My First Novel: What Happened And Why (Part 2)

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Well, none of that happened.

I sent the book around to maybe 10 or 12 editors at top book publishing houses. And back came the manuscript, with notes, one after another, all basically saying, No, sorry, good stuff, interesting, well-written, good try, close but no cigar, thanks for the look.


Worst disappointment ever.

High hopes dashed but good.

And my freelance career, because I all but stopped getting my stuff in magazines and newspapers, and lost touch with almost all the editors I’d come to know, pretty much fell apart in the process. And our savings were all but gone.

Double ouch.

So what do I make of this experience now, more than 20 years later? Well, first, I have no regrets about trying my hand at a novel. It was just something I needed to do, and eventually, no matter what, I was going to do it. Writing the book gave me the deepest pleasure, nothing less than ecstasy.

My only real regret was over how I went about doing it – meaning focusing on it to the exclusion of my money-making responsibilities, and in the process, blowing our savings.

Big mistake.

If I had it all to do over again, I would have gone at it differently. I would have done the novel on the side, as if it were a second job, instead of giving it center stage.

I’d suffered a bout of youthful arrogance, and paid a price. Within two years I took on a part-time job in New Jersey, and two years later I switched, for the first time in ten years, to a full-time job.

Lesson learned – a hard lesson, to be sure, but hard lessons are probably the best because those are the ones you never forget. And, believe me, you never do.

My First Novel: What Happened And Why

Dear Michael and Caroline,

When I turned 30, I started to write my first novel. By then I’d wanted to write a novel for maybe 10 years, all the while knowing I was far from ready. But something about approaching the milestone of 30 decided me.

I stumbled through an early draft, then kept stumbling, and finally stopped. I picked up the project about four years later – by then I was a fulltime freelancer – and really buckled down.

The novel would be about a standup comedian, moderately successful, who suddenly finds himself no longer funny and suffers panic attacks, and then, in order to stage a comeback, tries to “scare himself brave,” mainly with risk sports such as rock climbing.

It would have some humor – hard to do a novel about a standup comedian without some humor – and it would depict the standup landscape, terrain I learned a little through interviews with comedians such as Jay Leno and visits to comedy clubs and articles I wrote for Playboy and Penthouse. It was more than a little autobiographical – I have a reputation for being funny on occasion – and it was called “Laughing Matters.”

For a year or two I worked on my novel, setting aside almost all other freelance assignments. My writing career was going pretty well at that point. I was publishing pieces in many major magazines, from Esquire and GQ to Glamour and Self and The New York Times, covering health and sports and business and family, in investigative articles and so-called service pieces and personal essays. I was even making a decent living, earning more than I had at the job I left. So I felt kind of full of myself, ready for the final frontier in literature, the novel.

So confident was I in my abilities – and in the likelihood of reserve funds from my family, particularly my grandmother, should I need any – that I all but stopped making money for at least a year, instead drawing heavily on our wedding money. I went through pretty much all of it – maybe $10,000 or $15,000, and this was back in the mid-1980s, when an annual income of $25,000 was respectable for a guy in his early 30s – because I saw it as a bet sure to pay off. Some big publisher would swoop in to snatch up my book and insist on giving me a chunk of change, plus a contract for a second novel, and all the reviews would hail the newcomer to the literary arena.

P.S. – See part 2 tomorrow.

That Wail In The Elevator Came From My Grandfather: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

He’d gone to college in the 1920s, Baruch at CUNY on East 23rd Street, the first in his family to reach higher education, and then he got married in 1927, and soon the Great Depression hit, and he went around to businesses in the Bronx – dry cleaners, auto-repair shops, anything – offering to do the books.

He’d eventually done well, well enough to drive a Cadillac, belong to a country club in Westchester, travel to Europe and Asia with friends.

But he always wanted to do better and seemed occasionally disappointed in himself. One time he told me about a residential property he bought along with some partners in the 1950s. As it happens, it was the very apartment complex in Fair Lawn where my mother now lives.

“I sold it too soon,” he said. “I wanted fast money. If I had held onto it longer, I would be a millionaire now.”

So that’s how it went with my Poppa. He shared himself with me, his dreams, his life, his love. He gave me a glimpse of how a man should act, at the office, on the golf course, at home.

