[Reposted and adapted from a Facebook posting from earlier today in response to his daughter Nina Markow Eigerman’s announcement of her father’s death.
I taught English Comp for a couple of years at a community college in New Jersey. Right, I was an Adjunct. Mostly it was drudgery done in the name of not enough money.
But every so often a miracle occurred. Something marvelous happened.
I don’t recall why I did this, but I know I wanted to see how the students handled poetic form. I handed out two poems, two sonnets, and asked the kids to respond to one of them in one page of their own devising. Sometimes I got what I call the Duh Response. Sometimes I got one sentence (grading those was too easy). And then I might be amazed. These kids figured there had to be a right answer, but there really wasn’t…except honest reactions, even if they were confused. This was one of the poems, by Ted Berrigan:
PEARL HARBOR DAY (Ted Berrigan, 1934-1983)
Seurat and Juan Gris combine this season
to outline Central Park in geometric
trillion pointed bright red-brown and green-gold
blocks of blooming winter. Trees stand stark-
naked guarding bridal paths like Bowery
Santa Clauses keeping Christmas-safe each city block.
Thus I, red-faced and romping in the wind
Whirl through mad Manhattan dressed in books
looking for today with tail-pin. I
never place it right, never win. It
doesn’t matter, though. The cooling wind keeps blow-
ing and my poems are coming.
Except at night. Then
I walk out in the bleak village and look for you.
I didn’t expect explication. I don’t even know what the poem “means,” word by word, image by image. I wanted honest reaction. Juan Gris? Georges Seurat? Pourquoi?
One of the kids, a girl in her late teens or early twenties, wrote feverishly. When I read it over…let’s say I’m sorry I had to hand it back to her. It was glorious. She wrote (I paraphrase): “I was confused by it. But I got to the last lines where he says he went out looking for a woman. I could see him. And I felt like he was looking for me.”
I was as close to tears as I’ve ever been in a classroom. She didn’t understand the poem but she got it at a visceral level, probably the level Ted Berrigan, that sacred madman, was at when he wrote it. I wrote down her grade and a comment: “He went out looking for you, and it was you who he found. And most of all, you found him.” She’d written the most beautiful and heart-perfect response I could imagine. Or could not imagine.
We put so much stock in parsing lines. We rarely weigh feeling and reader response. Response has been my obsession for years. I responded to need by learning to write poetry. And I sensed a need in this young lady, a need Berrigan met. And a need in him that she could satisfy.
That’s why I had moments when teaching was an almost physical act, a form of lovemaking. Damn, but I could love it!
lThese are the voyages of the Starship Ken’s Brain. This is so far a 70-year mission, it’s ongoing, and it’s still a pain in the ass.
And now, 12:15 PM, it is a source of gratitude and hope.
Today’s Yom Kippur. The Jewish Day of Atonement, t’shuvah, turning and re-turning. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve hated it forever, but the required in-dwelling of the day and what it compels from us does not make me thunderously happy.
I’ve been up most of the night. I just got home from the morning service and Yizkor. Right now, I’m fried. Why was I up? Was it just because I ate last night after Kol Nidre, that plea to our common Maker for relief from our ill-considered vows? Because I sat down after I got home and ate? If that is what God requires, if he is that petty, well then I’m sorry. No, I’m not. I fed Misha, my cat too–off my plate, in fact (he loves nibbling on Daddy’s roast beef). I’ve been advised more than once from several directions that faith is about life, not killing yourself in the name of Law, or even of minhag (tradition with the force of Law). We are enjoined to do what we need to in order to preserve ourselves through the coming year. “Therefore choose Life.” To grab the Star Trek motif again, life is the Prime Directive. No, I am not copping out on myself when I say that my health just sucks and today feels precarious; and that having reached 70, I’m not the man who could fast as I did 30 years ago and float through the day on a wave of hunger fueled by fervor. I feel plain crappy, and now I know I’ve not lasted until the end of the day and the sundown that ironically isn’t coming to Western Massachusetts because it’s been raining all day. But that isn’t the point.
I need a nap. In the meantime, I needed to postpone any nap until I at least reached Yizkor, the service of prayers and reflections in which we remember our departed. Like in the madhouse movie with Jack Nicholson: Heaven holds the faithful departed. What can I say?–my parents weren’t terribly faithful to tradition, and in my father’s case, to one another. They weren’t much as parents, but that’s not the point, either. They were my parents, and they deserve to be remembered and prayed for with respect and the best wishes I have, or wish I had.
