I was once asked, as a recently published author, to give the business community some advice. Unfortunately I am a total idiot when it comes to finances, my comprehension in that department is nearly zero, and all I could offer was a window into my vacuity. Still, political campaigns often spend millions trying to court the “undecided vote,” and in the process work overtime to ascertain the psychology of those dunderheads who cannot make up their minds just days before an election. So perhaps the business world should pay me big-time to gain insights into my really rather remarkable ignorance.
When did it start? How is it that I, reasonably intelligent on other subjects, should have utterly failed to pick up a glimmer of understanding when it comes to money? Hedge funds have been explained to me half a dozen times, and still I am unsure what they do. As soon as someone tries to give me a tip about playing the stock market, or refinancing my mortgage, or switching to a better health plan, my mind drifts off, the same way it does when I ask for driving directions and the answer leads to more than one turn.
I suspect terror is at the heart of this resistance. My father struggled during the Great Depression, an experience that not only scars a person for life, but sometimes his progeny as well. I am terrified of going into debt. I bought a new car with cash, depleting my savings account in the process, so that I would not have to pay finance charges. I refused to take out a home repair loan, despite my wife’s insistence that everyone does it.
In this age when every self-respecting college student is applying to MBA programs or scheming to make his first million by thirty, I appreciate that I am out of step. In the early 1960s, when I first dreamed of becoming a writer, I—we—assumed that meant spending decades honing one’s craft, meanwhile working at ill-paid jobs and living on a pittance. This was before the Brat Pack era, when large advances were given out to cute-looking, photogenic authors. My plan worked: I got through the lean years by taking odd jobs (of which more later), and eventually turned myself into a midlist writer of essays, poetry and literary fiction. I never assumed there would be a big payday; all I wanted was the respect of my peers. Could anyone have shown less business sense?
What is wrong with me? I simply can’t make myself care about accumulating lots of money. Or am I fooling myself? It could be that I disdain profit-making in part because I am just no good at it; but which came first? Suffice to say that I and the profit motive are barely on speaking terms. I am willing to donate my brain to science when I expire, if it will help the business community solve the riddle of people such as myself.
In the beginning God created Money. Dollars, shekels, cruzeiros, kopeks, rubles, rials, francs, euros, lire, pieces of eight, pounds sterling, krugerrands, yen, deutschmarks, obals, created He them. Next came camels, sheep, burrows, oxen and parrots. Then God absconded, leaving Money to rule over the earth.
I love money. Gimme gimme gimme gimme gimme.
Seriously, I welcome money whenever it is offered me. I do not regard it as bad in the slightest, much less the root of all evil. At the same time, the thought of money freezes my brain. It’s the shameful, unpleasant desire for it that irks me. All my life I’ve forbidden myself to want it. No no no!
I had a friend, the great poet Kenneth Koch, who told me that of course he invested in the stock market because how else could one expect to get a reasonable return on one’s capital? I was stunned. Though what he said made perfect sense, it came from another planet: I would never have assumed I was entitled to receive a cushy return from the money I earned. Koch had grown up securely middle-class in Cincinnati, whereas I had been reared close to the poverty line in Brooklyn. Twice, when I had a little extra savings, I went into the stock market, and both times I pulled out once the value of stocks started plummeting. My investments were virtually wiped out. Not only did I not have the courage to wait out the downturn, I could not find the tiniest available unused corner of my mind to attend to the value or trajectory of individual stocks the broker had bought in my name.
It is difficult to speak about having grown up poor without sounding self-pitying or self-righteous. But it was simply a fact: we had no surplus. My mother used to flirt with the deli man so that she could delay paying our weekly tab. There was a period when my father was laid off, during which we ate macaroni and cheese for a month and little else. I used to steal dimes from my mother’s pocket book, or from the corners of the living room where she had sequestered coins for a rainy day, a kind of peasant superstition, and go down to the street to buy a knish (by the way, the knishes of my youth were much tastier, more oniony, earthy, certainly not the so recently frozen and defrosted ones today) or a whipped cream concoction called Charlotte Russe. My criminality was prodded by a grumbling stomach. Later, in freshman year at college, I craved books, especially the square-bound quality paperbacks that were just coming into circulation, like Noonday’s or Grove Press’s, Schocken’s or Anchor’s. I needed what was in those books (Kierkegaard, D. H. Lawrence) and didn’t have the money to buy them, so I stuffed them into my coat or down my shirt front, until the fear of getting caught chastened me. Those first two years in college were the poorest I would ever be. I used to lie in bed mornings trying to come up with money-making schemes. Though I’d won a full scholarship to a good college, I could not think of any way of loaning my brainpower to dimmer others in return for cash. It was my first ray of understanding that I must not have been as smart as I thought I was. “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?”
