Let’s rejoin Arnold (or Porter if you will) and his friend (and alleged personal savior) Josh in the back bar of a mysterious Greenwich Village boîte called “Valhalla”, on this momentous rainy night in the summer of 1957...
(Click here to read our preceding episode; go here to return to the beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 62-volume memoir. “What a piece of work was Arnold Schnabel. How noble in his lack of reason? How infinite in his somewhat impaired faculties?” -- Harold Bloom, in Man’s Adventure.)
“Wow,” said Josh, “the chicks really dig you, Porter. So, are you going to meet her outside in five?”
“Somehow I don’t think I should,” I said.
“She’ll be upset if you don’t.”
“Let’s get a beer,” I said.
We went over to the bar, found a couple of empty stools. Josh pulled out a roll of twenty-dollar bills, peeled one off and laid it down.
“So, you want a shot, Porter?”
“Just a beer, Josh, thanks.”
The bartender came over and asked us what we wanted.
“Well, I think I’d like a Manhat-” Josh started to say, but I cut him off.
“Two bottles of Falstaff, please,” I said. “No glasses.”
“Oh, okay,” said Josh. “But I think I’ll also have a shot of --”
“Just the beers, please,” I said to the bartender.
“But --” said Josh, looking at me.
“Just two Falstaffs, please,” I reiterated.
The bartender looked from me to Josh and back to me again.
“Yeah, just two Falstaffs, thanks,” I said.
“Whatever you say, pal.”
Josh looked at me as the bartender went for the beers.
“Just beer, Josh. You’ve already gotten beat up once tonight.”
He paused for just a moment, but then said, “Well, okay. I suppose you’re right.”
“I know I am,” I said.
“But y’know, Porter, that -- altercation -- wasn’t entirely my fault.”
“I know,” I said. “It was nine or ten Manhattans’ fault.”
“Well, actually I only had maybe five Manhattans. But I did have several glasses of Rheingold. And a couple of shots of Old Forester.”
“I rest my case,” I said.
The bartender brought us our beers, took away Josh’s twenty. We both took swigs of beer. The band was playing “Hard Times Come Again No More” now, still at a frenetic pace. The bartender brought Josh back his change. Josh picked up a five and handed it back to the man.
“Keep ‘em comin’,” he said.
“Thank you, sir!” said the bartender, and he went away again.
“But really, it was that Hemingway guy,” said Josh.
“What?” I said. “Who?”
“Ernest Hemingway. Please don’t tell me you don’t know who Ernest Hemingway is.”
“I know who he is,” I said, somewhat defensively I suppose, since I couldn’t recall actually having read any of his books.
“He took umbrage just because I suggested that The Old Man and the Sea was not his best work. I don’t know, I just prefer the early stories, and The Sun Also Rises. You’d think a guy his age could take some constructive criticism.”
“I don’t think anyone really likes to be criticized, Josh, constructively or not, no matter how old they are.”
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right. Sad, really. You know he’s going to commit suicide in a few years.”
“Oh, right,” I said. Even I knew that. “But wait.”
“We’re in 1957, right?”
“That is correct.”
“I mean, in this fictional world we’re in it’s 1957.”
“And those people in the other place, the San Remo -- Jack Kerouac, Allen what’s-is-name --”
“And the guy in the grey suit.”
“And the curly-haired little guy --”
“Yeah, and now this Hemingway guy --”
“Mean drunk, Porter. Mean.”
“Yeah, okay, but here’s the thing. Those guys are all real people. Real people who were alive in 1957.”
“Yeah -- so?”
“And also, in that Kettle of Fish place I ran into some other real people who weren’t dead.”
“Yeah? Like who?’
“Um, Edward R. Murrow, John Cameron Swayze, Ralph Edwards --”
“Who’s Ralph Edwards?”
“He’s the host on This Is Your Life?”
“Oh, him, okay, go on.”
“And there was this other guy, what was his name, Bunny, Bunny Wilson --”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Kind of a bald fat guy? Bit of a name-dropper?”
