Meeting Algren

algren on stepsFrom “Chicago Sketches” by Richard Reeder

After a filling meal of pierogis and sauerkraut at the Busy Bee restaurant in Wicker Park, I crossed Damen and hurried through the park, past the smackheads and other lost souls, arriving at the party at about nine. When I walked into the cramped apartment on Evergreen, I recognized him immediately from the photo on my copy of The Man with the Golden Arm. Nelson Algren was sitting restlessly on a chair in the kitchen and talking to a tall blond named Dottie. He took long drags on his Marlboro and sipped from a glass half full of what looked like rye. The frames of his glasses were held together by Scotch Tape. He wore an unironed, plaid  shirt with mustard stains. Algren seemed like a caricature of one of his own characters.

A guy that I knew, an old beatnik named Bill Smith, who owned a hole-in-the-wall bookstore on North State Street, sat nearby and asked me if I would like to meet the writer he called “Lord Nelson.” Of course I jumped at the opportunity, and so Bill introduced me to him as a nice kid with literary pretensions.

Algren smiled at me knowingly and asked me if I wrote poetry or stories. I felt embarrassed because my entire literary output at that time was a few handwritten poems that I had never shared with anyone. I hardly considered myself a writer at all. I felt that Smith’s hyperbole had put me in an awkward situation with Algren. I reluctantly shared the subject matter of my poems with him, and he said to me to always remember the common man in my future writing.

I wanted to say something of more importance to Algren. Perhaps ask how he now felt about Simone de Beauvior, the French author with whom he had a bittersweet romance for many years.  Maybe I could express my empathy to him about how he got shorted by the Hollywood bigwigs on royalties for the film adaptations of the Man with the Golden Arm and Walk on the Wild Side. But after a half minute of painful silence, Algren turned his attention back to Dottie, while I walked away into the smoke-filled living room looking for a drink.   

 

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