These are the first couple of chapters from my new novel… started as a little vacation from the massive novel project I’ve been working on for three years (up to c. page 400 of a single-spaced, narrow-margined, 12pt-font manuscript). I find that the best way to avoid “writer’s block” is to ride two or three horses at a time, so to speak (in case of a stalled pony, the others can drag it behind them for awhile). This is only very, very faintly auto-biographical (the novel’s own protestations notwithstanding). This book will get funnier and funnier as it goes along, I think, but these first chapters are the establishing shots and still half-sober. And, as ever, it is required that all typos be taken as typos (rather than as indicators of sheer stupidity or talentlessness) and covered by my preemptive, blanket, hand-wringing apology…
There isn’t a fuck of a lot to be said for being totally unknown, as a writer, but freedom from the pressure of the expectations of strangers is pretty good. It’s good to learn offstage. To write as poorly as one likes, for as long as one needs (a detour we’ll call Apprenticeship) in private, before coming out as a person who spends time working at such a crazy thing. What a crazy thing to spend your time doing (writing) if you aren’t even famous and nobody is guaranteed to be interested in what you have to say.
Are there “mute, inglorious Miltons” out there, forging masterpiece-manuscripts that will never be reviewed, never be sold, never enjoy the entry-level dignity of becoming a cheap paperback with a mediocre cover design stranded on a shelf that gets the least traffic in a bookstore hanging on for dear life in a post-literate world? Probably.
Reading an arse-slurping review of Martin Amis, in a recent New Yorker… an arse-slurping review that featured Amis self-servingly arse-slurping Saul Bellow in his ongoing effort to establish an enduring connection, between the two, in the Lit Fan’s mind… it was embarrassingly obvious that Amis thinks the Amis audience thinks there’s something Nabokovian about the prose of Martin Amis. Which is only remotely possible in a culture equally suspicious of all the people capable of spelling “sesquipedalian” without a side-eye from Spellcheck.
“What sends me up to my study is a feeling in the back of my throat,” Amis wrote, in the book under review, “—like the desire for my first cigarette.” Which is better than hijacking VN’s famous line about that “throb,” at the base of his spine, as writing’s impetus, but not much. Or maybe it’s worse. What does that feeling at the back of your throat usually portend and where does it usually send you?
(My Daughter, a few days ago, announced that she thought she was going to vomit. I got a bucket and held it under her chin and she calmly, almost casually, opened her mouth and released what looked like two litres of material with the consistency of pre-congealed Jello. I thought: is this a new way to vomit? Is this a generational thing?)
I’ve never been close to a celebrity.
I think it must involve a tremendous amount of arse-slurrping, knowing a celebrity (if one isn’t a celebrity): a tremendous amount. With all the unnatural amplifications of the Media Age, every famous person must be, despite their possible best intentions, a banana republic despot in a preposterous hat, fucking whomever they please, whenever they please, and deciding, on a whim, who lives or dies. Metaphorically, I mean, but only metaphorical to a limited degree. There are levels of Fame at which those metaphors become real to the last spilled drop of virgin blood, I suspect, but I’m not interested in monsters of that magnitude. It was after reading that arse-slurping review of a Martin Amis book, in the New Yorker, that I began thinking of Martin Amis the celebrity (not necessarily the writer) and what it would be like to hang out with him.
Had Fate ever worked to bring Martin Amis and me together for any longer than a shy encounter in a Duty Free shop’s queue, or the chance crossing of a lonely street, together, in the windy belly of some world capital, Fate would probably have offered this gift to me in my former capacity as a house painter. I was a house painter for twenty years and was able to quit, for good, in the fall of the year 2002, a year after the world went to total shit. The world had already gone to total shit but we would still need a bit of distance to know it. I think by 2005, or so, it was obvious to quite a few of us.
This hybrid (or fusion) memoir is about that innocent cusp between pre-Shit and Shit World and my proportionally pre-Shit dreams with occasional reflections from the post-Shit context of 2020.
(I’ll tell you what’s happening in 2020: there’s a supposed Pandemic. The streets of Berlin are almost empty in the middle of the day in the middle of the week, late in spring, because of quarantine. More on that later.)
House-painting is one of those mindlessly patterned tasks a Serf can get paid well to do while doing lots of thinking. I have written many poems, and even a one-act play, while house-painting. I learned the house-painter’s craft in the US, in college, took a break from it during a nine-month stay in London, and started up again in Berlin, after quitting a coveted job in a trendy nightclub for reasons I cannot fish out of the murky aquarium where memories of all my worst fuck-ups float with their little bellies exposed to the unforgiving sun.
Any young member of the underclass with creative aspirations should consider house-painting as a way to cover the rent while clamoring up the asymptote of the inner cliff-face of Art. Sales jobs, which knot and snarl the mind with entrepreneurial trivia, are unmitigated death to the Muse. As are Art-related side-jobs (unless it turns out you’re a cock-sucking talent, the real deal).
It strikes me, as well, that the upper classes have more respect for the laboring craftsman than for the obsequious lackey in the smart boutique: relations with the client, and his or her family and friends, tend to be less toxic, less poisoned by a blatantly unbalanced power dynamic, on the construction site than over the counter. There is a respect for what the wealthy imagine to be the blood-and-cum-based world of the safety-boots-wearing working man. I met many wealthy people in my capacity as a housepainter and shocked several of them by being able to imply very strongly that I am able to read. My wealthy German clients were very good word-of-mouth promotion and I often found myself getting calls, at suppertime, in German or halting English, invitations to come over to the villa the next day and offer various dukes, heirs or senior managers an estimate.
