diathermy treatments?  You knew what he was up to and what did you do?  Nothing.  That’s what you did.  Nothing.  You and your father.”  He couldn’t even look at me.
He was using the megaphone again even though he was just a few feet from us.  I felt as if my head would shatter.
“And for that, so all of you will follow my orders, today we’re doing extra practice.  We’re going back down the river as far as Yankee Stadium.  That will help you remember.”  And with that he jolted his launch to starboard and roared off while we wearily turned in the Duyvil toward the rush of the Harlem River. 
But just as we managed to come about and get ourselves oriented to the south, as full darkness settled over us and the water, before we could even respond to the coxman’s, “Ready all, row,” we slammed into a huge chunk of ice that likely had formed a month earlier ninety miles north up the Hudson near Albany.
And with that the shell began to fill with icy river water.  The razor sharp ice had cut through the vulnerable shell as if it were a huge scalpel.  In what felt like seconds, the entire boat was full and it and we slowly sank into the river.  To the depth of our equally vulnerable chests.  Where we came to rest. 
Somehow Coach Boone had sensed disaster and looped back to us; and through his megaphone, his voice now calm, instructed us to remain in the shell and to keep our oars extended.  If we did that we would not sink any further and he could then come alongside and transfer us one by one, alternating starboard and port, to keep us on even keel, until all of us were in the launch with him and he would get us back safely to the dock. 
He promised that, and we believed him as we had, in truth, believed him about everything else.
*    *    *
The next day, the college paper, the Spectator, had all the details and proclaimed them in lurid headlines that compared the Pickle Boat to the Titanic—the smoking incident; the extra practice; the sinking; the rescue; the fact that all of us were kept overnight in St. Luke’s “for observation”; that we were OK by the next day; that since the freshmen crew now had only two shells, the Pickle Boat would be disbanded (they happily did not refer to it as we knew it); and that the coach, Coach “Bloom” they misnamed him, had been “granted leave for the rest of the year.” 
But as with so many newspapers, they got the facts right but missed the real story—that though it appeared that he was attempting to motivate us by continually talking about the Rome Olympics, he was up to something very different; they failed to report that he knew what we really wanted to attain was equally foreign yet sensed in us the capacity to get there if we made the right kind of effort; that he knew what that effort entailed and that it was about techniques and endurance and powers that were not learned nor played out on rivers or in shells; the Spectator as well did not write that he also knew that this could never be discussed, that it needed to be kept within our covert circle; and that “crew” was a metaphoric world in which the symbols of these aspirations could emerge; they did not report that Coach Boone understood that he had sought those very same assimilist dreams and, though he had failed, he had chosen to devote his life to boys such as us who he knew could learn more of what we really needed from his example than from anyone else on campus. 
Also not reported was what we knew--about this, too, he was right.
*    *    *
Two years later, on an April Saturday, having borrowed my father’s battered car, I drove down to Princeton, to watch the crew races between the Yale, Harvard, and Princeton crews (being sure to park it well out of sight), historic races that was held annually on Carnegie Lake, a man-made marvel devoted just to racing. 
It was a day so glorious that it appeared it too had been created by God and man to accommodate these ancient rivals.
Sitting on the grass embankment, which also had been shaped into a perfect perch from which to see the entire two thousand meters of the course, I was reminded of what my father was thinking when he dropped me off for my first day at college with the admonition to go out for the crew—his sense that crew served as a form of social alchemy, a hermetic process through which the base-metal boys from places such as Brooklyn were transmuted into gilded men such as those one finds in late April on Carnegie Lake.
But by then I knew that alchemy was a failed science of dreaming and that even the great man for whom this lake was named and paid for, Carnegie, had never gone to college.