When last we saw Arnold (or, if you will, “Porter”), on this sultry night in Greenwich Village in the summer of 1957, he was at long last headed for the men’s room of a mysterious basement saloon known as “Valhalla”...
(Go here to read our previous episode, or click here to return to the beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 79-volume memoir. “Arnold Schnabel’s massive opus relegates all preceding American literature to the status of prelude; that which follows must perforce aspire to be no more than a dying fall.” -- Harold Bloom, in The Cape May County Herald.)
I made it out of the room and then down the hall to the men’s room door, which I savagely wrenched open, fully prepared as I was to use a sink if there wasn’t a urinal or a stall free.
In fact four dodgy-looking men stood loitering near the sinks, smoking; they had been talking, but they now fell quiet, looking at me out of the corners of their eyes; what did I care, one of the two urinals was free and I bolted over to it posthaste, unzipped, and proceeded to do what I had to do.
“First time here?” asked the man using the other urinal.
Great, I thought, another one of these guys who likes to talk at urinals.
“Uh, yes,” I said.
“So, which racket are you in, partner?”
I hate to look at other men peeing next to me, but his question took me enough by surprise that I stole a glance. He had a wild head of curly white hair and a drooping moustache, a cigar between his teeth. He wore a rumpled white suit
“Of course you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, but I see you have a manuscript under your arm is all, and judging by your raffish attire and your three-day growth of beard I take it you’re not a civilian.”
I’ve said it before, I’ll repeat it until the day I die and probably beyond: I hate urinal conversations. I hate most conversations now that I think about it, but I really hate urinal conversations.
“Okay,” the man said, taking his cigar out of his mouth with his left hand. “Forget I said anything.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “What did you want to know?”
“Yeah. Your line of country. Your métier. Novels? Poetry? Philosophy? The dreaded humorous essay?”
“Oh,” I said. “Poetry, I guess.”
“Poetry,” he said, flatly. Then, after a slight sigh, “So -- lyrical? Epic? Dramatic monologue?”
“Well, I guess kind of a combination of all of that,” I said, my words oozing with vagueness.
“Uh-huh. Lyrical epic monologue then.”
“Yeah,” I said. I was almost done urinating but not quite.
“Not much of a market for that kind of stuff nowadays, is there?” he said.
“I guess not,” I said.
“Any publishers interested.”
“Well, yes, I just sold this one today in fact.”
“No kidding? That Brobdingnagian thing under your arm there.”
I didn’t know what Brobdingnagian meant but I said “Yeah” anyway.
“Oh, wait --” he said, and I waited, or rather I continued to pee as fast as I could while he blatantly stared at me. “May I ask your name, sir?” he said after half a minute.
“Walker? Porter Walker.”
“Well, I’ll be tarred and feathered. I’d shake your hand, but --”
“Yeah, that’s okay,” I said.
I continued to try to hurry the pee along, but of course that’s not possible.
The annoying thing was, one of the annoying things was, this man had long finished urinating, and yet here he was still standing there, taking his time buttoning up his fly.
“My name’s Sam,” he said.
“Hello,” I said.
“This guy is so queer,” whispered the fly in my ear. I was surprised he’d managed to keep quiet so long.
“Sam Clemens?” said the man.
“So very queer,” whispered the fly.
“Hi,” I said. If the fly was right I figured it would be best to keep the conversation as monosyllabic as possible.
“You don’t seem very impressed,” said this Sam guy.
“Homo,” whispered the fly.
“Look,” I said, “I don’t mean to be unfriendly, but --”
“I get it. The younger generation. I’m just an old misanthrope who stuck around too long, I reckon.”
“It’s not that,” I said, after all, I knew nothing about this man except that he seemed to like talking in men’s rooms. “It’s just that --”
“You don’t like being picked up by annoying old toilet traitors,” said the fly.
“He’s a kid, Sam,” called out one of the guys behind me by the sinks. “They have to go their own way.”
“Oh, is that so, Herman?” said Sam.
“It is in the nature of youth to think that youth knows all,” said another guy back there.
“Truer words, Nathaniel,” said another guy, “were never spoken, or if so then quite rarely.”