Last night, at Kol Nidre, I was damn near reduced to a pile of blubbering rubble. Reflection, indeed. I was dredging up the mistakes not only of the last year–and boy, were they stacked floor-to-ceiling–but of a whole lifetime. Of opportunities missed that I ought not to have missed. Of opportunities taken at the expense of others and of myself. I don’t like those kinds of memories. Too often, they are not about ourselves in relation to God, but about ourselves in relation to the people we may have wronged, even inadvertently. In one of the late Chaim Potok’s novels, In The Beginning, one of the protagonist’s yeshiva ravs warns him, in the immediate aftermath of the Shoa, that he may have to go to the graves of the dead and beg their forgiveness for his trespasses against them. And what will make it peculiarly difficult in the post-1945 post-Holocaust world, is that he may not even know where the dead are buried. How many of our dead ended up as ashes turned to muck at the bottom of the Vistula?
How can I expect my parents to ask me for my forgiveness? I gave it to them years ago. Often I was “more sinned against than sinning,” but: I ran up a few sins against them, of course, especially against my mother, on my own. Sins of theft, of entitlement, of payback, of arrogance, of the nastiest forms of pride. I wanted much, and often I gave too little. Okay, I played the flute at my parents’ graves years back; they were both musically-inclined (they passed it along to me, their only child), so it may have helped square accounts just a bit.
But today is the day to remember anyway. There is a liturgical poem, Eleh Ezkerah, “These I Remember,” that recounts the martyrdom of the Sages in Roman-occupied Palestine in 70 CE. It’s a gory and frightful remembrance. We get to read about how Rabbi Akiba had his skin flayed off with iron combs. That’s bad enough. But remembering extends outward into more recent history. When I heard the poem recited in 1983, at Tisha b’Av in a very Orthodox synagogue in West Orange, New Jersey, the rabbi added names of the last stops for the departed and unburied to the chanted names of the Sages: Auschwitz, Majdanek, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka. German killing fields running 24×7 in the conquered province of Poland. It was a horror to have to hear those names yet again.
More than that. We recall the names of our errors, of our sins (though “sin” is so out of favor anymore). We may forgive ourselves, and the souls of the dead–wherever their bodies have gone–may forgive us as God forgives us. But the names remain. So the old Yiddish motto: Schvar zu sein a Yid. Hard to be a Jew. No lie. And it could be that at some times in any of our lives, we all become Jews.
Today I prayed for my parents, and caught myself growing tears yet again. I have not prayed for them in 16 years. It’s not a question of whether they “deserved” it or could hear and feel my soul reaching toward them. The issue on the table is that I needed to do it, not only for them but also for myself, to connect the generations, as imperfect as we have been. It is a way to forgive not only them, but to remember and forgive myself. And that is a tremendous spiritual practice.
No, Yom Kippur is not a fun day. It’s not supposed to be. It’s an exercise in remembrance, forgiveness, and resolving to make blessings even in places and at times where there’d been nothing but imprecations.
1. How an Apostate Was Made
Out of some closet or other to create not a barbaric yawp but a titanic yawn. “Oh God, not one of Ken’s obsessions again!”
Back in 1997 a number of strange and terrible things happened to me. First, my marriage ended, albeit informally and initially for the time being. My wife and I recognized that we’d been living inside a lie. Or I did. And I did not want to be the kind of man I’d become. Most of you know the overly-revealed details. Why redisplay them now?
Anyway, I moved into my own place after a peculiarly tense week in mid-April 1997. I was so unaccustomed to fending for myself that women in the ShopRite near my house had to help the helpless waif (me) negotiate my way around the market. I would not dignify it with the label PTSD. I’d simply say to myself, “What the fuck am I doing?” But God bless those ladies who assisted me.
Then came Monday, and back to work I went after spending a week on “vacation” moving 13 miles back and forth repeatedly between Wayne and Lyndhurst, New Jersey. Presumably, I drank myself comatose on Sunday night. This is news?