He also showed me, without ever saying as much, how much life could hurt you, how your wife could annoy you, how a client could cheat you. He took me to a deli for dinner once, and after we ate he lacked exact change at the cash register. “I’ll owe you the penny,” he said, but the cashier refused, and my grandfather, scowling, said, “I’ll remember that.”

He usually wore a frown, the result of a mouth that naturally turned down at the sides. He had a jaw like a bulldog – see our photos of him – and a chest thicker with hair than any you ever saw, and he could whack a golf ball 200 yards, and talked in a deep, gruff voice, and now he was dying of lung cancer and I’d never lost anyone I loved before.

One night I saw the frown erased from his face. My Uncle Leonard held a 65th birthday party for him, and my grandfather had more than a few drinks. His face grew red from all the scotch, and he laughed more than I ever saw him laugh and, surrounded mostly by friends but also family, he broke into song, “The Man On The Flying Trapeze.” The only lyric I caught was, “He flies through the air with his balls hanging bare.”

It had to be the happiest I ever saw him, and it made me happy to see him so happy, even if he had to get drunk to get there.

Weeks before he went into Mount Sinai, I visited him at home. The doctors had already diagnosed his cancer and I had no idea what would happen or how bad it might be.

“So did you hear about the Mets today?” I asked.

We had always talked baseball, he and I, which teams won and who hit a home run.
“Ah,” he said, and waved his hand dismissively, a clearcut signal of resignation, maybe even disgust. It was then that I knew he might be far gone. If he had given up on baseball, he had given up on living.

And now a nurse came into his hospital room to say he had to go for tests and my grandfather said why more tests. He rolled over onto a gurney as instructed and the nurse wheeled him into an elevator and I went with him.

My grandfather – whose father was an illiterate peasant but who himself had sent his son to Yale Law school and bought his daughter a $21,000 house in 1954 and who could whack a golf ball 200 yards – then let out a wail, a wail keening and high-pitched and piercing, wailing his guts out, raging against the dying of the light. He could see the end coming now, just as I had when he stopped caring about baseball. I’ll never forget how that wail sounded, and I never should.

And after he died, weeks or months later, I wrote him a poem, called “Letter to Poppa,” imagining a conversation with him in heaven. And now he lives on in my heart, and in my son, who carries his name, “Benjamin.”

Nobody we remember with love ever really dies.

That Wail In The Elevator Came From My Grandfather

Dear Michael and Caroline,

My Poppa lies in a bed at Mount Sinai Hospital, on Fifth Avenue at 105th Street. He’s gone pale, his head tilted to the side on the pillow, the IV in his arm. He has cancer of the throat and he’s dying.

I’m 29 years old and my grandfather Sheft means the world to me. He took me to Yankee Stadium in 1960, my first trip there. I slept in a bed with him during Christmas vacations as a kid. He took me to his office across from Grand Central Terminal.

How can he die?

He always called me “Bobby boy,” always cheerfully.

“Hello, Bobby boy!” he would boom.

He always seemed glad to see me. I could always count on his attention, depend on him to look me in the eye and lend me an ear. He saved me from my father, my absentee father, even became my father, my substitute father, doting on me, asking after me, worrying about me.

I would show him an article I wrote for a newspaper or a magazine and he might say, “Wow! Such a long article!” A long article always impressed him.

We would watch a basketball game and he might say, “They should be shooting better – that’s why the Knicks are losing.” To him, the game came down strictly to which team shot better.

He would come home from the office and call out hello and take off his suit jacket and loosen his tie and ease into his Eames chair with the evening news on TV and Nana would pour him a scotch on the rocks and he would take a sip and click his tongue and let out this long, deep sigh, exhaling all the tension from his day as an accountant keeping track of other people’s money.

“So how goes it, Bobby boy?” he might then be ready to say.

He would ask me about school or my search for a job. I had trouble finding my first job after college. My problem was that I was particular about the kind of job I wanted, plus the city had gone into a serious economic slum and jobs were hard to come by.

“I’d like to see you situated,” he would say, nodding his head with grave concern. He already understood something I learned only decades later: that a job was kind of everything. You had to make a living.

