To Aaron Cometbus; born, says Google, in 1968:
Dear Aaron, thanks for your letter about The Artist and His Mother. It’s
always a pleasure to hear from you.
Regarding your asking about my past in Manhattan: it was only five minutes by
bus from where I grew up in Union City, so I was actually as much a New Yorker as
friends from Brooklyn or Queens who would call Jersey the boondocks; especially
since I worked there for my brother’s photo-engraving shop near Times Square
in my last two summers of high school, and I was later a Welfare worker in Harlem
for a year. And of course I lived in the Village in the spring of 1960, which was
one of the most important experiences of my life.
Manhattan was and still is the most important city of my life, and I’ve been
going back there whenever I can, not only for the Met, but old friends like Lenny
Silverberg, whose loft is on the corner of Lafayette and Broome, where we lunched
with your friend Arthur Nercesian a few years ago.
In the photo on Page 99 of The Artist and His Mother, taken by my brother
with his box camera from the kitchen of our third-floor apartment, circa 1946, you
can if you look close see in the background the skyscrapers in midtown.
I grew up with this view, not only from our kitchen, but wherever I played on the
cliffs above the waterfront, the Empire State Building always shining across the
river like the tower of an enchanted castle where I would seek my destiny someday.
I finally got my chance after getting kicked out of Rutgers in the beginning of
my sophomore year, when I was the one in our crew who got caught stealing potato
chips from a concession stand we would invade while sweeping the stadium after the
Then, lost and adrift, I found through an employment agency a minimum wage job at
First National City bank, and I rented a room for seven dollars a week in a flophouse
on the corner of where West Fourth cuts into West Twelfth; 280 West Twelfth, if
I remember right, the room so small it had no space for a chair, so I had to sit
on my bed to type with my little Hermes portable on a fruit-crate the stories I would
submit to Richard Yates in his evening workshop in the New School, he himself writing
his first novel, Revolutionary Road, in his own cockroach studio on Bleeker
Norman Mailer, whose Advertisements for Myself had just been published,
lived around the corner from me on Perry Street, or so I was told by my friend Jim,
who picketed with him for Caryl Chessman in the protest march around the triangle
of the Woman’s House of Detention on Seventh Avenue, just north of Sheridan
Why there I don’t know, but it seemed to be the site for protest marches,
and if you passed it in the early morning you could hear the girls yelling down
to their boyfriends on the sidewalk, the boyfriends yelling back: “Maria!
It’s gone now, and so too the Village I once knew, and I haven’t seen
Jim in more than forty years, though not a day goes by I don’t remember him.
He was to me then, though only three years older, a kind of mentor I would follow
like a puppy, and one night we went to see Waiting for Godot, which still
unknown had just come to States and was performed in a loft in the garment district
with just a few chairs, and one of the actors could have even been Al Pacino, who
turning twenty was my age and just beginning his career, or if not he nevertheless
had the same intense acting talent, and I was stunned, especially sitting only a
few feet away, though I didn’t understand at all what the play was about.
It was also via Jim that I found the room in the flophouse. He and Renate had a
hundred-and-fifteen-dollar-a-month ground-floor studio apartment on West Tenth,
just off West Fourth, which he could afford with the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship he
had in Columbia, while Renate, three months pregnant when I first met her, was a
nurse in St. Vincent’s, and they were saving as much as they could to sail
abroad after the Wilson expired.
He had been a senior when I was a freshman in Rutgers, and though I didn’t
know him in Rutgers, I knew his friend Norm who was the head shipping clerk in the
basement of the Rutgers University Press, where I was sent by the university employment
office for a part-time job.
I was already writing by then, and Norm was writing his first novel, Coat Upon a
Stick, that would be published around the same time as Revolutionary Road, and I
adopted him as the first of my surrogate older brothers whom I would follow like
a puppy; as on the morning when I went with him to an eight o’clock seminar that
was for seniors only, and the young professor was Allan Kaprow, who wore a brown
corduroy suit and a beard that only beatniks wore in those days, and Norm’s friend
Lucas Samaras was also in that seminar, which was on Picasso.
