Jimmy on the east 15th street.
Written in my hand, not much changed in well over four decades, are the dates: "Submitted to Kenyon Review 3/4/45, rej. 3/30/45," and so on. But one poem that went to Politics was mailed on the 4th and came whipping back on the 8th. Editors were faster back in those days, but even then such speed seemed excessive to the point of insult. It depressed us.
However, PBR was right in one respect: The predominant influence was Eliot. Jimmy was in the habit of carrying "Four Quartets" around in his pocket, a habit that cost him one of the long list of jobs he found and lost with astonishing alacrity during that winter and spring of 1944-45.
Those months qualify as part of the "five desperate years in the Village" (as Jimmy later characterized them), the years that immediately preceded his flight to Paris in November of 1948. That is, they qualify by falling within that five-year period. But for a time in late winter and early spring he was on East 15th Street, and it was a time more of work and of hope than of desperation.
Off and on, for more than five years, I've been thinking of that time.
I was 22, going on 23, a graduate of UC-Berkeley, and I had come to New York because my grade-point average and a paper on Siberian shamans had won me a scholarship to the New School's Graduate Faculty of Social and Political Science, where, Professor Kroeber back in Berkeley had assured me, I would "fit in" better. What he meant was that Berkeley's Department of Anthropology would not welcome my application to stay on as a graduate student. I had already exhibited a tendency to stir things up and, sensing my troublemaker potential, they preferred to have me 3,000 miles away. Berkeley was not then what it became over two decades later; even my habit of wearing slacks and striped t-shirts to class was a mark against me.
I was strictly a West Coast girl and had never been farther east than Denver, but I went and found myself dumped out of a taxi in the middle of the street in front of my destination, a run-down hotel near Madison Square Garden where lived the one person I knew in all of Manhattan. Within weeks I had joined the Young People's Socialist League and was getting up before dawn to take the train to Far Rockaway with a comrade named Milton Zatinsky, our mission being to stand in the snow at the gates of an upholstery factory and hand out leaflets designed to arouse class consciousness in a work force made up of totally bourgeois and only semi-conscious young women. I don't remember that we had the least luck. Even at half union scale, they were inordinately happy to be working there, and their happiness filled me with a sullen rage which lasted all the way home to Manhattan.
When I met Jimmy Baldwin, he was living at 60 Perry Street, and I was living up on the West Side. I saw him first at a writers' meeting, where he was pointed out to me as a talented poet, but when his roommate Gene took me home with him one night, Jimmy was sitting there in the Perry Street apartment in his bathrobe - that is, wearing his bathrobe over his clothes for extra warmth, and working on his novel, which he then called "Crying Holy." We talked; we burned a wooden basket in the fireplace in the attempt to warm up; we talked some more; we slept in our clothes.
I knew I had met somebody worth meeting.
Jimmy had turned 20 late that summer. He was slender, incandescent. There was the flash of teeth and the white of eye, but he was incandescent with a glow of inner light. He could also turn off and become totally dark, opaque, closed, and shuttered. "someone once said," he told me, "that I looked like an old, old man - of about 10. "Later, "You know, I never liked my face until I was about 18. But now I like it in a sort of - well - let's say it has worked for me. I can get in a scrape and look so unutterably stupid." He popped his eyes and his voice swept up to leave unutterably hanging an octave high over our heads. Still, it was clear that he didn't like it all that much, his face, and I knew there couldn't be many times when Jimmy would choose to look stupid, no matter for what temporary advantage. I liked his face, the hooded eyes and wide grin; but I didn't have to live behind it, and my own was plain, freckled, totally unremarkable, never a handicap.
It was war time. It was winter. My apartment on West 71st was cold. There was a housing shortage, and when tenants complained, landlords did not listen. There was a puddle in my kitchen; I ate Thanksgiving dinner at the Automat. A friend in Seattle sent me a skinny, four-foot-long box for Christmas, a box which turned out to hold a tiny but genuine Douglas fir. By then the tenants had petitioned the Board of Health, but we were still cold, and, moreover, I was married and my young husband had already been in the Pacific for two years of this war that looked as if it would drag on forever. I buried my nose in that little tree and sobbed.
The winter of 1944-45 in New York was a particularly nasty one. I hated the weather, the like of which I had never experienced in my life. In January, the average temperature was 25, the lowest in five years, and the snowfall was the heaviest since 1935.
