What We Wished We’d Said

I doubt there is a human being who does not at some later time wish we had said something that we didn’t. I’m not talking about the common fantasies of telling off a former friend or enemy, striking them with our rapier wit that would have cut them down to size after they dared offend us. Those things rarely work satisfactorily, and I can only think of one instance when a much later put-down gave justified satisfaction to the wielder of the word of revenge.

Kurt Vonnegut was humiliated as a senior at Shortridge High School during a custom that allowed faculty members to give “joke presents” to some of the seniors (the ritual was happily discontinued by the time I got to Shortridge.) The football coach had given Kurt, self-described as “an awkward, gangly kid,” a subscription to The Charles Atlas Body Building Course. The teenager felt humiliated in front of his classmates and faculty.

Several decades later, while sipping bourbon by himself in his New York apartment, feeling satisfied as only a writer does after his novel (“Slaughterhouse Five”) is hailed on the front page of The New York Times and becomes an international best-seller, Kurt picked up the phone and asked for the number of that football coach who was still alive. He got him on the line and said simply “This is Kurt Vonnegut, and I doubt if you remember me, but I wanted to tell you my body turned out just fine.”

‘Nuff said.

Few of us can think of the right thing to say on the spot – it took Vonnegut more than 20 years and the confidence of a best-seller to find a great response. Mostly we sputter a curse or two and afterward feel worse than we did before attempting our verbal counter-attack.

On the higher ground of a wish to acknowledge someone, to give a friend or colleague a deserved compliment, we often hold back, wishing later we had said it. One of my missed opportunities occurred when I was sitting on the stage of Clowes Hall with Vonnegut and John Updike in the first “Spirit and Place” event. Updike was saying that many English writers could be counted on to publish a first-class new book every year or so, year after year, but we don’t have any writers like that in America today.

“But we do, John – it’s you!”

That sentence was in my head, but it didn’t come out of my mouth. I truly admired the regularity with which Updike managed to publish a new novel just about every year and a half, and in between the novels, he often came out with a collection of assorted prose or poetry, all of it high quality work.

I hesitated to say it – I don’t know why – maybe fearing I would sound as if I were currying favor or showing off my own professional generosity, but the fact is I did and still do believe he was as good as he was prolific and one of the few American writers of his time to exhibit such qualities.

I wish I had said it, but now it’s too late to tell him. I doubt if it would have made his evening, but it always helps to feel recognized and acknowledged, and it helps the person who recognizes and acknowledges to know that he or she has expressed a heartfelt opinion.

Such dilemmas do not apply only to writers! I wish like the devil I could have opened up and said what I felt to a man who came to a book signing I gave at a Barnes and Noble here in Indy back in the ‘80s. One of my old School #80 classmates came to my reading, and I asked him to have coffee afterwards. He had not only been a classmate, but he had played basketball at my backyard backboard on Winthrop – a breeding ground of future Broad Ripple High School stars!

When I met him years later at that book event, Dick “Itchy” Richardson had become a successful contractor, and he seemed very subdued and quiet. He looked the same – tall, dark-haired, loose-limbed, handsome – but I had the desire to shake him and say, “Hey, Dick – Itchy – you were a great kid! You could make me laugh with your loosey-goosey style, you could send our outdoor basketball games into hysteria when you urged people not to just ‘flick’ – to shoot too much – but to ‘fo-leek,’ which meant to really shoot way too much and do it with no shame, to throw up impossible baskets with glee.” But we both just sat there over our coffee like dodos or department store dummies, being polite, restrained and ‘grown-up.’

When I moved back to Indy four years ago, I asked if you [Dick] were around, knowing this time I would thank you for giving me so much fun and hope I could get your comic spirit going again. I wanted to enjoy the deep-down pleasure of happy hysteria that some people have the gift of passing on to others. I’d shake you until you smiled and the laughs came rolling out, and I could join you in the kind of hysterics that made us fall to the ground. But you had already gone, I was told, and not just left the city but left this life, taking your laughs with you. I had missed my chance to say thanks for lighting and lightening my early life.

At my age, so many people are passing from my chance to thank them that I try to make a point of doing it, especially with people I am no longer able to see very often. When I last visited Boston, I made a point of looking up a man to whom I owed a great deal. I met Robert Manning when I was on a Nieman Fellowship in Journalism at Harvard, and he was editor of The Atlantic Monthly. I wrote a piece he liked and published, and when I ended up living in Boston after the Nieman year, we saw a good deal of one another.

