We go outside of the confines of contemporary writers working today in order to publish in its entirety Leonard Michaels’ short story about his life in the 1950s.
In the Fifties
by Leonard Michaels
from his second collection of short stories, I Would Have Saved Them If I Could
In the fifties I learned to drive a car. I was frequently in love. I had more friends than now.
In less than a month, working day and night, I wrote a bad novel.
I went to school—N.Y.U., Michigan, Berkeley—much of the time.
I had witty, giddy conversation, four or five nights a week, in a homosexual bar in Ann Arbor.
I read literary reviews the way people suck candy.
Personal relationships were more important to me than anything else.
I had a fight with a powerful fat man who fell on my face and was immovable.
I had personal relationships with football players, Jazz musicians, ass-bandits, nymphomaniacs, non-specialized degenerates, and numerous Jewish premedical students.
I had personal relationships with thirty-five rhesus monkeys in an experiment on monkey addiction to morphine. Thy knew me as one who shot reeking crap out of cages with a hose.
With four other students I lived in the home of chiropractor named Leo.
I met a man in Detroit who owned a submachine gun; he claimed to have hit Dutch Schultz. I saw a gangster movie that disproved his claim.
I knew two girls who had brains, talent, health, good looks, plenty to eat, and hanged themselves.
I heard of parties in Ann Arbor where everyone made it with everyone else, including the cat.
I knew card sharks and con men. I liked marginal types because they seemed original and aristocratic, living for an ideal or obliged to live in it. Ordinary types seem fundamentally unserious. These distinctions belong to the romantic fop. I didn’t think that way too much.
I worked for an evil vanity publisher in Manhattan.
I worked in a fish packing plant in Massachusetts, on the line with a sincere Jewish poet from Harvard and three lesbians; one was beautiful, one grim; both loved the other, who was intelligent. I loved her, too. I dreamed of violating her purity. They taked among themselves, in creepy whispers, always about Jung. In a dark corner, away from our line, old Portuguese men slit fish into open flaps, flicking out the bones. I could only see their eyes and knives. I’d arrive early every morning to dash in and out until the stench became bearable. After work I’d go to bed and pluck fish scales out of my skin.
I was a teaching assistant in two English departments. I graded thousands of freshman themes. One began like, “Karl Marx, for that was his name…” Another began like this: “In Jonathan Swift‘s famous letter to the Pope…” I wrote edifying comments in the margins. Later I began to scribble “Awkward” beside everything, even spelling errors.
I got A’s and F’s as a graduate student. A professor of English said my attitude wasn’t professional. He said that he always read a “good book” after dinner.
A girl from Indiana said this of me on a teacher-evaluation form: “It is bad enough to go to English class at eight in the morning, but to be instructed by a shabby man is horrible.”
I made enemies on the East Coast, the West Coast, and in the Middle West. All now dead, sick, or out of luck.
I was arrested, photographed, and fingerprinted. In a soundproof room two detectives lectured me on the American way of life, and I was charged with the crime of nothing. A New York cop told me that detectives were called “defectives.”
I had an automobile accident. I did the mambo. I had urethritis and mononucleosis.
In Ann Arbor, a few years before the advent of Malcolm X, a lot of my friends were black. After Malcolm X, almost all my friends were white. They admired John F. Kennedy.
In the fifties, I smoked marijuana, hash, and opium. Once I drank absinthe. Once I swallowed twenty glycerine caps of peyote. The social effects of “drugs,” unless sexual, always seemed tedious. But I liked people who inclined the drug way. Especially if they didn’t proselytize. I listened to long conversations about the phenomenological weirdness of familiar reality and the great spiritual questions this entailed—for example, “Do you think Wallace Stevens is a head?”
I witnessed an abortion.
I was godless, but I thought the fashion of intellectual religiosity more despicable. I wished that I could live in a culture rather than study life among the cultured.
I drove a Chevy Bel Air eighty-five miles per hour on a two-lane blacktop. It was nighttime. Intermittent thick white fog made the headlights feeble and diffuse. Four others in the car sat with the strict silent rectitude of catatonics. If one of them didn’t admit to being frightened, we were dead. A Cadillac, doing a hundred miles per hour, passed us and was obliterated in the fog. I slowed down.
Leonard Michaels, 1996
I drank Old Fashioneds in the apartment of my friend Julian. We talked about Worringer and Spengler. We gossiped about friends. Then we left to meet our dates. There was more drinking. We all climbed trees, crawled in the street, and went to a church. Julian walked into an elm, smashed his glasses, vomited on a lawn, and returned home to memorize Anglo-Saxon grammatical forms. I ended on my knees, vomiting into a toilet bowl, repeatedly flushing the water to hide my noises. Later I phoned New York so that I could listen to the voices of my parents, their Yiddish, their English, their logics.
I knew a professor of English who wrote impassioned sonnets in honor of Henry Ford.
