Wednesday, September 2, 2009

My Brief but Exciting Career as a Writer

Dear George,

In the summer before our last year at Antioch, Katja was finishing her year abroad in Vienna, and I decided to go to San Francisco to explore my dream of becoming a fiction writer. I had majored in creative writing for a while, but was dissuaded by a disgruntled English prof who claimed there were few if any rewards available to the literati in American society. I had taken his advice to heart, but a lingering part of my true self still clung to the idea of a writing career. I saw this as my last chance to test that life option.

Four Antioch students were bound for San Francisco that summer – Eleanor Holmes, Eddie Lemansky, Betsy Riggs, and myself. I was the only one with a car, so we contracted to travel together, sharing the gas expenses. Eddie and I did the driving. Betsy didn’t have a license, and Eleanor wasn’t comfortable with it. We decided to drive nonstop from Ohio to the coast, and, in fact, we only took one or two short naps along the way. The westward trip is a blur in my mind. We drove through Nebraska at night, and the highway was filled with long-legged hares, a goodly number of which we ran over. The car broke down in Ogallalah, and a kind mechanic did the repairs and charged me a dollar twenty-five. We stopped to look in the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City and took a swim in the Great Salt Lake. We drove over the Rockies. Then, before you knew it, we were in San Francisco.

Eddie and I dropped the women off at their destinations, and we went downtown to the Tenderloin District, San Francisco’s skid row. We asked a homeless lady living in her car where the cheapest hotel was, and she directed us to a cheesy looking three-story SRO on O’Farrell St. The nightly fee was two dollars. Eddie got a room that was lined on all four walls with bright red velvet curtains and smelled strongly of perfume and room deodorizer. The room clerk told us that its prior occupant had entertained his friends there. My room was less gaudy, but wouldn’t have earned a single star from AAA.

I’d brought just fifty dollars with me as my stake for the summer, so I scanned the classifieds in the Examiner for job possibilities. What caught my eye were positions that offered free room and board, but no pay, in exchange for kitchen work. This seemed to offer maximum flexibility for an aspiring writer, and the element of no pay actually appealed to my self-picture as a starving artist. I arbitrarily picked one of the ads for a place called The Mansion, located near to California and Fillmore, and walked over to check it out. The manager’s name was Lindy. He said it was a pearl-diving job, and, when I looked puzzled, he explained that that was the insider’s name for washing dishes. After a brief interview, Lindy offered me the job.

Lindy was an out of the closet middle-aged, balding gay man, tall and skinny, flamboyant in style, and very funny. He looked and talked like Larry David. After the first evening meal he was less than impressed with my dishwashing ability and showed me how to speed it up. Lindy’s opinion, which he offered on numerous occasions, was that college students were just fine on theory and lofty abstractions, but they were wholly lacking in real-life skills or practical knowledge. I didn’t quarrel with him, and I worked hard to improve.

The mansion was a fancy place – in fact, it had been a real mansion, dating back to the late 1800’s, which had been converted into a high-level boarding house for professionals in their 30s and 40s. People took their breakfast and supper at the Mansion, so my work duties centered around these two meals. After a few weeks Lindy tried me out as a waiter, but I did miserably at it, failing to remember people’s orders by the time I reached the kitchen, and I was quickly demoted back to my lower level pearl-diving job.

My room was in the basement and had formerly been the mansion’s library, a cavernous space lined with empty oak bookshelves. It was secluded, quiet, and an excellent place for writing. I had brought my Olympia portable typewriter with me, along with a ream of paper, and I spent many hours there churning out material. William Saroyan was my favorite writer at the time, and he had spent part of his early career in San Francisco, frequenting the San Francisco Public Library. Emulating my idol, I did that too, writing longhand drafts of short stories at a table in one of the large reference rooms.

The Mansion’s owner was a staid, mustachioed British man named Gordon who made regular visits to monitor goings on. Lindy was condescending toward Gordon in his absence, but cowtowed to him when he was there. Gordon became incensed when he learned that a single man and woman had removed the lock on the door that separated their adjacent rooms so that they could more readily share a common bed. Gordon went up, entered the man’s room while he was sleeping, and proceeded to nail the door shut in an effort to restore morality.

Late in the summer Lindy smuggled a pregnant woman named Jeannie into the Mansion and gave her a room on the top floor. Lindy explained that he had nothing to do with Jeannie’s pregnancy, but that she was a close friend who needed help. Because of her mammoth size, I guessed Jeannie to have been in her ninth month. Along with being pregnant, Jeannie also had a fondness for vodka. One night there was a huge thunderstorm, and, as Lindy recounted to me the next day, Gordon came by to make sure everything was o.k. at the Mansion. Jeannie had gone down the hall to take a shower, and, besotten with vodka, she had locked herself out of her room. Because she was naked, she didn’t try to go for help. Instead she climbed out of the bathroom window and began walking along a ledge on the exterior wall of the Mansion’s top floor. She was midway at the very moment that Gordon got out of his car below and looked up at his building as the lightning flashed. There the sight of a huge naked woman scaling the building’s ledge in the midst of the storm was nearly enough to cause his demise. I’m not sure how Lindy got out of it, but he did some kind of fast talking that allowed him to keep his job. Jeannie moved out the next day.

San Francisco was an exciting place to be. I spent a lot of time in North Beach, the bohemian area that had been home turf for Jack Kerouac and the beatnik generation. I went to a poetry reading by Lawrence Ferlinghetti one night at the City Lights Bookshop. The place was jammed, and I got one of the last seats which was hastily added to the stage at the last moment, just behind Ferlinghetti himself. He chatted with me a little bit before the poetry reading began, and I mentioned my writing pursuits. For a moment I felt I’d arrived in the literary world.

I wrote 27 short stories that summer. I sent the intial ones to the New Yorker, from whom I received form letters of rejection by return mail. Having had rich childhood experiences with cowboys and Indians, as well as cops and robbers, I tried sending fictional accounts to Western and Detective magazines, but these too met with prompt rejection. I sent a couple of manuscripts to True Romance, but my plot lines were even less authentic there. By the end of the summer I had enough rejection letters to paper a wall, and I came to the conclusion that my writing career was an abject failure. Though I was personally happy with my products, the literary world had no interest.

I had run into an Antioch acquaintance named Bill H. who had come out to San Francisco after I did, and Bill asked me if I were interested in driving back to Yellow Springs. I said I was, and we set out in early August. We got back to Yellow Springs about 48 hours after our departure time. I had twenty dollars left from my original fifty. All in all, I considered my trip a success. I’d gained some clarity about life directions, I’d had some S.F. adventures, and I had lived on less than five dollars a week. Who could hope for more than that?



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