I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud...
There’s a hill, maybe half a mile from my house, just across from Rondout Creek. A small dirt driveway snakes its way up, then curves into the woods, so you can’t see—from the road—where the driveway ends, or what’s at the other end.
Its destination doesn’t matter.
At the sides of that path, a thick swath of periwinkle carpets the woods, a deep glossy green, studded with amethyst blossoms. In April, a host of daffodils nod in the unfiltered sunlight beneath trees whose leaves have not yet opened. Every time I see those narcissi, Wordsworth’s line pops into my head.
Art changes us.
Having read that poem, it’s impossible to see daffodils the same way. Having seen Monet’s haystacks, haystacks are forever altered; we look at them and imagine how their appearance will be transformed as the hours pass. We can’t push a shopping cart down the soup aisle without Andy Warhol accompanying us.
Having read the catalog for an art exhibit, some sixty years ago—that compared the thin charged space between Rothko’s blocks of color to the tiny gap between the outstretched fingers of Michelangelo’s God and Adam—it’s impossible to avoid seeing such energetic interstices everywhere. It’s the same electrically-expectant pause that comes just before Beethoven’s great double fugue bursts forth in the last movement of the Ninth.
Art rewires our brains for the better.
All that pontificating, naturally, is just an excuse to post another story. This one is part of a collection called Prophet Amidst Losses:
Another Fish Story
“I heard from Jim Taylor the other day about someone we both knew—” Larry broke off, a little ominously, and turned back to his gin and tonic. We meet, every so often at The Algonquin to exchange gossip, mostly about contacts in the publishing business. It’s our little joke—to get a buzz on, only a few feet from the famous round table where Dorothy Parker, and Robert Benchley, and a host of other wise-cracking literary types tied one (or several) on.
He seemed to be trying to avoid telling me something. If he didn’t want to share it, he shouldn’t have brought it up in the first place. Am I right? Maybe the gin helped, because he did go on: “You remember an odd little guy that we sometimes saw here, years ago—Nathaniel something?”
I did, indeed, remember him. “NATHANIEL BABSCHITZ! He writes articles for The New York Review of Books under the pen name ‘Erasmus,’ right? What a character he is. Did I ever tell you about the time I went to see him at his apartment? It was a fourth-floor walk-up on Second, right across from that little Marble Cemetery. There was a tiny fireplace by the front window—the window that looked down into the graveyard. I thought it was a little creepy, but he didn’t seem to care. All he cared about was books. Every wall was covered with make-shift bookcases built of scavenged boards and bricks. The front door opened into the kitchen, in the middle of the railroad flat. There was a bathtub in the kitchen that he covered with a salvaged door. He used it as a combination desk and dining table. Above it, he had scribbled a quote on the peeling plaster, ‘When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes…’ and the quote’s author, ‘Desiderius Erasmus.’ I guess that’s where he got the idea for his pen name. It makes sense. The place was filled with books, floor to ceiling. The back room—which, for a normal person, would be a bedroom—was crammed with cardboard boxes of books, labeled with things like ‘Mythology L-T,’ and ‘Euro. Hist, 1878-1914.’ The man read everything that interested him, and not just the British Romanticism of his doctorate.”
Larry cut me off with just one word: Wrote.
It seemed like a rude, not to mention—irrelevant—interruption. I looked at him, quizzically.
“Wrote. Articles for The New York Review of Books. He doesn’t write anymore. He’s dead.”
He could have led with that, couldn’t he? “Why didn’t you just say that?”
“You didn’t really give me a chance.”
It’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen Babschitz. “What did Jim tell you? How’d it happen?”
“He apparently froze to death in one corner of that cemetery across from his place. Former place.”
“Former place?” I wasn’t close to Babschitz, but I was beginning to wonder what happened to all of his books.
“It looks like he fell on hard times. He sold off his books to get by, as long as he could. The weird thing is that his apartment, which was furnished with not much more than a mattress and a laptop, had a state-of-the-art security system installed, only a year or so before he lost everything. It looks like he sold his books to pay for the security service.”
I made some comment about it being like a story by O Henry. It brought a short snort of laughter from Larry. “I wonder if our Erasmus appreciated the irony of his situation?”
“I keep thinking about that security system. It wasn’t there when I visited, and he never had anything that a burglar would want.” The books, while precious to Babschitz, were just used books he got years ago from those cheap places on Fourth Avenue. Nothing a collector would care about, let alone your typical junkie.
“He was definitely not a collector of incunabula or signed first editions. He was just a serious reader.”
I asked how Jim learned about Nathaniel’s death.
“I didn’t know this, before, but Jim was Babschitz’s cousin. His only living relative, as it turns out. When the police went through the corpse’s pockets, they found a card from Jim’s job at Sotheby’s. They thought it was a strange thing for a street person to have, so they called him. They had him come down to the morgue to ID the body.”