I can imagine Martin Amis’ classless trans-Atlantic drawl ebbing and flowing on my primordial cell phone, the phone with the stubby antenna. I can imagine taking the call in my tracksuit bottoms, sit-ups interrupted. I can well imagine agreeing to come over the following morning and thinking, after switching the phone off, “That voice sounded strangely familiar.” Although would it have been, in a world before YouTube? Of course there was Charlie Rose, on PBS, and I watched the show a few times. Was Amis on Rose in the early 2000s?
I can well imagine that hypothetical morning meeting and Martin Amis’s heavy-lidded expression of bemused indulgence as I might drop, say, the line “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it,” into a simple exchange regarding the color he’d like his baseboards. The baseboards in the high-ceilinged front room, with its arched windows and bright, broad, fifth-floor view of Victoria Luise-Platz. Victoria-Luise-Platz and its infamous streets signs in chillingly gothic script.
I can picture patchy primer and drying plaster-streaks and expensive parallelograms of European sunlight distending across the fashionable parquet in an echoing room. That expensive floor will have to be double drop-clothed until and over every centimeter of the baseboards. I will use the thicker, more expensive plastic drop cloths. Peach, it is finally decided. Monaco Peach.
It is Friday.
“Monaco Peach. In oil. Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.”
“I actually had a cabbie lay that one on me in a traffic jam out of JFK last week,” Martin drawled. “He almost got away with it, too, but then the poor guy went and ruined the effect by attributing it to ‘The Bard’. In any case…”
I saw that the “fancy” literary allusion had put Amis on his guard and so decided to refer only, thenceforth, to gritty feelings and popular culture. In fact: forget that I wrote that I said that. Let’s rewind and erase the blunder… but at least I hadn’t been stupid enough to admit that I’d read half of Martin’s books.
It was June of 2002 and Martin had seen his memoir, Experience, published to generally laudatory, if wary, reviews. He stood before me like a very neat little model of a pampered man who had refused, successfully, to grow any more after grammar school, jamming his body in the bottleneck of puberty’s fire exit, sharp in a stubble-blue pinstriped suit and sockless tan loafers. I stood before him in my capped and crunchy uniform of painter’s whites. I was 43 that year and Martin must have been about 53.
[Regarding Amis’ famous lack of height, I have a theory that Great Britain’s famously androgynous, and tiny, rock stars, generally born some time during the 1940s, got that way owing to the nutritional deficits of wartime rationing. Missing crucial vitamins or minerals in the womb. And Martin, born in 1949, was often likened to Mick Jagger, born in 1943, wasn’t he, with his similar stature and similarly feline, unmanly features? Bowie, Bolan, The Small Faces, Roger Daltrey: someone should do a study. More importantly: it’s not unreasonable to guess that Amis might probably have picked up a guitar, and gone to a weed-infested Art School, instead of Cambridge, or Oxford, or wherever he went, had his father Kingsley not already been in the book game. I’ve Googled quickly and recalled that it was Oxford.]
I was thinking the essence of all but the last aside of that parenthetical paragraph as Amis said,
“In any case, what’s the process here? Will you have to strip these,” he gestured at the baseboards with an unlit cigarette, “entirely of the old paint before proceeding or will just sort of roughing them up a bit suffice? I only ask because it would incredibly helpful if all this can be finished by, say, Monday after the Monday after next?”
I shrugged with uncharacteristic earthiness and answered,
“As Muhammad Ali once told my father: anything is possible with a big enough whuppin’ in mind.”
And Martin Amis barked with laughter.
“That’s marvellous. Did your father really know Ali?”
Gentle reader. Two points.
First: how long has it been since you’ve been addressed as “Gentle Reader”? Second: Let’s be frank. When Amis laughed with rich delight at the ethnic aroma of my colorful reference to my father’s folk-wisdom, I suddenly saw rise before me a high wall I was, possibly, being encouraged to attempt to scale. On the desirable side of which to land. It isn’t often that we ordinary people have access to celebrities and the things, consequently, that celebrities have access to. On the desirable side of the wall that stood between Martin Amis and me, I pictured lawns of miles of a green as of very exclusively green things. Was I being offered a fleeting foothold on the exterior surface of that wall protecting that green? I could hear the distant, middle-of-the-day (beginning of the week) swoosh and pok of private tennis courts. I could smell the outer periphery of The Good Life.
Would you waste the opportunity? What would your angle be?
“That’s marvellous. Did your father really know Ali?”
“Yeah, they were involved in a… a project together with the… uh… Panthers.”
Which Martin Amis rewarded with a nodding, down-cornered smile of slow and weighty appreciation. I holstered my putty knife. “I should be able to have it all done by Sunday night, no problem, Mr. Amis.”
“With or without the much-threatened whuppin‘.”
We chuckled together and I high-fived Martin, the first time in my life that I had high-fived anyone, although, technically, it was a low-five.
On the way home (after changing into civilian clothing, in one of the two smaller bathrooms of the empty flat, far too vain to enter the U-Bahn as a housepainter) I replayed the scene, impressed with the street-smarts of my own subconscious: who was I acting out as I delivered that line about what Muhammad Ali had once said (as indeed he had) to my father? How much “Black talk” spin had I put on my enunciation of the sentence? Just the right amount.
After I had chemically ragged the paint off my elbows, knuckles and long-suffering cuticles, generous with the eye-stinging turpentine (the wealthy are not often gulled into allowing more reasonable, but low status, acrylics on their doors, window frames and baseboards), safe in my own bathroom mirror, I dug even deeper into my thoughts on the matter. I dwelled on my resentment of that high wall between me and Martin, the wall I was suddenly emboldened to o’er-perch. I stewed in contemplation of the wall’s inherent falseness.
