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Authors: James Wolcott

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Lucking Out

BOOK: Lucking Out
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Still from
Blank Generation
© 1975 Ivan Kral/Blank Generation LLC

Copyright © 2011 by James Wolcott

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

www.doubleday.com

DOUBLEDAY
and the portrayal of an anchor with a dolphin are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Portions of this book previously appeared in
Vanity Fair
in somewhat different form.

This page
constitutes an extension of the copyright page.

Cover design by Emily Mahon

Cover photograph © Serge Clément/Agence VU’

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Wolcott, James, 1952–

Lucking out: my life getting down and semi-dirty in seventies New York / James Wolcott.—1st ed.

p. cm.

Summary: “A memoir by Vanity Fair culture critic James Wolcott about coming of age in 1970s New York”—Provided by publisher.

1. Wolcott, James, 1952– 2. Authors, American—20th century—Biography. 3. Critics—United States—Biography. 4. New York (N.Y.)—Intellectual life—20th century. I. Title.

PS3573.O4575Z46 2011

813'.6—dc22

2011019494

e
ISBN
978-0-385-53499-4

First Edition

v3.1

To my parents and, as always, Laura

“We come into this world with our little egos equipped with individual horns. If we don’t blow them, who else will?”

—Addison DeWitt (George Sanders),
All About Eve

“I love this dirty town.”

—J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster),
Sweet Smell of Success

PART I:
Lucking Out

So much is gone, stricken from the scene, but it’s still there, a landmark site in nobody’s mind but my own—the Latham Hotel, in lower-midtown Manhattan. On those rare occasions when I go by, I half expect to see my younger self exiting the lobby, eyebrows steadied for battle. Shelved at Twenty-eighth Street just off a motley stretch of Fifth Avenue, the Latham belongs to one of those square, unfabled pockets of Manhattan that never quite got around to developing a personality. I had discovered the Latham Hotel in a used paperback guidebook bearing the now-aching title of
New York on $10 a Day.
Catering to the frugal-minded, the Latham held the faint whiff of former glory that attaches to places that lodge permanent transients. It was there that I checked in after arriving from Maryland, my single-bed room offering an air-shaft view with the flapping and chirring of pigeons on unseen ledges. Street noises sounded distant and abstract, as on a Hitchcock soundtrack. Seedy hotel rooms were quieter then, more media-sparse, enabling guests to hear the ticktock beneath their own thoughts. Downstairs was no frantic beehive either, the hotel partly a way station for old people on pensions and Social Security, for some of them the last stop before the last exit. The women in particular suggested minor characters in Dawn Powell novels who had slipped down several rungs in life and were left with nothing but late-inning rituals and brief flurries of bother. I overheard one elderly lady remark to another about the gentleman lolling between them on a bench or sofa, his eyes shut, his head slumped sideways, and the flap of his tongue showing, “He was so
lively
this morning.” I shared the shower on my floor with a bent-double woman whose hunchback rose like a rock formation out of her thin robe. She startled me once, coming out of the bathroom as I was going in, but she was unaware of my double take, her head crooked floorward. The radio in her room was always on.

Next door to the Latham hunkers another low-profile holdover, the Prince George, which, before the gold medallions and furry testicles of disco descended, was a popular layover for flight crews whose trim blue uniforms and clippy stride made everybody else on the sidewalk look like clumps. During a passing fancy in the seventies the George’s banquet hall was rumored to have been converted into a swing room. “For swing dancing?” an editorial assistant once asked me with the bluebird chirp of youth, picturing jive couples in ballroom competitions, like she had seen on TV. Not that kind of swinging, I said, implying unspoken volumes of decadence to which she would never be privy. I wasn’t privy to them either, relying on picturesque hearsay of spiderlike couplings on the mats and the tentative, evolving etiquette of threesomes (permission to come aboard was requested with a shoulder tap). “The Seventies in New York smelled like sex,” I recently read one veteran of the decade rhapsodize (sex and urine, he amended), but it wouldn’t be until I moved into the West Village that the musk of debauchery would strew the air, and there and then too I would be a bystander. Being raised Catholic in a pressure-cooker household besieged by alcohol and bill collectors enforced and heightened a sense of sentry duty in me, the oldest of five children and the one most responsible for keeping everything from capsizing. Wild indulgence was for other people, the non-worriers.

Eastward on Twenty-eighth Street blazed the Belmore Cafeteria, where cabdrivers and other late-shifters—whose pithy grumblings of indigestion helped furnish the columns of Pete Hamill, Jimmy Breslin, and the sportswriter Dick Young with working-stiff lore—hunched over cups of coffee and heavy carbs while flipping through the night owl editions of the
New York Post
and
Daily News
, whose front-page headlines carried the latest earthquake reports from the Watergate investigation. A few years later the Belmore would achieve cinematic landmark status in Martin Scorsese’s
Taxi Driver
, where Peter Boyle tried to impart a little wisdom Robert De Niro’s way as the Belmore’s cursive red neon sign bathed them in a tainted glow. I was no great fan of
Taxi Driver
, I found it a thesis statement shot from a spatter gun, but I was able to look up at the screen and feel as if I owned part of the experience, a souvenir piece of the squalor. I had been on that same lousy corner, and now the Belmore and its venereal neon are gone, consigned to fond history.

