Our memoirist Arnold Schnabel (currently in the corporeal form of "Porter Walker, rising young Bohemian poet") has finally acquired a much-needed writing implement (a blue-and-yellow Eversharp ballpoint), here in Greenwich Village’s Kettle of Fish tavern on this sultry wet night in August of 1957…
(Please go here to read our previous thrilling episode; click here to return to the long-ago and faraway beginnings of this 43-volume Gold View Award™-winning autobiography.)
“Once again I am snowed-in and as well as iced-in, here in my comfortably ramshackle Victorian home, but while everyone else is bitching and moaning about the weather I am quite contentedly sitting in my old easy chair by a roaring fire, with a doobie, a cup of hot chocolate made with Fox’s U-bet™ chocolate syrup, and a morocco-bound volume of Arnold Schnabel’s towering and magnificent chef-d'œuvre.” – Harold Bloom, in the High Times Literary Supplement.
I was heading back towards the entrance, when suddenly I stopped just before reaching the door, realizing the following:
I had a pen.
I had my blank book.
But what I didn’t have was a quiet private place in which to start writing my new book, a book in which I would finally, after what seemed like at least two years, return to what I still liked to think of as, if not the “real world”, then at least “my world”.
But then, standing there in my own private universe amidst the noise and the shouting and laughter and the music all around me, it also occurred to me that perhaps even this allegedly “fictional” world in which I now existed – this world so preposterous even by my own lax standards – was part and parcel of “my” world, as indeed were the two fictional worlds I had ventured into by way of Thurgood’s book, as was perhaps the world of the dead I had forayed into not just once but twice, as were the times I had journeyed into the past, be it 19th century France, the Philippines of the 1930s, or the Cape May of 1910 – weren’t all these worlds legitimate components of what I called “my world”? Yes, I supposed and do now suppose they were and are, but, nonetheless, if I were to look at the multifarious realities of my universe as say various countries scattered around the world I knew as my world, then let us just say I was desirous of returning after a couple of years abroad to the good old U.S.A., and more particularly, to Cape May, New Jersey, the Cape May that is of August the whatever it was, 1963.
So, I had all that organized in my mind, but now – still the question: where to go to write my new book? It occurred to me that, despite the pouring rain outside, I could perhaps make my way to an all-night diner, and there I could take a quiet stool by myself, as far away as I could manage from any other customers, order a cup of coffee, and then take out my new pen, open my blank book, and do what I had to do, i.e., write my way out of this particular universe. However, I wasn’t very familiar with the neighborhood, so probably the best thing to do would be just to go outside, stand in the entranceway, wait for a cab, and then if one did come by, to ask the driver to take me to the nearest all-night diner.
I opened the door, and looked out at the street.
The rain was crashing down onto the street and sidewalk and the parked cars, the rain falling not in sheets or torrents nor in a million billion shiny streaks or needles, but more like a continuous falling tidal wave from the sky, or as if MacDougal Street had been magically transported to the base of Niagara Falls.
I stood there holding the door open for perhaps a minute. Not a single cab or any other sort of motor vehicle came by, not a single pedestrian was to be seen.
It occurred to me that if I did see a cab I would never be able to stop him while I was standing here inside the doorway, so I stepped outside onto the pavement, letting the door close itself behind me. Fortunately there was about a foot and a half of overhang above the entranceway, and so I was able to keep out of the the worst of the waterfall, although the rain did splash from the sidewalk and soak my work shoes and the front of my jeans.
I don’t know how long I waited. At least five minutes, maybe more. I didn’t know where all the cabs were. I still don’t know. And not only no cabs, but no other cars, no trucks, no pedestrians, only that crashing rain.
Across the street was that red Jaguar XK120 with the canvas top, formerly Thurgood’s, now Mr. Philpot’s, but it was no good to me, I didn’t have the keys.
Then I noticed that the lights were still on in Mr. Philpot’s shop across the street, above that Valhalla bar.
At first I thought, stupidly, “Oh, I can run across the street, ring his buzzer, and if Mr. Philpot is still there, I could ask him to drive me to a diner.”
But then I thought, “Wait, his place is quiet, perhaps he would let me, as a customer in good standing, sit at his desk and write my new novel.”
