HER NAME WAS MARGO. She was a 22-year-old addict hooking for her heroin, and when Nelson Algren met her, in the mid-40s in Chicago, while he was working on The Man With the Golden Arm, he violated the immortal principles he’d set down in A Walk on the Wild Side: “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.” Algren took Margo in, putting her up in his Wicker Park digs, and eventually got her clean. Years later, when she wrote him a note letting him know she was engaged to a guy she wanted him to meet, he was devastated. His feelings for her had become so strong and complicated that when he tried to put her into the center of a novel he couldn’t finish it.
About 300 pages wound up in the Algren archives at Ohio State University, and in edited form they make their first public appearance as “Entrapment,” from Entrapment and Other Writings, a new collection of previously unpublished work by Algren edited by Brooke Horvath and Dan Simon for Seven Stories Press. The book marks the hundredth anniversary of Algren’s birth, as does an event at Steppenwolf Theatre on Monday, April 6.
I. Barrel of Fun
The man who was letting everything go was sleeping one off in all his clothes. Six a.m. barely pinpointed the careworn shade of the second-rate hotel. The curtains were drawn as he had drawn them. Rain was on the walks below. Above the darkened TV screen a little clock made a muted ticking. In the utmost country of his brain the sleeper heard a ceaseless tolling. Marking some grief so distant that no wind but the one that blows in sleep might bring it. News of a lost day too dear for losing. Belled by some wind that once helped him home.
Perhaps it was the crash and screech of the traffic below that caused him to dream, for often his ears would be ringing and his eyes blinded by the whir and glare of these machines, and he would be conscious of himself lying, as though flung there, across the bed of the darkened room, hearing his own troubled breathing as he struggled to waken and could not.
The dream that had come to dominate his nights was that of climbing a wide stone stair in which puddles still stood in the worn places of the stone. As though from a late afternoon scrubbing or an evening rain. It was a poor man’s building. One sensed that the stone staircase was the only part that was ever cleaned, or upon which the sunlight ever shone. And he would feel an odd twinge of pity or remorse at the worn places in those steps, for so many human feet shuffling up and down for so many years, as though the worn places had been made by so many human knees in prayer that the staircase had become a sort of altar for having borne so much humanity...
A short Get-The-Hell-Out-Of-My-Way klaxon’s blast lit a little red warning in his shuttered skull, and he wakened at last, listening for some final, some incredible sound that would at once explain everything and seal his life forever. But all he heard was a door closing somewhere and the muted ticking of the tiny clock beside the old-fashioned dresser.
Fumbling at his open and tieless collar as though it still felt buttoned and tied, he thought, hell of way for a man to wake up—hell of an hour. His eyes searched accusingly for the little clock’s prim face. His fingers found his collar button, thread-loose. This just isn’t my day.
On its side on the dresser lay an empty gin fifth half-covered by yesterday’s racing form. Did I pour the last of that down the drain or did I just dream I did? I hope I poured so much that I’ll still wake up clear-headed.
No, I hope I didn’t pour off a solitary drop. Because I might as well be dead as feeling like this. I might just as well have had it all.
I hope I got it all, that would serve me right for feeling this bad. No, I hope I drank just enough so’s it couldn’t be my day today. I hope I poured off the rest because I knew it didn’t matter whose day it would turn out to be. It never could be mine.
Drop it—he suddenly felt impatient with everything—whether I poured it off or not I’ve had it all the same.
He looked like he had had it all right. A grayish stubble framed his face. The button dangled by a single thread. He plugged in the percolator but didn’t remember water until his head was under the faucet. When he got the pot filled, he remembered there was no coffee.
The do not disturb sign hung on the wrong side of the door. He fumbled in his pocket and found a note so crumpled he had to flatten it against his knee in order to re-read it.
I haven’t written because I am in the midst of travel plans. I am being married April 8. His name is Virgil. He says it’s the little girl he loves in me. I know I have your blessing.
You know damn well you haven’t. He certainly didn’t look like a man about to bless anyone.
He has a son Vince in the Marine Reserves. I think the world of Vince. I’ll have everything I want now. We both have everything we want. We both want to thank you for letting me go.
You and Vince? Or you and Virgil? Who the hell are you marrying, Baby? You think so much of the Marine, but why don’t you say what you think of old Pops?
Look out, Sonny, he told the boy, and for a moment felt he had made a joke of sorts. These are the jokes coming now, the bookie explained to himself.
Then the loss came back like a sickness in the heart, and the joke hadn’t come off after all.
The little clock kept saying it was now past six, but why should it feel so anxious with post-time so many hours away?
After all, why should a girl with so much to give—and not a dime—miss a chance for a deal with Virgil?
A little past six but not yet seven. To the crucifix above the clock, all hours were one. So it had felt since hours first began. The magazine mermaid mirrored between them heeded neither clock nor Christ but telephoned instead some seaweed-green exchange. As she had since Esquire began. Who was she trying to kid?
Only Christ waited patiently, with lowered lids and twisted limbs the restless second-hand around. For someone to throw away yesterday’s Daily Racing Form and open today’s for Jesus’s sake. It already lay beneath the door. A discolored door that was one of many, numbered odd or numbered even, along a furlong of turf-colored carpeting. Down the lightless tote-board of the hall.
The man who was letting everything go held his rumpled note down with both hands. As though a sudden draft might blow it away, as if knowing that the wind that blows below hotel doors blows all such scraps away for keeps.
He slept as he sat, and sank so fast he heard waters roaring past his ears. Then slower and more slow. Till he was weightlessly drifting down in one of those dreams where the sleeper seeks the steepest deeps to touch bottom so lightly he will not be catapulted to the surface. To sink so slowly no one will know; otherwise, it will be all to do again. He needed another’s touch, however light, to keep from rising. The green-and-sea-gold mermaid drifted close in the design of all desire. Without desire of her own. Unseen tides flexed and unflexed her thighs in all the patterns of passion, so various and invariable. No hard breathing; no breath. Only the slow slap and hollow wash of seas below seas... his toes pointed to the slant sea-floor. He closed his thighs hard as her own spread wide and her smile invited him knowingly: You. He smiled knowingly back: You.
The waters came against him as a terrible door. Oceans of all ages kept him from turning and he had to waken or drown.
Awake again—saying you to a wall and you to a door and you to a window with a careworn shade—he studied his own grin in the mirror.
So it had all been a dream about Virgil?
Deep in the mirror’s restless depths the mermaid stirred a little.
“Baby,” he told her and made his voice stern, for he was older than she, “just don’t do this. Just don’t do it.”
He did not say it so much as heard his lips say it.
He shut his eyes and his head began wheeling, but he kept them shut all the same. The whole third-floor hall began to creak and reel, came right at him, careening crazily, doors ajar, transom jutting, door-numbers wavering big as the doors. This is how things have always been really, and he felt a pang of sick delight. Then keeping so grim a hold on the bed’s iron edge that his knuckles went white, he watched the floor rock like the Barrel of Fun with some fool trapped inside trying to keep his footing. Halfway up one wall, then half up the other—suddenly the fellow came up, grinning lopsidedly right in his face.
It’s best when it rocks, he decided, that’s how things really are down the hall. He had been suspecting as much for some time now. Of that hall where music, classical or jazz, was piped in for two bits per hour.
Where tips were traded in the light and laughter in the dark. Up a green stairwell or down a green stair, muted music or half-heard laughter, glass upon glass in a promise of light. Carpet and transom, keyhole and key. Vows on daybreak’s earliest stroke like an afterthought...
Morning-time or morning-line, slow track or fast, early to the post or late: all things, classical or jazz, led past the all-night desk. Where, row over row on a timeless wall, other bookies’ keys awaited other bookies with tips far hotter than his own, leading all men at length through the keyless door and out to the long, low-storied street. Where, sidewalks dry or sidewalks wet, great trackless buses swung or waited. Where bettors passed or bettors re-passed, and nothing was as it seemed to be. Past bars whose mirrors reflected forever the wan faces of all the girls who said, “Just call me Baby.” Past paddock, past clubhouse, past brothel, past last summer’s rain and the summer’s before. Past long-ago times of just yesterday, long-ago times of the day before.
Nothing but the night-lamp that now burned ash-white. That had burned orange-yellow all night without wavering. Yet now had no color at all as though something had happened to him in the night that could not now be undone by any light, orange-yellow or ash-white.
P.S. I’ll write occasionally but please don’t reply.
He re-read that to see if he’d read it right. Then passed his hands under the strewn Form till he discovered the cork, set the fifth upright and stoppered it tight—can’t stand to attention without your damned hat, private—and sank wearily back on the bed’s metal edge, fumbling for a cigarette.
This is all right if it happened to you when you’re nineteen, he told himself, and gave up on the broken cigarette he’d found. At nineteen you can still tell Mama all. At thirty-five you can still ace it through. But at forty-four you need your pride, and you can’t keep that by singing the blues, classical or jazz.
Still, I got the blues all the same.
Those Half-Past-Six a.m.-of-a-Rainy-Morning, Loser’s-Weather blues. When six p.m. came around once more, between the eighth race and the ninth, the grandstand lights would come on overhead to light one last trip to the windows for all good spirits still trying. Newsies would be calling, “Read what happened to Georgia Tech! Read what happened to Michigan! Read what happened to Iowa! Read what happened!” Something always happened to all good sports between the eighth race and the ninth.
“Remember,” she had reminded him so gently it hurt all the more, “I told you ‘Don’t let me go’? Still, you let me go all the same.”
“It was a cheating operation was why,” he had explained easily, knowing that at last he could explain everything. “Forty-four up against twenty-three—what kind of a farce is that, for God’s sake? All for your own good, Baby.”
“Drop the self-sacrifice angle,” she told him less gently, “you’re not the sacrificing type. Admit that what upset you was just that you got scared you might be a loser. Just for once in your life: admit something against yourself.”
He pretended not to hear. “Maybe everybody in the world just got so many daily doubles to hit and, being in the racket, I used up mine faster than most. But people like Virgil—or is it Vince?—save theirs up like good little boys. So that by the time everybody else is forty-four and lost their hair, here comes Virgil out of the barrier. He got all his hair. He skipped the hard times, he skipped the war, he’s saved himself up for the time when everyone else has run out of hair. He got all his doubles still to hit. He got all his hair. Some Virgil.”
