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“Major Maybe” & Mackie
Donald Trump & Me
Wit and Courtesy
Haircuts for Wall Street

January 24, 2016

“Major Maybe” & Mackie

ONE SPRING EVENING in the early ’80s, Ann Beattie handed me a flower as she walked up the stoop where I sat waiting for my friend Ned to get home.

      I knew she lived on the top floor of that West 20th Street brownstone, across from the General Theological Seminary. Ned (as I prefer to call him) told me about her moving in. He was excited—she was going to be his ticket into print! After spending years writing a perfect novel, one that would permit him to re-enter the world without shame, he was determined that her clout would get it published.

      So it’s piquant to see Beattie make use of that setting and of Ned and his dog (material I mined myself for my novel Queer’s Progress) in “Major Maybe,” the charming New Yorker story of April 20, 2015 (collected in The State We’re In: Maine Stories, from Simon & Schuster). Her narrator, who “sometimes bought a single flower to take back to the apartment,” meets a dog named Major Maybe, as well as “the guy in the basement apartment”—“a psychologist who specialized in adolescents.”

      As it happens, Ned occupied her building’s garden floor-through. He was in his late fifties, recently forced by cataracts—a big deal then—to retire from his job as copy editor at Consumer Reports. Although indeed a specialist in adolescents, Ned was not exactly a psychologist, but ran a sketchy operation (housed in an Episcopal parish house, yet) called Gay Counseling. His specialty was taking young clients—virginal coming-outers—to bed. As a subspecialty, he was willing after a free romp or two in his pullout-couch to serve as their paid therapist.

      Sex was the alpha and omega of Ned’s life, but he had a practical reason for being promiscuous: He didn’t want his lover, a bodybuilder thirty years younger and engrossed in his own affairs with men like the Marlboro Man (or the male model impersonating him) and Stephen Sondheim to perceive him as an old man nobody else wanted.

      Ned had a dog, too, a young Skye Terrier named Mackie. Alhough “Major Maybe” perhaps conflates several persons and dogs—the man who sets out chairs seems to me less likely Ned than the pornographer next door (whose apartment had its own adolescent traffic)—Mackie appears to be the model for the titular one (and I vaguely remember hearing about the incident that provides the kernel of Beattie’s story).

      In curious fact, Ned was by way of being a canine expert, having published, under the pseudonym “John Howe,” a guide called Choosing the Right Dog. On the strength of its success, he even appeared on the Today Show. He had spent his youth alternately teaching English Lit—at Columbia, Kenyon College and Lawrenceville, where he filled Thornton Wilder’s old post—and traveling the world. He lived a year at a time in such locales as Tangier and Port-au-Prince. In London he came to know Stevie Smith, V.S Pritchett and Elizabeth Bowen (he said Eddie in The Death of the Heart was the only character in all fiction in which he recognized anything of himself). To Pritchett he became practically an adopted son, until their inevitable blowup.

      Whether from the waning of youth or of parental remittances, Ned found himself living a constrained life in New York. He kept up with a few friends, including the caterer Donald Bruce White, the landscape architect Bob Zion and the poet Bruce Phemister, but lived in hiding from the rest of the world, in deliberate flight from his own and others’ expectations, until he could redeem them at a blow by publishing that perfect novel. He was on the run most of all from the dogged and unrelenting demands of his Harvard class fund for a donation. (He'd gotten into Harvard, he told me, by inadvertently signing his application letter “Love, Ned”: “Well, the only letters I’d ever written were to my mother from camp.”)

      But Ned lucked out in one crucial aspect of Manhattan living: He held a lifetime lease on his apartment, his tenure written into the brownstone’s deed by its previous owner, in token of favors done her. The new owner lived overhead and gnashed his teeth every time he looked out the windows at the wilderness Ned and Mackie made of lawn and garden, and treated them with that infinite unpleasantness that is the hallmark of the New York landlord who wishes to get rid of a tenant (Ned didn’t budge, though). Aside from a coating of dust Miss Havisham would have envied, Ned’s apartment was elegant, featuring two fireplaces, ample bookshelves and a glassy garden room, though he kept the living room—furnished with pieces from the reign of William and Mary—sealed up.

      And in that apartment four floors below Ann Beattie’s, year after year he polished to perfection his slender fiction. It wasn’t exactly bad, either—just irredeemably dull. Among its readers was his old Columbia colleague Caroline Gordon, who amused him by saying she just couldn’t pierce all its layers to get to its heart.

      When Beattie moved in, Ned decided his manuscript was, if not actually finished, ready for her to hawk to publishers. I never knew the details of his assault on her; he didn’t speak of it, and I didn’t ask. But his book never was published, and eventually she moved out. That he continued—at least until our inevitable blowup—to admire her writing seems a testament to her tact.

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December 23, 2015

Donald Trump & Me

AS A GREAT NATION CHOOSES ITS LEADER, Donald Trump at least is giving us ample opportunity to get to know him, which is all we can reasonably ask of a candidate for President. What distinguishes Trump from dirt, however, is thus far impossible to discern.

      The irony of fate makes me the former right hand to a man who later became Trump’s: In 1986 I worked as Richard Fields’ assistant. Smart, resourceful and generous, Fields was bending every sinew trying to bring his comedy club/personal management business to market as a public company. Who else in the middle of an IPO would take up Brett Butler’s suggestion and throw a benefit at his club for the African National Congress, at a time when Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned? Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I was doing my best to hold things together at more mundane levels, not unsuccessfully; and perhaps got a lot of mileage out of the situation in my novel Good People..

