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Tuesday, May 22, 2018


by Gary Fincke

I was sixteen the first time I was inside a police station. My mother took me after I received my first traffic ticket.
          My violation was making an illegal U-turn around a median strip at the end of the block where my father’s bakery was located. I’d made that turn every Friday after I finished my shift at the bakery, working until 5:45 a.m. when I then drove the station wagon back home and gave it to my mother to drive to the bakery and open the store at 6:00 a.m.
          But that Friday, because I was scheduled to take the SATs Saturday morning, I’d worked from 7:00 to 11:00 p.m. like I’d done when my mother had picked me up in that station wagon every Friday from eighth to tenth grade. She’d made that U-turn every time and so did I, completing it, this fateful night, while a police car sat at the light.
          “Whose name is on that ticket?” my mother said when I showed it to her. She was in her pajamas, but she buttoned a coat up over them and slipped on a pair of shoes while I tried to make out the signature.
“Ralph something,” I said.
“Ralphie Stumpf,” she muttered, grabbing her keys. “You bring that thing with you, and we’ll see about this.”

“Is Ralph Stumpf here?” my mother asked the policeman at the desk.
“No, Ruthie,” the policeman said, and I marveled.
          “Ralphie Stumpf,” my mother said. “I’ve known him since he was in diapers.”
          “I expect so, Ruthie.” The policeman suddenly sighed and looked old enough to retire.
          My mother showed him the ticket. “Everybody makes this turn,” she said.
“I can name people you wouldn’t dare ticket who make that turn. You know who I’m talking about. Prominent people who have businesses on that block.”
“You don’t know that for a fact, Ruthie,” the policeman said, but he allowed us to sit down to wait.
A few minutes later, Ralph Stumpf walked through an inside door. My mother tugged me to my feet as she rose from her chair. “Ralphie Stumpf,” she waded in, repeating her assertion about the prominent people who disregarded the law. Ralph Stumpf looked more embarrassed than angry, and I drifted a few steps away from the conversation, hoping that Ralph Stumpf didn’t begin interrogating me. I wanted my mother to stop. I wanted to pay the ticket and get out of there.
A minute later, Ralph Stumpf tore up the ticket and my mother walked out of the station in triumph. “You see?” she said. “You have to know how to deal with these people. I hope you learned something.”

Fourteen years later, I tried to remember just what it was I’d learned when, after lunch near the end of June, I received a call from Sam Stambaugh, who identified himself as the county constable and said he’d been chasing after me for a couple of months. “Since April. Almost three months now, and no luck at all until today. You don’t reside where your registration says you do.”
“What registration?” I asked.
          Stambaugh didn’t seem to hear me. “I went to your apartment on 19th Street,” he went on, “and the people I talked to said you didn’t live there anymore.”
“I moved.”
“Your registration says you didn’t. I checked it through Harrisburg three times. You don’t just take somebody’s word on this. You don’t do this job for long and still believe neighbors. Finding you has cost me an awful lot of time.”
“I’m in the phone book,” I tried, but I started considering whether constable was a patronage job, whether Sam Stambaugh was an idiot but had a brother or an uncle in the right place to hand him something to do.
“Harrisburg finally nailed your address for me. I have a warrant here with your name on it, and I can drive out there and serve it, but I thought I’d do you a favor and call to see if you’d come in on your own. I found out you teach at the college, so I figured you for somebody reasonable. You’re a doctor, so I can call instead of driving out.”
His tone made me decide to be diplomatic. “I appreciate that,”  I said, “but what’s the problem?”
“Scofflaw. A fine outstanding for too long.”
Now I felt lost, like maybe there was some other Gary Fincke who lived in Beaver County. A long shot, but possible. “What fine?”
“It’s just scofflaw. A couple of minutes at the JPs.”
“Somebody’s made a mistake.”
“Couple of minutes, ok? Help us both out.”

It seemed easy to comply, but I wondered what Stambaugh the respecter of advanced degrees and college instructors would think if he found out I would be officially out of work in less than a week. Maybe he’d show up with lights flashing and sirens wailing.
I didn’t have his enthusiasm for the two-year college where I’d worked. After five years of teaching the same two composition courses and having to stick to reading lists and assignments prescribed on a syllabus created by the main campus faculty, I’d become impatient. The year before I’d received a Ph.D., and in the intervening months I’d begun to publish scholarship, how-to articles about teaching, and some stories and poems that found their way into small magazines. Nobody else in the English department had published a word since I’d been hired. Six months earlier I’d suggested to the Director of Adjunct Campuses who visited once a year from the far away main campus that maybe there were alternatives to being told how to teach, what to teach, and when to teach it. He looked at me and suggested I should begin to search for another job if I felt that way
“Ok,” I said. “I’ll do that,” not exactly what he wanted to hear. To make things worse, I made it clear to the on-campus administrator to whom I reported that I had to “deprepare” to teach my classes in order to meet the requirements I had to follow. Two months later I was out of a job.