And all you got is a petty heart... hair a little thin, teeth getting bad... You didn’t want to be the one to do the rejecting, and she did it for you instead. That’s all there is to it.
The clock on the TV ticked on and on.
That’s why she was so careful not to say where she was going, he decided, she’s coming back up here to pick up her clothes, and she doesn’t want to have to see me even for a drink when she does, because she would either have to bring Virgil, and that would be awkward, or she would have to see me without him, and that would be fatal. We never had a drink together yet but we didn’t end up making love.
She would say, “Don’t let me go,” and this time I wouldn’t let her go, ever.
And the clock ticked on.
He had a flash: she would see me now without being tempted, and that’s what’s eating me. I thought I had her where I wanted her, and I didn’t have, didn’t have... now she has me, and she’s decent enough not to want to rub it in. I wouldn’t take care of her, so someone will and I have no beef, no beef at all.
Well, he told Virgil, start saving up on your sleep now, Pops. You ain’t marrying Sister Kenny you know.
“I knew all the while,” she broke in softly from somewhere far, “it would be tougher for you than you knew. I knew that for you it was Baby or nobody. But you let me go all the same.”
If I couldn’t hold you, Baby, nobody else can. Leastways nobody my side of forty. Leastways nobody named Vincent for God’s sake. Or is it Virgil? Anyhow, who does Pops think he is? Sonny Wisecarver?
Maybe some wisecarver your side of thirty could hold you, Baby. But no wisecarver on mine. What is your move a month from now, Baby? Whistle up the Reserves? Let the Marine make his own beachhead?
You tried that route once already, Bookie. All it comes to is you got a petty heart. Baby, you were the luckiest kind that youth ever chiseled. Myself, I got the real chiseler’s heart.
I need a shot to help me by.
With the bar below closed four hours more and with an empty fifth standing at attention, I get real sick of my kind of heart.
They’ll run in the mud today at Hawthorne. They’ll run in the mud at Fairgrounds. They’ll run in the mud at Santa Anita, they’ll run in the mud at Jamaica. Let them run in the mud. I got a petty heart.
Baby, you deserved a better break than me and you’ll get it April 8th.
I think I need a shot but what I really need is orange juice, two eggs and a cup of black coffee. And get the suit pressed. All I need is to pick up the morning bets and tell all the people they’ll run in the mud. They can’t see out the windows for themselves.
Hell with the orange juice. The hell with my suit. I need a lot because I got a petty heart.
Now we’re really getting somewhere.
He rose and went to the window and, peering out from behind the shade, saw the rain pause a moment, then begin again. The shade hung like lead.
I got most of my hair, got all my teeth, got all my doubles still to hit...
Well, nobody had to tell me—I also got the real chiseler’s heart.
But I used to have the soldier’s heart. A real good soldier told me so.
The rain paused again as if to hear better.
What makes a soldier’s heart, what makes him perspire? I’ll tell you what I just found out on you, Bookie—you been on the side of the house too long. For it isn’t standing up to fight or lying down to fire... and the petty heart gave a slow, sick turn. Traffic rolled below. Rain on all the roofs around and on all the landscaped lawns of Baby’s country. He had never seen that country. Yet he knew, from knowing Baby, that in that land it was always enough just to be whoever you happened to be. Where everyone had a lawn big as the infield at Santa Anita. Out there you were born with the winning stub in your diaper pocket. Here in his own patch between billboard and trolley, everyone tried, their whole lives long, to be somebody they never were. Somebody they’d read about, someone they’d heard about, someone they never could be. Someone like George Raft, someone like Frank Costello, someone like Myrna Loy. It was a world full of big shots where everyone saw clean through everyone but himself.
It was also a world of electrified forests stretching out endlessly from one tiny hub. He had a secret place on the hotel roof fashioned out of potted palms long missing from the lobby. He had tossed his G.I. blanket over a bench and pulled it between the palms. And in the whole city then no one could find him. That was his place in the forest.
Baby, this is the selfsame bed.
Baby, the selfsame pillow... from which her eyes had made a lamp to burn a deeper yellow. Eyes whole sea-green miles deep... a white blouse and a gray skirt... she bathes, she sleeps, she speaks.
While the selfsame clock ticked on. Ticking at this moment exactly as it had when he’d kissed one of her breasts and she said “now the other.” And the tiny nipples hardened, each in turn against his breath.
And the smell of the freshly bathed girl returned, and faded down to no more than a sliver of Lifebuoy left on the sill beneath the shade.
The do not disturb sign hung on the wrong side of the door. The house-rules above it hung unframed forever. Seven a.m. pinpointed the dark drawn shade and the shade itself hung heavy.
In early October the weather had gone backwards a whole week just for them.
She had always let him know she was parking downstairs by swinging a spotlight once across his window. Two minutes after he would see her striding through the night-blue glow cast by bar after bar below. As if saying with every step, “Here comes Baby and it feels just right.” She could press the button for a self-operating lift as though feeling certain that whoever might be riding would skip out between floors if they guessed it was Baby. Why should anyone keep Baby waiting?
It felt so right to be Baby.
The week the weather went backwards they had sat up there every night. Monday had been cool, Tuesday warmer, and every day after warmer than that. And the weekend balmy as June.
They had lived with a bottle of Chianti between them, the scent hanging like a little purple veil between the roof and the million-candled carnival beyond—the window lights of the late office workers, piled one upon another above the river, the tavern lights that had bloomed like lilies touching each to each across the city’s lawless deeps, the auto lights in one long forevering curve down miles and miles of boulevard where one dark driver after the other bore down the streets of the big night world... she had been born on the bright side, he on the black. Yet his own side was usually better lighted at night.
Baby, remember all the lights on the boulevard, reflecting billboard and bar forever in the river? How one night the stars walked for us, two by two. Like lovers in the water seeking each other across the city’s drunken deeps? Night when all hours were one.
He could not go to her country, so she had come to his. Through a bookie door.
“You couldn’t bear those squares I have to put up with for a single hour,” she had convinced him. “I wouldn’t want to ever put you through that.”
Baby, things are getting clearer.
I hope they never get too clear.
Love in October. Love in the night-blue hours. Love in the hub of the electrified forest. Love by the yellow moon, love wan by the ashes. Love when the hands of the little clock faltered yet stood erect and ever so tender on the stroke of twelve.
Whether the moon was white or yellow, whether the night sky was cloud or clear—who remembers now? It was morning, love past eleven and not yet twelve, and the chambermaid’s voice telling some good-morning porter, “I’m still in the land of the living, Charlie.” That had come to them over the transom at the best of all possible moments; beneath him she had given up the smile that went sea-green miles deep: “I’m still in that land too,” Baby had told him.
Like the time she had told him, with her breath coming faster, “Now—for all you’re worth.”
And after that it had always been Now for all he was worth, Now for all she was worth, Now for all they had ever been worth together. For the nothing they now were worth apart.
Baby, how could you need me so fast, so bad, so hard, right away, the very first night like nobody had ever needed anybody before—and then not need me at all? Can it be everything to me now and nothing at all to you?
Baby, how long is this going to take? Tell, how long will I have to go on longing while you don’t remember at all?
One night she had walked in and without so much as a “hello” sat on the bed bundled in her raincoat and studied him like a child. “Just give me a cup of coffee,” she had told him, “then I have to be running along.” Stunned by disappointment, for he had been waiting for her for hours, he began fumbling around the gas-plate. “And when you have the water on,” she added, “tell me where you want me.”
The sudden switch had caught him holding the kettle of water in the middle of the room.
“Did you hear me?” She kept up that imperious tone. “Where do you want me?”
“I heard,” he told her. “I’m getting the coffee.”
She had laughed—that wild happy laugh that made him forgive anything. For in the whole ceaseless city to the ends of town and back, nobody but he and Baby had known what a storm of love could rise and rage between a woman and a man.
Baby, he recalled wistfully now, you never did drink that coffee.
That had been the same night she had said “hurt me.” But he was a man whose whole world was made up of winners and losers. Pain was for losers, pleasure for winners. Pain was pain and pleasure, pleasure. No one wanted any part of the loser’s end. “I don’t know how,” he had told her then.
For she had not wished to be hurt really—she had wished to put a stop to a joy so prolonged it was turning into anguish. Yet now it came to him he had missed something important in not somehow hurting her then, in not knowing how. I’d never needed to hurt anyone before, he assured himself.
But I’d know how now all right, he decided, I’d cross your wrists under your head and haul your goddamned head back by your hair—but at the thought of that face, clouding with pain, his heart proved petty once again.
I still wouldn’t know how, he confessed sheepishly, and everything in him melted as it once had when her passion would meet his own. For all he was worth and all she was worth. And now...
Not for him. Never again...
Baby, the very bed.
For pain was pain and pleasure, pleasure. One was for losers and one for winners, and the land between a mystery he had never trod.
II. The Yellow and the Wan
Inside the big cage with him, so dim he could scarcely make them out, the lions kept moving and moving. They were females by their smell, and as long as he kept moving he was all right. It was early morning, dark and close. Something was going to happen any second. He was wearing a fire-alarm-red robe with a yellow belt, but underneath had never been so naked. Something was going to happen all right. There was nothing between him and the ones with the manes...
I always wake up just in time, he thought, still asleep, sweat just pouring down, shows there’s someone watching over me.
In the utmost country of his brain, the bookie heard a far-off mourning bell of silver so thin-wrought nothing save sleep could make it toll. Gloom and the dark-drawn shade, an iron traffic rolling below. His sleep-drawn breath came slower, at three-to-one, than the muted ticking of the clock. He made up his mind that he wouldn’t bother turning over. And in that darker country the bell began to sound like a name going farther than ever from home, like a name too dear for losing. The breath quickened in his throat and he broke out of the barrier of sleep to lie with eyes unseeing, a rumpled man in a new gray suit flung across a rumpled bed. He sat up, fumbling at the open collar. Post-time still some time away.
I have until post-time to reconcile myself, he decided.
The bar below wouldn’t be open for more than an hour.
His eyes rubbered short-sightedly for the little clock’s prim face. The framed photograph of Native Dancer hung above the party girl as it had always hung. Yesterday’s Form lay open on the dresser and today’s lay folded beside it. His gray felt, neatly creased, hung on the dresser mirror, his tie looped neatly about it. About the room were a dozen signs: do not disturb... keep off the grass... please leave key at desk... if you can’t stop please smile as you pass by... we’re here to serve you. Everything was as it had always been.
