Commentary Magazine


The Man Who Refused to Watch the Academy Awards

I dream that my friend Michael and a crony are in Hollywood, beside the pool, dressed in red, white, and blue suits, and top hats. Michael asks me, “How is your father?”

Still the most ridiculous person I’ve ever met!” I reply. Michael and his crony bark with laughter at this, pleased. I have said it to please, but am shocked to hear my own words, which I do not mean at all

I have been waiting three months for a letter that will never arrive. From my friend Michael, who is a director in Los Angeles. It would be a response to the letter I wrote to him: the first letter in which I ever lied to him. I had falsely praised his last play (the second to be produced on Broadway in two years), a black gospel musical about the murders of the civil-rights figures.

In Michael’s play, the assassination of Malcolm X, for example, is followed by the reaction of the cast. One actor turns to another and says, “My God, this is terrible—I feel sick.” The other person says, “We’re not gonna let anything keep us down,” and sings a song, “Keep on Truckin’,” with hand-clapping from the audience and, after jumping off the stage, some fancy prancing up and down the aisles. Then the murders of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, and Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman.

I waited several weeks to write him after seeing it, a delay he must have noticed, since he’d given me passes to the fourth night. I did not know what to say. I finally wrote him. “It was even better than your wedding!” (Michael had staged his wedding in a theater, with people performing on stage and dancing in the aisles.)

I had lied. It was not at all like his wedding.

He did not reply.

____________

 

A year and a half ago, I was seated in my cubicle at Animals magazine, where I am an editor, flicking the pages of Variety and swallowing hard. There, in the list of notables who were traveling to one of the three places Variety considers important enough to mention, “New York—L.A.—Europe,” there in the “L.A. to New York” list was Michael’s name: Michael Greenberg. He had made it. His first Broadway show was opening the following month.

I smiled to myself. I put on a hearty look of congratulations. A “give him credit—he worked for it” look. But I was upset for a number of reasons. Mainly envy. Also hurt—he hadn’t told me he was coming to New York. Most importantly, his success was another nail in my coffin. Or so it seemed at that minute. When my secretary poked her nose in the door, I screamed, “Who cares about animals anyway? What are we wasting our lives on?”

I took a librium. I felt miserable. I hated myself for what I felt. He had moved too fast. It was only yesterday he installed the tape machine on his phone that gave you his recorded voice when he was out and a minute to talk your message into the receiver. That was impressive—especially if you knew, as I did, that he was living in two closet-size rooms on Fourteenth Street and Eighth Avenue. That was pure chutzpah, that machine—a $250 investment in his future. I should have known then. There was already a certain change—an iciness—talking to a machine, hearing my friend’s voice from that spooky remove.

And wasn’t it just a few years ago, Michael and Linda thumbing their way to L.A., his teeth rotting? I hadn’t had the time to adjust to his wonderful success. The four years in Calgary, where I studied creative writing, didn’t help either.

Of course I had to remember nastily his father. Long before I met Michael, I sat in the sun in my bathing suit at Greenacres in the Catskills. I was fourteen years old. A short man with a big dog was giving a lecture to the guests at poolside: Michael’s father. The staff psychiatrist. A nephew of Greenacres Sr. He smoked a pipe. He told a joke to warm us up. He addressed us all as “darling.” He’d been doing this a long time. His talk was called “Whores I Have Known.” It got quiet. Five minutes later he switched to “Bores I Have Known.” Then, “Shores I Have Known” (travel lore). He answered questions for thirty minutes, including two about sunburn.

A short, chubby man; the dog lent him a certain style.

Michael kept him a secret for five years—as well as his entire Greenacres heritage. His father had become famous, but Michael summed up succinctly his own opinion: “He sold out.” New School radical, crazy about the oppressed—Michael starved on Fourteenth Street rather than take a dime.

He stayed free, and sold out on his own! What am I saying and what am I thinking? I should have hung on in therapy for an eleventh year and achieved rationality. My therapist said I was just about to break through.

