Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his raffish companions here on Greenwich Village’s MacDougal Street, on a fateful and rainy night in August of 1957...
(Please go here to read our preceding episode; in case you are a recently-retired senior citizen and are in an absolute quandary about what to do with all your newfound free time you may click here to return to the very first chapter of this Gold View Award™-winning memoir.)
“The closer I advance to the end of my span on this earth, it seems the less inclined I am to read anything else but Arnold Schnabel’s magnificent chef-d'œuvre.” — Harold Bloom, in Man’s Adventure magazine.
“Oh, Christ,” said Ferdinand, sitting in my ear, “will ya look at the size of that big ape running across the street.”
He was referring of course to Hemingway, who now carried a briefcase under one arm, and who still had his cigar in one hand.
“Wait up, you guys!” he yelled.
A cab came down MacDougal, on a trajectory and at a speed which would quite possibly have caused it to run down the famous author.
“Oh, shit,” said Ferdinand.
“Uh-oh,” said Bill.
“Look out,” said Jack, but more in an observational way than as a warning.
The cab driver put his hand to his horn, but Hemingway forged ahead, either not hearing the blare of the horn or not caring.
The cab driver slammed on his brakes, but the car skidded forward straight at the Nobel Prize winner.
I’m not sure exactly how the following happened, but I bolted into the street and performed a flying tackle on Hemingway, and he twisted and struggled with me as I did so, causing us to spin around together so that it was my back which landed on the wet hard street, with Hemingway on top of me, his great hairy chest slamming into my face and causing the back of my head to strike the asphalt like a hammer banging a gong, and in the resulting wave of pain I braced myself for the added shock of the cab running over the both of us, thereby abruptly ending my little life’s adventure, but the very fact that I’m writing this right now should be proof enough that this did not happen. The cab swerved past our bodies, I felt both the left front tire and then the rear tire brushing the tips of my work shoes, and I heard the shouted imprecations of the driver, “Fucking idiots” was one of the things he shouted, and continued to shout as he roared on down MacDougal Street and away.
Hemingway was very heavy. He was very heavy and his hairy great chest smelled of sweat and cigars and beer and rum.
He pushed himself up off me a little bit, on his elbows.
“That was a close shave,” he said. “You okay, buddy?”
“I think so,” I said, from miles away and with another man’s voice. “But you’re very heavy.”
“Oh, sorry, pal.”
By this time Jack and Bill had come over, and they each grabbed one of Hemingway’s arms and got him to his feet. His beret had fallen off. Jack picked it up and handed it to him.
“Your beret, sir."
“Why, thank you, young fella,” said Hemingway, and he screwed the beret back onto his head.
He had also dropped his briefcase. Bill picked it up and handed it to him.
“Nice briefcase, sir,” said Bill.
“It is a writer’s briefcase,” said Hemingway, “tooled of the finest Spanish leather, custom-made for me by a little man in Havana. Pablo is his name, a wizened old man with skin as smooth and brown as the leather he works and cuts with his strong and wiry old hands, the veins on the backs of which are like dark rivers in which the wise old trout leap and strike at first dawn.”
“People look at a briefcase like that, they know you mean business,” said Jack.
“They do indeed,” said Hemingway. “My name is Hemingway, by the way, Ernest Hemingway. Perhaps you’ve heard of me.”
“We have indeed, sir,” said Bill, “and we are both great admirers of your work.”
“That’s true,” said Jack. “Love your work, man.”
“Thank you. There are others here I’m afraid who do not share your opinions of my modest scribblings,” said Hemingway.
“Now wait a minute, Mr. Hemingway,” said Ferdinand, buzzing around up there in the gentle rain, he must have wisely flown out of my ear when I had leapt out into the street, “all’s I said was I preferred your earlier books. Is that a crime?”
“Okay,” said Hemingway, “but how about this? You try knocking out those early stories and a groundbreaking novel like The Sun Also Rises when you’re still in your twenties, and then you see if you can keep up that kind of quality when you’re old and all beat the fuck up.”
“Oh, Christ,” said Ferdinand, “forget I said anything, all right?”