After all, Martin Amis wasn’t born particularly wealthy and he hadn’t done anything especially noteworthy with his life. Why was he on one side of that wall and I on the other? The writer of high-end literary fiction hasn’t done anything, essentially, that you or I couldn’t do (or haven’t done). Which is not at all comparable to the arcane trick of the middling intelligence who writes, at the top of his/her powers, to produce shitty books which millions of the para-literate devour, and can quote passages from, and consult for dubious wisdom in times of trouble, and name their children, pets and cars after. Martin Amis had never once come close to producing that kind of book. Whereas Stephen King, I felt, was justifiably famous and separated from me by a categorically irrefutable partition because he had that Boob Magic. Loving any Stephen King novel makes one at least a little bit of a Boob but that’s okay because the Boobs are King-makers. The Boobs had anointed King King. Who had anointed Mart Mart?
The first line of the New York Times’ first review of Martin’s first novel reads, “Just 20 years after ‘Lucky Jim,’ Kingsley Amis’s famously funny novel about life at a minor British university, his 24-year-old son Martin has made so bold as to produce a novel himself; though–to say it right off–not really one to give a novelist father the sweats.”
First line from the New York Times review of his second novel, a couple of years later: “Martin Amis’s second novel, “Dead Babies” (his first was “The Rachel Papers”), is also something of a metaphysical joke, but far from being oddly charming, it is oddly boring.”
Regarding Martin’s third effort (five years later; one can sense, by that gap, that Martin is really trying this time) a reviewer writes: “I do not appreciate an obscure novel.”
This triggered-by-postmodernisms reviewer goes on to write: “The only clear signal such a book transmits to me is that a writer was either too lazy or too cowardly to reveal completely his mind or his heart. To me obscurity presumes the need for an academic middleman, an eager translator who will explain all to the sluggard reader and thereby become a collaborator in the act of creation.”
Now, obviously, the reviewer is a provincial Boob with a middlebrow chip on his shoulder. Even “Treasure Island” is “obscure” to people who can’t read very well. But the reviewer’s low-watt defaults aren’t the point. The point is: how and why was Martin Amis on the desirable side of The Wall, aka “Famous”? What had he done? Which mass of people had he delighted in order to get there? Not one. I’d wager that fewer than a thousand people had read more than two of his books all the way through. Only the crispiest micro-minority of oddballs actually enjoy reading High End Postmodernist Fiction and I know because I belong to that minority. I’ve read Don DeLillo’s 827-page (in the paperback) Underworld, all the way through, four or five times and fingered passages, almanac-style, from random starting places, every other week, for years.
Underworld sold quite a few copies, which would make it appear that DeLillo was capable of delighting masses of people, but if I learned, tomorrow, that more than 10% of those people had read the book completely, all the way through to the end, I’d be floored. People bought Underworld and Infinite Jest and Time’s Arrow in sufficient numbers because the Promotional Media compelled them to. Because the way they were coached into seeing themselves sort of demanded it. They went out and bought these books and carried them around on the subway and to Starbucks and rarely read them all the way through. If Promotional Media (in all its many guises, some more subtle than others) hadn’t compelled readers, with its powerful magic, to buy buy buy, the writers of those books would have remained un-anointed and obscure and casually accessible in cafes, shoe shops and grocery stores. Possibly, even, as workers in them. As many writers are.
As you probably are.
Minus Promotional Media’s crafty efforts, you’d only know David Foster Wallace (if you knew him at all) as some lonely dork who always sat near the rear of a Starbucks, with a pile of reference books on the table beside his Frappuccino, introducing himself as “Dave” or “DW”. You might have seen Amis or DeLillo, had they never been promoted (funny word), marooned on a splintering bench in a littered park, scowling at the pushy pigeons or the suspiciously oriental sun, with nowhere particular they needed to be until supper. You’d say “Mind if I sit here?” and Mart or Don might smile and voila the rest of bench like a swing shift maitre ‘D of the park, grateful for company. Your heart would sink as unknown Mart or obscure Don cleared his throat as a prelude to a soliloquy…
Martin Amis is famous because Promotional Media decided to promote him, into the awareness of some of the public, in case he was worthy of fame, just as it did with Don and Dave and Vlad and Nicholson and John Updike and so many others. How was the decision made? The year that Martin’s first novel, The Rachel Papers, came out, the New York Times’ Bestsellers List looked like this:
January 7th-March 18th: Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach
March 25-April 29: The Odessa File, Frederick Forsyth
May 6-June 24: Once is not Enough, Jacqueline Susanne
July 1-September 1: Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut
September 9-November 18: The Hollow Hills, Mary Stewart
November 25-December 2: The Honorary Consul, Graham Greene
December 2-December 30: Burr, Gore Vidal
Martin’s first book was nowhere near being on that list. The Rachel Papers was a flop, the next book was a flop, the third book: more of the same. Even if Martin’s first books had been received well, writers of High End Literary Fiction rarely do anything noteworthy enough to pull Fame, organically, in their direction. The woman or man who can juggle lit-candled birthday cakes along with (running) chainsaws comes by his or her Fame honestly. As do Siamese Twins, fraudulent psychics, women who fall forty thousand feet from airplanes and survive, and the surviving wives of bloody despots.
Promotional Media gambles that a given writer (unlike most other writers) will be worthy of promotion (what a word!) and this promotion makes the writer minimally famous… certainly nowhere near as famous as a movie star or pop star… and from that plateau ambitious writers move on to becoming medium-Famous (finally on the desirable side of The Wall), using extra-literary gimmicks.