A previous therapist interpreted a dream I had about Michael when I first met him in 1965 at the New School. In my dream, I place Michael in a box. I close the lid. I enclose the box in another box, which I enclose in another box, which I enclose in yet another box.

“Is he aggressive?” my therapist asks.

“No. He’s short.”

“But is he aggressive?”

“Yes.”

“Very aggressive?”

I smile. “Yes, I guess he is.”

“Are you afraid of him?”

“No. He’s my friend.”

“But are you afraid of his aggressiveness?”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“Yes, I am.”

____________

 

Michael has a way of looking at people. If you are suffering, he suspends any movement; he seems to have put everything aside and is focusing only on you. There is pain in his look. Yet it is hard to catch him at it. For when you pause, stammering, his gaze seems to shift to an inch over you, or around you, so that you do not become self-conscious. But you know he is with you. When you are in control, he looks directly at you again.

Sometimes he would catch my panic, and it would become his.

He had migraines here for days on end, leaving him unable to function. What happens to migraines in Hollywood?

____________

 

Michael finally did call me at Animals that day. I got over my relief and immediately became anxious about demonstrating to him that my career was progressing. I deepened my voice.

My wife and I met him for dinner. He had seen Labelle, the rock group, the night before. He said reflectively, “Black and gay—that’s the wave of the future.”

To anyone else in the world I would have said, “What the hell does that mean?” and “Isn’t there a certain contradiction there?”

I only smiled and nodded my head vigorously, my muscles tensing, my eyes twitching. I had to cut through the bullshit and establish what I was doing that I was proud of. My wife and I took him up the elevator to my studio in the office building off Times Square. We got off at the twenty-sixth floor, and we walked with him up the narrow winding orange staircase to the studio tower where plaster fell from the ceiling in chunks. I opened the door.

Ducking the plaster he stood by the window. We talked about our work, about our hopes.

He asked me how my father was. I told him that my father, who lived alone, had recently taken to tagging along when the prisoners at the jail near his house were taken out on pleasure trips, and that he ate his meals at the prisoners’ cafeteria.

Michael shook his head.

He looked out at Manhattan, the Public Library, Bryant Park, and the river, and said, “Here you will write many stories about the city.”

In a minute he was gone.

The next day I called him at the hotel. A female answered. I thought he was playing around. He wasn’t. It was Linda, who, instinctively, I had never really liked. An icy wind always blew from Linda—in the old days, and now. There had been no change.

I had awakened the baby. “Do you want to speak to her? She’s very cross at you for waking her up.”

A voice said, “You woke me up!” There was a pause. “You woke me up!” Pause. “You woke me up out of a sound sleep!”

I could not believe it was the baby. I thought Linda was putting me on. Two-and-a-half years had gone by since I had seen her and the baby in Santa Monica.

The baby’s voice stayed with me, all that day and the next.

____________

 

Michael flew back and forth and then it was preview night. Opening night was two days away. We had been invited to the preview. The disturbing meaning of that occupied my time and I swallowed a pint of rum to relax.

I scanned the program and noted that Michael, director of the show, was, among other things, vice president of Imprisoned Creators, Inc. Of course—he’d been especially interested in prisoners for years, working as a volunteer with them in workshops—but still it surprised me now. Michael, who had settled into a Hollywood home, who at this moment was circulating in the lobby with the kissers-and-huggers set. When did he have time for prisoners? I saw his curly hair, the bald spot in the back, his shaggy proletarian jacket with patches of corduroy as he reached to kiss.

I overheard him talking to one of the beautiful people about the swimming pool he was having installed. He had not told me. He caught my surprise—and laughed self-consciously. A bad moment between us.

When the show began, I grasped Michael’s comment over dinner that night, for he had worked part of it in.

