Back in dogland

Thrown retreads looking like black snails slumbering at the side of the road. White lines slapping up the SUV.

We’re on a mission that could have been dealt with using airplanes and a rental car. But some perverse reason impelled us to take a road trip to get a dog. Two thousand miles from Prescott, Arizona, to Grand Rapids, Michigan, then the same miles back, with a side jaunt to Toledo, Ohio, to look in on my sister.

We found a druggy Motel 6 on the last leg home, formerly a lush suite, within whose faded glory was a jacuzzi. Barb overloaded it with her traveling mixture of Epsom salts and baking soda, creating a bubblestorm. But as you can see she enjoyed it.

I’m burned out. And the work’s only just begun.

We thought to call her Scout, like Atticus Finch’s tomboy daughter. A friend wondered at the name, which seemed to her a boy’s name. Oh well, not everyone’s onto my literary allusions. After the obligatory period of doubting myself, I’ve decided the hell with it, Scout it is.

She’s a scrapper, like all Airedales, which she mostly is but for the quarter poodle. I’m not a poodle guy but went along. Barb wanted this kind of breed, a hypoallergenic dog that satisfies her aesthetic standard and spares me pet-induced sneezing, nose blowing, and wheezing when allergies are bad enough just living in Prescott. She found two breeders in the U.S., one in Tennessee, one in Michigan. We chose Michigan, figuring we could make a special trip of it, look in on Nina on the way back. She’s in a Toledo group home after a crisis that almost left her homeless. I wrote about my involvement in this harrowing adventure, soon to be released on Bob Gitlin Press. Thank God she’s all right.

The breeder sent photos of the growing litter. Barb picked the one she wanted. I found myself satisfied with the look of the dogs. They were so damn cute. So now we’ve got the dog.

Everything’s cool, right? I hope so.

“And we will know peace,” say the AA “Promises.”

Nina with Scout at a Toledo public park

Yeah? I had to get up at one forty-five a.m. because Scout was yipping in her crate and I had to run outside with her so she could pee. Good thing I was able to sleep more, till dawn. But the big problem came later, at sunrise.

I so value getting up early, usually in the dark, making coffee, getting online to read my newspapers. Been writing that book, so I might comb through it yet again. Or blog, as I’m doing now. My time. Now that easy routine is gone. It reminds me of when we had our last dog, the beloved pain-in-the-ass Rosa. But I wouldn’t trade this challenge for the year and a half of “ease” pending Rosa’s ascension to the canine happy hunting ground. Yes, we loved Rosa, and Scout has some big shoes to fill. But we already adore the curious little fur ball, who’s about ten weeks old.

I LEARNED A HARD LESSON. Today at dawn I got Scout out of her crate and let her knock around in the kitchen while I ground beans and started a pot on my cheapo drip coffeemaker.

“Fuck it. Nothing happens till I have my coffee. This, above all else, must be established.”

Had a hard time launching that new mantra.

I had her on my lap in the living room while I listened to the belching machine. I like to play with the furry pup, but when she mistakes my wrists and hands for pin cushions I’ve got issues. Since we picked her up in Michigan I’ve applied five band-aids. I threw her off my lap onto the living room rug, where she investigated the contents of the room, deciding which object presented the best grip-and-tear opportunity. You have to watch her constantly, ready to shoot out of your chair and pull her away from the afghan or pillow she would rip to shreds. Those razor teeth are how she feels her way through the world. At 68, how much energy do you have to continually “redirect” her toward a sanctioned chew toy? She has four: big and little rope toys, a plastic bone, and a squeaky fabric thing that lets her mimic the experience of crushing the life out of chipmunk. I do my best to keep her from chewing up my flesh or our house, ever fighting the urge to rest.

Me with Scout in the Toledo Metropark, perhaps uttering a silent vow to be tough on her for her own good

I got halfway through that first cup, letting her back up onto the couch, then batting her away, before I figured I’d have better luck if I fed her now, waited the industry-standard twenty minutes, during which I might better enjoy my coffee, then took her out to do her business.

So I set down her bowls of food and water, sipped coffee while listening to her crunch and slurp and lap from her drinking dish, then let her return to the living room with me.

Where she promptly pooped.

On the positive side, it was a solid one. Easy paper-towel cleanup.

I stood shivering in sweatpants, T-shirt, and moccasins outside the bedroom window, holding Scout on the end of a leash, having slammed the barn door after the horse fled. It was a blowy, chilly Prescott morning, biped and quadruped alike negotiating the stony, weedy downslope of the side lot Barb bought so nobody builds there.

A wakened Barb asked out the window how things were going.

“Fine. She ate. She’s shit, and she’s gonna pee.”

Not really a lie, is it?

Next feeding, she eats, then gets crated. She holds back there, lets us know if she has to go. I shall wait twenty minutes before taking her out and into the side yard; or throw her into the car right after eating, drive to a grassy place that mimics the turf of her Michigan provenance, and, by the time we get to Granite Park or Courthouse Plaza, she’s fully digested and ready to, uh, go.

Damn, this is work! I’ve got to stay on top of it. Figure out a way to run this dog’s life, not let her run mine. But, like the song says, I’m willin’.

I had such fun goofing around with her yesterday on the grass of Granite Park, running around like a damn fool and watching her scamper behind me. It’s nice to have a friend.

Unplugged and unperturbed

I went camping with my wife and it was interesting how easy it was for this electronically addicted old dude to adapt to camp life.

Not pictured here: our new purchase, a Ford Tioga Ranger 2008/09 motorhome (we aren’t sure the year) we bought from a kindly retiree who, at 80, decided he and his wife were ready to drop anchor. Barb and I are 67 and 68 respectively, “young” and full of piss and vinegar and travel lust. Tell that to us when we’re trying to heave our old bones out of the bed wedged between walls at the back of the RV. I find the best move is to lean forward using abdominal muscles and, knuckling down on the mattress like a gorilla, heave forward the rest of the way to vault myself off the foot of the bed.

I know how to manage the utilities, though we’ve been loath to do a number-two in the little toilet that reminds my wife of an airplane commode. We both have camped so far only in places with nice outhouses, and have availed ourselves of such amenities for shits. (Aren’t you glad you’re reading this?) We’ve peed plenty in our RV toilet and will in fact graduate to shitting in it as well, particularly as I have overcome my phobias about the internal plumbing and apocryphal “poop pyramids” in the black tank. I’m adept at “dumping,” clearing greywater and blackwater from the RV before storing it for next time. The whole raft of skills one needs to manage this rolling home was new to me, but I’m learning.

Nothing like warming yourself by a wood fire and sipping coffee of a chill morning.