So that’s what I would do. He wouldn’t say no, would he? I had no idea, but I could at least ask him. I still had about seven dollars left, so if it came to that I could always try to bribe him.
So I was just about to make a mad dash across the street when suddenly I remembered: my friends, Big Ben and Ferdinand, were still at the bar. Would it be right for me just to leave them, without a word? No, it wouldn’t. And as much as I wanted to escape from this place, and as much as I knew that if I didn’t leave at once that something else would happen to postpone my escape, I knew I had to go back and get my companions. I didn’t have much of a code, and whatever code I did have could probably easily be hand-printed in crayon in large letters on one side of an index card, but I could not go against this code, at least not without the threat of extinction or immediate great pain.
So, I treated myself to a good long heavy sigh, took a deep breath of that wet humid air, turned around, opened the door, re-entered the bar, and started back through the noise and the music and smoke and the laughing and shouting people, back to towards where I had last seen Ben and Norman Mailer, and, although of course I couldn’t see him from here, back to where Ferdinand was doubtless lapping up alcoholic beverages to his heart’s content.
I forged my limping way through the mob (yes, I hate to be a complainer, but my legs still ached, especially the knees); somehow this place had gotten even more packed since I had gone outside, and I don’t know how as no one new had come in through the entrance, maybe they were coming up from the basement or the back room, maybe they had appeared out of thin air, or thick humid smoky air, I didn’t know.
Up ahead I could now see through the crowd the heads of Norman Mailer and Big Ben, Norman’s head bobbing at least a foot below Ben’s, and I was only six feet away from where they stood when someone grabbed my right arm.
It was an old fat guy, sitting on a barstool, holding what looked like a martini in the hand that wasn’t holding onto my arm.
“Yes?” I said. He seemed familiar, dressed like a stevedore in dungarees, a sweaty t-shirt and a faded Brooklyn Dodgers baseball cap.
“It’s me – Bunny! Bunny Wilson!”
Now I remembered, that literary fellow who had butted in on me and Betsy ages ago, earlier that same evening.
“Oh, hi, Bunny,” I said.
“Fucking hell, where’ve you been all night?”
“Oh, here and there,” I said.
“Here and there? My dear boy, specificity is the key to any great prose or poetic style, everything else is cold stale porridge. Now where have you been?”
I sighed again, but quickly, and gave him what he claimed to want.
“I’ve been in a bar populated by dead authors and their creations. I have done battle with the prince of darkness. I have escaped from this fictional universe and returned – with my friend, a sentient and talkative fly – to my own, in which I am not the romantic bohemian poet Porter Walker but a railroad brakeman named Arnold Schnabel, recovering from a complete mental breakdown. In that world I accidentally fed a tin of the food of the gods to an old antiquarian’s cat named Shnooby, and the cat also became sentient and not only talkative but commanding, ordering me to go to the docks and get him some fresh seafood. I agreed to this mission, but then as I was on my way, or trying to get on my way, I met a character named Big Ben Blagwell, who escaped from the pages of a cheap paperback titled Havana Hellcats –”
“All right, all right, ha!” He finally took his hand off my arm and gave me a clap on the shoulder with the same hand. “You young dog, with your dry sense of humor!”
“I wasn’t joking,” I said. “In fact, it gets worse you see, because I’ve even been to the land beyond life, and –”
“All right, all right, all right already! I get it!” he yelled. (Again, we were both yelling, you had to yell in here if you wanted to be heard.) “It’s none of my business, right?”
“Well, look, Bunny,” I hollered, “it’s good to see you again, but I have to rejoin my friends.”
“What? You can’t stop and chat for a minute? Am I that boring?”
“Well, the thing is, they’ve been waiting for me. My friends.”
“What, like they’re going to get worried?”
“Well, no, but –”
“Stay just a minute. Humor an old man of letters.”
“Just a minute?”
“Sure,” I said, trying my best to stifle a sigh. “What did you want to talk about?”
“First let me get you a drink. Martini?”
“Don’t be rude. How about a shot?”
“No, definitely not,” I said.
“Drank too much already?”
“Not really, but –”
“You look like you’ve a drop too much taken. Your clothes are wet and filthy, and you are limping quite noticeably.”
“I had a couple of accidents tonight,” I said.