Except the night-lamp that had burned with such a steady fury a few hours before, but now burned on ever so wanly. All night the little bell had tolled a name too dear for losing, and all night the lamp burned yellow. Now the lamp burned white—as if something had happened in the night that could not now be ever undone by yellow light or white. “Baby,” he told the dresser mirror, “don’t, don’t. Just don’t do it.” And seeing, he picked up the note in the gloom of the second-rate hotel room, the note that had fallen from his hand when the lamp turned wan.
He had let the right moment go by. You either take the moment when it’s there or forget it, like a daily double that you’re too damn careful about and it comes through. And will never come again in a million years, and even if it came again in ten, that would still be too late. So let the note go.
The note wouldn’t go. It stuck in his hand, and even if he tore it up, every line would be with him now. Pretty soon he’ll tear it up and toss it in the basket, and in a day or two or a week or two, or a month, the lines, just the way she put it all, would be forgotten. I’ll forget every line of it, he assured himself. My memory will slip.
Yet he knew that though he forgot every line, the note would still be sticking to his palm. Though he forgot her name, it would still be with him.
Then there’s no sense crumpling it up, he compromised.
It’s a combination that can’t come up again, he told himself. You have to be careful in my trade—trying to justify the caution that had cost him more than he was willing to pay, could not afford to pay. All I did was carry caution a little too far.
He sat on the bed with the note in his hand, studying the ceiling. But he didn’t look like he really saw it, looked like he needed the glasses on the stand beside the bed. But he didn’t reach for the glasses. It looked like he had read it already; it looked like he was going to keep on reading it forever; it looked like he had never read it before.
Feel as if you’d died is all, Baby. I thought the broads who had to be coaxed were the sweet kind, but I know they’re only the what-will-everyone-think kind. I thought the girls who slept alone till they got a deposit down were the good kind. Baby, your kind is the only good kind. And you were the best of your kind.
He glanced at the clock: a quarter to eight. I’ll get through the barrel all right now. I’m supposed to send a wire saying, “Good luck and God bless you,” only I won’t. I’d rather count cracks in the mirror. And the sky began to fall.
He got up and looked down the long hall to keep it from falling any further. But the hall looked a hall that had no season at all. The door held a shaky threat: do not disturb.
I’ll disturb whoever I’m damned pleased to disturb, he decided. not responsible for valuables not checked at the desk, the mirror mocked. You leave me cold, he told the mirror. And I’ll use all the towels I want, he promised. please leave key at desk, the management apologized. I thought you’d change your tone. He was satisfied and fumbled in his pockets for a tip, a valuable he’d forgotten to check, a cigarette, or anything at all.
For some reason he caught the do not disturb sign between his palms like a man who has trapped a moth and can’t make up his mind whether to crush it or let it free. After a moment he let it free.
“Wait till your goddamn sky falls in. You may get it back in place but it’ll never look the same.”
I could send a wire saying, “Good luck to all three of you,” and have the messenger hand it to the best man.
You tried that route before, he reminded himself. It didn’t work. Just wire, “They’re running in the mud here today too, Baby.”
But they’ll run all the same. Let them all run in the mud. And the rain came on again to make up for lost time, as if fearing there wouldn’t be mud enough by post-time.
I have to go down to the lobby and tell the people they’ll run in the mud...
Maybe I’d better just sit and count the cracks.
Baby, that half-wild look you had in love, and that old-fashioned smile when love was over.
She had loved the great city’s electrified forests stretching out endlessly from the tiny hub of the roof. When her eyes first looked at him, from this same pillow, the light that burned now so wanly had burned a deeper yellow.
And the smell of her nakedness—at once that of a girl freshly bathed and that of a woman of passion so mature... he had felt he held both the young girl and the woman.
For a moment, he had no breath left.
“He says it’s the little girl he loves in me.”
Pops, you’re missing one hell of a woman.
He made his plans for the rest of the morning.
I could go out and get breakfast any time now. One large orange juice, two eggs up, coffee black. Get suit pressed. He prided himself on staying neater, generally speaking, than the suckers. And pick up the bets downstairs. Then I’ll reconcile myself.
Downstairs was the bar where, no matter how riotous the night before had rung, by morning there abided a dusky hush like the muted stillness of a cathedral during early Mass, when only the rasp and clink of currency stirred amid the muted organ’s notes.
House odds for both bettors and parishioners were, the bookie knew, forbidding.
I could get a fifth at the drug store and call that breakfast.
I could go back to sleep. I could write a mutuel ticket and tear it up.
No, he changed his plans again, I’ll reconcile myself first. Here I am with all my bridges burned. No use putting it off. Here, right now. Okay, here I go. He stood up to begin but didn’t know how. Breathe deeply, that’s how to begin. He breathed deeply and exhaled. “You made a sucker out of me, Baby,” he said aloud and sat down.
He picked the note off the floor.
Six stories below them the river had reflected whiskey ads and starlight. And never a mail plane or helicopter, beacon or star had found them out, there in their secret place where rainbows of neon spanned the deeps. Where stars were paired, in the river’s deeps, so that each star seemed leaning each to each.
Those first hours together had been no more than those of any side-street solitary, any bar-wise, woman-wise bookie falling in love with any brash young chick from the suburbs wearing white batiste.
It was autumn, but summer came back, a full week, just for them...
Marriage was a bit he had never regarded seriously, one bit in which he had never seen himself. Marriage, he had always felt, was a standing joke. He had mocked it. She had slipped onto her finger a ring that he might have found in a box of Crackerjacks. Its stones, as it were, were plastic dice. He had slipped it onto her finger intending mockery, a mock marriage; instead she had put her lips to it. The mockery failed. The summer air had married them.
Then the rain came on to make up for lost time. All ran in the mud. “You couldn’t bear those squares I have to put up with for a single hour,” she had assured him early in the game. So he had never gone into her country, albeit he had been sufficiently presentable at the time. Beauty had come into his own patch, between billboard and bar, instead.
Beauty, the fog is blowing off. I hope things never get too clear.
Yet bleak or bright, his own side had been better lighted. Where now by the light of one ordinary lamp the self-same clock tick-tocked, tick-tocked. As it had that first moment he had breathed in her breath. Had counted the pleasured moments off when his lips had explored her yielding breasts.
Had felt her impudent nipples stiffen and heard her low breath... wide you go was how he had instructed her white thighs. In had been love’s invitation. Now had been the order of love’s hourless night when Baby had been giving the orders—”Now. For all you’re worth.” And her voice had had a deep throat rasp, he had caught a girl-in-love scent. Even now his stomach muscles contracted a little from that remembered odor. Then all scents drifted down to nothing more than the odor of a sliver of discolored Lifebuoy... all things washed down, all colors faded, everything burned off from deep orange to ash white.
As the lamp that at midnight had burned like blood everlasting shown now in the heartsick morning light no stronger than ash.
Now, my Wide-and-Dearest. Now, my Now-and-Never-Again. For all you and I are worth together...
“If you let me go, I’ll hate you,” she had warned him on their last night together. Then she had taken the shade off the lamp and shone the light right into his eyes, let its glare help her hate him with an icy hate. When he had tried to shield his eyes, she had put his hands to his sides.
“How can I hate you with an ice-cold hate if you won’t cooperate?” She wasn’t trying to be funny. Baby had just never run into anyone who didn’t do as he was told.
Then the shade was back on the lamp and he had simply turned over onto his side and thought drowsily, “Hate away.” A marvelous feeling of satiety followed this, coupled with his waning desire, and he had wanted to escape, but to his surprise, she had clung to him still, eyes open now, lips uttering endearments and phrases that shocked him...
Her crying had awakened him. She was sitting up, sniffing into a kleenex. “I’m no good at hating,” she had confessed. “I’m not quite strong enough to really hate you. I don’t have any experience at it. I don’t even come close to the real thing. I’ve worked for six minutes by my watch to get into a real ice-cold rage. I almost had it. I could have killed you with a hammer without a qualm. Cold rage. But you went on sleeping like a baby. Tears began in my throat and went to my brain—I felt it getting out of control, I really went sort of crazy. I didn’t come around until I felt your slap—it showed you were concerned for me after all. But I know I’m no good at ice-cold rage. I’m not strong enough for that sort of thing. I’m not strong enough to hate you.”
“You’re strong enough for two,” he had reassured her.
Baby, he remembered with satisfaction now, you really looked a mess after that one.
That had been the first time it had been no good. And never again was the way it had been high up in the rainbow forest when the homecoming stars had come down.
It had passed, it had passed, it had gone for good...
“You’re going to need me more than you think,” she had warned him that night now gone. “For your own sake, don’t let me go.”
“For your own sake I’ll damn well send you,” he had matched her in self-sacrifice and turned on his side away from her.
“We both want to thank you for letting me go”—now why throw in a thing like that? A receding pang, like a pang of sick delight, made him put the back of his hand to his head and picture Virgil as some little fellow with pencils stuck behind both ears who studies the shoeboard between twelve and two—if you got too close he’d take you behind the paddock and sell you Native Dancer’s right foreshoe for five dollars.
The same little fellow you could see again, between the eighth race and the ninth or when the ninth was done, flipping castoff tickets as he walked, pretending he had lost a good one. But actually looking for ones thrown away by mistake. Stuffing his pockets with thrown away mutuels. Baby, you picked yourself a dilly, sorting racetrack culls... Virgil throws you the sack and if you find a place ticket for eight dollars there’s groceries in the house and, if not, there’s nothing. Baby, as the hillbilly remarked, you’ve made a slight error.
Yet, even as he watched, the Virgil of his sick imagination lengthened and turned into somebody who never stooped for any man’s throwaways. This Virgil looked like Marlon Brando and owned a yacht and a stable, and the life he led her, the happy times, lushing on the open sea, the moonlight, the music—Baby, no wonder you never wrote.
He fitted his finger into a crack in the dresser mirror where a shot-glass once had splintered and thought wistfully, Sweetheart, you could throw real straight. I should never have let you go. You had an arm like Alexander and I made love like Jesus Christ—I know because you told me so.
Beauty, you wouldn’t say it if you saw me now.
Always some damn Virgil or other banging out of the barrier, always some sleeper no Form could ever figure, the eight-year-old maiden staying in front all the way. Always some damned Virgil.