The snow lingered on the streets the city didn't bother to clean, which were always the streets I had to use. When the temperature dropped, the snow turned to slippery glaciers. When it inched up a few degrees, every corner presented a lake of slimy black slush. My slacks were always spattered as if with diluted India ink and sometimes wet to the knees; my shoes were wet; and my feet were wet inside them. I caught a cold, and my cold became a bronchitis that lingered for weeks.
Otherwise, life was interesting. I had classes at the New School from Ernst Kris, Solomon Asch, Wolfgang Kohler, Claude Levi-Strauss. I traveled to Brooklyn to sit on the windowsill of a packed classroom and listen to Abraham Maslow. I explored the museums; I walked in Central Park; and I became a member of Yipsel and a sometime volunteer at the Workers' Defense League. But, mostly, I spent my time wandering about with an ever-shifting group of young people who were always in search of a warm apartment with phonograph records but who usually wound up instead in the Waldorf Cafeteria.
The Waldorf was our social center. The light was garish but the place seemed warm and friendly. I don't remember the food. I don't think we ate much of it. We came there for warmth, for bran muffins and coffee, and, except for me, for cigarettes. On a typical evening at the Waldorf that winter, Herskowitz sits reading the Times, his wildly curling hair jutting forward like a porch roof. He's writing a novel with parts titled "House of Incest" and "Dream of Love," and he claims that sometimes he cannot write for months at a stretch. It's a self-aggrandizing claim, romanticizing the writer and the importance of what he's writing, but we all accept it; we are all romantic about ourselves, so we are obliged to accept each other's romantic self-regard. Larry King hunches forward, talking rapidly in Yiddish, gesturing, watching the others laugh while he maintains a sober face; Larry is Leib Konigsberg on the stage, and later that winter we go to see him play a German soldier in We Will Live at The New Jewish Folk Theater. Gene Benton, destined to go off to Yale Drama School, sits with a cigarette drooping from his pretty mouth, making faces and (to my unpracticed ear) exaggerating the Yiddish with which he responds to Larry. Jimmy's pop eyes seem to pop even farther out of his deep brown face as the evening wears on. He holds a cigarette by the very tips of his forefinger and second finger. He has a brown stocking cap on, and he looks about 16. He doesn't say much but grins his wide and startling grin, a grin which may have nothing to do with what Larry and Gene are saying. We are the only non-Jews at the table, Jimmy and I, and my understanding is limited to what my high school German allows. How much Jimmy grasps I don't know - maybe no more than I, maybe much less. It doesn't matter; we enjoy it anyway. Marty Weissman leans over a book, Rainer Maria Rilke's Letter to a Young Poet, reading aloud about the use of irony. His dark hair stands on end. His mother gave him a dollar for a haircut last week, but he spent it on something else. He borrows a quarter from me and goes to get us both coffee and muffins. His long face is unshaven, his lips very pink, and there is a large tan mole or birthmark high on his right cheek. An art student, he smells of tobacco, oils, and turpentine.
Herskowitz folds his Times. "I'm going," he says abruptly, and walks out. Marty and Jimmy and I walk through the snow to Jimmy's place, where we turn on the radio and flop on the bed. Jimmy puts his head on Marty's stomach for a pillow, but he has to keep his hand on the radio because, a naked thing with no case, all its innards exposed, it needs constant adjusting. Finally Jimmy turns it off and begins singing, "You've got to accent-tchu-ate the pos-i-tive, E-lim-my-nate the neg-a-tive...." We groan. On the greenish-black wall someone has scrawled in red chalk, "SILENCIO! GENII AT WORK!"
Over a number of weeks of that miserable winter, Jimmy, Marty, and I began to see a lot of each other. I was still living and shivering on West 71st, Jimmy doing the same on Perry Street, and Marty - I don't know where he was living, perhaps even at the parental home. We went to movies together: Lot in Sodom, Blood of a Poet. We ate together, at John's Italian, at Louis' on East 14th Street. We went to meetings at Esther Carlson's, where late in January Jimmy read aloud the first book of his novel. We went to the painter Beauford Delaney's illegal loft apartment, the first loft apartment I had ever seen. To get there, we walked through the darkest of streets and up the darkest of stairways, and I am struck now with the fact that whether or not it was safe to do so was not even a question in those days. I remember Beauford sitting on a couch in the middle of this huge, wonderful room, looking like a monarch holding court - but a sweet monarch, a veritable angel of a man. One lunatic evening sticks in my mind, Jimmy holding a protesting Marty down while I cut his hair, then Beauford cutting Jimmy's hair, and finally Jimmy and I cutting Beauford's. No one cut my hair, which I wore parted in the middle, a braid hanging down at each side, making me look at times about 14 years old.
