The History of
How I became a Professor
When I undertook as lawyer to collect and arrange the papers of the estate of Mr. William Miller, I had no idea that I would be involved in a work of what is called 'creative writing', and was initially dismayed by the prospect of doing more than arranging his various boxes of paperwork. But as I looked into the interesting life of this usual man, who had retired at an advanced age from a distinguished career as scholar and teacher at a prominent University, I saw there was more to be done in studying the background of this unusual man.
Now involved in unraveling the myth of this man's development, I find an unusual connection to his past, to his lineage and also a certain unclear parallel to his Uncle Albert, who will be the subject of this part of the saga. It would seem at first that the uncle and his nephew had little in common. But a strong dislike of authority, of unconventional behavior and of what we like to call normal social development is apparent in each. Without stressing the similarities, I offer this chapter on the history of Dr. William Miller as an insight into the development of three generations of Americans, while at the same time acknowledging that part of the writing and the stylistics do come from the pen of Aaron Seligmann of the former firm of Seligmann Schwarz & Miller, Attys.
In any matter of high importance, it is necessary to go back to origins so that we can follow the thread of effects upon the chain of subsequent events. It seems proper to trace the origins of Mr Albert Moskowitz back to the history of his parents, then look sidewise at this sister and family people, follow his development as a Young Man in l920 America and trace his various sources of earnings and employment, after which we can much later return to the critical moment of his young nephew then at an impressionable age looking through the plate glass window of a used book storefront, with results that would determine the tenor and course of his life.
This historical investigation begins in the year l861 when Samuel Moskowitz, a youth who had just left the Austro-Hungarian Empire where his people were tolerated only if they had good business connections and paid their royal taxes annually, was stepping off a ship at Ellis Island in the city of New York to seek a new life in America. His first business was finding his way with papers in hand to a recruitment office, where he presented himself as replacement in the Union army for the gentleman who had paid boat fare over from Europe. There are only a few military records surviving, which describe him as a tall man in good health who enlisted and was later duly discharged from the army, but there are no entries about his military records or any action in the field, and in the years after the war we find no public records of his life or of his occupation.
But twenty years later he reappeared in small notices in the newspapers as an inventor of ingenuity and inventiveness, having had sold a patent for air brakes on trains to Westinghouse and another patent on a rotary shuttle to Singer. Some years later his family still had papers on a patent for closing off airtight sections of ships to make them unsinkable, an idea which spread to vessels worldwide but failed to save the Titanic in 1912. This was in the days when companies bought patents outright for a sum without benefit or residuals to the inventor, but this was of little concern to Samuel since by the 'eighties he owned a haute couture business in New York which had become famous for its elegant ladies' fashions.
He went to Paris twice a year for the newest fashions. His business catered to the wives of politicians and wealthy businessmen, furnishing designs which were always in style and always in demand. In the last years of that century he was established as a prosperous businessman, a gentleman with a fine appearance, distinguished dress and manners, and only a dim memory of his first wife who had not survived an earlier epidemic of the flu. Now in his sixties and thinking of the comforts of family life, he was mildly interested in a change from his bachelor way of life, but he was in no hurry.
In that same period another family had emigrated from central Germany, and was now prospering in the spirit of the new American democracy. When it had become clear that young Willi Cohen would be conscripted in the German army at the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War, the family uprooted itself from Frankfurt and moved on to the New World. In short order the older sisters Cecilia and Helena were filling out forms at Ellis Island for themselves and their young brother, while other relatives were engaging passage to Australia where they went never to be heard from again. Willi had been clever in school with a taste for numbers, and after a few years became part owner of the leather goods house "Cohen and Frankel, Wholesalers" with offices in New York and San Francisco. His sister Cecilia married early, while Helena worked in the office as head of Accounts. Not having planned to marry, she suddenly found with some surprise that she had just turned forty.
She had been spending a Saturday afternoon in the city, eyeing new fashions in the windows of the elegant stores on Fifth Avenue, and was just about to leave the finest boutique on the avenue and return home for a quiet evening at the fireplace, when Samuel Moskowitz stepped up to with a gentlemanly flourish to open the door for her. She smiled, they talked a moment and walked together down the avenue chatting as if they had known each other for years, until they reached her brownstone house and said goodbye. Impressed by her hearty good looks and well bred manners, he called on her later that week and again the following week and finally made up his mind.
--- I hope you do not think this too sudden Lena, but I would like to ask you to marry me. It may be a little late for both of us, but I think it will be good. This may be a surprise, perhaps you would like to think it over. You can take your time.
She knew she did not have to think it over, but at the same time did not want to seem too eager, so she waited a few minutes, before saying:
They were married the next month. A daughter was born on the first day of the fifth month of the following year, and appropriately named May.
Samuel had not thought of having a new family in his older years. He was initially charmed by little May, perhaps less by her brother Albert coming along two years later. But the family was comfortable and now well housed in a new brick house in the suburbs on fashionable 125th Street, where life was conducted in proper style with the usual Victorian furnishings, a tree in the back garden and a square Steinway for May to practice on when she was older. The children were enrolled in good schools, there was a succession of immigrant German girls who worked as housemaids until they found a suitable husband, and German was quite naturally the first language of the house. There was a charming portrait of May at age ten, done in oils by an eccentric Hungarian painter Miss Bayliss who may have been a remote relative of the family from the old country. As a child May played in the garden afternoons with little Blanche, the blond and frail daughter of her Aunt Cecilia, while Albert would swing endlessly on a board seat hung by ropes from the great oak tree.