Norman Mailer understood this better than most. Mailer understood, in his heart of hearts, that he was not special; no more interesting, as a writer, or as a yearning creature, than you or I. When he felt the first blush of Fame fading in the becalmed wake of his early bestsellers, he simply stabbed his wife with a pen knife and he was Famous again. The next time he felt that vampire-in-the-first-rays-of-the-sun sensation, of fame dissipating, Mailer got a stupendously-likely-to-kill-again murderer out of prison, on the pretext of the murderer’s mild literary talent, and as soon as the inevitable happened (quicker, even, than anyone might reasonably have dreamed): bingo. Another quick spurt of fame’s sweet perfume. Certainly not as a reward for the books, which are generally, if not absolutely unreadable, on the daunting side of barely-finishable. I find that most people who rate Mailer, as a writer, still, are wannabe-writers encouraged by Mailer’s unlikely example.
Martin owed everything to the willy-nilly largesse of Promotional Media; he had won a middling jackpot in Snob’s Lottery (like the stable boy who gets to bed a lady in waiting); the wall between Martin and yours truly was a fundamentally false one and I was determined to breach the phony barrier or be humiliated trying.
But there were other, more pressing, matters to deal with first.
In the year 2002, in which I’ve set this fantasy about Martin Amis and me, what was really going on, in my actual life, involved a prostitute.
I had fallen in love with a prostitute.
And no, not while engaging her services. I had no idea she was a prostitute as I fell in love with her. I would be lying if I claimed there wasn’t something extremely odd, or slightly off, about Miriam, from the moment I met her, but I definitely had no idea that she was in the business of the business of sucking and fucking. The closest I got, before Miriam, to a real hooker, was the time, years ago, I was hurrying along Kurfurstenstrasse when a bobbed teenager, wearing a pink Anorak , and what looked like a black balloon stretched over her legs, tried to hook her arm through mine and I swerved, as if we were playing touch football, and she yelped at me.
I will do my best to massage the recollection of the genuinely autobiographical (and disturbing) narrative about Miriam G. (her real first name and actual initial) into the fictional frame of this Amis tale.
I will do my best to reconstitute her in the form I found so compelling when I was a younger man, nearly a young man, twenty years ago.
I didn’t tell Miriam anything about my little victory, during my first encounter with Martin ‘That’s marvellous’ Amis, because she didn’t even know I was a housepainter, certainly had no idea I could write, and may or may not even have sensed I was in any sense intelligent. Which had happened before: my second German girlfriend, after I’d first arrived in Berlin, back in 1990, had exclaimed, with astonishment (and what felt not a little like suspicion), How did you learn to do this? when I wrote the first love poem for her. Germans have a saying: Dumm fickt gut. Which side of the coin of that left-handed compliment would you chose?
I scrubbed up and put on some nice-looking casual clothing: a black blazer I liked to wear over my film history t-shirts. I often favored Eraserhead. I met Miriam at U-Bahnhof Heidelberger Platz at 8pm, or 20:00, as Berliners put it, still hooked as they are on the self-dramatizing pretensions of wartime timekeeping. I liked to think I looked like a hip young American film director in the blazer, jeans, motorcycle boots and black baseball cap, Jack Nance’s fearful eyes peering out from between my lapels.
Miriam was unusually punctual, for a Berliner, which was one of her virtues. She was already waiting, at the top of the worn stone stairs that rose out of the underground, under the steady push of the underground’s limitless ration of dank wind, at exactly 8 pm.
She was always a wonderful shock in her low-cut tops and short skirts and thrombus-red hair. Something of the milk-white Goth about that girl, who was 25 to my 43, though I looked to most people to be about 30. Breaking the normal pattern of only seeing me two days a week ( blessed Thursdays, wonderful Sundays) Miriam was granting me her nearness on a Saturday. She wanted to show me something.
I wouldn’t have guessed that Miriam was sleeping with dozens of men, professionally, every week, because she worked in an office, too, and I’d seen the office and her orderly desk in it, after hours, picking her up for our dates. She was no taller than Martin Amis but, unlike Martin, who is not much taller than Nabokov’s Lolita, she had those unbelievable breasts, which I’ll be forced to describe at some point.
She had light grey eyes and a sad smile and a voice made of childish whispers attached to a barely perceptible (only when she was whispering in my ear) smoker’s wheeze. The supreme irony of the situation was that I was courting her in the “old fashioned” way and after “dating” for half a whole month, already, we were still only holding hands and sometimes, shyly, kissing. No sex yet, no nudity. My idea.
I wanted the relationship to be special.
I had no idea that Miriam had not just one but two big secrets and that I was walking quite happily, in that same old syrupy swoon, into a trap. Strung out, as I have invariably been, on a regular schedule, since adolescence, on Romantic Love. Cocaine, heroin, booze and Romantic Love: the Devastating Four. I had never even considered trying one or all the first three, as nearly every musician I knew had. I went straight for the most dangerous drug of them all and learned nothing whatsoever from every inevitable OD, every attack of the DTs, the shakes, the phone that refused to ring and the torture of the sound of successful couples giggling or gasping under various bedroom windows, of mine, at midnight, as I sweated through withdrawal, the monkey on my back being cupid.
“You look amazing,” I said, to Miriam.
Miriam’s response to this declaration was always, only, to stretch her Sphinxy smile a little more and stare through me. I reached and took her cold and lifeless hand.
She pulled me down the cobblestone path toward her favorite cemetery, the chilly sunset slapping orange cellophane on her back.