Camping at Yavapai Campground was nice, though I paid too much for the site, having forgot to apply my senior discount. Live and learn. There are lots of places you can camp for free.

We hiked Trail 261, the main Granite Mountain trail. But mostly we just hung out by the campground and enjoyed learning how to live out of the RV. I whiled away the hours reading an old book I had lying around. I thought I’d read it before, but its pages unspooled like fresh revelations. I refer to the 1927 criminal confession You Can’t Win by Jack Black. No, not the School of Rock Jack Black, though I definitely see kindred spirits, fellow outlaw personalities.

Days went by and I didn’t care to plug in the laptop I’d brought along, though I could have turned on the generator and done so. I was happy sitting in my camp chair watching the sun go from one side of the sky to the other. I forgot to bring along cell phone chargers, and our phones ran down and we shut them down and didn’t care. Barb admitted that she didn’t mind not having her nose stuck in her iPad. “I mostly did that out of boredom.”

My favorite part of the excursion was rising at dawn, going outside to throw new wood on still-hot embers from the previous night’s fire – the site being provided with a tall, metal-ring-bound, utterly safe fire pit, with two grates to cook on, one high, one law, that swing into place – and, having made coffee in the RV using the generator for ten minutes, sitting out there sipping coffee and warming up, throwing new twigs and logs on, and letting my mind wake up. I think next time I’ll dust off this old percolator I have and not have to use the noisy generator.

Cooking was the best. We grilled steaks and heated a pot of beans on that open fire. The motorhome has a good fridge. Barb made eggs on the stove and found, among supplies left there by the previous owners, a toaster to make toast.

My wife, the camp cook. We sizzled steaks in my cast-iron pan and did a pot of beans over the open fire too. I love making food and eating outside.

We’re getting good at this. I have mastered the plumbing. I know how to use the propane and I know how to use the electricity. Hell, driving the thing is the easiest task of all. You just have to go slow. That’s a big rig. I like to think having the RV will center me, force me out of the last spasms of hurry that are so at war with the spirit of a retiree contemplative.

We’re getting a new dog soon, and by God I’m gonna train that pup so we never have to suffer the shame of people coming over and the dog snatches a sandwich off their plate. We blew it with Rosa, may she rest in place, beloved old friend. We’re looking forward to having three characters in the house again, the stationary and rolling home both. Barb and I want to take the RV down to Rocky Point, in Mexico, in October, with our new four-legged companion.

The RV’s getting used. It’s not just sitting in storage in Chino. My brother Marty will be visiting from Cleveland late in June and wants us to take it out for an adventure. I’m thinking more dry camping (that’s where you don’t have a site’s electricity and water to plug into but must use your own) near enough to a town and to bars and bands playing to satisfy him, because he don’t hike and I’m afraid of his, “What the hell do we do all day?” in spite of his saying he wants to road-warrior with big bro. So I’ve got just the right place picked out, where he can plug in his computer and the wireless signal is strong.

Hey, this being retired ain’t so bad.

Below: An early look up to the right along Trail 261. Barb and I didn’t get all the way up Granite Mountain this time. Maybe next time. I loved hiking Granite with Rosa, my old dog. We were quite the athletic pair: from leaving the SUV to getting back to it, we got shaved down to three and a half hours, even with us snacking and watering up at the top.

Violence for its own sake? Deal me out.

“Bang, bang, shoot ’em up.”

That’s what Barb says when she catches me watching something she finds too violent.

It’s got me wondering whether I’m “into violence” onscreen. Do I love it for its own sake?

The answer is no.

My wife and I have been trying to pirate entertainments using a device called the “fire stick,” which, if you are studious and into spending whole weeks watching YouTube videos, you can use to skirt commercial platforms and get stuff for free. After an initial period of success, we spazzed, not knowing how to “clear the cache.” I was unable to watch the Super Bowl and was plenty steamed about it. Sometimes I wonder if “killing cable” was a good idea.

Sam Elliott as Shea Brennan, a Pinkerton agent, in 1883.

One of the things we did get a free look at was Yellowstone, a violent modern-day Western penned by the talented Taylor Sheridan, who wrote Hell or High Water, a film about two brothers who turn bank robber in reaction to a lending system rigged against poor folks. I loved that movie. Jeff Bridges never had a better role.

Yellowstone’s about a hard-ass modern day cowboy clan who act like a mafia gang. Only instead of slain capos covered with blood and spaghetti, you have characters shot and dry-gulched in lush, mountainous Montana. It holds your interest awhile, especially with a character called Beth Dutton (played by an English actress) who’s got more balls than ten men put together. But the show, starring a heavy-set, aged and grumbling Kevin Costner as head of the clan, begins to sicken.

Seeing a real estate opportunist hanged (there’s a plot twist I won’t divulge) sent me and Barb to bed wondering why we were still watching the show. We couldn’t shake the image of the poor guy kicking and clawing at his neck as he dangled. His wickedness bona fides didn’t even merit the punishment.

At the beginning of season three, we bailed. We got tired of every plot problem being solved by violence, each successive barbarism having to be more grisly and horrific than the last to titillate viewers. I found the violence prurient and was not interested. Nor was Barb.

Yeah, she’s easy on the eyes, but this bitch scares me. Kelly Reilly as Beth Dutton in Yellowstone.

Then we got the fire stick to give us a free look at Sheridan’s Yellowstone prequel, 1883, and, though it suffered from some of the same problems as the other show, we found it less obvious about using violence to solve problems. The frontier had been a cauldron of maiming and scalping, rape and torture, as my reading of books on Comanche and Apache histories, and white reprisals, have underscored for me. But 1883 was psychologically complex and held our interest all the way through its single season.

A tough pioneer woman is shot through the belly with an Indian arrow in the first episode. The succeeding installments provide a flashback during which we wait to see whether the wound, as it surely appeared, was fatal. In the interim, we get a look at the raw nerve of frontier men and women. Sam Elliott’s scout signs up to lead a clan of unarmed German religious pacifists through hostile country to Oregon. He deals with acute private agonies as he does service to this selfless and seemingly fruitless enterprise. Rage looks good on this smiling drawler. I never saw Elliott in a better role. I didn’t see any violence that didn’t belong there, that wasn’t organic.

I just watched, again, The Wild Bunch, a powerful and iconic Western with a mythic aura, though it’s about a gang of thugs. At the end, the massacre at a Mexican outlaw-army redoubt – orchestrated lovingly by Sam Peckinpah, with slow motion and a thousand exploding squibs – represents a true apotheosis.

Ben Jonson, Warren Oates, William Holden, and Ernest Borgnine going to get their amigo back in The Wild Bunch, a violent masterpiece.

