October 07

“Killers”: Excerpted from I Did It My Way

Yoram Kaniuk

Translated by Anthony Berris

Yoram Kaniuk says that he has died at least twice. And while that’s something of an exaggeration, there’s no question he has had enough experience for several lifetimes. In the War of Independence, Kaniuk fought in the battle for Jerusalem and was seriously injured. Later, Kaniuk moved to New York City to pursue a career as an artist. Manhattan in the 1950s was the epicenter of bohemianism, where an ambitious young artist could rub shoulders with jazz greats in Harlem, showgirls and actors on Broadway, and action painters, filmmakers, and intellectuals in Greenwich Village. Kaniuk met them all, a roster of luminaries including Billie Holiday, Marlon Brando, and Willem de Kooning. In this selection from his memoir, I Did It My Way, Kaniuk recalls Holiday’s last performance and describes, with embellishments that reveal his gift for the absurd, a mysterious hero of that era. But the most significant presence in I Did It My Way is bebop saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, to whose memory the book is dedicated. The associative and sometimes breathless style of this excerpt pays homage to Parker’s legacy. At least in Kaniuk’s exuberant recollections, “Bird Lives!”

– Adam Rovner, Hebrew Translations Editor

Back in New York. 1958. Tony Scott called and said that Lady Day was going to give a performance, she was in bad shape, sick and with seventy-five dollars in the bank, and this could possibly be her last performance but she couldn’t hold herself up and I should come and help. I went to Tony’s house and Billie smiled a broken smile at me and said, “Hey, Yo!” then put her head down on her hands, crossed upon the table. Percy Heath came and Oscar Peterson and Lester Prez Young, her friend and dearly beloved, and Prez looked bad, gaunt and tired, his days numbered, then we decided what and where. I don’t recall whether the performance was held at Carnegie Hall or some other place.

Lady could barely sing, but even in her destruction she was a palace. There were some critics back then who said she could no longer sing, but Tony and I and Prez and Mulligan loved that tone of hers, the sad ironic whisper that could be heard in her voice. The rumor spread like wildfire. There was no money for an ad in the paper. We brought her onto the stage. There was a microphone there, we fixed it to the floor with nails and brought her in leaning on our arms and clasped her to the microphone stand, which she clutched in her hands while pressing her mouth to the mouth of the microphone as if in a kiss. A large crowd stood outside, mostly blacks, with several hundred more inside. I knew some of them. Everyone still alive from the Minton’s Playhouse days was there. Two whores that I recognized. Musicians, the bartender, backup singers and tap dancers, Ben Webster and Percy Heath, and then she started singing. Her voice sounded as if it had passed through a filter, she even sang a new song, Fine and Mellow, and Prez, who had come from Europe where he’d been living for several years, and Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge joined in. She whispered, but forcefully, in her sweet, unique voice, plucked by a soft, magic scalpel. The audience sang with her in a whisper, even outside, so I was told, the crowd sang along. She whispered the songs and the audience sang softly and quietly, and buses stopped and people got off and listened. In her entire life she had not had such a loving, ardent and devoted audience. She sang for about an hour. Her arms ached and you could see it. We went on stage and brought her down and she sobbed. A few months later she found out that Prez had died. She used bigger fixes of heroin, her health deteriorated and she was hospitalized in serious condition. From all the tears she cried she managed to arrange a delivery of drugs, smuggled in by means of a rock hurled through the window of her hospital room, and on her deathbed she was remanded by the police for drug possession. A few weeks later she died at 44 years of age. That night in The Cellar we only played her songs. So sad that Lady died.

- - -

[Later] there were two of us, me behind the bar and Big Charles in the kitchen. He was black, very dark-skinned, and spent two days thinking about me and concluded that I was a real crook, and a man after his own heart. In the kitchen next to the bar there was a huge stove. On top was an enormous iron hotplate and underneath were some knobs that Big Charles had invented and installed on his own. On the left-hand side the heat was slightly lower than in the middle or on the right, where the heat was fierce, and Charles twiddled the knobs like an artist, raising and lowering the heat and simultaneously at any given moment about a dozen steaks were sizzling in various stages of broiling. He spread his wonderful sauce, caressing fifteen hamburgers with a brush dipped in egg whites, and ten omelets. He’d shove the bacon over the low flame, and at the side was a metal strainer filled with diced potatoes frying over a low flame, he’d peek at them and bend over to refill them and his sauce was a secret he guarded with his life. He’d spread the spices by touch and knew each of the hamburgers and steaks and bacon strips by their size. They all danced to his baton, leaping, landing, that one’s thin, that’s well-done, that’s medium, that’s rare, each one needed its own time, its own treatment, a fried steak filet needed to be turned from side to side, and hamburgers without cheese needed such-and-such time, and if cheese was needed he’d add it, and everything all at the same time, and the potatoes hissing quiet whispers, yet he stayed focused, smiling as he worked, and he loved every hamburger he cooked and each perfect omelet and every steak that had the right color. Big Charles had a craving for beauty, he noticed if the hamburger changed shape while cooking and he’d flatten it, straighten it, add a baste of egg white, move it, he danced his creations around like a puppeteer maneuvers his loved ones and he’d create broiled and fried masterpieces. He didn’t look as if he were working. He smiled his pleasant smile, gave me a cocktail recipe, quickly gulped his drink, and no stain ever spotted his shirt or apron. He looked like the conductor of an orchestra whose musicians were constantly changing and he went on conducting, orchestra after orchestra, with the greatest respect for his musicians. I called him the Toscanini of the grill.

