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Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Writer's Life 7/11 - Portrait

No luck selling books on the street today. Here's a non-fiction piece I wrote circa 1983. It will be part of American Ulysses, inspired by James Joyce's work, which I plan to self-publish in January of 2019 -- if I live that long:

Young and Beautiful; Portrait of an Old Man 
   A few months before my 33rd birthday, I became a messenger at the National Commodity Exchange in Manhattan. The other members of the crew were either old men supplementing Social Security income or young blacks biding time, awaiting career opportunity. I was also biding time, considering employment elsewhere, considering conformity, intimidated and depressed by my failure to be published. We worked hard for our pittance, walking approximately eight miles a day, servicing more than 40 secretaries. Although I was physically fit, the grind tired me. I was amazed the old men were able to endure the pace. I suppose they wanted to prove they were still useful. They were.
   The older men were far more interesting than the younger, who usually dozed off or buried their heads in newspapers during the rare lulls. Buster, a light-skinned black raised in the south, said, in his wonderful drawl: "Shoot, at my age I’m afraid to close my eyes. I might not open ‘em agin." His remedy for longevity was an aspirin a day. Eddie, a balding Irish-American, wore a hearing aid. A workhorse, he had once been foreman of a factory. The odor of his cigar pervaded the small office that served as our headquarters. Richie, a tall, middle-aged man, had once been a motorcycle messenger for NBC. He also smoked a cigar, which he kept clamped in the side of his mouth. Milton, black, was a retired corrections officer battling cancer. He sought treatment each Friday, but did not seem in immediate peril. In fact, he seemed healthy. He was happy he was no longer in the corrections field. Upon his departure conditions had deteriorated to the point where one dare not drop his guard for a moment. He said that at the start of his tenure most inmates were well-behaved, model prisoners. I asked if he could pinpoint the time of the change, "Mid-sixties," he said, Joe, a quiet, diminutive, white-haired Italian immigrant, had formerly been a barber. Tamarind, a large, gentle black of about thirty, one of nine children of a Montana rancher, was studying to become a paralegal. His excessive weight, his struggle with elephantiasis, made him seem far older than he was.
   The experiences of these men were all a pleasure to listen to, but the most fascinating of them was a short, thin, bespectacled Jamaican, Herbert Thomas, who entered smiling each morning and greeted his co-workers with: "Good morning, my brethren." Herbie, who claimed to be 95, was 75 and could have passed for 65. One of his stock remarks was: "Ninety-five becomes seventy-five," which he employed to elicit either admiration or sympathy. He was part orator, part con-man, part lecher, life-lover, life-giver.
   As we were sitting quietly my first morning on the job, awaiting tasks to be assigned, he began a sermon. I gazed in astonishment as he went on and on without tiring, without feeling the slightest bit self conscious about the appropriateness of the gospel in such a setting. Frank, our boss, noting the expression on my face, said: "Look at Vito -- he can’t believe it. Sit down, you silly old fool."
   I did not take Herbie for a fool, nor was I bored by the sermon or the hymn that followed. In fact, I was more surprised that a middle-aged man in a management position would address an elderly man so disrespectfully. I was amazed at Herbie’s energy. The others had dubbed him, naturally, "Reverend." I assumed it was a nickname, a joke until, days later, he showed me a faded photograph in which he was wearing a collar. He’d been ordained at 55, after 30 years as a teacher, in the Moravian sect, which was Czech in origin.
   The only child in his family to have attended college, his command of English was impressive. He was a joy to listen to. He was appalled by the grammar of Americans, the constant use of our most renowned expletive. He claimed such language would not be accepted in his native land. Extremely proud, he believed that whites, unfamiliar with a black of such erudition, found him intimidating or offensive. "They’ve never met a man like me," he often said, smiling. He urged young blacks to enroll in college and become involved in politics. "Trust me," he told them, running a hand through his closely cropped graying hair; "I trade in silver." He condemned the racism prevalent in America and was dubbed racist in turn by Frank. He believed that the Democratic Party was the hope of black Americans, that the taxation of the haves, including himself, to aid the have-nots, was good policy. Buster and Milton did not agree. They were irked that a portion of their meager wages was funneled to Welfare. As Social Security recipients, they were not permitted to earn more than $6000 annually, yet were forced to surrender a portion of that small sum to help subsidize social programs.
   Herbie also argued, whenever the pace became unusually hectic, that slavery still existed in New York. However, he enjoyed his two-week vacation and the frequent holidays. He was not reluctant to speak out against what he perceived to be injustice. "What can they do to me?" he’d say. "I am near to the shore." I suspected his diatribes were motivated more by a fondness for oration and in retaliation to Frank’s antagonism than outrage at the hardships his race suffered. The fact that a man of his background was a mere messenger, supervised by someone who hadn’t attended college, was a blow to his immense pride. At his age, however, in a foreign land, with no background in business, what meaningful position could he have attained? I refused to accept the contention that life for blacks in America had not improved significantly since the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and cited the number of blacks in the workforce we encountered in our jaunts through the financial district. He was adamant, however. He believed it was dangerous for young blacks to speak out. "You will be killed," he said.
   Although I disagreed with his politics and, since he was a clergyman, suspected him of narrow-mindedness, some of his views surprised me. He believed abortion viable should a woman if examination found the fetus malformed. When asked if a poor woman or one with a large family should be allowed to have one, he said, emphatically: "No, the child may grow up to be president."
   He believed in capital punishment. When asked if it conflicted with his religious beliefs, he said, simply: "Yes." The response disarmed me. My aim had been entrapment. I loved arguing with him. Whenever he failed to get the better of me he broke into hymn, which manifested the only flaw I found in his intelligence. He seemed more enamored of memorization than reasoning. He could cite passages from the Bible? "Fear only God," and Shakespeare: "The evil that men do lives after them,/ the good is oft interred with their bones..."* He could sermonize; but he had difficulty debating. He wanted his word to be lore.
Vic's Short Works:
Vic's 5th Novel:'s 4th novel:
Vic's 3rd Novel:
Vic's Short Story on Kindle:
Vic's Short Story Collection:
Vic's 2nd Novel: Kindle:
Vic's 1st Novel:

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