There is a moral center here: a Mexican member of the gang. Angel burns with ambivalence about helping this dubious “general” win more guns to terrorize Mexican peasantry. He’s allowed to take one of the sixteen cases of rifles the gang would steal for the corrupt outlaw army, giving them instead to peasant insurgents. The heist, and the escape from a pursuing posse, constitute a perfect set piece, rip-snorting good entertainment.

The gang get their bags of gold. But Gen. Mapache has found Angel out and wrests him from the gang and tortures him. The gang have told Angel he’s on his own, they can’t cover for him; their hands are tied as Angel is lassoed into captivity by the men he hates.

But it gnaws at them and the bunch decide, after a last night drinking and whoring, to try to get him back, even buy him back, what’s left of him. In any event to die trying. When I first saw this movie, in 1969, I didn’t know what to make of the massacre. Now I see the “Battle of Bloody Porch,” which scholars have come to call the five-minute scene climaxing the film — Mexicans mowed down and our American antiheroes meeting their grim appointment with glory — as a brilliant and necessary device.

After a short denouement, a flashback reprises the bunch’s visit to Angel’s Mexican village, the men riding away to the strains of the haunting and beautiful “La Golondrina,” and “The End” snugly fitted inside a box within the widescreen canvas … and we know we’ve really been through something. Something more than a paean to an outlaw culture already fading during the time frame of the film, the early 1900s.

The Wild Bunch is a work of art, and in fact inspired the writing of Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader admits in the short documentary, “Making Taxi Driver.” The final explosion of Travis Bickle follows from what came before. Taxi Driver is a profound meditation on alienation and violence in America, to be studied and discussed, and never more relevant than now.

And so there it is. Violence well used and violence used because some people, without being aware of it, just like to see violence. There are people out there who like snuff movies. I can’t do anything about that. I can’t even do anything about people rallying to the defense of Will Smith, even those – especially those — using their blackness, sense of street cred, or being from Philadelphia as excuses.

It’s not easy, but I like to watch where my heart is at. And I always thought that heroes, from the ancient Hebrews to the Greeks, were slow to anger, and in the end thirsting for nothing more than peace.

Is not being ugly worth the stress?

I got so tired of people commenting on the bags under my eyes, I forked over four grand for a “lower blepharoplasty.”

My dad had this procedure when he did PR for the Greater Cleveland Hospital Association. He had a lot of dough, was big on operations, knew a lot about the medical field.

“There’s an operation for that” was his mantra. My grandmother got a hemorrhoid removal procedure courtesy of this magnanimous man who, like most Jews, revered what doctors could do.

When Dad had his eye bags fixed, the surgeon took fat from his butt and used it to fill in where the offending half-circles scooped creases under his eyeballs.

My plastic surgeon said that’s not how they do it now. He explained how, when I was young, muscles held the eyeballs inside the cranium, but over the years they slackened and sags formed. After anesthesia, he would slice away the fat inside those bags and sew me up, stitching horizontally and (for extra lift and to prevent new sagging) vertically along the outer edge of each eye.

I almost didn’t go through with it.

Last time I’d been under general anesthesia, for a procedure to remove nasal polyps, I wound up with the unpleasant aftereffect of having to wear a catheter for eleven days. I guess you could say the experience stayed with me.

What a horror. I blew up and almost exploded, bladder bloating me out like a pregnant woman, the day after the procedure. I got hold of the ENT, who, called out of surgery, said, “Go to the hospital to be catheterized,” and hung up. I was dazed and starting to ache and swell bigger as Barb drove me to the Yavapai Regional Medical Center emergency room, where I sat for three hours, swelling bigger and bigger. I hobbled to the rest room to squeeze out bloody drops.

Once upon a time you exploded inside and died from this.

Yeah, I pee with a vengenace now. (Deposit Photos)

I could have kissed the male nurse who finally got me on that bed and drove that tube up and punctured the bladder. An ocean of pee spilled into a plastic bag, to the amazement of staffers. My belly shrank back down flat, like a deflated balloon.

I went home and had a new life. Had to release a petcock valve along my shin to splash my wee-wee into the toilet. An erection became moot, a memory. However sporadic or muted our mutual passion as a married couple had become, my wife, as she ran meals to me and left me home to go to work, had to have wondered what she’d gotten into being married to Bob Gitlin.

Doom enveloped me, a grim speculative intensity as I sat on the couch and watched Netflix and Amazon Prime. Would I ever be normal again?

I made the mistake of getting on the phone and letting the old crone subbing for me at Mayer High School know all the gory details explaining my extended absence. It got around. I would return to work having lost a good deal of whatever face I’d had with the kids.

Experiences like this have led me to a new philosophy. You’ve probably heard “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” I say, “You’re only as sick as your inability to keep your secrets.” Wisdom can be a practical business, a left handed affair.

But I was scared.

Even the urologist the experience had forced me to meet said at the door of his office on that eleventh day, my dick swinging tentatively free, “Good luck,” sounding uncertain. Neither he nor the other urologist at the clinic seemed sure I’d go home and urinate. I might come back, as they said I could, to be re-catheterized.

I sent hysterically relieved emails around after I’d peed, inviting an amusing response from one old friend which invoked junior high humor, something about “Golden Waters” by “I.P. Daily.”

Barb and I fought about what had put my bladder to sleep in the first place. I knew the culprit was the Atropine or whatever knockout fog the anesthetist had given me; Barb said I did it to myself from taking the Oxys the doctor had prescribed, as well as all that Benadryl to sleep and nose breathe for weeks before going in for the procedure, which by the way did clear my nose.

When I got home from the plastic surgery — relieved I could pee, a fact I’d established in the clinic after coming out of the fog — Barb withheld the hydrocodone the plastic surgeon had prescribed. She’d confiscated the bottle. Nor would she let me have any of those pills a few days later, when I explained that an old friend, a respected physician, with whom I’d just spoken, had vindicated my original conviction about the anesthesia having put my bladder to sleep that other time.

Me, almost a week after the plastic surgery. I better get a lot less ugly than this.

She seemed not to hear me. I wondered whether she simply liked seeing me suffer. She must have told herself she was married to an addictive personality, and she would be right, I suppose. Ours has been a bitter history at times. So I suffered the post-op swelling and pain with naught but Tylenol.

Probably a good idea on general principle. I was proud of myself for toughing it out. And people can take more pain than they think they can. In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest a recovering addict, after being sliced up in a knife fight, opts to suffer surgery with no opiate.

Yeah, I guess it was a good thing. I wouldn’t need to consider “reintroducing myself,” declaring a new sobriety date, though nobody in AA would begrudge a man in my shoes an opioid.