I wrote in a fairly regular way for the magazine, and he made me a Contributing Editor (the title had no salary but gave me the use of a beautiful office overlooking The Boston Public Garden.) One evening in the spring of 1967, Manning was cooking steaks on the grill in the yard of his house in Cambridge, and we both were sipping dry martinis. He spoke of how difficult it was for a monthly magazine to cover the rapidly changing events in the Vietnam war.

“Maybe what we should do,” he mused, “is to send someone around this country to see how the war is affecting us.”

I agreed that was a good idea, and through the charcoal haze of the grilling steaks and the silver sting of the martinis, he asked if I would like to take on that assignment. I didn’t hesitate to say yes. For six months, I traveled throughout the country, talking with all kinds of people about the war. I ended my travels in Washington, D.C., to interview people in government and write what became an entire issue of The Atlantic in March 1968, called “Supernation at Peace and War,” which then was published as a book.

Manning essentially had trusted me with his magazine and his reputation as an editor. The Atlantic had never before devoted a whole issue to a single article and author – a 36-year-old version of me. And I didn’t fail the trust. That issue of the magazine sold out our rival Harpers, and their whole issue was given over to Norman Mailer’s “The Steps of The Pentagon,” later published in book form as “The Armies of the Night.”

When I went to Boston several years ago, Bob had retired with his wife to Cape Cod, but he sometimes came in to spend a few days in their condo in the city. It was there I asked him to lunch. Afterward, we went to his home in Boston’s South End and talked of the old days. After we had reminisced for an hour or so, he asked “Have we covered everything?”
 I said, “No, but there’s one thing left.” “Oh? What’s that?”
 he asked. “I want to thank you,” I said, “for being good to me.”

When you’re young, you think that every opportunity someone gives you is your just due. You later realize it’s because someone has put their faith in you and risked their own reputation to bet on your chance of coming through for them. I wish I could shake the hand of each one who has blessed me in that way, but many are gone. At least I am glad that I said what I wanted and needed to say to Bob Manning, one of the mentors who took a chance on me and who I lived to appreciate and express my thanks.

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The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Who would have dreamed that one of the brightest lights of Southern literature and a California writer of hard-boiled detective novels would become fast friends and establish a loving relationship for the rest of their lives?

That’s what happened when Eudora Welty, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and Ross Macdonald, winner of multiple Edgar awards for best mystery novel and a Grand Master of Mystery Writing, accidentally met at The Algonquin Hotel after exchanging fan letters for their books. They regretted they lived so far apart – she in Jackson, Mississippi, and he in Santa Barbara, California. Macdonald wrote her in consolation, “Meanwhile, there are letters.”

Without this marvelous book of letters (“Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald,” edited by Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan), readers and admirers of those two fine writers and their loving friendship would never be fully known.

I can’t help thinking there will soon be very few books of letters. Can you imagine rushing out to read a book called ’Meanwhile There Are Emails”? (Or better still, “Meanwhile There Are Tweets”?) The only such book I can imagine might be published would be “The Deleted Emails of Hillary Clinton” from her time as Secretary of State.

No matter how talented the writer, an email is just not the format for developing complex moods, landscapes and the insights that grow from meditative writing. One of the most beautiful and profound passages in Welty’s letters develops from her thoughts while going north on the train past Cairo, Illinois, and seeing from the high railroad bridge the place where the Ohio and Mississippi and a small local river come together.

In the sky, a long ragged V of birds flies south with the river: 
“I kept hearing in my head all the way that beautiful word ‘confluence’ – ‘the confluence of the waters’ – everything the eyes could see was like the world happening. . .It may not be so rare, but I thought so then and I think so now – it’s all so rarely the blessing falls.”

What a wonderful concept – those rare times when “the blessing falls,” when we sense a kind of beauty and harmony in life. I doubt that such “blessing falls” in emails, much less Tweets or Instagram posts. We now live in a constant state of Twitter, our attention attacked at every point, fragmented by instant messages, images, apps and Tweets, leaving no space for contemplation, or even at times, it seems, for breathing.