Through it all, Jimmy worked steadily. By the end of January he had three more chapters to rewrite and then the manuscript would go off to Viking. I began to help with the chore of typing and at the same time began to submit his poetry for publication, as well as my own.
And through it all, we sang. Almost every day we sang that same insouciant Johnny Mercer song. One might have guessed it was the choice of this freckle-faced girl from the West Coast, but usually it was Jimmy who began it, singing about accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative, not attitudes he became noted for in his life and work. It was, briefly, our theme song.
At some point, one of us had the romantic conceit of our forming a kind of commune. We would rent two apartments side-by-side, where six or eight of us would live, creative spirits together. It was on the 4th of February that we had it in hand. Marty and I, apartment-hunting, had actually paid a dollar in deposit, and by the end of dinner that evening, we had decided to rent not only that apartment but the one next to it as well. Each would cost us only $16 a month, unfurnished. The landlord would paint for us, there was a good stove, and the light was excellent. Louis Weinberg, Saville Sax, Marty, Jimmy, and I would share the two places; we calculated that $40 each would cover everything, even food.
So we took Louis and Savvy down there after dinner the next day, and Jimmy and I went into the downstairs tavern so that the landlord wouldn't see Jimmy. Sitting at a small table, we each ordered and were served a beer. But almost immediately we knew we couldn't stay. An unnatural silence settled over the room, and everybody was looking at us. We looked at each other and we knew what they saw: a young white girl and a big buck nigger - never mind that Jimmy was certainly the most absurd example of big buck nigger imaginable and our being together enraged them. Two sailors (looking very large and very blond) got up from their booth and approached the bar. A moment later, Olga came over to our table and told us they were threatening to break her place up if she didn't make us leave. We nodded, smiled, got up, and went out into the snow. But as our friends came down the apartment steps, the landlady caught sight of Jimmy and demanded to know if he were with them. Marty said, "No, he's just a friend," which seemed to be okay, although now I wonder how we could have been so naive as to think it was. Our new address was to be 31 St. Mark's Place. It even sounded good.
But on February 7th, instead of an apartment we had a civil liberties complaint. Our new home had been rented out from under us. Still holding our deposit receipt, we refused to take our money back, and the ACLU recommended a lawyer, Emmanuel Redfield, who promised to look over our case.
Marty and I were buoyed by righteous anger, but Jimmy, subdued and withdrawn, at last told us he did not want to prosecute. He took me aside to explain why: He was afraid his homosexuality would somehow rise up as an issue. We dropped the complaint.
In less than ten days, I'd found us another apartment; Jimmy's novel was in the mail; he had prospects of a job as copyboy at the New York Post; and Esther Carlson had told us that Richard Wright wanted to meet Jimmy and to read "Crying Holy." This time, we moved in. Our address was 348 East 15th Street, Apt. #22.
But the loss of 31 St. Mark's Place stayed with us. Of my first twelve short stories, four were about Jimmy. The first of these was "The Ethiopian, His Skin," written in the fall of 1945 (after I had returned home) and published in the spring of 1947. It was the story of 31 St. Mark's Place. Jimmy had become Murray, I had become Phyllis, and Marty was Joe. It was a simple story: Joe tries to rent the apartment; the customers in the tavern force Murray and Phyllis to leave; the landlord sees Murray; and that's it. The three of them go off arm-in-arm into the driving snow. In the fall of 1948, a story by James Baldwin, "Previous Condition," appeared in Commentary. The black hero, who has been attempting to live unseen in an apartment his friend had rented for him, is found out and told to leave. He meets his white female friend Ida at a restaurant. She suggests suing the landlady; he refuses. As they sit there, "Everyone was looking at us. I turned cold, seeing what they were seeing: a black boy and a white woman, alone together. I knew it would take nothing to have them at my throat." There was no Marty on the scene to walk away with them, but he was there in the story nevertheless, bearing the same surname: "Jules Weissman, a Jew-boy, had got the room for me."