I slept, or tried to, sitting up the first five days. Was not able to exercise but for a little housework. Lay back with cold compresses over my eyes. Listened to NPR on soft.

Today marks the ninth day since the operation. The mild depression from the enforced idleness I’ve since allayed by going out, wearing sunglasses, driving places, doing things. Going to stores. I drove to a storage lot in Chino to check a problem State Farm made me aware of, regarding a discrepancy in the report of the VIN on a motorhome we just bought.

I get my stitches out today. That should bring the swelling and bruising down and liberate me further from damning seclusion.

When Barb catches me alone, she points the finger of accusation. I’d do anything to make her shut up about my alleged alienation and friendlessness. I’d even go back to four days a week at Walmart if she doesn’t like how retirement looks on me. Hell, if this swelling goes down, I don’t have to be self-conscious about being seen in that fluorescent lit cavern anymore.

What price vanity? Looks aren’t everything.

‘Dreaming in the immensity of it’: Why ON THE ROAD is still worth the trip

On the Road was one of the riskiest projects in my years teaching “at risk” Arizona teens, but I found soulful readers who fell in love with this monument to spontaneous prose, and with its distinctly spiritual energy.

Kerouac looking handspome here, though he would destroy himself with booze. (Photo by the Allen Ginsberg Project)

English Journal, a magazine put out by the National Council of Teachers of English, ran a feature by a New York high school teacher who had set up a “coffee shop,” replete with reading lamps and lounge chairs, and led his pupils through a nonstop read-through of On the Road. When they finished, one girl got on the subway and broke down crying. She was wrung out, beatified by Jack Kerouac’s vision of America.

In this autobiographical first-person book, Sal Paradise, based on Kerouac, is inspired by Dean Moriarty, the Denver wildcat based on the real-life Neal Cassady, who mostly made his living as a railroad brakeman.

When Moriarty writes Sal, exhorting him to see the country, Sal thumbs a ride out of New England and heads West. He winds up in prairie country and flops in a bare rustic room, the likes of which once were available across post-WWII America, near the railroad tracks. This leads to a weird experience.

I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, a stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life between the East of my youth and the West of my future.

Sal is there not as participant so much as chronicler, tracking and cataloguing a quest for the soul of America. That is why this book, as Beat scholar Ann Charters said, can be spoken of in the same breath as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Great Gatsby.

The sense of the wandering ghost brooding across America sustains our interest throughout the rogues’ gallery. One particularly well drawn characterization is that of Old Bull Lee, based on William S. Burroughs. On a foray into Morocco in his Parts Unknown CNN show, Anthony Bourdain called Burroughs the only Beat writer who was worth a damn. Did Bourdain read Kerouac’s affectionate sketch of the junky Mandarin in On the Road? He also should have enjoyed the portrait of Burroughs at the end of one of Kerouac’s latter books, Desolation Angels: the Burroughs of Tangiers, the wry ghoul who crafted Naked Lunch.

Neal Cassady on the bus with Kesey, after being mythologized as Dean Moriarty in On the Road. (Photo by wbur.org)

Humor abounds in good Kerouac. Not far from the end of On the Road, Dean Moriarty, the charismatic focus of the story, and Sal are reduced to spending the night in an all-hours Detroit movie theater. This experience blooms into another cosmic reflection.

The people who were in that all-night movie were the end. Beat Negroes who’d come up from Alabama to work in car factories on a rumor; old white bums; young longhaired hipsters who’d reached the end of the road and were drinking wine; whores, ordinary couples, and housewives with nothing to do, nowhere to go, nobody to believe in. If you sifted all Detroit in a wire basket the beater solid core of dregs couldn’t be better gathered. The picture was Singing Cowboy Eddie Dean and his gallant white horse Bloop, that was number one; number two double-feature film was George Raft, Sidney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre in a picture about Istanbul. We saw both of these things six times each during the night. We saw them waking, we heard them sleeping, we sensed them dreaming, we were permeated completely with the strange Gray Myth of the West and the weird dark Myth of the East when morning came. All my actions since then have been dictated automatically to my subconscious by this horrible osmotic experience.

One of my high school students found in the final, Mexico section a moment that alerted me to another instance of this “ghost” motif. Dean, Sal, and a friend, Stan, spend a night in a bordello drinking, smoking marijuana, and consorting with prostitutes while deafening mambo pulsates through the place. Then this wasted crew somehow gets it together to hit the road again for the final descent to Mexico City. The prose is exquisite, breathtaking, and vivid. Ravaged by tropical insects, unable to sleep in the torpor — “I got out of the car and stood swaying in the blackness” — Sal climbs onto the roof of the bug-spattered car and tries to find a cooling bed to await the dawn. He may have slept, he may not have, when he is visited by a Jungian archetype.

… I saw an apparition: a wild horse, white as a ghost, came trotting down the road directly toward Dean. Behind him the dogs yammered and contended. I couldn’t see them, they were dirty old jungle dogs, but the horse was white as snow and immense and almost phosphorescent and easy to see. I felt no panic for Dean. The horse saw him and trotted right by his head, passed the car like a ship, whinnied softly, and continued on through town, bedeviled by the dogs, and clip-clopped back to the jungle on the other side, and all I heard was the faint hoofbeat fading away in the woods. The dogs subsided and sat to lick themselves. What was this horse? What myth and ghost, what spirit? I told Dean about it when he woke up. He thought I’d been dreaming. Then he recalled faintly dreaming of a white horse, and I told him it had been no dream.

Once they get their asses in gear and motor on, motor-mad Dean, as ever, at the wheel, Kerouac furthers this sense of the spiritual odyssey in the encounter with Indian girls trying to sell crystals in the mountain pass. Kerouac redeems the reckless adventurer Dean with delineations of the saint.

He got out of the car and went fishing around in the battered trunk in the back – the same old tortured American trunk – and pulled out a wristwatch. He showed it to the child. She whimpered with glee. The others crowded around with amazement. Then Dean poked in the little girl’s hand for “the sweetest and purest and smallest crystal she has personally picked from the mountain for me.” He found one no bigger than a berry. And he handed her the wristwatch dangling. Their mouths rounded like the mouths of chorister children. The lucky little girl squeezed it to her ragged breastrobes. They stroked Dean and thanked him. He stood among them with his ragged face to the sky, looking for the next and highest and final pass, and seemed like the Prophet that had come to them.

America itself, or North America, has mythic dimension and might be called the ultimate subject of On the Road. When, at the end, Dean and Sal have a final, sad confrontation on the streets of New York, missing connections, one man going one way, one the other, Kerouac creates an ending narrative that has become regarded as one of the great story endings of all time. Burroughs compared it to the culminating paragraph of James Joyce’s long short story “The Dead,” which melds Ireland and the churning Atlantic with the spiritual drama of the humans incarnated across the land.