As I lament the loss of letter writing, I confess to my own guilt. I haven’t written what I think of as “a real letter” – words on paper, folded into an envelope, affixed with a stamp and put in a mailbox or taken to the post office – in more than a year. That last letter went to my old minister and friend in Boston, one of the few of even my own lofty age who still writes letters. He even writes them with a pen with his own hand. I haven’t even been able to bring myself to answer by tapping the keys of my computer and printing out a page or two of personal news and thoughts.

A few years ago, a friend from my time in “New York in the Fifties” sent me a packet of letters I had written to him and his wife in the ‘50s and ‘60s. His wife had recently died, and she had saved those letters. My old friend was thoughtful enough to send them to me in a package – the kind of gesture that was made by people who had the time and made the effort to give something of personal value to someone who they knew would appreciate it.

I was amazed when I read the letters I wrote – they were like personal essays, full of news, humor, opinions, questions – nor were mine all that unique. Everyone I knew wrote letters like that. It was an art that seems to be lost. The letters in the marvelous Welty-Macdonald book are letters written in the ‘70s – before the advent of email.

Seven years ago, I was honored to be given the job of finding, assembling and introducing a book of Kurt Vonnegut letters. To tell the truth, I thought it would be pretty easy. All you had to do was go to the archives and track down Vonnegut’s letters and put them in order and write an introductory essay.

Not so fast! Vonnegut didn’t keep copies of any of the letters he wrote. (I knew that firsthand as I once asked him for a copy of a letter of recommendation he had written for me, and essentially he said too bad, that one I sent you is all there is.)

After I tracked down a major batch of letters, which came from a wide variety of archives, writers, friends and family, I had to make choices from more than 500 plus letters to retain the ones that maintained the flow of his life and seemed most relevant to his life and work. After that, more were cut by the publisher.

After writing my personal/professional introduction, I still felt something was missing from the book. I have always been frustrated with books of letters that leave you in the middle feeling lost – where was the writer of the letters at the time he was writing and what was going on in his or her life in the context of any particular letter I was reading?

For the sake of the reader, I wrote an introduction to each decade – from the ‘40s when he wrote his first letter home after being a P.O.W. in World War II to the last decade of his life, “The Two Thousands.”

That decade began with a letter to his daughter Edie, a painter. (Her painting of “Adam and Eve” has been hanging in all of my many living rooms since 1971, from Boston and Los Angeles to Miami and Indianapolis.)

In that letter Kurt wrote to Edie on January 1, 2000, he told about someone sending him a picture of his father, the architect, and noted that “Father, like you, was a good citizen, a founder, among other virtuous activities, of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, one of the best in the world, and designer of a landmark clock at the corner of Washington and Meridian Streets, in the precise corner of town, which intersection was and may still be called ‘The Crossroads of America.’”

He went on to tell Edie that he had been in Indianapolis that past June, “and I walked under that clock, and I looked up at it, and I said out loud ‘Hi, Dad.’”

His last letter in my book was written to a Cornell professor, saying he was unable to come and give a talk at the university. He ended it “But God bless you for being a teacher. . .”

Much of the spirit of the man is in those few lines to his daughter and to the Cornell professor. You can get a deeper and more accurate picture of Vonnegut’s life from reading his letters than from any biography. The letters portray his triumphs and tragedies, his deep loyalties and friendships, from high school pals and sons and daughters to famous writers, and his passionate causes, from defending freedom of speech to pleas for saving the planet, all in his own inimitable voice and style.

Letters say who we are, an identity that can’t be summed up in a Tweet. Try writing a letter today to someone you love! Write it on paper, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it and drop it in a mailbox. You’ll be doing yourself and your friend a favor. I promise to do it myself.

Writer’s Tip: My Columbia Professor C. Wright Mills, the sociologist and author of White Collar and The Power Elite, told me that his own method for breaking through “Writer’s Block” was to write a letter to a friend. In writing a letter, you stop worrying about style, publishing, editorial criticism, and just write in a free, natural way to express yourself. It is the kind of freedom you want for the book or story or article you are working on and have temporarily become blocked on. The letter allows you to “loosen up” and return to the work at hand, knowing you are indeed a writer – you have just written, and proved it to yourself!

