This is probably the first grownup book I ever read, not too long after finishing The Little Engine That Could. In fact, I’m sure it’s the main reason I learned to read. Although the stories were in tiny print, I wanted to know what that tiny print said, because of the pictures.
After a long hiatus, I found the book again, and traced back some of the ways in which I was influenced, as an artist and as a writer, by A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago, this collection of newspaper columns written by Ben Hecht, with art by Herman Rosse. To call that influence profound wouldn’t be an exaggeration.
These vignettes transcend the topical: Hecht wrote for the ages. The preface, by his editor, describes the extraordinary pieces as the fruits of Hecht’s Big Idea –
…the idea that just under the edge of the news as commonly understood, the news often flatly and unimaginatively told, lay life….
It goes on to say that his daily columns “invaded the realm of literature, where in large part, journalism really dwells.” And he produced one of them every day.
Ben Hecht is one of the masters before whom I bow. He proved over and over that you can find a story anywhere, more stories than you’ll ever live long enough to write. He asks a policeman to recall interesting cases, and the policeman modestly demurs, saying he doesn’t really have any. Unless maybe Hecht means something like the man who had a tobacco jar made from a human skull, “and that’s how they found out he killed his wife.”
Hecht could get the essential story out of a person, and divine the defining events of the life. “Life stories are sometimes no longer than a single line–a sentence, even a phrase,” he said. That sounds condescending, doesn’t it? But Werner Erhard said pretty much the same thing. Everyone’s bio can be distilled into one line. “Your life is about……” That’s why geniuses like Hecht write cautionary tales, of people with these cramped, constricted mini-lives–as a way of warning us not to follow their example, if we can possibly help it.
He wrote of the obscure nobodies, trying to fight their way into the light. He saw the atavistic, archaic, and mythic elements beneath the surface of everyday life. He could lay down an atmosphere, like Ridley Scott did for another city in the Bladerunner movie. The urban variety, and the characters Hecht introduced, helped me know how banal my existence was. His reportage set up a template in my head, from which I learned what to look for in a city. It bent me toward wanting to live someplace full of weirdness, which I later did, in Venice, CA. When I went to Chicago, I found it there too. I found it in so many places along the way, because of being taught how to seek it, by this book, at a very young age.
Here’s one way 1001 Afternoons directly affected my life: its writer and illustrator modeled for me a way of assimilating the city that made it bearable. At 20, I spent a lot of time in downtown Buffalo, and thanks to all that Hecht/Chicago imagery that had been planted in my childish head many years before, the metropolis was not as ugly or alienating as it otherwise would have been.
I worked in a 26-story building–just four stories shorter than Rosse’s picture At the end of a wretched day, when everyone else rushed for street level, I’d take the elevator to the top floor and gaze for a while upon the darkening city. I don’t think I’d have had it in me to do this, if not for Hecht and Rosse.
I like the way Hecht would put things in context. For instance, when interviewing a renowned tattoo artist, he learned from the man’s press clippings that–surprise!–this was not a new phenomenon. Back in the late 1890s, skin art had been a wildfire fad among Chicago’s elite. The Americans were “following the lead of New York’s Four Hundred, who followed the lead of London’s most aristocratic circles…” In the early 1920s, when Hecht got around to writing about the tattoo, it was no longer a status symbol, but had become a lower-class kind of thing.
He wasn’t afraid to write experimentally. Except it’s not really an experiment when such a master does it. I wouldn’t hesitate to call this the first gonzo journalism. Although Hecht speaks of himself in the third person, as “the newspaper man,” the approach is unashamedly subjective. His tone could be acerbic, what we might call snarky. His writing has attitude. He certainly combines elements of fact and fiction, with a good deal of embroidery. What he could make, for instance, of a glimpse of a young woman buying a newspaper….
Thoughts from Ben Hecht, while wandering in the rain one night, which is different from daytime rain:
Ideas do not come so easily or so clearly. The ennobling angers which are the emotion of superiority in the iconoclast do not rise so spontaneously. And one does not say “People are this and people are that…”
Hecht listened to and recounted stories from a taxicab driver, an old watchmaker, a manicurist, a Chinese laundry man, a charwoman, a night conductor on the El. He listened to a man who’d traveled all over the world and had nothing to say about it, and a prison guard who says, “They pick me out for the death watch on account I have a way with doomed men.” A death-obsessed young woman. A vendor of roasted chestnuts. A sailor with a wooden leg.
Hecht would hang out with the day laborers waiting to be hired, or check out talent contests in bottom-feeder bars. Sometimes he went to dangerous places and mixed with desperate people. Or he would report on a formal concert in a glittering hall, and note that the admission price was “33 cents, including war tax.” Wonder why he threw that in?
He tells poignant tales from the sales clerk at the 10-cent wedding ring counter, and from the man who won a pig and brought it home to live in a dirt-filled bathtub. He explores the reasons why another man devotes his life to being a juror, and relates the strange and funny saga of the auctioneer’s wife. He conveys the air of bacchanalia in the nightclub that played the blues and catered to race-mixing (remember, this was 1922). He interviews black entertainer Bert Williams about the time Williams found in his dressing room a huge bouquet of flowers from Sarah Bernhardt, and about how Eleanora Duse called him the best artist on the American stage.
In the midst of the city, Hecht managed to meet up with some nomadic Americans or rubber tramps similar to the ones I composed a MySpace page for decades later. All these encounters became part of the furniture of my immature, impressionable brain. There was the snake charmer, the Japanese female impersonator… This was heavy stuff for a little kid who didn’t even have TV. I was warped into a bohemian – by a book.
So, starting young, as a direct result of 1001 Afternoons, I was attracted to mavericks and outcasts. Decades later, this explained why I was fascinated by Alky Bob (who is briefly shown in this movie , occupying a bench on the Venice boardwalk, with the used magazines he sold spread out around him.)
Doll Lady Susan Moscowitz was one whose story I inquired about, following the example of my mentor. She was a boardwalk regular, making her dolls from found scraps, sometimes selling a doll to a tourist. After being widowed once, Susan chose for her second husband a big, strong man who looked like he wouldn’t die any time soon. He became ill with multiple disease processes. He drove his rickety old car around and habitually crashed into things. Living with him became a terrible burden, and then he died, that big, strong man. Susan shook her head over the irony of it, and I knew Ben Hecht was watching and listening from somewhere.
One effect of the book was almost immediate, taking place when I was a kid. I didn’t really hear any cuss words until I was about 14, but had caught on early that there were such words. I remember, as a kid, using “blankety blank” as a substitute for the cuss words of which I was still innocent. That’s a nerd story if I ever heard one.
I see that familiarity with Hecht’s perception filters contributed to my cynicism. He writes of a woman who
…belongs to the type that becomes charitable around Christmas time. She makes a glowing pretense of aiding the poor…she regards the poor as a sort of social and spiritual asset . They afford her the double opportunity of appearing in the eyes of her neighbors as a magnanimous soul and of doing something which reflects great credit upon her character.
In the piece titled “Nirvana,” he writes of one of the
wise, brazen little virgins who shimmy and toddle, but never pay the fiddler. She’s it. Selling her ankles for a glass of pop and her eyes for a fox trot. Unhuman little piece. A cross between a macaw and a marionette.
He reproduces quite a lot of dialogue from a flapper, and now I realize, all over again, why Inserts is a great movie. Because this piece of writing by Ben Hecht was lodged somewhere in my subconscious, I recognized the character Harlene as authentic.
In one piece, a mother is in a courtroom, trying to keep her baby quiet, waiting to know if her older daughter will be charged with prostitution. In another, a woman’s children are taken away by the juvenile authorities, because when her husband died she spent the insurance money on a big funeral for him. Thanks to Hecht, I was sensitized to stuff like this early on, and I can see the results in the things I wrote in college. I’m sure it wasn’t conscious at the time, but looking back, the influence is plain as day.
About an event that happened at lunch with author Sherwood Anderson, Hecht tells a story so strange, you wonder if they clashed over who got the material to use. Hecht must have been tempted to make it into a screenplay. He writes about the magic of a used book shop on a rainy day. He talks about a book scout finding a 30 cent book that turns out to be worth $150, a 75 cent book that fetches $200. Fifty years later I became a book scout and racked up some amazing finds, but nothing that impressive.
“Ill-Humoresque” contains his reflections on a beggar, the same kind of mental exercise I went through so often when I lived in a community full of mendicants. There’s a great exegesis of the psychology of panhandlers and the citizens who donate dimes to them. This is what is meant by the examined life