It’s 1963. I’m twenty- one and I have the best job in the world— police reporter for the New York Post.
I’m making $95 a week and paying $53 a month in rent. A bowl of shrimp fried rice costs $1.80 in Chinatown. My press card gets me in everywhere for free. I’m learning how to drink. Haven’t mastered the art of seduction yet, but I’m not discouraged.
Every day the headquarters ticker spits out reports of murders, muggings, fires, sit ins, anti and pro war demonstrations, tenant strikes, racial conflict, drug busts, corrupt politicians, gangland slayings. Crime scenes aren’t taped off. I’ve tripped over bodies on the street, even found one under a car. (“Thanks, musta missed that,” a cop says.) I’ve watched toddlers play with rats in tenement apartments, been overcome by smoke and fiery cinders from a burning warehouse. (“Toldja you not to go so close,” says a fireman.) I try to interview the wife of mob boss Albert Gallo after his arrest. In court he sees me and sneers “punk from the Post.” Then draws his finger across his throat. The other reporters laugh. “Friend of yours?” I put it in the story: “Albert Gallo made a threatening gesture to this reporter…” The city editor crosses it out. “Save it for your autobiography…”
After lunch one day the city editor calls: “hurry over to Criminal Court.” A Page One trial is about to begin. An obese dentist named Grimaldi drugged his female patients and raped them in a Traveler’s Lodge at the airport. “The Grimaldi trial?” I ask. “The Saroyan hearing,” he says as if I should know who this is, which I don’t.
Hearing’s over by the time I arrive. The afternoon sun is dying in an empty courtroom. Lawyers are packing up. “Saroyan is suing his ex wife or vice versa,” a court officer tells me.
I’m used to blood and gore and high drama. I call the city editor. “Everybody’s gone…”
“Well, find them,” he says. “William Saroyan is a formerly famous author in a court battle with his ex wife who is married to the actor Walter Matthau. Track him down and find out what it’s all about.”
I’m in a panic. It’s Bronx Night Court if I fail. I catch the court clerk on his way out and get an address for Saroyan—the Abbey, an old theatrical hotel in Midtown. Tattered carpet in a gloomy lobby. Oldsters staring like posed corpses in overstuffed chairs. The desk clerk watches me slam down the house phone. “You want Mr. Saroyan?” And points to the bar.
It’s a six stool cave. Solitary drinkers. No TV or jukebox. The only light comes from a lamp over the register. A burly guy with a bushy walrus mustache is in a corner sucking on a cigarette. I ask for a statement.
“Must be a slow news day,” he says.
He waggles his glass at the bartender. “An old-fashioned, Albert, and one for my young friend…” Slowly grinds out his cigarette in an overflowing ashtray… “Somebody see my name on the docket? My lawyer tip off the city desk to get his name in the paper?”
I try the line I use to get bad guys to talk. “Just thought you might want to set the record straight.”
He holds up his glass. “There was a time when every drink had its own glass. Highballs, Martinis, champagne…This glass was especially made for old-fashioneds. It’s larger than the standard rocks glass and has a thicker bottom so sugar and bitters can be mulled without damaging the glass. This hotel has great glassware, great cutlery because it was a famous hotel in its day…” He raises his glass. “Kenats,” he says. “Armenian for ‘cheers’ or in your case maybe ‘l’chayim.’”
The old-fashioned has a lemon wedge, an orange wheel and a couple of cherries. Seems harmless enough, but goes to my head on first gulp. I struggle for coherence. “Why are you suing your wife?”
He raises his glass. “I have a better story. One day the last guest will die. All the rooms will be empty and the hotel will have to close. They’ll hold an auction in the lobby. The special glasses will be thrown in dusty cardboard boxes. Bidders will be allowed to briefly inspect the contents. Someone will pay a penny on the dollar. Bring the glasses to his restaurant or maybe just let the boxes gather more dust in a garage until no one even know what they are…”
A tongue of flame shoots up from his lighter. He aims an unlit cigarette into it. “But then one day in the distant or maybe not so distant future someone will come into possession of those dusty boxes. They will blow the dust and spider webs off the glasses and hold them up to the light. Eureka! they’ll shout. When something is rediscovered it’s always worth more than it was originally. He drains his glass and waggles for another. “Back up my young friend, Ralph.”
