Thursday, April 19, 2007

Magician's Choice.

This story is for Philip Roth.

Magician's Choice: "A technique in which two or more choices are supposedly offered for free selection by the spectator but a predetermined one is imposed upon him."

We met during the summer of my first year in law school. I was looking to get away from New Jersey where I was going to school. The stench of parts of New Jersey in the summer is beyond my ability to describe. If an old, dirty and wet sock were to die and be allowed to decompose for twenty years or so, the smell would approximate the "Garden State" in the summer -- especially the territory from the Linden refinery to Jersey City. Manhattan is a rural paradise by comparison.

I got a good deal for the entire summer on a small apartment that I could cover with the money that I had left-over from my school tutition fund and some savings. The apartment was in a supposedly shitty area, but there really isn't a bad place to live in Manhattan. The energy of the city pumps you up. Living in a cardboard box under a bridge is O.K. -- if you can see that dream-like skyline at night, walk in Central Park, or visit the museums and library reading rooms, even if you're not dressed very well and haven't shaved for days. Artsy-fartsy women -- interns at The Nation who go to Barnard -- were said in those days to really like that look. I call it the "demented-but-highly-intellectual-and-culturally-aware" look. I never actually met intellectual groupies, but I am told that they exist and "do in part believe it."

I am not into clothes, usually -- except on Opera nights. I certainly wasn't during that blissful season. I was always a reader, hungry for aesthetic and intellectual experiences. I did really well in college, went on to law school (where I was also lucky with grades), because I thought that it was possible to make the world better. I believed in law then. By the way, law school grades are totally a matter of luck. Students experience them as arbitrary and unrelated to one's interests or efforts in the various subjects.

My experiences in the legal system have not been pleasant or inspiring. Lawyers make good money. Some are happy. Improvements may be possible. Who knows? A lot of law is bullshit. I guess a lot of every profession is bullshit. I still think that the U.S. Constitution is the greatest document of its kind in the world. This alone makes me a fool in a lot of N.Y. neighborhoods. Some day the Constitution may really apply everywhere. We have to keep hoping and struggling for that day to arrive.

Maybe we can't make the world or ourselves much better. We certainly have to try to improve things for others. The alternative is surrendering to despair and apathy, yielding to that "cynical reason" that has mostly devoured my generation, producing the lingering despair of nihilistic zombies sitting in commuter trains on their way to detested downtown offices. No thanks.

What I still admire about the sixties is the idealism and hopefulness of that time. Despite all of the disappointments, many people have managed to hang on to that sense of hope -- including some of us who were not around then or were inattentive to politics, but who've absorbed the optimistic mood from that decade's culture. For my generation, it was Elvis Costello who sang: "What's so funny about peace, love and understanding?"

I wanted to read and think, listen to music, see some paintings, maybe go to the theater or movies. If I lived on cornflakes and water for two months, I might make it. A romantic relationship ended. It was a dry season on the female front -- and back! I was wary of exposing unhealed wounds to the sunlight just yet. I kind of wanted to be alone for a while.

My place was uptown -- not far from Columbia University -- which is a nice neighborhood. There are some pretty good bookstores around, cheap restaurants, clubs are further downtown and the women are amazing anywhere in the city. It's worth your tourist dollars to sit on a bench in a campus area and see New York women stroll by at lunch time. If they like you and approve of your admiring glances, they may turn and say -- "Fuck you, asshole!"

That's the kind of remark from a Manhattan woman that can make your day. Most of my classmates had either gone away or were not to be seen until Fall. Everybody was sick of the same law school faces associated with hours of dull reading and obnoxious professors, punctuated by fascinating moments of discovery. Some law school issues continue to intrigue me. "Impossible attempts" in criminal law, for example, is an endlessly intriguing doctrinal area. Such controversial legal issues are connected in my mind with much reading in other areas of scholarship that are seemingly ignored by American law professors. I may write about those "issues" from a fresh perspective. Law is something of a non-subject in my life these days. I consider it a branch of fantasy fiction -- especially in New Jersey.

I had a shitload of books in my place, cheap furniture from a thrift store, together with an old seventeen inch t.v. set -- and the first VCR that I owned, purchased second-hand for $50. It was about the size of a washing machine. I counted on two glorious months of free study and thinking ahead of me. I even thought of playing chess, bought some books of strategy -- including all of Capablanca's and Fisher's games. I also studied the "combinations" of Michail Tal, "the Magician." Tal was famous for forcing gambits on opponents that always ended in his favor. I timed myself with my trusty chess clock, "hung out" sometimes down by Thompson Street with chess hustlers and actually drew a game against one of the stronger players -- an international master. I was a happy camper.

