When I got home I sat on a stool at the counter in the kitchen drinking one glass of cold milk after another. My mother and father sat quietly at the kitchen table while I talked and talked about nothing. They must have thought it strange how thirsty I was, but they didn’t say anything about my behavior. I was glad to be home. One of my younger sisters was there sitting at the kitchen table also. I started to feel slightly self-conscious, because I was doing all the talking. Silence would have been awkward. The radio teletype operator who read books told me, “silence is a trick.”
During the few days I was home a carload of friends invited me to go swimming. The husband and wife who owned the pool were my parent’s age. They had told one of the people in the car they could go swimming whenever they wanted. If I wanted to go with them I had to drop everything right now and get in the car.
It was a hot day at the end of summer. I didn’t like swimming very much, but the idea of jumping in some cool water sounded nice. I told them to hold on a minute, and ran to get a towel and bathing suit. I had black engine grime on my hands. I washed them quickly.
I knew the pool was in a wooded area not in sight of their house, but when we got there the husband, wife, and one son from San Francisco were sitting by the shallow end. If I had known they would be there I would not have gone. The one who was invited to swim anytime said hello politely. They had already been swimming and were sitting in bathing suits, talking, and watching us. Even though I washed my hands they looked greasy enough to leave an oil slick on the water. I mostly went underwater. I came up in the shallow end after going underwater from the deep end. I stood up, and there they were. The lady said she heard I was in Vietnam. I said, yes I was. She said good for you. I said it was good for some. I felt awkward standing there. I wanted to be able to breathe under water, and never come up. They were still there when we left.
I wanted to read more books. One book told about an author who came to the words in the Bible that said, “…there once was a time in Israel when everyone did what was right in their own eyes…” he got up and paced around the floor smoking cigarettes wondering when that time was.
He wrote that when he lived in New York City the company he worked for was fornicating the Country. He didn’t use that word but a much shorter word beginning with f. He followed that example and started fornicating one of the secretaries. It sounded like Vietnam. I saved most of
my Army money so I didn’t have to work someplace in order to earn more money. I didn’t want to sit around home in a fog. I made plans to go to New York City where they had a very complete library on 42nd street. I had a list of books I wanted to read. The list started with old books like The Decameron, and Gargantuan and Pentagruel. Dostoevsky the complete works was on the list. There were many unheard of books like one named The Unavailing of Timbuktu. It was subtitled, The First White Man to See Timbuktu. Every book I wanted to read was in that library. For almost a year I went down there every afternoon and read. It was the most reading I have ever done or will probably ever do.
In the mornings I would wake up early and write. That work was eventually named “The Half Book.” The sequel would have simply been called, “The Other Half.” It was half a book because that is how far I was when I had a stark realization that in a mechanized world would I be educated? They weren’t far from mechanizing the trigger finger. If I was not part of the main event I would be out on the street. If Abraham Lincoln went to a job interview and said he was self-educated would it mean anything?
Sometimes the only person I would talk to all day long was the librarian. I lived like a monk. After a year I left New York City. Jumping into a beehive of activity seemed appealing to me. I went back to Ohio and enrolled in the Ohio State University on the GI Bill.
There I came to know formal education as advanced potty training. That provoking idea was put forth by a discontent college student in New York City. Everything else seemed to reverberate what the song said, “We want the world and we want it now”. It was like he and all the others were standing on a soapbox. They were very much like the people with whom they had a problem. One of them always wore a red plaid shirt.
When I left New York my half book and everything I wrote that year went into a very expensive, lockable, leather brief case that my Grandmother gave me. She figured I would need it soon enough to carry papers to the office. Shortly before I got married someone broke into the house where I lived. The locked brief case probably looked like it was full of money. It was taken, and most of the other things stolen used electricity.
When I went to New York City to read and write I went there first to find an apartment. I took a bus. I got a room at the local YMCA. It was the most inexpensive room in town. Each day I looked in the newspaper at the listings of apartments. I mostly looked on the lower part of Manhattan, but after two or three days I found a cold water flat in a rent controlled three-story brownstone building on West 69th street half a block from Central Park.