Mick Jagger paying a visit to William Burroughs in New York. Rock stars, also including Kurt Cobain, David Bowie, and Lou Reed, were drawn to Burroughs’s unflinching literary lens. (Photo by telegraph.co.uk)

Here’s the Joyce:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

And now, the Kerouac, which includes a reference to Dean Moriarty’s own father, an estranged wino bum who drifted into his own harsh anonymity:

So in America, when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.

Amen.

If I’m done taking drugs, why am I still reading all this hippie literature?

The last drugs I did was a joint I smoked Dec. 3, 2004, along with the most joyless beer a man ever drank, before going back to an AA meeting with my tail between my legs the very next day.

Not a rollicking relapse story. I quit using recreational drugs at a time when I was good and ready.

Don’t drink either. I have become the consummate AA bore. This helps when assholes recoil from my fellowship, seeing how it won’t be lubricated the only way that makes sense to them. It hurts when people I like retreat from me because of my sober remove or, worse, sweat through an evening trying to act like they’re having fun following my squinting agenda of political discussion when they’d rather have an inebriated giggle and forget everything.

I’ve even considered going back out, but I stay straight. It’s like my one accomplishment, I’ve told myself, in a life that has seemed a little shy of victories.

I still find truths, and much useful personal philosophy, in early Castaneda. I don’t care whether it’s anthropology or fiction.

And yet, despite my adamant new lifestyle, I keep reading what I call my old “hippie books,” books by writers who used drugs or tell stories involving them.

I am always rereading Journey to Ixtlan, though I’m self-conscious about keeping the dog-eared, green-covered paperback, with its illustration of a soaring bird, by my bedside. Barb’s forever chiding me how I must have memorized it by now. I never tire of passages in which wise Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan, who once administered peyote sessions, illuminates self-pitying Carlos Castaneda about the warrior’s mood and erasing personal history.

I recently loaded onto my Kindle William S. Burroughs’s incendiary Naked Lunch. I’d had a paperback copy and angrily thrown it away many years ago. I figured it was bad for me. But upon my rereading it, again I was amazed and shocked by the powerful vision and burlesque genius of “The Examination,” a melding of Kafka and The Godfather of Punk’s aberrant sexuality. But there’s still a lot of disturbing stuff you have to slog through.

Why must I know every detail about the individual and intertwined lives of the Beats? I caught myself perusing yet again passages in the latter-day Kerouac Desolation Angels about his sojourn with Burroughs in Tangier, eating opium and majoun and picking stems and seeds from his teeth, blasted out of his gourd. And how many tours have I taken of On the Road? I love the lyricism and tacit commentary infusing this paean to the real America, not the propaganda billboard.

I still enjoy reading about Kerouac’s friendship with William Burroughs, and the introduction by Jack’s girlfriend is brilliant.

I, of all people, who was ill served by my experiments with drugs, going back to high school, a boy who’d have been better off hitting adolescence during the crewcut Eisenhower era, should hate drugs. I’ve had traumatizing bummers on acid to more than balance off my beatitudes. But there’s old Be Here Now gracing my shelves as ever.

Now, in my retirement, I’m working for nobody but myself. I’ve been thinking a lot about how I used to comport myself when I was “free” to do whatever I wanted. And so, like a drill sergeant, I order my days. Visits to the gym. Five-mile hikes. Twenty- or thirty-page swatches in any of three or four books I’m making myself get through. Cooking responsibilities now I’ve no excuse for not rattling pots and pans while my wife straggles on part time at the flower store.

I go to a few AA meetings a week and hear myself making speeches about how I’m happy. But sometimes as I drive home I wonder, given my teeth-grinding existential battle for survival, marital and otherwise, what got into me. Life hasn’t stopped being hard.

But I’m better now than I was 20 years ago when I didn’t want to live. And lately those elusive victories I believed my life so unfairly lacked have begun to occur. It’s a victory in itself to acquire some equanimity about the results of my labors, win or lose. Meditation has dissolved some measure of ego, quelled a lot of head noise. I’ll die someday and I can’t use the baggage.

There are times I wonder whether drugs would soothe me, but I know better.

Which brings me back to those books. Are they dangerous? Am I tempting myself?

I don’t think so.

I guess I read, and reread, those books because they’re good books. Some are spiritual classics. There may well be a weird private little nostalgia there about drugs and the counterculture, but nothing in my reading these books is going to trip some dire switch. I’ve come too far.

As sixties Cleveland TV host Captain Penny used to tell us kids before airing another head-bonking Three Stooges short, just don’t you try this at home.

My favorite teacher movie

I wrote a book once about the trial by fire of a rookie teacher. I belonged at the time to a site called “The English Companion’s Ning,” a ning being a social network for professionals. A friend in this “coffee shop without walls,” as it billed itself, told me, “Teacher horror stories are a dime a dozen,” before I went any further trying to interest my fellow English teachers in this book I’d written. After a harrowing experience of being damn close to the brass ring – no less an eminence than Jonathan Galassi of Farrar, Straus & Giroux gave it a look – I could find no commercial publisher and wound up putting it out on Amazon Kindle. At Risk, by some guy named R.G. Philips (a convolution of Robert Philip Gitlin), was probably more full of clichés than I knew. But I like it. It’s honest. And I like how the stuff I made up fit into it as nicely as what was dictated to me by autobiography.

No doubt my own teaching and writing experience sharpened my interest in, and comparative analysis of, movies about teachers.

I only wish I’d ever attained the level of classroom command Mark Thackeray attained in To Sir, With Love. (Photo by starstills.com)

I’ve come to realize that my favorite film of this genre is helplessly, hopelessly steeped in cliché. You can’t get away from it. This film is driven by a main trope of the genre: how a determined, charismatic teacher transforms a roomful of rowdies into respectful adults (see: Blackboard Jungle, Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers). This movie bears special relevance since the passing of its star. I’m talking about To Sir, With Love, released in 1967.

I have returned to see it a handful of times, wondering, as I peruse this distinctly “B-movie” look at adolescence and pedagogy, what constitutes its magic.

Well, for one, Sidney Poitier. That mellow voice, that glowering brow, that stern handsome face, and lean sinewy physique lend themselves to this film, which is based on a novel by E.R. Braithwaite about a black man teaching in a tough East End of London secondary school.