Black basketball stars, making their theater debut as black prisoners talking extemporaneously and singing about their experiences. It was hard to make out their words. I frequently heard them say, “You had to be there to experience it” and “Damn the Man.” The audience cried out “Amen!” The set was a back canvas of a prison wall. The music was a piano player. The audience was weeping from the time the curtain opened. At the end of the act, the actors joined hands with the audience. The audience joined hands. Swaying, they all sang “We Shall Overcome.” Tears were streaming down my cheeks. I was confused.

At intermission, they sold souvenir pictures and descriptions of the basketball stars for a dollar. The bar did a booming business. The show would run forever. Michael handed over Linda to talk to us while he circulated. She was guarded and cautious, the way she had always been. She loved L.A. She sounded defensive, as if we’d take it away from her. She was writing for Kojak and Cosmopolitan. She said it was all crap, but she didn’t mean it and didn’t expect us to agree. What fed her dislike was my agreement. Still, she had a certain pity and compassion toward me after all these years. I felt like screaming.

Michael walked over to us, left, came back. The strained conversation with Linda went on. We were all standing in the crowded street, lights and smoke. A woman walked out of the theater saying, “You hope someone will say ‘hi’ to you—”

“Hi!” I heard my own voice.

It got a laugh, but I didn’t know what I was doing.

Being a hit, I continued. I said hello to strangers, answered questions directed to people near us. I was babbling away, uncharacteristically convivial.

Michael and Linda weren’t around at curtain. We waited outside the theater. I greeted more strangers.

Michael didn’t appear.

____________

 

Michael was quoted in the press that week as declaring that the attitude toward blacks in the theater was still racist. “They all said, ‘Don’t bring the play to New York. Blacks wouldn’t pay to go to the theater.’ It was a lie. Blacks will pay!”

____________

 

I first met Michael in the New School cafeteria in 1965. I was neurotic. In the East Village church where, as a Jewish socialist atheist, they let me live in the tower, I laughed aloud at the news of JFK’s assassination.

Michael lived in two rooms with a hot plate on Fourteenth Street. He had an energy to him. Notes, address books, magazines poured out of the pockets of his jacket and raincoat. He wanted to be a director.

Michael lived in two rooms with a hot plate on Fourteenth Street. He had an energy to him. Notes, address books, magazines poured out of the pockets of his jacket and raincoat. He wanted to be a director.

We climbed up the fire escape of the church together to the tower, where I read him my poems and stories. He encouraged me, and brought me candles.

In winter we would stand outside the New School, in the freezing snow and rain, exchanging phone numbers of girls and articles we liked. One day he mentioned a girl he had met. Linda. I knew who she was: the fabulous blonde in my literature class who kept injecting the word “Revolution!” into literary discussions.

It was the time of the Beatles; Abbie Hoffman stripping nude at Fillmore East; Paul Krassner’s youth; the Fuck You Bookstore on Avenue A tended by Ed Sanders; Jack Micheline, Ray Bremser, and Allen Ginsberg reading at the 9 Arts Coffee Gallery run by a sailor in a loft above Eighth Avenue and Forty-third Street; Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan at the Gaslight on Mac-Dougal. It was a dismal time.

Michael was part of that period—not me. I had nothing to do with it. I attended classes. At midnight I left the tower and walked in the snow along MacDougal Street past the San Remo, where O’Neill had worked (and Bodenheim and Joe Gould had begged), to the Café Figaro, where the young bohemians hung out. I sat down with my notebook, a pen, drank a double espresso. I waited. My pen started flying as I really gave it to my father, my mother, and several mean teachers. The waiter came by periodically. I waved him away.

At 4 A.M. one morning he asked me if I wanted anything else. I looked up wearily, picturing myself doing it. “Can’t you see I’m writing?”

At 5 A.M., he said, “Are you sure you don’t want anything else?”

“Perfectly!” I said.

“Get out,” he said.

“What?”

“Get out.”

“I’ll order something.”

“Get out.”