“That must have been weird.”
“It wasn’t the weirdest part. When he asked if there were any personal items, they said there was just his clothes and a laptop. ‘It’s not often that we find laptops on the cadavers we recover from the street,’ they told him. ‘Oh yes,’ they added, almost as an afterthought, ‘there was one more thing. He had a key hanging from a string around his neck.’ As Larry was the deceased’s next-of-kin, they handed everything over to him and told him that he could either claim the body, himself, or let the city take care of its disposal.”
I raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Not important… at least, Jim didn’t think it was important enough to share that detail with me.”
I raised my other eyebrow. It’s a talent I have.
“Oh yeah. Jim opened the Mac PowerBook when he got home, hoping he might find some answers about his cousin’s last days. There were lots of files. A sort of will, in which he left everything, which wasn’t much, to Jim. Some essays he had written for the book review, and several encyclopedia articles. Apparently, that’s what he did to survive—that and occasional adjunct teaching at CCNY and The New School.”
I recalled that he used to teach some weird courses there. “There was one. I think it was called ‘Literary References in Popular Media.’ It included stuff like Humphrey Bogart’s line from The Maltese Falcon: ‘the stuff that dreams are made of’—mis-quoted, naturally—or William Powell, playing detective Nick Charles, telling two young newlyweds: ‘…and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’”
Larry cut me off, just as I was beginning to warm to my subject.
“When he lost his apartment, and took to living on the street, the schools didn’t want him around—the smell, no doubt—and the adjunct work dried up. It got harder and harder to get by. Then the winter came, and that finished him off.”
Larry said that Jim also found a kind of journal that Babschitz kept on the laptop. One entry, from two years ago, suggested the possibility of outcomes that were very different from what we now know happened. He showed me what Babschitz had written.
“14 Jun 1993: Took my usual tour of what was left of the old Fourth Avenue bookshops—The Strand—this afternoon. I always dig through the cheapest volumes among the throw-away books they heap up along the sidewalk. Those books are so crummy that I suspect The Strand hopes someone will steal them. Today I spotted an old leather-bound volume, not very thick, but badly worn at the corners of the covers. The spine wasn’t broken, so I picked it up. It was THE BOOK. I’ve known, for decades, that it had once existed, but never expected to actually see one. Once I caught my breath, I calmed myself down enough to go inside and hand a cashier four quarters. He looked surprised and pleased to be rid of anything from the junk shelves… let alone for a paying customer. I took the book home and just stared at it, almost afraid to open it. Finding something like this couldn’t have been more of a miracle if it was wrapped in the Shroud of Turin. This book will change everything!”
Another journal entry, from a couple of days later: “It’s not safe here. What if someone finds out I have it and wants to steal it? What if there was a fire? I must find some way to protect it.”
Larry told me about other revelations Jim had gleaned from the journal. A few days later, Babschitz found a solution: he called an expensive security service and had a complete system installed. To be extra careful, he slipped the dust jacket from a John O’Hara novel over the ancient calfskin cover. He slid the volume among some similarly uninteresting books. He instituted a daily ritual of checking the locks and window sensors for any signs of tampering.
Unfortunately, the added expense of maintaining the security system exceeded the paltry income he derived from his writing and teaching. He started taking boxes of books to The Strand to sell. Many boxes of books. Carrying thousands of books, he practically wore a groove in the fourteen blocks of sidewalk between his apartment and the store. By the end of the year, his apartment was almost empty. Babschitz had become so changed by his discovery that he actually thought it was good news when he was evicted for non-payment of rent, a year later. He had practically nothing to move.
“Jesus.” It was depressing, and not just because I’d never have a chance to go through all those books. Poor Babschitz would learn, first-hand, that the mean streets were not just a trope from one of his beloved noir films. See? I’m not completely callous, no matter what you think. “So—what,” I asked, “was that book that so enchanted him, that he could happily exchange a lifetime’s collection of books, just to protect it?”
“Jim wondered the same thing. He kept reading the journal, hoping to find some clue to the decline and fall of his eccentric cousin.”
“Not really. Babschitz was, as you no doubt remember, a very private soul. As someone who had adopted a pseudonym and withdrew from all normal social interactions, he had certainly done his best to be indecipherable. In the later passages of the journal, Jim encountered one repeated word that seemed to hold special meaning for our bibliomaniacal hermit. Unfortunately, he never quite figured out its meaning.”
“Don’t leave me hanging. What was it?”
“I suppose so. Maybe it was a reference to canned tuna… the only food he could afford, at the end?”
I wondered, aloud, if Jim gave up, once he realized that he had no hope of untangling the mystery that Babschitz had created.
“Nearly,” Larry said. “After reading, and rereading everything on the laptop, he remembered that Babschitz had left everything to him. The foul-smelling clothes and sleeping bag had been incinerated long ago, but his own business card and the key the cops found hanging from a string, still remained.”