For whatever reason, when I got to work on Monday, I remembered something I’d forgotten, and that suddenly loomed as critical. That would be the night of the first Passover Seder: like most Jewish holidays, a time for family companionship. And suddenly I had no family. (“General Lee, I have no Division!”) I had cordially been not invited to sit with my wife and my kids. If my mother or mother-in-law had been alive, I would have been cordially disinvited from sitting with them, too.
Reconnecting with a faith I’d cast aside after my mother died in 1992 suddenly acquired the emotional level of a Class A Crisis. I wanted to rejoin in time for Pesach. But there was no place for me to go. The logical step seemed to be to call Jewish Federations in north Jersey and New York City. Whoever heard of a Federation without some communal outreach?
When I made some calls, I was informed that nobody had community Seders for the solitary Jew with no home inside his own tradition. I was frozen out.
I got crazy-desperate. I’d tried to keep personal business off the Internet, but this time to hell with propriety. I posted a cry for help to a mailing list called Opera-L. Lots of Jews, with even more opinions about everything from Marcella Sembrich and Emma Eames to Roberto Alagna and Placido Domingo. Right, a list for discussions of opera, an art of which I’ve been particularly fond since I was 14 years old. Is there a vacant seat…is there a table…is there anything for a solitary Jew on one of the most critical nights of the year, and at one of the critical turning points of his life? And the answer was always the same: lots of sympathy but no seat. It wasn’t a “fuck off” message, but the impact was the same.
At Morgan Stanley, where I worked at the time, we had to put a slug into our email with our contact information. So around two PM, the phone rang. It was a true gentleman named Rabbi Mark Loeb, Z”L, who led a congregation in Pikesville, Maryland, in the Baltimore suburbs. He said, “No Jew should be alone on the first night of Pesach. There’s a prepaid Metroliner ticket waiting for you at Penn Station. Take the 4 PM train to Baltimore, take a cab to my address, call when you get there, I’ll take care of that when you get here. You’ll be at my Seder, you’ll stay over, and I’ll drive you back to the Amtrak station in the morning.”
I couldn’t believe it. People don’t do things like that for total strangers. Do they? But I remembered God’s direction to the Jews about to enter their own land after their enslavement in Egypt: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourself been strangers in the land of Egypt.” My boss told me to get my stuff and go. I rushed to 33rd Street, picked up my ticket, and went to Rabbi Mark’s Seder. And I had a wonderful, haimische time. The food was catered; we sang the old songs I remembered from my misspent childhood. Mark sat up with me until 2 AM and simply listened to me unload. I was two days out of my marriage and I was very much in shock. He told me about his opera trips to Vienna and London, including one funny-horrible tale of a man who said that one of the greatest conductors he ever heard at the Vienna Staatsoper was “Der Jude”: Leonard Bernstein. Oy. And in the morning, again good to his word, Mark drove me to the Baltimore Amtrak station.
But then I had to confront my Jewish future. And I discovered that I had none.
I’d been at what amounted to the world’s greatest mustering-out party, and the idea of going back into congregational Judaism where everything is politicized, seemed not just alien but even repellent. Yet I had Cleopatra’s “immortal longings in me,” and a need for the House of Faith. My complacency was gone. All that was left was a wound, a trench in which I was the only occupant, and which was crying for some form of belief to fill it.
Well, God is One, but there are different ways of expressing and reaching that Divine Presence. And I found one that was one in three, and that had been dormant beneath the surface for years. It was called Christianity. And it long had been seductive and calling to me. I didn’t want to do this. I figured I was mad and courting total dispossession. But the pull was there. It would not go away. I read a website called Leaflets of Faith (I think it still exists, though perhaps under a diiferent name), and it had simple instructions for someone drawn to–in my case–Catholicism. Talk to a priest. Pray. Recite “Jesus, Lord, lead me where you want me to go, and I will try to follow.” I finally forced myself to say the words out loud at about 4 PM on June 15, 1997. It was as though a stone sitting on me for years had been lifted. The air in the room began to move again. “Oh my God, I think I’m a Christian.”
Just like that. Catholics call it the Baptism of Desire.
I’d had lots of desire in my life, but this was the first time I’d ever experienced desire on the spiritual level.
In any case, I began to receive Catholic instruction at a parish a few blocks from my house. It was heady stuff and I found it glorious. I even stopped off at daily Mass in the early evenings on the way home from work. I could have faked it and received the Sacrament, but I treated myself like a Victorian bride approaching her wedding night. “Not until we’re married.” And I married the Church on April 11, 1998. No, I will not follow that metaphor any further, except that by the end I’d become like Irene Forsyte married to Soames.