“Yeah, that’s him,” I said.
“Okay, so, uh, and your point is --?”
“Well, if these guys are all real, and not dead, like Sam, and Henry James and those guys --”
“Emily? What -- you mean the girl who’s the heroine of Miss Evans’s novel?”
“No. I mean Emily the waitress. The one who just handed you a mash note. Dickinson. Lady poet? ‘Because I could not stop for death, He kindly stopped for me? The carriage held but just ourselves and immortality?’ Surely you’ve heard of her, Porter?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said, not that I was familiar with her oeuvre, her not being a murder mystery authoress and all.
“I would think you two might get along pretty well. You both have somewhat shall we say -- unusual outlooks on life --”
“Yeah, maybe, but here’s the thing, Josh, I get it how these dead authors are here in this fictional universe, but how come these living writers are here? Like this Hemingway guy.”
“But he committed suicide.”
“Yeah, but not until 1960 or so, right?”
“1961 I think.”
“Right. So he’s still alive in 1957.”
“Yeah -- so?”
“So what’s he doing in Miss Evans’s universe? I mean if he’s a real living person and not a fictional character or a dead author.”
“Oh.” He took out his cigarettes, offered me the pack out of force of habit I suppose. I shook my head, and he put a cigarette between his lips, but he didn’t take out his lighter. He seemed to be thinking. I let him think.
The bartender came over with a Zippo, gave Josh a light.
“Everything satisfactory, sir?”
“Yeah, sure, fine,” said Josh. “Y’know, you look familiar. May I ask your name?”
“Thomas Wolfe, sir.”
“Oh, right. Homeward Bound --”
“Your first book. Homeward Bound?”
“Well, actually it was Look Homeward, Angel, sir.”
“Oh. Right, right, sorry! Great book. Great -- did you read that one, Porter?”
“Um, uh --”
“You should pick it up. Really great novel.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Thomas Wolfe.
“My name’s Josh,” said Josh, offering his hand, and Thomas Wolfe, after wiping his hand on his apron, shook Josh’s hand. “And this is Porter,” said Josh. “Porter Walker. Porter’s a writer too. A poet.”
Seeing no alternative I shook Thomas Wolfe’s hand also.
“I’ve heard of you, Mr. Walker. You’re the talk of the Village literati.”
He did that thing where the other guy keeps holding onto your hand after you’ve shaken it. He was quite a big guy and it felt like my hand was stuffed inside an Easter ham.
“A twenty-five thousand advance from Smythe?” he said.
“Oh, no,” I said, “it’s --”
“A hell of a lot more than I got for Look Homeward.”
He finally released my hand, which was only slightly numb.
“But really,” I said, “it’s --”
“I’d wish you success, but I was successful after a fashion and look where it got me.”
“Well, uh --”
“Anyway, it doesn’t matter what anyone wishes, does it?”
“Um, no, I suppose not.”
“People’s wishes won’t make you write any better. Or worse.”
“No, I suppose not --”
“Success might make you write worse though.”
“And so, not that it matters what I wish, I wish you a moderate success, just enough to pay the rent on a shabby Greenwich Village apartment and keep you in modest beer and grocery money. That’s the best I can do for you.”
“Well, thank you, uh --”
“Call me Tom. Or Wolfie. My friends call me Wolfie.”
“Okay, uh, Wolfie --”
Without another word he went away to wait on someone else.
Josh leaned over toward me.
“Homeward Bound?” said Josh. “I’m so embarrassed. How did I get that wrong?”
“Well, at least you knew he was a writer,” I said.
“Yeah. Was. I think he was only about thirty-seven when he died, poor guy. Oh, but look, Porter, I was thinking about those living authors at the San Remo.”
“Here’s the thing. It looks to me like you’ve moved yourself into some entirely new realm.”
“Yeah. It’s like -- how can I put this? That bastard Lucky dumped you into Miss Evans’s novel, right?”
“But it appears you’ve been rewriting her novel from inside. You’ve pushed yourself clean out of its plot, and now you’re in this in-between world between fiction and reality.”