The Frenchman who owned the building was working on the front door when I got there. We talked awhile. He was not far removed from France. He said there was an old French saying, “When you plant a potato you get a potato when you plant a carrot you get a carrot.” He showed me the apartment he had for rent on the third floor. It was one room with a bathroom down the hall. The third floor was the top floor. There were two other apartments on that floor. He said he would be around each week to collect the rent. He asked me what I was doing. I told him I was going to write a book and read in the afternoon. He laughed and said he would like to write a book. Rent controlled meant the building was older and the amount of rent had limits. I paid $17.50 each week.
I paid him for the first week and went back to Cincinnati to get my belongings. An agency that delivered cars to places in the United States advertised for drivers. I delivered a car to New York City for them. In exchange, I could use that car to move my things, and myself. The agency paid for all the oil and gas and turnpike tolls.
There were no places to park when I got there. I parked beside another car that was parked. I had to carry my things up three flights of stairs. I came back down after one trip and a policeman was writing me a parking ticket. I was getting the full flavor of New York City. I didn’t have the energy to rant and rave like he was the umpire. I calmly asked him if it was necessary for him to give me a ticket considering my circumstances? He finished writing the ticket, and put it under the windshield wiper of the car. He wasn’t even convinced I was the driver. He was good at doing what he was doing. He was ignoring me. I asked him if he practiced that routine in the bathroom mirror each morning? He cracked a grin, but it would be more in character if he said, “Does not compute.” I settled down to a routine myself.
On the floor where my apartment was there were two other people who I never talked to beyond saying hello in passing. One of then had a tiny apartment that was just big enough for a small bed and bureau. He went to work each afternoon in a tuxedo looking absolutely immaculate. He grew up in France and came to this country fifteen or twenty years earlier. He worked in a French restaurant where he supervised the dining room. Soon after I got there he went back to France. He wanted to open his own restaurant in Paris. He saved every penny. When he was gone the man who owned the building said the Frenchman lived in that room all the years he was here.
In the other apartment there was a voice student from Montreal, Canada. Her apartment was probably like mine. In my apartment, the main room was about twenty feet square. There was a kitchenette with plenty of cockroaches that were always hungry, and there was a closet. Nobody talked to anybody else in that building and I didn’t break any rules. “Merge yourself with your surrounding and move along with it.” That is what Laotse said, and it is what I did.
My mother’s half brother was in the city and he came to visit me. He was like an older brother to me. He taught me to swim. He gave me a single shot 410 shotgun and a single shot bolt action .22 when I was twelve. He taught me about hunting and gun safety. He said I should have single shot guns first because, later, if I got a semiautomatic gun I would have learned to make each shot count.
In 1968 the United States Government had a period of grace that allowed everyone to register illegal firearms. He called me up in New York City from Virginia where he lived and told me about the law and how it allowed me to register the AK-47 I brought back from Vietnam.
When he came to see me we were in my apartment talking. He let go of a very loud, robust laugh. He woke-up the voice student next door. We could hear her heels hitting the floor as she stomped barefoot across the floor of her apartment. He had broken one of the rules of engagement in that building and probably in the whole City.
We left my apartment and went around the corner to a neighborhood bar and grill on Columbus Avenue. When we came up to the door he stopped and said he would buy lunch at another place. He was all dressed up as the well-to-do out-of-towner he was. He went to the curb and the first cab streamed on past. I said to him, wouldn’t it be funny to have an RPG Rocket and blow that cab out of the water. He must have thought I was serious because he looked at me very seriously and said I couldn’t do that anymore. An RPG rocket was a Russian made hand held, armor piercing, self propelled, device that could go through several feet of concrete before it exploded. It was much feared, seldom used, weapon available to the other side. The nearest thing we had to that was the bazooka, and I never saw one of those.
Eventually he got a taxicab and we went across town to a restaurant off Fifth Avenue that was known as one of the best places in that city to get fresh fish. I had been there shortly before with my Grandmother when she was in town. She was also his mother. The waiters all looked like the Frenchman in the building where I lived. When I ate there with my Grandmother she ordered, what she termed, a “conversational wine”.
Soon winter came. It snowed one night and in the early morning daylight there was a thick covering of snow over everything just like in the woods. To me, the way I lived in New York City was just like being in the woods. I was very alone but I was not lonely.
I walked a short distance into Central Park. The branches were covered. Nature came there in a big way that night. No other person was in the park. Over treetops I could see tall buildings where millions of people were probably asleep or they were waiting for the City crews to clear away the snow with their mechanical attachments.