I was “adopted” by a priest who made me feel dirty because I was involved with a woman without benefit of clergy, even if we both were civilly divorced. In my insane state of mind, I felt encumbered and horribly guilty for everything.
2. Enter the Episcopal Church
If you fool me twice, shame on me. And I was fooled a lot. The priest who became my confessor was tearing me apart. Call it Masochism 101. Eventually I “defected” to the Episcopal Church. Many Catholics call it “Catholic Lite,” but it’s not. Same difference with Lutheranism, another spin-off from Rome. In any blessed event, I’d had enough of the beatings that would continue until morale improved. My morale improved when I got out.
Of course, it was not a straight line. Few things in anyone’s life are. I went back and forth for years. Catholic, Episcopal, Episcopal, Catholic, etc., etc, ad my nauseum. Everything but B’ahai. I even went to Quaker meetings here and there. I was the Hamlet of religious affiliation. I could not make up my mind. When I did, in 2007, because of a wonderful Episcopal priest in Rumson, NJ, I became a lot happier and less filled with tensions. I’d quit drinking some time before, I was taking medication for my mental issues, and I wasn’t quite that prone to guilt anymore. Anyone’s guilt, including my own. And I didn’t have to fight the Catechism of the Catholic Church anymore.
I’ll spare you repeats of the story of homelessness, of utter ruin. If you want to read that, be prepared to pay me. (I accept PayPal. If you think I’m kidding, toss some money into my account as a tip. It’s email@example.com.) When I was rescued from homelessness at the end of 2013, even though I’d been going to Catholic Masses because the parish was near the shelter where I lived, I finally found an Episcopal parish near my new home. It was low-keyed and not at all stressful. No pressure, no drama. That’s novel just by itself.
Finally, there was a phone conversation with a friend. I’ve known her for years. She paid for me to have my cat checked over by a local vet after the beast ran away and returned through the window like the Demon Lover after four horrible days of fear. I said to her, “You know what I did, don’t you?” Guilt, thy name is Wolman. She informed me that yes, she knew, but that I never stopped being a Jew. An apostate, perhaps, a meshummed, marching under a borrowed flag: but the door was always open for return, no questions asked. And if the questions were asked, I was under no obligation to answer them. From Christian or Jew.
Amazingly, in North Adams, Massachusetts, the last place I’d have expected to find a Jewish community outside Boston, there I found one. A synagogue. A rabbi. A whole set of practices forgotten, or so different from what I thought I knew that I could scarcely believe the world into which I re-entered.
4. “Who Is a Jew?”
That was a real popular question to ask, one Jew to another. It was generally asked by ultra-Orthodox (either Chassidic, Mitnaged, or Haredi, and look it up in your Funk & Wagnall’s) to attack Jews who either entered the faith by a non-Orthodox path, or who observed it differently. It led to ugly confrontations, especially on Bitnet and Usenet message boards like soc.culture.jewish where, even in the 1980s, I was one of several compulsive posters who was treated like the goy I later became. It may have been good for honing argumentation skills, but it was a lousy way to practice one’s beliefs. And, apart from any other factors, it may have given me the last push toward the egress.
Well, I fit the classic formula: I was born of a Jewish mother. Actually, that may be a pretty lousy definition. Retrospective history has by now become offensive. The matrilineal model is one that Hitler used. This is a valid test? There are even some groups, especially among the Sephardim, who will not recognize as valid even the classic Orthodox conversion of a non-Jew. A man, for instance, undergoes instruction, followed by adult circumcision, so he can be treated like a piece of Hormel pepperoni? So the question arises: who cares what you say? Who are you to define who is a Jew? If Catholics have Baptisms of Desire, what stops Jews from having Yiddishkeit by Love and Need? In the old conversion method, if a person went to a rabbi and asked to convert, the rabbi was supposed to try three times to talk the prospective convert out of it. “Do you understand you are asking to throw in your lot with a despised people?” If the prospective convert persisted those three times, the actual process could begin.