My apartment door was left open as I was carrying in some boxes of books, when I noticed a scrawny-looking guy about my height. His hair was messed up, his t-shirt had some ketchup stains on a fading picture of Mick Jagger. He wore baggy jeans, old red Converse sneakers with a strategic hole in the front and a hand-drawn name written on the white portion of his sneakers in black magic-marker: "SHELDON." This character was wearing glasses that I can only describe as binoculars.

"Hey, what's up?"

I figured I might as well be friendly until determining whether this guy was a junky or a homeless person. He looked pretty harmless. More than anyone I've known, Sheldon Grossbart was a lost child. There was a look of distraction, eternal bewilderment, combined with almost superhuman, laser-like capacities for concentration and a bizarre perspective on things.

If you asked Sheldon for the time, his answer would begin with a lecture on the physics of time in the quantum realm, complete with equations. Maybe during the second hour of his response, you'd be told what the time was when you first asked him the question, along with an explanation of why your question was stupid, if not meaningless. Sheldon polished off a Ph.D. at Columbia in physics and had done graduate work in philosophy.

"How do you do?"

He put his hand out for me to shake. This is one strange ranger.

"How do I do what?"

"Oh, it's a form of greeting, a salutation. 'How do you do?' ..."

This guy was amazing.

"Yeah, I know. I was just kidding. Humor is a form of interaction among humanoids."

"Oh, I see ... "

Carbon-unit Sheldon may have actually cracked a smile on that occasion. Humor usually puzzled him. We became friends that summer. At least, I thought of him as a friend. Most of Sheldon was never really with you. I always sensed Sheldon's heroic struggle to remain on this earthly level with morons like me. Eventually, he lost that struggle.

This is my attempt to describe my friend Sheldon's gradual process of ... disconnection. I lost Sheldon that summer. His family lost him. We lost someone of extraordinary gifts. I hope to understand a little more of what happened then, because there is a little bit of Sheldon inside all of us. More than a few others like him live in this city, drifting between this world and whatever world they eventually decide is a better place. It's important to try to understand our Sheldons, even if (as he liked to say of my studying efforts) "success is unlikely."

We kind of looked alike, Sheldon and me. I worked out and had achieved a somewhat different build, was a product of blue collar (or no collar) America. Sheldon seemed more middle class, from a typical suburban ("repressed" was his only description of family life) or comfortable environment. Middle class people were known as "rich people" in Shitsville, New Jersey -- which is where I grew up.

New York is a great place for friendships between very different people. Every social class meets on the sidewalks of the city. Manhattanites did not give us a second glance. True, I usually hesitated to invite Shel on my evening excursions to interact with females. My efforts are decidely on the amateur side of the female capturing sport. However, Sheldon made me feel like Casanova. I was finally able to persuade him to wipe his nose before speaking to strange women and to remove a few pens from his pocket. He kept his calculator handy in the event that astronomical calculations or tax issues called for number crunching during the course of a romantic evening.

It took Sheldon all of three seconds to checkmate me and most people I knew, including several chess hustlers who wanted to draft him into various scams, described to him as "psychological research." I politely told them to "fuck off." Sheldon did not have many friends -- I wonder why? -- and he was living in a Latino and African-American neighborhood, where everybody played Dominos on sweltering summer nights.

Small tables were set up for this purpose, radios broadcast Yankee games in Spanish (Sheldon was fluent), cigars were produced, beer bottles, great conversations inevitably involving women, politics, women, sports, women. We also sometimes discussed women. Sheldon's contributions to these chats were minimal. Nuclear fission "issues" rarely came up. Dominos in the barrios of New York is a spectator sport, as American as "apple pie." The all-time champ at this Latino-dominated sport, naturally, was a Jewish guy from the Upper West side. As Sheldon would say: "What else?"

Naturally, we hoped that a massive Jewish conspiracy explained this phenomenon, but it was entirely accounted for by Sheldon's superior intellect. I sensed how thrilled he was at being a star "athlete." Everybody wanted to partner-up with Sheldon, who regarded Domino chips as posing only a slight mathematical difficulty, calculating quickly everybody's odds, so that I never saw him lose a game. He was a neighborhood celebrity. People said things to him when he walked down the street. Young women from the islands (take your pick) "in their summer dresses," from the 99 cent place, offered pearly white smiles and waved thin brown arms. Bill Saroyan at the Deli -- our public square -- gave him a free sandwich once in a while. Sheldon had arrived.

There was a frailty and tentativeness about Sheldon. Maybe this was the result of a lifetime of being misunderstood. My guess at the time was that Sheldon's family had money without much education, producing the usual confusion about aesthetic and intellectual values. "They're business people," he said. I never quite figured out what "business people" meant to him. I doubt that it was a compliment. Nothing illegal in their lives, I figured: dry goods, grocery stores, an immigrant success story. They probably meant well, but they could not have understood someone like Sheldon.

