Maybe my favorite part was getting a front-page byline on a story about a Long Island Rail Road strike. The managing editor, a classically grumpy veteran Irish newshound, taught me the art of “bouncing quotes”—repeating some management-bashing quote from the union leader (Anthony D’Avanzo—I still remember his name) to the management spokesman, then reading his retort back to D’Avanzo, who upped the ante. I stirred up a fight, actually reporting the under-reported union point of view. I thought I was part of The Struggle. Almost as important, my father, who commuted to the city on the LIRR for 40 years and hated the incompetent line, was proud I was giving them a hard time with my byline.
Still, curiously, that night in the spring, the night I had to decide whether to re-up at Yale or ... what? I didn’t think I could become a writer. It was just blessed luck that when I couldn’t find a traveling salesman job, I kept flipping the pages in Help Wanted and my eyes alighted on the tiny type of a small classified ad for a job as assistant editor at a summer weekly called The Fire Island News, which was published in Ocean Beach on the barrier island right across from where I’d grown up in Bay Shore. I drove down to the interview in the Chelsea Hotel with a guy named Bill Redding, a novelist who had taken the job as editor, and got the sense that a number of writers took summer gigs with paper despite the nearly no pay, in return for the room and board (I lived in a room behind Karl the Barber’s shop), and the sun, surf and other beach enticements. I signed on. But then Redding had trouble with the publisher and I was suddenly left as editor, having to write practically the entire weekly for the rest of the summer.
Again I don’t necessarily suggest you try this at home; I was very often very lucky to be in the right place at the right time. The founding editor of the Village Voice, Dan Wolf, had a summer place in the next town over, and his wife Rhoda called his attention to the unconventional copy I was throwing into print, ranging from a very deep exegesis of Bob Dylan’s country-pie album Nashville Skyline to profiles of the hippie cast of Hair visiting haute gay enclave, Fire Island Pines. And I covered a march led by the great Nat Hentoff, the Voice writer who also lived on the island and led a protest against discrimination by the wealthy WASP Newport Cottage-style colony called Point O’Woods. Hentoff later suggested I write to Dan Wolf to see if there was a place for me at the Voice, which was then still in its golden age.
And as it happened, the Voice’s last counter-culture reporter, the legendary Don McNeill, had walked into a lake at a commune in Massachusetts allegedly with a headful of acid and died the year before. And so I was thrown into the breach.
It was heavy duty covering the Weather Underground types and the heavy acid heads, but I survived it in part, I think, because of the skepticism and distance I had developed from reading my beloved 17th-century metaphysical poets and the crazy quilt of visionary sects who surfaced during Cromwell’s Interregnum—the Diggers, the Levellers, the Ranters, and the “Family of Love,” (for more on all of these see the great scholar Christopher Hill's wonderful book The World Turned Upside Down)—all of whom anticipated in their dreams and sad fate the ’60s and ’70s types I was covering and left me less vulnerable to being carried away by their seductions.
I began covering politics too, and eventually ended up as the Voice White House correspondent standing a few yards away from Richard Nixon as he made his weepy farewell speech the day after he resigned.
And so began a very fortunate working life, at the Voice, Esquire (where one of the first stories I wrote was the one on "phone phreaks" that brought Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak together in what would be the Apple partnership), Harpers, the New York Times magazine, and other places, working for luminaries too numerous to name—to all of whom I owe a great debt for their encouragement and guidance. The point being, again, that without this initial luck I would not have had the fortitude to keep on going and might have ended up going back to grad school or even to law school. Yes, that old quote from E.B. White: “No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”
Seven books and hundreds of periodical pieces later do I regret I left graduate school? Do I regret turning the fateful page of the classifieds that night?
What do you think?
In fact, I still recall just one experience that made it all worthwhile, made me realize I’d made the right choice (for me anyway): The chance to see a life-changing Shakespearean production, perhaps the single greatest and most influential in the past century— Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Again it was a matter of luck and being in the right place at the right time. I’d been following this weird, silly Medicine Ball Caravan documentary that Warner Brothers was filming, about a bus caravan full of San Francisco hippies that had made its way across America and then accompanied them over the ocean to the U.K. for some concerts. (Faces with Ron Wood at Canterbury!)
But after all that madness was over I rented a Mini and started driving to some literary landmarks, like the place where Keats stood when he wrote his beautiful ode “To Autumn”. And I ended up in Stratford-on-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, on the very weekend the Royal Shakespeare Company was opening Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream there. Ask anyone who’s seen it (ask Frank Rich, for instance)—it was a life changing experience. I suddenly realized why Shakespeare was Shakespeare in a way I never would have otherwise (i.e. in graduate school). You can read about it, should you care, in The Shakespeare Wars, a book that was inspired by that experience. Until then, I'd never understood the power of the spell Shakespeare could cast on the stage rather than the page—if the players on the stage were under the direction of a magus like Brook; a play about a love potion that was itself a kind of lifelong love potion. It was an experience that I wouldn’t trade for an entire graduate school education.