I went through a far more informal version of this examen when I gravitated toward the Church in 1997. One priest, a friar at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi on West 32nd Street, told me that the best man he ever knew was his father, a lapsed Baptist. It was his mother’s influence that put him on the path to ordination as a priest of the Franciscan order, and to the Guardianship of this vital inner city parish that actually took seriously the Corporal Works of Mercy, specifically feeding the hungry. I was told to search my motives. I didn’t know what they were except that I was answering a call of some kind. I moved inertially. In the town where I lived, there was one stumbling Episcopal church where there wasn’t even a regular priest. There was one Missouri Synod Lutheran church. And there were four Catholic parishes. For a goy-in-training, this became a no-brainer.
And there was no synagogue between Rutherford to the north and Irvington to the south. Nothing. In nearby Kearny, a former synagogue had been turned into a Portuguese-language Pentecostal church. If I’d wanted to remain Jewish, I’d picked the wrong place to live: the Ridge Road and Kearny Avenue band known as Cancer Alley that extended from Rutherford to Newark.
When I moved after I determined that Western Massachusetts was the right spot at the only possible time (was life in a mens’ shelter better?), I accepted home where I found it. The late Russell Edson put it this way in one of his prose poems: “This may not be the best of all possible worlds, but it’s the only one that showed up.” But some form of providence got me here. Followed by the seemingly casual phone conversation that set the chain of my being back in motion.
Yes, I am compulsive joiner. Yes, I need to belong to something with a name. Yes, I need a framework that helps me express who I am at this late stage of my life. You don’t need to approve it. You don’t need to label me an apostate again. I am. I have been. I might even be a double-agent! You don’t have to ask me what I will be next week. All I know is that I have followed the promptings as they’ve come to me. I’ve picked up the Day-Glo bread crumbs where they fell. And I’ve fought my way through multiple levels of doubt to where I stand now: in doubt but in awareness of what happened, and perhaps even why.
5. Along the Way….
I’m not going to spell out thanks by name, though I perhaps should. People along the way guided and sometimes (in one case) bullied me. Everyone got me to where I am now. And I am grateful for the prods from all directions at once.
The good part is that I am the accumulation of every tradition in which I’ve tried to reside. That’s not some Dorothy-in-Oz thing about there being no place like home. It’s a deepening of who I have been and in what I am.
Tonight begins the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah. This has been going on for a really long time by now as time is reckoned. It’s the year 5775. I went to my first Hebrew School class back in the Bronx in 5714, also known as 1953. Days have gone by. It’s been one hell of a trip. Is it over? I hope to God this part of it is, anyway. L’Shana Tova, folks. Happy New Year.
I’m sorry you’re not alive to read this. I’m sorry your life was so filled with pain that you had to resort to a something so obscene and hurtful that nobody could stop your death spiral. And I’m sorry beyond sorry that you felt compelled to take other people with you.
You’ve hit deep inside me. All we know about you now is that you had become a coldly rational maniac who’d entered a calm center of murder and suicide. I doubt you intended to leave the scene of your crime alive. You appeared to have surrendered your will to live or do anything except wreak your version of revenge on the world of women–and also of men–you thought had slighted you in favor of men who, to your way of thinking, were far less deserving than you of love, sex, and adoration. Your final video is one of the most frightening recitations of paranoia, resentment, and sardonic humor I’ve ever seen. What’s most disturbing are the moments of laughter. They’re all false; they were all forced cackles coming from deep inside a soul that has been feasting on its own misery for so long it hardly knew any other way to face the world. Humor that is not humor, humor that is purely anger driven so deep it simply cannot find a way out. I spent so many years being a phony that I can spot one coming from a mile down the street.
As mad at you as I’ve been, as upset as you’ve made me, you’re sort of pathetic.
Elliott, we had a lot in common. No kidding, we truly did. Would you like to know how long it took me to “lose my cherry”? It was Christmas night, 1966. Like you, I was also 22 years old. I didn’t turn 23 until the following February. That was actually with a woman, fella. And I thought I loved her. I was clumsy. Eventually it worked out nicely, but to this day–and this might surprise you–I sometimes think I should have stayed a virgin. Sex got me into miseries I never dreamed of until I got there. Maybe if I’d been a Catholic at the time I might have been a good priest. Except I didn’t have a vocation and I was a walking pillar of lust.
That is not a good indication of a real calling.