He would lean back in his chair, his legs opening and closing rapidly, a nervous habit of his, still charged up from his hours at the office. As he sipped his scotch – I noticed he always sipped it, gingerly, savoring it – his legs would be slower to open and close, meaning he was finally winding down.

P.S. – See part 2 tomorrow.

Say Hello To The Chirichellas: When Jew and Italian Marry: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

At one point we took your grandmother Nettie to visit my grandparents the Shefts in their Upper East Side apartment, maybe on Thanksgiving. If I recall right, Nettie was reluctant to go, feeling uncomfortable about it, even nervous, maybe worried about feeling out of place. Somehow we must have convinced her the visit would turn out fine.

And on the whole it did. She looked around my grandparents’ handsomely appointed apartment, with the thick carpeting and heavy drapes and gleaming old-wood furniture, and I imagined her thinking she had entered another universe. She spoke very little, quite uncharacteristic of her, and only when someone, my grandmother Gertrude or my Uncle Leonard, said something to her. And when she did speak, she spoke a little differently from the usual, her diction just a touch crisper.

Everyone got along well, but the room definitely was fraught with anxiety, both guest and hosts uneasy with each other, unsure what to say or ask.

Yes, deep down we’re all people, all presumably the same. But was my grandfather going to ask Nettie about her stock portfolio? Was Nettie going to ask him where he bought his mozzarella? I doubt it. A gulf loomed between our families, all but impossible to breach (though your mother and I managed to do it all right).

We were rich and she was poor.

We were educated and she was uneducated.

We were Jewish and she was Italian.

So this divide spanned class, money, culture and religion.

And so it went at our wedding.

Over here you had my Aunt Zelda from West Orange, elegant and beautiful, and over there Mom’s Aunt Carmela, earthy and volcanic and loud.

Over here you had my Uncle Mark, inheritor of an insurance company, and over there Elvira’s Uncle Nick, who once tried out for the New York Giants (the baseball team that once played at the Polo Grounds in the Bronx, before it moved to San Francisco) and fixed elevators for a living.

I could go on about this clash of cultures, about how seriously I took it at the time and how funny it seems in hindsight, but for now I’ll finish with your grandmother’s first visit with my family that night. I remember feeling protective of her, alive to any potential insult.

But most of all, I remember being proud of her, proud of how she carried herself, proud of how she represented her family, proud of how she demonstrated, to anyone willing to notice, that she was just as good as they – and maybe, just maybe, a whole lot better.

Say Hello To The Chirichellas: When Jews and Italians Marry

Dear Michael and Caroline,

It’s a long time ago, probably 1976, before my adult life got going, and Elvira and I are taking a stroll around her neighborhood in Williamsburg. It’s drizzling out, but neither of us seem to mind much – it’s as if being together keeps us dry.

And then I hear Elvira call out, “Grandpa.” And I look over to where she called and there he is, her grandfather, Nicholas, or Nick, skinny as a stick, his face gaunt and shriveled, standing in a doorway in the rain.

He looks old, really old (I was only 24 then, so half the world came across as old), and as he says hello, I see he’s missing most of his teeth.

Elvira introduces us, we shake hands, and he seems pleasant enough. It’s my first time meeting anyone in Elvira’s family other than her mother, and it’s jarring. All I can think is that her grandfather is nothing like either of mine – nothing, even, that squares with my concept of a grandfather.

It had a lot to do with the teeth. Everyone in my family had a full mouth of teeth. I’d never before met anyone missing so many teeth. It also had to do with him standing in the doorway in the rain. I tried to imagine anyone in my family standing in a doorway in the rain, but no such image would come forth.

Oh, make no mistake: Nicholas Chirichella turned out to be a decent guy, and always treated me well. He was quiet, though with a colorful tongue, and a good grandfather and father as far as I knew.

It’s just that he was . . . different.

Different from my family – and different from my family as everyone in Elvira’s family was different from my family.

P.S. – See Part 2 tomorrow.

Job One Is Doing The Job: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

One summer, when I was about 18, I worked in a warehouse. My father got me the job through a family connection. I loaded 50-pound sacks of flour onto railroad boxcars in 100-degree heat. I never labored physically so hard in my life, neither before nor since.