Understanding her husband's mild displeasure at the second child, Lena lavished special attention on young son Albert, who became from his earliest days a devoted and loving mama's boy. From the age of ten he was somehow different from the other boys. His father was tall and distinguished in appearance, he had a spare and muscular body, deep set eyes, aquiline features and a fine head of hair turned gray which he kept trimmed and short. Albert was growing to be of a similar build, even as a boy he was tall and in later life he was several inches over six feet. He had his father's strong features and would have been considered a fine looking boy who should have become a handsome man.
But as people compared Albert to his father Samuel, they saw that he was of an entirely different cast. If Samuel walked strongly and erect even in old age, Albert slumped and slouched as if uneasy with his stature. Samuel was a careful and elegant dresser, as was suitable to his haute couture business, while Albert was entirely thoughtless of what clothes he wore and how he looked. There was no question about Albert being Samuel's son, one look sufficed to confirm his pedigree, but a second look made the differences clearly apparent.
These differences extended from stance and dress to matters of mind and personality, and became more pronounced with the passing years. Eventually it was asked if this discrepancy between the father and son was fortuitous or caused by some external factor. Life in the city in those days was complicated by changes in modes of transportation, by new ways of living and earning a living, and most significantly by the introduction of electricity in its various forms throughout the city. Could there have been some external force to have changed Albert's manner away from his father's inheritance? And if so what could that external factor have possibly been?
It was at that point in the late years of the 19th century that electricity was appearing in the cities to replace the gas which had been lighting homes and streets for decades. As often happens, there were two views about this new energy, which came through wires on poles rather than the usual pipes under the street. Thomas Edison had championed Direct Current electricity which he had been using for years with his electric lighting system and he was adamantly opposed to George Westinghouse's claims for Alternating Current as a more effective form of electricity. Westinghouse and Edison were inescapably opposed to each other's scheme, and their confrontation was described by the educated gentry of the city as a contest between a wild Achilles and a familial Hector, drawn up in line of battle to fight to the death.
Edison maintained that alternating current was dangerous to human life because a charge of current through the body to a ground could kill a person in seconds. Moreover a person gripping an A.C. wire was prevented by muscular contraction from releasing the grip, while a D.C. shock repelled the hand from the wire. Alternating current won out in time, but the lower part of the city was still tied to the direct current coming from Edison's downtown plant. If you lived downtown you might still have the direct current, but if uptown it would surely be the alternating variety, and the Moskowitz family were in fact living uptown.
It was remembered in the family that when Albert was about eleven years old, he had been taking a bath in one of the cast iron tubs common in that day. Since it was late afternoon and the sunlight was beginning to fade, he was thought to have reached up to the dangling bulb on its electric wire to give the bulb a twist. Nobody knew the exact moment in which his hand touched the fixture, but he was found collapsed beside the bathtub a few minutes later and it was thought by some that he had suffered an electric shock.
Those who made this supposition were convinced that from the moment of contact, young Albert Moskowitz was not the same boy and the shock had somehow rearranged the connections in his brain. Physically he had the same uncoordinated and slumping way of walking as before, his speech was not noticeably affected although his school learning did seem slightly slower. But there was no question about the fact that something had happened and that he was somehow changed.
Since Albert was not a quick learner there seemed little reason for him to stay long at school, and the surviving records show that he was no longer registered as a student after the age of fourteen. His first job was at the Edison Electric plant on 12th Street which to some who recalled the bathtub incident, seemed a curious turn in the direction of a short circuit. But to Albert it may have looked like a good chance to get in early on the growing electrical industry. At first he was assigned to sweeping the floor in the offices, later he was moved to the room with the large D.C. generators, where the acrid smell of ozone produced by sparking commutators made his nose run, necessitating a handkerchief in each back pocket of his company uniform. It was this annoyance which finally drove Albert to seek a more amicable trade.
His next stop was at a shop which prepared racing car motors, where his experience with the broom made him a valued member of the staff for several years. He later told about various visits of the racing driver Louis Chevrolet, who came in every once in a while to check the development of one of the cars he was scheduled to drive on the famous Long Island Raceway. Louis Chevrolet was no grease fingered mechanic. Quite to the contrary when he came to the shop he was a perfectly groomed gentleman in a white suit with a Panama hat which he handed to the secretary who accompanied him, while he adjusted with two fingers the carburetor on a fast revving engine. When it ran to his satisfaction he wiped his fingers on a clean rag, reached for his hat telling the chief engineer to carry on and walked to the door where a uniformed driver was waiting for him in a black sedan. It was from M. Chevrolet's perfectly adjusted bowtie on his white starched shirt, that the Chevrolet Car Company took its famous bowtie logo in 1913. Albert asked M. Chevrolet for his autograph, which was found among Albert's papers many years later, apparently saved as a precious reminder of his days in the automotive industry. Oh! that incomparable racing driver, gentleman Louis Chevrolet!
In 1917 Chevrolet was absorbed into GM as a separate division and Albert Moskowitz, who had by now renamed himself Albert Moss in the interest of his business career, had graduated from sweeping floors to become Collector of Mechanics' Handrags to go to the laundry. But the grease and oil redolent rags aggravated Albert's nose more and more, so he decided to search for a cleaner line of employment again. During the Great War there was a shortage of cotton then in high demand for surgical dressings, and a new material called CelluCotton was being produced as a substitute. This came to be used in the gas mask filters assembled in a plant in Long Island City where Albert had just applied for a job. At first they employed him in the gas mask assembly line but since he was slow and often failed to attach the labels in the proper place, they thought to try him out in the gas mask Testing Division. Albert was pleased with this promotion until he was sent into a windowless room with a mask over his head and these instructions.