I was convinced that I was a piece of shit but that I wanted women to love me, love me, love me. I wanted them to see beneath the misery and drag me into them, body and spirit. That’s not how it works. You didn’t stick around long enough to figure that out. You didn’t understand that they weren’t put off by your looks–you actually were a good-looking young man–or your likely fear you didn’t have a 9-inch dick or bag of money. They were put off by your hunger, as some women were put off by mine. They were put off by your hunger, your clutchiness, by your sense that they owed you something. They were supposed to give it up to you–whether or not they’d been laid before–just because you were there. A lot of that was the story of my life, too, El.
But there’s a difference. I may not have liked women a great deal, but I didn’t kill anyone because I’d been spurned. I had to go home and jerk off because I, and not them, didn’t know how to make the move happen. I wasn’t seductive and I wasn’t clever. Like I said, I learned but I sometimes wish I hadn’t.
I used to say that I was a PV…just like you. PV means Professional Virgin. I know when that went from being shame until it became almost a badge of honor. Sometime in the summer of 1965. It was neither. It wasn’t shame and it certainly was not a mark of pride or honor. I used to say I could not get laid if I walked into a whorehouse with a roll of twenties. I figured I was so ugly and twisted that nobody would want me. I saw myself as Lenny in Of Mice and Men. Yes, I could have gone to a whorehouse. But that wasn’t what I wanted. Like you, I wanted love. But neither of us was prepared to give it, were we? We just wanted to get it. We were selfish idealists. We thought we were sacred monsters. That’s half-right, anyway.
I wish you could read this: nobody owed you a goddamned thing, El. You were just another guy who came to hate women, even if you wanted them to take the edge off your stiffened dick. Thank God I never got that far-gone. It took me years to figure out that I wasn’t put on earth as a fucking machine. Maybe I was there to love someone who happened to have the appropriate plumbing. It took me a long, long time to get that message. Eventually I did, but it cost me a lot along the way.
I’m truly sorry for what happened to you. I’m sorrier still for what happened to the people you killed the other day. They didn’t deserve what happened to them. But to say that you didn’t ignores the fact that your murders brought your demise down on your own head.
I don’t know where God has sent you. I hope Buddhism and Hinduism got it right, and that there really is reincarnation. You might get another shot at life. If so, I hope you manage the next round better than you’ve managed this one.
Happy birthday to me. If this is February 23, I’ve made it. I’m threescore and ten. Also known as seventy. I’m a bit superstitious so I’m posting this a week early.
With God’s help, then, I’ve made it to seventy years old. There were a few times I didn’t think I’d make it. And there were more than a few times when I didn’t want to.
I got here anyway. Hier steht ich, ich kann nicht anders. Thank you, Martin Luther.
Something like that.
I suppose this is where I’m supposed to say something profound about all that I’ve learned. But I remember the last chapter of Thomas Pynchon’s V, still my personal contender for the Great American Novel. One of the principal characters, Benny Profane, is sitting with some girl in Valletta, Malta, trying to scheme his way into her pants. He’s less than thrilled with himself and the girl picks up on it. “But the experience, the experience!” she cries. You must have learned so much. “I’d say,” says Benny, with uncharacteristic introspection, “that the experience hasn’t taught me a damn thing.”
I’m asking not so much about what we learn as about what I’ve learned. I can’t answer for a We. And I won’t be as dismissive as Benny about what I learned or didn’t. I’d say it comes down to very little, maybe to one maxim. Love wisely, love too well, love anyway. I’m starting to sound like the Beatles even when I feel like the Rolling Stones.
You will be hurt, you will be crushed. But love as though your life depends on it. Because, believe it or not, it does. And learn to trust only the right people. The problem is you will spend most of your life trusting the wrong people, one of whom will almost certainly be you. But you may eventually find the real pearls in the sand at the bottom of the sea. It may take you all your life.
You’ll be nipped at by sharks and stung by Portuguese men ‘o’ war. But you’ll keep moving. Believe there is a God. He’s out there, he’s in you. And you are not him. He likes to in-dwell. The Jesuit poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins understood this. God may be a pain in the ass but he’s all you’ve got at 4:30 on a cold, rainy night when it seems like death is a perfectly valid alternative to what you’re enduring. Sure–put your head in the stove and get it over with. Pick up that sharp knife and open your veins. Crack open a quart of vodka and pour it down your snout. God will know what’s in your heart, and he will know it’s not ill-intentioned, just desperate.
