My Mother’s Cold Dead Hands Around My Throat by David Evanier
The storyteller has run out of stories. Daniel has two stories left to tell, and one
is about his own disintegration. Can I tell his story? Am I robbing him of it? Can a writer ever be a friend to anyone while feverishly taking notes, pictures and impressions of that person? The second story is about Hitler.
My friend Daniel shows me a picture of himself at 7 holding a baseball bat.
“The cocksucker,” he says of himself. “I hate him. He was powerless. That was when all the shit came down. I carry it around with me hoping that I’ll begin to feel pity for him.”
He has been more depressed since the suicide of another storyteller, Spalding Gray. “I went to see a doctor on East End Avenue, saw a sign that said `End,’, the word `End’ on the sign, and thought of Spalding. I was with my wife. I felt like saying to her, `You go home. I’ll stay.’”
Daniel is from the old meat-and- potatoes left, the Jewish upper West Side, the
Living Theater, I.F. Stone, C. Wright Mills, Bread and Puppet Theater left. Now his tiny apartment view from his window is empty of sky, bereft of the city island beneath him where the beggars and the street people and the flower children sat on benches. Gone are the theaters that were torn down for the big apartment buildings that now rob him of a montage of city life.
This is the first day Daniel has ventured out of his apartment for months to see me. I’m the only person he wants to see badly enough to overcome his fear of the streets, the subways, germs, people, being touched. “You don’t know what it took for me to do this,” he says. He has taken a taxi from the subway stop near me--three blocks--to meet me at the restaurant, and he will take another taxi to get back to the subway. The meds he’s on wear him out and walking seems to be an impossibility.
A baby cries in the restaurant. “Drown him,” Daniel says. When a cell phone rings, he says, “They drive me crazy. If I were younger, I’d go up to that guy and knock his block off.
“Unless I talk to someone in person, I don’t feel real. There’s this weight like a rock pressing against me all the time, like I was trying to walk upstream. There’s a willful feeling in me that I want to be dead. I can’t describe what my life is like daily. I can’t deal with any adversity. The worst moment of the day is waking up. To live another day. I’m consumed by rage. I wake up in the morning; I go through the whole day. It’s unbelievable. I never wanted to be alive. I wanted to be dead. I’m worn out. I’ve tried everything: meditation, therapy, shiatsu, holistic medicine. I can’t get myself out of this prison.” He pauses. “I feel terrible inflicting this on you.”
Every time I see him, I’m at war with myself--trying to empathize, to understand what he is going through, and never quite going all the way there. Maybe if I do I’ll fall through the cracks with him. It’s terrible to contemplate his thoughts, although he makes it clear what they are: “I wake up with homicidal images, horrible visions, or the other side, wanting to check out.”
Yet he is here. He has made the effort. I tell him stories. I make him laugh. Should I write a story about him? I feel I am betraying him. That’s part of the war within me. If I just sit with him, I’m somehow trying to help him. If I write down what he says on a napkin when I leave, I’m stealing from him. Which is what I’m doing right now. Once he said, “It’s just nice knowing someone is listening.” Is this listening? Or is it stealing? Every writer I know who starts a new story or novel or play or poem feels a total panic, as I am feeling now. Can I do it again? Even if I can, is anyone listening? Wil I get more than fifty dollars for weeks or months of blood?
The editor who was supporting her vegan, bird-watching, super-pure writer husband as he fucked his female students, told me, “if I were on my death bed, he’d take notes to write about it.” Which in fact is exactly what did for starts, plus telling the world in Playboy that his wife had never had an orgasm.
A wealthy elderly lady in the Writers Observatory, where I write, stops me and says, “You’re nice. I see you. You give people courage.” I don’t see myself in that light. I see myself taking notes on what Daniel says. I know a good story when I hear one.
But Daniel is not going to tell his story. That is my only rationale for writing this.
This crowd, these writers in the Writer’s Observatory: “There are homeless people in Calcutta,” my friend Lucy says, “who are happier than the people in this hall.”
Before I meet Daniel today, another writer is talking to me intensely in the WO. “I’ve been to all the energy fields,” she says. She wants to write a gender-based book on chickens, “feathered and unfeathered. It could be on women and agriculture. There’s meaning in these incredibly powerful images. What are the issues? I don’t have a lock on the issues by any means--”
“Who does?” I chime in.
“--How I feel about it. I happened to be at this party, we were hanging out, totally cool.The whole power of that image, of small chicken visibility. That’s just so beautiful. It could be short term--
“Or long--” I say.
“Yes, yes. Or long. Why do things like this always come in clumps like that?”
I met Daniel 35 years ago.Tall, thick-necked, totally bald, and handsome at 30, Daniel wore a flannel shirt all year round. Smelling of sweat and anxiety, his lips specked with blood, a tiny paper briefcase dangling at the bottom of his long arm, he’d wave hello by wiggling his fingers. He usually had a copy of The Godfather or Sylvester Stallone’s First Blood, his two favorite books, which he read over and over. “My wife is the strong man I’ve always wanted to be,” he said to me as we sat in a pinball arcade in Times Square.