"Push the red button if you have trouble with your breathing. Do not remove the mask from your head or try to breathe from around the tube which is inserted into your mouth. If you feel faint, sit on the floor with your head between your knees until the door is opened. Do not call out in alarm since that defeats the operation of the gas masks."
The masks were still in the testing stage and Albert did have trouble breathing exactly as they had expected. But the promotion did carry a fifteen cents a hour raise, and he was proud to be involved in the war effort without having to go so far as to sign up as the Uncle Sam poster was advising. So he stayed a few months before giving up and seeking, on his mother's advice, a less life-threatening occupation.
--- Albert, you have to take better care of yourself, if you don't nobody else will. Listen to your mother, Albert, and promise to . . .
He promised. But deciding to follow the line of the fluffy CelluCotton which the gas masks had been using, he applied for a job in a company using this material experimentally for a disposable tissue designed to replace the handkerchief. The idea of a paper tissue for wiping off cosmetics was soon extended into a general purpose two-ply tissue which the world would soon come to know as the ubiquitous Kleenex. Albert was delighted at the idea of working in a handkerchief plant, which would be clean and odorless. The work was light and not dangerous, but after a year of contented occupation with the company, a problem arose from an unexpected quarter.
He kept a cloth handkerchief in each back pocket in case of emergency from a chance sneeze or a runny nose. He had never thought of using one of the new CelluCotton products to replace the nicely washed and folded ones his mother laid out for him each morning. But one day he thought to himself:
--- You know, why don't I put a couple of the paper tissues in my back pocket and leave the handkerchiefs at home? Everyone else carries a handkerchief in his back pocket, but that doesn't mean that I have to do the same. What if I put a paper tissue there, I wonder how it would work out. A very interesting thought!
This said, he decided to give it a try. For a while he was pleased with this personal experiment. It was true that the tissue was soft and absorbent, not exactly like cotton but pretty good overall, and they said that it was very cheap to make. But it was not long before he had second thoughts. A cotton handkerchief could be washed and be as good as new the next day, but the paper one was good only for one sneeze. This brought him straight up against the dangerous word WASTE , a concept he had never considered but now suspected of being a minor kind of personal sinfulness.
In the end he spent more time at the plant thinking about the inherent wastefulness of disposable tissues than affixing labels, packing the boxes and stacking them on the delivery cart. He now began to see signs of waste everywhere, in the stores, in restaurants, in the streets and in the general habit of throwing away everything that was old in favor of something that was spotlessly brand new. He did not realize the direction that this was to take him until the next year, when without putting a name on it, he began to become a serious advocate of sparingness as an antidote to wastefulness, finally arriving at the point of compulsive stinginess. Albert was by now well on the way to becoming a full fledged and professional Miser.
Being careful not to buy much, and at the same time to preserve carefully what he had bought, the Miser might seem to the world a smart man who is financially conservative. But there will be more to it than this. The miser will go to a Chinese restaurant and after reluctantly paying for his dinner, he will remember to take home the chopsticks while leaving the standing waiter no tip. Or he will stuff a handful of paper napkins from the hamburger stand into his pocket and back at home he will stack them away in the closet with his other paper supplies for a rainy day.
The years are passing along, but all this time his mother has been putting into an account in her son's name at the Corn Exchange Bank on Main Street small sums which she can divert from household expenses, and on the death of her husband in nineteen twenty five she decided to add several thousand dollars to the Savings Account, which her brother advises converting into municipal bonds for a safe and steady flow of interest. This allows Albert to be, in his own mind, a self-employed gentleman of some means. Now freed from the tyranny of a factory routine, no longer affronted by the wasteful habits of his fellow workers, he can plan the course of his life on his own financial chart, on which there will be minimal daily losses balanced by small but steady increments. But since the same dollar is worth a little less each year, there must be some means of expanding its value, and that suggests going into some modest kind of business as a self-employed entrepreneur.
In order to start himself on this road, Albert reluctantly withdrew some funds from the Corn Exchange and went about town looking for the best buy in a used car as a key investment for his new life as a self-employed salesman. The Ford Model A was by now considered archaic beside the eight cylinder models which had been flooding the market since 1932, so he guessed there could be clever bargaining there for a man with a sharp pencil. And so with a roll of bills in his pocket Uncle Albert went about town preparing to purchase a used vehicle.
After weeks of haunting the used car lots, he finally settled on a salesman's coupe with small cab and large storage space at the rear. He was about to make the purchase, the cash was already in his hand, when he became nauseated at the thought of counting those hard earned bills into the hand of the smiling salesman at the lot. He went to the bathroom, splashed some cold water on his face and composed himself sufficiently to go back to the office. Saying apologetically that he was feeling better now, he went ahead with the purchase and drove away, the proud if somewhat nervous owner of a used Ford driving machine.
Behind this was a well thought out plan. The first stage was to purchase some of the large black Masonite suitcases that salesmen use to carry their product, then load them up with minor items of distressed merchandise from Army-Navy stores which were going out of business, or from Five-and-Dimes dropping unsold lines as they upgraded their stock. There were always odd trinkets and outdated Christmas decorations being scrapped in the heat of July, always something cheap or possibly free to be found as Albert went about making his regular collections.
