Although almost everything I write is in some way about myself — I call it all “Nilsenology,” after all, very little is overtly autobiographical. I am by nature rather private. But there was a moment in my life when I realized I could be private by being completely open: that if I put it all out there, it would be possible for me to be left alone, no one would have to pry.
This came after several personal catastrophes in the 1970s, a year of fleeing to Seattle and then returning, tail between my legs, to North Carolina. I was basically homeless, no job, no ambition, no career, no future. My friends Alexander and Mary Lou had offered me a room in their house in Summerfield, about 10 miles north of Greensboro, N.C., and gave me a year and a half to recover. My life is in debt to their generosity. Aside from cooking and maintenance — part of the agreement — mostly what I did was write letters, rather like Moses Herzog, going through his own crises. In a single month — March of 1980, I wrote 500 pages of letters on my aqua-colored plastic portable typewriter, using a tree stump as a desk by the barn out back of the house. I am including one of those letters here.
It was during this time I became a writer.
Alexander in Summerfield
In the first year I spent back in North Carolina, I worked for Manpower a total of six days; I substitute taught at a school for juvenile delinquents a total of about 15 days; I worked at The Carolina Peacemaker, the black weekly newspaper in Greensboro, for two stretches of three weeks each; I shot two freelance photo jobs. The money from that, from my income tax refund and $600 I made selling my Hasselblad camera is everything I earned and lived on, November 1979 to November 1980.
Alexander had given me his old Ford Falcon. It was a dark blue bomb, with no heat, no windshield wipers and a hole in the floor under the driver that let you see the road flash by under the chassis. When I had some money, I could fill it with gas and try to find some extra work.
But I really never had any money. I managed to live for a month on $20 and use the change for the following month. There were those few Manpower stints — one working in an electronics hardware factory was as close to Dante’s hell as I ever hope to know: My job for 8-hours a day was to collect the vacuum-molded plastic sprues from the individual machines and carry them back to a jet-engine-noisy room where I dumped them handful by handful into a grinding machine that chewed them back into pellets that could be reused in the molding machines.
I enjoyed my retreat from society; I enjoyed it too much. But I wrote so often for that year and a half that, although almost nothing was published (and what was published was only bits and pieces for the black newspapers), I reckon the beginning of my existence as a writer from that time.
I took a perverse pleasure in my poverty, I got down to my lowest point: a point that remains one of the cruxes of my life, the node or nodule of meaning around which I build a sense of my selfhood. I had no job, no prospect, old ragged clothes, a jalopy but no money for gasoline. It was icy cold, December, no heat in my room. I had exactly two nickels and three pennies to my name; nothing more was coming.
A few times, my poverty grinded me into pellets, too. In December, 1980, I wrote this letter:
When I read about the poverty in Dickens or in a monster Russian novel — read about stealing an overcoat or sleeping in an icy room with no heat — I respond out of recognition. C’est moi.
Take for instance, last Wednesday. I got up early, watching my breath condense before me and feeling my lungs disabused by the frigid air. I planned to drive downtown on the last gallon of gas in the car. It would not be enough gas to get me back from downtown. I was going to stop at the Plasma Center and donate — sell — my blood. My conscience bothered me terribly, but I could see no other way out. I had borrowed money from friends and I never liked the feeling, and my friends, Alexander and Mary Lou — my “family” — were so short of money themselves that they were borrowing off their credit card.
So I got in my car and headed for town. The car has no heater, so the half-hour’s drive to Greensboro was as bad as trying to get out of bed in the morning into air cold enough to preserve a mastodon. In town, I kept trying to put off going to the Plasma Center, first by going up to my old office at the Peacemaker, and then by seeing my old boss at the camera store, where I had worked in the early ’70s.
At the newspaper, I found them late for press because the typesetting machine was busted. I fixed it for them, saving them a $75 IBM service call, but when Rosie, the editor, asked me to stay and help proofread, I said I had another appointment.
So I went to see Bill Stanley at the photo shop. His face lit up when he saw me. “Well, look what the shit drugged in,” he said. “So, how’s it going Richie? You still living out in Summerstone? Didja have a good vacation?” A wry smile tortured his face as he explained to his current helper, “Richie here has been on vacation for … How many years is it now?”
The helper sat passively, probably thinking if I was any friend of Stanley’s, he’d better stay out of it.
“Hey, you want some lunch?”, asked Stanley.
“I’m afraid I don’t have any money.”
