Commentary Magazine


The Life of Art

Driving down Sheridan Road, heading north in the right lane, I noticed from the rear a body, a walk, a carriage that looked familiar. It’s Janet, I thought. She was wearing a brownish, leopard-skin-patterned blouse, an ankle-length denim skirt with lace trim along the bottom, sandals. I pulled over to the curb. She bent to pick up something, perhaps a coin. Although I couldn’t get a clear view of her face, I saw thick gray hair and rimless glasses. I was on the point of calling out—“Janet?”—but, after the slightest hesitation, drove on.

Janet Natalsky had been a peripheral character in our very social high school—she lacked the clothes or the easy good looks required for any position closer to the center—but she didn’t carry herself like one. She carried herself as if she were a great beauty, which she wasn’t: she was tall, with poor skin and thickish features, and unruly red hair with a too-low hairline. Better, she carried herself as if she were in possession of a great secret, which, it turns out, she was. As I would discover in later years, Janet’s secret was that she, alone in all the world, knew that she was destined to be an artist—specifically, a writer.

I, on the other hand, had no secrets at all. In those sweet adolescent days, I was perfectly happy to luxuriate dab in the center. A minor athlete, a jokey Jakey, a casual master of the arts of conformity, I floated through high school completely without care, as if on an inner tube on a clear lake on a balmy summer’s day that lasted four full years.

I noticed Janet Natalsky, knew who she was, but hardly more. She wasn’t in any of the right clubs, didn’t live either in West Rogers Park or on Lake Shore Drive, wasn’t in my set or in any other that mattered. Besides, she was at Senn for only a year. We took first-year Latin together, but next fall she didn’t return, having gone off, at fifteen, to the University of Chicago, which then—I’m speaking of the early 1950′s—had a program for very bright high-school kids.

It was in the 1970′s, two decades later, that my friend Norm Brodsky called to ask if I remembered a girl at Senn named Janet Burgess. I didn’t. “Someone by that name,” he said “has written a blistering attack on the school in the current issue of Harper’s. And I think you may be in it. Or at least the flat back of your head and your magnificent ears.”

Blistering was the word for it. The essay, a memoir really, was about the stifled and yet bizarre life of a sensitive young girl in the barbaric setting of a middle-class, predominantly Jewish high school. Witty assaults on teachers, students, and clubs were launched in an impressively deft way. A caustic paragraph was devoted to Miss Cobb’s first-year Latin class, the author seated, staring, behind a curly-haired boy with stick-out ears within whose head, the author was certain, not a thing could possibly have been going on. That curly hair, those ears, that head with nothing going on in it: as Norm had rightly recognized, they were all mine.

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Janet Burgess was of course Janet Natalsky. The biographical note said that she lived in Chicago and was “at work on a novel and a study about daily life in a psychiatric ward.” As for me, the empty-headed boy now in his middle thirties, I, mirabile dictu, had in the interim become something resembling a literary scholar-critic. After a year at the University of Illinois at Navy Pier—Harvard on the rocks, we called it—where I proved my seriousness by getting all A’s, my father agreed to pay my way to the University of Wisconsin. There I found I was even better at school than I thought. So I stayed at it, going on to Stanford for a Ph.D. in literature. Now I was a teacher myself, a recently tenured associate professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, located no longer at Navy Pier but in a grim, gray concrete campus just west of the Loop and south of Greektown.

It was in this context that Janet re-entered my life later that same year, when she participated in a panel on “Fiction and the New Journalism” sponsored by our English department. I had a late-afternoon class to teach, but managed to slip in for the last quarter-hour. And there she was, unmistakably Janet, her red hair thicker than ever, her skin still slightly blotchy, her confidence in her election unchanged.

She sat very upright, leaning slightly forward, elbows on the table, which gave her a look of extreme alertness. The various panelists were in the process of summing up: Michael Anton, a hack journalist and unpublished novelist who had wormed his way into the department as a permanent visiting writer-in-residence; Bette Newboldt, our unappeasable feminist, whom, I’m fairly certain, God Himself could not have made happy; and Les Feinstein, the dean of Arts and Sciences, author of a book on Alexander Pope and a collection of his own forgettable verse.