One cold evening snow began to fall. Big Charles and I were setting up the restaurant. I prepped the bar, sliced lemons and limes, cleaned the shakers, wiped cups and glasses, cleaned the bar, put out plates of salty snacks, peanuts, and other appetizers, made jugs of orange juice and tomato juice and Charles cleaned the kitchen thoroughly, the Puerto Rican sweeper finished and we helped him arrange the tables and chairs. As he did every evening, Charles locked the kitchen door on me and prepared his secret sauce, and then opened the door with his usual apologetic look. “It’s okay, Charles,” I said, “have a drink.” The waitresses hadn’t arrived yet and through the window we could see a thin layer of snow spreading over the street.

A big white Lincoln pulled up outside the restaurant. A tall broad-shouldered black guy got out. He stopped to look up and down the street and he leaned forward with gentle laxity. He wore a fancy white suit and a bow tie. He looked a little ungainly but he glided inside. He sat at the bar I’d just finished cleaning, fixed me with his gaze and smiled. I stared back. “White boy,” he said, “give me a boilermaker.” I asked him which whiskey he’d like and he said, “Old Crow.” “Right,” I said. He said, “You, white boy, you know that’s a double, right?” I said I’d worked at Minton’s Playhouse. He asked, “Did you know Art Blakey?” I said I’d heard him but didn’t know him personally. “Pity,” he said, “a great musician.” The man was a little gray at his temples but his smile was that of a young boy. He wanted me to come closer to him. Charles was busy preparing hamburgers and cutting and trimming steaks in the kitchen. The man asked me to step up very close to him, then whispered, “That’s far enough, not too close.” I poured his double bourbon and opened a can of beer and was about to serve it to him when he said, “No. I want it here, I want it here at this crappy bar, I want thirteen doubles in a row like fucking soldiers. And thirteen cans of Tuborg beer, even if they get warm, and you just open each one the moment I finish the previous one.” I said I was worried because it was an awful lot, and he said, “Listen up, cute Minton’s boy, you just worry about your mama, I’m the customer here. You think you’re a wiseguy, but you’re not. You do exactly what I say and leave the prophecies to Walter Cronkite or Moondog.” I asked what exactly happened to Moondog, who used to wander the Village like some prehistoric seer, and he said he wasn’t an information desk and asked if I really understood. “Not eleven,” he said, “not twelve. Thirteen doubles and thirteen beers, capiche?” I stood the doubles in a row. Altogether there were twenty-six shots, equaling a fifth, or a standard bottle. The man sipped with a kind of blithe indifference and took the beer I served him and chased the whiskey down his throat whose Adam’s apple jiggled slightly, but he didn’t move a muscle and didn’t make a sound, he just smiled at me in a friendly way, he realized I was watching him and gestured for another. At the fifth, Charles, who had been watching with no real interest, came out of the kitchen and stood in the doorway. At the sixth I could see a look of disbelief on Charles’ face, he whispered, “The guy’s cheating.” He sounded threatened and angry. After the ninth -- the guy was putting them down one after another at intervals of less than a few minutes -- I could see an expression of admiration etched on Big Charles’ face. He whispered, “This bastard’s a king, he sticks it to all the whites and their boys.” The guy didn’t move. He didn’t turn his head. He didn’t wipe the moisture from his mouth because there was no moisture on his mouth. His lips even dried the tiny tears of foaming beer that beaded up after standing open for a few minutes. He almost swallowed the big glasses. He drank to a certain rhythm, a rhythm I’d known with Charlie Parker, the syncopation, the phrasing, and when I gave him the beer he emptied it into a big glass, swirled it around, and downed it in one swig right to the very bottom. Never in two swallows. I saw how he kept a little whiskey in his mouth for the next beer and then how the swish of beer down his throat looked like it was blazing a trail. His Adam’s apple always rose and lowered at the same gentle pace. I’d be waiting with the next beer in my hand. He’d roll the whiskey in, take the beer, smile his thanks and drink.

Something cracked in Big Charles. The guy facing me didn’t get up from his stool, didn’t munch on potato chips or the thin carrot sticks I’d prepared earlier. He didn’t swallow almonds or peanuts from the dishes on the bar. He didn’t get up to go to the bathroom, not even after the ninth beer. Not even after the tenth. Not even after the eleventh. He drank thirteen boilermakers as if he’d been wandering the desert for a week. By this time Charles was in love, but also anxious. Mainly he was happy. I’d never seen him so happy. His face lit up. His tongue hung out. The guy finished the twelfth and took the last one, stopped for a moment, drank, smiled at me, asked me to show him the bottle, I showed it to him, empty, he saw it and said, “The bottle’s gone.” “And how it’s gone,” I replied. Charles growled. The guy gave him a friendly glance, like a king to a loyal subject, and said, “Stick that black tongue back in your mouth. A nigger doesn’t stand with his tongue hanging out it front of white trash.” He got up as if nothing had happened. He asked for his tab, paid, gave me a big tip, and I said, “No! No!” “Shut up,” he said, “when a nigger gives you a tip, take it.”