It’s the sort of thing that wouldn’t have mattered if it had happened when I was nineteen, he decided again... but at forty-four it has really started something. Everything had always gone my way right up to the day she left. Then I developed a hitch in my swing and everything I did had some sort of reverse English on it. Everything I tried, that had always worked like a charm, kicked back.
Years in the rain, and now the rest of the way by the stars.
Peering cautiously, he saw the rain that rained on all the roofs about. And thought of the many things a man can be in forty-four years, from medical corpsman to piano-man at the first-rate, second-rate, third- and fourth-rate clubs until the clubs were taverns and the taverns were dives, and what do you sell when the tambourine is empty to get the money to buy sleep?
Two stories above Enright’s Southsea Isle, six dollars in debt to a man sure he had no habit worse than the horses...
And now it has been raining for how long in his heart?
Six years since he got discharged from the service. Six years since he’d said he was going to do something besides mutuel tickets. Eighteen since he’d gotten on the side of the house. Four years at a desk wearing a first lieutenant’s bars. Two outfits to which he’d been attached had gone overseas and left him stateside. He was not the sort of man who would have deserted in the heat of battle. He was only the sort of man who happens to be where the fighting is lightest.
What makes a corpsman perspire? he wondered as if recalling a question from some forgotten book.
It isn’t standing up to fight or lying down to fire...
The rain paused as though to hear the rest.
They’ll run in the mud at Sportsman’s Park, was what he told the rain. They’ll run in the mud at Gulfstream too. Tell me the old sweet story, Rain... they’ll run in the mud at Suffolk again. If I can get up a deuce between now and post-time I’ll be all right, for I’ll have something going for me till tonight.
The fifth stood at attention. He denied the bottle’s accusation: “It wasn’t a cheating operation. Give me that much. Give me this—that I meant it like never, not even once before. Give me this much, that she said those twenty years made no difference to her. Give me this much—that it was her that said, ‘Don’t let me go.'”
Why did you let her go then? he and the bottle asked together.
Well, it’s like this, he stalled. It’s a very simple question. It’s like just one of those things. Once in a hundred years comes up a certain combination nobody can anticipate. Nobody in the world can anticipate it. Take the sour with the sweet. Every cloud has a silver lining. Everybody has a certain number of daily doubles he hits in his life and, like with me, some use them up earlier than others. I used mine up early—that’s why I got on the side of the house. That’s why I haven’t stood at a daily-double window in fifteen years.
Pretending twenty years doesn’t make a difference until I can’t pretend any longer—it’s like being robbed of a Purple Heart you got for cutting yourself on a C-ration can... how do you play the injured hero?
But I got the blues all the same, he acknowledged glumly. That C-ration cut hurts like a battle-wound...
Down the hall the morning’s first chambermaid knocked discreetly at a door.
It wasn’t a cheating operation at all. In fact, it was the only operation you ever played straight from beginning to end.
And the first one you lost that you took this hard.
The way you start toughing out a bad deal is to know in your heart you got a bad deal. So I didn’t hit the daily double two days in a row.
This wasn’t no daily double, Bookie, he corrected himself. And now the bitter taste of last night’s gin came back on his tongue, deep in his throat...
She will, however, write occasionally.
And he would answer too, if he had nothing else to do. In a year or two she’ll come through town, we’ll have a drink together, and I’ll find out I’m well out of it. Virgil will be with her, of course, looking haggard from two years of trying to keep up, keep the inside rail on a very fast track indeed. The sonofabitch looking more like fifty-six now... and it won’t be the booze that’s killing him slow (the bookie saw with satisfaction): you look like somebody cracked your screen, Pops... he’d jive the old boy with jokes that were just between her and him. Wait till she dents your screen, Pops. Wait till the sky comes down on you. You may put it up again but it won’t look the same; it will look like it had been tacked up there, Pops.
He himself would be all right. All he had to do was get used to the sky being tacked up. It would be like one of those TV romances where the lovers who have gone separate ways meet by chance between trains... he on his way to Hollywood to sell a novel, of course, because that was where all bookies went when they were trying to forget what they had written. She is pleased that he is a writer now. She’s heard all about his success, but frowns when he asks about Pops. “Virgil is in the East on business,” she would explain, and just by the way she said it you’d know what kind of business the devil was in the East on. Just the way she says it, you know she is terribly unhappy but still has her pride. She’ll say she thought he had married years ago...
Darling, never let me go.
“Baby, Baby, the half-wild look that you had in love,” he moaned softly to himself.
If only I could talk my way out somehow. You know it’s all I’m trying to do, talk my way out, Baby.
As sure as writing mutuel tickets was his trade, he’d never desire a coy girl, a demure girl, a good girl, a nice girl again. The hell with the coy girls, the nice girls. How could I get to forty-four thinking they were the good kind? Baby, I never knew the good kind till I met you, and you were the best of your kind...
The least I can do is let go of the note.
III. Night of the Iron Rain
But he couldn’t let go of the note. He was a man who was always crumpling something he hadn’t read and tossing it off because he had some kind of resentment against the kind of man with usually two pens and a memo book in his pocket, who always took notes. He himself was a man who didn’t need to take notes, he had long ago decided, and he himself was a man who traveled light, and if he had been the kind who let himself keep a scrapbook of self-pity, he could have it filled by now. Because he was a man who had always believed in women, from the first little freshly scrubbed schoolroom chick who had turned him down. “All you want to do is kiss me,” she had told him. They were thirteen, and he hadn’t kept any notes on how badly he had felt, and he’d felt bad for two whole days.
All this is the same operation, he assured himself now, thirty-one years later, and in this there was no self-pity. Then he saw how the eyes in the mirror were sunken and the overnight stubble had gray in it. It was the face of a man usually confident that he could pass for thirty-six, a man who had never not surprised anyone, as yet, when he said he was actually forty-four.
I wouldn’t say that no one on your side of thirty couldn’t hold you, he made terms with her.
Why not “my side of forty” something whispered, but he didn’t hear it clearly.
What’s the matter with you, Baby, he wanted to know immediately, impatiently, as if that were the answer to everything, that all you can go for is men in their forties?
Or had it been simply that she was so far ahead of any male under forty, and none over that age could give her back the unreckoning kind of love she gave?
At least nobody named Virgil.
The man in the mirror didn’t feel so good. Yet he didn’t really feel bad. He just felt a little low. He knew he’d get through the barrel all right. He could deal blackjack and handle his own nerves, he could deal out love or poker or three-card monte, and nothing could make him say “be with me” when there was nobody to be with.
“Baby,” he asked, suddenly impatient with all her whims, “how come you can’t go for anyone but men in their forties?”
I was scared of twenty years, he acknowledged soberly, and some Virgil comes along is not scared of twenty. Some Virgil. If he were just on your side of thirty, Baby, I could reconcile myself.
If I have to reconcile myself, I might as well start now. Here I go, reconciling myself. All right...
Just like going to Mass, he would reconcile himself.
He stood up and took a deep breath.
“Here I go, reconciling myself. Here I am all reconciled. A stranger is marrying my wife tomorrow and I’m reconciling myself,” he mumbled like a drunk whose last dime is over the bar and knows it but fumbles in his pockets all the same.
Love in the long forenoon, love by moonlight, he knew now, is for the movies.
But love past eleven and not yet twelve remembers the step of the chambermaid just the other side of the open transom telling someone, “I’m still in the land of the living, Charlie.”
His legs went suddenly weak and he sat down on the gray bed’s edge, making a gesture as if a fly had buzzed him.
He heard a light knocking at the door but sat quite still. He didn’t want company. He looked at his watch for no reason he knew of except perhaps that it was knocking time. And the knocking came again, more lightly now, but no footsteps went away.
His eyes went to the crack in the mirror. Wait till she starts throwing things, Pops, and recalled the glass that had missed him by a hair.
Old Pops, rounding up his cows at dusk, pumping water for the cows... for God’s sake, he stopped himself, the man is probably a Standard Oil executive and looks twenty-eight.
I want a drink now, and he would have gotten up and gone out and gotten one except he didn’t want to get up and couldn’t have gotten it down. He lay a finger across his lips as if to see whether they had been moving all this time.
Don’t do it, Baby, he told the dull green ceiling, told the drawn curtains, told the knocking at the door. The girl asked you to marry her and you stalled. “Don’t let me go,” she told you, and you let her go all the same.
If she ever calls, coming through town, he would answer. If he had nothing else to do. They would have a drink together and he would be well out of it. Virgil would look pretty haggard. That Virgil boozed too much would be plain to see, and he would say to himself confidently, Man, you are well out of it. And sure enough, there would be a crack in Virgil’s mirror, too.
Maybe he should get up, get his mail, open it. Or get a drink, turn on the TV, go to the door. Nobody was knocking, he thought foggily. Then, I didn’t hear anybody go away.
The least he could do was let go of the note.
He knew that he would have no heart for the game again because the last game had turned out to be the real thing. But nothing at all for her.
“I can hear your heart beating”—that one had been his.
“No one ever held me like this before”—that had been hers.
“I never held anyone like this before,” he had come right back.
“Your little room feels like home to me.”
We weren’t very good at thinking up new ones, were we, Baby?
“Never let me go”—now there’s an innovation. I think it’s showing tonight at the Bijou.
“Your little room feels like home to me”... if it hadn’t been this room it would have been one down the hall. If it hadn’t been you it would have been somebody else for me.
Then he wouldn’t be sitting on the edge of the bed instead of going downstairs to pick up the late bets. Would I, Baby?
“I’ve never been so in love”—that had been his, and the one that had made her throw the shot-glass at his head. “In love! In love!” she had raged. “You’ve been in love twice a year ever since you were in short pants and you’ve never loved another human being yet. I hate you.”
You always were a nutty little broad. He still didn’t get it.
A silver-blonde brat who wasn’t even born till I was twenty tells me a thing like that. Tells me the reason I got such good control in bed is because I’m dead inside. She knows because her bug-doc told her so. The bug-doc knows everything.
Lucky I’m not vain.
I need a shot right now, but if I told her that right now, she’d say all I really need is black coffee, get my suit pressed, and go see her bug-doc.
Baby, that’s all right when you’re twenty-three, that may work when you’re twenty-three, but not at forty-four.
He went to the window again and saw rain on all the roofs about and thought, What makes a soldier’s heart?
The rain paused as if it, too, would like to know.
It isn’t standing up to fight or lying down to fire.
