Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Memoirs of Arnold Schnabel: “the zen way”

Let’s return to a certain rainy summer night in New York City and rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his new friend “Sid” (aka Siddhārtha Gautama, aka the Buddha), here in the entrance area of Bob’s Bowery Bar...

(Please go here to read last week’s chapter; those who would like to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 58-volume memoir may click here to purchase
Railroad Train to Heaven: Volume One of the Memoirs of Arnold Schnabel, either as a Kindle™ e-book or as a deluxe large-format softcover “book” printed on FSC certified, lead-free, acid-free, buffered paper made from wood-based pulp.)

“What consummate joy to sit on the beach of old Cape May, shielded from the sun’s potentially carcinogenic rays by the shade of an enormous umbrella, turning the pages (or scrolling their electronic equivalents) of Arnold Schnabel’s magnificent
chef-d'œuvre!” – Harold Bloom, in The Family Circle Literary Supplement.

It felt as if we had been standing out here in this entrance area for hours, it felt as if I had spent half my life engaged in frustrating conversations in this entrance area, but now at last we went through the open doorway into that packed, hot, cacophonous barroom.

The drunken, shouting and laughing people were still dancing, or, if not exactly dancing, then thrashing about to the music of the combo stationed off to the far right, I could just see the smoke-shrouded heads of the musicians above the crowd, including one who looked like my old acquaintance Gabriel – at least he had the same kind of porkpie hat that Gabriel wore – and a Negro lady singing into a microphone:

Give me your thunder stick, baby
‘cause I wants to feel that lightning bolt.
Shove it into my socket, daddy
and give me a great big jolt…
Sid and I were just inside the doorway, barely over the threshold, but already that churning thrashing hot mass of drunken humanity throbbed inches away from us, threatening to push us bodily back outside. Sid yanked on my arm and shouted up into my ear:

“Do you know what I could really go for?”

“No,” I said, or rather shouted, we both had to shout to be heard.

“I mean,” yelled Sid, “I really shouldn’t, but you know what I could really go for?”

“I have no idea.”

“I’ll tell you what.”

“Great,” I said.

“A boiler room.”

“A what?”

“Boiler room?”

“I don’t know what you’re saying, Sid.”

“Boiling pot?”


“Perhaps I have the name wrong. It’s a small glass filled with whiskey of some sort, accompanied by a glass of beer, preferably draft beer.”

“You mean a boilermaker.”

“Oh. Boilermaker. Why is it called a boilermaker?”

“I have no idea. Come on, we’ll get you a boilermaker.”

“It’s terribly crowded here, isn’t it?’

“You noticed that.”

“How could I help but – oh, ha ha – I suspect that that barbed little riposte was an instance of the much-vaunted American sense of humor, was it not?”

“Yes, Sid.”

“Where are your friends?”

“They’re in a booth off to the right there.”

“I see no booth.”

“That’s because it’s so crowded, but, believe me, it’s there. Or at least it was there the last time I was here.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes,” I said. “In fact I can see it from here. I see my friend Ben’s head, or his boat captain’s cap, anyway.”

“You’re lucky you’re tall. It’s not easy being short.”

“Being short might actually be an advantage for you in here.”

“In what sense, may I ask?”

“If you get knocked over by one of these drunks you won’t have so far to fall.”

“Ha ha. That was another one of your little American jeux d’esprit, was it not.”

“A jeux de what?”

Jeu d’esprit. It’s French for like a clever verbal sally in the tradition of the Oscars Wilde or Levant or your own lasso-twirling sage of the sagebrush, Mr. William Rogers.”

“Okay,” I said, moving along, “here’s what we should do, Sid. Just let me go first, trying to shove and fight my way through this mob –”

“Did you say fight?”

“I did, but I only meant it in a broad sense.”

“I am afraid I cannot condone fighting in any sense.”

“Okay, let’s just say some pushing and shoving then.”

“'Pushing and shoving', oh dear.”

“It can’t be helped, Sid. To be honest I may have to use an elbow also.”

“An elbow? You mean actually striking someone with your elbow?”

“Only if I have to. I may just use it as a defensive measure, to prevent someone from thrashing against me.”

“Must we really resort to violence?”

“Do you know any other way to get through this mob?”

“In fact I do, my dear chap.”

He said nothing else, and I knew I had to do my part to get him to say whatever it was he had to say, as much as I hated to do it, as much as I didn’t really care what he had to say.

“What way, Sid.”

“You don’t know?”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake –”

“Hey, be cool, in your patois, daddy-o! I’ll tell you.”

“Good. Shoot.”

“Does that mean you want me to go ahead and say it? Shoot?”

“Yes. Please say it, Sid.”

“The zen way,” he said.

“The zen way.”

“You heard me right.”

“And what is the zen way?”

“An enlightened chap like you. I think you know the answer to that.”

“If I had known the answer I wouldn’t be asking you, Sid.”

“Now that was spoken like a true guru!”

“Come on,” I said. “I’ll go first, and you just sort of stay in my wake. Maybe you should reach under the tail of my jacket and hang onto my belt. Just be careful, because if I get knocked backwards I might knock you over and you could get hurt, especially if I land on top of you.”

“Life is pain.”

“Yeah, Okay. But, look, Sid, keep your eyes open, I recommend continually glancing to the right and left, just in case there’s an attack from the side.”

“A flanking movement.”

“You might also get hit from the rear, so keep your shoulders slightly hunched, and your head down, like a boxer.”

“Like the great Marciano!”

“If you do get knocked down try to get up as best you can and as fast as you can. The last thing you want is people kicking you and trampling on you.”

“So you don’t recommend curling up in a protective fetal position?”

“No. If you do you might well never get up again.”

