Writing Classes, Grad Student and Folk Concert by Steven Schrader
I took my first writing class in the summer of 1954 at Cornell, after my sophomore year at New York University. I drove up to Ithaca with a friend who was a Cornell student during the school year. With six or seven of his fraternity brothers, we stayed in their frat house. No one chipped in for anything. When the toilet paper ran out we used newspapers.
My professor was Baxter Hathaway, the founder of Epoch, a respected literary magazine. He was a thin, craggy-faced man, a cigarette constantly in his mouth. He wore a sport jacket with leather patches on each sleeve and drove an old car with a rope tied around one door to keep it closed. I preferred my friend’s shiny new Buick convertible.
I wrote a story about a middle-aged man who, just as he was about to die, discovered the Meaning of Life. Hathaway said it was an admirable effort, but that I should take a look at Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” He suggested I try something a little less ambitious. Did he think I could become a writer, I asked. Hard to say, he answered. You just have to keep trying.
In the fall at N.Y.U. I took a writing course with Maurice Baudin, Jr., whose father was the chairman of the French department. Baudin, Jr. wore a bow tie and had a cutting sense of humor. His master’s thesis had been on Somerset Maugham. He believed in the well-made story; his own work got published in The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s. He advised me to learn to type. I bought a Royal portable and a typing instruction book. I memorized the letters but didn’t bother with most of the other keys. To learn how to punctuate dialogue, I read Hemingway. Being shy, I would walk the eight flights of stairs to class, avoiding the crowded elevators. Baudin, Jr. asked us to write five stories a semester; at each session he would read the best ones—anonymously—out loud. After a while the students got to know one another’s style and could tell who the author was.
I took Baudin, Jr’s. course for four semesters. I loved
hearing my stories read out loud to the class. My main rival was Lydia
Ehrlich, who was a year behind me. As a child she had escaped with her
family from Austria to England before World War II, and spent the war
there. Lydia was small, had frizzy brunette hair, and wore dowdy clothes.
We started having coffee together in the cafeteria after class. Her voice was beautiful and rich, with just the trace of an English accent. “It’s not fair that I have to wear clothing,” Lydia said to me one day. “I look much better naked.”
She lived in South Orange, New Jersey so I borrowed my father’s Cadillac to go out on dates with her. She told me that whenever she mentioned me to her family she referred to me as “The Cadillac.” Her father worked in a factory. On Sundays she listened to Bach with him. One night we had sex in the Cadillac at a local park. As we were buttoning up, a policeman shined his flashlight at us and told us to leave.
“With people getting robbed and killed all the time,” Lydia complained as we drove away, “is that all he has to do?”
One of her stories was about a young girl in England during the war being lured into the woods by a man who gives her a small, cracked mirror in return for letting him touch her under her clothing. The narrator’s description of the incident is matter-of-fact. The story was published in a literary magazine in the Midwest.
During spring break of my senior year, I brought Lydia to a bar in the Village to meet my friend Alan Berkowitz from Dartmouth. After taking one look at him she refused to speak to him. In the car on the way home she told me that Alan’s teeth were too big, that he was overripe. “He’s my best friend,” I told her, but she just stared out the window. Lydia and I broke up at the end of the semester. Years later I heard that she had had two children and died of cancer at thirty-five. It was hard to believe. I had been certain she was going to become a famous writer.
I met Lenny at the University of Michigan in the fall of 1956. We were both graduate students in English, and he already knew everyone. Austin Warren, the respected literary critic, made Lenny his teaching assistant; the two of them would spend hours at Warren’s house drinking bourbon and discussing Henry James. Lenny was also friendly with Milford and Durwood, two young black guys who didn’t attend the university but were part of the scene. They played bongos and sold pot at parties.
Lenny had many girlfriends. One, Mary Jane, an attractive blonde from a small Michigan town, taught a freshman English class. Most of her students were football players. According to Lenny, she was sleeping with one of them and intending to have sex with the rest; and, after that, perhaps the whole team.
Lenny’s friend Mel was a university psychologist. One night he had counseled a student in her dorm, after she threatened to commit suicide. Now they were engaged. Mel was in his thirties, from Brooklyn, a little pudgy and a smooth talker. Liz was another Midwestern blonde—Mel said he loved her, but he worried that she was a replica of all the gentile blondes on the campus, who looked as if they had been forged in a factory that mass-produced Midwestern shiksas. A week before the wedding he flew to Miami Beach for a bachelor weekend. He slept with a couple of Jewish girls, just to make sure he wanted to go through with it. Liz was still the best, Mel said afterwards, and he married her.
One day Lenny went into a men’s clothing store in downtown Ann Arbor, tried on an overcoat and walked out wearing it. He stole dozens of books about existentialism from the library, which he justified by saying that it was all right to steal from corporations, businesses and universities. Another time he was the lookout for Milford and Durwood, who pretended to be movers, and carried a couch from the student lounge to their apartment.
I was supposed to be working toward a master’s degree that combined creative writing and English, but the only course I attended regularly was the writing seminar taught by Arno Bader. In his fifties with short, neat white hair, he always wore a suit and tie and, though he was a decent man, didn’t seem to know much about writing.
When I told Professor Bader I was thinking of leaving school to work for my father in the dress business, he said that sometimes he regretted not going into his own family’s furniture store in Grand Rapids.