His solitariness and struggles against it, his efforts to meet people in some neutral place, a psychic Switzerland, were brave and, ultimately, doomed. Looking back, I feel that I knew this somehow. I was aware -- even then -- that Sheldon was disappearing or slipping away, everyday. I didn't know what to do to help or hold on to him. Sheldon lived in a space with several more dimensions than the rest of us know. He had to fold himself up into a tiny, fractured, broken version of himself to speak to others, staying on neutral turf as much as possible. After a while, the pain, energy and effort involved in this "folding up" of the self must have been exhausting -- especially when he was subjected to the hostility and aggression of envious mediocrities or criminals.

Something was killing Sheldon, some effort of concentration and self-containment was consuming his life. He was wearing a kind of oxygen tank that seemed to be running out of breathable air. Sheldon's hands sometimes shook -- not because he drank or took drugs -- his body fluttered and wavered, like a twig in the wind. Energy flowed through him. Sometimes there was nowhere for the energy to go. There was a nuclear reaction inside him. He was trapped inside an astronaut's suit, floating away from us, into infinite space. I tried to throw him a rope of some kind, but I couldn't and -- towards the end -- he would not have reached out for it anyway.

Philosophy was not something you studied in school or a bunch of "issues," like law, for most students. For Sheldon, philosophy was an intense conversation with Kant and Hegel, Wittgenstein (his double!) or Sartre. These men were in the room with him. He'd go back and forth with them, detecting their logical errors, wrestling with them, forcing them to understand by the sheer power of his mind. He needed them -- all of us -- to understand not only himself, but "things." It was difficult for me to compete with such friends.

Sheldon's engagement with these thinkers was unending. His life seemed to hang on every word. Nuances of interpretation allowed for ever-finer parsing of insights into the meaning of his favorite texts. Equations were written on the walls of his apartment, experiments took place in his kitchen. Music always played loudly in his place -- classics, jazz, salsa, Opera -- and he sang loudly, accompanying each kind of music. Psychology, economics, world literature, logic, physics, biology -- all of these subjects were kinds of music for Sheldon. He sang their songs, shifting easily from one subject to the other, reading several books at once.

This icy realm of abstractions was comfortable because it was predictable. People were not predictable. Human beings puzzled Sheldon because they did not seem to be governed by mathematical laws expressible in simple equations that one could learn. Like electrons in the quantum realm, women especially, seemed to defy the rational coherence of the observable universe. But then, his own emotions were foreign and strange things placed under a mental microscope by Sheldon, then dissected without comprehension.

Sheldon read a book every few days, borrowing and never returning many of mine. Finally, when I'd get them back, the books were highlighted and annotated with intense comments, curses, exclamation points, responses in margins, editing, together with new, much-improved, footnotes supplied by Sheldon. Occasionally, he'd create beautiful drawings on his walls or in books, hinting at that other place to which he retreated, a place filled with people like ... well, like Kant and Spinoza, Newton and Marx, Shakespeare and Currie, Miss Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Sherlock Holmes -- characters whose every word he knew by heart.

I walked into his apartment once and there was Sheldon, holding forth, with no one else in the room: "... Thus, the true flaw in the Critical theory was only ..." I quietly stepped out of the room and knocked on the door. After a while, maybe a long while, Shel came to the door, sheepishly, smiling uncertainly at first, disoriented, not sure of who I was.

His wardrobe consisted of two pairs of pants, three t-shirts and many items of clothing "borrowed" from me, like underwear and socks -- socks were a matter of creative association for Sheldon. He never wore two that matched, starting a trend in the neighborhood that still strikes the fancy of visitors from other parts of town:

"Why's everybody wearing different color socks?"

My unusual friend even made it on to local graffiti walls -- a true sign of neighborhood stardom -- as a character called: "Spaceman." A fair likeness of Sheldon was depicted in a space suit, holding a Domino chip, with an "S" on his chest, and sporting big black eyeglasses.

The really serious trouble started with sleeping problems. Sheldon would read or write straight through for two or three days, not eating or talking to anyone. He'd play all kinds of music during that time; then he would sleep for a day at least, refusing to go out of the building. He lost a lot of weight, stopped making his museum trips or playing Dominos with the rest of us. He didn't take showers or comb his hair any more.

The sadness that crept over him was almost a physical thing ... as if someone had tossed a dark blanket over him and his world. He refused to speak for days and weeks, his eyes had a sort of glazed and distracted expression. Was he missing someone? Had someone died? No answers. Just this vacancy where Sheldon used to be. He said: "The sun and sky are gone ..." Nothing more.

I'd show up with pizza, offering to discuss one of his favorite philosophers. My efforts at best produced only a smile, a few words. Sometimes I found him walking by himself at night -- and he was now rail thin -- looking at things. He would pick up a bottle or the lid from a garbage can, then examine it, as though it were a rock (or rocks) brought back from the moon by the Apollo astronauts. Everyday objects seemed strange and other-worldly. These objects mystified him.