“What kind of key was it?” I asked. “He didn’t have an apartment, and I doubt that he ever had a car. He didn’t even have a bicycle to lock up.”
“Ahhhh. A keen eye for detail, my good man!”
I bowed slightly, acknowledging the compliment. “And—?”
“Jim had seen keys like it before. He recognized it as one that would fit one of those drawers that hold bank deposit boxes in a vault.”
“Did he open it?”
“Not right away. The bank wouldn’t allow anyone but the box’s owner to open it, and, since the owner had been cremated, they were at a stalemate.”
“Oh crap,” I thought, “another dead end.” I couldn’t bear it if this was the end of the story. “So, what caused The Decline and Fall of the Romantic Emperor?”
“Cute. And, I might add, characteristically insensitive. What Jim did next was clever, if exceedingly tedious. He engaged a lawyer to establish himself as Babschitz’s legal heir, then took a stack of official-looking papers, including the death certificate, to the bank manager.”
“And that worked?”
“Jim and the manager walked downstairs, through the giant safe door, and into a small steel-barred room whose walls were lined with little steel doors…”
“Why are you dragging this out? Did he get to see what was in the safe deposit box or not?”
“And… Christ… you can be one annoying son-of-a-bitch sometimes. What did he see?”
“The book. The book that had, in fact, changed his life, but not in any of the ways he had imagined.”
“What was it?”
“Jim didn’t really know. It was old, and he figured that it must have been valuable. He remembered that Babschitz had held on to Jim’s business card, and he thought that maybe he wanted to have the book appraised. He stuck it in his briefcase and took it home.”
“You do insist on drawing things out, don’t you?”
A flicker of a smile. “When he got home, he started leafing through it. It never occurred to him to wear gloves or anything. He wasn’t an expert about such matters. It was just an old book of poems. One of them—one that he remembered from schooldays—was ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ He only remembered it because being required to read poetry was one of the things he hated most when he was in high school. He had avoided it and recalled failing a quiz about the poem. He was no fonder of poetry now, so he didn’t read it this time either.”
I asked if Jim had ever taken the book to work.
“The curator’s eyes practically popped out of his head.”
“It was that valuable?”
“Priceless. He said that if it ever went on sale, it would probably go for five, maybe ten, or even more, million dollars.”
“Jesus. And Babshitz died on the street, possibly knowing he was a freaking millionaire?”
“Apparently, he couldn’t bear the thought of parting with it.”
“What was it?’
“Lyrical Ballads: with A Few Other Poems.”
“Who wrote it?”
“No author’s name appears on the title page.”
“But the curator knew who wrote it?”
“He recognized two signatures in the book.”
“The book had two authors. They were very young and shared the cost of printing their first published works in one volume. Self-publishing, back then, was not quite as respectable as having a real publisher, but it wasn’t as frowned-upon as it is today. Young poets have frequently self-published—anything to get their work before the eyes of the reading public.”
“Who were they?”
“Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.”
“It was a signed first edition, dated 1798, of the first book of the British Romantic Movement.”
“Freaking amazing. Wait. There’s something I’m not getting here. Babschitz had this incredible treasure, something that could have changed his life for the better, and not just the money, either. Imagine what such a find would have done for his academic career! He could have become anything he wanted. But he chose to die on the fucking street?”
“It must have meant so much to him that he couldn’t do anything but protect it. It became, literally, his life’s work.”
“Okay. I get that, but what was the significance of him repeating, again and again, that tunafish reference?”
“Ah yes. ‘Albacore.’ You don’t watch television, do you?”
“Never. It’s an utter waste of time and completely mindless, to boot.”
“Same here. It’s a vast wasteland. But Jim does.”
“So? What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Have you ever heard of a show called The Sopranos?”
“There was a TV show about opera singers? What—on PBS?”
“Hardly. It was a show about a New Jersey crime family.”
“So? What’s the connection?”
“Jim said that, in one episode, several gang members were sitting around in their office in the middle of the afternoon.” Larry made little air quotes around the word “office.” “The office was a Route 17 strip joint called Bada-Bing. One of the younger men complained that his wife was making it difficult for him to live the kind of mobster life he wanted. His colleagues—all married men—nodded sympathetically. The guy gave his long-suffering head a slow shake, before delivering his final take on his situation: ‘She’s a fuckin’ albacore around my neck.’”
I haven’t decided what rewards will go to paying subscribers in the future. For now, if you become a paying subscriber, you’ll be entitled to read the complete text of my latest novella. Would that be of any interest to you? I’m open to suggestions…
Meanwhile, it is now possible to become a paying subscriber (just like supporting your favorite NPR station). It’s entirely optional, and—even if you choose not to be a paid subscriber—you’ll still get my regular substack posts. I’ll still be happy to have you as a reader.