The train doors open on 57th, and Tristan trudges the length of the platform and follows other disembarking straphangers down to the street. The station at 50th would have brought him closer to his destination, or he could have transferred to another train back at 116th Street and been dropped further west, closer to the address in his pocket. But Tristan doesn't like to backtrack or wait for trains, and he enjoys walking. He buttons his jacket, smoothes his hands over his chestnut hair, and cuts a path southward, darting west when traffic blocks his way.
A thousand little things are different down here. Chaps' suits seem cut from a more cunning fabric, somehow, as if they'll never wrinkle, and ladies' dresses are soft and light about their calves. Clothing speaks elaborately on the wearer's behalf, doesn't mumble go away with groundcast eyes. Walks and glances have jaunt. People are on their way out and on their own time; no one will be where they are now at this time tomorrow, unlike nearly everyone in his rote clockwork Bronx. The blocks are full of restaurants and nightclubs, businesses and bars; this is no one's neighborhood and yet everyone navigates with confidence. There is perfume in the air, perfume and possibility.
But where are Professor Pendergast and the prim young scholars of Contemporary Literature? Tristan hooks onto 52nd Street and checks the hour in a clockshop's window. Unless every timepiece on display is party to a conspiracy of misinformation, he's already five minutes tardy, and so he accelerates and eyes the climbing numbers: 191, 193, 195. It should be on this block and yet there is nothing like a classroom here, no place of booksmarts wedged in with the shoeshine stands and pubs.
What could Prof. Pendergast be thinking of, the daft old lout? Perhaps the card was meant to say 152nd Street, for here Tristan stands before the door of 201 West 52nd and it is nothing but a bar, Oswald's, with front windows tinted so dark that Tristan can see himself in them: a lanky, perspiring kid sporting a cheap Bronx haircut, faint concentration-furrows already lining his forehead. He looks like he doesn't know his ass from a hole in the ground, this future doctor/lawyer, the pride of the Jews. It is ten past nine now, and wherever class may be, it has commenced without him.
Tristan approaches the black-glass door and pulls it open. On the other side is an unexpected density of conversation, vibrations he feels in his stomach and his balls. Low murmurs and high trills caress and assault him. Clinking silver and glassware punctuate the unseen symphony of merriment around the corner; whiffs of liquor and calligraphs of smoke roll toward him. Tristan has never been anywhere like this before, and in his mind he edits the sentiment for clarity: he has never been anywhere before.
Perhaps he never will. For sitting on a stool in front of him, at the edge of a luxurious burgundy carpet, is a thick bald troll who appears to be contemplating whether to punch Tristan in the face with one of his hairy meathooks. A cigar lolls from side to side in his mouth, like a log in the ocean.
"You gotta be eighteen, kid, you eighteen?"
"Is this 201 52nd?" says Tristan, a record-breakingly obtuse query since the numbers are stenciled clearly on the door's outside glass, right next to the handle.
"Doan answer a question with a question," the troll growls, sliding forward on his stool so that one blackshod foot touches the floor.
"I'm looking for Professor Pendergast," says Tristan, at once wanton and feeble.
The troll chuckles through broken teeth and leans back on his haunches. "Oh. Yur wunna his. I shudda guessed. Alla way back, in frunnada stage. Two drink mimum."
He jerks a thumb, and the cigar follows it. Tristan nods, ducks, and passes. He half-floats, half-stumbles to the back of the room, gaze bouncing off the dark plush walls, the high ceiling, the long bartop and the bottles gleaming in the soft light. Even as his legs carry him forward, Tristan twists back to look longer at the crisp, white-shirted bartenders and scan the smooth sepia faces mingling with the pink ones. For a moment he is mesmerized by the sequined black dress of a woman leaning in to laugh at her man-friend's joke, a long cigarette cocked unlit in her hand. A gleaming lighter emerges from behind the bar, cleaving the air with perfect timing so that she notices it just as she reaches the summit of her lean-in and begins to rock back on her splendid ass.
Tristan's footfalls grow heavy. His fingers and tongue engorge to the size of uncooked sausages. His shirt changes from light blue to mottled shit-brown; his hair grows a foot and matts over his ears. A gnawed wooly mammoth drumstick appears in one hand and a Torah in the other. He is a swarthy Jewish caveman, dull and poor amidst the glitterati, slight yet corpulent, as unrefined as cane sugar. The thought that he’s as smart as any son of a bitch in here is little consolation, and while the floating part of Tristan's brain goes on registering delight, the stumbling part sizzles with resentment of his parents, the entire Bronx.
By the time Tristan reaches the long table laid out in front of the stage, he’s had time to compose a future-fantasy, a return-in-triumph reverie in which his entrance turns heads and freezes words in mouths and his topcoat alone is stylish beyond the aggregate of every stitch of clothing in the place. The whole daydream is so prosaic and pathetic that he casts it off, but not before noting that a doctor/lawyer could never galvanize such a response.
The table is full of other cavemen, dressed as carelessly as he. A dozen of them sit straight against the backs of their chairs, rigid in this house of curves, heads turned, listening. Some have notebooks like his. They look to be Tristan's age, which means that really they are eighteen, nineteen. There is one empty chair, at the foot of the table, and at the head, speaking, is a man who can only be Professor Pendergast. Tristan sees the glossy black back of his hair first.