I grabbed my things and, trembling, weaved my way down MacDougal Street. It was deserted, except for a man in a hallway who screamed again and again, “I don’t hate—nobody. I don’t hate—nobody.” The snow was falling. It crept into my shoes. I felt a weariness and a sense of persecution. I felt good. I walked into Washington Square Park, white with snow coating the leaves of the trees. It was dawn.

I leapt into the air.

____________

 

I was going to Israel for the summer. Michael and I both chuckled. “Shit, it’s the only country my father will send me to.”

Michael shook his head in commiseration. “A counterrevolutionary arm of American imperialism.”

“Exactly.”

At the memorial, Yad Vashem, outside of Jerusalem, there was an eternal flame for each of the concentration camps.

The blue and white Israeli flag—like laundry, or a glass of milk—moved me; so did the dancing on the kibbutz accompanied by flutes. The sight and sound of children—Jewish children—in the breezy garden in Haifa. Normal things.

When I got back to New York in the fall, the New York Times reported the death of Daniel Burros, a member of the American Nazi party, and disclosed that Burros was Jewish. Michael suggested that I write a play about it. He suggested the title: Jew-Nazi!

I tried to get into the head of Burros. I couldn’t even imagine him. I gave him my bar mitzvah, my first girlfriend, my sex fantasies. Michael was crazy about everything I wrote. He ripped the pages from my typewriter as I typed and kept muttering, “Sensational!”

He suggested a childhood scene in which Burros’s authoritarian tendencies are first revealed. Burros is shown insisting on directing a line of children his age at school, ordering them around. Then Michael wrote a song which he intended to have the chorus sing. The lyrics went: “Why do I feel so brutal,/When at heart I know I’m a Jew?”

The first rehearsal was held at Michael’s new loft. I trembled all through it. Jew-Nazi! was more of a comedy than I had intended. The potential backers, embarrassed, drifted away.

Michael was hopeful. “It needs work, but it’s already quite wonderful.” My friend Michael. I am sure he meant it.

____________

 

Michael had rented the large loft for himself and Linda. There was plenty of work space: an act of celebration after Fourteenth Street. Space to make love, to work, to have rehearsals: light and air. Bookshelves everywhere, posters, records, productivity. I had always lived in one room. Michael’s bicycle was in the hallway. He bicycled around the city. A basketball was in the corner. I pointed at it, speechless. I had only played ping-pong and potsy.

“I play on my lunch hours,” he explained.

“Huh?” I was trying to absorb it.

“Yeah, you know, these little corners of buildings, vacant lots, with the Puerto Rican kids.”

Normality, fearlessness, health, sunshine, brotherhood in Manhattan. I was deeply impressed. There were sides to him new to me.

Then Michael and Linda were getting married, and I was getting ready to break up with my girl before she broke up with me, and flee to Calgary. I had sublet a room on St. Mark’s Place.

One day Michael suddenly said, “Write a poem for our wedding.”

“Just like that?”

Michael smiled and shrugged.

____________

 

On the day before the wedding, I went back to my girl’s apartment to pick up my books. She had called me insistently, giving me a deadline. It was a steaming hot July day. I stood on the stoop in front of the apartment house on Stuyvesant Street waiting for Michael. He had promised to help me carry the books. I had drunk a pint of rum. I leaned against the brick wall.

Michael was late. I waited. Then I saw him, grinning, waving, walking his bobbing, busy walk; slung over his shoulder was a green canvas bag.

We shook hands and embraced. “How the hell do you think of these things?” I asked, pointing to the bag.

“How else are you going to carry them, dummy?”

We walked up the five flights of stairs.

My girl was at the door. “This is Pepper.” A short black man with glazed eyes waved at us, and went back to his phone conversation. I stared at him.

“Hey, come on—” Michael called.

I tossed the books into the bag.

On the way down the stairs, I said, “Did you see that guy?”

“Poor passive schmuck,” Michael said. We carried the heavy load of books to the room on St. Mark’s Place.