“Isn’t his name Albert?” I ask
He squints suspiciously through the smoke. “Cub reporter, but you have all the answers…”
“No I just thought his name was…”
“Gonna be a famous writer some day, aren’t you? Got that novel in your drawer?”
“Well I am working on a…”
“Who’s your model? Who inspires you?”
“Dostoevsky I guess.”
“An epileptic religious fanatic with a gambling problem.”
He begins removing the fruit from his drink, building a cornucopia on the bar with drunken precision. “When I was a kid in Fresno I dreamt of winning fame and fortune, going to glittering Manhattan cocktail parties with sparkling wits and adoring females, hanging on my every word.” He grabs my wrist. “Don’t eat the cherries, they’ll make you sick.” And takes a second to get back on his train of thought. “Well I won fame and fortune. Came to New York and went to a cocktail party. No sparkling repartee. Just a bunch of baggy-eyed drunks griping about money. Adoring females? You always end up with the one who thinks you’re a jerk.”
Another waggle. Two more Old Fashions appear. “You know when you’ll know that you’re a writer?” he asks. A few moments of wobbly silence and I realize he’s waiting for a response.
“When?” I ask.
“When nobody gives a crap. When there are new guys at the cocktail parties, but you’re still doing it every day. See, that’s when you’ll know it was the right thing to do even if you are in a dusty cardboard box in somebody’s garage.”
He slides off the stool. “Thanks for the drinks.” And leaves me with the tab.
I stumble back to the city room and write four inflamed pages about a formerly famous author, now alone and forgotten in a seedy midtown bar. It is spiked without comment and they go with two paragraphs from the Associated Press about how Saroyan is being sued by his ex wife for non-payment of support. My expense chit is sent back with a note from Accounting: “not cleared by city editor.”
I find Saroyan in my parents’ bookcase—Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, My Name is Aram, The Human Comedy. He’s an easy read, gentle and whimsical, a true lover of humanity, but out of step with the angry ’60’s. I copy out his definition of a writer:
The writer is a spiritual anarchist, as in the depth of his soul every man is. He is discontented with everything and everybody. The writer is everybody’s best friend and only true enemy—the good and great enemy. He neither walks with the multitude nor cheers with them. The writer is a rebel who never stops.
Now, all these years later, I know it was the right thing.
Join Heywood Gould this Saturday, May 18, 2013 from 2:00 – 4:00 PM where he will be signing “Green Light For Murder” at Mysteries & More in Nashville, TN.
Heywood Gould got his start as reporter for the NY Post. Later he financed years of rejection with the usual colorful jobs – cabdriver, mortician’s assistant, bartender. Gould is the author of thirteen books and nine screenplays, including “Fort Apache, the Bronx,” “Boys From Brazil,” “Cocktail,” and “Rolling Thunder.” He has directed four features, “One Good Cop,” starring Michael Keaton, “Trial By Jury” with William Hurt, “Mistrial” starring Bill Pullman and “Double Bang” with William Baldwin. His novel “Leading Lady” (2008) won the Independent Publishing Award bronze medal, was a finalist for the Hammett Prize, which honors literary excellence in the field of crime writing and was voted Forward Magazine Mystery/Thriller of the Year. Kirkus Review wrote “Veteran screenwriter/novelist Gould writes with infectious crackle and humor.” Gould’s 2011 novel “Serial Killer’s Daughter” was described by Library Journal as “…this high-caliber redemptive road trip is quick-witted, stylish, and highly entertaining.” His latest thriller, “Green Light For Murder,” has been described as “Interesting characters abound, and the writing style is unique, almost script style but reined in enough to call it a novel with lots of dialogue. This is the blackest of screwball comedies; Gould gives new meaning to the idea of “Hollywood backstabbing,” by Stacy Alesi for Booklist.
(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/). To be a part of this series, contact Beth at firstname.lastname@example.org.)