Two days later, Monday, I let myself into the empty ten-room flat at Victoria Luise Platz, not super long after the crack of dawn, as it was gradually filling with the morning’s ration of sunlight. Many mornings in Berlin are grim but some are glorious.
The truth is that I actually liked house-painting, as old as I was, and preferred it to almost any other possible way to earn money, though only when working alone. I liked the solitary and methodical stations of cleaning the targeted surfaces, taping things off, cutting a base-coat in around the doors and windows with quick, broad strokes and drawing an immaculate bead to edge the trim and straighten the line where walls support ceiling.
I liked especially doing tony spaces like Martin’s rental, so unblemished to start with, because it would end up looking perfect: lush planes of fresh new color against subtly contrasting enamel on the upright geometry of the trim. The profound lack of status of the occupation never troubled me, though I could quite effortlessly bother to hide the low-status activity from beautiful girls I wanted to sleep with. When I was twenty, and I wanted to fuck twenty-year-olds, it was never, as I look back, a problem. Sometime after I passed from my late-twenties into my early thirties I found myself, instinctively, covering things up. The irony being that, because of my unexpected speech patterns (complete and accurately-enunciated sentences, expressing carefully-considered thoughts, in the context of a Black American’s face), I’ve had more than one lover jump to the convenient conclusion that I’m from an “upper-class” background and living off a “private income”. The distance from the height of the French windows of that dreamy delusion, to the ground floor of the simple truth, would be too much of a fall for any fledgling courtship to survive. But why was it only in my thirties that I found myself even wanting to hide the Truth? Older women have certain goals, I think. “Older” meaning anyone further along than twenty-three. And is “love” really a goal?
I began taping down the drop-cloths in the kitchen, laundry room and three bathrooms, the rooms I wouldn’t be painting. I’d bought twenty-two heavy-duty Mylar drop-cloths and kept the receipt to present to Martin later. Every floor in every room had to be covered to keep chevron-shaped Monaco-Peach-prints from tracking all over the intimidatingly immaculate parquet. I’d had mishaps of that nature and nightmarish paint spills (most of which I managed to cover up, undetected) and my youthful errors had taught me the rigors of true caution. To say “Aw, who cares? Fuck it… live a little…” is to tempt the Gods. I’d been fairly careful as a young man but sometimes thought I might take a vacation from being so careful and live like the norm and say “Aw, who cares? Fuck it…” and I invariably suffered the consequences, every single time. It’s like living safely enough in a submerged and water-tight structure, at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean, and feeling the urge, from time to time, to open the windows and live a little, an urge one immediately, yet belatedly, recognizes as a tremendously self-destructive mistake. I taped down the Mylar in my stocking feet, my big old brown work-boots standing guard, beside the front door, as I worked.
I had a boombox in a far corner of the softly hexagonal front room and in this boombox was a cassette of Satsuki Shibano playing Erik Satie, a very old cassette. I liked to play this cassette early on working mornings, though, of course, I did not forget that the last thing I wanted Martin Amis to do was catch me listening, willingly, to Satie. I wasn’t expecting Martin until 9 am, or so, and long before that I’d have the cassette out of the machine, and back in my jacket pocket, replaced by something awful on the AM/FM radio instead. Something Black and boisterously “full of life” but not threatening. Earth, Wind & Fire was probably harmless enough and familiar to Martin but was it, perhaps, a little too safe? Too bourgeois Black?
I had gotten the Satie cassette as a gift, in 1987, and it had sentimental value because my son, seven when I got the cassette, loved it at nap time and while eating his breakfast. I made a mental note to go right out, at the end of the day, and buy a cassette of the least-irritating ’90s Hip Hop I could find. De La Soul wasn’t too bad, and British “Acid Jazz” might work, I thought, too. But was British “Acid Jazz” Black enough? Maybe it was better to play it super-safe and buy some vintage Howlin’ Wolf… ?
The goal, I had to keep reminding myself, was not to prove to Martin Amis that I was a person. The goal was to get on the other side of that Wall.
To do so I had to become a character: any member of the congenital underclass knows how to snag the attention of a proximate, well-off White Person. If well-off White People aren’t psychopaths they feel guilty, and if they’ve been swaddled in privilege since forever, they are also bored. A carefully-hurled, cleverly-curated presentation of Blackness can be the stone with which to kill both of those flightless birds.
The rules are simply that you have to be articulate enough to get your earthy argot across, but not so educated-seeming that you come off as a boringly house-broken (or ego-threateningly accomplished) “Tom”. And that you must appear just wild and unpredictable enough to be “sexy” yet probably constitutionally incapable of rape or murder. There can (and likely should) be tales of youthful indiscretion (car-jacking, armed robbery, gang warfare) but these should be leavened by mumbo jumbo about Jesus (in which case a discreet gold crucifix works nicely). Let’s face it: no White Person is intellectually intimidated by any Black person who affects to believe in Jesus.
There’s always that old shtick about the promises made to one’s “Mama, “ on her Ghetto deathbed, about turning one’s life around, too. This stuff is invariably very charming to well-off White People, who can, as a result, enter in the same kind of trance that even I can enter into when confronted with a certain kind of Beautiful Woman sporting bulging breasts, a narrow waist and a mild overbite. Though one false note (a nostril hair) can spoil the trance.
I was thinking all this and scrubbing the baseboards in the front room, with its glorious view of the fountain at the center of Victoria Luise Platz, kneeling and scrubbing with trisodium phosphate, when I heard a key in the hallway door and my heart jumped a diagonal foot. I had been at it for a couple of hours. It was 9:30. I collected myself, controlling the instinctive reflex to cover up that couldn’t have been much stronger if I’d been beating off when the giant oak door swung open on the comedically-diminutive lord of the manor.