Lenny thought going to work for my father was a good idea. I could work a few years, make lots of money and then write for the rest of my life. Lenny wanted to write a novel but first he needed a trade to support himself. His father was a barber on the Lower East Side and money was tight in his family.
The real reason I attended writing class was because Jino Kim was in it. She had come with me, along with a few other friends, on my 21st birthday to the Tinker Bell, a huge student hangout. If you came in on your birthday and presented proof that you had reached legal drinking age, they served you a free pitcher of beer.
Jino was tiny and weighed about ninety-five pounds. She was twenty-nine but looked much younger. Before coming to the University of Michigan, she had spent several years studying in Paris. Her father was a prominent Korean poet who wanted his daughter to see the world and become educated in Western literature and culture.
One of the other students in our writing class, a Korean War veteran, told me that in Korea all the women looked like Jino. They were a dime a dozen, he said. But the night of my birthday party when I picked her up at the private house where she rented a small room, and watched her walk gracefully down the stairs in a short, black silk dress, I was entranced. I didn’t care what anyone thought; soon I stopped going to parties with Lenny and started seeing Jino most nights.
During the day I threw a football around with my roommate Bernie, who was also from New York. Bernie had a fellowship in comparative literature, and, like me, wasn’t going to most of his classes. Extremely shy, and proud of his high IQ, he seemed to know everything about literature. He wrote class papers about books without having to read them. Bernie was also thinking about leaving school, but wasn’t sure what to do next.
In the evening I would pick up Jino in my brother’s Oldsmobile, which I had driven to Michigan, and take her out to dinner. Then we’d park in the arboretum, where there were just a few other widely spaced darkened cars, and make love in the front seat.
Neither of us was very experienced but Jino was sweet and loving. She said she felt like I was her younger brother. Before this, except with Lydia, I’d usually had to convince the girl to go beyond petting and then apologize afterward for taking advantage of her. I was young and enjoyed being able to have sex whenever I felt like it. Jino was always happy to accommodate me. Soon I took her for granted; I didn’t realize how difficult her life was. Having little money, she had to economize on food, besides which she suffered from migraine headaches. Her father had first shipped her off to Paris, demanding that she learn French; now he wanted her to switch languages, to study literature and write stories in English. When she hinted sometimes how hard things were, I became impatient and didn’t listen.
At Christmas vacation, realizing that I was going to fail all my courses except the writing seminar, I dropped out of school and returned home. Lenny left in June. He moved in with a girlfriend and began writing stories that got published in literary magazines. Ten years later, he was nominated for a National Book Award. By then he had started mailing the books about existentialism back to the library at the University of Michigan.
Jino applied to the University’s PhD program in English; I sent her my undergraduate literature textbook to help her prepare for the entrance exam. We exchanged letters for a while until I stopped writing. A year later she mailed the textbook back. That was the last I heard from her.
One spring evening in 1961, a few months after my discharge from the army, I went with my friend Bernie to a concert. I had just discovered the folk music scene in Greenwich Village and was excited when I saw a notice on a lamppost that Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Jean Redpath would be performing at a diner on West 3rd Street, near Washington Square Park. I had heard of Elliott, a disciple of Woody Guthrie who had recorded some of Guthrie’s songs for Folkways Records. Ramblin Jack was actually from Brooklyn (as I found out later); his real name was Elliott Charles Adnopoz and his father was a doctor. But he was lean, wiry, handsome, looking and sounding like a cowboy. In between songs he told long, funny stories about his life and travels. I could have listened to him for hours. Jean Redpath, whom I had expected to be Native American because of her name, turned out to be a young Scottish woman making her New York debut. She was plump and pretty, with a pure, sweet voice and a seemingly endless repertoire of Scottish songs, most of them beautiful and sad.
Elliott was the featured act. Near the end of his set he looked out at the audience and said, “Hey, there’s Bobby Dylan.” I had just read a rave review about Dylan in the New York Times; he was about to be discovered, but at the time he was still a kid hanging around Elliott, sopping up everything he could from him. Elliott and Redpath were going to do a second show, but I felt too shy to stay. Everything I did then was related to what I feared people might think about me, and I thought it wouldn’t look cool to remain sitting there as if we had nothing better to do. Bernie, who wasn’t as interested in the folk scene as I was, said he didn’t care one way or the other. We could have paid another five-dollar charge and ordered another round of coffee, but I decided to leave. Looking back, I’ve always regretted not staying, since I’m sure Dylan got up and sang a few songs with Elliott—that was one of the ways he learned to perform, following friends around to their gigs and joining them on stage. It turned out that I never did get to see Dylan perform live, though over the next year or so our paths crossed several times walking along West 4th Street, where I read later he lived with a girlfriend. Each time I passed him Dylan seemed preoccupied, as if he were writing a song in his head or thinking about a new move on the guitar.
After the concert that night, walking with Bernie through Washington Square Park, where folk singers performed on Sundays, I imagined playing there myself before an admiring crowd. Within a week I bought a cheap steel string guitar and started taking lessons from someone a friend recommended. I also bought a tape recorder to practice telling stories, the way Jack Elliott did. I perfected a twang that I thought sounded like his, but then got sidetracked with other things and stopped playing. Occasionally over the years I take out my guitar, struggling to play the one or two songs I still remember. I think of the night I didn’t stay to hear Bob Dylan and I wonder what else I’ve missed all my life.