Every day that summer I came home exhausted, barely able to move. I had to blow my nose for five minutes just to eliminate all the accumulated gunk I inhaled in those boxcars. I came home so filthy, my hands smeared black, that I had to scrub myself with special industrial soap, scrub and scrub until the smell of the warehouse was gone.

I learned that that’s how some people work because that’s the only job they can get, and to appreciate the opportunity to go to college and get an education and work in an office where my fingernails would never get dirty. That job taught me a lesson I’ll never forget, a lesson well-learned.

I also delivered pizza in Hackensack one summer, driving around in our blue Chevelle with a hotbox in the back seat, trying to find the right houses and apartments, getting tipped 50 cents here and maybe a dollar there.

I put in some time at a Sam Goody store, too, at the Garden State Plaza, directing customers to the new Led Zeppelin albums and getting paid all of $1.60 an hour.
I worked briefly in a children’s clothing store, too, and for two whole days at a dry-cleaning establishment in Fort Lee (I was terrible at wrapping laundry).

I shoveled snow, too, sidewalks and driveways, for a few bucks here and there, more for the adventure than the money.

We always had money, but somehow my family impressed on me at an early age – my first newspaper route came at 12 – that I should hold a job. And that attitude carried into adulthood.

And again, I’ve benefitted from all my jobs. At my first adult job, at a weekly newspaper, I got to cover the news. Then, at a magazine for pharmacists, I covered the drugstore business. It was hardly the perfect job, but my editor, Stanley Siegelman, liked my writing and gave me free rein.

Years later, I would switch careers from journalism to public relations, and come under the tutelage of Morty Matz, in his cramped offices on lower Broadway, just two blocks north of City Hall, and then the masterly Howard Rubenstein.

And in those six years with those two men, I got to live a life few people ever see. I handled every kind of client from a socialite accused of assault to the world’s best known celebrity divorce attorney. I helped keep the famous famous and the rich rich. And in the process I discovered that I could practice a second profession as well as I had the first, maybe better, and certainly earn a better income.

I also came to recognize that I was capable of working harder and longer – and, yes, smarter, too – than I ever imagined possible. So let me bring this to a close and say that although I never really wanted to hold a job, it’s good I did, and do.

Job One is Doing the Job

Dear Michael and Caroline,

I never in my life really wanted to hold a job, much less the 15 or so that I’ve held. A job often meant doing what someone else wanted me to do rather than what I myself chose to do.Some of us prefer to preserve our independence, to think and act as we wish to think and act.

Then again, one also has to get real.

I’ve taken jobs because I needed to, because I had to make a living and support my family. A job also means you go in to an office to work and then you come home with money in your pocket. Your health insurance is covered and you have a pension plan. You get to take vacations and holidays.

A job has its advantages. If you’re lucky, your job is inherently rewarding. You’re assigned to cover a murder for a newspaper. You interview a police officer at a coffee shop about a union official found shot in the head at his desk, gangland-style. So you write an article that people read.

Your client comes to you needing attention for a new drug or a service or his CEO. You put together a plan and discuss the strategy and start calling the media. And then comes coverage in The Wall Street Journal.

You see, I have no issue with the work itself. I like the work. It’s the rest of it I could do without. The protocols, processes and procedure.

But that’s how it goes with a job. You deliver the newspapers, just as I did as a boy. You stack the papers into a basket on the handlebars of your bicycle and pedal around the neighborhood flinging the news onto front lawns. It could be cold out or rainy and you could be sleepy and maybe you would rather watch Popeye cartoons or play baseball. But you do it because it’s your job.

And let me tell you something important here. I’ve loved most of my jobs. I’ve learned something valuable from every job I’ve held.

P.S. – See Part 2 tomorrow.

Just Call Me The Tabloid Kid: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

That Monday I started at my desk. The editor was Bill, who was mostly Irish but part Cherokee and had hair to his shoulders, maybe 10 years my senior, married to an Israeli woman and living in a hotel on Gramercy Park with a new baby. A good guy, Bill, with a sharp editorial eye and a sense of humor and appreciation of my reporting abilities. The publisher was Richard, only two years older than I, a former Daily News reporter, a rich suburban kid from Tenafly, New Jersey, who got the startup funds from his father. The other reporter there was Shelley, a gum-chewing, wise-cracking blond from Long Island who acted just like the Rosalind Russell character in “His Gal Friday,” all sharp elbows and crusty patter.