Now we’re getting somewhere.
They’ll run in the mud at Sportsman’s. They’ll run in the mud at Jamaica. Baby, let tell me you the old sweet story: they’ll run in the mud at Bowie.
Forty-four up against twenty-three.
Let them run in the mud. I need a shot because I got a petty heart.
His head sought rest on his chest, fingers hanging without strength. As suddenly as the fight had been joined, it was done: let the fighter rest.
The mermaid drifted past, and he tried turning to follow, but now the waters were against him, heavy as some terrible door. He gathered all his strength, and in a single effort awakened once more—an old man on the nod on a rented bed, weak, blind, sweating, disappointed and cold, saying you with a fading smile.
Then saw the note had fallen to the floor. Are you still in the land of the living, Baby?
His heart gave a slow, sick roll.
Everything was as it had always been. Except that the night-lamp, which had burned with such a steady fury when yesterday’s races had all been run, now burned on wanly...
He couldn’t throw the note away.
Don’t do it, he begged her. Just don’t do it.
But she was going to do it.
You didn’t trust me enough... It was why I didn’t.... It wasn’t the twenty years, Baby, it was your holding out on me, as you’ll hold out on Virgil. If you’d meant everything you said before you said, “Don’t let me go,” I never would have let you go. But when you said, “Don’t let me go,” you were only telling me half the story. I waited for the other half, and all you added was “never let me go.” When I took my arms from around you that night, it wasn’t because I wanted to let you go, Baby. It was because you didn’t trust me enough to be straight with me.
That’s telling her, he congratulated himself.
Can’t you realize, he reproached himself, that what the girl is thinking now is that, if she had played it straight with you, if she had given you nothing with which to stand her off, she would have been hooked to a day-to-day bookie instead of a forty-foot cruiser and a Pops?
And don’t forget the Marine.
Only—he got up—of course... she has to come back to town to get her clothes and introduce Virgil to her people. Why, he realized, there’s only one place she could be right now—that’s why she had been so vague...
Yet she’d be expecting his ring. Because that’s how women are. They wanted you to see through their ruses yourself. There might not even be a Virgil.
He reached for the phone.
Are you still in the land of the living, Baby?
He heard the downstairs operator reach the suburban operator. Silence, then from out in the green fields, a voice asking, “Who will accept the time and charges, Madam?”
“I’ll accept the charges,” he told the desk.
The phone was ringing. Baby, shine your big white light just once more on me. Baby, I think wherever you are, the daylight must be coming down through the roof. I think when you open your eyes in the morning, the sun outside your door feels stronger for that.
“This number has been temporarily disconnected at the subscriber’s request,” the suburban operator abruptly reported. Someone walked past the door; the wind mocked the windowpanes. The heartbroken mermaid never stirred. And the man in the mirror hung up slowly.
He sat back with a fixed grin. It was fixed as hard as he could fix it because it was the only way of holding himself together.
You don’t want much, Bookie. All you want is to be trusted, without trusting. All you want is a sure thing, then you’ll bet. But it doesn’t matter...
No, it matters more than anything, he realized. I trusted her all the way. I trust, I...
I can buy another fifth and call that lunch. I could go back to sleep. He laid the note carefully in the wastebasket where he could read it again in case he needed something to read. Sometime.
Just like me... can’t I get it through my head she’s feeling she just had a narrow run?
How can I still be in love with the broad, for God’s sake?
Then he heard the elevator click, knew the red diamond said IN USE, and knew it could never be Baby.
“We both want to thank you for letting me go.”
On the margin of his mind he saw a car trailing paper ribbons, circling around and around a city block followed by a line of honking cars, each driver leaning on his horn against the bridegroom and bride in the leading car. Baby, when you lay against me, it was the first peace I ever had.
And borne on the traffic’s cry, he heard the one name too dear for losing.
Belled by some wind that kept blowing from home, that had blown his way too late. And found nobody home.
Love in the iron rain going farther and farther. Taking back love-dreams that could never come true.
And he seemed at that moment to feel her arms, the fire in the sweetness and the sweetness in the fire when love went out and love came back, the way they used to hold each other. She had two fingers back of his neck and her thumb touching the dead center of his throat. He had waited, yet she did not press. Though he knew she could have pressed the life out of him.
Something has happened to her—he had the swiftest of hunches—Baby, it feels as if something really has happened to you. If feels as though you really have died.
And didn’t try to hold her longer, or be held by her. By her or anyone.
Still, all the girls he’d ever meet would be named Baby in his heart.
Baby, he told her sternly, you were much too easy. The first night was much too soon.
He put it to himself: Why didn’t I say, “It’s much too soon”?
You throw that out, too, he brought himself back to earth. You can throw it all out... sitting on the edge of the bed, he talked softly into his palms that had cupped the green-shaded lamp’s light. After all, it wasn’t some childhood sweetheart deal the way you’re trying to make it out. It wasn’t so long ago you didn’t even know her name.
And you don’t know her name again. Mrs. Virgil somebody. Making travel plans to somewhere. Will write occasionally.
If I were on her side of thirty, I would reconcile myself and call up another number. And begin again at a different bar.
Shall we keep trying or will you concede? he put it again to himself. He went back to the window. Much too easy. You were too easy.
You didn’t think it was too soon, that first night, he reminded himself. You didn’t say then, “Baby, it’s much too soon.”
Love in the hub of the night-blue hours. Love by the yellow moon. Morning love was the love he now remembered best. And a lazy chambermaid’s voice. Love past seven and not yet twelve.
Now I’ll tell you something I never told you—he tried another route—because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings. But they told me you were easy. You know who I mean, he jeered, the boys. If it hadn’t been me that night it would have been somebody else. Somebody else for you, somebody else for me. So all’s well that ends well and God bless you, Baby. Instead of it being you who said, “I can hear your heart beating,” somebody else would have said it. They all say that. Or did you think it was the first time I’d heard it?
Then he looked for nail holes in his palms, but all he could see in the one was a little handful of light, and all he could see in the other was a small handful of dark.
When she came back to pick up her clothes, she was going to have to phone him all the same, because unless he missed his guess, her own key was lost. Perhaps they’d have a drink together, for old times’ sake, no hard feelings, goodbye and God bless you. And that was how everything was sure to begin all over again. They’d never yet been together two hours without making love in his room or hers.
But this time, when they came to the part where she says, “Don’t let me go,” he would have lines he had not been given before. “I’ll never let you go” is what he would tell her, say it just like that, like Humphrey Bogart. He heard himself say it, and it sounded just like Bogart. “You’re the one thing that happened to me that made all the rest of it worth the while” was another something he’d say.
I don’t feel too bad, he told her, I don’t feel too good. I just feel as if you’d died is all. So long as you lead a full, rich life, what does it matter if you’re dead the while? All I have to do is get things under control. After all, nothing happens to you that you don’t let happen, and if it doesn’t happen to you, it doesn’t really happen to anyone. Besides, anybody is just somebody who happens to be around...
All day long, the bettors passed and re-passed, traffic cried out or was still. Everyone was a winner, everyone was a heavy loser. You had to have something to get through the day and something going somewhat faster to get you through the night (where everyone was a small loser, everyone a heavy winner, and all broke even in the end).
This is how things would always be, for this is how they’ve always been.
What makes you so salty when your worries are finished? he asked himself. After all, I have everything I want. Why am I exalting this nutty broad so? Why am I letting her give me fits? It makes no difference whether it would have worked out or not in the end, so long as we played the string out and had it.
What is it I almost had that I ducked?
But he felt safer letting untried doors stand locked.
IV. Nothing Happens in the Heart
He rose, turned the tap, and let the water run in the room’s corner till it ran cold. It was running so hard, he was splashing so, that at first he did not hear the tap at his door.
At the second rap he paused, then came to the door drying his face in a green-striped hand towel.
And was relieved to see it wasn’t John the Bookie standing there.
It was only the skinny little hillbilly hustler from Enright’s he’d fixed a few weeks before—for the sake of a watch he had pitied her too much to keep. As she came in, he saw she wasn’t wearing it.
O, the boundless nerve of these Chicago whores, he thought as she came in simply high-heeling it. Whatever the trouble was this time, it wasn’t gambling debts.
“You got a good load on, Honey,” he assured her. She perched herself on the edge of his bed. And by the way her narrow shoulders leaned, by the way her chubby hung, and by the way her handbag swung, Honey was in a huff.
She was about the age Baby had been when they’d met. But right there the
resemblance ceased. The only wonderful thing about this poor thing was how she kept living without food or sleep...
Then he awoke to find himself still on the rented bed. What had just happened? Had someone been here, or had he dreamed it?
If I’m going to wake up feeling like this, I might as well drink whiskey.
Six p.m. An iron traffic rolled below. It was the hour of the little heels. Behind the closet door, stained with Chianti, a sleeveless white batiste blouse draped itself emptily across a trench coat for which she’d never call. In the lights and glooms of the little room he saw the sad medallion of her face. Once, in the big dark middle of an autumn night, he had felt her lips cool as her passion drained from her. Now the hall beyond the door was like a hall with no season at all.
Baby, he told her, still pale with the wonder of it, Baby, you damn near saved me.
Beneath the sound of the ceaseless rain, he knew that something had begun in him that he had no way of halting. And how much was because of Baby and how much was his own doing he could not tell because he was not a man who lost...
Suspicious tips were being traded in the light and suspect laughter in the dark. Where up a green stairwell or down a green stair, when music was muted and laughter half-heard, glass clinked upon glass in a promise of light. And carpet and transom, keyhole and key, beheld vows holy to daybreak’s bell fade into love-words to any hall broad after both sheets are changed.
Early to the post or late, all things careened without a sound past a desk where other bachelors’ keys awaited other bachelors. Track slow or track fast, all gates, all doors, opened at last to a one-way street.
Where sidewalks dry or sidewalks wet, great trackless buses swung or waited.
Where bettors passed and re-passed and nothing was as it used to be. For nothing shook down straight, no coin rang true.
Across the bed, yesterday’s Form still lay strewn. He put the guilty gin fifth to his lips for the final drop, but the thing was dry, and he set it carefully on the window sill. On the wall, narrow Christ looked down. At a respectable distance to one side, the Esquire mermaid was impaled.
That seaweed exchange had been disconnected for years. The mermaid line, like the bookie trade, was washed up years ago. Why can’t some people face up to facts and go to work?
