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Authors: Joseph; Mitchell

Joe Gould's Secret

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Joe Gould's Secret

Joseph Mitchell

To my sisters

Elizabeth Mitchell Woodward

Linda Mitchell Lamm

and Laura Mitchell Braswell

with love



The two parts of
Joe Gould's Secret
were originally published, with a twenty-two-year interval between them, as Profiles in
The New Yorker
. They were then published as a book, with an author's note that is brief but revealing: It begins “This book consists of two views of the same man, a lost soul named Joe Gould.” Consider the word “views”—the farthest possible remove from the dogmatic, though as a portrait the two Profiles are surely definitive. Gould was a Greenwich Village character who, when he was not pursuing the bee in his bonnet, went from bar to bar cadging money and drinks off friends and strangers. He must have been known to hundreds of people, few of whom would have been charitable enough to describe him as a lost soul, though he unquestionably was one.

Over a period of many years Joseph Mitchell listened to him, in saloons and cafeterias, sometimes for eight or ten hours at a stretch and once until four o'clock in the morning. His description of Gould—“an odd and penniless and unemployable little man who came to the city in 1916 and ducked and dodged and held on as hard as he could for over thirty-five years” reminds me of the sound carpenters make when they are building a house.
Bung, bung, bung, kapung, kapung, kapung
. No hesitations. No bent nails. Every word driven, so to speak, all the way into the wood.

In the second section of the book, the process of interviewing, as a rule impersonal and unemotional, was neither of these things. It has so much about Mitchell—his habits and scruples, what he hoped to accomplish and what he was afraid might happen—that it seems at times to be as much about him as it is about Gould, and could almost be taken for a double Profile. To the best of my knowledge this had never been done before and constitutes a breakthrough: the Reporter as Human Being.

Usually when Profile reporters have published a piece they sever whatever personal ties they have formed with the subject and what may have seemed like the beginning of a friendship, but year after year Mitchell went on handing out small sums of money and listening to Gould, out of
. This can perhaps be accounted for by his Southern upbringing. His father was a cotton buyer and owned a tobacco and cotton farm. Mitchell grew up in comfortable circumstances in North Carolina. His ancestors were fanning in the region before the American Revolution. Or it could have been merely a reflection of his own nature. If pressed, and especially in the face of prying questions about work in progress, he could be fierce and formidable, but he was essentially a sweet-natured man. I loved talking to him. He seldom managed to finish his sentences because of all the relevant qualifying thoughts that rushed into his mind. It didn't matter. It was still communication, but of a higher, all-inclusive kind. I loved looking at him because of the light in his eye and his smile, which became broad and joyful when he remembered some extreme oddity of human behavior. He didn't appear to be anywhere near his age and moved with a lightness uncommon in old men. Though he no longer believed in the theological tenets of the Baptist Church, he continued to look at life from a religious viewpoint. Mortality was something he never lost sight of, and nothing gave him more pleasure than to wander about in an old graveyard reading the inscriptions on the tombstones.

I can't prove it but I suspect that he made a religion out of literature, with the great Irish novelist James Joyce as the presiding deity. In any case, writing—the art and practice of writing—didn't with him take second place to anything. I don't think he meant to outwrite everybody else in sight or much liked the worshiping admiration of younger
New Yorker
writers. He had a marvelous ear for speech and knew how to use it to project character, dramatize a moment, or frame a revelation. What more do you need to know in order to understand Joe Gould than his simple confession: “In my home town I never felt at home. I stuck out. Even in my own home, I never felt at home. In New York City, especially in Greenwich Village, down among the cranks and the misfits and the one-lungers and the has-beens and the might've-beens and the would-bes and the never-wills and the God-knows-whats, I have always felt at home.”

As for Mitchell himself, it is somewhat odd that a person who could say “I have always deeply disliked seeing anyone shown up or found out or caught in a lie or caught red-handed doing anything” should have chosen to be a newspaper reporter. He solved the problem by giving way to his delight in and respect for people on the fringes of society. Gypsies, anarchists, quirky bartenders, Indians, deaf-mutes, street preachers, bearded ladies, child prodigies and prodigies of all kind he handled with the gentleness and protectiveness that you would handle a child.

In his story “The Cave Dwellers” Mitchell tells how, in the year 1933, the rock bottom of the Great Depression, he was working as a reporter on “a newspaper whose editors believed that nothing brightened up a front page so much as a story about human suffering.” They sent him to breadlines, to relief bureaus, to evictions, and to stand beside the Salvation Army bell-ringers. Somebody wrote in to the paper about an unemployed carpenter and his wife who in the dead of winter were living in a cave in Central Park. By the time Mitchell caught up with them a good Samaritan had lodged them in a furnished room. Mitchell's piece about them, about their efforts to keep from starving or freezing to death, ran just before Christmas and brought a flood of letters, some of them containing money or a check, and two telegrams offering a job. When Mitchell went to see them two days later the landlady appeared to be angry and told him that people who had seen the article had been bringing food and money all day. When he got upstairs he found their room in disorder and the cave people quite drunk.