Janet was the last to speak. Her manner immediately interested me, combining extreme common sense with deliberately dated clichés and loopy asides, the whole supported by unbending highbrow views. “We can, it seems to me,” her peroration went, “argue this point till the cows come home, the bulls following ardently behind. But finally it seems to me that whether journalism, new or old, can ever attain to the status of high art is a question that calls for, indeed demands, throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Journalism remains journalism. Art, art. And the two do well never to meet.”

After the question and answer session, during which she handled herself with equally magisterial hauteur, I walked up to her.

“Excuse me,” I said, “but I wonder if you remember me?”

She gave me a quizzical smile. “No,” she said, “I don’t believe I do. Should I?”

I turned around. “The ears, Janet. Miss Cobb’s Latin class.”

“Oh, my God,” she said, “David Nachman. It’s really you.”

“The man himself,” I said. “Nachman comes before Natalsky, which is why I sat in front of you. If my name had been Noskin, my ears would never have appeared in Harper’s. Are you free for coffee?”

“Sure,” she said, smiling. “We can catch up on the bad old days.”

“How did Natalsky become Burgess?” I asked as we sat in my small office, sipping coffee from cardboard cups.

“Ms. Janet Natalsky made the serious mistake of marrying a professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago named Ernest Burgess. Three years later he left me for a graduate student. This sounds common enough, I suppose, except that the student was an East Indian boy. I have to admit that it threw me, at least for a bit. I came away from the marriage with a shiny new Waspy name and what was diagnosed as a nervous breakdown.”

“The breakdown accounts for your promised book on the psychiatric ward?”

“Some promise,” she said. “It’s been to eleven publishers with no takers. But fill me in a little on your own life.”

I told her what little there was to tell: my dissertation on the writers of the British Empire, published by Yale, and my new book on the reputation of Rudyard Kipling, which had gotten me tenure; my marriage and my two daughters; my relative contentment with being left pretty much alone to teach my small classes and write my books at my own pace. “I never expected so quiet a life,” I concluded.

She asked me about the kids we had gone to school with. I reported that I saw a few of them from time to time, and occasionally ran into others in restaurants or at Bulls or Cubs games or movies in the Old Orchard shopping center.

“I can’t tell you how much I hated that school,” she said. “I especially loathed the girls with their little upstanding boobs swaddled in cashmere sweaters and their certainty that the world was arranged for them alone. If I had to stay at Senn for four years, I think I might have taken my life. Which reminds me—I should be candid. I had more than a nervous breakdown after the honorable Professor Burgess left me for his Indian. I actually overdosed on sleeping pills.”

“The break-up left you feeling lost?”

“Nothing of the kind,” she said. “I was angry at myself for being so stupid, in so many ways. A person like me shouldn’t really marry, you know. Marriage is not what I’m about.”

I was going to ask her what she was about but she got there first. “I am an artist,” she informed me, “and marriage is always a mistake for an artist, and also for the person the artist marries. I won’t make that mistake again.”

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Before leaving my office Janet told me she was living in a studio apartment on Dorchester in her old University of Chicago neighborhood. She spent a lot of time at writers’ colonies, published the occasional article, wrote book reviews for the Chicago Trib and the Sun-Times, took in small honorariums for things like this afternoon’s panel.

I couldn’t quite get a fix on whether she was disdainful of what I did. Even as a young man, I don’t think I kidded myself about it: I wrote books about people who wrote books, and taught students things that only a small number of them cared about. Still, I felt myself privileged. To be allowed to indulge my own passion for the writers I loved, at the price of having to teach six hours a week—as I used to say to my father, who spent the better part of his own life selling costume jewelry on the road, it sure beat working.

I drove Janet into the Loop, where she was going to catch a bus back to Hyde Park. We exchanged phone numbers, promised to get together for lunch. Neither of us did anything about it. But one day, a few months later, I found in my faculty mailbox a copy of a magazine called Ploughshares. It contained another memoir by Janet Burgess, “My Sister Was an Only Child,” sent to me by the editors with the compliments of the author.

