It was a job, after all, and back then jobs were hard to come by, especially if you’d just been awarded a Master of Arts in English literature, which was more or less a passport to oblivion. Once upon a time, of course, a higher degree in English could get you places, say on an editorial board of a literary magazine or in a halfway-decent publishing house as a gofer on the fast track to becoming an associate editor. Back in the day it was like having a higher degree in philosophy; it meant you knew stuff. At some point I came to this crossroads, and instead of falling down on my knees like Robert Johnson and selling my soul to the Devil, decided not to become a rock star or a lawyer and opted to become an English major. Had I chosen the first I’d now be playing bass in a reunion band in oceanside casinos and amusement parks up and down the East Coast. Middle-aged people would sit and fan themselves while they vaguely remembered seeing us back in their murky pasts, when they were hip and cool and, of course, considerably less middle-aged and had better hair.
Had I chosen to become an attorney I’d now be living on the Upper East Side. I’d have a lot of very nice clothes and I’d be paying no taxes, because I’d be a millionaire. I would have a doorman and a private elevator to my penthouse and the ability to score tickets to concerts by reunion bands whenever I liked. But I chose the third because it was where my heart was, and it only gradually dawned on me in my last months of grad school that what I really was doing was being pulled by that powerful magnet known as I Want to Be a Writer. You took courses in Renaissance Poetry or Old English, but in your heart of hearts you knew you wanted to write that compelling 100,000-word bestseller.
Being a writer was the very thing I’d mulled over when I was young and easily led astray, especially by the photos of writers I’d see in my mother’s copies of The Saturday Review and the New York Times Book Review. It wasn’t the writing that was so attractive to me as much as how these guys looked: exceptionally at ease in their gray flannel and ties, and of course the cigarette lingering between their fingers was a definite draw for me, because smoking was definitely in my future. I mean, even my doctor smoked. Then there was Rod Serling, seen each week hosting The Twilight Zone, with his flinty, three-martini gaze that implied he’d just spent the day behind his typewriter, a cigarette between his lips, writing like a madman and really, really deserving a cocktail or two. While in reality he died at fifty, a beaten screenwriter and television hack who’d been bruised and brutalized by his employers at CBS. I didn’t know this at the time. He was just a writer to me. A very cool one.
We had writers in the family, and they had had successful Hollywood careers, especially when they stopped writing andbegan producing their own series. I wasn’t sure what writing for Hollywood entailed, but I had a sense that it was probably like playing in the best sandbox in the world with lots of great toys that other people had left lying around, and who would return the moment you started to enjoy yourself and take them away from you. I soon discovered there were three things you could reasonably do with a degree such as I had: teach, write, or read the want ads with a mind honed to brilliance by all your many professors. Teaching jobs—especially for English teachers—were impossible to come by back then. It was easier to find a post as an executioner in a state penitentiary than to get a job pushing chalk around a blackboard. On the surface teaching seemed a cushy living, especially if you found yourself a lectureship at a halfway-decent college or university. You’d deliver a few lectures a week, sit in your office for hours on end drinking free coffee, reading and marking papers, meeting with students and sneaking a few hours here and there to type out your brilliant first novel, and then on weekends socializing with the George and Marthas that were out there, Edward Albee characters boozing it up and battling on the fringes of the Smith College campus. There had been lots of English majors in my generation, and we were all vying for the same lousy positions, if there even were any. There weren’t any.
My girlfriend (eventually my wife) and I moved to a basement apartment in Back Bay, Boston, with a panoramic view of a back alley into which wandered at various times of the day distressed men, drunk out of their skulls who would reel about emptying their bladders among the garbage pails while I typed out my deathless sentences. What I hadn’t figured out was that these men represented the publishers to whom I was intending to submit my work; and they were graphically displaying to me what they were going to do it once it crossed their desks.
But I needed to make money, and so, while sending out literally hundreds of résumés to colleges and private schools (including those outside the country; a school in the Canal Zone had an open position, though attached to the job description was also a frank overview of life in that part of the world; large jumping spiders leapt out at me, which was a definite deal-killer, just as was an addendum to a position at a private school in Hershey, Pennsylvania, which required that I also coach the wrestling team; if you know me you know how ridiculous this seems), I scoured the newspapers for job openings for someone with my qualifications.