How lucky I was, arriving in New York just as everything was about to go to hell. I had no idea how fortunate I was at the time, eaten up as I was in my own present-tense concerns and taking for granted the lively decay, the intense dissonance that seemed like normality. Only F. Scott Fitzgerald characters (those charmed particles) feel the warm gold of nostalgia even while something’s unfolding before their enraptured doll eyes. For the rest of us, it’s only later, when the haze burns off, that you can look back and see what you were handed, the opportunities hidden like Easter eggs that are no longer there for anybody, completely trampled. To start out as a writer then was to set out under a higher, wider, filthier, more window-lit sky. A writer could still dream of climbing to the top, or at least getting close enough to the top to see who was up there enjoying themselves.

What had brought me to New York in the autumn of 1972 was a letter of recommendation written by Norman Mailer, the author of
The Naked and the Dead
and American literature’s leading heavyweight contender, to Dan Wolf, the Delphic editor of the
Village Voice.
It was the reason I had left college after my sophomore year, spoiling my parents’ dream of my becoming a teacher, collecting a regular salary, wearing a grown-up tie to work, and getting those great summers off. How I got to Mailer was the equivalent of firing a paper airplane out the window and having it land at JFK. I had been a hero-worshipper of Mailer’s since being zapped by his writing, the closest my brain has come to hosting a meteor shower. I was in high school, Edgewood High School to be exact, just down the highway from Cal Ripken’s hometown of Havre de Grace (known to the local Restoration wits as “Haver Disgrace”). I was lounging around the local library and flipping through the latest magazines, which may lend the impression that the library was simply an after-school hangout for a teenage layabout, a sanitarium to hole up in before heading home to listen to everybody holler. Not so, or at least not entirely. It was also the portal into that strange, unfamiliar near-distant realm where the smart people were, the adults I longed to join. From its shelves I discovered Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley, George Plimpton, and similar Bengal lancers. Mailer I was aware of only because I had once cracked open
The Naked and the Dead
and shut it soon after, the few pages I waded through striking me as thick, ropy, and swampy, making me feel as if I were in the jungle too. I didn’t want to be stuck in the steaming jungle fighting fungus, not at that stage of my literary upbringing, when I was more at home with
The Catcher in the Rye
, identifying with Holden Caulfield to a distressingly conventional degree. But on this particular afternoon I fished up the latest issue of
Harper’s
, which was devoted entirely to Mailer’s report on the antiwar march on the Pentagon, just to browse. The warp drive in my brain accelerated, and I remember looking up from the magazine ten or fifteen minutes later and staring through the library window to the sun-bright parking lot of the supermarket across the way, as if checking to make sure everything was still where it was the last time I looked. I was imprinting into memory the time and place of the point of impact when Mailer’s writing first hit, the wow moment. The solo blitzkrieg that became
The Armies of the Night
has subsided into its proper rest spot in journalistic-literary history, many of its passages now reading lathered-up and rhetorically Wagnerian, and never again would Mailer gleam at his own egotistical foibles and others’ through a monocle of mocking irony (as with the drawing-room comedy of Mailer and Robert Lowell trading lofty compliments like exquisite slices of bologna). But at the time, which is the only time that matters when it comes to the transfiguring moment that divides before and after, it was like having the power grid switched on, inaugurating a cerebral hum that I still hear when I read Mailer at his best. Writing about yourself in the third person as an actor in a newsreel drama struck me as a genius device on Mailer’s part. Other writers may have done it before, but they did it as recording angels or passive lenses (camera eyes with fancy lashes), whereas here was Mailer writing about himself from the panoramic outside while documenting himself in the thick of it, a militant subjectivity that swept all before it. I had no idea who most of the names were that Mailer was banging into—I hadn’t read Lowell’s poetry, had only the haziest notion of who Dwight Macdonald was, and the jibe at Paul Goodman (“the literary experience of encountering Goodman’s style … was not unrelated to the journeys one undertook in the company of a laundry bag”) I found completely mystifying, and still do (
what
journeys one undertakes in the company of a laundry bag?)—but turning them into real-life fictional characters nullified the need for knowing their backstories. For someone as cautious, culturally limited, and socially corner-pocketed as I was (I could later relate to the character in Barry Levinson’s
Diner
who muses, “You ever get the feeling there’s something going on we don’t know about?”), Mailer dynamited a way open, revealed a combat mode any writer could emulate if he could pry himself free from all those inhibitions handed down from loving parents and kind teachers to help keep you in line.