He heard the muted ticking of the clock above the darkened TV screen, and the wind off that darker country tolling the news of some name too dear for losing. Borne on some wind blowing away from home. The clock had a heart-shaped face. It glinted a bit as if with an emotion all its own. The man on the bed caught that glint, as if the narrow Christ had stirred. When he looked, Christ seemed to be thinking, “Look who’s hung up again.”
He examined the Christ derisively. “Look who’s talking. You don’t even know what line you’re in. You’re in the meek-and-lowly trade and you’re supposed to be on the forgiving side. You ain’t supposed to crack wise. I’m meek and lowly, but I ain’t that meek. I don’t have to take that off nobody.”
He waved Him off. “Hang it up, buddy. You’ve had it.”
Yet looked as if he’d had it himself. He felt his grayish stubble, and the hand shook. His eyes went here and there, seeking someone, anyone, to accuse. Somebody’s going to pay, and pay dearly, he promised the world.
The world that, moving in the rain, cried havoc in the traffic.
Six twenty-two, the small clock told him. You’ll never make seven, he told the clock.
Flung face down on the rumpled bed, he felt his own breath quickening. To mix with the impatient traffic’s cries.
Everything ought to rock more. The harder things rocked the less phony they got... I liked it best when it rocked fast, he recalled like a child remembering times of yesterday. That was the whole trouble with things down the hall—neither hotel walls nor hotel halls rocked like they used to. Especially that corridor where the music, classical or jazz, was piped in for two bits an hour.
I been suspecting as much for some time now.
Sitting up, he swept his hands before his chest like a man throwing away something useless, then brought his hands back to his chest and looked at each, turning the palms up curiously in turn, as though not having seen them before today.
All he saw were two palms full of empty light—the left one for the short night he had passed and the right for the long day not yet done. He turned them over and let the light spill.
It fell without a sound.
Chicago’s electrified evening had begun, like no other city’s night. The pennants of the car lot whipped like colored fancies on a line in the dying light, bare yellow bulbs festooned across the street above cars with windshields chalked priced to sell. strictly a steal. i need a home.
The little square windows of late office workers lit up so neatly, row over row, while tavern lights came on carelessly, first here, then there, as though whoever was pushing the buttons didn’t really care. Yet when all the beer signs down the side streets and on the corners were lit, they bloomed from walk to walk like water lilies tethered each to each, and each with a certain pride, as if its owner had just invented electricity. They blinked at each other in such mild surprise to see that someone else had been thinking along similar lines. The blue and white Hamm’s, the Schlitz burning straight ahead as if disdaining the Edelweiss... it would go dry before it would drink Edelweiss. Down the street other signs, though none quite as bright. The ladylike Chevrolet legend that burned as if saying, “Now, boys, I don’t want you to quarrel over me.”
When she arrived, she would toss the spot of her car up the hotel wall. Didn’t everyone live in a spotlight, night-blue or moon-white? Didn’t everyone do just as he pleased?
He wished all the damned bulbs would burst.
Across the curve from the Loop the endless headlights: one little dark driver behind each pair and all drivers seemingly, from the hotel’s height, more driven than driving, like the monkeys at the amusement park strapped into little cars driven by hidden machinery along their appointed track. The ceaselessly changing combinations of headlights lengthening, shifting, widening as if moving through a steady current—you could see all sorts of things like that with Baby up in the rainbow forest.
Till the big homecoming stars came down, floating on the river’s stilly waters where they leaned like drunken lovers, each to each.
Neither he nor Baby had known how deep the water was getting. All shores were forgotten. He had slipped a big plastic novelty ring with big red plastic dice onto her wedding finger, and they took their vows on a Chianti bottle. The joke helped for an hour, then all the gags fell flat: there was no joking any more. The very air had married them.
Then love, too, had passed, and nothing could be like that again and nothing could bring it back.
The mystery he couldn’t get around was why that single thing with her should make all the rest of his life worthwhile, and now that she was gone, not worthwhile at all. How can the life that was lived before we met be good or bad, wasted or sensible depending on whether you are here or not? You had nothing to do with my life before, and you have nothing to do with it now. So it can’t be, it just can’t be, that what went on before was no good, wasted, because it wasn’t bad before I met you. And it can’t be that it’s all bad and senseless and pointless and useless now because I let you go... everything is going to be just like it always was. Because that’s how things have always been.
The green mermaid smiled, as she had smiled since Esquire‘s hours had first begun. The black and silver crucifix looked down. It knew something.
“I can’t imagine what,” he said out loud. “I just can’t imagine it.”
The trouble was he could imagine it too well, even if he said he couldn’t. The picture came clearer. Turning off the light wouldn’t darken it, and turning on the TV wouldn’t drown out her voice saying, with his arms around her, “Don’t let me go.”
Behind the closed door, in the gloom of the little room, he remembered the night-blue hours, night when all hours were one. Night of the slow-stroke-and-holding hours when the little prude of a clock put both hands up and pretended not to see, yet hadn’t missed a thing.
The realization that she was a bride had wakened her with a nervous start. The bridegroom delayed. She heard him moving in the bathroom and it seemed to her he had been in there an unconscionably long time. She called; he did not answer.
A hell of a way. A hell of an hour. My wife is going to be married, he thought numbly, though he had not wife at all. But when he thought it, his face, the mirrored face, looked like that of a man hit unexpectedly in the right side just below the ribs.
You’re just griped to the heart because somebody had more heart than you. Then he found another straw. I’m just not used to being the loser. I’ll just get used to it and the next time I’ll know better.
He had to half-smile at his easy optimism, for he was a man who knew there would not be, could never be, a next time.
He retrieved the note from the wastebasket, looked at it again for the name. She’s certainly being cautious, not even giving Virgil’s last name. That must be for the same reason that she left out where she’s traveling—she didn’t want to leave me any handy way of throwing a rock into the works. She knows that if I asked her for a drink with me she would have to say yes, and that if we did, we’d wind up in bed and everything would be like it was. And I’d go with her to tell Virgil it had all been a terrible mistake. And I would say, “Baby, I’ll never let you go.”
The man in the rumbled gray suit considered the text of the note in the gloom—gloom like the late-evening gloom of any second-rate hotel—considered the paper in hand. It was so heavy it felt like cloth. “P.S. I’ll write occasionally...”
P.S. to you, sister. He crumbled the note and sank again to the bed. Who do you think you’re kidding tacking that onto the financial statement? P.S. to Virgil: You better start saving up your sleep now, Pops. You’re going to need at least three nights of unbroken rest a week, Pops, he told the man who, for all he knew, was no older than himself.
What will you do when the Marine is called up, Pops? How many crutches are you on?
He was beginning to feel really sly now. A carhorn blew one short, imperious note below, and the sound took a long time, within his mind, to die. What will you do when the Marine is called up, Pops?
I wouldn’t take that route if I were you, he cautioned himself. Pops is probably a head taller than you anyhow, and looks ten years younger, too. Yes, and spends when he has it, too.
I would’ve spent if I would’ve had it, he flattered himself. I would’ve spent my right arm. You know that, don’t you, Baby?
How was it then, he asked himself as though it were she asking him, how come that day at the track when you hit the long one, you showed one ticket and ducked the other. You were real great that day...
I have to hand it to you—he had to have the final word with Virgil—how you have the nerve to marry my wife...
He heard a knock at the door and looked at his watch. The knock came again, more insistent now. He knew, just by looking at the watch, who it was and went to the door at last.
It was a fellow named Riley, who had two dollars for him to place. He took it mechanically, closed the door, and went back to the bed. He lay down with Riley’s crumpled money in one hand and her note in the other.
Deep in the mirror’s restless depths the green and sea-gold mermaid stirred. That submarine exchange was always busy.
After all, if she phones in a year I’ll only be forty-five. It won’t be too late then. If I move, I’ll get the phone listed, he decided. As soon as I hear her voice I’ll know it’s busted up. She’ll be sunburned and better dressed than she ever was. I’ll have to take it easy, not let her think I’ve been waiting.
Maybe I’ll come on like I’m not sure which Baby she was.
And he looked at his hands again and saw only two palms of empty light. If you’re looking for nail holes, he again told himself slowly, there ain’t none. And put his hands away.
Nothing shook down straight. No coin rang true.
But it was night again. When everyone would break even in the end.
This isn’t my day, he decided, without caring whose day it might be.v
From Entrapment and Other Writings by Nelson Algren, Brooke Horvath and Dan Simon, eds., forthcoming from Seven Stories Press, courtesy of the publisher, the Ohio State University Libraries, the Estate of Nelson Algren, and Donadio & Olson Associates.
My favorite idea that came out of the Chicago Journalism Town Hall, held at the Allegro recently with about 350 in attendance, was beautiful in its simplicity. I am ashamed that I cannot recall who said it, but it was this: It would be stupid to buy a newspaper. The Trib? The Sun-Times? Hell, the Reader and its fellow papers?
Do the math. If you buy the Creative Loafing chain, which owns the Reader, you get Rolodexes, a bunch of dated computers, dated software, and a name. Essentially you’re buying a logo, a URL, some archived content, and a giant fucking IOU.
So, sayeth this smart person: it’s much cheaper to let them die and hire the people, who have the knowledge and the contacts and who actually represent the name. (If you want to be all Web 2.0 about it, call the new thing the Rdr or the Twib, though I guess you won’t have to italicize it. We do not put on airs in the glorious future.)
Death is the most common term you’ll find reading over the various, cough, postmortems of the event. But as our own Michael Miner puts it: “If there was a consensus at the end of the Chicago Journalism Town Hall Sunday, it’s that journalism, in some fashion, will always be with us. However, something—God knows exactly what—is either slouching or bounding toward Bethlehem to be born.”
In other words: journalism isn’t dying. (Journalists are dying, of course, but even I don’t blame the Huffington Post for that.) The institutions are dying. That’s it. We’ve isolated the problem!
Journalists (I will irresponsibly use this as a synonym for “people who work in broadcast or print,” even though we’re all kind of journalists, which I will get to later) blame the bloggers (ditto, for people who work online). Bloggers blame the journalists. Everyone blames the economy, and management. Was it Ben Goldberger in the Blog with the Aggregator? Or was it Eric Zorn in the Newspaper with the Inverted Pyramid, or Sam Zell in the Boardroom with the ESOP?