Martin strode in wearing jeans and clogs and a purple down vest, princely sunglasses riding the top of his head in a cheery fizzle of thinning hair. He brought in, around him, a bubble of entitlement’s refreshing plasma that wouldn’t have seemed too small to contain a Broadway producer’s entire entourage, past and present. One could have felt it all the way back in the kitchen. He had spotless aluminum briefcase in one hand and a clip board in the other and all he was missing was an assistant, in clogs, from California, to carry his thermos of coffee.
“My, is it always this cold, in Berlin, in June?”
“Morning Mr. Amis!” I shook his proffered hand from my kneeling position. He handed me an envelope full of the down payment we’d agreed on and I pocketed it standing up. He made a face as though something had suddenly occurred to him.
“Is that what this is called? I let my buddy borrow my boombox and he stole my Sam Cooke tape and left me… with this shit.”
“Pardon my French, Mr. Amis. Mama always warned me… ”
He shook his head: my French was no problem between two men of the world.
“Sam Cooke and Erik Satie are about as apples and oranges as we can get. If your friend had left you with Stravinsky, on the other hand, at least we’d have Stravinsky’s appreciation of James Brown to tie the whole thing together. But, hold on…”
Martin placed his briefcase and clipboard on a radiator between room-high windows and clicked the packed briefcase open. Out he pulled an old cassette of his own.
“I think this will do nicely.”
I eyed it. Jonny Lang, “Wander This World”. Kid looking like River Phoenix on the cassette’s cover. I remembered that Lang was from Minneapolis, where I’d lived for about twelve years after seceding from college, and that Lang was of Norwegian descent and had made the inevitable splash playing the so-called Blues for beer-drenched Yuppie, and Frat Boy, audiences. The one significant technical quibble… that this genre of music had been so popular, in the early part of the 20th century, precisely because its most celebrated practitioners had been doing nothing less honest than singing raw truths about their own authentically awful and often violent experiences, from the POV of the bottom of the Western world… had somehow become irrelevant.
Even BB King, who was pretending to sing as a penniless sharecropper despite driving from gig to gig in a chauffeured Cadillac, wasn’t really pretending, but only pretending to pretend, since he was still, no matter how much he earned as a headliner in Vegas, a direct descendant of human cattle. This was no longer a consideration, apparently. Anybody cute enough, who could play a pentatonic scale and sing in a fake rough voice and roughly approximate the sound, for casual ears, could now make money singing “The Blues”. Could a young, pretty, openly Norwegian writer openly publish a Holocaust memoir and get away with it, too?
Lang, in fact, had worked with somebody I’d known. As I studied the cassette’s fading cardboard insert, after popping the cassette in the deck, I spotted that very guy’s name. A young guy from the Jewish suburb of St. Louis Park.
“What do you think?”
“Oh Hell yeah,” said I.
“It never ceases to absolutely amaze me, that voice. Booming from the mouth of a blue-eyed teen. If you didn’t know better…”
“Say what? You mean this ain’t a brother? Damn.” I paused for effect. “Double-Damn.”
“If you’d like you can borrow this, but you’ll have to promise to return it. I find it’s been working wonders with my creative process of late. One’s juices… ”
“Oh man, Mr. Amis. Thank you. I appreciate it. In exchange, can I offer to cook you a real down-home lunch, in the kitchen…” I gestured ethnically toward the kitchen, down the hall, behind him, “… a little later?”
Martin lifted his eyebrows and cocked his head, to show that he was weighing the offer, as he reached to turn the volume down, two middle class notches, on the boombox. We crossed the room together, to my bucket of trisodium phosphate, and there we shook on it.
“Deal. I’ll be back, hungry enough to eat your horse, too, at, say, 12:30. Shall I bring anything?”
“Oh, don’t you worry, I got it all covered, Mr. Amis. Just bring that appetite. I’ll fix us up a real South Side lunch. And I guarantee you won’t need to eat anything else until after breakfast tomorrow … unless it’s a shot glass of Pepto.”
Martin was still chuckling as he closed the door after himself.
I counted his toddling clog-steps down the short staircase to the elevator’s plush landing. I then waited at a window until I saw him cross the plaza toward the fountain, his longish morning shadow marching edgewise through pigeons as it stretched away from the pseudo-Roman arch at the opposite end of the park. The fuzzy top of the plume of the fountain was tugged, suddenly, Martin’s way, bent by a gust of wind, and this made him scoot into high gear for a Chaplinesque moment. I think the mot juste is skedaddle. I shook my head and thought: this is what happens when the common side of The Wall gets to spy on the fancy. This is why The Wall is there. Because judgment rendered from that distance is always harsh and where was he off to, anyway? I made sure that Martin was committed to being gone before I took the shitty “Kid” Jonny Lang tape out of the player and restored the Satie to its rightful place.
It really was an unseasonably chill day in early June, and I was glad I was wearing the right clothes for it, as I travelled the short distance from Martin’s fancy rental to the pseudo-classical entrance of the U-Bahn. If the gothic lettering of the street signs ringing Victoria-Luise-Platz put one in mind of vintage, blue-eyed Fascism, so do the pseudo-classical flourishes dotting the park.
Incidentally, it had occurred to me that my costume of “blazer, jeans, motorcycle boots and black baseball cap” with a “film history tee-shirt,” which really was my standard outfit for all of the year 2002 and some of 2003, was all wrong for the Amis project and would have put Martin off, and on his guard, from the “git go”.