Do you know who Allan Kaprow and Lucas Samaras are? You can Google them. Lucas was
Kaprow’s protégé and Kaprow had just invented his “Happenings,”
which would be to contemporary performance art what Picasso’s cubism was to
so-called modern art; and by chance Kaprow showed slides that morning on how Picasso
had come to where he could make art out of anything.
In the meantime Kaprow’s friend George Segal lived nearby, plastering his
mummies with the gauze he got free from the Johnson and Johnson factory in New Brunswick.
Do you know who George Segal is? And Lickenstein was also around New Brunswick then,
just beginning his comic-strip paintings.
But at eighteen I was just learning what deKooning was about, and anyway I had too
much to read to follow the Kaprow gang, nor did I know I would be a painter myself
Even more ignorant of politics, especially after growing up in a breeding ground
for the Mafia, I had no interest in anything communal except literature, and all
I knew of communism was that it was supposed to be next in line after the Nazis.
So Norm, who was now leading me to the rest of my life, would also become my political
mentor, and by chance he was when I met him reading a booklet by Norman Mailer,
called The White Negro, that was published by Dissent Magazine,
in bold black print on a white cover.
Do you know how important The White Negro was when it first came out? Do
you know who Caryl Chessman was? Or Norm Fruchter? Just names now, but they loom
like headlines in my personal history of those years.
Norm left for London on a Fulbright after graduating, and when I returned to Rutgers
in the fall I was so hungry to learn as much as I could I even wanted to go to graduate
school; until the potato chips threw me in the opposite direction.
Suddenly Rutgers, which was then just a small rustic campus of old clapboard ramshackles
that felt like a new home to me, was suddenly gone, and where was I to go and what
was I to do?
Join the Army, said my next older brother surrogate, Fred, who took Norm’s place
in the shipping room and had learned in the Army’s language school the German he
was now using with his G.I. Bill for his Ph.D.
It was practical advice in those peacetime years before Vietnam, but my instinct
turned away from what the army represented, and like a Percival riding to an enchanted
castle, I would instead seek my destiny across the river.
Manhattan had always been the center of my world, and where else to live in it but
the Village that was, like the Montmartre of Hemingway and Picasso, the home of
artists and writers; though I hardly knew it except for the night my high-school
pals and I fantasized about getting laid there as if it were a red-light district,
the word beatnik having just been coined and synonymous with sexy girls who
wore black netted stockings.
So after commuting to the bank, I took the bus to Port Authority on a Saturday morning,
and with the advice of a friend who told me it could help me find a place to live,
I bought a copy of a new paper called The Village Voice, that was started,
if I’m not mistaken, with Mailer’s help; but when I found its office,
somewhere around Cooper Union, it was closed, and the streets looked so desolate
I felt lost and hopeless.
The city that had been my castle now seemed like the wasteland Percival found after
his vision dissolved, and I didn’t know where to turn. Then suddenly came
a blue air-letter from Norm telling me to look up his friend Jim, and when I visited
Jim he was hanging out with a young poet from Harvard, Bill Cokely, who said a room
was for rent down the street, and a few days later my cousin Aram drove me there
with my Hermes and my quilt and a bag of my mother’s chorag.
Aram was shocked by how squalid the flophouse seemed, but I couldn’t have
been more excited, and I moved in like Walt Whitman when he was my age:
“starting across the river from where I was born, well-begotten, and
rais’d by a perfect mother, to strike up for a New World.”
My room was at the end of the first floor with a big window and a fire-escape on
the Fourth Street side, and next door was a young junkie couple, and next to them
a mysterious woman who would slip from her door like a lady of the night in a film
noir; and we each shared a bathroom that had a rusty tub with a grimy shower curtain
and a rusty sink with a cracked mirror, though the janitor did clean it with ammonia
every Saturday morning, and to this day the odor of ammonia brings it all back to
me with the romance of nostalgia.