And so for the next year I was a big-city reporter on a small newspaper, and it felt like I got to do just about everything you can do on a newspaper.

Every week I went to the local police precinct to get the lowdown on the latest crimes in the neighborhood.

I went to local community board meetings to hear about efforts to put up new buildings and otherwise alter the cityscape.

I attended press conferences held by State Senators and City Council members and, once, a congressman named Ed Koch, whom I briefly met and who of course then went on to become Mayor New York City for 12 years.

I covered a murder in a union office suspected of being a mob hit, and fires and political feuds and all kinds of scandals and controversies.

I reviewed movies, plays, books and restaurants, and for a while there I even had my own column, called “Deadline,” that presumed to be humorous.

I wrote everything from articles to headlines and photo captions, edited pieces contributed by freelancers, and even did some layout and pasteup. Every week the paper came off the press and I held it in my hands with the kind of pride you feel only once in your life, right at the start of your career, a pride fresh and pure and free of precedent or taint. You know you’re finally getting going. I was covering the city and learning the city and loving the surprises that lurked around any corner, because on any newspaper you never know what the news is going to be the next day.

So what if it was a small paper, with only about 50,000 readers, and free. So what that I was making only $9,000 a year. To a kid who wanted nothing more than to be a reporter for a newspaper. It was everything I might have expected, and then some. It was home. It was heaven. It was the best background possible for everything that came after.

I’m so glad I got that job, so grateful, because it would turn out to be my only stint on staff at a newspaper. But I would go on to freelance for many newspapers for many years. In fact, within only five or six years of leaving The Eastside Courier, I was already seeing my pieces in The New York Times, The Daily News and Newsday. That first job meant the world to me. It’s yet further proof of the axiom that sometimes it’s better to be lucky than smart.

Just Call Me The Tabloid Kid

Dear Michael and Caroline,

My first real full-time job after college turned out to be just about the best imaginable. All I really wanted to do for a living after finishing college was go work as a reporter on a newspaper.
So I wrote letters and sent resumes to about 70 newspapers around the country, including, of course, New York City. Nothing – no interest, no interviews and still no job.

I’d looked for a job for about a year, though admittedly none too hard. And I’d gotten a few small freelance reporting assignments, mainly doing a three-part series about then newly developed Roosevelt Island for a weekly newspaper called The Manhattan East (my first article fetched me all of $15, then I got a raise to a princely $20).

I was living on East 7th Street between First Avenue and Avenue A, in a $150-a-month studio apartment, and the bar mitzvah savings I was living on were just about gone. I’d graduated from college a whole year earlier and still had yet to get any kind of career going, let alone a journalistic or literary one.

Then one day I saw a job ad in the paper and went in for an interview. It was a new weekly community newspaper, the Eastside Courier, that covered Manhattan’s East Side from 14th to 79th Streets. And I got the gig.

I remember one moment afterwards particularly well. I walked out of the building on Park Avenue South and 17th Street and a light snow was coming down, the streets thinly coated with white. I looked up at the sky, just to watch the flakes falling, and happened to turn my eyes straight into the glare of a street lamp. I was already excited about getting my first real job, an adult job, ecstatic about going to work at a real newspaper and making $175 a week being a reporter. I was looking forward to telling my family and friends and everyone being proud of me, all those doubts about whether I could even find a job finally laid to rest.

And because of my angle of vision at that moment, the light from the streetlamp refracted through the shower of snow, and I saw a kaleidoscope of colors, a whole rainbow. I squinted in disbelief at the spectacle, my eyelashes wet with snow, and the prism effect became exaggerated, the rainbow colors shooting out in bright spokes. It was quite a moment, full of fate, and I was giddy, just deliriously happy, about this important step, much needed, toward becoming a grown-up (though full membership in that organization was still probably about 10 years ahead).

P.S. – See part 2 tomorrow.