“The rich are different from you and me.”
“Yes, they have more money.”
Famous exchange between American literary titans, Hemingway one-upping Fitzgerald, showing he was not intimidated by wealth, though I’ve always thought Fitzgerald was the more correct. I have had occasional dealings with the rich: they are different. One difference I find is that most of their domiciles look disappointingly impersonal, as though the interior decorator they hired chose from the same catalogues and auction houses as did high-end hotels, or as though they thought an expressively lived-in, cluttered quality—proof that human beings actually inhabited the place—was a sign of inferior breeding.
When I taught at the University of Houston during the 1980’s, there were so few professional writers in town that I was invited to the homes of the cultured wealthy. They were amiable, hospitable and touchingly deferential to creative folk. But I found it impossible to promote a real friendship with any of these moneyed people. I did not know the code of manners that might lead to greater intimacy with them. My celebrity value as a writer wore off, and in the end they preferred to be among people of their own tax bracket, just as I found it more comfortable to be among my economic peers.
Nouveaux riches are the best. They’re not jaded. They still believe in the power and joy of money; they still want. When I encounter satires in nineteenth-century novels of the parvenu nouveaux riches trying to acquire refinement, my heart goes out to them. The superior scorn that artistic types direct toward the bourgeoisie seems wholly unmerited. Maybe it’s that I’ve never doubted I was artistic, whereas it has taken some doing to climb into the middle class, one of my proudest achievements (though it goes without saying that I am still trapped in a mindset somewhere between working class and lower-middle-class). Perhaps for that reason, it offends me when Democratic politicians, who should know better, phrase their election promises entirely in terms of helping “middle class families.” I would like to think, having finally made it into that privileged rung, that others need governmental help more, such as the homeless, the deserving poor, and my favorite category for support, the undeserving poor.
Money and labor aren’t necessarily connected, but in my case I always knew that if I wanted the kale, the gelt, the moolah, I would have to work for it. The world was under no obligation to subsidize my literary pursuit, nor was my family, bless them, capable of doing so. I put myself in harness early.
My first paying job was singing in the Silbermintz choir, a Hebrew boys’ and men’s chorus I joined when I was eleven. I was paid twenty-five dollars a year to rehearse regularly and sing at weddings, bar mitzvahs, High Holiday services and concerts with famous cantors such as David Koussevitsky. My older brother Leonard and I were the only public school kids, not yeshiva boys, in the choir; we had little piety but liked to sing. The Silbermintz, reputed to be the second-best Jewish choir in the New York area, was sufficiently large that during the High Holidays we would be split up, some of us sent to a big synagogue on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx and others to a Kings Highway shul in Brooklyn. I had been promoted to Part Leader because I had a good ear, but was rarely given solos. My voice, I gathered, sounded too “American,” it lacked the shtetl trill that could bring tears to old congregants’ eyes. After I turned thirteen and had my bar mitzvah, I quit the choir, telling myself I had been underpaid and disrespected. (Also, my voice had started to change, with puberty). Only recently have I realized what a fool I’d been: the Silbermintz choir was a classy outfit, I should have stayed on the job and learned all I could.
Subsequently I was hired as a tutor in Hebrew and English to our downstairs neighbor’s boy, Georgie. They paid me something like a dollar an hour (a raise from my previous choir salary), and I lasted over a year before being fired for slapping my aggravating pupil a time or two. I had much to learn about teaching.
Around that time I also worked as a counselor in a summer camp for mentally retarded and emotionally disturbed children in upstate New York. I got along all right with my charges, but clashed with the director of the camp, and was forced to leave before the summer ended.
In high school, I took an after-school job at an import-export house across from the Flatiron Building. The job consisted of taking carpets to the backyard and beating them to get out the dust. I lasted a week, then called in and claimed my father or grandfather had died: the old kill-off-a-relative gambit.
I worked as messenger several summers between school years. The jobs paid somewhere along the lines of thirty dollars a week. The first time I pretended it was my life’s ambition to work for the firm, American Standard, which manufactured toilets: I had no desire to be anything other than a mail-boy, I said, college was out of the question. Right after Labor Day I joined a conga line of boys who gave notice, to the disenchanted disgust of the mailroom supervisor. The following summer I worked for a public relations firm, sorting mail and delivering liquor bottles to journalists whose cooperation was solicited. I walked around the city reading Russian novels on my deliveries. All went well until one afternoon when I was being driven somewhere in midtown by the mailroom head: as soon as we stopped I unthinkingly or insouciantly opened the company limousine door, which was promptly rammed into by an oncoming car, requiring major garage repair. I was not forgiven.
