Authors: John Fante
Also for Joyce
My first collision with fame was hardly memorable. I was…
It took me three days to revise Jennifer Lovelace’s story.
The sun hit my face like big golden eye, wakening…
The days stumbled past. August came, hot and sticky. One…
On the way back to Bunker Hill I went through…
Next morning Mrs. Brownell gave me directions and I took the…
My assignment from Harry Schindler was an unfathomable mystery. I…
A few nights later Edgington invited me to dinner. “Best…
I was born in a basement apartment of a macaroni…
Not a week passed without a letter from my mother.
Mrs. Brownell and I were experiencing some turbulence. She had doubts…
When Frank Edgington learned that I was homeless he invited…
You had to have an agent. Without one you were…
We were supposed to meet the following day, but I…
After that it was a feud. When he was at…
I drove to Avalon Boulevard and south to Wilmington. It…
One afternoon as I dozed, I heard a car outside.
Every day the Duke pulled his wagon of sand a…
The fight began with the two wrestlers facing one another…
All the next day the Duke lay in bed, his…
Like a homing bird I flew to Bunker Hill, to…
I found a room on Temple Street, above a Filipino…
A man stood behind the desk in the hotel lobby.
I put my car in storage and got aboard a…
Home was a good place. I slept well. I ate…
So I was back again, back to LA, with two…
My first collision with fame was hardly memorable. I was a busboy at Marx’s Deli. The year was 1934. The place was Third and Hill, Los Angeles. I was twenty-one years old, living in a world bounded on the west by Bunker Hill, on the east by Los Angeles Street, on the south by Pershing Square, and on the north by Civic Center. I was a busboy nonpareil, with great verve and style for the profession, and though I was dreadfully underpaid (one dollar a day plus meals) I attracted considerable attention as I whirled from table to table, balancing a tray on one hand, and eliciting smiles from my customers. I had something else beside a waiter’s skill to offer my patrons, for I was also a writer. This phenomenon became known one day after a drunken photographer from the
Los Angeles Times
sat at the bar, snapped several pictures of me serving a customer as she looked up at me with admiring eyes. Next day there was a feature story attached to the
photograph. It told of the struggle and success of young Arturo Bandini, an ambitious, hard-working kid from Colorado, who had crashed through the difficult magazine world with the sale of his first story to
The American Phoenix
, edited, of course, by the most renowned personage in American literature, none other than Heinrich Muller. Good old Muller! How I loved that man! Indeed, my first literary efforts were letters to him, asking his advice, sending him suggestions for stories I might write, and finally sending him stories too, many stories, a story a week, until even Heinrich Muller, curmudgeon of the literary world, the tiger in his lair, seemed
to give up the struggle and condescended to drop me a letter with two lines in it, and then a second letter with four lines, and finally a two-page letter of twenty-four lines and then, wonder of wonders, a check for $150, payment in full for my first acceptance.
I was in rags the day that check arrived. My nondescript Colorado clothes hung from me in shreds, and my first thought was a new wardrobe. I had to be frugal but in good taste, and so I descended Bunker Hill to Second and Broadway, and the Goodwill store. I made my way to the better quality section and found an excellent blue business suit with a white pinstripe. The pants were too long and so were the sleeves, and the whole thing was ten dollars. For another dollar I had the suit altered, and while this was being taken care of, I buzzed around in the shirt department. Shirts were fifty cents apiece, of excellent quality and all manner of styles. Next I purchased a pair of shoes—fine thick-soled oxfords of pure leather, shoes that would carry me over the streets of Los Angeles for months to come. I bought other things too, several pairs of shorts and T-shirts, a dozen pairs of socks, a few neckties and finally an irresistible glorious fedora. I set it jauntily at the side of my head and walked out of the dressing room and paid my bill. Twenty bucks. It was the first time in my life that I had bought clothing for myself. As I studied my reflection in a long mirror I could not help remembering that in all my Colorado years my people had been too poor to buy me a suit of clothes, even for the graduation exercises in high school. Well, I was on my way now, nothing could stop me. Heinrich Muller, the roaring tiger of the literary world, would lead me to the top of the heap. I walked out of the Goodwill and up Third Street, a new man. My boss, Abe Marx, was standing in front of the deli as I approached.
“Good God, Bandini!” he exclaimed. “You’ve been to the Goodwill or something?”
“Goodwill, my ass,” I snorted. “This is straight from Bullock’s, you boob.”
A couple of days later Abe Marx handed me a business
card. It read:
Gustave Du Mont, Ph. D.
Preparation and Editing
of books, plays, scenarios, and stories
Expert editorial supervision
513 Third Street, Los Angeles
I slipped the card into the pocket of my new suit. I took the elevator to the fifth floor. Du Mont’s office was down the corridor. I entered.