After months of preparing, he was ready for his first expedition. It was October and he knew the cold weather was due to come in soon. Watching the birds go South for the winter to a warmer and more friendly world, Albert made a plan for his own migration, and was soon seen heading down the two-lane US #1 from New Jersey through Virginia past the Carolinas through Georgia and at last into Florida as his ultimate destination.
Traveling on that same road was the usual crowd of fast-driving wintertime tourists motoring south to arrive at the great hotels at Miami Beach by the sea, where they could sunbathe on the beaches lapped white by the waving waters of the smiling tropical ocean waves. Albert was driving along with them on that very same highway, but here as in all other things in life, he was traveling on a very different road. Here was no thoughtless tourist, here was a serious man with a serious purpose.
He headed toward the inner parts of Florida with their small towns on the edge of the alligator breeding waterways. These were places which had never seen the open trunk of a city salesman's car with its enticing display of garish and glittering goods. Here among old and young alike was a demand for novelties, there were whole families of impulse buyers on that rural ten cent market, there were also cautious old men who would look but never part with a dime, but there were also suckers galore.
And so, for many years Mr. Albert Moss the traveling salesman from up north went from town to town in the back country of Florida over to coastal towns of Mississippi, traveling at ease in the warmth of the summer air while the North was gripped in the icy blast of inescapable weather. He was enjoying an easy life in the sunshine and selling everything from imitation leather wallets and key rings with celluloid tabs showing diminutive pictures of nude ladies, fountain pens which would not hold ink, or sandals guaranteed to come apart in less than the first mile. After closing the trunk of his car on a late afternoon Albert would go down the road a safe ten miles to avoid the notice of local police who were always asking him to show permission to sell in their town, and the next day he would be on to a new town and a new set of eager faces whom he would never have to see again. This was the gift that ownership of a Ford car could give a man, it meant freedom from nine to five hours and a chance to see the world. This was for him a proper life - - - on the road!
But when summer warmed and temperature rose above the hundred mark, and the radiator was starting to huff and to puff and give signs of serious overheating, then it was time to head back to the cool weather of the North in order to rest up in a period of seasonal recuperation from his labor. This was the time to be careful with expenditures, to live cheaply while keeping an eye out for next year's products for his southern clientele.
The years passed, Albert was now middle-aged, his hair had gone gray and he walked with a little more stoop. He knew his car was not welcome parked behind his sister's house, but Sidney said it was OK because after a few months Albert would be off again and out of their way for the year. The Ford was parked over her protests behind the house, close against the concrete wall at the far side of the service alley, with a padlock on the trunk to secure valuable merchandise from prying fingers. The car could rest there in rain and snow until the tires deflated into the springtime mud, when he pumped them up again, poured in some fresh gasoline and was again heading down Route One to his destiny.
This way of life continued for many years. The car did what was expected of it with very few repairs, until one day in a remote part of the Florida hinterlands, it suddenly stopped. He knew by long years of dealing with Ford garages whose business was based more on charging than on repairing, that since it was far from any towing garage or parts depot, repairs would be costly. Sensing that the car had reached its last days, Albert unloaded his black salesman's boxes, pushed the car off the edge of the road into the alligator infested swamp of the Everglades, and watched it slowly sink into the water as he waited by the side of the road for a ride. This was the end of the Florida expeditions, Albert knew that this phase of his life was over. He was satisfied he had got off scot-free without having to buy a new motor, and as it turned out he never had another car and he never left the city again.
With the car gone and the door to business opportunities closed, Albert lost his sense of the future. He became resigned to living in the same cheap downtown room because it was conveniently near to the same stores and the same cheap restaurants and the same groceries, and his life now took on a gray and unchanging hue. He had a small income from the bonds from his mother's will, a bit larger than his calculated expenses, so his situation was now being confirmed as that of a waste-less and economically minded professional Miser.
During the winter months he was regularly invited to family dinner, but knowing that he was expected to bring something, he was sorely perplexed by the choice of a proper gift. He usually ended bringing a paper bag hiding a quart bottle of fifty cent wine, a beverage much preferred for its price and strength by those who lived on the Bowery. He felt he really could not afford to spend more but since something was required he figured he did was doing the best he could under the circumstances. Of course May was furious and told Sidney not to open the bottle, she said leave it downstairs for the coal man who might like it and take it away.
Every time Albert came to dinner there was a heated discussion about his suit, which over the winter months was getting progressively more gray. May insisted that he get it dry cleaned before he came to dinner next week, he promised he would, but protested that getting a suit dry-cleaned too often was known to shorten its life. After all, one couldn't go on buying a suit every couple of years; that would be completely unthinkable, Albert said to himself.
The table in the dining room was just large enough for four, and was laid out with mother's chair near the door to the kitchen, the nephew Billy was seated opposite her across the table, with Dad to the left and Albert to the right. Such was the regular family arrangement at dinner and the four matching dining room chairs around the table were quite sufficient, unless there were a guest.
When Albert arrived at the house his nephew would be the first to answer his knock at the door. He was now eleven and full of deviltry, he had become master of the tricks which kids play on each other, and what could be more natural than to try some of them on his unsuspecting uncle? Offering a cheery hello with a plastic carnation on his jacket connected to a water-bulb r in his pocket, he had learned with practice to hit his mark in the eye, and Uncle fell for the trick several times before he learned to dodge. At the dinner table he had slipped under Albert's plate a rubber tube connected on the other end to a bulb hanging off the side of the table. Just as Uncle reached with a fork for piece of meat, the plate gave a jiggle. At first Albert thought there was something wrong with his eyes and asked May for the name of a good optometrist who didn't charge too much. Sidney told him after dinner about the trick and Albert said this would have been a good thing to sell kids for a quarter if he were still on his Florida route.