I’d never read anything quite like Janet’s memoir. It was about her proletarian Jewish family, and it was devastating in its vividness and candor. Her father was a fix-it man, doing odd jobs for people; a brutish man, he never spoke, she claimed, in other than monosyllables or the briefest of sentences. Her mother, who weighed nearly 300 pounds, did the minimum of cooking and housekeeping, instead indulging her taste for pedicures and the contents of boxes of Whitman’s Samplers. A younger sister, with rheumatic fever, used up what little attention was available in the family’s dark one-bedroom apartment on Ainslie Street. Janet didn’t mention herself until the very end of the memoir, where she spoke of listening to a radio program called Mr. Keene, Tracer of Lost Persons. She ended by saying that, with her books and her dreams of art, she always imagined herself as one of those lost persons, except that she wished never to be found.

Janet’s parents were both still alive, I remembered her telling me in my office; I wondered what their response might be to this portrait. When I phoned to thank her for having a copy sent to me, we made a date for lunch on the following Wednesday. I picked her up at her apartment. She was running behind, and when I rang from downstairs she suggested that I come up for a minute. The door to her third-floor apartment was open; inside, the room was a shambles of stacked paperback books, magazines on the floor, dishes in the sink, an unmade single bed.

“Oh, hi, David,” she said, emerging from the bathroom as if surprised to see me there. She was wearing a thick green sweater with a high turtleneck, a gray, slightly rumpled skirt, and saddle shoes. “Need to use the bathroom before we go?”

“Maybe I should,” I said. The chaos was even greater there than in the living room: open jars and uncapped tubes and damp towels everywhere. I washed my hands, dried them on a rumpled towel over the tub, and as I grasped the door handle found my right hand wrapped in a pair of Janet’s underpants. “Jesus, I’m in Janet Natalsky’s drawers,” I thought.

We ate at Salonika, a place on 57th Street. Janet ordered roast chicken, I a gyros sandwich. A lot of bulky Chicago cops were at other tables.

“Your memoir was a knockout,” I said. “Really strong stuff.”

“Thanks,” she said. “It’s part of an early-life autobiography I’m planning. The Harper’s piece was another part of it.”

“Have your parents or your sister seen any of this?”

“Not that I know of. My sister’s married to a dentist and lives in West Rogers Park. My parents are still on Ainslie. None of them is exactly your typical Ploughshares reader.”

“But what if it were to fall into their hands? What would happen?”

“I guess they’d learn what wretched parents they were. Besides, you know, David, I’m a writer, and I have only my life to write about. If it hurts them, it’ll hurt them. It really can’t be helped.”

After lunch I walked her back to her building. At the entrance, she told me she was planning to move next month to Santa Fe; she didn’t yet have an address, but she hoped we’d stay in touch. I wondered if she’d offer me a cheek to kiss as we parted but instead she put out her hand. “If you need me for anything,” I said, rather foolishly—what could she need me for?—“you can always reach me at the university.”

It was a warm afternoon, and I decided to walk over to O’Gara’s used bookstore in hopes of finding a few H.G. Wells items I’d been looking for. On the surface, Hyde Park appeared to be just another Chicago neighborhood, maybe a little more varied in its architecture—fewer bungalows, almost no two-flats—but the spirit of the place was conferred by the abundance of graduate students and the many hangers-on who, long after departing the university, remained in this enclave in a state of suspended studenthood. To the north and to the south were tough, slummy neighborhoods, but here in Hyde Park all was books and foreign newspapers and older European professors, Hitler’s gift to America, walking around in berets and goatees. Hyde Park seemed a good place for high-IQ misfits, blessed with dazzling minds or imaginations but unequipped to take life straight on; a good place for Janet, I thought.

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Three years must have gone by before I heard from her again, and then not directly but through the Guggenheim Foundation. She had put my name down as a reference. Her fellowship proposal was for a study of novelists who took Chicago as their subject, among them Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, James T Farrell, Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, and Saul Bellow. As a practicing writer rather than an academic, she claimed that she was in a superior position to understand what it was about the city that attracted these men, not all of whom had been born there.

When the annual list of Guggenheim winners was published, Janet’s name was on it. But whether she returned to Chicago to work on the project I have no idea, for I never had a word from her. Then, some four years after her Guggenheim ran out, she phoned me from San Francisco.