I was actually living in Greenwich Village like my heroes! And I was so excited
not even my loneliness could defeat me, especially when I could pour it out with
my reams of yellow pulp paper like Jack London’s Martin Eden and
Saroyan’s Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.
Except for five minutes with a whore in Newark the year before, I was practically
a virgin, so the first time I heard a moaning inside the wall I thought it was from
a hot-water pipe, until a soft voice made me realize it was from the young woman
of the junkie couple, whom I would later meet when Jim asked me to ask them to buy
us a bag of heroin so we could experiment with it like we did with the peyote buds
he ordered from Smith’s Cactus Ranch in Texas.
Exploring new worlds has always been of course what being young is all about, and
while I would miss learning French and Major British Writers like my ex-classmates,
I learned instead how to inhale what I called “grass” in those days, and
though nothing to me now, it became one of my most important guides to my opening.
And so the weeks passed with the excitement of being nineteen in what Thomas Wolfe
had called “the man-swarm in its million footed weft,” and I rushed along with it
every morning to catch the IRT Express at the West Twelfth Street station and the
shuttle at Times Square and the Lexington Avenue local uptown, until I came to the
branch of the bank on Fifty-something, where I printed checkbooks in the basement
and delivered packages to Wall Street.
Then, after returning to my room for a can of Heinz beans and franks on a double
hotplate, I would walk to the New School where I fell in love with H., who had just
graduated from Barnard and lived in a brownstone on Eighty-first Street near the
Met, and I would have to take the same IRT and Lexington to reach her as well, though
I got to kiss her only once.
In the meantime I would “hang out” at Jim’s in what was now called
his “pad” in the new language of what Mailer had called “The hipster”
in his White Negro, the word “hippy” yet to come, while “hip”
meant something much more nefarious and even dangerous.
Marijuana is as common as alcohol now, but in those days you smoked with the shades
down and you wore sunglasses in the dark of night. The cultural revolution now called
“The Sixties” wouldn’t flower until the upheaval of The Free Speech
Movement and the acid explosion in the Haight, and Nixon and Kennedy were just beginning
their race while the rest of the country was still Doris Day and bomb shelters.
The roots of the coming revolution, which had grown from the new jazz and action
painting of the war years, now lay deep in the ghetto of the Village, while as far
as I knew the East Village didn’t exist except for maybe a bar called
Stanley’s, and anywhere beyond Houston Street was the hinterland.
Yet as dense and vital as it was to me then, I was unaware of how rich it actually
was, and not until years after I left did I learn what was really happening around
me, especially in jazz, which was still new to me, though Jim and the gang in his
pad would go to the Half Note and the Vanguard and what was the other one called,
where Coltrane and Monk and the other giants performed. I kick myself now for what
And just a few blocks from my room, in the neighborhood around The White Horse Tavern,
though I wouldn’t know of her until years later, Jane Jacobs was writing her
great masterpiece, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and it
was she, like a David against a Goliath, who would save the Village itself from
the city-planner, Robert Moses, who wanted to tear it down and fill it with a freeway.
It is gone now anyway, at least for me, and when I walked there a while ago it felt
like the rooms of a museum where the furniture is roped off, my flophouse room a
condominium only royalty like Woody Allen can afford.
Even the Paperback Gallery is gone, where Jim and I stole all those books that now
make me feel like Flaubert’s Julian after he slaughtered all those beautiful
animals whose ghosts would haunt him in his penance.
They didn’t exist before the Fifties. The only paperbacks had been the pulp kind
you bought from a stand in a drugstore, and when the new editions appeared with
their beautiful covers they were so luminous I wanted as many as I could stuff into
You may even be selling some of them now in your book business in Williamsburg,
like the New Directions of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha with the great
photo of an Anuradhapura Buddha by A.K. Coomaraswamy that cost $1.25 when the minimum
wage was a dollar an hour, or the Doubleday Anchor of Fustel Coulanges’ The
Ancient City, designed by Edward Gorey, for 95 cents.