Jimmy certainly never read my story, which appeared in a short-lived little magazine called Upsurge, nor did I read his when it was first published, for by then I was a young mother, living in University of Washington student housing with my Ph.D.-candidate husband and writing fiction to augment our GI Bill income. New York City, St. Mark's Place, and East 15th Street were far away, and Jimmy, though I didn't know it, was about to leave for France. I didn't read "Previous Condition," in fact, until after Jimmy's death, when I looked it up on microfilm at the public library. Scanning rapidly at first, I read the words, "I turned cold, seeing what they were seeing: a black boy and a white woman, alone together," and I felt a frisson of recognition - 31 St. Mark's Place!
It was on the 19th of February, 1945, that we moved into Apartment #22. There were four of us - Jimmy, Marty, Louis Weinberg, and I. No two of us constituted a couple, and Louis, who was by nature odd man out anyway, fairly soon departed after some quarrel or other, leaving the three of us - who as far as I can recall never had a dispute of any kind.
That first week we scheduled a house-warming for Saturday. But on Tuesday I became violently ill and, embarrassed and miserable, was literally dragged through the streets to Beth Israel Hospital, where I languished for a week. A week in the hospital for twenty dollars! It would have been one of the world's great bargains, even at the time - unbelievable in retrospect - if they had bothered to x-ray and discover what was wrong, but instead they opted for proctoscopy (further wretched embarrassment, as I crouched on the examining table, surrounded by a bevy of apple-cheeked interns) and discovered nothing, leaving the problem to await diagnosis and create trouble for several more years. When I came home to our apartment, pale and thin and for the first time not outweighing Jimmy by 10 or 15 pounds, the housewarming was history and Jimmy had a new job as messenger boy for PM.
It seemed to me that there were, that winter, no other blacks in our gang. There was, of course, Connie at the Calypso, where we ate black beans and rice and listened to Louis Hassan's drumming, and there was Beauford Delaney, and Jimmy went now and then to Harlem; I went with him perhaps twice, and met his mother and an aunt. I saw his brother David only once. I was, moreover, the only non-black non-Jew in our immediate small crowd. But now, looking at the type-script of "Testament," a poem Jimmy sent to me for my comment after I had gone home across the continent, I see in red pencil the notation, "Shan - What do you think? J.B.," and I remember that, when Marty, in a sudden fit of ethnicity, decided he wanted to be called Mottke, I was dubbed Shoshannah and was henceforth called "Shan." Jimmy, however, remained Jimmy, except when we called him "James Fenimore" - a way of mockingly shooting him down whenever he became polysyllabic and pontifical (not a rare occurrence) and also a way of paying wry tribute to his talent.
We were both destined to become writers, though (leaving aside the parallel of those two early stories) not at all alike in what we wrote about or in what measure of recognition we received and deserved. In the new apartment, we shared writing space, sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table. He would be working on "Crying Holy" or on poetry; I was, initially, rewriting a story I had written years ago in high school but had lost, and I finally finished it to my satisfaction and to Jimmy's as well, for we passed our work back and forth, giving and taking criticism. I sent my story, "The Peacock," to Story Magazine, but they didn't want it (they didn't want Jimmy's high school story "The Woman at the Well" either), nor did the next eight magazines I sent it to within a space of eighteen months; but at last, after I had returned home, I sold it to Script, a West Coast New Yorker (if such a thing can be said to have existed). They paid me $75, bought another story the same year for another $75, and upped the ante to $150 for a third story the following year - substantial sums to a young family living on the $90 per month avails of the GI Bill.
Jimmy and I worked hard at that table. One night, as we were writing steadily and for the most part silently, engrossed in our separate fictional worlds, though we faced each other but two feet apart, we both began feeling a little odd - and suddenly snapping to, we realized that the kitchen was filling up with gas from one of the burners on the range. We lunged for it, turned it off, flung open the window, hung out into the night, and breathed the cold, sooty, but at least not immediately lethal air of the Lower East Side. And then we laughed. Jimmy was terrific at laughing. In retrospect I wonder, was his laughter, especially those maniacal shrieks, over the edge, somehow suspect? But that in itself is suspect, analysis by hindsight. What I do know is that I loved making him laugh. I remember one night, the three of us out walking together, when I said that something (I have no recollection what) was "like sliding down a razor blade," and he laughed so hard that he collapsed helplessly over the railing of a basement apartment stairwell, his laughter provoking mine until I went into one of my usual fits of bronchial coughing and clung to the railing along with him.