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Little Things Mean A Lot

I was living in Greenwich Village in 1959 when I first heard Joni James sing “Little Things Mean A Lot,” and the title as well as some of the lyrics of the song  have stuck with me ever since (“Say I look nice when I’m not. . .”) When I moved back to Indy in 2011 I lived downtown, and I knew no one in the neighborhood. Most of the people in my building were in their twenties, and no one ever spoke to me. They must have thought I was The Ghost of Christmas Past. The Borders Bookstore downtown had just closed and was sitting there empty, which was depressing to look at or to walk by. A city without a bookstore downtown seems like a city without a soul. (When IndyReadsBooks opened a year later on Mass. Ave, I felt a great wave of relief – it was like the Cavalry had arrived (with books) and saved the day.)

I didn’t know any of the local stores or the people who worked in them, but three people who work downtown made me feel at home. They didn’t do it by rolling out a red carpet or performing a song and dance of welcome, but simply by smiling, acting friendly, and being helpful above and beyond the call of duty.  (None of them, by the way, said “Have A Good Day,” the rote words that sound as if someone has put a nickel in a machine and got a recording, or even worse, asked me “How Is Your Day?” or “How is Your Morning?” to which I want to answer “None of your business!”

The first crucial person in my downtown Indy re-settlement was Michelle at Marsh Pharmacy. Trying to find my way through the Kafka-like corridors of IU Health, I was relieved and grateful to meet a pharmacist who could answer my medical questions – and actually smile! She even remembered who I was when I returned! When I call to ask her a question on the phone I am never told she can’t talk to me because she’s “In Clinic,” like the doctors at IU Health. (Someday I want to see their “Clinic” – I picture it as a vast laboratory with gurgling test tubes, something like the realm of Dr. Frankenstein.)

Michelle Olin Pettronzio reminds me in spirit of my pharmacist father, whose patron/patients at Harbison’s (later “Wakefield’s) Drugstore at 16th and Central (now obliterated) called him “Doc.” He knew them all by their name and ailments, and treated them with his Southern Gentlemanly courtesy as well as his pharmaceutical knowledge. Though I moved from downtown, I still keep one of my prescriptions at the Marsh on Vermont Street so I will have an excuse to stop by and say hello to Michelle, who is known and appreciated by current and former neighbors who always light up when I mention her name.

In my years of living on Beacon Hill in Boston, I was introduced to the manager of what then was The Shawmut Bank on the corner of Beacon and Charles, Mr. Thomas Trahan, by my publisher, Seymour Lawrence, whose own office was around the corner at 90 Beacon Street. (Talk about an all-service neighborhood!)  It was always a pleasure to trade observations and neighborhood gossip with Mr. Trahan, who sometimes at Christmas invited me and Sam Lawrence to ride around the block with him in a limo he rented for the holidays and join him in a glass of champagne. After Mr. Trahan retired, there were a series of great Branch managers, and despite the bank morphing into different Bank names and ownerships, the tradition of friendly service continued – though the limo and champagne at Christmas was retired with Mr. Trahan. Finally, the bank branch itself was retired, another knife in the spirit of the neighborhood before it became a giant pied-a-terre for millionaire/billionaires.

When I moved to Miami, I soon found that anyone hoping to open a bank account was regarded as a criminal. It was understandable, given the city’s history (when federal troops were sent in to try to control the rival drug gangs, Time magazine featured Miami in a 1981 cover story with the words “Paradise Lost.”) Although the drug gangs were at least moved out of the public eye by the ‘nineties, the suspicious attitude of  bank employes toward customers never seemed to change.

When I asked a friend to recommend a bank when I moved to Indy, he suggested I try a Credit Union. I first tried the one closest to where I lived, which was The Firefighters Credit Union, but was told I had to be a Firefighter to have an account. While walking around The Circle I noticed The Forum Credit Union. It must have been my lucky day, for when I walked in, the first person I saw behind a desk was Pamela Obegi. She was not only pleasant, but also tolerant of my banking ignorance (I flunked Algebra I at Shortridge, and have never recovered.) Unlike the bank employees I encountered in Miami, she did not seem to suspect me of criminal activities, and was happy to open a checking and savings account for me.