Well, not selling the stuff, but trying. A failed career. It was awful. My only success was attained through an act of total dishonesty.
I lost my job on April 19, 1982. It was, of course, traumatic, even though I’d hated the job and the awful human being for whom I worked. Everyone who worked for Herb had been carried out in the proverbial body bag: if not before me, then not long afterwards. There was always some reason he could concoct: incompetence, dishonesty, etc. One guy had his calls to his consulting clients cut off. It was not a happy place.
And when my time came, I was told it was not “worth the struggle.” I was not worth the struggle even though I’d proved my worth. The fact was the company was going broke because it lost a major client. I got a shitty severance package and was told with huge magnanimity that I could use the office copier to run off resumes. At the same time I was badmouthed to prospective new employers. It was no-win.
Of course I cracked up. I needed my mother to pay our rent, and had then listen to her complaints that nobody needed a three-bedroom house for us and our two kids, even one that was falling down around us. Each month I got whining and swearing that I was trying to impoverish and kill her. Each month I needed my wife to push me toward the phone to make a call that never became less awful no matter how I approached it. My health became precarious. My wife’s became almost as bad. My kids were at the receiving end of emotional, though never physical, abuse. I was a wreck.
Finally I decided to try to sell. I’d been in advertising and figured I could bullshit my way into someone’s home. So I took the tests to join the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. I cleared all the hurdles–even assembling the names of people who didn’t want to talk to me as prospects. I burned a few bridges in the spring and summer of 1982, even among neighbors and friends who wound up being not so neighborly or friendly when they figured out (in about 30 seconds) the nature of my errand.
But I compiled the list that would get me to the company phones. Which meant two weeks in MetLife’s training program on 23rd Street in Manhattan. Hell, they would even put us up in apartments that were part of Stuyvesant Town around 20th Street and First Avenue. That in itself was bizarre. Stuyvesant Town belonged to MetLife before they sold the development to Helmsley-Spear. It was bizarre because it modeled exactly its “sister” development in the Bronx, Parkchester. And Parkchester is where I’d grown up. So being in a place like “home” was both familiar and unnerving.
I met my roommate the first night after I got my keys: a much younger guy who was a stoner who sold extermination services. It took me a week before I smoked pot with him, but because I was, by the following Sunday night, totally depressed, I succumbed and hated it. I’d outgrown drugs if not liquor. The trainees had a couple of nice parties among ourselves, and of course I hit on one of the other trainees, an attractive girl with short black hair named Donna (I still remember her last name but I will not use it). I of course felt terribly guilty. I should have bought myself a Purity Ring to go along with my wedding band. I could have sold them both when the time finally came in 1997.
I got back from my weekend at home on Sunday evening and when my roomie showed up, he was furious. He’d gone to the Giants game at the Meadowlands, figuring he’d get laid in his friend’s trailer at the tailgate party. And he didn’t. So he sat down and began rolling joints of sensamilla. I hadn’t smoked grass since 1970. But I didn’t give a shit. So when he lit up I automatically held out my hand and he passed over the stick. After a couple of tokes and I couldn’t see straight. I got up and room swayed. Or was it me? Gee…it’s like relearning to swim or ride a bicycle…you never quite forget.
The roomie passed out on the couch and I put on the TV. Yes, the apartment came with a color TV too. What came on was Midnight Blue with a close-up of one guy sucking off another. I wanted to throw up. I figured reality was bad enough and went to bed.
Then I was shipped back to Jersey, to the field office in Clifton. In the meantime, my wife had become violently ill with an intestinal bug or obstruction, and had to go into the hospital. So I had to ferry the kids to preschool and day care, then go out on my sales calls or rounds, come back for the kids, then collapse in a chair with a glass of cheap Scotch in my hand. I was assigned to Paul, my sales manager, who wore tacky chocolate brown suits but could sell anything to anyone. Some guys were just born for it. I was not.
My first clue that something was way wrong with my latest vocational choice came when I asked my rabbi if he had any referrals. He seemed reluctant, but then gave me the name of a classmate from Jewish Theological Seminary. Even if I remembered his name I would not use it. The rabbi alluded vaguely to health issues. I called up the rabbi in Scotch Plains and asked if we could meet. He seemed only too happy. Happy? For an insurance call? Oh boy….