When I arrived at the Magistrate’s office, it looked empty except for a secretary who seemed to be expecting me. “A parking ticket,” she said without prompting. “Unpaid from January.”
“I’ve never received a parking ticket,” I said, so confident in the truth of that I expected her to apologize when she discovered a mistake had been made.
“In Monaca. Facing the wrong way. Five dollars plus a twelve dollar late fee.” She handed me a yellow copy. “This jog your memory?”
“I’ve never seen this.”
“The file says the constable’s been working on this quite some time. Ninety days delinquent makes you a scofflaw.”
The address was where I had my car serviced. I told her I’d be right back.
The car dealer said he was willing to absorb the loss. He wrote out a check and told me that sometimes the guys servicing cars were in a hurry and maybe left my car where it didn’t belong. He smiled and added that they were expanding their parking lot so cars wouldn’t be parked on the street in the future.
The secretary took the check, but then she frowned. “Twenty-seven dollars and fifty cents for the constable’s fee is also due.”
“For a local phone call?”
“According to our records, the constable drove to your residence on two occasions. He logged several calls to Harrisburg.”
My fragile patience snapped. “He drove to where I lived a year ago. He went back again when he already knew I didn’t live there. He called Harrisburg instead of opening the phone book for my address.”
“He performs his duties in a manner satisfactory to Magistrate Luberto.”
Enough was enough, I thought. “I’m not paying for his incompetence.”
A door opened and a man’s voice intoned, “Do we have a problem here?”
“One of our scofflaws is becoming abusive.”
“If he continues, call in a disturing-the-peace.”
“Just like that?” I said. “Raising my voice slightly is nowhere near disturbing the peace.”
The woman dialed the phone. The police, she said a minute later, were on their way. I sat and waited.
          The policeman, when he arrived, looked as young as my students. He wore the uniform as if it were as unfamiliar as a graduation robe. “I understand you have a disturbance here,” he said to the receptionist, who nodded toward me.
“I’m the guy who talks too loud,” I said. I wondered if I should mention that I held a Ph.D. and was a college professor, but I counted on being calm and polite to serve me well.
The policeman motioned me toward the door. He walked me outside and said he was surprised because I was a professor at the local college and didn’t look like anybody who needed to be arrested, a quick reminder about how law enforcement works. I answered him in coherent, complete sentences sprinkled with polysyllabic words. He told me to forget it, that some people were touchier than others, and I thanked him and left.
I had bigger problems than unfairly owing a small sum of money to the county, but when I arrived home I filled my story with obscenities directed at the Magistrate and Constable who were Fascist assholes and fucking morons. My wife shook her head and put a finger to her lips. She was holding our ten-month-old daughter, but our son, who was about to turn four, was somewhere nearby.

Beginning in July I could collect unemployment compensation. I’d worked up a monologue on humiliation and embarrassment that I declaimed to my wife, but as the day when I would become eligible drew close, I put on a coat and tie and drove off to Beaver Falls as if I was about to begin a new job that just happened to be in a government building.
It was a beautiful summer day. The office was located on a residential street that was tree-lined and well-kept, as if somebody was softening the blow by not locating it downtown among the largely abandoned store fronts that led down the hill to the closing factories or uptown toward the soon to be closing mill.
The only women in the room were employees. In the summer of 1975, only men seemed to be out of work. Though I was the one applicant dressed as if I had a wedding to attend, none of the men looked shiftless or crazy or drunk. Nobody talked except when their turn at one of the desks or windows arrived. I filled out my application and answered a clerk’s questions. Very shortly I would begin to receive a weekly check that would continue to arrive for one year. The woman I was speaking with looked me over for a few seconds before telling me I wouldn’t have to report to receive my check. All I had to go on as to whether this was unusual was her telling the two guys in front of me that they had to report each week to receive their checks in person.
          She didn’t ask me about my months-long search for another college teaching job. If she had, I would have told her I’d applied for fifteen college jobs and one high school position as Chair of an English Department. I’d had one interview so far. That interview hadn’t been on a college campus. It had been in a New York City hotel room and made me more despairing than hopeful. I had nine postcards thanking me for my interest while telling me the position had been filled. So far the rest of the places I’d applied to had been silent.
A week after receiving my first unemployment check, arriving home from a day in the park with my wife and two small children, I found a note tacked to my back door that read: “Because of your failure to complete payment of all existing, past due fines, I visited your residence today, 7/15/75, to serve a warrant for your arrest. Please be so advised.”
I crumpled that note into a tight ball, but before I threw it away, I copied the address and waited until the following day to settle in front of the typewriter. I wrote a reasonable, educated note to Magistrate Luberto requesting a formal hearing.
           I explained the circumstances for which I was being persecuted in polite and correct language. I used my title of Doctor both at the end and, ready-made, on one of the return-address stickers my mother had bought for me the moment I told her I’d passed my dissertation defense. I attached a stamp to an envelope whose address I double-checked for accuracy in the phone book. “There,” I told my wife. “It’s time for at least a little bit of justice.”

          The unemployment checks arrived exactly on time, but as July closed down, I was in panic mode. For another month I could tell any potential employer my reason for leaving my teaching position was that it required obedience more than creativity. Framed in the right way, I could make myself sound ambitious rather than the arrogant, over-confident jerk I’d let surface with my superiors, but by September I’d be susceptible to even a cursory background check.
          As August began I got a phone call from a college in Michigan I’d applied to in June, so late in the hiring season that I thought they might be desperate. The man on the phone said they wanted to interview me, and I didn’t hesitate to say I’d be happy to drive to their Michigan campus. “We sometimes meet our applicants half way,” he said. “We could interview you in Detroit to save you some miles on such short notice.”
          My excitement dimmed. Sure, I lived near the Ohio border, but it was still Pennsylvania, and Detroit was about 300 miles away. How could that be half way unless it was just a figure of speech? I told him I’d let him know by the following day. I owned a United States Atlas, and I opened it to Michigan. I couldn’t find the city. Not at first, at least. Not until I realized it was located in an insert that contained the Upper Peninsula because there wasn’t room for the entire state according to scale.
          I thought of blizzards and wolves and every other problem that went with what was essentially the same job I’d let slip away because I hated doing nothing but teaching the same two sections of composition over and over with no chance of that schedule changing in the foreseeable future.
The next day, as I waffled about having the nerve to turn down a possible job offer, I received yet another early August job opportunity phone call, and this one, though it was the high school job, at least didn’t sound like a safety net. There was an on-site interview in upstate New York. When could I be there? I chose three days from then to make it look as if I had options.