“Shit, I didn’t ask you if you had any money. Listen to what I say, willya. I asked if you wanted lunch.”
“I’d love some.”
“That’s more like it.”
I was hungry as a dung beetle. I hadn’t eaten any breakfast since there was nothing in the house, and I couldn’t afford to stop at Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee and a cruller. So we left the kid in charge and went across the road to Matthews Bar and Grill, the regular lunch spot.
Mat’s is another story. It is run by a Greek, Mihaious Daskilakis, and his wife. Everyone calls him Mat and calls her Mrs. D. When I first worked at the camera store about 10 years ago, she was a knockout, looking dark and earthy like Irene Papas. And even now, she is good looking, though the years have filled out her rump and her hair is mostly grey. And she can still barely speak English.
She is pleasant to the customers, but a termigant to Mat. He is a thinner version of Mel from Mel’s Diner, with black hair. He speaks a broken English and types amusing menus because of it. Mrs. D is unspeakably jealous and the waitress, though it is a new one every few months is invariably over 300 pounds. Mrs. D has last word in hiring waitresses. Once, when she was back in Greece for a family visit, Mat hired a good-looking, friendly, intelligent woman. She lasted until Mrs. D got back and was gone the next day.
The food at Matthews is slophouse diner food, drooling with grease. And the coffee, which I grew to love, is officially classed as a carcinogen by the FDA. The waitress has to pour it from a reagent bottle. The daily lunch special is something like meatloaf with a choice of two vegetables — from a list of peas, corn, okra, cottage cheese, french fries and “You wanta da gravies?”
“I’ll have the meatloaf,” says Stanley, “and okra. Just okra. Hold the other vegetable. And I want only one piece of bread.”
“I guess so.”
“And you?” She turned to me.
“A cheeseburger, with lettuce and tomato. And coffee.”
“Izatall?” butts in Stanley. “Have what you want. Shit, man, don’t be bashful.”
“A burger is all I need, but thanks, Willie.” I always called him Willie or William; everyone else called him Stanley.
As the waitress sets down the coffee, its surface swirled with grease or detergent, I thought, cripes, just like Henry Miller, bumming meals off the old buddies. And it was true that the burger was all I needed. Probably all I could have stood. My stomach had shrunk out of disuse. (Oh, I eat well enough at dinner, which I cooked, but breakfasts and lunches are often meager or non-existent.)
“Do you think the Old Man might need some Christmas help?”, I asked.
“Yeah, it could be. But you’d better ask him. I’m too close to retirement.”
I didn’t ask what that might mean.
“Has he been around yet today?”
“No. He’s out on his rounds now. I dunno if he’s coming downtown.” Willie slurped his coffee like an air raid siren and began sopping up the last of the gravy with the half-piece of bread he had left.
I knew I couldn’t put off my errand any more, so I thanked Willie for the meal and walked out into the cold and up the street to the seedy storefront that served for the Plasma Center.
I have given blood many times, but it has always been a free donation at a Red Cross bloodmobile. I strongly believe that is as it should be. I am appalled by the idea of selling part of me to make a buck. It is almost like “percentage slavery:” If I can’t sell whole human beings, at least I can sell of parts of them — or parts of myself, anyway.
It’s all too mercenary. But I was desperate.
What a marvelous word: “Desperate.” I had not a dollar to my name and no hopes of getting any. My clothes were wearing out and I was skimping on food. I was hitting on old friends for a meal. I was wearing summer sandals because they were all I owned and my feet were stiff with cold. Without the money from selling my blood, I doubted I could even drive home, let alone look for a job.
Behind the reception counter was a fine-looking woman of maybe 18 or 19. She looked surprised to see me: I was dressed in my Sunday best — my good pair of trousers and my last clean sports jacket. Even so, I must have looked a class apart from the derelicts who habituate the joint. Puzzled, she asked, “Can I help you?”
“Yes. I’ve given blood before …”
“So, we draw out a pint and then extract the red blood corpuscles and shoot them back into you. Then we have to do it all again to make a whole pint of plasma. If you have ever felt faint after giving blood, you won’t feel that, since we give you back all your red blood. The whole process, the first time, takes at least a hour and a half. We pay seven dollars the first visit, because of the physical, and eight dollars each time after that.
“But the doctor’s already gone for the day, so we can see you whenever you can come back.”
A real disappointment. I was hoping for at least $10. And now I was in town with no way to get out. So I drove out to Guilford College, where I had been doing some work in a professor’s darkroom. I thought I might as well get some production out of the day.