When I got there, he and his rebbitizen were gracious and charming. They made coffee and broke out the Entenmann’s. And then I met their son. He was the reason for the insurance call. He was born with spina bifida. Not too many years before he would have died. Instead, he hobble-walked with canes. He was not much more than a baby, two or maybe three. My heart fell out of my body. I wanted to cry but I was there to sell.
In training school they’d stressed to us how important it was to sell whole life insurance because that would bring in the highest commission and make MetLife the biggest bucks. Snoopy was moving up from Pedigree to Cesar. I would see something like 55% of the policy’s cash value as my cut. But while I didn’t know what the rabbi earned from his congregation, I could not do this to him. Rule One was that one Jew does not screw another. So we sat at his kitchen table drinking coffee and eating the Entenmann’s. And I told them the truth.
“They want me to sell you whole life. Nice for them, nice for me, but for what you need, the premium would be unaffordable. I want to sell you term life instead. You’re pretty young, so you can get $100,000 in term, one policy for each of you, with the other as beneficiary, for about $33 a month each. If God forbid something happens to either of you, the survivor is going to need money, and a lot of it, because of your son. Can we do this?”
A man who can memorize pages of Talmud, a man with a wife who had a degree in Hebrew education, could understand what I was saying, so they assented. We began filling out the applications, and they both passed me checks for the initial premium.
I left, feeling really good and proud of myself. I’d done a mitzvah. I’d put money in my own pocket without having to fuck anyone over. And then I got back to the office to have the policies and checks recorded. And the General Manager ripped me a new asshole. Why? Because I was supposed to sell them whole life, not term. When my “pool” broke at the end of training, it would sound like an afterbirth hitting the floor.
From then on I was out strictly for myself. I failed more than I succeeded. I tried to work off baby lists and, in one case, tried to insure a newborn in his own name with his father as beneficiary. Sure, the kid would grow up having insurance worth a small fortune for pennies on the dollar, but I felt like a ghoul betting the kid would live to grow up.
I tried to write a policy on a 69-year-old man for $100,000. He was in good health but he and his wife also had enough sense to see what I was up to. No sale, no deal.
And then my job got waved in my face. Sell or die. So I became ruthless. I got an appointment, again off a baby list, with a couple all the way up Route 23 in Hamburg, New Jersey. It was over an hour each way. When I got there, sure enough, there was the couple and a cute baby. And the father was a total schmuck who was too vain and thick to see what I was doing.
He had term insurance from Johns Hopkins. I persuaded him to lapse his Hopkins policy in favor of my whole life policy. Not because he needed it but because I needed it. I was already chasing computer jobs, a new field back in 1983, but I wanted to leave on my terms, not MetLife’s. I almost made it.
The fool signed my application and handed me a check. It was for whole life. I thanked him and I left.
And all I felt was a kind of existential nausee. I wanted to take a shower. I’d fucked this guy out of a useful policy by sweet-talking him. I used all the tools they taught me, all the crap at my disposal, and it had worked. What a guy.
I got to the office the next morning, really proud of myself, and booked the application and check. I got back-slapped. Whoopee.
And a week later the General Manager fired me. I was too far behind to make the cut. Whew. Yes, whew.
Two weeks later I got a job with Victor Technologies in Jersey, writing software manuals.
I ran into my sales manager in A&P one evening a few weeks later. He said “You wanna know what happened to the app you wrote on that guy in Hamburg?”
“He got turned down flat. He lied to you. He had a string of drunk driving convictions as long as your arm.”
I almost fell down laughing. Guilt? Oh, not so much I couldn’t handle it. But some minor degree of sorrow for this moron who hung his family out to dry because he listened to me, using my golden tongue to sell him something he did not need.
I’ve never forgotten it, thank God. I hope I never have to do something that underhanded again.
Footnotes: My ex-boss Herb had a heart attack about 18 months later. Another of his former victims said “Heart? How could anyone tell without an electron microscope?” And his partner, about as nasty and physical a drunk as I’ve ever met, made a pile of money in some ventures or the other, became a multimillionaire, but one night shot his wife while she was sleeping, then turned the gun on himself. Allegedly he was afraid of going broke. I’ve been broke for years, and I don’t even notice it all it all that much anymore.