Two days later I answered the door without thinking of anything but the good fortune of having an interview the following afternoon, and there stood Sam Stambaugh. He didn’t produce a warrant. He asked if I’d be willing to ride with him to the Magistrate’s office to get things taken care of once and for all. When he assured me I’d be having a hearing, I said I’d ride along. “You ought to have cleaned this thing up sooner,” he said on the way over. “I’m surprised somebody with your education wouldn’t see the sense of it.”
Luberto showed up looking like somebody who’d just finished mowing his lawn. “We have the matter before us of $27.50 in constable’s fees unpaid,” he intoned. “And additional costs of the court to transport you to these proceedings. Are you contesting?”
I began as evenly and clearly as I could muster. “I sent you written request for a formal hearing. I put everything in the letter.”
“This office has received no correspondence from you,” Luberto said, and then, as if he could read my mind, he added, “Did you make your request by registered mail?”
Anyone could see how this would end, but I soldiered on. “I mail hundreds of letters a year,” I said. “Every one of them gets through. They’re sent first class with the correct postage and a return address. It’s foolproof.”
“We have no letter,” Luberto said, and I sensed Sam Stanbaugh shuffling closer.
“But you received it.”
Luberto looked at Stambaugh as he said, “Are you questioning the truthfulness of this court?”
There was nothing for it but to go all-in. “You bet,” I said.
“Do you have a copy?”
Stambaugh stood so close now I could feel his breath. “No,” I said.
Luberto seemed satisfied. “One of the two parties in this dispute is being dishonest. The court has no reason to lie. A total of $82.50 is due now. If you are unwilling or unable to produce payment at this time, I will direct Constable Stambaugh to transport you to the prison to begin your five-day detention.”
To save face, I told him to lock me up, but in the morning I had to be up and out of the house by 7:30 at the latest, and my bravado was extinguished by the time we arrived at the county prison. Scofflaw in the face of authority was one thing; getting a job before all of my education and ambition crumbled was another.
          My fingerprints were taken. Like millions of possible felons, I was “in the system.” When the guard confiscated what I was carrying, I asked him for my contact lens case. I have to have that, I explained, and he was reluctant. “Use your call if you wanna,” he said. “Explain your special needs to somebody else.”
I played tennis regularly with a lawyer. I was wearing shorts and t-shirt he would recognize if we were meeting at the courts. I looked up his number. His response was brief. “You have a case. You’d probably win, but it will cost you more than you’d receive. You could paint yellow lines for all the no parking zones in the county, but you should get your wife to ante up before the Magistrate shuts off his phone for the night.”
Never had such perfect sense seemed so readily apparent. I gave him my phone number so he could call my wife and tell her to pay up.
Shortly thereafter I was led down a hall lined with cells. Every cell had a couple of residents. Every prisoner was black. Not one of them said a word.
Downstairs was what appeared to be a rec room half-filled with cots. The rest of the space held a television set and a ping pong table and a handful of chairs. Every prisoner was white.
“What you bringing us?” one guy said.
There was laughter all around.
“How much goddamned scofflaw we talking about?” the same guy asked when my escort had disappeared. I told my story. I included each of the tiny sums of money. The prisoners seemed fascinated and empathetic. “Ain’t that just the fucking way the man works?” seemed to be the consensus comment. The room, as I quickly learned, was populated by repeat DUI offenders and failure to pay child support deadbeats. Each one of them wanted me to know how “the man had fucked him over for nothing.”
 The Pirates were on the television, but they were losing, and baseball seemed trivial. But the ping pong table was available, and I picked up a paddle. During the next hour, until my wife showed up to drive me home, I won half a dozen games because I was the only person in the room who seemed to know what topspin could do to the ping pong ball.

          Just before midnight, we picked up our children at our neighbors’ house. My wife accepted our daughter, and I carried our son back to the house. Neither of our neighbors asked a question. “What did you tell them? I asked my wife.
“That you had a problem that was running late and you needed a ride.”
“A problem?”
“What was I supposed to call it?”
“We’re going on a trip to New York in the morning,” I told my son. We’ll wake you at seven. You can sleep in the car.” I found one clean and ironed shirt in the closet. To get a head start, I hung it and a tie and a sport coat from a hook in the back of our car.
In the men’s room of the McDonald’s ten miles from my interview site, I put on my clean shirt and tie. I combed my hair, happy that I’d had the foresight to have my wife trim it two days before. It was as short as it had been in five years; without asking, she had halved the length of my sideburns.
Fifteen minutes later, because of the early August heat, I carried my sport coat inside the high school before I put it on, one more step toward acting like someone who had qualifications to be in charge of an English Department even though I was sure my one year of high school teaching and six credits of education courses made me the least qualified of the other ten current members to lead.
No matter. I was going to talk to my strengths. What I knew was, no matter whether students were bad or terrific, few of them could write. I went on about how I would design a curriculum built around writing. I took a detour to talk about rapport and large group discipline situations when the principal seemed on edge about those things not being part of the resume of a college teacher. I added plans for a literary magazine and sending out PR to the media about student accomplishments when they entered regional and state-wide competitions. I was ready to make the school well known for writing, a model other schools would copy.
The Superintendent of Schools nodded along. When I paused, he sat back in his chair and said, “I like having my male English teachers carry themselves like men because English teachers have to work with all kinds.”
I didn’t need an interpreter to understand that I’d passed one large section of my job test by the accident of heredity. I’d walked into his office at 6’2, 210. My years as a tennis coach at the two-year college were on my vita. The conversation switched to sports and how I’d managed to occasionally come off the bench for a small-college basketball team. “Between you and me,” he said before I was escorted to where the high school Principal waited to talk, “some of our male English teachers haven’t earned the proper respect from their students.”
The Principal, however, needed more than size and a history of sports. He wanted specifics about how I would handle large-group disciplinary situations, and I fell back on my one year of high school teaching, the job I’d had while I finished my Masters Degree. I told him about study hall duty in the school auditorium, two teachers handling 200 bored and restless students. He started to nod the way the Superintendent had and let me move on to literature, reminding me that, for now, the curriculum emphasized reading and remembering because New York required students to succeed on a state-wide Regents Examination. I cited writers that I knew were safe choices and added a few contemporaries. I told stories about tests I’d taken full of spot passages to identify. When he told me that the test results for each teacher’s students were published in the local newspaper, I said I welcomed the challenge.
My graduate education was never brought up. Not one question was asked about my research. Not one question was asked about the handful of essays, stories, and poems I’d begun to publish in the last two years.
By the time the interview ended, it had been sixteen hours since I’d been released from jail, but nobody had to know that, not even my children.
          A secretary showed me around the school while the Principal and Superintendent discussed me. When I returned, the Principal gave me a school yearbook to help me get to know my colleagues. The Superintendent walked me down to his office for some paperwork. “We work fast when we think we’re ready,” he said. He made it clear that he liked the idea of having a teacher with the word “Doctor” in front of his name.
          I walked out into bright sunshine and saw my wife and the kids sitting near the creek that ran across the street. The town looked absolutely picturesque. Sweat ran down my back and over my chest by the time I reached them, but all that was left of that day was the drive back home and extraordinary relief. By the time we reached our house, it would be nearly twenty-four hours since I’d been freed. Our neighbors would see us return if they were awake, if they weren’t worn out from staying up late with our kids the night before.
I’d spent not quite two hours in jail, a time very long or very short depending upon who you believe you are and what follows. In less than a month I was going to be the head of an English Department. Now I had to become someone other than who I appeared to be to my former employers and the local judicial system. A scofflaw who was full of untested opinions and a disregard for authority. Someone easily dismissed.

