Some might say it’s a miracle that I’m a playwright, let alone a writer. I’ve actually had people express shock that “they [whoever that is] let you become a writer” upon learning the following fact. On my 18th birthday, I quit high school and enlisted. It was the height of the Vietnam war. It’s funny, in retrospect, that this was also the day the SAT results were announced. My guidance counselor told me I had the highest scores in the history of my high school and tried to talk me out of my decision. My mind was made up, though, and soon I was in uniform.
This choice was not born of patriotism. I’m not going to talk about my family or my parents, other than to say that I was leaving a household that seemed utterly chaotic to me. My parents and ten siblings were living there. Lillian Hellman once wrote that the best preparation for a writer is an unhappy childhood. So, maybe it’s not such a miracle that I’m a writer. My parents are still alive and, in any case, this is about me as a writer, and that’s a career choice they have seldom expressed a positive opinion about, or much of any opinion. In any case, enlisting was a sure fire route to get away from home.
Today is November 3, 2009, which happens to be Anna Wintour’s birthday. In checking on her background, due to my wondering why the president of the USA appointed a Brit (not to mention the editor of Vogue) to his council of art advisors, I came across the fact that Wintour is also a high school drop out. Of course, her father was the editor of London’s Evening Standard, so she had a bit of a helping hand breaking into the world of print journalism. However, her resume did provoke me to take the leap today and reveal a few pertinent facts about my life.
I went off to war and served without distinction or any acts of great valor or cowardice. I got through it and was glad when it was over. Upon my return stateside, it soon became clear that veterans were being greeted with scorn, for the most part. The baseball great Ted Williams was the only person who ever shook my hand and thanked me for my service. It was in an airport on my way home and I was still in uniform and bumped into him at a stand of paperback books in a magazine kiosk. One day many years later, I wrote a short story for the Miami Herald Sunday magazine about the possibility of cloning a baseball great. I hope that wasn’t a factor in Williams’s son’s choice to have his father’s head frozen in case he could some day be cloned, though both Williams and his son lived in Miami at the time that story was published, about 25 years after my encounter with the Hall of Famer.
Anyway, I shed my uniform, hitchhiked around the country for a few months, grew my hair long, and became a hippie and antiwar activist. I knew the war was a complete waste of everything that mattered, just as I know the current wars are. Eventually I moved into a commune that had been founded in the 1950s by the late great pacifist David Dellinger. Dave no longer lived there but his son Danny had been a friend in high school and welcomed me into the household.
A short while later, I was set up by another vet and busted for possession of marijuana. I still wonder sometimes if the bust was politically motivated. Thanks to the Dellinger family, Leonard Weinglass, one of the lawyers for the Chicago Seven (or Eight if you count Black Panther Bobby Seale) agreed to represent me. We talked about taking the case to the U.S. Supreme court in an effort to get pot legalized but that idea never went anywhere. We struck a plea bargain and I was supposed to get probation.
Between the bust and my court date, I went to Kansas City to see a girlfriend and try and keep out of trouble. The girlfriend was attending classes at the Kansas City Art Institute. It was there that my fascination with art and artists took hold. For awhile I lived in a communal household of students and artists, sat in on lectures at the nearby university of Missouri campus, and met Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet, after he gave a poetry reading. The poet and Peter Orlovsky came to the house where I was living and Allen encouraged me to start writing when I showed him some free verse I had written. Over the years until his death, I saw Allen socially a number of times, in California and New York, and he always reminded me of our first meeting. He seemed proud that I had become a writer. That evolution was in the future, though.
First, I had to do time in the cell that was previously occupied by Bruno Hauptmann, who was convicted and executed for the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. Until O.J. Simpson came along, that was the trial of the 20th century. My plea bargain, obviously, didn’t wash with the judge. He was up for re-election and the local paper ran an editorial saying he didn’t deserve his seat on the bench if I didn’t do time. I hadn’t even brought a tooth brush to court.
So, it was off to Bruno’s old cell. I wrote in notebooks and drove the guards nuts by doing yoga exercises in the nude. We were locked in our cells most of the day and the only people who saw me were the guards and the trustee who delivered meals. It was the trustee who brought me a clipping from a newspaper announcing a one act play competition sponsored by the Street Theater unit at McCarter Theater in nearby Princeton, NJ. “You’re always writing,” the trustee said. “Maybe you should send something.”
I had just finished a short story in one of my notebooks, and decided to make it into a play. The trustee made sure the final manuscript, which I printed by hand in block letters, got mailed. A couple months later, in a letter addressed care of the warden, I received notification that my play was one of three scripts chosen for production. The letter also informed me of the performance dates, which fell within my time left to serve. I began a daily letter writing campaign addressed to the judge who sentenced me. It worked and he called me before the court and agreed that I should be released to see the production, only to return the next morning.
I was in culture shock sitting outside the stone façade of McCarter Theater on a clear, warm summer night with some friends who picked me up and drove me to see my first play performed. The play was an absurdist fantasy with an anti-war theme. At the end there was complete silence. Then a young actor who was master of ceremonies for the evening jumped up on the stage and announced the next play. I never heard any applause or saw the actors take a bow. To this day I have no idea if people liked the play or not, as I didn’t see any of the subsequent presntations. It did not matter, though. I was hooked on writing, and writing drama in particular.
It may have been a cruel joke on the part of the universe, for it was never so easy again – and returning to jail the next morning was tough. But, I only had two months left on my sentence and an escape would have really fucked things up for me.
Shortly after my release, I met a newspaper editor in a bar and he hired me on the spot. Soon, I was a stringer for the Daily News. Purely by chance and happenstance, I built up a good resume and eventually wrote for the top papers and magazines in the country – NY Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Smithsonian, etc.
I’ve never told this whole story to anyone, and that’s not the half of it. It feels rather cathartic. Thanks for reading it.