But Albert also knew about stuff of this kind from the toy and trick stores off Times Square and had a few things of his own. His best one was a little wind-up device held by a finger ring in the palm of his hand which released with a twitching whirr on a handshake. But Billy paid him back for this at the next Sunday dinner with a wire from a Ford coil connected to a six volt battery under the table. For years his sister had told Albert not to put his elbows on the table at dinner, it seemed in vain. But after he got a healthy shock to the ulnar nerve at the tip of his right elbow, he must have retained a subconscious memory of that shock, because he never put his elbows on the table again.
Uncle Albert was especially fascinated by magician's tricks and sleight of hand. He had various card tricks which he tried on Billy, asking him to select a card and return it to the pack which he shuffled twice. Lo and behold, he advised with a smile, holding out the pack:
--- Billy pick any card, I will put it back and shuffle and when you pick a card again you will see it's same card you had before.
But it was never the same card, and Albert said he must have done something wrong, so he tried a few times more until Billy got tired of the game but said it was the same card, just so he could go and do something else. Albert liked the disappearing coin trick which he had practiced long hours in his room with a half dollar, rolling it around from the palm to make it disappear between the middle fingers. Thinking he had the trick perfected, he was trying it out before dinner on the back porch in preparation for demonstrating it to his admiring nephew. Somehow he fumbled with the coin which slipped out of his hand to the floor, but the family dog saw it and was instantly standing over it, threatening with a toothy grin as if daring Albert to come and try to get it.
--- Sidney, would you come over here and get the half dollar for me, the dog has it and won't let me pick it up.
May told him that Sidney was taking a nap and would help when he got up, so Albert sat waiting impatiently on the swinging sofa on the porch while Skippy kept a watchful eye on the coin which he had no intention of relinquishing.
Such was the relationship between an idiosyncratic uncle Albert and his young nephew in the formative stages of his life. The boy was in fact not like any other boy on the street, just as the uncle was different from ordinary uncles of ordinary eleven year old boys. But the boy would always remember Albert as a very interesting Uncle because he was completely unlike anyone else he knew. His oddities made him unpredictable, so there was always something new to discover. But there was another dimension to Uncle Albert which very few people knew and none could possibly have understood. He had a curious habit of phonetically mutating words, altering the sounds while keeping the words somehow attached in a phrase or a sentence, and introducing them as clever surprises in a conversation.
Of course Mother was furious at this lack of proper communication; she was convinced her brother had become mentally impaired in some unaccountable fashion.. But Billy found Albert's words and curious phraseology interesting and he wrote down a few examples in his school notebook to show to his English teacher. A word like 'hospital' could be transformed by Uncle Albert into a veterinary 'horsespital'. The act of 'suicide' might turn up as 'sewer side', with a 'connoisseur' unexpectedly transformed into a 'corner sewer'.
A dozen such transformations would pop up in the course of an evening's conversation, but these were not errors or the wanderings of an idle mind. Albert smiled as he uttered each fresh neologism, he knew they were clever inventions and he was sure that they would be received as very amusing. But what was amusing to some could be annoying to others, and May was continually asking him to speak proper English and not go on fooling around with his strange words, which she felt were simply mistakes. Some of the mutant words would relate to daily life, other to politics, others were arcane and nobody knew what they meant, or if they had any meaning at all. But Albert knew what he was doing, it was all intentional and there was nothing random about the process.
Billy showed his notes about his Uncle's various word transformations at school to Mr. Brubecque who had a Freudian tendency to slip a word into some new form every once in a while. He asked him to write out a copy since he wanted to show them to a friend who was into the writing of an avant garde author named James Joyce. The friend had an under the counter copy of Ulysses printed in Paris in 1922, which he said was forbidden for import to the States because of mutant vocabulary and in one section the iterative use of the word "yes" in a clearly sexual sense. He made the book available to fellow enthusiasts of new trends in literature, inviting a group over Sunday evenings for readings from various authors' new work. Mr. Brubecque brought the notes with Albert's wordings to this Sunday literary sťance and asked if anyone had seen anything like that in modern writing.
They all smiled and said that Joyce was doing something of that kind in a few journal studies, sketches for the much anticipated Finnegan, which promised advanced twisting and turning of the English vocabulary. There had been questions raised about Joyce's sanity, else why would a sane man make his words incomprehensible in the writing of a novel he expected people to read? Isn't writing supposed to be an act of communication after all? But this writing was interesting to many people because it was so new and different. Maybe the boy's uncle had a shred of the same fabric in his noggin, this group of literary amateurs finally concluded.
Mr. Brubecque told him to keep track of his uncle's utterances which he would like to discuss with his friends in future meetings, but not to worry. There was no reason to suspect a derangement in his uncle's mind, since these words were evidence of a quirk, not of a disease. And who knows what kind of writing is coming to be appreciated in the next generation, it might be that the uncle was simply ahead of his time. He was relieved to know his uncle was all right, a conclusion that his mother would never have been prepared to accept. But he let it go at that, glad to know that there were people like Mr. Brubecque and his pals who liked Uncle Albert's vocabulary, possibly because they were also more than a little odd.
Miss Bayliss had been a painter in Hungary in her youth. She found herself transplanted at the turn of the century to New York where she found people who wanted a portrait of a son or daughter painted in oils in the tradition of the European artists. Samuel Moskowitz had commissioned her to do a portrait of his daughter May at age of fourteen. Now Miss Bayliss was very serious about her work, and when she discovered a few years later a crack appearing in the hardening oil somewhere under May's chin, she knew it was her responsibility to visit and see that it was properly repaired. A touch of gesso was worked under the crack, then colors had to be mixed to get exactly the right match with the aged pigments on the canvas, and an hour later she had completed the repair to her satisfaction, just in time to join the family at dinner.