Gary Fincke's latest collection of personal essays The Darkness Call won the 2017 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose and was published in early 2018 by Pleiades Press. His collections of stories have won the Flannery O'Connor Prize and the Elixir Press Fiction Prize, and earlier nonfiction books were published by Michigan State and Stephen F. Austin.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Cancer Scars

by Danusha Goska

          Now, see, if I were a true and deep artist, I would look at my cancer scar and write a poem or sculpt something uplifting. I'd create art like that famous black-and-white poster by poet Deena Metzger, the one where she is naked, arms stretched against the sky. You see her breast cancer scar, now a tattoo. One of the most stunning, generous, and brave images I have ever seen.
          As it is, I look at my scar and think, "Duct tape." I am a spinster with no man of my own. I'm related to lots of men—brothers, uncles, cousins, nephews—who would, in accord with my family's tradition, not pee on me if I were on fire. As a man-less spinster I use a lot of duct tape. It really does fix everything, and anything duct tape can't fix is not worth salvaging. So, yes. I look at this mess of a scar and think, not poem or essay, but, rather, "Duct tape."
~ ~ ~

          I went to the hospital this morning. I waited in the waiting room. I paged through copies of Cancer Today.
          A lovely woman came in with a dog so elegant this dog would put to shame Joan Crawford in an evening gown designed by Adrian.
          "Would you like a visit?" the woman asked.
          I reached out to the dog. It was a black Pomeranian. I've never seen a dog with such perfect fur: lush, thick, sleek, shiny. The Pomeranian's name was Neena. She was wearing a little vest that identified her as a service dog. Her owner told me Neena's story.
          "My boyfriend is a long-distance truck driver and he had Sophie, a black Pomeranian who traveled with him on the road. He had her for eighteen years. After she died, he couldn't stand the idea of a new dog. 'No one can replace Sophie!'
          'Well,' I said to him. 'No one can replace Sophie, but there are so many dogs out there who are lonely and uncared for. We can give a dog a home and some love.'
          I worked on him for six months. Finally, he said he'd let me get a dog, but it had to be a black Pomeranian just like Sophie. I went on I found a black Pomeranian but he rejected that one. Didn't look enough like Sophie.
          I found another. She was a survivor of Hurricane Katrina. They sent me a photo. She looked awful in the photo. I showed the photo to my boyfriend. In spite of how bad she looked, he said, 'Her!' So we flew to New Orleans and picked her up and here she is."
          Neena had to go. I went back to waiting. Thank God for Neena. Thank God for that nice lady.
          I am afraid of medical settings and medical people. I've had some really bad medical experiences. I was chronically ill for six years in the 1990s. The illness I had is rare and little understood. I was subjected to three experimental surgeries. Before every surgery, I was reminded that the surgery might kill me, make me sicker, or it might restore me to a full life after years of crippling poverty. A photo of my innards appears in a medical journal. One test alone was worse than all three surgeries. They clamped me into a chair in a light-proof chamber the size of a phone booth. They placed electrodes on my head. They then sealed the chamber and I was in complete darkness, except for one pinprick of red light. Then someone spun the chair around, in alternating directions, at varying speeds, with no warning. I begged to be let out. They wouldn't. "Just a few more minutes. You can do it."
          You'd think that this information would be on my chart: "This patient fears medical settings and medical people. She's clocked a lot of dicey history. Go easy on her." And you'd think that medical personnel, interested in healing, would heed it. You'd think.
          They called my name and I went into the room and undressed. I assumed the position on the cold table. Yet another person I'd never met before and would never see again who would touch my body in intimate ways entered the room. I shook a little; some tears fell. The woman, who had an unnaturally tan face, loomed over me with a large pair of tweezers. "YOU ARE TENSING UP. THAT WILL MAKE IT WORSE. IT WILL HURT. STOP IT."
          She quickly glanced at my chart, discovered my name and spoke it. "DA NOO SHA! Relax! RELAX RELAX RELAX! You are going to make it hurt!"
          Now, you might think that having a strange woman with an unnaturally tanned face looming over me, yelling in an overtly angry way the word "RELAX" over and over, might tense me up. But I'm from New Jersey, and it worked for me better than any wind-chime-accompanied mantra.
          I obeyed. I imagined walking off through the fields of bruise-blue rye in Slovakia, my Uncle John up ahead. We were walking toward the hills, toward the thickly forested hills, where Uncle John's beehives were. We'd tend to the bees and then hike over the mountain and hear the clear call of the cuckoo high up in the leafy treetops and the heavy panting of wild boar scuttling over the forest floor. He'd give me juniper berries and instruct me to bite them with my front teeth while inhaling their released, cleansing aroma over my tongue. We'd fill a basket with mushrooms he unearthed, where I saw only moldering oak leaves, to bring home to Aunt Jolana to put in the soup we'd have for dinner.
          "Your scar looks good," the woman who never told me her name or her title said. I knew more about Neena, the therapy dog, than I knew about this—part-time nurse? World class surgeon? Jersey Shore tanning addict? Imposter?
          If my scar looks good, I don't want to see the scars that look bad.
          I heard the staples hit a metal tray. She was careful to remove the staples from different parts of the scar so that no one part became irritated. It really didn't hurt. It is so often the case that people who are good at the technical aspects of medicine lack bedside manner. Those with the smooth bedside manner might not know the right end of a stethoscope.
          I was about to venture my duct tape joke when she said, "I'm going to glue you up." And then, "Now I'm applying the tape."
          So, yeah, tape. And glue. My latest accessories. But no spit or carpet tacks.