“Oh, David, hi, Janet Burgess.” Again I noted her odd tic of beginning every conversation as if she were surprised to see or hear from me, even when the idea had been hers in the first place. After some pleasantries she said she had a favor to ask.

“Sure,” I said, “what can I do for you?”

“Oh,” she said, “I’ve applied for a Newberry fellowship to work on my Chicago novelists project, and I wonder if I can ask you for another recommendation.”

“Of course,” I said. “I’d be happy to supply it. How’s it going, by the way? Making much progress?”

“I don’t want to make too much progress,” she said. “This little item happens to be my cash cow just now, and I expect to stay with it until all udders are utterly dry. Udders, utterly, what a language we’ve been given to work with.”

“Cash cow?”

“Yes,” she said, “I’ve already had three different fellowships with it. The way I’ve written my proposal seems to ring the bell with foundation people. And the money gives me time to attend to my own writing. I’m not really a critic, as you know.”

I let pass what I heard as a touch of contempt directed at the human species to which I happened to belong. “But how’s your work going in general?”

“Not too badly,” she said. “My memoir is making the rounds of publishers. And I’m also living fairly well on kill fees from magazines that decide not to use articles they’ve commissioned from me. I’ve had some quite decent ones, from the Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine, and an especially fat one from the New Yorker. No business like lit business, you know.”

We agreed to meet for lunch or dinner the next time she was in Chicago, the chances of which, she said, would of course be much increased if she got her Newberry fellowship. She did in fact win it, though she never called to tell me so. Evidently, she did not feel under the normal constraints of politeness—she was, after all, an artist, with better things to do. But perhaps, I was belatedly starting to think, Janet was also something of an operator.

By then I had been made a full professor and had joined the publication committee of our university press. This enterprise was a good deal less than first-class. It published lots of stuff about Chicago and Illinois politics, and had recently initiated a program to bring regional writers back into print. The newest activity was putting out the work of contemporary poets; the director of this project, Regis Gambon, was the school’s head of creative writing.

I had had little to do with Regis Gambon. Behind his back, other people in the department called him “old soft G,” after the way he insisted his name be pronounced. He was said to be from Alabama. Now in his early fifties, Gambon was a wide man who looked extremely well-fed without being quite fat. His dark hair was ambitiously coifed—I believe he had a permanent—with curls forming bangs that fell over his forehead. A thick mustache covered his upper lip in what the boys at Senn High School would have called a womb broom. The overall effect—soft G, curly bangs, womb broom—was preposterous.

Gambon did not let the fact that he was married with four young children get in the way of a well-earned reputation for sleeping with undergraduates. As for his own poetry, a glance at his most recent book, on display in our department faculty lounge, revealed strong stands against Ronald Reagan, war, and materialism. One poem ended, “Each of us must as best he can/Stem the senseless hatred of man for man.” I remember reading this and thinking that if Gambon were to try sleeping with one of my daughters, both of whom were now in high school, I’d be delighted to show him a fine specimen of the senseless hatred of man for man.

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I mention Regis Gambon only because, at our faculty Christmas party, he showed up with Janet Natalsky on his arm. I spotted them at the other end of the room, looking like more than just friends. The spectacle, somehow, saddened me; I felt that Janet was—how to say it—sleeping below herself. What did she need from a clown like Gambon?

“Oh, hi, David,” she said, when I came up to her. “You must know Regis Gambon.”

“We don’t know each other as well as colleagues should,” Gambon said, putting out a paw for me to shake. It seemed unusually padded, more like a well broken-in catcher’s mitt than a human hand.

“Regis is arranging a stint for me in the creative-writing program, David. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were to be on the same faculty? David and I went to the same high school,” she said, turning to Gambon.

“It must have been a high-powered intellectual institution,” he said.

“Quite the reverse,” I said, “as Janet will be the first to tell you.”

He wandered off, and I asked Janet how she had come to know him. They were on the same circuit, she said. They had first met at Breadloaf, and then a few years ago they both ended up at the McDowell writer’s colony.