The more other-worldly he became, the more assholes and greedy bastards crawled out from under their rocks to take advantage or steal from Sheldon. Morons always look for an opportunity to feel themselves the "equals" of someone like Sheldon, to offer an unsolicited correction, or presume to provide instruction on a matter that is usually not understood or reflective only of their own sick envy, greed, and hatred of beauty or genius. Sheldon was a "show off," or "better than everybody else," or "weird," or "abnormal." In fact, he was none of those things.

The misery and distance in his eyes increased, though he still registered my presence. Little enough was left of him to resist efforts to move him in one direction or the other. I don't know where his money came from. Maybe he got checks every month, but he was like a helpless child -- and New York is not a place to be a helpless child, if you're alone.

Sheldon lived in a mental world without cruelty, exploitation, or evil. His forced encounters with the denizens of this earthly realm that is so filled to the brim with such horrors -- along with the absurdity and pointlessness of all human malice -- poisoned life for him. He recoiled in horror from viciousness ... until it became clear to him that there was no possible escape from these things because, in some terrible way, we had all been tricked by a wicked magician into absorbing these qualities. The malice and hate are inside all of us.

For some people, this devastating insight leads to a projection on to others of the malignancy in human nature; for others, like Sheldon, it leads to unbearable sadness and guilt at sharing in the human condition. Sheldon could never explode outwardly; he only imploded, inwardly, gradually, melting or disappearing into his pain. The answer, as I tried to tell him, is love. But then, towards the end, he told me a story as he lay on his moth-eaten couch in a fetal position:

"Once upon a time, the whole world was a garden. An old magician presided over this garden, tending to everything, keeping all trees trimmed and the waters flowing. A young man lived in this garden called, 'Autologos.' He played alone. In his play, he gave names to all things. The rose, for example, he called Beauty; the thistle he called Pain; and the violet Sadness. The things in this garden were so beautiful (to Autologos) that he assumed that the names he gave them stood for qualities of the things themselves, intrinsic to their natures, belonging to the 'essences' of the flowers and plants. One day, Autologos pricked himself with the thorn of a rose and decided to change her name from Beauty to Love. This was a fateful decision, for it led him to wonder why he had given these names to things and not others. As he reflected, he suddenly felt disenchanted with the garden, for what he had taken to be a world of absolute values, quite independent of himself, now seemed to collapse into purely subjective projections of his own concerns on to the plants and flowers. The next morning, after being burdened with these thoughts, he returned to his favorite entity in the world, the rose that he first called Beauty and then, Love. In the night, the magician had cut the rose and taken it away. Autologos now ceased to play, abandoning himself to his sorrow. He discovered a name for what he had never known until then -- Death."

I read about severe catatonia cases where patients were in a trance-like state. If you lifted their arms or sat them somewhere, they'd stay in that position indefinitely. It's almost as though everything became too much of an effort for Sheldon. No "rational" reason could be found by him to get up from the couch or walk into the bathroom. The telling of his story had exhausted Sheldon, as if he'd run a marathon. Maybe he did. I asked about his private life, but he said nothing.

I found myself worrying more about him. I tried to find an address so I could contact his family. I never did. I later learned that several members of his family were well-educated, including a few professionals, graduates of good schools, who had also been worried about him without knowing where or how to reach him. Before the end of the summer, Sheldon disappeared. Police came by and asked about him. No one knew what had happened or how to find him.

Summer ended and I returned to school. The hectic life of a law student distracted me from thoughts of Sheldon. He wasn't in the Manhattan phone book. He never wrote. I had no contact information. It wasn't until a year later, as I was preparing for final exams, that a call from the New York police department disrupted my routine. Sheldon Grossbart had died on the street, apparently from natural causes. He had been homeless since our summer friendship. A "Detective Flores" asked to meet me for lunch, explaining that he had something to give me.

I took the Path train into the city from Newark -- it was still a dollar then -- and met Detective Flores for a late lunch at "La Caridad," at 78 and Broadway, which is a classic New York "Chino-Latino" restaurant for starving students and cops. It was all routine for Flores. He brought a manila envelope, explaining that it was found in a bag with the "deceased's worldy possessions" -- most police officers sound like their reports after a while -- and the envelope had my name written on it.

I volunteered everything I could about Sheldon and my summer residence in the city. I offered to type a statement. Flores explained that it was not necessary. Apparently, "the deceased" intended the items in the envelope for me. There were two books: Philip Roth's Goodbye Columbus and Noel O'Sullivan's short book George Santayana, with a single dog-eared and highlighted passage at page 27: " ... no new synthesis of experience is possible" -- no meaning -- "if the realist quest for the literal ... continues to discredit the central place of imagination, and the symbolic forms which express it, in human existence."

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