Danusha Goska is a recipient of a New Jersey State Council on the Arts Grant, and a Stephen King Haven Grant. Her book Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype won the Polish American Historical Association Halecki Award. Her book Save Send Delete was inspired by her relationship with prominent atheist Michael Shermer. Her new book God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery will appear in 2018.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Midtown Messenger

by Carl Schiffman

By early January of 1952 I had a new after school job, this time for the Composing Room, a print shop on West 46th Street. The High School of Performing Arts was just next door. I worked picking up and delivering layouts, proofs, and revised proofs of advertisements composed by printers working at giant linotype machines and from wooden boxes of hand‑set type in a bright noisy space on the far side of a counter to which we messengers would be called to be assigned our trips.
I was generally given three or four good‑sized manila envelopes to deliver and about as many pick‑ups to make, written out on separate slips of paper. Deliveries were usually made to a receptionist and pick‑ups too, would often be waiting for me at her desk. I wouldn't have to say a word. Other times I would be sent beyond the reception area to contact a specific individual or department. I took particular pleasure in those occasions, especially once I had begun to learn my way through the frequently labyrinthine interior offices.
My job would have been much the same, I suppose, if I had been delivering proofs for grocery chains or department stores. Being a messenger just meant finding a sequence of addresses after all, working out the most efficient or most enjoyable route linking them. But the Composing Room had interesting clients. I once had to deliver a set of proofs of book ads to Margaret Mead at the Museum of Natural History. I hadn't read the second line on the envelope, so instead of delivering the proofs to whatever office in the museum they were addressed to, I asked for Dr. Mead and was sent up to her eyrie in one of the stone towers of the Museum.
Dr. Mead was unhappy at the interruption, she said something nasty to the secretary who had let me in, then her blue eyes blazed at me. "Can't you read? It says—" And she told me what street entrance was written on the envelope. "I would expect," she said, "a messenger to know something about geography."
I was furious at her tone and at that little bit of urban anthropology that characterized me—now and forever presumably—as a messenger. "I might," I snapped back in anger, "have other interests!" She stared at me in wonder. An anthropoid had talked back. Her face lit in a brief and wonderful smile.
The prime activity of the Composing Room was printing advertisements for books. My job was special, different, important, because of that. Because it brought me, day after day, into the revered places whose names appeared on the cover and title page of every book I read. The book connection was instrumental in getting me the job. My friend Herman, who lived in my apartment house, had been working as a part‑time messenger at Composing Room since fall. He had gotten the job through his family's multiple connections with publishing; his step‑father, Albert H. Gross, was a well-known Yiddish to English translator, who had translated Isaac Bashevis Singer's first novel, The Family Moscat, for Knopf. Herman's step‑sister, Nancy, was an editor at Scientific American, which published book ads.
If I found romance in visiting famous publishing houses, even if I got no further than the reception desk, it was because books were privileged objects for me. My family, it must be admitted, unlike Herman's, paid chiefly lip service to literature. My father may have, as he claimed, read everything that mattered in European literature before he came to the United States at age twenty-eight; what I actually saw him reading as I grew up were Perry Mason and Ellery Queen mysteries, and other detective novels that came three to a volume from the Mystery Book Club. He also read historical romances by Dumas, some H.G. Wells, and occasionally, but always with sovereign contempt, American best‑sellers.
My mother's reading habits were a mystery to me. I recall well-worn volumes of Keats or Shelley on her bedside table. My aunt Norma, who had her own bedroom and bath in our apartment, had built-in bookcases filled with publications by or about Marx and Lenin, primers on dialectical materialism, the collected works of Jack London, but never to my knowledge read anything more demanding than the Daily Worker or some propaganda booklet telling her what Party line to toe; perhaps she read a few novels by the left-wing author, Howard Fast.
Out of this inauspicious brew, perhaps more out of what my family talked about over dinner than what it actually read, my own delight in reading emerged. What was most remarkable was the intensity I was able to bring to whatever I read. I read Modern Library Giants, long long books like the Studs Lonigan trilogy or Of Human Bondage, in a single day. I think my impulse was purely escapist. I had a science fiction collection of hundreds of magazines that included a complete run of Astounding back to 1940 or 41, and many copies before that; I owned every issue of Galaxy and many copies of the large format pulps with the lurid front covers, Fantastic Adventures and Amazing Stories, dating back to the 1930s. I haunted used book stores—especially Stephen's Fantasy Book Service—for back-issues to fill the gaps in my collections.
There would come a time when the content of my reading would deeply affect my life; for now though, the books I read so avidly on the messengers' bench were books I entered like a movie theatre, leaving my own daily life outside. Perhaps that was why I was able to concentrate so well.
The cachet of the publishing houses did not exist only in my head, and was not just the glorification of familiar names like Random House (which published Modern Library) or Scribner's (for Hemingway) or Doubleday (which had recently begun publishing science fiction in hard cover). What mattered as much to me was the physical impression these houses made, their decor and their location in the city. I took great pleasure, for instance, in visiting Macmillan Company in its own building—now occupied by Forbes Magazine—on lower Fifth Avenue or visiting McGraw Hill in its green skyscraper on West 42nd Street, even though I had small or no idea what authors they published. Simon and Schuster and Pocket Books occupied either adjacent floors or opposite ends of the same floor in the RCA Building. I loved riding the sleek elevators, admired the sepia murals in the lobby.
Doubleday and Harcourt Brace, both in rather ordinary office buildings on Madison Avenue, impressed me with their modernity, open floor plans with indirect lighting and mazes of cubicles that seemed like a foretaste of the future. Knopf, by contrast, in a staid office building at Madison and 52nd, had thick carpets and wood paneling, seemed to deny the reality Doubleday and Harcourt Brace were so eagerly embracing. Best of all, most romantic and rewarding, were the offices of Harper Bros., not yet Harper & Row, in a fine 19th century brownstone off Madison Avenue in Murray Hill; and the offices of Random House in the north wing of the Italian Renaissance style Villard Houses on Madison between 50th and 51st Streets; most of the Villard Houses, now a shell behind which a giant hotel looms, were then occupied by the Roman Catholic Diocese of New York and I was captivated by the juxtaposition. Just to enter Random House though, to climb the narrow winding flight of stairs to an upper floor, was to leave my daily self behind as effectively as though I had opened a book and vanished between its covers.
The freedom I had to move through the city streets when I was out on a "run" or to read on the bench while I was waiting to be sent out, the kindness and good humor of the dispatchers, the absence of close or nagging supervision, were not sufficient to insulate me from a feeling of humiliation at being a messenger. The feeling grew much more intense once the school year ended and I began to work full time. Part of the problem was that the other full-time messengers were—how do I make myself sound like less of a snob than I probably was?—enough to inspire disdain in the most open‑hearted receptionist. They were uneducated, scruffy, surly, sometimes elderly, sometimes alcoholic, sometimes partly deranged. Like myself, they were minimum wage workers, a thin cut above daily laborers. And in their eyes, and the eyes of the public who saw me moving through the streets with my armloads of proofs, and above all in the eyes of those young and beautifully groomed, inevitably haughty receptionists, I was one of them. My friend Herman was away working as a counselor in the Poconos. I missed him a lot.
It was only during the summer that I began to cheat my employers. Not that I ever dumped proofs in a trash basket the way I had political pamphlets I had been paid to distribute years before. We messengers were supposed to take busses for any distance over eight or ten blocks. I walked everything up to twenty blocks or more and filed a petty cash slip for my five-cent fare. Very occasionally, I was required to deliver a block of actual set type rather than a proof. The first time was a joke. The dispatcher gestured casually at a small paper‑wrapped parcel on top of the counter and told me to make it my first stop. I slid my fingers under the string that tied the parcel, and then stood there transfixed, as though my hand had been nailed to the counter, while the dispatcher and a few of the nearby printers laughed. The parcel must have weighed thirty or forty pounds. I began by taking cabs as I was supposed to, but by summer I was either walking or taking busses with the lead weight, billing petty cash for imaginary cab fare.
I don't believe that the job itself, whatever occasional humiliation I may have felt, prompted my dishonesty. I did not feel exploited or taken advantage of in any way. Outside factors had weight. I had been accepted at the University of Chicago, but I had not won a scholarship and my family could not afford to send me there without one. I don't know whether I was angrier at myself for failing the scholarship exam or at my father, who had always managed to send himself to Florida for a couple of months every winter, with plenty of money in his pockets for the race tracks and the card games, for not having the money to send me to Chicago. Writing sixty-five years later, I am struck by how angry at my father I must have been. He had all the answers, had read all the books, was chock full of innate ability, but he hadn't been able to pay for what I cared about most, which was getting away from him.