She had always come to the house in the city on 125th St. to do her repair and when they moved to the suburbs, she followed their migration. One bright October afternoon she was as usual sitting there on the stoop exactly at the hour of four waiting for the family to come home. She was welcomed and after she had set out her box of oils and finished her work, she was invited and reluctantly agreed to stay for dinner. So another chair was brought from the bedroom and placed on Billy's side of the table so that May and Miss Bayliss could chat about the old days when they were younger. Later Sidney offered to drive her to the train station, but she said that the walk would do her good, and she waved goodbye as she walked to the street, reminding herself to remember an October afternoon in the coming year.
Sidney was drying dishes for May in the kitchen that evening, they were both still thinking of Miss Bayliss and what a strange little woman she was, when he put the cloth down and paused as if he were searching for an elusive thought.
--- You know, she is very odd, and I don't know what kind of a life she leads now that she is old and not painting portraits any more. But the other side of the coin is that she is very independent, other than coming for dinner once in a while, and it seems she has been able to manage somehow all these years on her own without asking for anything from anybody. I can't imagine her going to the city for welfare, she has a lot of pride and still thinks of herself as a painter and a serious artist,. She lives her life with a good sense of personal responsibility and there is much to be said for that. At her age she is still on her own and is managing to carry on fairly well. I have to say I respect that.
--- Yes Sidney, but still. . . . . she started to say. But he went on with his thought..
--- And you know the same can be said for Albert. With all his oddness and peculiarities, which I know still annoy you after all these years, he is a very independent man living a very independent life. It is a strange life and he spends more time being miserly than another man would spend earning a living with a regular job. But that is his way, it is how wants to do it, he owes nobody anything and on the other side he asks for nothing for himself. You disapprove of him, and I think he would have been better off doing something else, but it is his decision about how he wants to live, and in the end he is able to do it just as he wants. There is a certain respectability to his miserly independence, not our way to be sure, but it could be far worse.
--- Yes, she answered. It is true, Albert and Miss Bayliss, they are two of a kind I suppose, both sort of pathetic and both living on the edge of what we would call poverty. But you are right, neither of them owes or asks for anything, so I guess something has to be said for that. I hope they do not influence Billy too much in these formative years, independence is good but I would not like to have him turn out in their style. He has already started to develop a tough of oddness, but that is his youth and I think he will become more normal as time goes by. When he goes to college he will learn to behave more like other people, I do expect.
Now that we have examined the History of Mr. Uncle Albert Moss as background to see how it fits into the life and development of his nephew's character, we must invite the Reader to an Excursus, in which we examine the living quarters of this extraordinary uncle, since this leads us to the moment of the aforesaid encounter with the plate glass window. After that we can return to the story proper and follow our hero into the next stage of his educational development.
We begin with a survey of the rented room where Albert had now been living for some years, since it is from this room and the immediate neighborhood, that the nephew made a most important exploration. It was a twenty minute walk down the street from home past the new housing to the ancient Civil War mansions with their porches and balustrades, past the Colonel's horse barn and farmhouse, then past the manorial Victorian Foxhill school, after which buildings thinning out with empty storefronts, houses in disrepair boarded up or marked to be demolished, small stores selling newspapers and cigarettes, a delicatessen with nothing more than a barrel of pickles and a shelf of bagels, a pair of stands where no shoes had been polished for long time now, and finally on to the grim downtown section where Uncle Albert had lived since entering his new occupation as Retired Miser.
This was a two story building built to be basic and cheap, in fact it was nothing more than a plain two story wooden box. Somewhere along its life a facade of trim with weak gingerbread cutouts had been added along the front roof line to give it a slightly more elevated appearance. The building was painted with the cheapest paint of that time, an unattractive mixture of white lead and linseed oil, which had a way of leaching off the boards to reveal old pigment and bare wood beneath, while staining the concrete foundation a dirty gray.
The building formerly had a grocery store downstairs, later replaced by a newspaper and candy store and still later by a fishing lure business, but it had stood empty for some years before being leased by the owner of a used book store. The plate glass window, which had not been washed since it was installed before the war, displayed an array of odd volumes beside an ancient encyclopedia with a typewriter of vintage age at the left hand corner, an assortment which would hardly welcome the curious passerby to come in and browse. The door to this shop was on the left of the glass window, while on the right was a doorway into a narrow hall going up a tight set of stairs, where you could turn around on a landing to face back to the street to view the door of the front apartment, on which was thumbtacked a handwritten card: A MOSS.
If you knocked and found no one at home, you might open the door and stand there for a moment taking stock of this modest chamber. Framing it for a moment in your mind as if for a picture, you would be facing two casement windows slightly to the left of the far wall, with a poster of maxims for the well organized life hung near the corner, below which a three legged writing table was set cross to the angle. Beside the table was a chair, homemade in appearance with a faded blue cushion on the seat. Your eye ranging along that left wall would note another chair, a little taller with curved supports holding its wobbly legs uneasily together, while to the right stood a bed with headboard at the far end, its edge against the right wall, where several framed pictures were hanging above an unfinished sketch of sunflowers on artist's paper. Tacked up beneath them was a carefully done drawing of a very similar room, perhaps copied from a picture postcard, an example of Albert's talent at copying images with finely penciled detail. The flooring was dark softwood boards, all pointing toward the window as if reaching for the light. On the far wall to the right side, beside the window was a painting so dull and nondescript that, as you left the room and closed the door behind, you wouldn't remember if it had been there at all.