I played freshman varsity basketball at N.Y.U. and received a dollar an hour for practice sessions and double that for games. It was called “meal money.” I played badly, too psychological, too worried about not studying, too short. If pushed or elbowed during a practice game, I was ready to kill. The coach liked my attitude. In his day, he said, practice ended when there was blood on the boards. I ran back and forth, in urgent sneakers, through my freshman year. Near the end I came down with pleurisy, quit basketball, started smoking more.
I took classes in comparative anatomy and chemistry. I took classes in old English, Middle English, and modern literature. I took classes and classes.
I fired a twelve-gauge shotgun down the hallway of a railroad flat into a couch pillow.
My roommate bought the shotgun because of his gambling debts. He expected murderous thugs to come for him. I’d wake in the middle of the night listening for a knock, a cough, a footstep, wondering how to identify myself as not him when they broke through out door.
My roommate was an expensively dressed kid from a Chicago suburb. Though very intelligent, he suffered in school. He suffered with girls though he was handsome and witty. He suffered with boys though he was heterosexual. He slept on three mattresses and used a sun lamp all winter. He bathed, oiled and perfumed his body daily. He wanted soft, sweet joys in every part, but when some whore asked if he’d like to be beaten with a garrison belt, he said yes. He suffered with food, eating from morning to night, loading his pockets with fried pumpkin seeds when he left for class, smearing caviar paste on his filet mignons, eating himself into a monumental face of eating because he was eating. Then he killed himself.
A lot of young, gifted people I knew in the fifties killed themselves. Only a few of them continue walking around.
I wrote literary essays in the turgid, tumescent manner of darkest Blackmur.
NYC from Jersey, 1950.
I used to think that someday I would write a fictional version of my stupid life in the fifties.
I was a waiter at a Catskill hotel. The captain of the waiters ordered us to dance with the female guests who appeared in the casino without escorts and, as much as possible, fuck them. A professional tummler walked the ground. Whenever he saw a group of people merely chatting, he thrust in quickly and created a tumult.
I heard the Budapest String quartet, Dylan Thomas, Lester Young, and Billie Holiday together, and I saw Pearl Primus dance, in a Village nightclub, in a space two yards square, accompanied by an African drummer about seventy years old. His hands moved in spasms of mathematical complexity at invisible speed. People left their tables to press close to Primus and see the expression in her face, the sweat, the muscles, the way her naked feet seized and released the floor.
“U.R.A.Q.T. (Hot Chip remix)” — M.I.A. (mp3)
“D.A.N.C.E. (Blake is Ruthless vs. Simian remix)” — Justice (mp3)
Eventually I had friends in New York, Ann Arbor, Chicago, Berkeley & Los Angeles.
I did the cha-cha, wearing a tux, at a New Year’s party in Hollywood, and sat at a table with Steve McQueen. He’d become famous in a TV series about a cowboy with a rifle. He said he didn’t know which he liked best, acting or driving a racing car. I thought he was a silly person and then realized he thought I was. I met a few other famous people who said something. One night, in a yellow Porsche, I circle Manhattan with Jack Kerouac. He recited passages, perfectly remembered from his book reviews, to the sky. His manner was ironical, sweet, and depressing.
I had a friend named Chicky who drove his chopped, blocked, stripped, dual-exhaust Ford convertible, while vomiting out the fly window, into a telephone pole. He survived, lit a match to see if the engine was all right, and it blew up in his face. I saw him in the hospital. Through his bandages he said that ever since high school he’d been trying to kill himself. Because his girlfriend wasn’t good-looking enough. He was crying and laughing while he pleaded with me to believe that he had really been trying to kill himself because his girlfriend wasn’t good-looking enough. I told him that I was going out with a certain girl and he told me that had fucked her once but it didn’t matter because I could take her away and live somewhere else. He was a Sicilian kid with a face like Caravaggio’s angels of debauch. He’d been educated by priests and nuns. When his hair grew back and his face healed, his mind healed. He broke up with his girlfriend. he wasn’t nearly as narcissistic as other men I knew in the fifties.
I knew one who, before picking up his dates, ironed his dollar bills and powdered his testicles. And another who referred to women as “cockless wonders” and used only their family names—for example, “I’m going to meet Goldberg, the cockless wonder.” Many women thought he was extremeley attractive and became his sexual slaves. Men didn’t like him.
I had a friend who was dragged down a courthouse stairway, in San Francisco, by her hair. She’d wanted to attend the House Un-American hearings. The next morning I crossed the Bay Bridge to join my first protest demonstration. I felt frightened and embarassed. I was bitter about what had happened to her and the others she’d been with. I expected to see thirty or forty people lke me, carrying hysterical placards around the courthouse until the cops bludgeoned us into the pavement. About two thousand people were there. I marched beside a little kid who had a bag of marbbles to throw under the hoofs of the horse cops. His mother kept saying, “Not yet, not yet.” We marched all day. That was the end of the fifties.
Leonard Michaels died in 2003. He was one of the most talented writers of the short story in the form’s history. He also wrote novels, including The Men’s Club, a brilliant satire, and Sylvia, about his first wife, Sylvia Bloch.
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