A relative who “knew people,” but who only last saw me several years earlier at my Bar Mitzvah, set up an appointment with a friend of his who managed a New England chain of stores that was a kind of prototype for Wal-Mart. Driving there—driving anywhere in the Boston area—was hellish and confusing, especially when street signs had been removed (fear of a Nazi invasion, perhaps? The British did this all the time during the war). When I met with the man he asked me my experience in “software.” Back then software had nothing to do with computers, because computers less powerful than your iPhone needed to be housed in facilities the size of a Malibu Colony mansion. The job was to manage the software department, which, after some further conversation, was revealed to be lingerie. I, with my M.A. in English and my background of drug-gobbling and bass-playing, was going to oversee the peddling of Playtex Living Bras. He was relieved when I thanked him for his time and walked out, only to get irretrievably lost on my way home.
Then one day I saw an ad in the Boston Globe: CREATIVE! CREATIVE! CREATIVE! Which to me translated as: “We’re looking for slightly whacked-out, over-imaginative and unrealistically-ambitious wannabe writers. An advance degree in English is a plus!” The notion of salary was not mentioned. The man I’d arranged to meet seemed a little too happy to be there, as though he were overmedicated, or had just been released from an institution.
“So what we do is give you a list of people to call. You explain that you’re phoning on behalf of the Boston Police Widows and Orphans League and that you’d like them to purchase advertising space in the program booklet that will be given along with purchased tickets to the big fundraising event they’re throwing. These run from a full-page ad to a single line sponsorship ad.”
“How much,” I asked.
“Oh you mean how do you get paid? You’ll be on commission. The more you sell, the more you make. For instance,” and he summoned over one of his employees. “Billy Schwartz here takes home around $1400 a week, right, Billy?”
“You bet.” The guy had a New York accent slightly broader than mine.
I said Wow and thought this would the easiest job in the universe. I was ready to start. I would need a wheelbarrow to cart home my easy weekly dough.
“One thing, though,” he added. “It’s imperative for you to remember not to say that you’re in any way connected to the police. Understood? Because we could get into serious legal shit if you do.”
We sat, we who’d been sucked out of the Well of Desperation into this cesspool of possibilities, at our desks in a large gray room in which the administrators wandered freely, sometimes picking up extensions to monitor how we handled the calls. There were maybe ten employees, the star, of course, being Billy Schwartz, who’d come up with the brilliant idea of assuming a Boston accent whenever he called, and, instead of saying, “This is Bill Schwartz,” etc., said, “This is Billy Flynn, how ya doin’, catch the Bruins game last night?” I could not do a Boston accent, I couldn’t even approximate it, and so, as I was handed my stack of three-by-five cards on which were written the names of the suckers I was expected to call, I began work. The first seven people I called hung up on me. This may have been due to the fact that, while Billy Schwartz had been given the big hitters—he got to call places such as Smith & Wesson, who, considering the people behind this program, were not going to say no to a full-page ad for the very people who wore their sidearms—while I was given the toll-taker on what was then known as the Mystic River Bridge, and the manageress of Hattie’s Corset Shop in downtown Boston. Not to mention thirty or forty physicians in the Boston area.
Simply getting inside the metaphorical door was proving difficult, so when I knew I wasn’t being monitored I decided to break the cardinal rule. “Hi, this is J.P. Smith with the Boston Police. May I speak to Dr. Hale, please?”
Pause. “You’re with the Boston Police?”
“Yes, ma’am, that’s correct.” I’d seen enough “Dragnet” when I was a kid to know the lingo. Joe Friday was about to seal the deal.
“Well, he’s with a patient. Is this an emergency?”
“I just need to speak to the doctor, ma’am.” I could hear her walking away, I could hear some muffled conversation, the rising tones of panic, I could even hear the doctor’s mind turning over and over, wondering where he’d gone astray in his deep dark past. Was it that appendicitis operation when he’d left a scalpel inside a patient? The pills he’d given to the biker with the gun? Had he run over someone that painful night he’d had too much to drink and forgotten how he’d managed to drive the forty miles to his house?
“This is Dr. Hale. What seems to be the problem?”