I had been working on a play about the girl.

“How’s the play going, Bruce?”

“You haven’t got time now, Mike—”

“Sure I do.”

We put the books down and I read my play to him.

I looked up occasionally as I read. He was smiling. When I finished he made a circle with his finger and thumb. “You’re being very productive, Bruce. It’s wonderful.”

I walked back down with him to St. Mark’s Place. It was difficult to speak. Crowds pushed against us.

I watched Michael going off down the street, the empty green bag over his shoulder, hurrying to Linda.

I was shivering.

____________

 

It was early morning of Michael’s wedding day. I lay in bed drinking rum and read the personal ads in the East Village Other. One girl wanted to meet a fellow whose middle initial was J, and no one else. Another said she had trouble talking with people, nothing serious, but would prefer to correspond with someone for the time being. A third was seeking a “combination of Eldridge Cleaver and Holden Caulfield, but Jewish and sincere.”

Five hours to the wedding. I dialed an ad: Club Mogen David. A voice told me they had someone very special for me to meet: Martha Goldberg. Martha was twenty-four, and would soon make aliyah to Jerusalem.

In a flat gravel voice, Martha spoke to me over the phone: “I am tender, affectionate, sincere.” I quickly walked to Twenty-third Street and Ninth Avenue. Now I wouldn’t be alone at the wedding. I would bring along this affectionate Jewish girl and casually mention to Michael and Linda that we were emigrating to Israel. Michael would be so happy for me.

Martha answered the door. She was heavy but not fat. She wore a blouse, skirt, and sneakers. She did not smile. I heard growls.

Four huge dogs headed for me, gnashing their teeth. “Down!” Martha commanded them. She pointed her fist at the floor. “Down! You will obey me.” The dogs moved toward her. She settled herself on the bed, the dogs around her. She stroked them, and they licked at her partially opened blouse. When I opened my mouth, they growled. She leaned back and stretched, thrusting her breasts outward. The dogs licked her. She dangled her thick legs.

She spoke only when I did, and after a pause. Yes, she was headed for Israel. There was a growing horse and dog market there. She would raise them.

I told her I had been to Israel.

“Good,” she said after a long pause.

“I have a wedding today, where I’m going to read a poem to my best friend and his bride.” I explained that Michael was directing his own wedding at a theater.

“I’m not much on weddings,” she said.

“Oh. You don’t want to come?”

“Not particularly.”

“Why?”

“It sounds mod and phony to me. Why hold a wedding in a theater?”

“He’s a director—”

“I’m not interested in the theater.”

I stood up. The dogs stood up and surrounded me. “Down!” she shouted, stamping her sneaker.

I said goodbye and staggered down the stairs.

____________

 

At the wedding, Michael’s father stood on the stage and told the story of Michael as a schoolchild ordering around a line of children at school, as an early sign of his son’s directing ability.

It was very quiet then. I moved into the lights, to the center of the stage. I took the paper from my pocket and held it. My voice trembled as I read:

To Michael and Linda.

One.

But the real issue is revolution!
Said Linda to the instructor in the New School
  class

And shortly after I met Michael in the school
  cafeteria
Carrying his armload of books,
  The Nation, National Guardian, notes,
numbers, appointments.

One day he said, “I’ve met this girl. . .”

How does friendship grow in the city?

How does love?

Two.

Some of us submerge those we love.
But Michael and Linda shouted, fought, planned
  revolution, marched on picket lines.
Shaped each other. Michael: director.
Linda: lyricist. Beside Michael, she wrote and
  sang, “I sleep so still.”

Three.

Our friendship: common struggles. . .
Jobs, New York in winter, therapy, the draft,
reading my work to them.
Common joys: Michael’s first plays,
And I at the Tribune,
  publishing.
The passage of time.

Four.

Michael and Linda in the two closet
  rooms on Fourteenth Street
Corie and I on the fifth floor,
  17 Stuyvesant Street

George Burns said of his late
  wife Grade Allen:

Then, in 1928, I got my big break.
And I married her.
And we were together a long, long time.