“You are exceedingly kind, Fenimore.”
“And you are excessively kind to characterize me as such.”
Finally I was finished.
“Great,” said the fly. “Now zip up and let’s get the hell outa here before they all gang up on you.”
I zipped up, flushed, and believe me I was tempted to skip washing my hands, but I just couldn’t do it.
There were two sinks in there, with these four other guys all standing near them. They made way for me, and one of them even turned the taps of one of them on for me.
“There you go, sir,” he said. He tested the stream of water with his finger. “Not too hot, not too cold.”
“Thanks,” I said. Maybe the fly was right, and I had indeed wandered into a homosexual den.
I put my hand under the wall-mounted soap dispenser and the same guy pressed the little plunger for me.
“There you are,” he said. “Why don’t you let me hold your manuscript for you while you cleanse your hands?”
“Oh, Christ,” started the fly.
“Sure,” I said, getting a little annoyed at the world in general, “here, take it.”
“My, it’s quite voluminous, isn’t it?” he said.
I set to work washing my hands. In the meantime the white-suited guy, Sam Clemens, was washing his hands in the other sink, his cigar balanced on the sink’s edge.
“My name’s Ralph, by the way,” said the guy who was holding my poem. He had thick long sideburns. “I used to pronounce it ‘Rafe’, English-style, but everybody thought that was pretentious, so now I just go by Ralph. Call me Ralph.”
I finished washing my hands, but before I could turn off the taps one of the other guys came over, reached over and turned them off.
“I’m Nathaniel,” said this one, he had a big droopy moustache. “Or Nat, if you like.”
Another one quickly went over to the paper towel dispenser and turned the crank, ripped off a sheet, handed it to me.
“I’m James,” said this guy. “But call me Fenimore.”
The fourth one had nothing to do, but that didn’t stop him from introducing himself either.
“Herman,” he said, holding out his hand. He had a great big beard. “But call me Mel. All my friends call me Mel.”
“Hi,” I said. I never do this, but I ignored his proffered hand and pretended to be preoccupied with thoroughly drying my hands.
"Another homo," whispered the fly. "A whole pack of homos."
This comment made me feel guilty, and so, as Mel still had his hand hopefully extended, I took it and shook it, but briefly.
“Hey, James, pass me a towel, too,” said Sam. He had his cigar in his mouth now.
James (or Fenimore) quickly cranked out another length of paper towel, tore it off and brought it over to Sam.
The trashcan nearby had one of those swinging lids in its domelike top, and Mel (or Herman), apparently eager to do something, held the lid open for me. I crumpled up my paper towel and tossed it into it the can.
“Keep that open, will you, Herman?” said Sam.
Herman (or Mel) did so and Sam tossed his own crumpled-up towel into it.
“Two points,” he said.
“Here’s your manuscript back,” said Ralph, Rafe, whatever the hell his name was, and he handed it to me.
“Thanks,” I said.
The grey-haired man, Sam, had walked over to the door. He opened it and gestured with his head. I went over. He kept the door open for me and I went through, and he followed, letting the door swing shut behind him.
“Sorry about those fellows,” he said.
“They didn’t bother me,” I said, which was not quite true.
“You know who they were, right?”
“Not really,” I said.
“Mellville, Cooper, Hawthorne, Emerson. There were a few more in the stalls. Longfellow, Howells, Mather.”
“Don’t know them, I’m afraid.”
“You’re not missing much.”
“Do they always hang out in there?”
“Mostly they stay down in the sub-basement, but seven or eight of them get to come up and stand around in the men’s room for an hour once every week or so.”
“But -- why do they stay down in the sub-basement?”
“What do you mean? They have no choice. They have to stay down there.”
“For how long?”
“That’s right. The big one.”
“You ever read Moby-Dick? Last of the Mohicans? The Scarlet Letter?”
“Do the Classics Illustrated versions count?”
“Well, I’ll have to say no then.”
“Consider yourself lucky. Those fellows committed the one unforgivable sin,” said Sam. “They were boring. Come on, Porter, I’ll buy you a drink.”
(Continued here, and to beyond the pale and perhaps one step beyond that.)
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