I was white, Jimmy was black. Jimmy had been raised a Christian, had been a boy preacher; I came from a staunchly atheistic family, had been inside a church perhaps three times in my life. Both our fathers were dead, his having died the previous year, just before Jimmy turned 19, mine long gone, dead before I reached the age of 5. His father - stepfather, in fact - was a preacher. My father was a writer and editor, a socialist and a member of the Industrial Workers of the World - a Wobbly. I could not really remember my father, yet our fathers were both deeply significant in our lives, perhaps even to the point of obsession. We were from opposite edges of the continent. For me, New York was an adventure, and when I was done with it I knew I would leave, and where I would go. For Jimmy, New York was home, and if he had thought that within a few years it would not be home, he would have had no idea of where he might go. France? That would have seemed absurd.
Jimmy and I were so different that we did not even try to bridge the difference, nor did we talk about it. We didn't talk about our fathers, we didn't talk about race. We didn't talk about any of it. We weren't carefully avoiding these matters; rather, it all, including my whiteness and his blackness, seemed irrelevant to the task at hand. We simply sat across the kitchen table from each other and wrote, sharing the sense of work and our seriousness about it and ignoring that unbridged and unremarked upon gulf. If we had been more alike, the same sex, the same color, I suppose we might have been wary and competitive, and perhaps we could never have done it.
Undertaking to type for Jimmy and to do the tedious work of submitting and resubmitting his poetry and "The Woman at the Well" was something I've never done for anyone else. Intent on a literary career of my own, I haven't cared to involve myself with the drudgery of somebody else's career. But from the beginning I believed in Jimmy, and I think that if Jimmy took advantage of people and he most surely did - it was in part because some of us were willing to be taken advantage of. As for me, I was certainly a volunteer. I typed for Jimmy, and now and then I washed his shirts. I was a passable barber and - this was after our wild round-robin of barbering - I more or less routinely cut his hair, which he tamed with Vaseline petroleum jelly at night and covered with a cap made from a woman's stocking, because, he said, it tended otherwise to get "nappy." And I remember shoving a reluctant Jimmy into the 25-cent take-your-own-photo booth, which produced the picture to be sent along with his fellowship application to the Eugene F. Saxton Fund. The quarter was mine.
At the end of February, Hammer & Tongs, the literary group that included Esther Carlson and Richard Wright, decided not to admit Jimmy because of his "psychological record." (If Berkeley was different in those days, what can we say about the writing community!) But Jimmy got a letter from the unstoppable Esther, saying that Wright still wanted to meet him and that, moreover, she was going to read parts of "Crying Holy" at the next H & T meeting, come hell or high water.
We were for a time even content. We went infrequently to the Waldorf. Jimmy said, "I can make coffee," so we stayed home. Jimmy's poems were rejected by Accent, but nicely. I ate my first bagels. Poems went out in batches to several magazines a week. We were waiting to hear from Viking. Finally Jimmy started working on a novelette, "Ignorant Armies," and this allowed him (and me) to swallow our disappointment when on March 13 Viking rejected "Crying Holy" and sent it back. Jimmy put it aside to stew. We immediately sent out more poems.
On my 23rd birthday, Jimmy baked a lopsided and slightly scorched cake, covering it with a powdered-sugar-and-milk icing that looked like the glaze on the ceramic copy of a horned African mask that was my birthday gift from him and Marty. Inside the mask they had written in fat, inky-black letters, "WE ARE HERE TOO" JIM AND MOTTKE MARCH 25, 1945. The next day, Jimmy was out job-hunting again, having refused PM's demand that he work swing shift for no more money than he was already getting. His job at PM had lasted almost a month. To leap ahead, let me record that on April 14 he got a job as a printer's devil, and by April 18 was working as a stock clerk. On April 24 he was working in a grocery, and at lunch time, starting to go out the door, he forgot his copy of T.S Eliot's "Four Quartets" and ran back to get it. The owner saw him sticking it in his pocket, insisted he was stealing something, and demanded he allow himself to be searched. He refused, but emptied his pockets for her. She, however, began digging her own hands in, at which point Jimmy refused further humiliation, asked for his morning's pay, and left. Two days later he was working in a bag factory. I kept track: five jobs in less than ten weeks.