Carl Schiffman’s stories and essays have appeared in Missouri Review, New England Review, Antioch Review, Southern Review, Transatlantic Review, and elsewhere since he first began publishing in 1972. A native New Yorker, Carl studied playwriting with Paul Goodman at the Living Theatre and with John Gassner at Yale Drama School. Retired for over twenty years, he made his living—after a shaky start—as a case worker with neglected or delinquent children, as a state and federal civil rights investigator, and finally as a writer for non-profit organizations and fundraising consulting firms, including work for the Legal Defense Fund, Memorial-Sloan Cancer Center, the NAACP, and the New York Public Library.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Edge of Obsession

by David Raney

“I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life, and never seen.”
    —John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent

If I told you that when I was a kid I used to double numbers over and over, 2-4-8-16-32 until they became page-crossing monsters lined up in identical pairs, you might say “Man, that’s pretty OCD.” I used to collect license numbers, too, peering out the windows of our station wagon and copying them into the green lines of a journal my dad had given me. But that was mainly to feed a fantasy of telling baffled police that yes, as a matter of fact, I did know the plate number of that blue Gremlin, getaway car in the crime of the century.
Nerd hobby or superhero daydream, whatever that was it didn’t last. I must have tired of writing numbers in rows and not solving crimes. But I still recall old addresses and phone numbers and can recite pi to fifty places, which friends consider amusing or strange depending on their own relationship to numbers. And I have my habits like anyone. In coffee shops I always order a double espresso, because why tempt the writing gods unnecessarily, and I always put new groceries behind old, fresh towels at the bottom of the stack. These are probably relics of a college stock boy job, I tell myself. On the way out the door I always pat my pockets for the holy trinity—keys, phone, wallet—but I don’t do it ten times. Maybe three.
I’m not a neat freak, either, as my wife would certainly attest. I load the dishwasher a certain way, but I don’t care if someone else does it differently and would just as soon not do it at all. Every ritual, in other words, isn’t OCD. Without some routine we’d never balance our checkbooks or catch a bus. But the line between normal and clinical isn’t a hard one. I’m capable of noticing when a carpet pattern points in the direction I’m walking, and I’m more likely to notice if I’m anxious or distressed. Still, it doesn’t feel as if anything real depends on it. Or on avoiding the fissures of a buckled city sidewalk, staying safe inside the cracked continents.
I don’t have whatever blend of inheritance and environment, gene mutation, or chemical cocktail brings on true obsessive-compulsive disorder. No one is entirely sure what causes it, but the full expression of OCD is a life-controlling condition requiring medication and therapy, and I don’t wish to be glib about it. That would dismiss what a real sufferer goes through, a thing of which I have no experience. But I can imagine it, thanks to vivid accounts. A good friend describes her husband at age eighteen:

He was just starting community college, had fallen in love with languages and was taking intensive French and German, with all the flash-cards, word learning and repetition that entails. He’d make lists and mark up dictionaries, pronounce each word ten times, twenty, and if he got it wrong he’d have to start all over. Then he started needing to make the bed up perfectly before he could get in, so that between repetition and straightening it might be 2 a.m. before he got to bed.