While still a freshman at Columbia, I ran away from home in Brooklyn, which meant I had to find ways to feed myself and earn spending money. I sold soda at the college football games, worked in the school library, washed dishes in the cafeteria (mine, a pair of hands that took trays from the conveyer belt and dumped the excess down a smelly slop bin), and checked for jackets and ties in the Student Center. I also sold catalogues for special exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum on weekends.
During my last two years of college I ran a campus film series showing 16mm prints, and it made money overall. One of our biggest hits was Hitchcock’s Notorious,with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman: I ran an ad in the campus paper as Spring break approached: “You can’t go home until you see Notorious!” We were supposed to use the profits to pay for our own filmmaking projects, but most of it ended in my pocket. I was often too excited counting the take to watch the first half-hour of the movie.
After graduating college, I spent a few years trying to write the great American novel, bringing in zero income and being supported by my first wife. This Eden could not go on indefinitely. I became a ghost-writer. I would answer ads for “editorial assistance,” a euphemism, I discovered, for writing some article or conference paper from scratch. It was decently paid, $7 an hour, all the more so since I did the work at home and could pad my hours. Ghost writing is a fun profession. It sharpened my ability to manipulate persona and voice on the page, and my fiction-writing skills. But the work was irregular; I needed to get a full-time job and pretend at least to be a responsible adult and wage-earning husband.
I went to work for The National Enquirer as a proofreader, taking the bus each morning from the Port Authority to the paper’s printing plant in Tenafly, New Jersey. It was there I learned that many of that scandal sheet’s items were hoary bits in the public domain, recycled to look new. They kept retouching the photos of killers, in keeping with some Lombroso-like pseudoscience about the way psychotic criminals were supposed to look: the foreheads got lower and lower, the eyes piggier, and the end results appeared more like courtroom sketches than photography. The two veteran proofreaders whom I assisted were cultivated, well-read men in their fifties, but I saw in their blanched, torpid faces my fate if I were to stay at that job, and got out.
The ensuing search led me to a nonprofit social agency in the Lower East Side, part of Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty program. When the agency discovered I could write, they put me to work analyzing a questionnaire about satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the program, which had been administered to a group of Hispanic paraprofessionals and their trainers. The trainers’ answers, I was instructed, were marked by the category T1 and the paraprofessionals’ by T2. At the time a fervent Marxist, I acidulously provided explanations for every statistical variation along Marxist lines, and my boss was delighted, taking the results down to Washington where she presented them to polite bureaucratic approval. Everyone was happy, until it was discovered that a mistake had been made: T1 were actually the medical paras and T2 their trainers. In short, the radical views came from the agency supervisors and the conservative ones from the striver-workers. Though the mistake had not been mine, the questionnaire had been compromised and I was let go.
I ran into Kenneth Koch, who asked me what I was up to, and when I said I was looking for employment he told me he was giving up his gig teaching children creative writing in the Bedford-Lincoln Neighborhood Muse, and I could take it over if I liked. I did not think I had any interest in kids, nor did I see myself as a teacher, but I was desperate and agreed to try. To my surprise, I turned out to like children and teaching both, quite a lot. I then applied to Teachers & Writers Collaborative, a Writers-in-the-Schools organization, and they sent me into a commercial high school, where I got in trouble for encouraging the students to write freely on any topic they liked. They chose sex and drugs, naturally: I was banished from the school, but that seemed appropriate, radical martyrdom through challenging the System being the fashion.
Running away again, this time from my first marriage, I landed in Berkeley, California and tried to find some honest manual labor, only to discover that I was in competition with masses of downwardly mobile post-doctoral students, not to mention unemployed workingmen. I settled finally on a job in the post office, which they were required to give me by virtue of my having passed a civil service examination. I never went out on a mail route, sorting mail instead for seven or eight hours a day in the backroom with the marijuana-sniffing dogs. After several months of this tedious, back-hurting labor I quit, and took a job in a 16mm film rental house, Audio-Brandon, from which I had rented in my days of running a campus film festival. Though it seemed a fine thing at first to book 16mm prints of such classics as Potemkin and Seven Samurai for college campuses, the novelty quickly wore off. I was essentially a shipping clerk, and a poorly paid one. (We are talking about money, are we not?)