On one of the days when Jimmy wasn't working or job-hunting, we did the laundry together and then went to the Rand Labor School, where, for a New School term paper on the Wobblies, I went through all the IWW newspapers since January. Then we went uptown for the purpose of researching, for Jimmy's "Ignorant Armies," the Wayne Lonergan trial. Lonergan had been sentenced the year before to 35 years to life for the 1943 murder of his wife Patricia Burton, heiress to a multimillion dollar brewery fortune. But we had no luck finding what Jimmy felt he needed, which was some sense of how the press had covered this sensational case, in particular Lonergan's reported homosexuality. "Armies," however, seemed to be coming along well, and working on it kept Jimmy's attention diverted from the rejection of "Crying Holy."
It was spring now. A red and yellow horse-drawn carousel stopped in front of our building one day, and all the children rode on it for a nickel apiece. On the first of April, we walked in the Easter Parade. We picked up our friends Mel and Edna from the Milk Bar, Mel with a knapsack full of liberated food - hot dogs, buns, oranges, a banana. We took the bus to 168th, walked to 181st, then crossed the bridge to New Jersey and into Palisades Park. There we found a deserted stretch of woods (the sign said "UNDEVELOPED AREA - NOT FOR PUBLIC USE"; obviously the place was meant for us) where we built a fire and roasted hot dogs. When we were through with our picnic, we walked down the river road to the 125th Street ferry, crossed back to Manhattan, and went to Harlem to visit Jimmy's mother.
It was a few days later that the President died. Marty could remember FDR's first election only vaguely, I with much more certainty. Jimmy could recall no other president. We all wept.
A week later, Jimmy was looking forward to having dinner with Richard Wright, who had finished reading "Crying Holy" and wanted to talk to him. I was wondering how much weight a recommendation from Wright would carry with the people of the Saxton Memorial Fund, while Jimmy was wrapped up in being nervous. The date was a week away. Fortunately, it was an eventful week. Our toilet broke, the tank falling right off the wall and creating a spectacular flood; we went on another picnic in New Jersey, built another bonfire; Jimmy lost his job in the grocery; and on the literary front, "The Woman at the Well" came back from Story Magazine, and I doggedly sent it out again. Finally word came that Richard Wright was sick - but that he nevertheless wanted Jimmy to come see him.
A door had opened. We were sure everything was going to happen right then. I'm glad we didn't suspect that there wouldn't be a James Baldwin novel in print until eight more years had passed.
At the end of January, I had registered to study under Morris Kantor at the Art Students' League, where Marty was also a student. My New School classes being in the evening, and this gave me something to do in the daytime, for at some point I'd apparently run out of political zeal and was no longer interested in futile leafletting ventures at the doors of upholstery factories. I had no great talent and no concept of how to handle oils (nor did Kantor make any effort to enlighten me), but, marginally better with a pencil, I began carrying a sketchbook and filled it with rough portraits and caricatures of my friends, of Connie and of customers at the Calypso, of faculty and fellow students at the New School, and even once, on the 1st of March, of Greta Garbo as she strode like Queen Christina past my Central Park bench, hat pulled down to meet raincoat collar pulled up to meet hat, but still undeniably Garbo.
I still have that sketchbook. I also have, in mishandled oils, a fair likeness but dreadful painting of Jimmy lighting a cigarette. It was a dramatic and amateurish touch, that cigarette with its garish flame. I don't know why Jimmy indulged me, for I clearly couldn't paint worth a damn and we both knew it. The portrait has never been framed and hung, but has spent the last 48 years moving from house to house and always ending up either in an attic or in a basement, with Jimmy's face turned to the wall.
When he and Esther Carlson finally made the trip to Wright's Brooklyn apartment, Jimmy was still only 20 years old. Those months on East 15th were the last of Jimmy's boyhood. The poetry in that black report binder has something of the adolescent in it, but it is also strong, painful, beautiful. I don't know how much of it, if any, reached print after our informal poet-agent relationship melted away. Only one poem that I know of sold during that time, sold for a single dollar, a ridiculous amount now but enough then for a deposit on a run-down, unfurnished apartment; enough for four 25-cent spaghetti dinners; enough to pay for a drawing of your girlfriend at the Calypso, sketched by Morris Kantor's untalented student. One could, I suppose, pick through these poems of Jimmy's, compare them with later, published ones, and say something about them in lit-crit terms. However, I'm not the one to do it, though I was struck by running across, in his short story in Commentary, "Under Ludwig's drums and horns I listened to hear footsteps on the stairs," the familiarity of which made me leaf through papers in that binder until I found the draft of a poem rifled "Notation (to J.H.)" and read, "Pyotr's blaring horn and Ludwig's drums, and Johan's organ crumble now to dust."