“Oh,” I said. “Great.”
“No, it is great, or, maybe not great, but good, better anyway. Because now you’re sort of writing your own novel, with yourself as the hero.”
“O,” I said, and then after a pause, “K.”
“So, the way I see it, maybe I can’t help you, but you can help yourself. All you’ve got to do is just write yourself back to your own world.”
I took a drink of beer.
“I wonder if I could get some paper and a pen here,” I said.
“I’m sure you could,” said Josh. “This is literary Valhalla, remember?”
He raised his hand in the direction of the bartender, this Thomas Wolfe, and the fellow was back before us in a flash. Amazing what a five-dollar tip will accomplish.
“Tom,” said Josh, “I wonder if we could get some paper and a pen.”
“Certainly, sir. Any preference? We’ve got some really nice Japanese hosho. Or maybe you’d like some genuine Jewish parchment made from the skin of kosher goats under the supervision of a certified rabbi?”
“Just regular paper,” I said.
“Of course, sir. Lined or unlined.”
“Some nice twenty-pound bond?”
“I used to write my novels longhand in these great big business ledgers. I could run back to the office here and see if I could find you an unused one --”
“How about just a fresh cocktail napkin or two?”
“Oh. Sure. Any preference for the pen? How about a nice goose-feather quill?”
“Just a regular pen, or a pencil, it doesn’t matter.”
“Better go for a pen, Porter,” said Josh. “A little more permanent.”
“Okay, a pen,” I said.
“Fountain or ballpoint?” asked Thomas Wolfe.
“Parker, Sheaffer or Waterman?”
“Whatever’s quickest,” I said.
“Here, take my Parker.”
He took a pen from his pocket, removed the cap, stuck it back on the barrel of the pen, and handed the pen to me.
“Thank you,” I said.
“You’re quite welcome, sir.”
He reached under the bar and brought up a small stack of the beverage napkins with cartoons on them and placed them in front of me.
“Do you feel a poem coming on, sir?”
“Not exactly,” I said.
“A bit of prose then.”
“Yes,” I said.
“It’s best to strike while the iron is hot. If you’ll forgive the cliché. One never knows when inspiration may come. Or disappear. Perhaps forever.”
“Well, thanks,” I said.
“And then of course comes the day when one oneself disappears. Forever. Banished from the land of the living. To this place.”
Now I was starting to feel sorry for him. I still wanted him to shut up and go away, but I felt sorry for him.
“This place doesn’t seem so bad,” I said.
“Maybe not to you, sir. You can get up and leave whenever you want.”
“Not that I’m complaining.”
“Oh, no, of course not --”
“It could be worse. I could be down in the sub-basement with the really boring writers.”
“That’s true,” I said.
“Well -- write well, sir.”
“I’ll try to.”
“Not that it matters what I say,” he said.
“Hey, Tom, how about a drink down here,” yelled a guy a few seats down the bar.
“Keep your shirt on, Sinclair,” said Tom, Thomas Wolfe, whoever he was, maybe I’d look up one of his books if I ever made it home again. He leaned forward towards me and Josh and said in a low voice:
“Sinclair Lewis. Only writer I ever met who could drink me under the table.”
“Tom! I’m dyin’ of thirst over here!”
“All right, hold your horses,” said Tom, and he finally went away.
“You’d better start writing,” said Josh. “This place is crazy.”
“I fully intend to, this very second,” I said.
I took the first cocktail napkin off the pile. Two guys at a bar...
“Oh, hi, Porter, fancy running into you here.”
I turned around. It was that Nicky guy. The one I had thought was Lucky. He did look like Lucky. But he had said he was just Nicky, a publicist. And he had lent me twenty bucks. I guessed he couldn’t be all bad.
(Continued here, come hell or high water.)
(Please see the right hand column of this page for an up-to-date listing of links to all other publicly-available chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. This week’s episode made possible in part by a generous grant from the Amalgamated Tea Party of America™: “Hey, all we want is for everything to be the way it was back in 1910. Are we to be despised for this?”)