I convinced a private school in Oakland to hire me as a creative writing specialist, and ended up teaching seven writing classes a day, plus monitoring the after-school playground. My educational philosophy conflicted with the headmistress’s (this time a poem about vomit got me in trouble) and I was fired. Several parents approached me and asked if I would agree to run a new progressive school they were thinking of starting. The thought terrified me. Homesick for New York, I high-tailed it back east.
Teachers & Writers kindly took me on again, and sent me to Harlem to work with adolescent dropouts seeking their GED (general education diploma). I did my best to help them with their reading, math and science, meanwhile mixing in the occasional creative writing exercise. I again got into trouble—third time!—by sponsoring a student literary magazine, whose contents irritated the agency directors. Unfazed, or secretly approving of my trouble-making, Teachers & Writers promoted me to direct a team of writers at a West Side public school, P.S. 75.
Thus began the happiest employment experience of my life. My team and I taught K-6 grade kids to write poetry and fiction, which we published in a stream of chapbooks; we helped them make Super 8 films and videotapes, shown in the school and at various film festivals; we started a radio station, whose tapes were re-broadcast on WBAI; we had them draw comic books and printed the results; we mounted plays written by them, as well as full-scale productions of West Side Story and Uncle Vanya. We also collaborated with the regular schoolteachers and got involved in the parents’ association and the daily life of the school. I had learned how to assist the educational process without going down in flames. It was a wholly satisfying experience, which I described in my book, Being with Children. After the book came out, I became regarded as something of an educational expert, and spoke to teachers’ groups around the country. The problem was that my Teachers & Writers salary had reached the upper limit at $13,000 a year, which, even adjusting for inflation, was peanuts in 1981. Thirty-eight years of age, with three books at that time to my credit, I was still making barely enough dough to get by. Regretfully I left teaching children and went off to academia—the University of Houston my first stop, followed by Bennington, Hofstra and now Columbia University. College teaching at last afforded me an escalator to a decent salary.
I am fascinated with narratives about money. Those storytellers who use the pressure of money as a device seem to me more grounded in reality, while those who ignore it strike me as somehow airy, less substantial. Balzac often subjected his characters to a shortfall to get them moving. Dreiser showed the problem from both ends: in Sister Carrie, through Hurstwood’s fall, and in The Financier, through Frank Cowperwood’s connivances. Perhaps one reason Dreiser was criticized as being vulgar was because of his preoccupation with cash; Fitzgerald depicted the strains of social class, less so the having or not having of filthy lucre. Trollope’s The Way We Live Now is a beautifully precise narrative about financial speculation. In Gissing’s novels, the debt collector is never far away; Jane Austen doesn’t go near the stuff, nor George Eliot, for the most part, though Eliot drew a vivid portrait of a miser in Silas Marner. Gender cannot be the dividing line: Willa Cather touches on money frequently, and in The House of Mirth Edith Wharton constructed a classic novel around downward mobility. The Chinese writer Lu Hsun said that if one wanted to understand what the world was like, the surest way was to fall from wealth to poverty. Central to Japanese culture is the notion of indebtedness: one sees it for instance in the films of Naruse and Mizoguchi, where women are often forced to sell their favors to get themselves or their families out of debt; not so much in Ozu, who, for all his psychological weight, sticks mostly to the financially protected corporate lifers of the middle class. One reason I find Murakami slight is that he rarely discusses money. Stories about waging bets for high stakes that could bankrupt the bettor, such as Dostoevsky’s The Gambler or Schnitzler’s Daybreak, induce queasy palpitations of excitement and dread in me. Similarly, all movies about being in debt to the mob with time running out grip me.
When I came to write my novel The Rug Merchant, I used the plot device of an imminent drastic rise in rent to get my passive, dreamy shopkeeper-hero off his duff, hoping that financial pressure would keep the tension high throughout the book, like a tightening noose. In my pair of novellas, Two Marriages, I made the characters comfortably well off—much more so than their author—because I wanted to imagine what it might feel like to be without monetary concerns, and what other problems (jealousy, excessive leisure and the resulting vocational purposelessness) might come to the fore. I sacrificed grounding in reality for the delights of fantasy.
In my own life, possessing a sense of vocation, whether it be writing or teaching, has luckily sustained me, though I am inclined to think both ensued as much from money anxiety as from talent or devotion to these crafts. Vocation gave me direction, a path through the exigencies of earning a living, a rationalization for not having more of a bank account in periods of gaudy capital expansion, and, in short, a way to distract myself from the wolf scratching at the door.