Part I: Management
Feel free to blame them. I do. They don’t care what you think and will make more money than you regardless of how much money they leveraged on your career. Forget it, Jake.
Part II: Bloggers
The open hostility on the panel and in the audience toward Ben Goldberger, from Huffington Post Chicago, tickled the dark little void where my heart should be, until even I felt sorry for him, maybe because it was partly my doing, thanks to the ruckus I raised about the site copping our concert previews (he’s not a crook, son, he’s just a shook one: he got laid off back in the day IIRC, so have some sympathy), but it obscured some important questions that were poorly addressed, and I’m not sure whether it was out of ignorance or the format. Either way, get wise—this is sort of what was being talked about in my fantasy Chicago Journalism Town Hall:
(1) Should people write for free?
There’s a fair amount of resentment about this, but there really isn’t anything you can do about it. James Warren will write for free, and he used to be managing editor at the Trib! You are not going to stuff that genie back in the bottle. That’s how the Reader started, by the way, so in some ways I am living off the spilled blood of 70s civic idealists who may not be that far removed from the traitors at ChuffPo.
The tension comes from something unspoken: some of these people writing for free are better at writing than many of the people who are paid to write. Back in the dark ages Richard Roeper was the only conduit for the typical Sun-Times subscriber who wanted SOP meandering about pop culture but didn’t need so much that he or she needed to also pay for Entertainment Weekly and Us, and that was a smart economic decision on both sides.
Now anyone with a computer can read those, and thousands of other professional and amateur equivalents. You can also use Twitter and it’s kind of like reading a Richard Roeper column (you can even follow Richard Roeper on Twitter, but it’s less interesting than most Twitter feeds).
Look at it economically: the value of Richard Roeper, star columnist, has declined due to market forces. There are a lot of people offering the same or better service. The Roeper Bubble has burst.
And I don’t mean to pick on Richard Roeper. Well, actually I do, but there are more grave examples. Take David Brooks. The New York Times, a while back, thought people might want to pay to read David Brooks, and then they thought otherwise. Here’s the thing about him: he’s a journalist who writes about economics and politics. This is in fact what most journalists are: they are journalists, by training, who have trained to write about specific areas of expertise. On the other hand, Brad DeLong is an economist who writes. (If Brad DeLong is too liberal for you, there are more conservative economists who write, too.)
It turns out writing is the easier thing to learn. It is the less valuable commodity.
Most journalists are loath to admit this, because it means being part of the Roeper Bubble. A lot of the people newspapers pay to write are not just competing against people who write for free, they are competing against people who write better than they do, and those people are compelled to write because they are experts, which they are paid to be.
More simply: journalists have historically been paid by newspapers to call up experts and talk to them (I have done this many times), and to then relay that information back to the reader. Now many of those experts write. For readers. It saves the experts time, and usually a lot of stupid questions (I have asked those many times).
This does not of course mean that journalists are useless, only that some of them are, and only fairly recently. Keep reading. I am not anywhere close to done.
(2) What is aggregation and why are journalists so angry about it?
When I hear the word aggregation, I reach for my revolver.
(Fun fact: this construction is usually attributed to Hermann Goering, but it actually comes from an early Third Reich-era play, and the action is better translated “release the safety on.” I am aggregating this fact from Richard J. Evans’s The Coming of the Third Reich.)
Let me see if I can make this simple: aggregation means taking things that are on the Web and linking to them. There are lots of ways you can do it, and they make different people angry in different ways depending on their birthdate/job/temperament. While I am falling well short of a complete taxonomy of aggregation, here are a couple very important models, which are not, obviously, mutually exclusive. And if you think this is too basic, you were not at the Chicago Journalism Town Hall.
The blog model: A person puts up a link and that person says something about it. This is what I do on my Chicago Reader blog, Chicagoland, usually. That’s what I did when I posted this piece there originally. People went to the Town Hall and wrote things that I linked to, in part because I wanted to write a showy think piece instead of a postmortem (suckers; this is not unrelated to why journalists hate bloggers, by the way) and in part because those other people had interesting things to say that I want to comment on. This is how most blogs work.
The social aggregation model: This applies to Digg and Reddit, not to mention the estimable local startup the Windy Citizen. People submit links to sites, and then other people vote on what links are the most important and interesting, which leads to social communities gathering around these sites and their specific hivemind tastes, and then they get into bizarre inside-baseball fights about who has too much power to decide if a link is really important. Journalists and PR people are beating themselves up and spending mad payola so the anonymous yahoos at Digg will vote their stories up and send them a flood of traffic. People spend their lives doing this, creating lists (Diggnation likes lists) and photo galleries (ditto) to get crack hits of traffic. It’s just a new version of the same old journalism stunts. Beware, however: there is some debate as to whether the traffic from such sites is worth anything. Digg users tend to be less engaged than a more organically developed audience. A spike in national traffic doesn’t mean anything to local advertisers looking for regular, local readers.
The aggregation/blog hybrid: Original content on one side, aggregation on the other. Huffington Post does this. Gapers Block does this. Talking Points Memo does this.
So what’s the big deal? Is it “theft”?
Let’s keep it simple and look specifically at lightning rod HuffPo and its local expression, Chuffpo, since there seems to be so much animosity directed their way (this is in part a class thing, like most things are), and in part because their model is instructively controversial.
On the left side there is a blog. Aside from the complaint about people who write for free, most people have come to accept that there are bloggers who write for free and quote things and link to them.
On the right side there are headlines. Here’s where it gets tricky so pay attention and hopefully I won’t have to explain this ever again. If you click on the headline, you go to another site—fine. That site benefits from the link. If you click on “Quick Read,” you get a short excerpt of the article that the headline goes to, with an ad. If you click on “comment” you get that piece of the article with a comment box. People are pissed about this.
Perhaps rightfully. Damn fair-use kiddies think it’s their right, as Americans, to take “fair use excerpts” and do whatever they want with them. And they may be right, I am not a lawyer, and we’ll really only know the answer once such cases go to court, which they haven’t (the New York Times wimped out recently on such a suit). But read up on fair use. You are allowed to use excerpts, but the principle of fair use describes certain terms under which you are allowed to use them. The very basics are a four-part analysis: the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; the nature of the copyrighted work; the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
Like I said, I’m not a lawyer. But consider the four-part test in relation to ethics. HuffPo’s “Quick Read” is for commercial purposes, obviously. The nature ...let’s skip that. Amount and substantiality—the amount isn’t much, but in the traditional journalist’s inverted pyramid, the first couple paragraphs are very, very substantial.
Part four deserves more consideration. This is a very complicated issue. Aggregators and their ilk will tell you that they drive traffic to your site. They are correct about this. So maybe they make you money. But they also sell ads, and compete for eyeballs. So maybe they take your money.
I don’t know what the “effect of the use upon the potential market” is, and I bet you don’t either. But I do know it is cheaper for HuffPo to copy those couple paragraphs and use them to draw traffic and comments than it is for a publication to pay someone to generate them (I also know that “Quick Read” kind of looks like “Fuck You” if you squint).
So: why do I think bloggers should get away with that? Why is the left side of HuffPo fine and the right side questionable? Because people should be able to write about things. They should have the right to use them for: “purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching.” The person blogging about news things at HuffPo is doing something unique, whether that person is insightful or an idiot. There’s societal value to both. It’s a tremendously important freedom and it’s why the blogosphere is so rich. On the other hand, just slapping up a quote above a comments section—which, odds are, the other site has as well—feels cheap (and, technically, is cheap, that’s the business model).
And let us not forget how those HuffPo comments pages tie into search-engine optimization. The panel at the town hall really could have used someone with SEO expertise. TribCo is wisely throwing lots of money at SEO (which is just as important to all this as the journalists are—my grandfather was a pressman, so I grew up with love for the people whose hard work allows the words to be read). This may seem overly detailed, but trust me: SEO is hugely important to this hypothetical future of journalism and it is key to the HuffPo model.
A while back, Gawker’s Valleywag blog found the most egregious example of SEO juicing I’ve ever seen—a page of tags waiting for a nude picture of Ashley Dupre (the prostitute who brought down Eliot Spitzer). It’s useful because, shorn of content, and I mean content in the broadest possible sense, you can see how it works.
In short, SEO means making your site more friendly to Google and other search engines, but mostly Google. Or more specifically, Google’s search algorithm. Which is obviously a closely guarded business secret, but you can try different things to reverse-engineer it. Here’s a good example: when I heard police were searching the home of James Lewis, suspected of but never charged with the 1982 Tylenol murders, in Boston in February, I remembered that the Reader had a very good old piece on Lewis by Joy Bergmann. It’s available in our archives, but they’re not spidered by Google, long story. So, even though our archives are free, I made a new page for it. I made the URL chicagoreader.com/tylenol_killings and the page title “Chicago Reader | James Lewis | Tylenol Killings” because putting keywords in your URL and page title boosts your rank on the pages that come up when someone does a search. I also linked the story from Wikipedia—Wikipedia has “no-follows” links, which means that adding a link doesn’t boost your search rank (which keeps the site more honest), but it does mean that people might read it, and thus link to it, and thus boost your page rank further.
When I googled “james lewis tylenol” Bergmann’s Reader piece was the fifth link. That was pretty good. Now, the day the news broke about the search, the Huffington Post’s little AP blurb was ranked higher than the far superior Sun-Times story, in part, I suspect, because HuffPo is very, very clever about search-engine optimization. If you’ve ever wondered why HuffPo has huge, seemingly redundant sets of tags above every story, for instance, it’s that they make the site more Google-friendly. That’s why we shit a brick when we found they were swiping concert previews. The previews weren’t visible on Chuffpo if you started out on the homepage, but if you searched for, say, “bon iver vic,” as you might if you knew Bon Iver was playing the Vic that week, the Chuffpo pages containing our preview showed up above our own.
We do get inbound traffic from such links. But think about what goes into producing a Bon Iver concert preview at the Reader. The freelance fee is one thing, but there are also the costs of editing, and maintaining a stable of writers, and the general momentum of being an institution that does those things. We do get traffic from such links, and they also drive up our search engine rankings, but that works both ways, and their overhead for replicating content, even in part, is much lower, which allows them to build a very large site, by which I mean lots of search-relevant pages, at a comparatively lower cost.