Jimmy may have, as he said, come to terms with his face by the time he was 18; I've never been sure whether to believe it or not. But he was, on East 15th Street, obviously still unable to come to terms with his homosexuality. One night, drunk, talkative, and weepy after a party that had turned sour and ended when I locked the door and poured the rest of the alcohol down the toilet, he said, "I hope you don't think any less of me for what I am, Shannah. Maybe when I'm 25, I won't be this way. Oh, it's so messy, Shah ...." I didn't think any the less of him for what he was, and I told him so. What I didn't tell him was that I didn't think that five years would make any difference.
The war in Europe ended. The school year ended. I headed west. I remember that I had never been able to convince my friends that the brilliant color photograph of a lake in the Cascades that I carried in my billfold was a snapshot I had taken with my own camera. I was certainly naive - in Beth Israel Hospital, I didn't understand why there was no butter for the bread when there was meat for dinner - but so were they, and they were untraveled as well.
Jimmy turned 21 the summer after I went home. We wrote a few letters; he sent me poems to comment on. But what had thrived over the kitchen table on East 15th Street was stretched too thin over 3,000 miles, and we drifted into silence. I had babies; I wrote stories; I got an agent and began to publish in national magazines. A story I wrote about a doomsday cult sold to Woman's Home Companion and supported us - our GI Bill money having run out - through the finishing of my husband's dissertation and the move to his first teaching job. When Go Tell It on the Mountain appeared, I wrote to Jimmy in care of his publisher. It neither surprised nor hurt me to receive no answer. Jimmy's life must have been full of people who knew him when.
I was pleased with Go Tell It on the Mountain and its success, delighted to see Jimmy in Time and, later, on its cover. But I was provoked to mad Baldwinian laughter to find, in a college bookstore rack, a Cliff's Notes devoted to him. I had fully expected him to be published, and I had hoped for and was not surprised by his fame. But something like Cliff's Notes had never occurred to me. My first thought when I was through laughing was that I wished I could time travel back to East 15th Street on some dismal day of multiple rejection slips in early 1945 and say, "Never mind, James Fenimore. Some day - trust me! - some day, Cliff's Notes!"
It is hard to remember those days, not just because they were so long ago, but because I came from and returned to such a different life; and as I sit now and cast back over half a century, I have no ties left to that place, those people. I am 73 years old, a writer, a mother of seven, a grandmother of ten, living on a small island in northwest Washington, five miles from the island's only real town. Our water comes from a well; we heat our house with wood. Deer walk past our windows and look in. Bald eagles and red-tailed hawks soar overhead; ravens croak; a great horned owl hangs out in our woods. Our little town, the county seat, has movies, a community theater, good restaurants, art galleries, but it has no McDonald's and no parking meters, although it did one summer have a sort of meter maid; not lovely Rita, he had a white beard. New York City is light-years away, and I wonder sometimes what happened to everyone. Beauford Delaney is gone, I know, gone since 1979, but I try to picture Marty Gene, the rest of them - unimaginable elderly men.
I went on to write a handful of books, radio plays, a column. I read some, but not all, of what Jimmy wrote, but I doubt he ever read a word of mine. The copy of Time with Jimmy on the cover is in a trunk somewhere, or perhaps at the bottom of that old foot-locker. I have the obituaries, Newsweek and Time for December 14, 1987, Gorbachev on their covers, Jimmy inside. And I have the African mask, the godawful portrait, the poems and their rejection slips, and a couple of snapshots of the Jimmy I knew.
But I never knew the James Baldwin who wrote the essays, who walked with Martin Luther King, Jr., who talked with Margaret Mead. Although I was sure his destiny was to be famous and important, I never knew the famous and the important James Baldwin, only the boy Jimmy, roasting hot dogs in the woods across the Hudson, writing across from me at the kitchen table in Apartment 22. That Jimmy laughs in my memory, and he sings about accentuating the positive, although it seems it was never, after that winter and spring, what he was much good at.
"Shan - What do you think? J.B."
I think 63 was too young, James Fenimore.
Lesley Conger's writings include five books and numerous short stories, radio plays, and essays. She has been a lifelong Northwesterner and lives on San Juan Island in the State of Washington.
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|Title Annotation:||African writer James Baldwin|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1995|
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