“What if I am not able to get up?”

“I’ll try to help you.”

“What if you are knocked down as well?”

“Then it’s every man for himself. Try to crawl toward the door and safety.”

“What if I cannot tell where the door is?”

“Just keep crawling then. Eventually you might reach safety. This is where your short stature might come in handy. You present a smaller target than a big man, and also you can try to crawl between people’s legs, like a cat or some other small animal.”

“Fair play to me, old bean. But what about you, if you are knocked down?”

“It won’t be so easy for me, because I’m bigger and there’s more of me to kick and trample, but I’ll just have to do the best I can and hope for the best.”

“I’m not afraid.”


“You seem afraid.”

“I am afraid.”

“There is nothing to fear because all this is an illusion.”

“That’s good to know, Sid, but, look, let go of my arm.”

“Must I?”

“Yes, I’ll need both arms to shove people out of the way, maybe give them an elbow if I have to.”

“That is totally not a zen approach.”

“I don’t care, as long as it works. And listen, you have an umbrella, don’t be afraid to use it. Keep it held high and pointed up, so you can bring it down hard and quick if need be.”

“You mean strike someone with it?”

“I doesn’t have to be super hard. Just enough to try to get them to back off.”

“Might I make a suggestion?”


“Can we at least try it the zen way?”

“The zen way.”

“The way of zen, yes.”

“Sure,” I said. “Give it a try. And when it doesn’t work we’ll just plunge into the mob and shove and push our way through.”

O, as you Americans say, kay.”




“That is the term, is it not? Okay?”

“Yes, but, look, Sid, it’s okay if you just say okay. You don’t have to keep saying ‘as you Americans say’.”

“But it is as you Americans say.”

“Okay, never mind. Go ahead and do your zen thing.”

“My pleasure, old boy.”

He took his arm from mine, gazing into the mob, or seeming to. He looked as if he were taking the lay of the land. But instead of plunging into the mob right away, he hooked his umbrella over his left forearm, took out his cigarette case, put a cigarette in his mouth, put the case away, took out his Tiger brand matches, lighted up his cigarette. He waved the match out, tossed it to the floor, dropped the matchbox back into his pocket. He slowly exhaled smoke and then looked up at me.

“Are you ready, Ernest?”

“I’ve been ready, Sid.”

“That’s the spirit, old chap. Readiness. Readiness for anything the universe has to offer.”

He looked out into that throbbing crowd again.

I waited, but he just stood there, smoking his cigarette. I suppose I only waited half a minute, but it seemed longer.

“Sid,” I said, shouted, “what are we waiting for?”

“Nothing,” he said, shouted back.

“Well, why are we still standing here?”

“Because we’re utilizing, my dear chap, the zen approach.”

“This is the zen approach.”

“How quick you are.”

“The zen approach is that we’re just standing here.”


“But how is this getting us where we want to go?”

“How do you know this is not where you want to go?”

“I’m pretty sure where I want to go is not just standing here near the doorway of this bar.”

“Pretty sure.”

“Okay, absolutely sure.”


“Yes, I’m absolutely sure I don’t want to just stand here all night.”

“No one said we’re going to stand here all night.”

“Well, how long are we going to stand here?”

“For as long as it takes.”

“That could be hours.”

“What is time?”

“I have no idea, but I don’t want to just stand here for hours.”

“Want. 'Want'. You know I had hoped that you were developed enough to get beyond the concept of want.”

“You were wrong, then, Sid.”

“My dear fellow, perhaps you should smoke some more reefer?”

“I don’t want to smoke some more reefer. I want to get through this crowd to my friends.”

“I had hoped that I was your friend.”

“Maybe you are, Sid. But I still want to see my other friends sometime tonight.”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll see them some time tonight. The bar must close, eventually, must it not?”

“Yes, but that could be hours from now –”

“Again, ‘hours’. The web of time. You will never achieve even a modicum of peace until you free yourself from time’s web.”

“Thanks for the tip, Sid.”

“I give it to you freely.”

I stood there, feeling the noise and the heat, breathing in the smoke and the thick effluvia of liquor and beer, of sweat and cheap perfume, not that I would know cheap from expensive perfume, but I assumed it was the cheap kind, and once again I became aware of various injuries and pains on and in my current corporeal host, notably from my knees and head and face and elbows, but elsewhere also.

The drunken people thrashed and shouted and laughed and screamed, occasionally an arm or a leg would glance against me or even outright hit me, but what was one more blow, or a dozen blows, at this point?

Sid just stood there by my side, to my right, smoking his cigarette. He had moved the crook of his umbrella from his forearm to his left hand, and he leaned lightly on the umbrella, his face tilted slightly to one side under the rim of his straw boater, a little smile on his face.

“Okay, Sid,” I said, at last, “I can’t take this anymore. You can stand here if you want to, but I’m diving in.”

“As you wish, my friend, although I do wish that you would rise above the very concept of wishing.”

“But you just wished something yourself.”

“I never said I was perfect, old boy.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll see you later, maybe.”

“I would wish you luck, but you know how I feel about wishing.”

“Yes,” I said.

I took a deep breath of that foul air, preparatory to plunging into that mass of drunken humanity, when suddenly the music stopped.

“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen,” said the Negro lady’s amplified voice. “We’re gonna take a brief break, but we’ll be back as soon as we have wet our collective whistles. So drink up, people, because the more you drink the better we sound!”

Just like that the crowd of people stopped dancing and thrashing. There was a smattering of applause and a few hoots, and the mob dissolved as the drunks made their way back to the bar and the tables, to the rest rooms, somewhere.

“Do you see, Ernest?” said Sid. “The zen method worked!”

I could not deny it.

(Continued here...)

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