“It's that sneak from the newspaper,” the woman said.

“What do you mean printing lies about us in the paper?” the man said. “You said we had only seven cents left, you liar.”

“I told you we had
cents,” the woman said.

The man got a good grip on a bottle of gin and Mitchell said, edging toward the door, “Wait a minute. I brought you some money.”

“I don't want your money,” the man said. “I got money.”

“Well,” Mitchell said, holding out the telegrams, “I think I got a job for you.”

“I don't want your help,” the man said. “You put a lie about us in the paper.”

Mitchell closed the door and hurried toward the stairs. When he got as far as the landing of the second floor, the gin bottle struck the wall above his head and he was sprayed with gin and pieces of wet glass. When he got downstairs the landlady said, “What happened? What was that crash?”

“Mr. Holman threw a bottle of gin at me,” Mitchell said. He was laughing.

He was one part angel.

Author's Note

This book consists of two views of the same man, a lost soul named Joe Gould. Both were written as Profiles for
The New Yorker
. I wrote the first, “Professor Sea Gull,” in 1942, and it came out in the issue of December 12, 1942. Twenty-two years later, in 1964, I wrote the second, “Joe Gould's Secret,” and it came out in the issues of September 19 and 26, 1964.

Professor Sea Gull

Joe Gould is a blithe and emaciated little man who has been a notable in the cafeterias, diners, barrooms, and dumps of Greenwich Village for a quarter of a century. He sometimes brags rather wryly that he is the last of the bohemians. “All the others fell by the wayside,” he says. “Some are in the grave, some are in the loony bin, and some are in the advertising business.” Gould's life is by no means carefree; he is constantly tormented by what he calls “the three H's”—homelessness, hunger, and hangovers. He sleeps on benches in subway stations, on the floor in the studios of friends, and in quarter-a-night flophouses on the Bowery. Once in a while he trudges up to Harlem and goes to one of the establishments known as “Extension Heavens” that are operated by followers of Father Divine, the Negro evangelist, and gets a night's lodging for fifteen cents. He is five feet four and he hardly ever weighs more than a hundred pounds. Not long ago he told a friend that he hadn't eaten a square meal since June, 1936, when he bummed up to Cambridge and attended a banquet during a reunion of the Harvard class of 1911, of which he is a member. “I'm the foremost authority in the United States,” he says, “on the subject of doing without.” He tells people that he lives on “air, self-esteem, cigarette butts, cowboy coffee, fried-egg sandwiches, and ketchup.” Cowboy coffee, he says, is strong coffee drunk black without sugar. “I've long since lost my taste for good coffee,” he says. “I much prefer the kind that sooner or later, if you keep on drinking it, your hands will begin to shake and the whites of your eyes will turn yellow.” While having a sandwich, Gould customarily empties a bottle or two of ketchup on his plate and eats it with a spoon. The countermen in the Jefferson Diner, on Village Square, which is one of his hangouts, gather up the ketchup bottles and hide them the moment he puts his head in the door. “I don't particularly like the confounded stuff,” he says, “but I make it a practice to eat all I can get. It's the only grub I know of that's free of charge.”

Gould is a Yankee. His branch of the Goulds has been in New England since 1635, and he is related to many of the other early New England families, such as the Lawrences, the Clarkes, and the Storers. “There's nothing accidental about me,” he once said. “I'll tell you what it took to make me what I am today. It took old Yankee blood, an overwhelming aversion to possessions, four years of Harvard, and twenty-five years of beating the living hell out of my insides with bad hooch and bad food.” He says that he is out of joint with the rest of the human race because he doesn't want to own anything. “If Mr. Chrysler tried to make me a present of the Chrysler Building,” he says, “I'd damn near break my neck fleeing from him. I wouldn't own it; it'd own me. Back home in Massachusetts I'd be called an old Yankee crank. Here I'm called a bohemian. It's six of one, half a dozen of the other.” Gould has a twangy voice and a Harvard accent. Bartenders and countermen in the Village refer to him as the Professor, the Sea Gull, Professor Sea Gull, the Mongoose, Professor Mongoose, or the Bellevue Boy. He dresses in the castoff clothes of his friends. His overcoat, suit, shirt, and even his shoes are all invariably a size or two too large, but he wears them with a kind of forlorn rakishness. “Just look at me,” he says. “The only thing that fits is the necktie.” On bitter winter days he puts a layer of newspapers between his shirt and undershirt. “I'm snobbish,” he says. “I only use the
.” He is fond of unusual headgear—a toboggan, a beret, or a yachting cap. One summer evening he appeared at a party in a seersucker suit, a polo shirt, a scarlet cummerbund, sandals, and a yachting cap, all hand-me-downs. He uses a long black cigarette holder, and a good deal of the time he smokes butts picked up off the sidewalks.

BOOK: Joe Gould's Secret
13.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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