Then Rabbi Rick Levi spoke. He had recently been fired as chaplain at Yale for his revolutionary politics. He talked about his experience for a long time. The audience shouted “Right on!” but after a while they became restless. They began to talk among themselves.

The rabbi finally finished.

When it was over, I walked out into the hot sunlight, and down the Bowery.

The next week I left for Calgary.

____________

 

Michael had gotten a job with a theater company in Los Angeles. Michael and Linda settled in Santa Monica.

He wrote me often over the years, encouraging me, his letters frantic, surging, the letters. half-typed in his impatience, filled with half-words I learned to decipher.

He had a perfect job, his own theater, a lunch-time program for local workers, a prison program of theater workshops with kids from the reform school.

In 1972, he wrote: “The movie people are brutal and demanding . . . like the garment industry. . . . Am planning next season’s work and reading, refurbishing my soul and thinking of parenthood—very strange.”

We exchanged happy letters. I was married, and publishing.

____________

 

In December, my wife and I left the snow and freezing cold of Calgary for the holidays and arrived in Santa Monica, where it was warm, bright, and sunny, to stay with Michael and Linda for a week.

We slept in the baby’s room, surrounded by a crib and toys for the coming baby. The house was filled with books and playscripts. Michael’s sun-dappled workroom was lined with posters for children’s, Vietnamese, mental-patients’ and prisoners’ liberation, as well as theater posters of plays he had directed. He had a complete file of our correspondence and my writing.

There was a book on Michael’s desk, Forming Your Own Corporation, lying alongside a pamphlet on combating American imperialism in Asia and Latin America.

Linda showed us a closet of lavish suede clothes—jackets and suits—she had bought for Michael, which she saved for him, but which he defiantly refused to wear. He wore the clothes of the people—as did everyone in the theater and movie colony in Los Angeles.

They had a maid, a college student. Linda paid her a dollar an hour, but also threw in lessons in Marxist theory.

Michael and Linda’s bicycles leaned against the trees in their back yard. Avocados fell from the trees and dropped into the yard.

Michael and Linda spent the evenings watching television. He hoped to direct TV films, and watched carefully. They told me that when visiting New York they had taken a taxi and when the driver turned to them, it was Rabbi Rick Levi.

One evening, Michael said, “It’s terrible to be so Jewish . . . and at such an early age!” Cackles came from him and Linda, and I laughed too, not knowing why.

I told him I had thought of him when watching Joel Grey receive the Academy Award on television. Grey, with his elfin look and smile, reminded me of him. He had said, holding the Oscar, “Don’t let anybody tell you this isn’t a terrific feeling,” and I had pictured Michael.

Michael laughed. “Oh, I never watch the Academy Awards. I made a vow never to watch that commercial bullshit.”

Our room was next to theirs. Michael did Linda’s pregnancy exercises along with her every day. We heard them counting. We also heard a lot of laughter, and the sound of continual munching.

The refrigerator was filled with milk, yogurt, coconut juice, health foods. Everything reeked of health. We hid our liquor.

In the baby’s room we awoke to their laughter.

One morning, I awoke, heard their laughter, and wept. My wife cradled me in her arms.

____________

 

“The L.A. Free Press is crap,” Michael said. Before I had a chance to agree, he went on. “But they’ve got one really good service. If you send your grass or any dope to them, they’ll analyze it for you and let you know what’s in it and if it’s safe.”

“Have you used the service?” I asked, trying to get into the spirit.

Michael nodded. “Yeah, sure. It was very helpful.”

____________

 

“This is the town for you, Bruce,” Michael said.

“These laid-back bland blondes don’t have the energy. It’s a terrific place for a New Yorker with talent and brains. You know, Bruce, I’m surprised you didn’t blow your brains out in Calgary. We’ve got to get you out of there.”