“My name’s Jack, by the way,” said Jack. “Jack Kerouac. I’m a novelist too. And this is my friend Bill, Bill Burroughs.”
“William S. Burroughs, Mr. Hemingway,” said Bill. “Very pleased to make your acquaintance. And I too am a novelist.”
“Call me Papa, boys,” said Hemingway.
They all shook hands. I was still lying there on my back in the wet street, the light drizzling rain falling in my face.
“Hey, I owe you a drink there, pal,” said Hemingway, to me.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Perhaps a frozen daiquiri,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “I think I’ll just shut my eyes a moment.”
And I did, and I passed out. I passed out, but I was not in a state of complete unconsciousness. I was dreaming, and instead of lying in pain in the middle of MacDougal Street in the rain, in someone else’s body, in someone else’s world, instead of all that I was back in my own world, in my own body, and not in pain, and best of all I was in Elektra’s bed, which was the softest bed I had ever been in and she was leaning over me, her face over mine, her brown eyes smiling if eyes can smile, and her lips opened, and her breath smelled of geraniums and lemons and she spoke but her words were in a language I didn’t speak, and I said, “Pardon me?” And she spoke again in the foreign language and I still didn’t understand the words, but she was smiling and so I didn’t care. I could feel her breasts on my chest, and then nuzzling my face, and her breasts smelled like vanilla cookies still warm from the oven and then, too bad for me, I awoke.
I was standing, in the street, in MacDougal Street, in the gentle rain, and someone held each of my arms, and Hemingway stood before me.
“He’s okay,” he said. “Just got the wind knocked out of him.”
I saw that it was Jack holding my left arm, and Bill my right.
“Here comes another goddam cab,” said Hemingway. “Better get him out of the street.”
He turned and walked toward the sidewalk, limping only slightly, and Jack and Bill frogmarched me behind him. I felt exactly as I should have felt I suppose, which is as if a two-hundred-and-forty pound man had collapsed onto me and flattened me in the street. My right knee hurt almost as much as it ever had this evening, and now my head hurt in two places rather than one. But I was alive.
“Hey, you guys want a cab for your friend?” yelled a voice.
I looked over my shoulder. This new cabdriver had stopped his taxi and he was leaning down so he could look at us out of his passenger window.
“Oh, no, thank you,” said Hemingway. “He’s fine.”
“He don’t look fine.”
“He merely took a cropper in the street,” said Hemingway. “He’ll be okay after he gets outside a frozen daiquiri or two.”
“Hey, ain’t you whatsisname?”
“Why yes, ha ha, I suppose I am,” said Hemingway.
“Orson Welles,” said the cabdriver.
“I am not Orson Welles.”
“Burl Ives I mean.”
“Nor am I Burl Ives. I am –”
“Monty Wooley. You’re Monty Wooley. The Man Who Came to Dinner.”
“Look, we don’t need a cab, so good night.”
“No need to get nasty Mr. Wooley.” The driver put his car in gear. “You ain’t that big a movie star.”
He drove off, and we continued to the sidewalk. When we got there Hemingway turned to face me and the other two fellows, who kept ahold of my arms.
“These guys don’t read,” he said. “That’s the problem with the common man. You can write about them and their lives and their noble hopeless struggle all you want, but they still don’t read your goddamn books.”
No one said anything, although Ferdinand made a buzzing sound as he flew around us.
“Shit, and I lost my cigar,” said Hemingway, looking at his empty right hand. “But no worries, I got a box of them in here.” He patted his briefcase. It looked like soft leather, a light brown, and it was the kind with a buckle instead of snaps. “I’ll share them with you guys. You like cigars? They’re fine good Cubans, Cohibas.”
“I wouldn’t say no to a fine cigar,” said Bill, and he flicked his cigarette into the street.”
Jack took a drag of his own cigarette, and then flicked it off into the street as well.
“The noble cigar of the warm Cuban nights,” he said. “The patient calm peone family in their little shack, rolling cigars together, thinking not of time and of death but only of the next cigar to be rolled, in endless succession, the noble cigar redolent of the rich peasant earth.”
“Me, I love a good Cuban,” said Ferdinand, who flew around in a slow orbit around my head.
