The Wedding Guest

9109 Corona AveI wrote this piece several years ago when I was trying to explain to a friend who grew up in the country what it was like to grow up in the city, the “city” of course being New York. I don’t live there anymore, but “New Yorker” is the only identity I will ever have.

Sometimes when we write a personal story we start writing about one thing and then discover ourselves in a time and place we thought we had forgotten. There’s an old joke whose punchline is “Keep your hat on, Cowboy, we could end up miles from here”.  This was one of those pieces.

In the sixties, when I was still in elementary school, retail businesses in the city stayed open later than they do now. Most stores closed at about 7:30 or 8:00. Drug stores, however, usually stayed open until at least 10:00. I remember summer nights when my friends, mostly Irish-Catholic kids from the apartment building up the street, and I would play on the sidewalk of Corona Avenue. For weeks on end, every night we would ride our bicycles on the sidewalk, up and down the block, up over the bridge that crossed the Long Island Railroad and then back all the way down Corona Avenue to Junction Boulevard where the name of the neighborhood changes from Elmhurst to Corona. Then, one night, one of the kids would come out with their roller skates instead of their bicycle and we would start roller-skating for a few weeks. Then we would switch back to bicycles.

Whenever we would pass in front of my father’s store on those nights, we could see a group of three or four men standing in the front by the plate-glass window, drinking coffee from the deli across the street, swapping stories. One guy was a short, fat bald guy who chewed a cigar and always had a newspaper of some kind folded up under his hairy arm. His name was Casey. He had a deep, gravelly voice and he liked to play the ponies. He drove a cream-colored Caddy that he parked in a no-parking zone across the street. I never knew for sure what he did for a living, but I’m sure it was at least partially legitimate.

One of the other men who hung out on those slow nights was a stocky second-generation Irishman with bushy eyebrows and a seemingly over-sized head. His name was Jimmy Breslin. He was the first famous writer I ever met. I was probably about eight or nine years old.

Breslin was a few years older than my father, about the same age as my mother’s older brother, who also knew him. He grew up in Queens and was a hometown hero. Before my Uncle Bill had gotten married, Breslin was one of his drinking buddies. One of their favorite hangouts was the Carousel Lounge, a mob joint on Queens Boulevard in Sunnyside.

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Doomed Couples

IGoodbye, Columbus by Philip Rothn 1960, Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus won the National Book Award.  The title story of the collection is a novella that tells of the doomed romance between Neil Klugman, a recent college graduate who works in a library and lives in a working class neighborhood in Newark, and Brenda Patimkin, a Radcliff student from an affluent family.  The differences in class, family pressures and the two young lovers slowly forming adult identities cause the relationship to fall apart.  It was one of the first books that formed what I call “The Twenty-Something Genre.”

Seven years later, Mike Nichols turned Charles Webb’s novel The Graduate into a blockbuster movie starring a very young Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock, a young college graduate who is seduced and corrupted by the wife of his father’s law partner, the infamous Mrs. Robinson, played deliciously by Anne Bancroft.  The film captures 1960’s affluent society’s shallowness, best summed up in this memorable exchange:

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Just how do you mean that, sir?

What one word might a contemporary Mr. McGuire whisper to Benjamin? “Derivatives”?

In the end, Ben finds redemption in the love of Elaine, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter and in the final scene we see them escaping on a city bus.  They may be free, but their future is still uncertain as revealed by the uncomfortable expressions on their faces.  As much as we want them to, I can’t actually picture them staying together.

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The Self Interview

Fred Bubbers, author

How long have you been writing?

Well, I started when I was a teenager, so I’d like to say over thirty years, but I haven’t been actively working at it all that time. I started when I was in high school, where I was editor of the school newspaper, and I had a wonderful teacher who encouraged me. In college, I majored in English and had some stories published in the student literary magazine.

English Major? Very practical.

I’ll say. I graduated from SUNY Albany in 1982, which had had an unemployment rate much like it is today, and there weren’t very many entry-level jobs for liberal arts majors and I needed to make a living. I took a course in computer programing at NYU and got started in that. Getting into the software business back then was like stepping on a high-speed train just as it was about to leave the station. Computers and software just took in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s and it hasn’t stopped. If anything, it’s just accelerated. Long hours, constantly trying to keep up with technology. It was very exciting. At the same time, I started a family, bought a house, and pursued the American Dream. I tried to continue writingState Street, Albany on the side, and I managed to keep it up about three or four years, but it was hard to stay focused. First of all, there was no web to speak of so the market for literary fiction was very small. I got a “No thanks, but try us again sometime” form letter from The Paris Review, but otherwise it was very discouraging to send out stories one at a time — nobody accepted simultaneous submissions back then —  and then wait for a year to hear from magazines with circulations of no more than 500 or 1000 copies.

Second, I was working in a business that was creative and took enormous amount of mental energy and focus to do well. In John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction,  he talks about the sort of day jobs that writers should have: menial jobs that let you use your mental energy for your art. Software development isn’t such an occupation. In fact, it’s probably the worst day job a writer could have. I was working in an industry that made everything I knew obsolete every two years and when not working at my job, I had to spend time studying and learning just to stay employable. Not to complain too much about it, it’s been a wild, exciting ride and I still enjoy it.


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