He earnestly, arduously set about finding me a job in the movie colony. He found an apartment for me and my wife to sublet behind theirs. He came by in the morning, leaving pastry at the door and copies of the Daily Variety, Billboard, Cashbox, the New York and L.A. Times. During the day he phoned me with interviews he had set up. In the evening he waited for the news.

The first week I saw three people. The second week, five.

Nothing worked. Michael looked away or directly downward as I talked to him, giving explanations, expressing my hopes.

When he was especially hopeful, he would say: You won’t get it.

I didn’t.

It was while Michael and Linda were away for a week that I saw the ad for the job at Animals in Manhattan. I left a note for Michael and Linda, and flew to New York for the interview.

____________

 

I am left with a recent dream, and with a memory of certain changes on that trip to Los Angeles.

My wife and I are visiting Michael at his new home in Hollywood. There is no talking. Michael is just too busy. Linda doesn’t talk to us at all. Michael is on his way out to dinner. I stop him and ask him about the story I recently published and have mailed him two separate times. He claimed he didn’t receive it the first time.

Did you get the copy of my story?”

Which story?”

My story.

Uh. No”, Michael says.

But I sent it a second time.

That’s very possible. The secretary probably got it and didn’t know.

But then how can I get a copy to you?” I ask.

I don’t know.

But don’t you want to read it?”

Sure.

But there’s no way to get a copy to you safely.

Well, I can’t sleep with it, you know,” Michael says in a surly way.

Then, trying to mollify me: “Look, we’ll think about it. We’ll work something out.

He’s on his way out to dinner. He brags: “Three-fifty for shrimp marinara, fifty cents tip.” He recites it proudly.

On the way out, Michael and Linda show me and my wife where we will sleep: the garage. It is neat, spacious, and clean, with big bookshelves. I say: “This is nicer than our house!

Michael cackles, pleased. This breaks the ice. He repeats it to Linda. She likes it too. We all laugh now, more relaxed.

And the memory:

Over lunch in Los Angeles, before I was going for a job interview that Michael had arranged, he suddenly said to me: “Have you got a ten-dollar bill on you? I’ll pay you back later.”

I hesitated, looking at the impatience in his eyes. I was sure he had taken to doing this often, and that he would never mention the ten dollars again.

On the night before we left, Michael took us to see the newest Franklin National Bank of Santa Monica. He stopped the car, and gazed at it in the moonlight. We sat politely.

His last letters were not written in his personal, almost illegible schoolboy’s scrawl. They were typed on a letterhead, written in pristine language, and signed: Much love, HIGH NOON PRODUCTIONS. Beneath, the secretary had written in his name and their initials: MG/lbd.

____________

 

New York is rancid now. I can’t do the things I loved: walk across the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset, sit in Washington Square Park. The Hell’s Angels have taken over the East Village, the terminal-sex crowd is in command of the far reaches of the West Village.

The Fillmore East is a charcoaled ruin, the wreck of a marquee ghosting Second Avenue. The Automats are empty halls, shared by senior citizens and bums, and at night the lights are dimmed and belly dancers shake for a five-dollar admission.

I scour the city, evoking the past. Animals isn’t that bad; I have good insurance and medical benefits, and I can write at night if I don’t have a drink first.

Michael is in Los Angeles. He is sitting in on boardroom meetings where the smoke is thick, the air full of crazy energy. I see him. His laugh, his charm are well-liked. The other executives also have beards, wear denims, and, like Michael, have firm social consciences.

I even hear his laugh now, and it disarms me, as does his voice, and his face.

But I keep seeing the look on his face when he waited for me to give him the ten-dollar bill. The repetition of the memory is as insistent as the look on his face was.

In the midst of chatter, memories, stories that day, what mattered was the passing of the bill from my hand to his—the tension before it happened, while he waited, and the resolution of it when he took the bill, pocketed it, and signaled to the waitress.

I remember the scraping of our chairs as we stood up to go.

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