“Adam, one day,” he’d said to me that day, “We’ll be two old Jewish altecockers on a park bench talking.”
And here we are.
We’d met when Daniel had a radio show called “The Wandering Jew” on a station run by East Germans as “free cock radio” (WFCR-FM) before the fall of the Berlin wall. Another station, WBAI-FM, was popular and known as the free speech station. WFCR=FM was barely known. It was unclear how wide the audience was or if it actually existed at all; The East Village Other wrote about it and described a tortuous procedure for locating the station on the dial by holding a metric wand against it like a magnet and squeezing the program out. That sounded very cool, although I could never do it and never met anyone who could. I heard Daniel’s show because I sat beside him at the radio station. Daniel often invited me to be a guest on the show. Most of the station’s announcers had muted accents and said “We luf the Jews, of course, but hate the Zionazis. Yah yah” They would introduce Daniel: “Here is our own little Jew!” And Daniel took off. Why not? He agreed with most of what they said.
Daniel talked about imperial America running the world: “Hey, we own these countries. They’re our hookers, baby. They’re on their backs doing whatever we tell them.” The krauts stared at him through the glass, rapt with admiration, giving him the peace sign. “Tell it like it is, goot friend!” they shouted. And Daniel told a great story. After the program they handed Daniel a string of bratwurst and a picture book of World War II for his salary.
When he got away from politics, Daniel’s stories were sometimes brilliant, like flying, connecting events and memories and associations and a final epiphany. The story Daniel told that day was about volunteering with a social-work agency to visit the afflicted. But the blind man he’d been reading to had become uppity and criticized his vowels. Then he’d headed out to Bedford Stuyvesant to see a painter who had recently tried to immolate herself.
Daniel had entered an apartment house, the only one standing. The mail boxes were smashed. Eyes peered out of the darkness, passing him in the narrow space. The wooden door of the apartment was distended with graffiti. He knocked for a long time. The locks were slowly unbolted. The door opened, and a woman with burns all over her body leaned against a walker.
Daniel said, “She scratched the burns through her open dressing gown. Dozens of apples lay on the kitchen table. `My daughter brought apples for two weeks,’ she said. The apartment was filled with rubble. I asked her, `Don’t you want to move out of this place?’ `Yes,’ she said, `but my daughter doesn’t. The daughter comes first, isn’t that true?’
“Are you still painting?’” I asked her.
”`I can’t do anything with my hands now.’ She lit a brown cigarette. `Sorry I did it.’
“`Are you getting help?’ I said.
“`I was seeing a psychiatrist.’
“`Was it helpful?’
“She said, `It was good. There’s nothing really wrong with me.’ Daniel laughed.
“I asked her what made her do it. She said the government was bothering them. `Bothering my daughter since 1962. I did it largely for her.’
I said, `What did they do to you?’
“ `When she became 21,’ the woman said, `the CIA started to bother her full force.’”
“At this point,” Daniel said, “the woman’s daughter came into the room. Her hair was combed and she wore glasses. She was tall and thin and looked as if she were standing on a boat in the fog. She said, `You know they watch people.’
Daniel agreed. “They’ve got camps ready.”
He said to the mother, “I’m sorry it happened.”
“`Not as sorry as me,’ she replied.
“Outside,” Daniel said, “empty lots were piled high with rubble. Fires burned. Packs of strong dogs raced by.”
Daniel concluded the story by putting on a record as he always did. This time it was his favorite, Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew What It Felt Like To Be Free.”
There were lots of moments like those when Daniel, in the final hour of his 7-hour show, just relaxed, put on Ray Charles: “America the Beautiful,” “Chantilly Lace,” Nina Simone: “My Baby Just Cares For me,” Sidney Bechet: “Hindustan and “Tin Roof Blues,” Sinatra and Dean: “Volare,” Daniel shaking his head with pleasure. On his father’s birthday (he’d died many years before) he played Bechet. He said, “Dixieland was my father’s favorite. It was kind of corny, old-fashioned, but it was real human. I remember walking around New Orleans with my father all the time. I want to play this for all the good times we had together. There weren’t that many, we didn’t have that much time together. But they were real good times.
“My friend Adam here has observed that lots of sad people, like Eugene O’Neill, like this kind of music. And you can understand why. It’s the most cheerful, human music that has ever been invented. I mean it’s just astounding music. It comes from the bottom and goes to the top. This music was born in the darkest deepest depths of poverty and racism and it just bubbled up right to the top and spread all over the country. It started in New Orleans and basically went all the way up the Mississippi River up to St. Louie, Kansas City, Chicago, then New York City. It was popular back in the twenties when Armstrong started off that way. Its striving time was the 1920s, 30s and 40s. And these songs were for my old man.”
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