That nighttime ritual resonated with me, hovering like an owl call, until I recalled a period in my own teens when I went through ornate bedtime rituals of adjusting the blankets, touching the curtains and the window in patterns that had to be right or something bad might happen. It didn’t feel like guilt or penance for anything, just that I was charged in some obscure way with protecting my family from vague dangers and couldn’t let them down. No matter how tired or how late, I’d tug and straighten like an escaped prisoner covering his tracks until it felt perfect. Ten minutes, half an hour, I have no idea. Then it stopped, and I don’t remember that either. I just didn’t do it anymore.
The bestseller The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing helped define OCD for many people, and possibly humanized it too, as did TV’s Monk and movies like As Good As It Gets and possibly The Accidental Tourist. “Possibly” because William Hurt’s character Macon isn’t labeled OCD, and the idea isn’t central to the plot. But in his widower’s grief he’s just as obsessive—lining up cans on a kitchen shelf like a drill sergeant eyeing recruits—as the Jack Nicholson and Tony Shaloub characters. Monk creator David Hoberman says he was inspired by his favorite fictional detectives but also by his own experience. He told an interviewer, "I couldn't walk on cracks and had to touch poles. I have no idea why—but if I didn't do these things, something terrible would happen.”
Hoberman’s OCD is self-diagnosed so it isn’t technically (medically) true that he “has it,” and this is the part that fascinates me. Even the most apparently alien conditions are on a curve, just like intelligence, and a capacity for humor or empathy, and other attributes notoriously difficult to describe and define. Think about it: among the genetic and chemical disorders, who couldn’t find some aspect of her behavior that matches up? Thumb through the DSM-5 and try not to find yourself reflected every few pages—cloudy and distorted, maybe, but you. A code-switch here, a dab of neurotransmitter there, and any of us could have a label and a different life.
Some afflictions are obviously binary affairs. A mosquito bit you or it didn’t, your fibula is shattered or it isn’t, a virus swims in your cells or it doesn’t. But we tend to look at everything that way despite (or maybe because of) our sophisticated modern treatments for conditions that until recently were grouped as “crazy” or the kindlier “touched.” The root of diagnosis is “learn” but also “set apart.” When you give something a name, you draw a line.
Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford biologist and neuroscientist, knows those lines as well as anyone. He doesn’t have OCD any more than I do, or the other diseases and disorders he writes so well about—epilepsy, schizophrenia, Tourette’s. But he says he recognizes “facets of myself” in the sufferer’s carnival of ritual and repetition, and concludes, “It is reasonable to assume that there is some sort of continuum of underlying biology here.” Stress is often implicated in the onset of obsessive-compulsive symptoms or behaviors (and what a difference slides into the gap between those two words), the classic examples being washing, counting, and checking—to make sure doors are locked, for instance, or lights turned off. This is Sapolsky’s version:

At times when I am overworked and anxious, I develop a facial tic and I count stairs when I climb them. I usually wear flannel shirts. In Chinese restaurants I always order broccoli with garlic sauce . . .. I think, “Well, I enjoyed broccoli last time, why not get something different?” and then I think, “Careful, I’m becoming a perseverating drudge.” And then the waiter is standing there and I become flustered and order broccoli with garlic sauce.

My wife is more artistic and spontaneous than I am, but she’s also a perfectionist, so it made sense when she told me that during a particularly stressful phase before I knew her she washed her hands more than was strictly necessary and showered four to five times a day. She still checks several times to make sure her car is locked, going around to each door to press the button manually. Our teenage son handles stress well, at least outwardly (who has access to another’s inner surfaces?), but he has his own comforting rituals, including watching us from a window whenever we leave the house and telling us—every time—that he’s going to. Touchingly, I found out that when he was younger he would habitually tell our Labrador retriever, before we all left, what to do in case of a fire. We’re all happy souls, reasonably social and successful, and I doubt any clinician would scribble “OCD” in her notes after a session with any of us. But if we don’t dwell in the land of obsession, there are times when life builds and swells underfoot, the horizon contracts, and we can see it from here. 
This spectrum of ill and not-ill turns out to be true even of schizophrenia, the terribly debilitating brain disorder that still gets caricatured as “split personality” and that would seem to be a thing, surely, that you either have or don’t have. Its family tree includes a lesser known, kinder cousin called “schizotypal personality” which describes people who exhibit some associated mental traits (a strong interest in paranormal phenomena, a proclivity for fantasy and magical thinking, loosely connected thoughts in general) but not at a strength or frequency that crosses the line we’ve drawn at Illness.
Schizotypals tend to be socially uncomfortable and drawn to solitary professions: film projectionists, cubicle hermits, the lighthouse-keepers and fire-tower watchers of the world. They’re the Bartlebys among us. Not even the darkness of schizophrenia, it seems, is truly black and white. Perhaps, muses Saplosky,

whatever neuro-chemical abnormality causes a schizophrenic to believe that voices are proclaiming her the empress of California is the same abnormality that, in a milder form, leads a schizotypal person to believe in mental telepathy. In an even milder form it may allow the rest of us to pass a few minutes daydreaming that we are close friends with some appealing movie character.