They were all designed by first rate artists like Gorey and Leonard Baskin and Leo
Lioni, and the Paperback Gallery in Sheridan Square was the first shop to sell them,
until thieves like Jim and I almost put them out of business and they had to install
detectors. They were in our youth what the candy-store comic books had been in our
childhood, and they were so magical I wanted every one of them.
Then of course there were the used bookshops on Fourth Avenue, just north of Cooper
Union, where stealing was so easy we would buy a copy for a dime out of guilt. Who
knows, maybe the God of Bookstores takes revenge on me now when I can’t find one.
Even the used bookshops may be gone; gone the delicious odor of the musty shelves
and the clerks who looked like Bowery bums, never to return in our Amazon age.
I stole in one of them the 1946 cloth-covered Viking portable of Thomas Wolfe that
I would read on the subway to Brooklyn Heights and then on the esplanade where I
would wait for Doris to come home from one of her dates with her “beaux,”
as she called them.
She lived at the end of Montague Street, and Wolfe himself had lived around the
corner on Twelfth Street, and I would feel his passion welling inside me like my
own for H., while I waited for Doris, whom I took for granted.
She was a teller in the bank and she would flirt with me in the lunchroom, until
she invited me for tea on a Sunday afternoon and then dinner a few days later. She
was twenty-six years older than I and had a twenty-six-year-old son who lived abroad,
and I would give anything to have someone like her now, but what would she want
with an old penis when she could have one so young it could fill her over and over
If she’s still alive, I send her the love I couldn’t then, so consumed
was I by the same blind hunger as my gluttony for books.
She must have been an extraordinary woman, but she was just old Doris to me, and
all I knew of her was that she grew up in one of the Carolinas and had a child out
of wedlock in the depths of the Depression.
She was my first girlfriend, but I wanted a real girlfriend who was my age; yet,
despite her wrinkled belly and her cigarette breath, she was slim and limber, and
her appetite for my penis was voracious.
She looked somewhat like her idol, Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose little photo was
on the paperback cover of Oscar Williams’ anthology of American Verse that
she gave me one night, and when I ignored her age I actually liked her a lot, though
I never answered her letters after I left.
Was she hurt, or did she have compassion for my ruthless indifference, she herself
playing the same sex game with the bank president and the sea captain who would
bring her home in taxis after dinner dates, unaware of her secret on the esplanade.
I remember her now as if seeing through a glass darkly, her hazel eyes and her husky
voice still clear, but nothing of what she thought or felt except that she liked
avocados and Van Gogh.
I had come to the Village to be a writer and there she was right in front of me,
the subject, who along with H. means most to me now, and all I cared about then
was fucking her as many times as I could, as if to make up for all the years of
Why didn’t she marry and settle down in a suburb; who was she who would seduce
a nineteen-year-old jock while toying with white-haired men in suits? I would know
many forty-six-year-old women in the years to come, but none who had raised a child
in the Depression and lived in a nice apartment overlooking the bay on a teller’s
I always had to leave before dawn so no one would know, and after our last morning
in June, I walked in the misty warmth and pearly light feeling such a glow from
my detumescence I wanted to thank her for how much she had given me; but I didn’t
know how, and I descended to the subway tunnel at Borough Hall knowing I would never
see her again.
I realized she had been a gift from life like a blessing, but I couldn’t tell
her this because I still wanted someone else, and I felt a kind of guilt, as if
I had used her, though of course she had used me as well. She was a good woman,
a kind woman, and I never told her this.
If she’s still alive now, she would be ninety-six.
In the meantime there was H., three subways away from my flophouse, and I would
write to her as if I were her troubadour, until she finally answered.