He started to leave. There were three steps at the entrance and he climbed them with a strong, steady gait. He stood at the doorway looking like a statue. The snow now fell more heavily. A wind blew. He put on the heavy coat he’d kept on his knee while he was drinking, and slipped into the white, snow-covered Lincoln. He yelled, “Hey! White-on-white? You were an artist, weren’t you?” “How’d you know?” I asked. “I was told, he said.” I smiled and he gave a dismissive wave. He started the engine and Charles said, “He drank like it was a commandment, or a punishment.” I could hear boundless loyalty in his voice. We looked at the man in the car. He drove straight through the thin slippery snow without skidding. Charles prayed that everything would be OK. Now that he’d found a hero, he didn’t want him to fail. He said, “Just so he drives like he ain’t been drinking.” I understood him, and paid my compliments to the guy when he stopped at the first red light. We waited. The light changed and he continued on without skidding. When he had disappeared out of sight, we went back inside. Charles looked depressed and happy at the same time. He checked the empty glasses. He bent down, picked up the beer cans and counted them. He turned them over to see if there were any drops left, but they were empty. He even checked the cash register to see whether he’d paid for the thirteen “killers,” as he called them. Even after all that he still didn’t really believe it. He tried to find some flaw. “You sure he didn’t go to the bathroom?” I said I was sure. “He didn’t move?” I asked how the guy knew to ask me if I understood the painting in the museum, white-on-white, and how he knew I’d been an artist. Charles said that anybody who can drink thirteen boilermakers knows everything. “Just think, a guy sits here for maybe an hour, it’s snowing outside, he’s got a white Lincoln, a Brooks Brothers suit that costs thousands of dollars, the hands of a boxer but Mama’s sweet face, one bottle of Old Crow, thirteen beers, thirteen strong Tuborgs, and that king sits in his car and drives away like it’s nothing.”

Later I would hear that Charles married a Danish girl and opened a bar in Copenhagen called Thirteen Boilermakers. I’d meet him by chance at the Queen’s Bar in the King Frederik Hotel in Copenhagen and he’d be glad to see me, and the first thing he’ll ask is, “You remember that guy?”

We sit down, the waitress brings a Polish vodka for me, a bourbon for him and a couple Tuborgs, which here are in their birthplace, and on tap too, and Charles downs the draft beers, talking about that hero of our time, the hero of his life with the thirteen boilermakers, and he drinks another and I sit there silent and enthralled, and he praises that black king and goes on drinking and talking about his wife, the beautiful Dane, and his children, like half-and-half cream. Big Charles had become an important man in Copenhagen. But he hadn’t forgotten that guy. All around there were blonde Danish girls, it was snowing outside and dark in the middle of the day. We were both in a strange city. People licked the sidewalk to clean their tongues. Everything was aesthetic and sad, a country like a kiss without lips, but when he spoke about his hero, his eyes lit up. Suddenly I say to him, and in mid-sentence I know shouldn’t, but I’d already started, and I say, “You just drank thirteen boilermakers.” He looks at me maliciously for a long moment. He gets up. Calls the waitress and asks how much he drank. “Tell him.” Anger spreads like fire across his face. The waitress won’t be surprised, because the last time anyone was surprised in Denmark was in the sixteenth century when the Swedes had attacked them from the sea. Big Charles looks miserable. Defeated. The man just lost the hero of his life. He’ll order another, drink it, get up, give me an angry, pained look and say, “You’re a people who kill heroes, Jesus, the Son of God, you didn’t want Him so you killed Him. What exactly did you want?” He’ll wave his hand at me and leave. And I’ll see the tears in his eyes.


Images by KellyMoore. From Top: Dark Angel, Pagan Dance and Crock.


Yoram Kaniuk (born 1930) is one of Israel’s leading authors and journalists. Several of his novels and books have been translated into English including, Himmo King of Jerusalem, The Last Jew, and Confessions of a Good Arab. A film based on his landmark novel, Adam Resurrected, is currently in production directed by Hollywood legend Paul Schrader. Kaniuk has won several of Israel’s highest literary awards, including the Brenner Prize, the President’s Prize, and the Bialik Prize. A conference devoted to his work was held in Cambridge University in 2006.

Anthony Berris was born in the UK and has lived in Israel for over 50 years. He taught translation at an Israeli college and has been a freelance translator for 25 years.

I Did It My Way [Hayim Al Niyar Zhuhit. Tel Aviv: Yedioth Ahronoth, 2003] by Yoram Kaniuk, copyright © Yoram Kaniuk; English translation by Anthony Berris, copyright © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature. Translation sponsored by the Oded Halahmy Foundation for the Arts, Inc.