Like I said, I have no idea what the market effect of what I think is an ethically questionable interpretation of “fair use” might be. We may benefit from their practices. But it is much more complicated than “they give us traffic and boost our search rank.” So when some fair-use kiddie asks “Where’s the Tribune or Sun-Times version of Chicago Huffington Post? What’s keeping you from being the ultimate local aggregator?” I’d answer nothing, but it ought to be done right . . .
(Again, no one on the panel managed to bring up the importance of SEO. Bears repeating.)
If someone is going to use pieces of our work, I’d feel better knowing that person is actually interested in the work as opposed to working up SEO.
Part III: Journalists
What went wrong? Is something wrong?
(Let’s leave aside for the moment the economic viability of “real” journalism, whatever that is, and assume that whatever America wants and/or needs, we’ll be able to pay for.)
Forget the distinction between “bloggers” and “journalists.” Journalism is about (1) obtaining information and (2) explaining it.
Old-style media companies are still better at obtaining information. I really think that’s undeniable. Name any good blogger, from Josh Marshall to Duncan Black to Digby to Daniel Larison (the fact that he’s writing for the American Conservative and not for his hometown paper is a crime—not that there’s anything wrong with the AC, he just deserves a bigger audience), and you’ll find that they’re mostly or wholly dependent on reporting from those institutions. Same goes for columnists. Even Paul Krugman, whose blogging and opinionating for the NYT is utterly invaluable, isn’t out there publishing news articles on the latest from AIG or the Treasury.
This is probably an economic problem. Reporting, even stenographic reporting, is logistically difficult. It has to be your job—even the most SOP report from City Hall has to be filed from City Hall by someone who had to be there during City Hall business hours. This means you have to find an amateur who works weekends or hire someone. As far as actually doing the reporting that someone like former Reader staffer John Conroy does, that has to be a job (in Conroy’s case it was part-time). There’s no way around that, unless you can find someone who’s both talented and independently wealthy.
So: I think we can agree that reporters = a necessity. Whether you want to present the reporting on a Web page or a newspaper or the radio, it’s up to you.
So why are newspapers and their ilk getting their lunch money taken by these bloggers? I know it’s not just them—craigslist, Google ads, etc—but we’re talking content right now. This is, I think, the main problem:
Traditional journalism, in 2009 AD, is boring and kind of uninformative.
Let’s all be perfectly honest here: what journalists at traditional local sources do you like to read? Which ones to you look forward to reading? Truly talented writers make you want to read them. There’s a former blogger, who occasionally posts on Daily Kos these days, who goes by the handle Billmon. He’s a former journalist, mostly trained as a business reporter, from what I’ve been able to glean, who blogged for a while at a site called the Whiskey Bar.
Then he stopped. I was, I swear to you, heartbroken. He’s smart. He’s funny. He’s deeply passionate. I got excited when he posted. When I woke up one morning a few weeks ago to find that he’d done a post on the financial crisis at Daily Kos, I was gleeful, because one of my favorite writers was taking on a subject right in his wheelhouse.
Really, ask yourself: how many newspaper columnists have the ethical ferocity of Glenn Greenwald? The mordant wit of John Cole? The nerdy doggedness of Marcy Wheeler? The prose skills of Roy Edroso? The quantitative skills of Nate Silver? (Baseball Prospectus is a slept-on model of journalism you have to pay for.) Precious few. Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone is funny and passionate. Krugman’s analytical talents and enormous knowledge are backed by a fundamental decency. When This American Life decides to tackle a prominent news story, they often do an amazing job, and get a lot of deserved attention, e.g. their explanation of the financial crisis, “The Giant Pool of Money.”
When these debates about journalism come up, the first thing traditional journalists say is that bloggers don’t report. But that’s not all journalism is. Getting information is only half the battle—the other half is explaining it to people in a manner that causes them to read, watch, or listen in the first place, informs them, and causes them to act. And speaking from personal experience—as not only a professional but as a reader—I think traditional journalism, particularly newspapers, is failing at that.
First, the Internet has so reduced the expense of publishing that anyone can do it. And 99 percent of blogging is utterly useless as a result, but it’s opened up publishing to people with talent and expertise who previously didn’t have a platform. Juan Cole is a Middle East expert. Duncan Black is an economist. The people at Balkinization are prominent lawyers and law profs. They don’t have to be filtered by journalists anymore—journalists who are experts in mere journalism. And even the people who aren’t experts in the fields they write about sometimes have more talent than traditional journalists in important areas: for example, they’re funnier and better, more interesting writers.
In part, it’s a monkeys-with-typewriters issue: now that there’s a near-infinite amount of writing being done, some of it’s going to be great. It’s almost a statistical inevitability.
Second...I don’t know. I don’t know why well-compensated, well-informed, experienced professionals produce so much weak tea. Risk aversion is surely part of it. The worse things get, the more institutions start to close the hatches and pray for the boat not to roll over.
Our country has suffered greatly over the past few years: torture, the collapse of an economic philosophy, wars on two fronts, the intensive politicization of our judicial system. From which sources did you get a better sense, not just on the level of information but emotion, of the scale of these crises? (And it’s not just the rhetoric: detailed, painfully rigorous analysis is an aesthetic. It has gravity; it carries passion.)
Maybe it’s this: Journalists rely on eyeballs and “traffic,” so they write toward the broadest possible audience, which inevitably means watering down content. Since most bloggers don’t rely solely on their work to pay the bills, they can do whatever the fuck they want, which is not only freeing but means they can work a niche in however much detail interests them. Most of America isn’t interested in Monica Goodling’s role in politicizing the DOJ? What John Bolton said to CPAC? Who cares? If it fails to monetize, no big deal.
It’s tough to have this giant pool of talent that doesn’t have to worry about paying for itself, but think of it like minor league baseball: it’s charming, it’s cheap, it’s more intimate. And it also feeds the big leagues. The Atlantic wised up and started hiring bloggers—and by extension buying their audience!—and as far as I can tell it’s working great.
Y’all want an actual, explicit idea to get you started, of which there have been precious few in this discussion?: HIRE DANIEL LARISON. Here’s why: the Republican party and the conservative movement is completely fucked, as you may have noticed if you watched Bobby Jindal’s brain-dead, tone-deaf response to Obama’s address the other night. Yet major papers like the New York Times and now the Washington Post insist on throwing money at architect of failure Bill Kristol, who doesn’t even redeem himself by being an engaging writer. He’s just useless, and basically admitted that he blew off his NYT sinecure. Why in the hell would you pay someone who came out and said yeah, I was writing for the New York Times, but whatever, I was too busy to put my back into it.
Meanwhile, there’s a thoughtful, articulate, original conservative—a grad student in this city—who could be picked up by the Trib for comparative chump change, which I’m sure the paper could find somewhere. Promote him right and you could make waves. (On the other side of the political spectrum there’s Rick Perlstein.) Trust me as a baseball fan: everyone gets excited when you promote the hot new rookie.
Besides, if you’re dying, live a little. Ask me for a bucket list!
Part IV: The 500lb Gorilla That No One Mentioned
HOW CAN YOU HAVE A CHICAGO JOURNALISM TOWN HALL AND NOT MENTION REDEYE? YOU REALLY THINK THE KINDLE—AKA THE NEWTON 2.0—IS MORE IMPORTANT????
Actually, that’s not entirely true. At the very, very end, the editor of RedEye, Tran Ha, got up and said, basically, hey, there’s the RedEye, we’re makin’ money.
There was grumbling. It was bittersweet.
I’m serious as a plague about this: the RedEye is the most read paper in Chicago. Numbers whatever: I trust my eyes, which are on public transportation twice a day, and it’s everywhere. So it has to be reckoned with. Tran Ha should have been on the panel.
And the first question should have been: What is RedEye? I still don’t really know.
It was pitched as training wheels for a real paper, but it has no editorial voice, or, as far as I can tell, mission. Its news is imported from Mother Tribune and the AP. Its columnists and bloggers seem to have no interest in local or state issues, especially political issues. It’s sterile, a sterility masked by its tightly edited cleverness, and not just because of its overwhelming celebrity and sports content. There’s little of the marrow of city life to the paper. It doesn’t feel like a city, it feels like a focus group.
And this is where reporting, and even just page count, returns as an issue. Take Ben Joravsky’s 1994 Reader piece on recently deceased Bulls great Norm Van Lier. It takes a lot of words to find the marrow, the person inside the celebrity.
If in RedEye it comes from anywhere, it feels like it comes from the grids that George W.S. Trow describes in his odd masterpiece Within the Context of No Context. To borrow liberally from Trow’s aphoristic analysis:
“The work of television is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no-context and to chronicle it.”
“Wonder was the grace of the country. Any action could be justified by that: the wonder it was rooted in. Period followed period, and finally the wonder was that things could be built so big. Bridges, skyscrapers, fortunes, all having a life first in the marketplace, still drew on the force of wonder. But then a moment’s quiet. What was it now that was built so big? Only the marketplace itself. Could there be wonder in that? The size of the con?”
“The comfort was in agreement, the easy exercise of the modes of choice and preference. It was attractive and, as it was presented, not difficult. But, once interfered with, the processes of choice and preference began to take on an uncomfortable aspect. Choice in respect to important matters became more and more difficult; people found it troublesome to settle on a mode of work, for instance, or a partner. Choice in respect to trivial matters, on the other hand, assumed an importance that no one could have thought to predict. So what happened then was that important forces that had not been used, because they fell outside the new scale of national life (which was the life of television), began to find a home in the exercise of preference concerning trivial matters, so that attention, aspiration, even affection came to adhere to shimmers thrown up by the demography in trivial matters. The attraction of inappropriate attention, aspiration, and affection to a shimmer spins out, in its operation, a little mist of energy which is rather like love, but trivial, rather like a sense of home, but apt to disappear.”
“The middle distance fell away, so the grids (from small to large) that had supported the middle distance fell into disuse and ceased to be understandable. Two grids remained. The grid of two hundred million and the grid of intimacy. Everything else fell into disuse. There was a national life—a shimmer of national life—and intimate life. The distance between these two grids was very great. The distance was very frightening.”
Maybe it’s just adwrap. Papers have to make money. But as the RedEye supplants other papers as the public-transportation reading of choice, I’m starting to question whether the Tribune Company is building its future audience, or destroying it.v
Care to comment? See this story at chicagoreader.com. For other reaction to the town hall event, see notes from media critic Michael Miner at his News Bites blog and comments from readers both there and at Whet Moser’s Chicagoland blog.