Of course I am writing this for my own sake, but I do hope that it is also what
you wanted, for it is against my better nature to commit myself in writing. It is
impossible for me not to try to be cajoling, irresistible, and all that jazz, but
this is my weakness, and not meant to encourage you. Richard said that I was cruel
Friday, but you and I know better.
By the way, if it is any consolation, let me admit that when you said he didn’t
like me I didn’t believe you, but much as I hate to acknowledge defeat, you
were quite right; well, those are the breaks, one can’t win them all. What’s
more, Peter, I am too old and too honest not to simply realize that well, those
are the breaks, and start lining up other candidates for conquest. I can’t
pretend that my heart is irretrievably broken; you can, yet you say you don’t
want to. Well, okay, to each his own. I sometimes regret my lost romanticism, and
certainly never thought of myself as a professional bubble-burster, but if that’s
what you want, buddy, I shall do my black-hearted best to comply with your wishes.
Like, let’s face it, old Peter, getting along without me is a hell of a lot
easier than you care to admit. And while it is to my detriment to clue you in (though
I undoubtedly wouldn’t tell you if I didn’t think you already knew),
the truth of the matter is that you cherish your love for me, not me, buddy. But
that’s all right. I’m not about to be insulted because I do the same
thing, and anyway, that way I figure you can take care of yourself.
I will not say that I don’t like you, for I do, but of course I will forget
you easily and quickly—to coin a phrase. Richard would say that I was being
cruel, but that’s nonsense, and don’t feel sorry for yourself. Not if
you really want to be released. Occasionally I do something gratuitous, and this
is one of those times, but don’t push your luck, for I don’t foresee
any great future for myself in playing the heavy; if you have any decency you will
tear this up, and not show it to your little friends, though if you must have a
testimonial to my bitchiness, I seem to have risen to the occasion. In point of
fact, it looks like I could be a pro at bubble-bursting without half trying.
Oh listen, little Peter, I like you. You’re very likeable. But you are not
what I’m looking for, and if you intend to make a big tragedy out of it, far
be it from me to come in on cue. Now if that doesn’t take care of any left-over
hopes and dreams, I’m damned if I know what will. To write more would only
tempt me to be charming, so I will leave well enough alone.”
It’s wrong to share a letter that was meant to be private, especially when
asked to destroy it; unless it’s beautiful, and so I share it with you now
as a beautiful self-portrait of an innocent girl whom I couldn’t truly love
until it was too late.
Except for rushing uptown and the one night we went to Chumley’s Pub with
Richard after class, I never saw her, and I knew only that she had graduated from
Barnard and could somehow afford her apartment by the Met, and it wasn’t until
I finally got her letter did I realize how much she must have loved to write, which
she never shared in class.
We were that year, despite Mailer and Bellow and the other heavyweights, in the
age of Salinger, who was Yates’ own mentor, and you can hear in her prose
a kind of female Holden Caulfield, who, growing up in Holden’s Manhattan,
now felt, at twenty-two, that she was “too old” to have any illusions
and “all that jazz.”
Who knows what happened between her and Richard, who was thirty-five and divorced
and probably slept with one young woman after another; but she was, yes, hurt by
feeling some kind of rejection, though he was, from what I knew of him, a gentle
and compassionate man.
She was just a kid, really, the same age as those now killed in Afghanistan, and
though I was incapable of loving her for who she really was, she now feels like
a daughter I never had, while back then she was so much more mature than I and more
like an older sister of a sexual fantasy.
She was right, yes, I had been in love with an image since I was a boy, and though
some part of me was aware of this, I was actually more innocent than I pretended,
which was why she liked me.
Seeing beneath my role of the young naïf, she knew I knew more than I revealed,
yet I really did suffer from a crippling inferiority complex, and though my letters
were not really to her but who I wanted her to be, she did feel in them a part of
Her reply came after our last class when I was already planning to hitch to Mexico,
where I fantasized about living on a beach with a peasant sweetheart while writing
my first novel. I had grown by leaps and bounds by then, as if the five months in
the Village had been a steroid, and with the ruthlessness of all writers in the
web of innocence and experience, I wrote at the bottom of her letter, as if I could
use it like Flaubert did with Louise Colet’s letters for Madame Bovary:
“What great story material!”