So I’ll re-write that, meaning: what I was wearing, instead, after I’d changed out of my crusty crunchy painter’s whites, was a reassuringly macho black or gray hoodie, baggy jeans, rugged workman’s boots and a green, pseudo-military bomber jacket festooned with all those déclassé zippers. I knew Martin would like that look and he said so later in the week.
While I was standing in the rear wagon of the short train on Line 4, which I would take to Bayerische Platz, to connect with line 7 to Berliner Strasse and from there to Line 9, to the Turmstrasse station, a busker slipped, jangling, into the train. You can always tell the tourists, when one of Berlin’s singularly untalented buskers announce themselves, because the tourists are the ones who don’t roll their eyes, don’t slip on the headphones defensively, don’t even audibly groan and scowl. The tourists sometimes sing and clap along and this makes the native Berliners wish them dead, too.
Germans who attempt to sing in public (even most professionals, especially many stars) tend to sound chronically inhibited, like they’ve been forced, against their will, to disturb grandfather, on his deathbed, and can only acquit themselves honorably by showing some sheepish bravado in the act. And it always fails. The sound (which will come out of an American singer’s mouth like a cannon, or even a bowling, ball) tends to get itself stuck at the juncture of the pipe-curve at the back of the German throat. The result is uncomfortable listening, even for Germans who pretend to admire the attempt. German audiences, who smile up at famous Germans bathed in brilliant spotlights, trying to sing, are smiling in pain, make no mistake.
And that’s how I first met Miriam, as her voice-teacher, and I thought of Miriam, as the German busker struggled to sing his cover of U2’s early-Aughties perennial One.
Eeez eet gadding badduh… ah dew yew feeeel ze zaaaaame….
I thought of how I’d spent six giddy weeks, already, trying to teach Miriam to free up that psychic occlusion in her throat, lessons two days of every week, Thursday and Sunday, for free, sessions that were closer to amateur psychotherapy than voice lessons. I think it was 2 pm, until 4 pm, each lesson? The lessons weren’t over but Miriam had moved, as too many psychotherapeutic patients from the Golden Age of Freudian therapy, had, from being a patient to being the therapist’s lover, with the caveats that our love was still fuckless (by my decision) and that, as a therapist, I was only ever a gifted amateur at best. The therapy I always seemed particularly adept at delivering was the malleable gift of my wide-eyed credulity to any beautiful woman in need, for reasons of her own, of satisfyingly fucking up a talented, kind-hearted man.
When I got off the train at Turmstrasse and rode the interminably tall escalator to street level, trying to see very carefully, while not staring at, the various characters, Turkish and German, on the parallel escalator down, I popped out my fledgling cell phone technology and called Miriam, expecting no answer and getting none. I wasn’t scheduled to see her again until our lesson on Thursday (it was still just Monday) and so I wouldn’t. Especially since I’d already seen her, anomalously, Saturday and Sunday. Who else could I call?
It was about suppertime and I was standing at the entrance of U-Bhf Turmstrasse, with a backpack heavy with leftover lunch hanging from my bomber-jacketed shoulders, trying to reach my old friend Nigel on the third-hand cell phone that had been his for a couple of years after it had been Blake’s (a mutual friend). As soon as I stopped trying to reach Nigel (line engaged) an unfamiliar number appeared on the cell phone’s dim little liquid crystal screen (who among us can still recall how provisional, and on a strictly-as-needed basis, our telephonic tech used to be before they got stuffed with more Life than we ourselves contain?) . Miriam, calling from work…? Heart thumped. Giddy three-legged dog.
“Brother,” purred Martin Amis, richly. “Am I catching you at a bad time?”
“If it ain’t 1977,” I countered, “It go without saying it’s a bad time, Mr. Amis, but let’s talk anyway.”
Ah, the bark of sincerely surprised delight that induced.
In fact, there was such a long pause after I delivered myself, with flawless Blackness, of that line, that I realized that Martin was jotting it down.
“The situation is this, that I’ve got an old friend in town…” Martin’s voice trailed off. It was obvious what I was meant to leap in, to say, to spare him even a millisecond of the anticipation of the slightest risk inherent in the ambiguity called forth by such awkwardly prefatory remarks.
“Oh, hell yeah, let’s have some fun showing your buddy around this crazy town, Mr. Amis. If he…”
“She. He’s a she. She’s a she, I mean. Why don’t we swing around in a taxi, to your digs, at about, well, what do you think, ten?”
Martin had loved the lunch I’d made for us, in his rental’s kitchen (despite his pecking at it like a parrot with a gastric clamp). He’d laughed so hard at some of the things I’d said (in a state of such near-perfect possession, by the Spirit of Inspired Improvisation, known by the greatest practitioners of the Avant Garde street theater of my youth), that I was afraid for his heart. Blacker at lunch than I’d ever been in my Life, I was even more in love with this character, playing me, than Martin was. I had positively abhorred the race-clichés of hapless Niggerness as a bookish, self-confident, intellectually ambitious kid, but, suddenly I was seeing how pleasurable, how liberating, these stereotypes can be to act out.
And although I had always grasped, correctly, that no Black person in America was really like that, really talked that way, really walked like that in their own back yards or kitchens, and that the presentation was a layered and Byzantine act that it had taken us a few centuries to learn (under less than joyful circumstances), what I had never before understood was that Black people all know it’s an act and They (now We) can indulge in the act because it is quite addictively fun.