“I’ll bet you do, little fella,” said Hemingway. “I’ll bet you do.” He wiped the raindrops from his forehead with the back of his great hairy arm and looked at me. “Doesn’t a nice Cuban cigar sound good, Porter, or Arnold, or whatever it is?”
“I’ve mivven up mogen,” I said.
“Niven nup zmogen,” I said.
“Can’t understand a word you’re saying.”
“He says he’s given up smoking,” said Ferdinand.
“Oh,” said Hemingway.
“Wants to live to a ripe old age,” said my friend the fly.
“Don’t know why,” said Hemingway. “I’m only fifty-eight and I already feel like death coated with stale cow shit. But each to his own. Hey, you really think you can get us into this Valhalla joint?”
“Magga go,” I said.
“He says he don’t know,” said Ferdinand, “but don’t worry, they love Arnie in that place.”
“All right, what’s his name?” said Hemingway. “Arnold or Porter?”
“Maggo,” I said.
“Porter,” said Ferdinand. “We better stick to Porter.”
“Porter it is then. Let’s go. You’d better go first, Porter, since you’re the one with all the drag in this establishment.”
“Ogay,” I said.
“Help him down the steps there, fellas, and don’t let him fall.”
So Bill and Jack helped me over to the areaway outside the Valhalla, and took me down the steps, and Hemingway followed us.
“All right,” said Hemingway. “Turn him around just a sec, boys.”
Jack and Bill turned me around so that I was facing Hemingway.
“Talk to me,” he said.
“’ello,” I said.
“Say a complete sentence.”
“You sound better. That’s good. We don’t want them to think you’re tight. If they think you’re tight they may not let even you in. Count to three.”
“One, two,” said.
“Three,” he said. “Come on, Porter, you can do it, from the top. Count to three.”
“One, two,” I said.
“Three,” he said.
“Three,” I said.
“Better,” he said. “Much better. Can you stand on your own?”
“I think so,” I said. “But – but –”
“But what? What’s the catch.”
“I – I hurt,” I said.
“You hurt? Where do you hurt?”
“My, my leg, my, my back, my, my head –”
“Let me ask you a question, Porter.”
“You ever been run over by a stampeding rhino?”
“You ever been in a aeroplane crash?”
“You ever been in two plane crashes in one day?”
“He already said he was never in a plane crash,” said Ferdinand.
“I’m trying to make a point here,” said Hemingway, following Ferdinand with his eyes as the fly flew around us in a figure-eight pattern. “My point being that Porter’s injuries are minor when compared to those sustained by being trampled by a raging rhino. Or crashing in an aeroplane not once but twice, in the same day. In the African jungle.”
He turned to me again, and put his great hand on my shoulder.
“You’ll be fine, son, soon as you take a load off, get a nice frozen daiquiris inside you.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“Okay, then. Take a breath, and get us in there.”
I took a breath.
“Fine. Now turn around and open the door, and remember, tell them we’re with you.”
“Okay,” I said.
Ferdinand flew in front of my face and hovered.
“Don’t worry, Arnie. Just get us in there, and I’ll take care of you. I got your back.”
“Thanks, Ferdinand,” I said.
“By the way,” said Hemingway. “No disrespect to the fly, but –”
“Hey, I got a name, big guy,” said Ferdinand.
“Yes, of course,” said Hemingway. “Felix was it?”
“Do I look like a cat?”
“No, of course not,” said Hemingway.
“My name is Ferdinand.”
“Sorry. Ferdinand,” said Hemingway. “You must forgive me. I’ve suffered numerous concussions, and my memory is not what it once was.”
“You’re forgiven. Now what was it you wanted to say?”
“I was going to suggest that it might be best if you not talk when we’re trying to get in.”
“Oh. On account of a talking fly might not be good enough for this joint?”
“Well, it’s just that I know it’s a rather exclusive place.”
Ferdinand turned in mid air and faced me.
“Open the door, Arnie.”
“I didn’t mean any disrespect,” said Hemingway.
“Go ahead, Arnie,” said Ferdinand. “Open the door. It’s getting stuffy out here.”
I turned around and opened the door.
(Continued here, doggedly.)
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