Yet that wasn’t why I saved it until now, no, somewhere inside me was a love
that would wait until now to surface, when I feel not only guilty for what happened
later, but grief for us both.
The Village was my opening, which would continue on the road to Mexico and back,
and then it was gone, and back in New Brunswick, two years later, I was already
on the way to my breakdowns.
I was in love with C. by then, and I was so miserable I was smoking a pack of Luckies
a day. Ironically it was the marijuana that led me to cigarettes, so the saying
that it leads to more dangerous drugs is really true.
My lungs were as clean as baby’s before then, but the cancer cause was still
hidden, and I had started smoking when returning to New Brunswick. I felt so lonely
I innocently bought a pack as if it could revive the nights with Jim in his pad,
and I picked the new Marlboros, whose filters had been red for women with lipstick
and were changed to cork for men with cowboy hats.
I can’t remember staying in touch with H., but I must have, since I did think
of her as a friend, as I always would with all the women I would not be in love
with anymore, and it was in this spirit of friendship that she sent me a second
letter inviting me to visit her again.
I didn’t want her anymore, I wanted C. who didn’t want me, but I drove
up to Manhattan in my ’52 Chevy jalopy, and, believe it or not, I parked by
her apartment just down from the Met, the street practically empty then, 1962, and
She had gained weight and was not beautiful to me anymore. No longer hiding behind
her pose, she looked very sad, and though only twenty-four, she really did feel
I can’t remember what we talked about, which was nothing deep or personal,
yet her sadness seemed as if she had been hurt very badly, and she needed to be
soothed by the Peter who once told her how beautiful she was.
She did like me, I had an energy that had made her feel alive, and she wanted it
again; but sunk in my misery with C., I wanted to turn away.
We walked to the Park, which in those days still had the little zoo with the animals
who are now in the Bronx, and we came to the seals who barked on the rocks in their
little pool as if they too were imprisoned in this realm where all sentient beings
suffer in one way or another.
I wanted to escape, but we went back to her room, and the following scene would
be the same as so many in the movie of my life so filled with pain.
The deadness of her body was the opposite of what I had imagined when I was in love
with her, nor did she want mine or even my desire, but a kind of love that could
revive her, and of course, half dead as I was myself, I had none.
And yet at twenty-one, I could still get hard with whatever was under me, and I
went through the motions not only out of guilt for not really loving her as I said
I did, but as if my genitals could warm the coldness in my heart.
She hardened and retreated into her armor. She had opened her wound to me, trusting
that a part of me really did love her, and all I did was perform a lie.
“So,” she said, “you finally got to sleep with the girl of your
dreams,” and I dressed feeling ashamed.
I never saw her again, and I’ve been haunted with guilt ever since. I can’t
remember how we said so-long, but she was sitting by the window, looking closed
and hard, as if she would never trust anyone again.
Her letter is all I have left of her, and I read it over and over, as if like an
old photo it might revive whom I really did love beneath the image that would fade.
Some part of me really did see how beautiful she really was inside the illusion
of her dark hair and liquid eyes, but it would take a lifetime of suffering for
me to realize this.
If she’s still alive, she’s as old now as Yeats’ Crazy Jane, while
I of course am at the age where never to find the woman of my dream I can search
only for an awakening, the ancient city of my youth as broken as Troy or Mohenjo-Daro.
We hurt and are hurt in turn, and the memories surface like flotsam in the wake
of ignorance. Where else but in the death and life of a great American city do I
find so many?
—From the author’s memoir-in-manuscript, The Artist and His Models
is a painter, poet, and author of three novels, a story collection, and a memoir.
His work appears in numerous anthologies, journals, and galleries.