“I hope nothing serious.”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Have a beer.”
“Okay, but just one,” I said.
“I think I was drinking Falstaff earlier,” I said.
“Falstaff is shit.”
“I don’t care.”
“They got a good bock on draft here. Special house brew. You should have that.”
“Okay, fine,” I said.
He turned and yelled at the bartender.
“Hey, Vito! A house bock for my son here! And another bone-dry martini for me!”
“Right away, Mr. Wilson,” yelled Vito.
Bunny turned back to me, swiveling around on his stool.
“What?” he said.
“Oh, nothing,” I said.
“No, you have something on your mind, you can’t fool me, buddy boy.”
“The bartender,” I said.
“He was polite to you.”
“Yes, he was, wasn’t he? And you are perhaps wondering why, having seen his demeanor with other guests of this delightful caravanserai.”
“The secret my dear Porter,” – he turned and picked up a one-dollar bill from a pile of money that was on the bar in front of him, and then he held the bill up – “is this.”
“Oh,” I said.
“It’s not complicated, not complicated at all. If you give Vito a dollar tip for every drink he brings you, he treats you with the utmost politeness.”
“A dollar for every drink?”
“One dollar, minimum.”
“Even for a beer?”
“Yes, even for the bock beer I ordered for you.”
“But a dollar is more than a beer would cost.”
“Do you want him to be polite to you?”
“I guess so.”
“Then you have to give him a dollar for each drink. For instance, the round that’s coming will include two drinks: one martini and one bock. I will tip him thus two dollars.”
“As I say it’s not complicated.”
He tossed the bill back onto his pile of money.
“But –” I said, and then hesitated.
“But what?” said Bunny.
“But isn’t that like buying someone’s friendship?”
“I am not buying Vito’s friendship. I have no desire for Vito’s friendship, I assure you, nor I'll warrant has he the slightest desire for mine – in fact I’m fairly sure he holds me in the deepest contempt. No, Porter, I am not buying friendship but politeness. And politeness is important. It’s the only thing separating us from the animals.”
“Here you are, Mr. Wilson,” said Vito, and he laid down what I assumed was a fresh martini, and a mug of something black with a white head on it. “A martini and a house bock.”
“Splendid,” said Bunny. He tossed down what was left of his present martini and put the glass down. “Take it out of my pile there and keep two bucks for yourself.”
“Thanks, Mr. Wilson.”
Vito took some bills from Bunny’s pile, picked up the empty glass, and went away.
“See?” said Bunny. “Now pick up your bock.”
I picked up the mug. Bunny picked up his new martini.
“Try it,” he said. “Try the house bock.”
I took a sip. It tasted sort of like coffee-flavored soda, except I could tell it had a bit of a kick to it.
“What do you think?” he said.
“Not bad,” I said.
He took a sip of his martini. He was smiling.
“Take another drink. You can’t really appreciate a good bock by sipping, you have to take a good gulp.”
I didn’t feel like arguing, and anyway, I figured the quicker I finished the bock the sooner I could get away from Bunny. So I took a good long gulp.
He looked at me with an even bigger grin on his fat round face.
“Yeah, pretty good,” I said.
“Sort of coffee notes?”
“Toffee, too, and bitter chocolate?”
“A little,” I said.
“Of toffee, or bitter chocolate?”
“A little of both,” I said.
“Raisins, a hint of plums?”
“Notes of old leather.”
“Um. Yeah,” I said, now that he mentioned it, the bock did taste a little like old leather, even though I had never tasted old leather.
“Oh, man,” he said.
“What?” I said.
He was smiling more broadly than ever now, showing a vast array of nicotine-stained teeth, or, more likely, dentures.
“You are so going to be tripping in about one minute,” he said.
“Tripping?” I said.
“Tripping your fucking brains out,” he said.
(Continued here, implacably.)
(Kindly cast an eye down the right hand column of this page to find a perhaps-current listing of all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©, sponsored again this week by Fox’s U-bet© chocolate syrup; “Try it and compare, and you’ll see why Fox’s U-Bet™ is the official chocolate syrup of the Arnold Schnabel Society©!”)
I love his self-reflection in the rain.
It does seem to rain a lot in Arnold's world...his worlds...
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