The teacher stops speaking, turns and smiles. "Mr. Brodsky, I presume?" he intones with a hint of melody, clearly the master of his own voice. Tristan nods. The teacher's mustache is thin as a sardine, and twice as elegant. He is in evening dress, a cigarette smoldering in the ashtray at his fingertips. The pack of smokes lying by his other hand, next to a gleaming gold lighter, is a brand Tristan has never seen.
"Welcome to Contemporary Literature." Pendergast gestures to the empty chair, and checks his watch as Tristan takes a seat. "Let's begin, shall we? No -- wait -- a thousand pardons. How rude of me. We must first procure a drink for Mr. Brodsky." He swivels a finger before Tristan can consider protesting, and a glass of amber liquid is placed by Tristan's elbow. The other cavemen have been similarly feted.
Tristan lifts the heavy glass, takes a cautious nip, pulls back his lips and twitch-winces casually as he has seen men do. Now Tristan understands why. The scotch burns, and he holds it in his mouth a moment, waiting for it to mellow before swallowing. His form, he feels, is excellent. A small warmth ripples through him.
"Gentlemen," says Pendergast, and Tristan goggles at him, finally finding the respite to be amazed at the fact that he is sitting here, awash in glamour, in what is billed as an English class but is clearly something else, some kind of ceremony into which he’s wandered. There is a crushing weight to Pendergast's presence, but as Tristan examines him from across the table, he realizes that the professor is younger that he first appears. Thirty, Tristan would guess.
"As some of you have no doubt taken note, this is not a conventional classroom." A pause, as the class chuckles and Pendergast smiles indulgently. "Nor, I regret to inform, will we be meeting here at the redoubtable Oswald's again. Tonight is a reward which I hope, over the course of the semester, you will earn." He halts once more, this time lowering his face to browbeat them. "I am a new breed of teacher," the professor declares, raising his eyebrows and, in Tristan's mind, a doubt. Is Pendergast for real? Or is the hint of vaudeville creeping into the proceedings a calculated effect?
"And this -- with your cooperation -- will be a new kind of class." He straightens, magisterial again. "You will read no contemporary literature this semester. Rather, gentlemen, you will write it."
Pendergast leans back, as if expecting the students to turn to each other and begin stage-whispering in excitement. Instead, they sit with the air of undecided jurors, and Tristan almost laughs. Cavemen they may seem, here in the sifted light of Oswald's, but City College kids are far from dumb. These are the best and brightest of New York City's bumper crop of underprivileged Hebraics, and their reputation is for aggressive intellectualism, for educating themselves and each other when the school's instructors prove unequal to the task.
You can find any debate you like being waged in the dining alcoves of the school cafeteria, vociferously and at maximum volume. The Stalinists of Alcove One and the Trotskyites of Alcove Two go home hoarse every day, whether they've been arguing among themselves or against each other. Politics is the new religion. Tristan listens to the sermons with interest as he consumes his brownbagged sandwiches, but he remains an atheist. The thought of aligning himself with anything is terrifying, as if in fellowship some shortcoming he cannot identify would be exposed.
Nonetheless, these City College boys have got something quite serious on the ball. Who Pendergast thinks he is going to win over with his grandiloquence, Tristan would like to know.
For a moment, it seems as if the professor has prepared nothing further. Then: "Here is life," he announces, raising his arms like a king at a feast. "Here are men and women, song and drink. I wrote the first words of my novel in this very room, sitting in that corner listening to the sounds you hear right now and some you will hear soon. I want all of you to find that same spark, to feel the urge to press pencil to paper and invent."
So this place is Pendergast's muse. The knowledge deadens the experience of being here. It is a cheap trick, trying to excite them by showing them his lair, cheap and self-serving. The professor wants them to associate him with Oswalds', glamour with writing. He thinks that if these boys admire him and his life they will want to write, and as long as they want to write they are sure to venerate a novelist.
The scotch glass is in Tristan's hand again, and when he takes it from his lips he finds to his surprise that it is empty. He wants more.
"Montaigne said 'I write to compose myself,'" Pendergast announces. "Writing creates us, gentlemen, even as we create it. Certainly it can calm, as Montaigne suggests, but believe me when I tell you, lads: it can also inflame."
Tristan flags the waiter himself, with only his eyes. A slurred energy fills him, and it's not the booze. The fresh drink in Tristan's hand will mediate, if anything, against what grips him now: the desire to squeeze Pendergast's words into paper balls, set them on fire and watch them shrivel. Turn Pendergast's pronouncements into a parade of ants and crush each one beneath his heel. From some unspelunked chamber inside Tristan wells a righteous fury, in defense of things he didn't know he held so holy. It is not Pendergast's sentiment, really, that tastes so bilious. It is the enormous likelihood that Pendergast is no real writer. He's too comfortable, too pretty, too much on the inside of things, and what’s more he's a fool for laying all this Let's Be Writers drivel out before a tableful of kids who thought they were signing up for a regular three-papers-and-a-final-exam English class.
Only an idiot, Tristan thinks, wondering where this rage is coming from, would bandy such ideas so carelessly, attempt to baptize everyone immediately in what should be sacred, hidden waters. Who the hell is Pendergast to throw the temple doors open? Tristan thinks of his mother's grandfather and the stories he has heard of the old craftsmen's guilds, the years of toil and apprenticeship a man endured before he attained even Journeyman status. Pendergast, you wileless schmuck, has your race no such system?
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