Everything about the film is even more exotic today, or else all the more corny and passé (I prefer to see it the first way). It’s in the way the kids dance during what my cohort would have called “noon rec,” or in the music provided at the end of the film by the live band The Mindbenders, all twangy guitar and melodic chops, quintessential English early rock. What creates the fizz is the juxtaposition of a black prototypical leading man into a school of scruffy English teenagers. Something about the time and place, the heyday of the British Invasion, the Beatles and Stones, works the alchemy. Here’s this movie about a guy, from the Caribbean, originally, as was the book writer – as, conveniently, was Poitier — who wants an engineering job but settles for a gig as a teacher and discovers his niche in the classroom.

The very way the movie strains to show its hero in the purest light gives one pause. When pretty Pamela Dare (played well by Judy Geeson), the intellectually adept girl in the front row, develops a crush on Mr. Thackeray, or, as the local ruffians pronounce it, “Mister Fackeray” (or, worse, “chimneysweep,” in honor of his skin color), we cannot help but compare her to any number of rap-slinging potty-mouthed modern American youths depicted on film and wonder at her relative goodness. But we let it go. We, like her, see in the firm and unyielding teacher a male role model her own life may have denied her. And when he comports himself like a perfect gentleman, revealing a reciprocal reaction only at the end with his, “The whole world’s waiting for you. You’re a smasher,” it makes sense, has a pleasing roundness.

“Sir” teaching some real-world skills on the brink of their adult independence, like how to make a salad that’s a cut above the usual. (Photo from allposters.com)

The movie’s chastity is indeed its virtue. The adored teacher has agreed to dance with Pamela Dare at the big dance, and the supple Poitier acting clumsy as he finds his footing creates one of those embarrassing movie moments you half wish would end. Then, holding the gift cup his students have got him as a going-away present, for he’s finally landed a coveted engineering job, he leaves the auditorium before the kids see him cry. He goes to his empty classroom where … well, if you haven’t seen Sidney Poitier work magic, or wonder if you’ve investigated his onscreen power in every available nook and cranny, you should see this movie.

It didn’t win any big awards, though director James Clavell and the soundtrack raised appreciative eyebrows. Pop singer Lulu rocked it, and an ensemble cast of English scruffs did too. I especially enjoy Christian Roberts as Denham, head of the delinquent swarm, who comes to love and appreciate dauntless Mr. Thackeray. “Sir” shows he’s streetwise enough to constitute a recognizable authority figure. It’s all part of the cliché, but because of some quality in the film which I believe resides in the screen charisma of Poitier, it comes off.

My English relatives were visiting America in the summer of 1968 and we all went to see To Sir, With Love. Upon leaving the theater, Auntie Ann said it was a bit “hackneyed.” To the extent teenage Bob Gitlin knew what that meant, he may have agreed. But I liked the movie anyhow.

Parts of it are icky. Like when Pamela and the Lulu character both try to tell Sir he’s cool even though he’s sort of aristocratic and proper; you want to put your tongue out at it. How, after that obligatory scene of him reading them the riot act, did they turn around so quickly? It’s a bit much to swallow. But swallow it I did; we suspend disbelief in the presence of some winning charm a film may wield. Thackeray takes them to the art museum. He shows them how to make a salad. He engages them in real-world discussions about love, sex, marriage, and youth rebellion. Sometimes these dialogues have the character of superficialities, even absurdities, like when he suggests that sometime soon they will start to take an interest in the opposite sex. But we let it go. We like to think Mr. Thackeray is a worldly man and is referring to the lost art of courtship, not going at it behind the bushes.

The whole nutty mess of it rings so much truer than, say, Dead Poets Society, which winds up not being about activating student interest in literature so much as activating a cultic interest in the teacher, who happens to be Robin Williams, whom I prefer to remember in association with better movies (like Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Will Hunting, One Hour Photo, and Insomnia).

You could level the same charge against To Sir, With Love, saying students are motivated into a learning experience by the charisma of the teacher. But somehow there’s no overreach or pretension. Oh sure, I’ve had my moments of cynicism. There’s “Tom Sawyer” up on the blackboard, but we see no books being read. It’s all about adoring teenagers attending to the nuggets dropped from the mouth of “Sir.” But experience has taught me books do not a teacher make; brandishing books is but one aspect of the job, perhaps a minor one. Teachers undergo trials. They may learn that pedagogy itself may rate a secondary art next to people skills.

Mr. Thackeray dances with an adoring, transformed Pamela Dare at year’s end, at the big ball. (Photo from pinterest.com)

What an arc he’s been through! Inflamed at the disgusting sight of a used menstrual pad in the hearth of the classroom, in an early scene, Thackeray explodes. After a cooldown in the teacher lounge, he returns with an idea: talk to these seniors about things grownups care about. Put away the books, which have proven useless, and talk about life.

And he does. And they do. The all-essential “classroom conversation” goes on here as well as in any movie I ever saw. What I saw in Dead Poets Society was a lot of repressed homosexuality and false adoration against the backdrop of one of those phony English styled private schools. If you want to go there, read A Separate Peace (but blow off the movie, which wasn’t very good).

Whether engaging the kids in dialogue about fads and fashions over the centuries, or putting on boxing gloves to fight a young challenger with a chip on his shoulder, or showing kids the wonders of art on a museum field trip, or allowing a teen mom to bring her baby to the class because she has nowhere else to take it, or overcoming students’ fear of gossip by going to a bereaved student family’s funeral in a black neighborhood (only to find the whole chastened class there ahead of him) – Mark Thackeray is heroic, and noble, and representative of whatever we want in a teacher. And in a man.

Mista Fackeray, you’re a smasher too, mate.

The Godfather Part II is hard to watch, but you can’t look away

Watching the Godfather movies is the guilty pleasure of guilty pleasures, and, though writing this is tantamount to blowing my own secret to the wife who will now be onto me, I must confess that I recently watched my way, yet again, and for the umpteenth time, through The Godfather and then, stopping to purchase it, too, onto my Amazon hard page, The Godfather: Part II. One thing one might say about such devotion to film study is that it affords the opportunity to notice things one never noticed before.

I believe Roger Ebert was right when he said that the sequel was not as good as Scarface, a film that came out nine years after Coppola released The Godfather: Part II. I have no desire to study over and over Pacino as the Cuban émigré, a performance so over-the-top as to be almost cartoonish (come on: that accent?), but there’s a malevolent gleam and tingle to the De Palma film that comes through in the violence. I always wondered why Ebert saw fit to make this comparison. Did it have to do with the three stars he gave the Coppola sequel while lavishing four on Scarface? In retrospect, including The Godfather: Part II in his “Great Movies” list, he accorded it the full four, explaining it was all of a piece with the original, though reasserting his sense of its secondary nature in his eyes.