I proceeded to read everything of Mailer’s I could lay grip on, swan diving into
Advertisements for Myself
and
The Presidential Papers
, attempting and giving up in defeat on the novels
Barbary Shore
and
The Deer Park
(whose characters I found to be finger puppets filled with gassy monologues), diving back into
Cannibals and Christians
, and molding myself into Edgewood High School’s premier Norman Mailer imitator. I acquired a sparring verbal rhythm and a belligerent waddle that supplanted the place of a useful hobby. Since few of my classmates had read Mailer and even fewer had seen him on TV, they didn’t know who or what I was imitating, though my frequent use of words like “existential” and “nugatory” must have tipped them off that I was dipping into somebody else’s vocabulary bag (much like those young conservatives who rolled out the full regalia of William F. Buckley Jr.’s rococo tics—the tongue flicks, eyebrow lifts, purring vowels, pencil-eraser nibblings, and Oxbridge stammerings that often preceded a tart retort—as if they were conducting Latin mass on Mars). My high-school papers, my college application essays, read like Norman Mailer packed in a crunchy peanut butter sandwich.

My Mailerisms became even more pronounced in college at Frostburg State in western Maryland, whose bleak winter spells reminded me of Pennsylvania coal country after the coal mines had closed (I had relatives in Hazleton from my mother’s side of the family). It was a college utterly without pretenses in a town that felt remote from the rest of Maryland, an obscure poor cousin exiled to the end of a long, winding bus ride. It was really Frostburg or nothing. Not only couldn’t I afford the University of Maryland or (dream on) Johns Hopkins, but my grades had plummeted my junior year of high school, when I worked nights as an assistant dishwasher at the country club where my father was bartender and where my youngest brother later served as general manager. It was then and there that I acquired the insomnia, caffeine addiction, hangdog eye pouches, and teenage-caveman habits that became integral elements of my identity kit and prepped me nicely for my freshman year at Frostburg, where I holed up in a study room as if in solitary self-confinement and felt homesick, but not for home. For what then? For some scribbled-over patch of the past before I climbed into the isolation booth and locked it from the inside. For all my autodidactic appetite (I read like a fiend, devouring Dostoyevsky until I developed Siberian wolf breath), I didn’t entertain high expectations for myself. High expectations weren’t nurtured in my neck of nowhere back then; children weren’t fawned over from an early age as “gifted” and groomed for a prizewinning future; self-esteem was considered something you had to pluck from the garden yourself. Attending Frostburg certainly wasn’t touted as the slingshot to a soaring tomorrow. I remember the then head of Frostburg’s English department—in whose office hung a framed letter from T. S. Eliot, the closest thing to a saint’s relic—drawing on a cigarette in class and pronouncing, “Some of you will make something of yourselves in life [here he took a juicy pause worthy of Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh], and some of you will end up wiping the lunch counter at Woolworth’s.” I rather doubt my generational counterparts at Princeton and Yale had their chains yanked so. Then again, he prided himself on his crusty curmudgeonliness, and another one of my English-lit professors, who later went on to become a prison chaplain, loaned me money when I decided to leave for New York, an act of generosity that I wouldn’t want to go unrecorded. Anyway, adversity isn’t the worst thing to have on your side. Frostburg’s inferiority complex helped stoke an underdog attitude that made you want to prove everybody wrong. And by “you” I mean “me,” since I don’t know if any of my classmates felt the same way, or if they were even listening. They may have had a whole different narrative playing through their internal sound systems.

During my sophomore year at Frostburg, my Mailer radar system flashed red alert with news of an episode of
The Dick Cavett Show
set to broadcast featuring Mailer, Gore Vidal, and
The New Yorker
’s Paris correspondent, Janet Flanner. Today every self-respecting dorm suite is equipped with communications technology of which Stanley Kubrick could only stroke his beard and dream, but in those frontier days on the lower slopes of academe students didn’t have entertainment devices tuned to the matrix; we had to get our TV intake from the big ugly raised-up, bolted-down set in the basement rec room. My avid anticipation of the
Cavett
broadcast was unshared by my fellow primates. (My freshman year had been spent in an all-male dorm, providing an immersive experience in de-evolutionary living for which even growing up with three brothers hadn’t prepared me—it was like boot camp at the chimp house.) Those used to slumping with one leg slung over the chair at that late hour in front of the TV were less than captivated by the prospect of watching a ninety-minute program starring two novelists and some elderly bird embroiled in bladed repartee. But somehow I and a couple of confederates were able to commandeer the set from the jock contingent and ward off sporadic guerrilla attempts to change the channel, attempts that were preceded with comments along the lines of, “Shit, there must be something else on.” Finally, resistance melted, and we were able to watch the show in relative peace.

BOOK: Lucking Out
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