Such was the room in which Uncle Albert lived in this stage of his ascetically sparing lifestyle. He felt that this familiar space suited him quite comfortably. The room was small and odd but since there was little there, it was not cluttered. If you stood in the doorway looking in at the decor, you might note to yourself that it was as unattractive and eccentric in appearance as the pedestrian tenor of Uncle Albert's life. Perhaps a suspicion that you had seen this room somewhere else, almost a sense of deja vu.
For simple economies like keeping a suit pressed, Albert had pieces of carpet under his mattress between which a suit could be pressed automatically while the owner slept. Ties pinned to hang on a roll on a pull-down window shade, were kept as neat as if pressed with a steam iron at the Chinese laundry downstreet. A closet in the left wall which you wouldn't have seen from the doorway, housed Albert's papers, diagrams, and his plans for some new invention, while under the bed were stored in salesman's paperboard containers various devices of his design which had inexplicably never found a proper place in the competitive marketplace.
One such experiment came from Albert's observation about the wastefulness of smokers who used Pipe Cleaners to clean out the sludge from their pipe stems. These disposable cleaners had been on the market for years and were a standard part of every pipe smoker's apparatus. But the sheer waste of throw-away pipe cleaners costing ten cents a pack bothered Albert, so he set to designing an improved device with a small brush on the end of a wire stem. After use the brush would go back into a case, either a hollow pencil-style wooden tube, or a chrome plated one for the luxury model. Either style had a clip to hold the device in your vest or jacket pocket, and the advertisement which went with each sale estimated the savings for a regular smoker in cents per week or in dollars annually, if used by a pipe smoker throughout the year.
One might wonder why a pipe smoker who had a pipe made of the finest Moroccan briar, which he loaded with a custom blend of special tobaccos in his registered private formula from Leavitt and Pearce on Mass. Avenue - - - why in the world would he want to stuff this tar laden brush back into a tube to clip it into the breast pocket of his Brooks Brothers suit? But Albert saw only the wastefulness of an endless succession of pipe cleaners going to the trash and he was infinitely bothered by the cost of the dime packets adding up to considerable change in the course of time. He never asked a smoker if this was a good idea, but went ahead on his own and had the parts made up for him in lots of thousands in order to get proper pricing. Since none of these ever sold and few could even be given away, he kept them in the cardboard cases under his bed in hopes that there might be a shift in public opinion in future years.
He did have left some of the original pipe cleaners he had bought as samples, which he gave to Billy who twisted up pipe cleaner lengths into clever two inch wire-haired terriers, mounting each doggie on a little wooden matchbox with one leg lifted against a red paper fire hydrant. Everyone said it was terribly clever and wanted him to make up more. Albert agreed that it was cute and could be sold if he were ever in Florida again, but he wondered where the idea of using pipe cleaners came from in the first place.
Other leftovers from the Florida expeditions were stored under the bed. Each year's expedition had added a new crop of twenty-five cent eyeglasses, key rings and alligator wallets which he knew would someday be valuable in light of rumored legislation to protect the endangered saurians. For a while he was interested in inked rubber stamps with a custom message, which he was sure would soon become the rage. The idea of stamping out thousands of messages from a one dollar device spurred his financial imagination, but the samples and supplies ended up in boxes under the bed along with the Re-Uz-It pipe cleaners. He let Billy pore through the boxes once in a while, but when the boy held up an unknown object and asked what in the world was it could have been used for, he could only say that it hadn't turned out as well as he had expected, and uneasily changed the subject.
Patient Reader, you are now wondering why you have been led first through the turns and twists of an extended family history, and then led sidewise through a diversionary Excursus on the curious lodgings in which Uncle Albert resided. But I assure you it is for this very moment that I have been waiting, so that the next episode can now begin with that moment of critical importance for the Miller boy's character and his future intellectual direction, which occurred beneath his uncle's modest residence when his eye chanced on a dirty plate glass window.
One day after a visit to Albert's room to get more pipe cleaners for his doggie project, he had just walked down the narrow staircase to the street and had paused to decide if he still had time to go downtown to the dime store to get a coil of copper wire for a project, or just go on home. He was standing there in idle thought as he had stood a dozen times, when he glanced at the dirty plate glass window of the bookstore downstairs and noticed for the first time a display of books on a piece of greenish cloth. How many times he had walked past that window without a moment's pause, but just now, looking by chance through the glass into the window and peering into the darkness of the rooms behind, he became quite curious.
There was something there in the window which caught his eye. It was a handsome book in half leather binding with mottled green gold boards and leather corners matching the spine. This was nothing like the books in the Public Library rebound in a bland off-color cloth, fingered by many hands over the years before finally becoming a dirty gray. He could not read the title on the spine, but the binding was quite handsome in itself, so he decided to enter and explore what else might be in there.
As he opened the door. A bell tinkled. Instantly a gruff voice spoke out from behind a pile of books :
--- Someone there? Wait a minute, I am on the phone, come in and wait and I'll be with you.
A minute later : --- Do I know you? What's your name?
Hearing a boy's voice, he added peremptorily:
--- Hey kid, I don't have comic books here, nothing like that cheap stuff. This is a bookstore for real books, art and literature and if you don't want that you had better turn around and close the door as you go out.