What gives the original The Godfather its power? Is it the way it comes at you like a moving Rembrandt, all browns and burnt umber and shards of available lighting? Don Corleone backlit at his desk in the opening scene … Sterling Hayden as McCluskey emerging from his cop car lit only by lightning against a night sky. But it’s beyond lighting. It’s the impossible achievement of Marlon Brando, stuffing his jaws with cotton and getting away with something no other actor would have the temerity to contemplate. Ebert called The Godfather a family story told from the inside; we don’t see the ruined lives of victims. Well actually, we may have a moment to “feel” for Moe Green, or for Woltz the film producer, who trip the switch on the mob’s revenge, but for the most part we root for the crime clan, and the main reason is the benevolent aura of Don Corleone Sr., product of an actor whose like we may never see again.

Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall, left) tells Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo), who has betrayed the Godfather, about the noble way treasonous Roman emperors ended their lives with honor in The Godfather: Part II. (Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

And yet The Godfather: Part II has moments that supersede its precursor in what one might call “painful poignancy.” It’s the same kind of feeling as we get watching the third installment: Pacino’s daughter hit with gunfire by mistake on the steps of the opera house, completing the tragic arc of Michael Corleone.

In The Godfather: Part II, as I viewed it recently, I found it almost unbearable as Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) counsels imprisoned Frank Pentangeli (Michael Gazzo). The trapped crime boss asks “Tom, what do I do now?” The two men talk about the sound principles and practices upon which the Roman Empire was based, which translated to the caporegime system. With touching naivete, Pentangeli acknowledges his awareness. “I’ve got a lot of good stuff in there,” the intellectually astute capo says, referring to books about history and politics made available to him in federal lockdown since, due to the cunning of a Miami mob boss and Corleone nemesis, he has been housed in an army barracks. In the next breath, we realize Hagen is telling him to kill himself so the Pentangeli family may keep their estate. Pentangeli has already queered the deal with the feds, having been shamed into not testifying against Michael Corleone after all, something he’d been tricked into. The feds keep him in his “soft” imprisonment, with its books and pool table. The FBI guys still play cards with him, maybe even love him. “Frankie Five Angels” has enjoyed comforts, and we can feel him saying goodbye to them here.

Another aching moment comes at the end. After dispensing with the problem of the unwittingly treacherous brother Fredo, Michael Corleone sits in his rustic Nevada lodge and remembers a moment, filmed as an expansion from the original movie, when dim-witted Fredo stood up for him. Here we have Sonny Corleone, ready to punch out Michael for enlisting in the Marines after Pearl Harbor. It’s such a pleasure to see James Caan again onscreen with his clenched teeth and unmediated animal reactions. And then mild Fredo, who, rather than chastise Michael for subverting his father’s plans for him (military deferment secured at considerable cost), tells his brother, “That’s swell, Mike,” reaching across the table for a fraternal shake.

Flashback pending Fredo’s final treatment by the terminally aggrieved Michael Corleone (smoking, at right). Angry Sonny Corleone (seated, second from right) is further incensed by the conciliatory gesture of Fredo (John Cazale, at Caan’s left) after Michael says he joined the Marines.

These aching nuggets, underscoring the tragic arc of the whole Puzo/Coppola saga, do nothing to relieve this sequel of its sense of being subservient to the original, that game changer of a film that shines golden to this day. But they are a testament to some brilliant ensemble acting and well-built characters, and they undergird the whole mythos that surrounds a crime saga that has struck a chord with the world.

Buy a bag from Amy

Amy takes up her position near the entrance of the Circle K on Gurley Street in Prescott.

She used to be homeless. Now she’s on disability. Lives in an apartment in Prescott about a half mile from where she plies her trade.

Amy crochets little knit water-bottle bags, hoofs them down to the Circle K near where Gurley Street turns into Route 69, and sells them for $7 each, except for bigger ones that cost $10. Lots of people give her tips, she says. She gets by. And she’s out in the world.

I’ve driven by her for at least a month, marveling at her evident cheerfulness. Finally, I pull over into the Circle K that lets her stand there, and I buy a bag. Now I can tote water around with me. It’ll make me drink more, get away from my unending river of black coffee.

“People give me thumbs ups,” she says. I’m a little hesitant asking how much she makes doing this, but she doesn’t mind talking about it. “On a good day I might make twenty to forty dollars.”

It’s gotten harder since Christmas, she says, because it’s been colder.

You may have driven by and wondered about this brave character standing out there, holding her bags out at her side, wearing headphones. Ever wonder what she’s rocking out to?

“I listen to Christian music,” she says. “It keeps me happy.”

She volunteers that she’s got a mental health disability.

I shrug. We’re all a little tetched, ain’t we?

I find her personable, and more than willing to talk about why she stands out here doing this day in and day out. Four or five hours is about as long as her legs will hold up. I wonder about her arms too but I don’t ask. Maybe she holds pails out at her side to strengthen her shoulders, ha ha.

Family matters of my own have stimulated my interest in people like Amy.

My little sister was facing her own emotional health crisis, in Toledo, Ohio. Nina almost lived in a homeless shelter. She was spared that fate when I drove up there last summer and managed to find her a guardian, who got her re-evaluated, her meds settled back in place. Nina went from hospital to nursing home slash “rehabilitative care” facility. It looks like she’ll go now into a group home. Toledo’s as rife with group homes for people with emotional health and substance abuse crises as Prescott is with its cottage industry of rehab houses, ranging widely along the reputability spectrum.

But before this, I had to live with Nina for a month in a seedy motel, all her belongings from the last home, which had ejected her, piled up to the ceiling. I learned about the struggles of people undergoing crises of emotional health. And learned first hand about the lost, stymied families, helpless before the minions of law enforcement, psychiatry, or social work, all unable to help because of blind spots in the system.

Because of a collapse in mental health care, more and more dire eventualities encircle people with these disabilities (psychosis, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc.). All too many find themselves on the street. Or getting their medications in jails and prisons, if they’re that lucky.

“I was homeless for 18 months in Reno,” Amy says. “I don’t like homeless shelters.” They are full of violence and dangerous people, she says. She learned to keep to herself, “back against a wall.” She means that literally. She had to defend herself from some ugly characters and situations, and it gets cold at night in a desert town.

She’s moved down to Cottonwood from Nevada. Says her father lives in Cottonwood.

She sounds glad to be in Prescott.

I am glad she’s safe. But I am sad. So many disabled folks go without so much. Amy lacked the money for basic dental care most take for granted. Boy, do I believe in socialized medicine.

But Amy doesn’t seem capable of self-pity.

So when you drive by the Circle K, look to see if Amy’s out there selling her wares. If she is, go buy a knit bag from her. Her product line is pretty nice.