But when I reached into my coat pocket to get the car key, I found $4. A drop of luck hits the day! And as I drove towards Guilford, I tried to remember where the money came from, why I should have $4 I hadn’t known about. Then I remembered: I had picked up a few groceries for Mary Lou and she had given me a tenspot to cover them. This was her change that I had forgotten in my pocket. After a short moral argument with myself, I pulled into a self-serve gas station and bought $4 worth of gas.
The darkroom I use at Guilford is built in a short corridor running from the drama department’s studio/stage to the outside of the building. The corridor is unheated and unfortunately very public. The enlarger and supplies have to be locked up in a giant metal cabinet in a corner of the room. I had brought a portable electric heater to warm up the air and I plugged it in and started setting up my chemicals.
Just then, Matthew’s coffee reached overflow in my bladder, so I walked across the stage and into the dressing room, where the nearest mens’ room was. The dressing room was filled with costumes and makeup. Old bobbies’ uniforms and patched cutaways. I relieved myself and as I was leaving, I noticed a line-up of shoes under the clothing rack. I looked at them and they all seemed to be normal size — much too small for my feet. But one pair was larger than the rest. I picked them up and looked them over.
They were a very plain pair of oxfords, a little worn, with tilted heels, but not badly scuffed. On the sole was a Salvation Army pricetag for $2.25 I sat down on the linoleum and tried them on and, though they dug into my heel a bit, they fit. Another short moral argument and I wore them out of the dressing room. Providence and a lax conscience had provided me with the pair of shoes I needed.
I have always thought of myself as honest. It it true that I stole a few paperbacks from the drugstore in New Jersey when I was in high school — mostly for the illegal thrill of it. But since then, I have been basically honest. Not that I ever felt particularly proud of it. I feel strongly in my bones that we are all capable of enormous crimes. The human heart is foul and devious. I don’t abide with those happy-face people that feel humankind is basically “good” and has only been driven to crimes for socio-pathological reasons. We are all potential murderers. That we don’t kill, for the most part is incidental. We all could.
I believe most great writers — probably most great people — have understood this. Gentle soul Henry Thoreau says of himself, in Walden, “I never knew, and never shall know, a worse man than myself.” If my crimes are paltry — a stolen pair of worn-out shoes or a pocket of unreturned change — then it is only, I think, that I have not had the opportunities that others have had. I was not born to the Third Reich or to the Inquisition. It is easy for me to abhor the enormities of Auschwitz from my distance. It is easy to feel that I could never allow it to happen here. But I am fooling myself, as others do themselves continuously. Evil is, as they say, banal and everyday. My conscience will bother me little about the shoes: I needed them. What glib rationalization is harder to come by to steal someone’s silverware? To murder the pissant who robbed me of my redhead? To rape and pillage a whole country?
I know of few people more gentle than myself; slower to wrath, slower to find fault. I live much of my life according to “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” But when I found out how my redhead’s new husband had forbidden her to communicate with me, I felt such a welling of bile that I know I could have murdered him. I saw red. Reason drained from me. For those few hours, as I wrote the first and only vicious hate letter of my life, I was a murderer. I know in my heart that though I would likely never actually kill anyone, I was nevertheless capable of hating with a passion that rationally allowed murder. Nothing is more false than the myth propounded by the NRA that “the criminal element” is responsible for murders and rapes. Murders are committed by fathers, rapes by uncles. The Mafia really touches few of us in any direct way. If there is a criminal element, it is in each of us — a Caliban in our hearts.
And I believe that if we are to live morally — to refrain from blowing the face off our brother-in-law — we must acknowledge this beast in our bosom. If we behave morally because we believe ourselves moral and good, then what is to stop us from punishing those who are not, in our eye, also moral and good? But as I know I am capable of crime, I do my best to control myself and will spend little effort controlling others. The Inquisition was run by men who knew they were moral. They had their God on their side. They were certain; they harbored no doubts. Be we smaller people, admitting the rancor in our breasts, how can we condemn that rancor in others? If there is any Satan, surely his name is Certainty. If there is an angel who can save us, that angel is Doubt. Hitler was Certain. Anita Bryant is Certain. Jerry Falwell is Certain. The Ayatollah is Certain. Let us not be so sure. Let us not send Jews to the showers.
So, when I finished in the darkroom, I drove home on the gas I bought with Mary Lou’s money and wearing stolen shoes and not feeling too badly about myself. I could have been Raskolnikov.