I followed the outline of the walkway. I knew it went in a mostly straight direction across the park. Along the way, to one side, there was a large clearing. The trees along the far edge of the clearing gave it no regular shape. I walked off the path and plowed my feet through the snow. When I got near the trees I looked around. No one else was outside. I lay on my back and opened and closed my legs in the snow. Then I moved my arms away from my sides until my hands touched over my head. I stood up. I had made an angel the way I used to do. As I started to walk back across the open field I could see a bundled-up person on the path standing there, watching me. I stopped and stood there. We looked at each other in the distance. After a moment that person resumed walking busily across the park toward the West Side.
My grandparents on my mother’s side were in town. They were my mother’s stepfather, the wealthy industrialist, and his wife who was my actual grandmother. Even though they lived in Cincinnati they kept an apartment in New York City. He kept his money in a bank in New York. He liked the privacy. She would go to New York City to buy a pair of shoes, or to see a show.
One of the times they were both in New York she called me up, and invited me to diner in their apartment. I wore a coat and tie. The doorman was expecting me. He announced over an electronic device that I had entered the building. Another person who operated the elevator took me to their door. When I was in their apartment I felt comfortable. I called my mother’s stepfather my grandfather. He knew what he could do, and what he could not do. His word was binding. He probably had lawyers and contracts, but someone who knew him would know those things were not
necessary. I could understand why he did very well in business.
My grandmother was amazing as always. She had small individual size steaks for diner. She showed me how to cook them on very high heat in a frying pan without using any oil. She used salt to keep them from sticking to the skillet. She told me that they used to have a cattle ranch in Texas, and that was where she learned to cook steaks that way. She said the people who lived there liked tough steaks.
He sat in a bigger room with crackers and a martini. He was talking with another person who I had not met. When I came into the room he introduced us, and he told me to fix myself something to drink like I had seen him last week. He pointed to a tray of Liquor bottles. Bourbon was my flavor. The Warrant Officers who knew what they were doing drank bourbon. I got some, and sat down.
He asked me what I was doing. I tried to sound important. I said I was writing a book, and reading in the library every day. As soon as I said those words I realized how unimportant it sounded. He looked at me directly, and said many newspapers were slanted. He said a newspaper gets slanted when the publisher lets it be known how he feels about an issue. A reporter who tries to curry the publisher’s favor will have that bias.
He asked me about Vietnam. I told him that water sports were big over there. He was amused. I said I didn’t have anything to say about that place except that I was there for one year. My grandmother had come into the room. She reminded me that I had written them that it was “pithy.”
He told me about, what he termed, “My Vietnam.” He said years before there was no dividing line between the North and South. He said he was in a car speeding along between Hanoi and Saigon. He said they ran over another person. My grandfather was in his twenties at the time. When he finished college his father sent him around the world, and that is why he was in that car. It sounded as if he was swept up in the whole event. He said that when he got to Saigon he inquired from the Vietnamese driver how the person was who they ran over, and was told that person was dead. He then repeated the words, “That was my Vietnam.” I said, Very little has changed since then. He smiled into his drink, and after a moment started talking with the other person.
Two years later in a college creative writing class I wrote a paper entitle “My Vietnam”. Could a place be different for two people and be the same place?
When dinner was over and coffee was over I left. I walked back to my apartment. I went up Fifth Avenue, across to Central Park West, and up to 69th street. It wasn’t very late and I wanted time to think about them.
There was a large complex fairly near to where I lived that was a center for the performing arts. There was also a library in that place where recorded performances were catalogued and stored. A person could sit in a booth and listen to one of those recordings. Some afternoons I would do that instead of read in the 42nd Street library.
There were also many theatre performances of mostly modern plays in that city. I walked to and from those plays. One evening I saw a play near Times Square and was walking back to my apartment. I walked up Broadway. It turned into Columbus Avenue.
I was walking along in the bright lights of the theatre district. There were many people on the sidewalk going in both directions. I heard a voice very clearly and it said, “Speak to me”. I looked over to the side in the direction of the voice. It came from a girl on the sidewalk who was standing almost against the building. She was talking to me and looking at me through the other people who were walking past. I kept on walking like everyone else. I thought that was really a good line in that city. It sounded like a high-powered advertising slogan, and yet it came from a prostitute on the street. Was she a prostitute? I would have liked to talk to her about life in the big city, but would she be thinking the whole time that I wanted to pay her for sexual services? She probably wouldn’t have wanted or expected any conversation. She probably thought I had some money, and she wanted some. She probably was out there to get some money, and she was willing to destroy herself if that is what it took.