“I’m calling on behalf of the Boston Police Widows and Orphans and hoping you’ll take out an ad in the program guide for their upcoming event. It’s a very important event and a very good cause and I know you’d like to associate your name with it.”
“So you’re not with the police.”
“I’m working alongside them. As we speak. Sir.”
A deep sigh. “How much?”
I told him the size and price of the ads, beginning, of course, with the mother of all ads, the full-page option. He bought a $30 one-liner, which earned me something like $1.35. I did this while Billy Flynn over there was hitting the jackpot with a handcuff manufacturer.
Things got tough when I called another doctor whose wife answered in full distress mode. I told her, again, that I was with the Boston Police and needed to speak to her husband. At once.
“He’s in surgery. Is it an emergency?”
“I just need to speak to your husband.”
“My neighbor just died.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am.”
“He’s lying on my front lawn, he had a heart attack. Please send an ambulance over—please do it now!”
“Can you put your husband on the line, ma’am?” I needed to sell this ad, and desperation was kicking in, tossing any moral scruples I might have had right out the door.
“My neighbor—I need to get out there to him. Now!”
“I understand that, ma’am, but I need to speak to your husband as soon as possible.” I couldn’t help myself: “It’s an emergency.”
The woman was in tears. She was standing by her window watching her neighbor taking his last breath and I was the Fuzz demanding her husband’s valuable time. I hung up. The doctor would have earned me another buck and change. Three and a half days after walking into this job I walked out. I was owed $13.50 in commissions. I never bothered to collect it.
And then came the first interview for a teaching job. The school, now defunct, was in Stamford, Connecticut. The salary was $3700 per annum, which included room and board, room meaning a small apartment in a Depression-era boy’s dormitory and board meaning the usual slops doled out to prep school kids. I would have preferred to live in a closet over a Mexican brothel than to have to share living space with some twenty adolescent boys, but beggars can’t be choosers. We drove down to Connecticut on a scorchingly hot day. The headmaster, an Englishman in his late thirties, stood behind his desk and sized me up.
There was no introductory chitchat, no questions regarding my thin résumé. He came right to the point. “Do you believe in physical correction?”
“Punishment. Do you believe in physical punishment. It’s the only question I’m going to ask you.”
“This is a boarding school, as you know, and many of our boys—I would say most—are the children of wealthy and spoiled parents. Bestselling writers. Actors. Stockbrokers. These people live in Greece, in the South of France, in Beverly Hills, on yachts, they don’t care about their kids. So they leave them with us. Snot-nosed spoiled brats who require fine-tuning. We use the belt,” he went on, fingering the weapon he now wore around his waist, thirty-six inches of supple English leather. “And we’ve developed a system of solitary confinement. A boy who has acted out will be locked in a room for eight hours. No schoolbooks. No distractions. Any objections?”
I needed a job desperately, but there were some things I just couldn’t bring myself to do. I responded in the only way I knew I could: “No objections. None at all.”
He picked up his phone. What he then said remains seared into my memory. “Can you order me a cheeseburger with two rashers of bacon?”
Considering the context, I instantly knew this was not a lunch order but a code to the assistant headmaster, a toadlike man who’d greeted me when I first came in. The headmaster had just told his Man Friday that he’d found the right candidate for the job, and that he was sitting right in front of him. Not only would I have to live with these boys and teach them, but I’d also be lashing out at them with my belt when not turning the key on their eight hours of misery.
Thus would begin my teaching career at this modern version of Dickens’s Dotheboys Hall. When, after classes, I’d be sitting at my typewriter to write more of my deathless prose, I would rise to take a break, beat a boy or two, and return to my work, all the while earning the princely sum of what would be, before taxes, some seventy-five dollars a week. The headmaster thanked me for coming, shook my hand, and walked me to the door. “We’ll call you,” he said. And he did, quite often. Sometimes he was reduced to begging. The job was mine, but I knew I couldn’t take it. Had I not even been offered another one I could never work for a school built on punishment, destined to dwindle into obscurity years hence. Instead, I was hired by my own former prep school, also fated to go stony broke the year after I left for England to become, finally, a writer, a leap from an airplane without a parachute into some very unknown regions.