“He has a reputation,” I said, getting as much irony into my voice as was seemly, “as a hands-on teacher.”

“I’d say he’s a hands-on guy in every way,” she said, with a knowing smile. Did she also know he was a creep? Did I know her well enough to say so? I decided not to.

“Do you really want the job here?”

“As always, I can use the money.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

“I don’t think so,” she said. “Leave it to Regis.” She paused for a beat. “Sounds like Leave It to Beaver, doesn’t it? Anyhow I always say that where there’s a way there’s a will. What do you always say?”

“I always say getting what you want isn’t the same as wanting what you get. Or did Lewis Carroll always say that. I think he may have.”

I asked the department secretary, a genteel Southern woman named Estelle Frye, for the paperwork on Gambon’s nomination of Janet Burgess. It included some awestruck recommendations from writers I had never heard of. Gambon’s own statement was also there, along with six samples of Janet’s writing: the Harper’s and Ploughshares memoirs, short stories from Prairie Schooner, Antioch Review, and Georgia Review, and a longish poem about the death of her father from Threepenny Review.

None of the stories, I thought, came alive in the way the memoirs did. Sentence by sentence, the writing was no less amazing—astounding, really, in its virtuosity; but the characters didn’t breathe, the situations were implausible, everything seemed willed and dead on the page. Janet, I concluded, had only one story to tell, and in telling it she was at her best when beating up on someone else. Hers was a purely destructive talent. But genuine: on the right subject, she possessed the magic of art.

Sure enough, Janet got the job, which ran for two semesters. She taught Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I on Tuesdays and Thursdays. As a visiting writer she wasn’t required to attend department meetings and, sensibly, did not. We never once saw each other during the entire school year. I put a note in her mailbox suggesting lunch; she replied, “Love to”; but when I suggested she name a day, I never heard back, and lost all contact with her.

Then, a few years later, I saw her name above an impressive short piece on the death of James T. Farrell. It had appeared in the Threepenny Review, a copy of which was lying on the table in the faculty lounge. The author’s bio said that Janet was living in Taos and had just published a novel, The Avatar’s Revenge, with an academic press. A few years later still, she had a coruscating article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the perils, for a writer, of teaching creative writing; the biographical note had her living in College Park, Maryland, and made mention of a forthcoming book of essays to be published by Greywolf Press.

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Several more years went by. My own children had grown up, gone off to college, married. My biography of Joseph Conrad had met with a good critical reception, and I now found myself in a chair at Northwestern, having turned down offers from Berkeley and Yale. I was working on a collection of Kipling’s letters for Oxford. Now, in my middle fifties, I had pretty much done what I set out to do, and was reaping the small but pleasant rewards of a successful academic career. Ahead of me I had only years and, with luck, grandchildren.

Just before ten o’clock one night—my wife and I were already in bed, reading, about to turn out the lights—the phone rang.

“Oh, hi, David, it’s me, Janet, Janet Burgess. Hope I’m not calling too late.”

“No,” I said. “How are you?”

“ ‘As well as can be expected’ is the way I now answer that question,” she said. “The reason I’m calling is that I’m in town for my brother-in-law’s funeral, and I wonder if you’d like to meet for lunch, like maybe tomorrow? The funeral’s on Thursday and I’m leaving Friday.” She added that she was now living in the Northwest. Oregon? Washington? Vague as always, she didn’t say.

“Sure,” I said. “I don’t teach on Wednesdays. Tomorrow will be fine.”

She was staying with her sister in West Rogers Park. She didn’t have a car—didn’t know how to drive—so I picked her up there on Fargo, a block west of California. It was one of those gray Chicago days, temperature in the twenties, lots of black ice on the road. All the local restaurants I’d known as a boy—Randall’s, Robert’s, Friedman’s, Kofield’s—were gone, so I drove us into Evanston and stopped at the Golden Olympic on Chicago Avenue.

“Ah,” said Janet, “a Grecian spoon.” Once seated, she announced her liking of the statement on the menu; under the name Golden Olympic ran the slogan, quotation marks and all, “A Family Restaurant with Just a Hint of Greece.”

“Nothing like being both tone deaf and dead to the menace that lurks in language,” she said, smiling.