I thought about those words all the way up to 69th street. The next morning I wrote a story called “Funerals from 25 cents” It was a fictitious story. It had much conversation in it, and an equal amount of Dostoevskian mind travel. She ended up sawed into pieces, stuffed into an overnight bag, and placed in a locked locker at the bus depot. The locker cost 25 cents.
The little room in my apartment that served as the kitchen consisted of two gas burners, and a sink. There were no major appliances. Next to the sink there was a freestanding bathtub. I never made anything in there.
All told there was about 60 seconds of running hot water. I pointed this out to the building owner when he was on his rounds collecting rent. He said he would turn it up. After that there was about 62 seconds of hot water. The building owner for the most part was European. The building was full of Europeans. No one else complained. One toilet and shower was on each floor. I never was in the shower very long. After 62 seconds the cold water made me gasp for breath.
One of my favorite things to eat was eggplant stew. I would chop up part of an eggplant, put it in the top of a double boiler, and add one can of beer. My Grandmother gave me the double boiler for making soup. I seldom had soup, but it was perfect for stew. Recently, my wife was away, and I said to the children, “Do you want to have something that is really good to eat?” I should have rubbed my hands together like the wicked witch of the West. I told them when I was living in New York City I made this recipe all the time. I hadn’t eaten it for many years. I cooked it for them, and couldn’t believe how awful it was. They agreed that it was awful. No one ate anything. I told them I was a very tough person in those days.
When there was good weather in the afternoon I would walk down Central Park West on my way to the library. I would walk as far as Central Park South and near there I would get public transportation. On more than one day there was a raggedy sleepless looking person standing on the corner. There were park benches nearby with people on them who looked like him. He stood away from the benches and held a large sign over his head. It said, “Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand.” He never looked at anyone. I walked past him several days in a row. I always thought he was insane, but now I am not so sure.
I seldom went out on the town. I stuck to my routine. My budget was tight so I didn’t have extra money. “Computer Dating” was a new concept. Two people would be matched up by computer according to their interest. Theoretically, they would like each other. I received several names and telephone numbers. The list was based on a questionnaire I completed and returned. Twice I went on a computer date. The girls couldn’t have been more different, and once I got a gun stuck in my face. That was not my date’s fault. I must not have been specific enough on the questionnaire.
The first girl on the list and I conversed on the telephone a short while. She said emphatically, I should meet her at midday in a famous art museum located beside Central Park on Fifth Avenue. I asked how I would recognize her and she said she would be standing beneath the Raphael Painting. She wasn’t a Russian spy. When I asked her if he did more than one painting she said there was only one in that place.
I asked a guard where the painting was. He told me, and then followed me there. When I found her everything I said seemed to be an insult to her. She was very proper. I couldn’t get into the same mode as her. We looked at several paintings. After that we got some ice cream and said good-bye.
On the second computer date there were three of us. I talked to her on the phone, and later that week I went to pick her up. She wasn’t ready. I sat in a main room talking to her roommate who was the same age. She said they recently came from England to New York City because they had jobs here. She said they were secretaries, and had been in New York a short while.
When the other girl was ready all three of us left together. We went to a place in a part of the city called the East Village. We went to a large psychedelic place, which was a trend in those days. There was loud music and flashing lights. If I were more in control we would have left because the music was so loud we couldn’t talk. When I was in their apartment I liked their accents.
At one point I was standing in a group of people away from my dates. A person seemed to stick their head into the middle of the group and swivel it around several times inquiring if anyone wanted to buy some “pot”. I did not know that this individual fed off of people who went in that place. They were mostly people who had not come to grips with the world around them. When they grew older ideas of “love” and “peace” died and seemed to vanish with them. It was said those people were naive. Now I wonder if people with heads that swivel are the reason it died.
We went outside where he said he would show me the marijuana. I asked him if he had any Vietnamese “weed”. “Weed” was another word for marijuana. We went around to the other side of the block. It was a quiet residential street. I was sitting on a railing and he was standing between the street and me. We were talking about his bag of marijuana. He rolls a marijuana cigarette, commonly called a “joint”. Then along comes a person down the sidewalk from the left side. They seem surprised to see each other and that person stays with us. Soon after that another person comes down the sidewalk from the right side. They all act surprised to see each other. Now three people are standing facing me, and I am standing against a railing facing them smoking a rolled up marijuana cigarette. We talk awhile. I said I have just come back from Vietnam and would like to get some marijuana like the stuff over there. Over the course of our conversation his friend who doesn’t say much else interrupts three times with the same question, He says, “Were you in Vietnam?”