During the time I’ve lived here, Mrs. Obegi has answered all my questions, and even helped me through a computer crisis. I had booked a hotel reservation for Miami to visit my God Daughter, but it turned out there was a hotel with the same name in Bangkok, and of course I had managed to mistakenly make my on-line reservation for Bangkok. I ran to the bank, trusting that Mrs. Obegi could cancel my travel to Thailand and secure my hotel room in Miami. This had nothing to do with my bank accounts (although left to my own devices I would probably have lost the money for a mistaken reservation halfway around the world.) Mrs. Obegi saved me from my computer ineptitude with her calm efficiency and a smile. (Having just saved my day, she did not need to ask me “how my day was going.”)

The least likely place to encounter someone who makes you feel welcome in a new city and neighborhood is the Dry Cleaners. Because it was convenient, I took my cleaning to Tuchman’s, which then was located across the street from my apartment, in the same parking area as the Marsh Grocery Store and Pharmacy. The manager there, Ashley Ballard, made sure my blue jeans were pressed just the way I wanted, and was quietly pleasant to talk with. I learned she had a pre-K daughter and was soon on the way to having another. Since my own God Daughter was now a teenager in Miami, I enjoyed getting little Christmas presents for Ashley’s daughters, which made it seem more like Christmas. When Tuchman’s moved to a less convenient location I faithfully took my cleaning there until Ashley left for a job with the City – a blow to Tuchman’s which I  wonder if they can survive.

When I moved to my old neighborhood of Broad Ripple in 2013, not a single one of my childhood haunts remained – Lobraico’s Drugstore, Vonnegut’s Hardware, Gene’s Pure Oil Service Station, The White House record store (for 78rpms, complete with a “listening booth”), Danner’s Dime Store, Von Burg’s Drive-In (best tenderloins in town) – all were gone. The Vogue was still there, but it was no longer a movie theatre, and its entertainment bore no relation to the place where I spent the Saturday afternoons of my childhood watching a newsreel, a serial, a cartoon, and a movie double-feature. What I found just as shocking and no less dis-heartening was that Broad Ripple now called itself a “Village.” When I was growing up, we were satisfied to live in a great neighborhood. I wondered if becoming a “Village” meant that elves had moved in, but I have yet to spot any green-clad little people with pointy shoes dancing on Winthrop, Guilford or Carrollton.

I had moved to my old neighborhood from my downtown apartment to find a place with an extra bedroom for my God Daughter Karina while she lived here and went to Harrison College to become a Veterinary Assistant. I rented one side of a double with two bedrooms only a block or so from the house where I lived from age five to fifteen (it was also a double, and my Grandma Irene-y lived on the other side with my cousin “Junior” (Clayton E. Ridge, Jr.)

Karina needed a part-time job, and one day walking home from the Post Office I saw a “Help Wanted” sign in the window of “A Taste of Havana,” the Cuban sandwich shop on Broad Ripple Avenue. I rushed home and told Karina to hurry down there and apply – as a Cuban-American citizen who is fluent in Spanish, she was surely qualified.

If ever a job was made in heaven, this was it. What were the odds of my God Daughter from Miami finding a job in my old Broad Ripple neighborhood that was owned by a Cuban-American man and his daughter? Best of all, George Mireles and his daughter Diana were wonderful people to work with – and on top of that they make and serve good food! I became a regular diner at “A Taste of Havana,” and although I’ve moved a few miles away in “Sobro,” I walk back there every Friday for the Shrimp and Rice Special, my favorite as a vegetarian – though they also have a veggie sandwich that’s the only one of its kind I’ve tried in the city that actually has a taste. I go on other days for the Borracho (drunken) Pinto Beans soaked in beer, over yellow rice. Sometimes I go there just to feel good.  I smile when I read their poster that says “No Wi-Fi. Call your mother. Talk to each other. Pretend it’s 1993!”  George takes genuine pleasure in making sure the customers are happy, giving out free shots of Cuban coffee after every meal, claiming its superiority over the Italian brew.

When I want to go out, I now have places for every time of day where I feel at home – Moe and Johnny’s Coffeehouse in the morning, The Red Key Tavern at night, and “A Taste of Havana” for lunch, brunch, or just a break any time for a home-made coconut flan with a cortadito – a cup of the rich Cuban coffee that will warm your heart, along with George’s laugh and Diana’s smile.

This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of the Broad Ripple Magazine.

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Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield