Visiting Wolfe

Last week we traveled down to Asheville, North Carolina to visit our friends Sheila and Mike who relocated there last November. Asheville is a pretty funky town nestled in a beautiful and mountainous part of the country. We stopped by the home where author Thomas Wolfe grew up, which is now a state of North Carolina landmark.

Wolfe is best known for his four long novels: Of Time and the River, You Can’t Go Home Again, Look Homeward Angel and The Web and the Rock. He also was a productive playwright and short story writer. Much has been written of Wolfe’s professional and personal relationship with editor Maxwell Perkins. The definite work on the topic is A. Scott Berg’s biography, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. Now a movie is to be made based on Berg’s book, simply called Genius.

Colin Firth will play Perkins in the film. Nicole Kidman takes on the role of Aline Bernstein, Wolfe’s older and married lover, while Jude Law is cast as Wolfe. Interesting casting since Wolfe stood at 6 feet, 6 inches, while Law barely measures 6 feet tall. Meanwhile Asheville was abuzz all last week as Law was researching Wolfe’s old house and other venues of interest. Law sightings were the talk of the town.             Image

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Bloomsday 2014

It’s almost June 16th. Bloomsday. I enthusiastically celebrate this day commemorating my Jewish brother (well, sort-of), Leopold Bloom, as he travels and travails through Dublin and its environs on June 16, 1904. Bloom’s odyssey is chronicled in James Joyce’s Ulysses, arguably the greatest book ever written in the English language.

I, like so many countless others, endlessly struggled to read the book. I tried three times before I enrolled in Steve Diedrich’s Ulysses class at the Newberry, and soon the genius of Joyce slowly, but very truly, began to reveal itself in the fantastic dialogue and narrative. Only ten sessions with Steve ( a non-academic who worked by day as an insurance actuary) and words became images, the literary mystery unfolded into sense and sensibility, and the book’s marvelous cast of characters leaped forward out of Joyce’s unbridled imagination and into my mind and soul.

 I took Steve’s class in 2007. Sadly he died of cancer three years later. Not only had he taught the Ulysses class at the Newberry for twenty plus years, but he also organized a Bloomsday celebration each year at the Cliff Dwellers.

Steve transformed me into that small circle of literati who are proud to be called “Joyce enthusiasts.” I celebrated my first Bloomsday at the Cliff Dwellers in 2008 watching Steve orchestrating a marvelous selection of readings from the text. The next year, my wife Anne (another one of Steve’s students) and I traveled to Dublin as pilgrims on our own Joycean hajj. We remain regulars at the Cliff Dwellers annual Bloomsday.

This year, once again, my friend and the illustrator of my book, the incomparable Leonid Osseny, enhances the Cliff Dwellers Bloomsday festivities by exhibiting some of his Ulysses sketches on easels. He has an illustration for each chapter of the book. Leonid’s exhibit of “Chicago Bridges,” by happenstance, also is on display at the Cliff Dwellers.

Hope to see you at the Cliff Dwellers this Bloomsday where Molly Bloom always gets the final word to say. Yes!              

 

   

  

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Ms. Angelou

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So there she was. It was really her standing in front of me in the breakfast buffet line at the Algonquin Hotel, patiently waiting, getting ready to scoop some food on her empty plate. Maya Angelou looked taller in person that she did on TV.  I had watched her on the tube as she read a poem at the Clinton Inauguration just a month earlier.

In line, at nine in the morning, she somehow managed to look elegant and stylish. Yet the deep wrinkles chiseled on her face indicated that hers was a life where she had seen it all; the good and the bad; the pain and laughter. Her face read like one of her poems.

Who was that short, wiry tan-skinned man accompanying her? A lover perhaps? I didn’t think so.  Maybe a security guy? Probably not, too small for that kind of job. An agent, an editor? Who cares anyway?

What foods would Ms. Angelou select from the buffet? I couldn’t see her filling her plate with bacon, sausages and hash browns. Surely a grande dame like her would be a sensible eater. Certainly partaking of the fresh fruit, with maybe some whole wheat toast on the side.

Should I say something to her? Like maybe, “Ms. Angelou I love your books” or “Ms. Angelou your poem at the Inaugural was stirring.” Too trite to say I concluded. Soon she turned around in my direction, and smiled at me, and I smiled back. That was all that I needed to make my day. 

            

Wulkowicz

 

Bob Wulkowicz introduced me to the writing of Stuart Dybek. Wulkowicz appeared one day outside my cubicle at the Mayor’s Office of Employment housed in the old Kraft Building on Peshtigo Court. I think it was 1982, and the long forgotten Jane Byrne was Chicago’s mayor at the time. He was told by someone over at City Hall that I was the guy he ought to see to help him with his project that had to do with some kind of electronic signal that he devised for the Outer Drive on-ramps.

As I witnessed countless times in my twelve years of non-continuous employment with the city, the guy was steered to the wrong office. Wulkowicz should have been directed to see the bureaucrats at the Department of Transportation, but instead he landed at my cubicle where I helped plan job training programs for the city. Obviously he was at the wrong office.

Nonetheless, I started chatting with him, and after a couple of minutes we established instantaneous connections that often guys raised in Chicago’s neighborhoods make. He was raised in the West Pilsen/Little Village area. I lived in Lawndale until I was ten, and then moved to West Rogers Park. He went to Catholic schools, I attended CPS schools. We had the shared experience of riding the CTA trains and buses, sneaking into the box seats at the Cubs and Sox games, and watching in amazement and amusement how Chicago politics played out over the years.

Wulkowicz told me about a friend of his from the old neighborhood named Stuart Dybek who was a writer. He thought I would enjoy Dybek’s stories, and two days later he stopped by my office again and presented me Childhood and Other Neighborhoods as a gift. He let me know that the character Vulk in one of the book’s stories, “The Long Thoughts,” was based on him.

The next few years I saw Wulkowicz off and on. He worked briefly with the city, and then I heard he left town. In fact, he left the country and moved to Canada.

At a Printer’s Row Book Fair maybe ten years ago, I chatted with Dybek before he mounted the stage for a panel discussion where Studs Terkel was also a participant. I told Dybek my Wulkowicz story, and he, pointing at Studs, related that Wulkowicz was the one who first turned him on to Studs and his radio interviews on WFMT when they were both teenagers.

This weekend Dybek is one of the headliners at Printer’s Row. He has two new books out and has emerged as a major literary celebrity in Chicago.  If I can get his attention for a minute, I will have to ask him if he has heard from Wulkowicz lately.