Sitting across from Janet, I saw, as I hadn’t during the ride, that the years had not been easy on her. She was wearing a heavy black cable-stitch sweater, a tweed skirt, and argyle socks that came up over the knee. Her hair, thick as ever, was now all gray, running into white. Her face had more than the usual wrinkles and pouchiness for someone our age, and she looked permanently tired. She wore very little makeup: no attempts at disguise.

“Condolences, by the way, on the death of your brother-in-law,” I said, after we had ordered our lunches, a turkey club with a Coke for her, for me an egg-white Denver omelet and tea.

“Condolences are very much by-the-way,” she said. “He meant absolutely nothing to me. He was a very dull man, so dull that I’m not sure how the paramedics knew he was dead, unless they sensed the relief on the faces of his wife and children. He was a dentist, and a good money-maker, I’ll give him that. My little sister, poor baby, married a professional man. Made my mother very happy.”

“And how go things with you?”

“Oh, all right, I suppose. I have two manuscripts—one of three connected novellas, the other of poems—neither of which has found a publisher. The royalties from my last book, I hate to tell you, might pay for this lunch, but there wouldn’t be enough left over for a tip.”

“As far as I can see, you write exactly what you want. I admire that,” I said, trying to find some way to give the conversation an upward tilt.

“Do you?” she said. “I notice that Scribner’s brought out your biography of Conrad. I’d kill to have such a publishing house for one of my books, getting me out of the small-audience ghetto—make that minuscule-audience.”

“You do eventually find publishers, though. I’m sure you will again.”

“David, I am fifty-five years old. I have published three books. If I were a man in this position, I would have lots of young girls, students no doubt, fluttering around me, dragging me into bed. As a middle-aged woman, I don’t see any men, young or old, doing anything like that.”

That eliminated any personal questions I might have had along those lines. We had both taken detours, Janet and I, from the prosperous lives we might have lived. But how much safer mine was: a life of more than reasonable security, a pension waiting at the end. She, on the other hand, had been flying without a net from the beginning. She had her ambition and her talent, and the two did not match, though she could not have known this when she began betting everything on the latter. Did she, I wondered, realize that she had lost the bet?

We made it through the remainder of lunch talking about things of no real interest to either of us. Arriving back at her sister’s, I walked her up the ice-coated steps. Janet took my arm. For a coat, she was wearing what in those days was called a fun fur, a great mottled shaggy piece of business, perhaps borrowed from her sister. At the top of the stairs she said, “Well, David, thanks for lunch and everything else,” and then leaned in and embraced me. Her thick hair, her heavy sweater, the shaggy fur—for a nanosecond I feared I would never emerge. Her sister opened the door. “Bye, David,” she said, and without introducing me walked into the house.

Driving home to Evanston I felt an overwhelming sadness. Janet and I were contemporaries, damnit, and we were both getting to an age where there wasn’t much in the way of turn-around time. She had set out to be a hero of culture and ended a martyr of art. Did what I’d accomplished add up to anything more, or was I merely lucky not to have been infected by the virus of real talent?

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Another ten years passed. I had retired from my teaching job at Northwestern and was working on a biography of Kipling when my 50th high-school reunion came along. I dithered. Fifty years, good God. The days and weeks and months and years seemed to run at the same old pace; it was only the decades that flew by. I had lost a lot of hair, put on some weight. But my wife told me I ought to go, and so I sent in my check, noting my so-called accomplishments on the fact sheet that came with the invitation. I didn’t much look forward to it.

We gathered in a dimly lit Italian restaurant in the Loop, famous for its large portions of food. Perhaps 300 people were in the room. Someone had brought an old record player and lots of 45′s: heavy-breathing, over-dramatized numbers sung by Italian men and women who wanted to be loved with inspiration, invited you to make yourself comfortable, and worried that the teacher might be standing much too near, my love.

At such events, you can either mill around or stand still and wait for others to come to you. I decided to stand still. From old schoolmates who wandered over, I was somewhat surprised to learn that I was considered one of the successes of our class. Many had made much more money, but I had something resembling a public life. The fact that I wrote books and, more crucially, had taught at Northwestern seemed to count for something. I speculated that it was because, when we were kids, Northwestern had had a strict 13-percent quota on Jews and Catholics.

