Intellectuals & Liars

The phone would ring at the store and when I answered, “Intellectuals & Liars,” someone always asked, “Which one are you?” To that, I inevitably replied, “It depends on who’s calling.”
It always got a laugh no matter how tired I was of saying it.
Intellectuals & Liars: a literary bookstore. That was the full name. And it existed for 3 years exactly 3 doors down from the SW corner of Wilshire Avenue and 10th Street in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, California. It was, for its brief history, one of the few bookstores in Los Angeles that catered exclusively to literature and poetry. There were the weekly readings first coordinated by Joel Dailey and then later, after Joel left by Bill Mohr, the broadsides we published that first year, the occasional guest speakers—agents, editors, journalists, small press publishers—and the after hours discussions fueled by Gallo Hearty Burgundy about literature and writers.
Writers. It was a store designed for writers, run by writers, staffed by writers. One person calling one day asked if we had anything by Gertrude Stein in the store and when we said yes without a second’s hesitation, he responded with “You’re the first store that actually knows who I’m asking about.”
Of course what we had and how many copies of it largely depended on how well I could coax books out of publishers with minimum payments because the store was never financially solvent. It was, at best, financially undernourished. I mean, I proved the old saying that poetry doesn’t sell by actually dedicating approximately 40% of the stock to it. And it was mostly small press books because most large publishing houses had very little poetry in their back lists.
The name. Many people asked how it got its name. Well that happened in the house on Motor Avenue I shared with my two original partners, Jimmy Powell and Gordon Anderson, for 2 months one very long night, 2 bottles of scotch, and a midnight run to the burrito stand we could only find in the middle of the night when we were drunk. We had been brainstorming names with many like Books Books Books, Lost Illusions (which ended up being the name of the novel I eventually wrote about the store’s last year), and others I can’t recall when Jimmy in between puffs on his cigarette said, “You know there’s a quote by Carl Jung which might work. It goes something like there are two kinds of people you can’t change: intellectuals and liars.” And all three sets of eyes lit up, we toasted each other, did a little dance in the living room, and eventually went to bed with the name on all our lips.
Both Jimmy and Gordon didn’t last more than that first year and I carried on alone, aided and abetted full-time by Randy Signor and Bill Mohr and a host of part-time people like Maureen Foster manning the counter on various mornings, evenings, or weekends. We were open 7 days a week from 10 to 10 though we closed earlier on Sundays. And there were always the usual assortment of regulars drifting in and out, drinking the instant coffee we kept by the urn in the corner between two used, ugly green armchairs bought third hand at some used furniture store that were there for anyone to sit on while sampling the books on the shelves.
The regulars included people who bought our Discount Cards (Jimmy’s idea) which entitled them to a 10% discount on any book in the store and 20% on hardcovers. This being LA, we had an assortment of screenwriters, actors, poets, and other notables who bought those cards including Neville Brand, Maya Angelou, and Christopher Isherwood, as well as many of the LA poets who at one time or another read in the store like Peter Levitt, Jim Krusoe, and Dennis Cooper.
There were two rooms: the front room being the largest and containing a wall of fiction opposite a wall of poetry with some portable shelves in the middle that displayed new or noteworthy books selected by members of the staff. Then there was the back room that housed the section of California writers (though many were also in the front room as well), the drama section, a smattering of nonfiction titles, some genre sections most notably the mysteries and science fiction/fantasies, and my small collection of cookbooks that I ordered mainly to copy recipes from. And, of course, 3 large remainder tables (publishers’ overstock for those not familiar with the remainder label) which held anything that seemed interesting to someone who worked there.
There were no horoscope books, romance novels, self-help books, and only bestsellers or bestseller wannabes by writers I personally read first before putting on the shelf. The store had a definite bias toward what we called “quality fiction” and we held the line. Perhaps, as friends like Ren Weschler and Vimal Duggal often advised me, I should have stretched that line a bit more, they would, they said, understand, because, after all, they wanted me to succeed, but I was stubborn and thus kept to the original vision and nobly (well, maybe not so nobly) went out of business. After 3 years exactly of limping along, it finally went “belly up”, as they say, and I drifted back to New York with my dog in tow.
But my mind drifts back to LA in those late 70s days rather frequently now, even though I thought I had gotten it out of my system years ago, but, it would appear, that’s not the case. Maybe because I am still close to many of the people that graced my life back then, still reread many of the books that had meaning for me then, still carry the index card with the pitiful amount of money I took from the store during those years scribbled in black ink with the calculation at the bottom of 63 cents an hour as my average wage. This is supposed to serve as a reminder never to open another bookstore again.
And though, Randy once told me, he knew what the store cost me (and he wasn’t just referring to financially) it’s still the one place and time I would return to if ever given the opportunity to travel back to the past. You hear that, H.G. Wells? I’m game, if you are.

The First Day by Christina Rossetti

I wish I could remember the first day,
First hour, first moment of your meeting me;
If bright or dim the season, it might be
Summer or winter for aught I can say.
So unrecorded did it slip away,
So blind was I to see and to foresee,
So dull to mark the budding of my tree
That would not blossom yet for many a May.
If only I could recollect it! Such
A day of days! I let it come and go
As traceless as a thaw of bygone snow.
It seemed to mean so little, meant so much!
If only now I could recall that touch,
First touch of hand in hand!–Did one but know!

On Talking To Waitresses & Waiters

I was having dinner last night at my favorite hamburger place here on a corner a few blocks up from the Rexx Theatre. I find I crave a hamburger 2 or 3 times a month here, perhaps it being some sort of longing not for my home country but the home I left behind many years ago where my father wearing this silly felt hat I bought in Freedomland (a theme park from my youth that, like my youth, no longer exists) grilled Sabrett hotdogs and these big, fat, greasy hamburgers in our backyard while talking politics with my uncles. I think this memory goes back to about a year before he died and is one of those memories I have where I was filled with love and a bit of awe for the man I almost got to know.
But the reason I bring this up is because hamburgers are tied to that memory and is the reason I go to this restaurant which I feel greatly surpasses anything Burger King has to offer, and when I go to restaurants, I always somehow or other get into some kind of conversation with the waiter or waitress who is serving me. This, too, is tied into the memories of my father but I won’t get into that now. This musing is about my habit of striking up a dialogue with service industry people who unless they’re waiters at a place like Peter Luger’s or Umberto’s Clam House or Wu Liang Ye and are career waiters with the proper New York attitude toward the world and specifically those denizens of the world occupying their tables, are really somebody else. Or at least are trying to be, have the hope of being, somebody else. And this particular waitress could speak English, or at least spoke Prep School graduate English, which means she understood about half of what I said and could haltingly answer questions she thought I was asking. Anyway, she is studying cinema at Kader Has University which is down the road from my own college and so since it is a field I know something about, as opposed to say electrical engineering which leaves me clueless, I asked about her future plans. You know, what she wanted to do with the degree after she graduated.
And here it brought me back to reality. For she, like so many college students, had no clear idea about the future. Maybe, if and when I learn Turkish, the conversation might be more illuminating, but there is a vagueness there about the future she was trying to envision. And I thought that this was so very different than the way I was, and my friends were, when we were that age. We always knew what we wanted to be, and though we were often sidetracked by life, we still, in perhaps a sort of broken field style of running, moved toward it. And we did arrive at being the sort of people we aspired to being with the usual mixed results. Some ended up pretty close to where they started, in terms of locality, that is, and others far from whatever Kansas they came from. But we all ended up having lived a life in both education and/or the arts. There has been, of course, varying levels of achievement, and one can’t have lived as long as we have without incurring our share of remorse and regret (remorse for some of the things we did and regret for some of the things we didn’t do) but none, I believe, feel unfulfilled. So going back to that question she couldn’t really answer decisively, we would have all answered that question quite differently when we were undergraduates for we all knew what we wanted to be, and we all, more or less, attained it.
It wasn’t so much that it was a different time, because time has a funny way of being different and the same all at once, but that we were different. Too many young people today seem to have a rather fuzzy idea of the course of study they are embarking on. The educational system in other countries, though, is partly at fault since so much emphasis is placed on entrance exams and the results of those often limit the choices one has in the application process. In the US, the most popular major at my old college in the SUNY (State University of New York) system is “Undecided”, which pretty much means those American counterparts to this waitress would be just as vague as she is in answering that question.
Which leads me back to my father, hamburgers, and felt hats from Freedomland.
My peers and I came from Depression era parents, many of whom were first generation immigrants, and thus these parents were obsessed with their children having a more secure life. Education was a key to that life and all our parents encouraged, even sometimes pushed, us to get college degrees. And so even though a constant source of dispute between my mother and father was where we lived (he never wanted to leave Brooklyn and she was determined we would live in a house in the suburbs), there was one thing they both agreed on: I would go to college and I would read, because reading was, in both their eyes, a necessary ingredient to a liberal, open, inquisitive mind. So there were always books, magazines, and newspapers in the house. My mother enrolled me in book clubs before I could walk, and my father made sure we had 3 Sunday papers on the weekend. He read 3 newspapers a day and thought journalism was the highest calling and so was delighted when I declared one day at about age 7 after having finished E.B. White’s Stuart Little that I would be a writer. He just assumed I meant journalist. My mother, though, loved books and knew I meant novelist. But both believed in the printed word. My father sought to understand the world, (hence, the newspapers), while my mother wanted to understand people (thus, the novels). And so even while grilling hotdogs and hamburgers, the talk was always about what was happening in the world, which was my father’s second passion. The first being The Brooklyn Dodgers. Though actually, that was second, current events third, and my mother was first.
Anyway, because of them, my path was set (though I did wander off course more than occasionally), but my answer to that question I asked the waitress was always clear in my mind. And this was true of the vast majority of my friends, too. We knew what we wanted early on. It just took some of us a very long time to reach it.
So my parting words to the waitress was not to worry. She had time to figure it out. At least she was happy in her course of study. And that, if she has the right teachers and liked-minded friends, will lead her to her path and her life will unfold. Her adventure is beginning. She is, like so many others, a very lucky person. And she, like the rest of these under 30 people here and around the world, will once they figure out where they’re going, shape the future.
And to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut: so it goes.

Last Love by Fyodor Tyutchev

Love at the closing of our days
is apprehensive and very tender.
Glow brighter, brighter, farewell rays
of one last love in its evening splendor.

Blue shade takes half the world away:
through western clouds alone some light is slanted.
O tarry, O tarry, declining day,
enchantment, let me stay enchanted.

The blood runs thinner, yet the heart
remains as ever deep and tender.
O last belated love, thou art
a blend of joy and of hopeless surrender.

translated  by Vladimir Nabokov

On Protests

Lately I’ve been having flashbacks to the 1960s/70s in the United States and, as a result, being called “moody” by my biggest critic here, but it is hard not to be with the memories that haunt me from what could only be considered an eventful life. Thus, there is the melancholy that results which seems to be part of the make-up of Southern Italians along with the strong passions that periodically provoke both havoc and pleasure in our lives. The times, though, that I recall were “interesting times”, which the ancient Chinese used to utter as a sort of curse: “May you live in interesting times!” Because it was a time of turmoil when established concepts and even lifestyles underwent drastic change. Of course, this wasn’t just happening in the US at the time. There were upheavals in other countries caused by protests there, too: France, Germany, Korea, Great Britain, Italy, not to mention what would happen in many countries in South America, and even in the late 1980s in China itself. It seemed, to those of us who were politically aware, that the world was undergoing a revolution and life as we knew it, as our parents and grandparents had known it, was never going to be the same.
Well, we were right and we were wrong.
Things did change. The protests against the Vietnam War, the protests for civil rights for minorities (African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, immigrants of all nationalities and races), women’s rights, gay rights, even movements supporting migrant workers with boycotts of iceberg lettuce and grapes, against tobacco companies and oil companies, riots against police brutality, and the silent vigils, the long candlelight processions mourning the deaths, and the riots that erupted in cities across the country after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
It seemed we were always living for or against something bigger than we were, some principle that guided our lives, that led me, for one, into working for the Boy Scouts in the inner city of Toledo, into a community of the like-minded writers, singers, actors in NYC, to grad school, to the culture wars in LA, to the lost years of the early 80s when I tried to forget it all and just live a peaceful life, but that all changed again when I ended up devoting 20 plus years to trying to empower immigrants through the English language programs I created.
Principles. Missionary work, as one VP at one of my college’s called it. A vision of a world where there was a level playing field for all, a place at the table for anyone to partake of what was the nourishment of what we believed to be the ideal of America.
And things did change, and yet remained the same. The battles continue because the war for liberty is never won, just perpetually fought in every corner of the world, time and time again. A victory here, a defeat there, an uprising over there, suppression on the corner. It’s a struggle that never ends but must be fought on city streets, on dirt roads, in courtrooms, in schoolyards, even in homes, and especially in voting booths wherever elections are held. It’ll take more than votes, but blood, sweat, and bucketfuls of tears.
But what in life has value except the things we pay most dearly for?
So here I am in Istanbul, having just come back from visiting the carnival atmosphere that exists in Gezi Park now, and I think enjoy the moment, my beautiful Turkish people, for the police will be back. Maybe not here, maybe not now, but they always return. Be strong, be brave, as I know you as a people are. And you will win this day, just as I know you will be prepared to fight again tomorrow. Your struggle is not over, but just begun. And oh how this old 60s person’s heart swells with love for you all.

Falling Leaves by Nazim Hikmet

I’ve read about falling leaves in fifty thousand poems novels
and so on
watched leaves falling in fifty thousand movies
seen leaves fall fifty thousand times
fall drift and rot
felt their dead shush shush fifty thousand times
underfoot in my hands on my fingertips
but I’m still touched by falling leaves
especially those falling on boulevards
especially chestnut leaves
and if kids are around
if it’s sunny
and I’ve got good news for friendship
especially if my heart doesn’t ache
and I believe my love loves me
especially if it’s a day I feel good about people
I’m touched by falling leaves
especially those falling on boulevards
especially chestnut leaves

translated by Randy Blasing & Mutlu Konuk