You might know someone with schizophrenia, as I do, or even suffer from it yourself. It’s a bit more likely that you know someone with OCD, which, I was surprised to learn, is the fourth most common mental disorder, diagnosed almost as often as diabetes or asthma. Roughly one in fifty American adults has it, and you know fifty adults. Even without parsing “acquaintances” and “friends,” you know several times that. A medieval village housed 50-300 people. In your office of dozens, your apartment building of hundreds, you know several villages’ worth. And again there exists an almost-OCD, people whose behavioral profiles slide a bit down the curve from clinical. The best estimates of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, or OCPD, run two to eight percent. So for every 100 people, it’s a good guess that five or six of us have one or the other.
Every time I’m on a packed subway car, then, I more than likely share it with someone who can’t read her book for counting the tunnel stanchions, or who adjusts his trouser crease twenty times a minute, seeking the fugitive peace of a razor-straight line. One day I sat next to a man who, for the entire ride, sucked at his soda straw every four seconds, up, down, up, so metronomically, his face so blank, that he resembled one of those dipping stork toys that were popular years ago except in reverse, the cup raising instead of the head lowering. It made me wonder what else he does to get through the day and what I couldn’t guess about even the people I know. He was still doing it when I got off at my stop underground, and in the glowing window as the train pulled away.
I once talked to a woman in a bookstore whose ten-year-old had high-function autism. He was in both special needs and gifted classes at school; they didn’t quite know what to do with him. There are shades to that condition, too. Temple Grandin’s books have done a lot to bring Asperger’s Syndrome into the public eye, and it’s more or less received wisdom now that university math and physics departments are, as the woman put it, “workshop havens for high-function autistics.” These are people who often like to work alone, are gifted at spatial relationships and mental math, and have a penchant for trivia. (Her son used to go up to people and say things like, “Did you know that if you add the areas of Africa and Brazil …”) None of which proclaims you as having this or any disorder, but they all correlate with mild autism; they’re all on the spectrum. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a jolt upon encountering “penchant for trivia” on the list, or on reading this sentence about the much rarer autistic savant syndrome (think Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man): “The most common behaviors demonstrated by people with the syndrome are obsessive preoccupations with trivia (facts about U.S. presidents, for example), license plate numbers, maps, or obscure items.”
I’ve enjoyed all of those things to an extent many would label irritating if not truly obsessive. And yet I’m not an autistic, or anyone’s idea of a savant. Still, when we whisper about a colleague, “God she’s being anal today,” or joke with a forgetful friend, “ADD much?” or complain of a hectic schedule “Man, I was completely schizo last week,” it might be unthinking shorthand, but it also inadvertently touches on the truth. Many such disorders are on a continuum. Or, more to the point, we are.
As an adolescent, a time when we live in change, our bodies washed in a tide of internal chemicals, I went through a compulsive phase that no one knew about, and not just the “I need things my way” variety that’s part of the definition of the age. Shooting baskets for hours in the driveway, I’d tell myself I had to make, say, five layups from the left and five from the right, then three foul shots plus a final one behind my back. Everyone does this, given a ball and NBA fantasies and no one to play with, and it helped make me a pretty good shot. But I’d start over every time I missed, whether it was the easy first shot or the tricky last one, and I’d finish the sequence even if it took an hour. In fact I recall finishing a failed sequence, shooting the remaining shots after a miss even though they wouldn’t count, just so I could close out that series and start over. It sounds crazy to me now, but it didn’t then.
OCPD and lesser variants can be what’s called syntonic, meaning you find your own habits and rituals comforting. They relax, give you pleasure, are perfectly in line with your idea of yourself. People with OCPD will tell you at length why it makes sense to check a door handle five times or disinfect their kitchen counter every two hours.  Sufferers of clinical OCD, on the other hand, are dystonic, meaning they get no satisfaction from compulsive behavior; it doesn’t fit their self-image at all. They know there’s no logical connection between what they feel compelled to do and any real outcome (cleanliness, order, safety). But they can’t stop, and it makes them miserable. Reverting to shorthand, it’s as if the crazy among us know we’re not but can’t help acting like it, while the rest of us aren’t crazy but only because it never occurs to us that we might be.
Some very accomplished people have had OCD. Howard Hughes famously did (along with phobias and much else), and so does Leonardo DiCaprio, who played him in The Aviator, and Martin Scorcese, who directed that film. Actor Billy Bob Thornton once remarked of his own compulsions, “The simple ones I can explain to you. The more complex ones, I don’t even know how to tell anybody.” David Beckham, for all his fluid improvisation on a soccer pitch, requires that the world present itself in pairs. If there are three books on a table, he has to add or remove one. Athletes don’t get any more creative and free-flowing than Julius Erving, so I was stunned to read this passage in his autobiography:

I peer in on Cory in his upstairs nursery and then walk down the hall to my office, taking my seat behind my desk, making sure my leather desk pad is parallel to the edge of my desk and my pens are in order. My drawers are neat and tidy, the top left locked like it always is. My checkbook is where it should be, inside my top drawer and flush against the bottom of the felt interior. Good.

In an earlier era, Nikola Tesla was almost certainly OCD, as was Samuel Johnson, whose compulsive step- and stair-counting Boswell records. Some say Darwin was, and it’s anyone’s guess who else. Could there be advantages hidden in the torment of that disorder? It’s been pointed out that attention to detail, laser focus, a tendency to take your time with decisions, a strong sense of responsibility—all these can make you very good at some jobs, as can a gift for numbers or patterns. And evolutionarily speaking, if you tended to check your environment constantly for peril, or hoarded (as some OCD sufferers do), you probably boosted your genes’ chances considerably. Recent evidence does support a heritable predisposition, and so OCD, in one expert’s view, might be just “the extreme statistical tail” of this kind of behavior.
That tail can wag the dog, though, when you move to the pop-psych side of the fence. The internet is crammed with tips and quizzes to help you identify all the disorders you didn’t know you had. I’m sure these mostly mean well, but when two of “10 Signs You May Have OCD” are “Hating Your Looks” and “Seeking Reassurance,” you can be excused for thinking that these mark you not as obsessive-compulsive but as female and human, respectively.
It’s worth remembering that, as Steve Silberman writes in NeuroTribes, autism and other “new” diseases are often nothing of the sort. Their defining traits are ancient, and the recent upsurge in attention is due less to swelling caseloads, Silberman says, than to an “epidemic of recognition.” I like that phrase a lot. To recognize means to know again, and Sapolsky reaches for the same word in hoping that we’ll “learn to recognize kinship in neurochemistry”—that “slowly we will be leaving the realm of them and their disorders.” He’s right, of course, that “not just people who rave and gibber are ill.” And the corollary is equally true: not just the outwardly placid are sane. Our lines intersect more than we admit, wander from this year’s straight and narrow, drift toward the cracks and edges. Has average ever been a useful synonym for normal?

David Raney is a writer and editor living near Atlanta with one wife, two kids, and dogs ranging in size from shoebox to Volkswagen. He generally eschews the Oxford comma but acknowledges that in the previous sentence it prevents us from imagining a shoebox-sized wife. His work has appeared in numerous books, journals and newspapers.