After a few never quite satisfying conversations we sat down to a heavy southern-Italian meal: the works, from minestrone to spumoni. As dessert and coffee were being served, our class president, a nice guy named, then as now, Buzzy Lerner, spoke in an agreeable way about how lucky we were to have come of age at the time we did.

When he had finished, he invited others to come up as the spirit moved them. Betsy Collins, a once devastatingly cute cheerleader, herself now devastated by the trials of aging, took the microphone to say what a privilege it was to have gone to Senn and how much she appreciated all the teachers, ending, after a few more platitudes, with “I love all you guys.” A heavyset guy wearing an obvious toupee announced that he was Irwin Goodman and that to this day he had never forgotten the advice given him by Ed Dow, our football coach: “Never go into a game thinking you’re going to lose.” Since our football team almost invariably lost, it wasn’t clear how this applied to anything, but tonight, clearly, was not an occasion for close reading.

Then a tallish woman with thick white hair and very little makeup, dressed much less expensively than most of the others in the room, took the mike. No one else seemed to recognize her. “Please, Janet,” I thought, “don’t tell them off for being smug and stupid and middle-class.”

“Oh, hi,” she began. “My name’s Janet Burgess, originally Janet Natalsky, and I attended Senn for just my freshman year, so I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if no one here remembers me. In fact, I’d be amazed to learn how anyone got my address to invite me to this shebang. Anyhow, after my year at Senn I went off to the University of Chicago, which may have been the best or worst thing that ever happened to me. I became a writer, and I’ve published five books, though I’ve written quite a few more, and I seriously doubt anyone here has read any of them. But that’s all right. No hard feelings.

“The reason I’ve got this microphone in my hand is that many years ago I published an article in Harper’s attacking the school and just about everyone in it. In that article I took no prisoners. I wrote that you were all a bunch of hopeless idiots, utter conformists, absolutely clueless about what is important in life.

“By the time I wrote my article I was pretty certain I knew what was important, and I can tell you what it was in one word: art. Art was important. I wanted to become a writer, and a writer is what I am, however unappreciated my work may be. If I’ve earned $10,000 from my writing over the last forty years, I’d be surprised. I had a brief bad marriage and no children. If it weren’t for art, today I might be living comfortably in Highland Park and worrying about whether my granddaughter Peyton is going to get into Brown and praying before I fall asleep that her brother Tyler isn’t gay.

“But as I look around this room, as I see how little all of you seem to have changed, how pleased you are with what you are, I don’t feel so bad. Art—I gave everything up for art, goddamn fucking art. But that’s O.K. I did the right thing, the only thing, and if I ever doubted it, I sure don’t now.”

Only at this point did it occur to me that Janet was drunk. Nobody in the room seemed to have a clue about what was going on. Buzzy Lerner, standing off to the side, appeared stricken. Who was this woman, and why is she telling us these things? This was supposed to be an evening devoted to golden memories, uncomplicated fun.

I couldn’t let her continue. Getting up, I nodded to Buzzy, slipped an arm around her, tried to take the mike.

“Oh, hi, David,” she said. “Hey, everybody, it’s brave Dr. Nachman, tenured and tonsured as he now is.” She patted the bald spot on the back of my head. “I’ll bet he’s going to tell me to read two chapters of Henry James and get right into bed.” She hiccupped and slumped backward into my arms.

Holding firm, I steered her to my chair. Norm Brodsky helped me get her to her apartment in an exhausted-looked building on Greenleaf off Sheridan Road. I walked her up the stairs, opened the door with her key. Still tipsy, she said, grinning, “I hope you don’t expect to be kissed, sir. This is, after all, our first date.”

It was nearly two years after this that I saw Janet from my car and drove on without stopping to offer her a ride. She did not need me, I decided; there was nothing I could ever hope to do for her. Who knows? On that sunny afternoon she may have been thinking up a story, something about a boring academic who had thrown away his life composing dry-as-dust books about men more talented and courageous than he. Someone, I would not be in the least surprised to learn, with large and fleshy ears.

_____________

About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.




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