The reception room lurched like an earthquake. I caught my breath and looked around. The place was full of cats. Cats on the chairs, on the valances, on the typewriter. Cats on the bookcases, in the bookcases. The stench was overpowering. The cats came to their feet and swirled around me, pressing my legs, rolling playfully over my shoes. On the floor and on the surface of the furniture a film of cat fur heaved and eddied like a pool of water. I crossed to an open window and looked down the fire escape. Cats were ascending and descending. A huge grey creature climbed toward me, the head of a salmon in his mouth. He brushed past me and leaped into the room.
By now the whir of cat fur enveloped the air. An inner office door opened. Standing there was Gustave Du Mont, a small aged man with eyes like cherries. He waved his arms and rushed among the cats shrieking.
“Out! Out! Go, everybody! Time to go home!”
The cats simply glided off at their leisure, some ending up at his feet, some playfully pawing his pants. They were his masters. Du Mont sighed, threw up his hands, and said,
“What can I do for you?”
“I’m from the deli downstairs. You left your card.”
I stepped into his office and he closed the door. We were in a small room in the presence of three cats lolling atop a bookcase. They were elite felines, huge Persians, licking
their paws with regal aplomb. I stared at them. Du Mont seemed to understand.
“My favorites,” he smiled. He opened a desk drawer and drew out a fifth of Scotch.
“How about some lunch, young man?”
“No thanks, Dr. Du Mont. What did you want to see me about?”
Du Mont uncorked the bottle, took a swig from it and gasped.
“I read your story. You’re a good writer. You shouldn’t be slinging hash. You belong in more amenable surroundings.” Du Mont took another swig. “You want a job?”
I looked at all those cats. “Maybe. What you got in mind?”
“I need an editor.”
I smelled the pungency of all those cats. “I’m not sure I could take it.”
“You mean the cats? I’ll take care of that.”
I thought a minute. “Well…what is it you want me to edit?”
He hit the bottle again. “Novels, short stories, whatever comes in.”
I hesitated. “Can I see the stuff?”
His fist came down on a pile of manuscripts. “Help yourself.”
I lifted off the top manuscript. It was a short story, written by a certain Jennifer Lovelace, entitled
Passion at Dawn
. I groaned.
Du Mont took another swig. “It’s awful,” he said. “They’re all awful. I can’t read them anymore. It’s the worst writing I ever saw. But there’s money in it if you’ve got the stomach. The worse they are the more you charge.”
By now the whole front of my new suit was coated with cat fur. My nose itched and I felt a sneeze coming. I choked it back.
“What’s the job pay?”
“Five dollars a week.”
“Hell, that’s only a dollar a day.”
“Nothin’ to it.”
I snatched the bottle and took a swig. It scorched my throat. It tasted like cat piss.
“Ten dollars a week or no deal.”
Du Mont shoved out his fist. “Shake,” he said. “You start Monday.”
Monday morning I reported for work at nine o’clock. The cats were gone. The window was closed. The reception room had been refurbished. There was a desk for me beside the window. Everything was clean and dusted. Not a single strand of cat fur clung to my finger when I rubbed it against the window sill. I sniffed the air. The urine was still potent but masked by a powerful fumigant. There was another odor too—cat repellent. I sat down at the desk and pulled out the typewriter. It was an ancient Underwood. I rolled a sheet of paper under the platen and experimented with the keyboard. The machine functioned like a rusty lawnmower. Suddenly I was dissatisfied. There was something about this job that made me apprehensive. Why should I work on somebody else’s product? Why wasn’t I in my room writing my own stuff? What would Heinrich Muller do in a case like this? Surely I was a fool.
The door opened and there was Du Mont. I was surprised to see him in a bowler hat, a gray vest under his frock coat, spats, and sporting a walking stick. I had never been in Paris but the sight of the natty little man made me think of the place. Was he crazy? Suddenly I thought he was.
“Good morning,” he said. “How do you like your quarters?”
“What happened to the cats?”
“The fumigant,” he said. “It drives them off. Don’t worry. I know cats. They won’t be back.” He hung his hat and cane on a couple of door hooks. Then he pulled up a chair and we sat side by side at the desk. He picked up the top manuscript,
Passion at Dawn
by Jennifer Lovelace, and began to teach me the art of literary revision. He did it brutally, because in truth it was a brutal job. A black crayon in his hand, he marked and slashed and obliterated sentences,
paragraphs, and whole pages. The manuscript fairly bled from the mutilation. I soon got the idea, and by the end of the day I was hacking away.
Late in the afternoon I heard a thump at my window. It was a cat, an old codger with a bruised forlorn face. He peered at me through the glass, rubbing his nose against it, then licking it expectantly. I ignored him for a few moments, and when I looked again two more cats were with him on the window sill, staring at me in orphaned alms-seeking. I couldn’t take it. I went down the elevator to the deli and found some slices of pastrami in the garbage can. I wrapped them in a napkin and brought them back to the cats. When I opened the window they burst into the room and ate ravenously from my hand.
I heard Du Mont laughing. He was in the doorway of his office, one of his three Persians in his arms.
“I knew you were a cat man,” he said. “I could tell from your eyes.”