I could kick myself: I thought I was tape recording a whole conversation with her, but, when I got home and tried to play it back off the cell phone I thought I was using to record, there was nothing but four seconds of talk.

I’ll figure it out. I’ve found something worth working for, and I’m not giving up. Amy doesn’t give up. Why should I?

I made a friend, though I’ve still got a lot to learn about the art of the joint selfie.

Confessions of a Belated Scholar

I just answered a Facebook prompt about famous people one has encountered in the flesh and talked with. I put down several big names I met, mostly because I was a journalist. But I forgot to include academics, professors I had in New York. They will be the subject of this blog.

I have already mentioned Elaine Pagels, very hip and excited religion scholar, in a previous blog post. I told how back then I did not appreciate the immense honor of being taught by her, but how my library now included her Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas; The Gnostic Gospels; and The Origin of Satan. I did a paper on the Ghost Dance of the Plains Indians that she liked. I guess I gleaned some measure of redemption from my having, however “belatedly,” read her and worked at understanding what she was saying.

Elaine Pagels, the great religion scholar, has had, among her readers, no less a discerning intellect than David Bowie (photo: America Magazine).

Now other teachers I had have tapped on the slammed door of memory, demanding to be let in.

Theodor Gaster taught a class either at Columbia or Barnard, the sister college, called The World of Myth. I read next to nothing and somehow got a C. I did do the paper, a listless treatment of the myth of the devil. I’d found out about a Satanist named Anton LaVey whom I was interested in because I’d read Jayne Mansfield was in his cult.

Gaster was an old bald jowly man with an educated English accent. Master of 20 languages, he’d helped translate the Dead Sea scrolls.

He was funny and profane.

In that plummy accent he’d challenge us, “If you can put down your copy of Screw magazine long enough to read your assignment …”

Before we’d done anything with the research paper, he sat behind his desk and asked us to account for ourselves. What were we thinking of doing our papers on? Oh shit. As students one by one uttered aloud their tentative ideas, I ransacked my stoned brain.

I wasn’t prepared. At all. All I could think of was … the Greeks.

When it got to me I said, “The Oracle.”

Ten seconds of silence before Gaster barked, “What about it?”

I stirred in my chair, trapped, mute.

“Is this something you’ve really thought about, or something off the top of your head?” he pressed.

I rallied myself to a moment of honesty. “Off the top of my head.”

Laughter rippled the small wooden proscenium classroom.

Gaster suggested I think about it more seriously, finishing me off with, “Ask the Oracle.”

That cracked up everybody, including me.

Old trauma, undigested anger, and the stoned fog I tried to use to quell it had slackened what rigor I’d once had, and I “forgot” or didn’t care enough to show up for the final Gaster gave. My dad found out who was teaching the class I was currently showing an incomplete in. He knew who Gaster was, being somewhat of an antiquities scholar himself. A talented public relations executive, Dad called Gaster and, using his considerable powers of persuasion, got him to give me a one-on-one makeup test. I didn’t show up for it.

Prof. Gaster would be gruff, but students loved him (photo: Wikipedia).

Back in Cleveland, I told my dad I’d not showed up, thus not passed the class, and my father, fed up to the point of contemplating murder, told me I could call the guy myself and beg, if I wanted. Dad added, “But he’d probably spit in your eye.”

I called though because, in some Holden Caulfield way, I wanted Gaster to know I liked him.

I forget the specifics of his demur but remember well his, “Oh, and Mr. Gitlin? Don’t call me again,” and slammed phone.

And he still gave me a C.

About ten years ago I was trying to be a Jew, a real one, and participate in temple life. I put on a yarmulke and prayer shawl and sang in the choir. And got hold of Gaster’s Festivals of the Jewish Year. His explanation of Hanukkah rings with me still.

I am now deeply turned on by another book of his that Amazon sent, The Oldest Stories in the World. I’ve got as far as the first Babylonian story, “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” which engrossed me.

Yet another famous teacher I blush to remember was Elizabeth Hardwick. With her too, I was unaware of the fame. I just got and am enthralled by The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick. One, on Philip Roth, corresponds to my own reactions to the novelist, particularly her juxtaposing of the scatological Sabbath’s Theater with the “PG rated” Pulitzer Prize winner American Pastoral as texts of primary significance. Her consideration of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” about a curious misanthrope who refuses to work yet secures the pity of his outraged employer, amazed me with its exacting interpretation and explications, its appreciation of that tale’s mysterious universality.

Back when I had her, I had just enough salvaging guilt to rouse myself from my dorm to attend the writing class I’d just barely got into, at Barnard, knowing nothing of who she was. She was a bony old dame, wrinkled yet girlishly enthusiastic, attractive and full of fun. Well-bred Barnard girls sat with their careful typed short stories and essays, waiting for a chance to be regarded by the noted scholar. I smoked cigarettes incessantly, and Elizabeth Hardwick bummed two in a row from me one day when I sat just around the corner of the table from her.

I remember her brusque, “Another one.” And me handing her a Marlboro.

She said we should write something about a person other than ourselves.

“Just don’t let it be about your mother.”

Some perverse imp and unaccountable cockiness impelled me to write about my mother.

The formidable literary mind, Elizabeth Hardwick, as rigorous in her writing as she was fun in person (photo: The New York Times).

After I’d read it to the class, which consisted of perhaps a dozen or 15 people around the table, she said, “It has a certain … clotted flow.” She seemed to find me droll.

One thing I remember so well from Hardwick’s class is the time some guy read something that revealed what a pervert he was. I sat there blushing as he read out, and excuse me if I paraphrase, “I wanted to be a little man bouncing up and down on her breasts.”

Perhaps ten minutes after this guy had resoundingly defaced himself in front of all these prim girls, he got up in the middle of the workshop or colloquium or class, or whatever it was called, and left.

In an act of sympathy, I left too, joining him at the elevator. I was a closeted mess myself.

On Seinfeld there’s a diner the characters are always eating at. It’s Tom’s Restaurant, or that was the name on it when I went to Columbia. On W. 112th St. and Broadway. I was sitting at the counter eating or having a soda, and some longhaired Columbia boy (not the humiliated memoirist, someone else) who was also in Hardwick’s class sat flabbergasted that I did not know who our teacher was. He told me of her fame, her marriage to poet Robert Lowell, whom I hadn’t read but would one day recognize from The Armies of the Night. He was so appalled he got up and off his stool around the counter having only finished half his soda, to extricate himself from such a rube.

When the years and decades elapsed, and I grew wise, nobody’s shock or bafflement could have matched my own.

But at least I’ve got the books now. Better late than never.