      When a teenaged comedian named Chris Rock invited Fields to manage his career, I thought it a no-brainer: Rock was funny, cute and a total pro, if also angry. But others feared he might be more trouble than he was worth—some people won’t understand how anger fuels art. Fields called a meeting, but queered its result by sending me across town while he sat in conclave with our colleagues and duly decided not to take on Rock as a client. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, I quit.

      Cut to a few years later. The comedy business having sunk under him, Richard Fields goes to work for Donald Trump—and makes himself indispensable. In fact, he’s soon The Donald’s point man on the Florida casino situation, and today—following the amicable settlement of Trump’s lawsuit against him—owns casinos and racetracks and is generally referred to as a billionaire.

      Leaving me in the disconcerting position of being separated from dirt by a mere two degrees.


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August 11, 2014

Wit and Courtesy

NEVER HURTS to eyeball the great. I recall stumbling into two events, years apart, one featuring Margaret Thatcher, the other Hillary Clinton, that proved illuminating.

      In January 1998, at the height of the Monica Lewinsky thing, Hillary Clinton came to Los Angeles and spoke at the landmark downtown Los Angeles Theatre. The occasion was Warner Brothers’ release of a compilation album whose proceeds were earmarked for the cause of architectural preservation in honor of Richard Moe, then President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

      I happened to see in a local shopper a squib offering free tickets to Clinton’s appearance, got one and went. On the appointed morning Broadway was thronged with school buses—some two thousand high-school students were shipped in to attend or participate. I took a seat high in the balcony, and noted a total of perhaps two dozen other adults.

      The program commenced with student displays of gymnastics, dancing and singing, plus some words from Stevie Wonder (how is it he’s never entered politics?). Then came the lead-up to the main event. A Warner Bros. suit got up to speak. At length he lauded the album and the man we were there to honor. If it weren’t for him, &c., the lonely efforts of one solitary individual, &c.— “So,” he concluded, “I just want to say: Thank you, Dick!”

      Did I mention the audience was all high school students? They found this hilarious—erupted in laughter.

      Another suit from Warner Bros. got up after the first one, looking startled, even shaken, went offstage, and further praised the efforts of the one man more responsible than any other for preservation, &c., efforts unappreciated and lonely but heroically persistent, &c., with the glorious results we were there to celebrate, &c. He concluded, “And I just want to say, thank you, Dick!”

      Laughter? It brought down the house—not hindered by the deer-in-the-headlights expression of the executive who so unwarily had walked into the same trap as his colleague.

      Hillary Clinton then got up to speak. She continued the refrain of we have so much to be grateful for, &c., but for the work of one man so much would have been lost, &c., the lonesome crusade and toil, &c. “And I just want to say—” Leaning forward in anticipation, everyone in the theatre took a breath in case they needed to laugh— “I just want to say, thank you, Richard!”

      Deftly done. Clinton let us see that she saw the trap but invited us to watch her skirt it safely. Very satisfying. She then stayed on while the theatre emptied, making sure that every troupe that had performed got their picture taken with her, horrifying her entourage by gamely stepping over cables to do so.


      THIS PUT ME in mind of another event, not dissimilar, that I witnessed twenty years earlier, in October 1978. I was changing trains in Chicago, so had a few hours to wander the Loop. Passing the Auditorium on Michigan Avenue, I saw a poster saying that the new leader of Britain’s Tory party, Margaret Thatcher, was scheduled to speak in the smaller hall there at a public event in—I looked at my watch—why, in ten minutes. I went inside and took a seat high in the rear. As Thatcher and her husband came onto the stage, a woman apparently from her party slipped into the seat next to mine.

      I remember nothing of what Thatcher said; only my impression that I was in the presence of a forceful and first-rate intelligence. And also this: She took questions after her speech, and deftly answered them all. The last one came from a man who quickly showed himself to be a sad and troubled—and incoherent—soul; a Viet Nam vet, as I recall, mumbling first about Viet Nam and then about Ireland. Everyone in the audience sank back in dismay. My seatmate murmured, “Oh, Maggie!” when Thatcher, instead of disappearing with a wave, took on the delicate task of assembling from her questioner’s pained mumbles enough that she was able to articulate for him a coherent question and then to answer it—salvaging the situation while according a lost soul a full measure of human dignity. It was a display of courtesy that I’ve never forgotten.


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September 20, 2012

Haircuts for Wall Street:
a modest proposal

"Off with their heads!" said the Queen."Off with their heads!"
                                      —Alice in Wonderland

THOUGH WALL STREET crooks caused our economy to collapse four years ago, they have not been punished. No one's gone to jail. To the contrary, TARP secured their bonuses, adding them dollar for dollar to the national debt. Meanwhile the rest of us have not fared so well.

      Surely it's time—past time—for a decisive popular response. The nation would be grateful to the people of New York if they were to raise a guillotine on the porch of Federal Hall (where Wall meets Broad, across the street from the New York Stock Exchange and the old Morgan Bank), gather up crooked Wall Streeters (not omitting the lawyers who, in Dickens' words, "lie like maggots in a nut" in that neighborhood) and at long last give them their richly deserved haircuts. George Washington in bronze will preside with dignity and approval.

      After rolling down the steps, the heads should be spiked and tidily mounted along the streets of the financial district, and perhaps the Brooklyn Bridge, too. If left to naturally mummify, they could serve for decades to come both as warning and tourist attraction, even as the wealth-destroying financial sector self-deports.

INCIDENTALLY, EVER NOTICE that the shot in The Godfather establishing where the heads of the five mob families sit down to meet shows the New York Federal Reserve Bank? Perfect!


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