I was feeling very comfortable with these three people of the street. I took some money out and the other money in my wallet was a $100 bill. I must not have been very discrete with my wallet because after I put it back in my pocket the guy on the right side says in amazement, “That was a $100 bill”. His friend on my left side said, “I saw it”. The guy in the center was wearing a long over coat and his hands were in his coat pockets. He stepped back and looked up and down both sides of the street. I was suspecting nothing. He then steps toward me, slams his closed hand under my chin, and says in a very firm voice, “Shuck it up”. I looked down and he was pointing a small 22 caliber semi-automatic pistol up at my chin. I saw the end of the barrel. It was a real gun.
I brushed his hand away and walked down the sidewalk. The moment I moved his two friends ran in different directions. They moved so swiftly, they seemed to disappear. I walked down to the corner. The person with the gun followed me. There were other people walking back and forth at the end of the block. I stopped and turned around. He looked back and noticed again that his two friends were gone. I was clutching his bag of marijuana in my hand. I still had it in my hand. I threw it in the gutter of the street. He said it wasn’t a gun. He said it was a toy. I said, “Yeah, sure. Let’s see the toy.” He quickly went to pick up his marijuana. He took a small clear plastic bubble gum machine toy out of his pocket, and said that was the gun. I told him he had a gun, and I blurted out that he had let me down. When I said that he looked even more remorseful that he hadn’t been able to separate me from my money. I walked away from him.
I was distraught. I walked all the way from the East Village to 69th Street, which was a considerable distance. I was a third of the way there when I remembered the two English secretaries sipping their beers amid all the smoke and loud music. I hoped they had cab fare. I never saw them again, I wasn’t going to turn around and go back there.
Later on I told my uncle about what had happened. He knows much about guns. He said I could easily have been killed. He said the little .22 would do the job nicely. He said it wasn’t worth getting killed in the streets of New York over $100. Of course I had to agree.
All the money I had, over $2000 in cash was in my apartment. I don’t know why I had that $100 dollar bill in my wallet that day. Usually, I never had that much money on me.
When I was walking up Fifth Avenue from the library one sunny cold day I went under an awning that extended from the front of a hotel to the curb. On the metal frame of the awning there were rows of infrared heat lamps that made it warm under the awning. When I was walking along the sidewalk, and felt the sudden change from winter cold to the warmth of those heat lamps I stopped, looked up, and was going to stand there a moment to enjoy the heat. I wasn’t in anyone’s way, but a person hurried out of the hotel and yelled in Spanish and English for me to be on my
way. Both his arms were outstretched, and he was moving the back of his hands forward and backward as if he were shooing away a stray animal that wandered into his china shop. I moved on without saying anything. My old headmaster who was a pretty good shot said at least once a year every year I was in that school, “Science can tell you how, but it can’t tell you why.” Somehow that seemed to apply here. I wondered if he would think so.
When I left New York City I was ready to go. Reading books was getting me nowhere. It was like the time later in my life when I went to Yugoslavia, and bicycled around for a month. At first I felt very content, but the longer I was there the more I became aware how little I would know until I learned the language. In New York City I realized how little I knew.
Over the years I had written several letters to the girl I saw years before at a boarding school dance. She had written equally as much. When I was in New York she was living 250 miles away at an all girls collage. We got together one time in New York. I didn’t spend much money when I was by myself, but when she came I got a big wad of money out of the steel box in my apartment. We had a fine time doing all sorts of things.
Several months later when I left to move back to Markin Farm I delivered a former New York City cab that had been painted blue. I was able to stop in the town where she went to collage. We went to a place where there were hamburgers, fries and beer. It seemed very often she got up, left, came back, and sat down. She told me much later that a boy friend of hers had been moving along the wall in a crowd of people the whole time we were there. That was the place where they always went. I don’t know why she didn’t introduce us so we could all sit down and get dizzy. I suppose if he sat down with us, it would have been awkward. Would she leave with him or me? It wasn’t her way to leave all by herself. I would have been somewhat tormented if she left with him. I suppose he would have been tormented if she left with me, but she did leave with me. Maybe it was the only place in town.