It’s like a head-on, 360-degree, full-strength version of what “Sassy Queers” get a license to do. Or straight white Yankees, in London, who can’t resist talking Mockney like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, does. But being Black and playing Black goes far, far beyond both of the above-cited opportunities for self-reinvention, since the Black act encompasses not only talking in a profoundly, and wonderfully implausible, way (how many double-negatives can any Black person employ before a non-Black cries foul? No one yet knows)… the act extends to actions, it extends to sexual postures, it can extend to public deformations of standard etiquette so bizarre, in some cases, that even famous white culture-rebels like Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, Tiny Tim, Jonathan Winters, Oliver Reed and Johnny Rotten would blanche, step back and beg off before trying to cover the same territory in a sustained way. Yes: it’s a national, tribe-wide act and it is powerful…
… as I’d finally come to understand over lunch that day.
Not that I was willing to adapt the act fulltime. I still got quite a lot of pleasure from being the Other Way. An Individual. Educated. Me.
But it was strange to think that I was getting further, in less than a week, with celebrity Martin Amis, as an increasingly Ultra Black version of myself, than I was getting, after almost two months, with Miriam, who was, supposedly, after all, officially, my girlfriend.
I can’t remember the name I came up with for lunch: Southside Gumbo? Louisiana Stove Stew? Aunt Maddy’s Fixins? Martin, dabbing at his open mouth with a paper napkin, said, “What was that called? Can you give me the recipe for it? Will I ever taste such a divine thing again?”
What shocked me was something Martin had said as I was ladling the hot glop into his plastic bowl (I had bought picnic utensils, cups, bowls and napkins at the same grocery store I’d gotten the sausage, potatoes, frozen vegetables, cinnamon, pecans, carrots, beer and barbecue sauce I’d concocted lunch from). He’d asked me what I had been doing “During that first telling moment of that epochal September event,” and I’d made a genially-puzzled face (actually, it had started as a look of horror as a droplet of fatty juice, from the glop, had hopped up on Mart’s silk tie and spread territorially; he had changed for lunch; but then I realized that I could write the stain back off the tie later) and he clarified: “Nine one one. What were you…”
“Me? I was paintin’ a German kindergarten. Lady next door starts hollerin’… ”
“I was… how do you put it? Knocking the boots on this fetchingly self-conscious mulatto grad student who’d been sent to ferry me from the airport to a reading in Manhattan itself. I don’t recall what my official alibi was but that’s what I was, in fact, doing. And very much doing. Even sex was better before The Event and I managed to get one last really good lay in, right under the wire, as that first plane knifed into that first tower. Do you have any theories about all that, Steven? Oh yes, please, a little more… .”
He was sampling quarter-spoonfulls of The Glop even as I was ladling it into his bowl. He seemed genuinely hungry. It was sheer self-discipline keeping him from eating more than he had. Being so short, gaining even kilo would have damaged his presentation, I supposed, and hurt his reputation as the Mick Jagger of Postmodernism. He continued,
“It’s just that only clever-dicks and hayseeds, who smell irremediably of boot-heeled cow-shit, who are just so bursting with the news, can’t wait to show the world how un-hoodwink-able they are, aren’t they? They think they’ll be the first to notice. But if they’re so I.O.I., aren’t they aware of the fact that the very square-jawed psychopaths, who brought down those towers, wouldn’t hesitate to use that heart-attack gun, or whatever it is they use, a whole generation later, to shut you up? I suppose the big-mouths are flattered, in the end, when it happens. When your designated assassin is suddenly standing there, calmly, on the other side of the shower curtain. Think about it. It’s validating, I should think, that They should even bother to shut your mouth for you.”
“And, to dolly back a bit to a broader geopolitical view, the Arab Diaspora hasn’t had something so big, to be so proud of, since, you know… you tell me. The invention of the zero in the 11th century? They’re happy to take the blame. What a gift, in a way. What a morale-booster. The question remains: which side will it backfire on first, the ones behind the ones who really did it, or the towel-heads? Towel-heads in scare quotes, obviously. I should hope by now you can tell that I haven’t a racist bone in my body, nor secreted anywhere else in the body of an intimate friend. I did, once, use the word ‘spade,’ experimentally, in the setting of a very long TLS lunch featuring its own built-in chemical NDA, but that had something to do with Kerouac, I seem to recall. I mean, I never thought ‘spade’ really worked because what’s the respective suit of cards reserved for the honkies and chinks? It should be coherent within…”
“Mr Amis, what does ‘I.O.I.” mean?”
Mart looked within himself and chuckled. “I think it was Fenton who came up with that one. It means In On It. I mean, that’s how the world really divides, isn’t it? In any significant way. Old/ young, rich/poor…”
“Tall/short,” I couldn’t help thinking…
“…these are banal distinctions, and most of the binary combos are too fluid to be reliable. Today’s skinny young millionaire is tomorrow’s toothless pauper with gout. But once you’re I.O.I., you’re I.O.I. for life. No crossing back. All mystery religions have initiates. Every human society is a mystery religion. But what you do is you keep it to yourself. You want a famous example of somebody who couldn’t keep it to himself?”
“I don’t suppose, being Black, that you were ever a Beatles fan …?”
Amis’ eyebrows shot up.
“Just kidding, Mr. Amis. I heard of ’em, they just weren’t never what you would call my cup of tea,” I said, delicately.
“Oh, sure. I’d be disappointed in you if they had been.”
The conversation… the lunchtime lecture… had been quite an eye-opener for me and I must admit I found it slightly intimidating. Martin Amis was lots more self-aware than I would have guessed.
Now I was dressing, hurriedly, before Martin Amis was scheduled to pick me up, so I could show him, and his mysterious lady friend, Berlin.
I knew exactly where I would take them.