A week later he was there again, viewing the leather binding he had been admiring and he decided to give another try with the gruff man and go inside again. This time the man was more friendly.
--- Sure you can look around, if anything you are interested in, you tell me.
The store was lined with shelves on all walls, books of all sorts were crowded into every inch of space and now overflowing in piles on the floor. There were old books from the Civil War days, new novels that nobody wanted to keep after reading halfway through, Hardy Boys novels for the fellers and their feminine counterpart with better vocabulary and daintier illustrations for the girls. Dictionaries in many languages, ancient encyclopedias in black cloth with worn gold titles, history books and old schoolbooks with bindings worn to tatters by dirty hands, books with markings on every page as an aid to a bad memory, books with more footnotes than text, books on religion and books against religion and books on religions that were not religions at all. There were these and others and more than you could remember even if you had patience to stay in the store browsing for a very long afternoon.
Most of the books had never been read. Some were so vapid that nobody would read past the tenth page, others so weighty that nobody could comprehend what they might be trying to say. There were little bibles containing the whole of the Old and the New Testaments in microscopic font printed on pages less than two inches square, along with huge volumes of reference which could only be read on one of the cast iron bookstands from the previous century. The walls had been fitted with shelves, now overloaded with books ready to avalanche on a touch. The center area, which might have had a table and two chairs for a leisurely reader's use, was used for a double row of shelves going from front to back of the store, a last chance to cram more books into an already overstuffed space. Only one or two items from this used book library might be sold in a day's time, and very few would have been taken down from the shelves to examine, so it was not surprising there was a film of dust settled equally on books, shelves, floor and even on the counter beside the antique non-functioning cash register.
Some people might have come in looking for a novel they had not been able to find, but taking a quick glance at the mountain of books which looked ready to cascade, they would turn to retreat from the dim light of the store to the brightness of the sunny street outside where people were going back and forth about their daily business. So might a sensitive Orpheus have felt when returning to the sunshine in the world above, from the dank darkness of the eternal underworld.
In old book stores like this are no eager lady clerks with spectacles and hair neatly tied in a bun, who come forth promptly to ask in a single breath:
--- Can I help you with anything was there anything you were looking for why don't you just look around and if you want anything just ring the bell over here on the counter, will you?
How different it was here, where a paunchy man with thick glasses and unkempt hair might momentarily take his eyes from the lists he was compiling to ask gruffly if anyone was there, before returning to the privacy of his desk with his lists and his own considerations.
--- If you want something it is up to you to take the first step and ask me. Why waste time talking in a world where time wasted is the same thing as money lost? Yes, if it is books on business you are looking for, there are some accounting and economics items on that shelf over there. Go take a look.
Under the table in the back corner was a massive Oliver typewriter, made in the days when parts made of steel were attached to a cast iron base so the machine would stay put on its stand. It had three rows of keys instead of the later four, but this was compensated by two levels of shifting, so if you really knew how to operate an Oliver you could type anything you wanted. But you had to stay with an Oliver which had its own peculiar operation, like the Ford Model T with extra pedals and hand levers for gas and spark. Mastering these operations you could go anywhere you wanted, so long as you stayed with a Ford, or an Oliver.
--- No typewriter at home or school, this would be great. I wonder how much he wants. I have some of my allowance in my pocket now . . . . maybe ask him: --- How much would that be?
The boy did not realize that it weighed half as much as he did. This was not something to take home in a paper bag , saying:
--- Surprise, Mom, just look what I brought home.
Coming in and looking over the books from time to time, he got to talk a little more with Harry Blot who told him his name was French and pronounced like blow, despite the unpolished brass plate on his desk which said H. BLOT. Billy had learned to use the ink-dip pen at PS 22 where the fountain pen was outlawed, he knew about blots on the school exams and thought that the name Blot was very suitable for someone involved with the written word. But Harry did not think this was at all funny or even amusing and just repeated: Blow blow, I told you--- blow. He did not have a sense of humor, but as it turned out he had great knowledge about books and authors which he was glad to share with anyone who was interested. Eventually Billy came back to ask about the leather bound book he had seen in the window, but when he told Mr. Blot that he would like to take a look at it, he was informed:
--- You can't read that book. Herbert Spencer was a philosopher and scientific thinker, great mind in there and very hard reading even for someone in college. You wouldn't understand it at all, it would just be a waste of time. And he went back to his papers at the desk in the rear.
He got the book out of the window and read a few pages, observing that although it was in English there were a lot of words he didn't know. But it was somehow very interesting to him, between the hidden meanings of the strange words and the handsome binding.
--- So how much would this book be, Mr. Blot, I mean Mr. Blow? Ten cents? I think I have that in my pocket, here it is, so I will take that book.
--- You know, if you can't understand it you can bring it back and get something else, I think you will find it over your head, but you go ahead and have a try.
That evening and every evening for two weeks he read Herbert Spencer's "Data of Ethics" page by page until he had read it through from cover to cover. He had to admit that he did not understand much of what the author was trying to say. Putting the book down he looked fondly at the fine half leather binding and the marbled paper in green and gold on the boards, thinking to himself that this was indeed a very fine and important book to have. After a week of unsuccessful efforts at decipherment, he went back to read it through again, this time with a better sense of the author's point of view. But it was not until he had read it through a third time that he felt he had a grasp of the writer's main views. He told his teacher about his book and how hard it was to read at first, but Mr. Brubecque said that was to be expected, he had the same problem when working on his Masters degree at the university.
--- There are some things which are very unclear until your read them through again and again, and some might not be very clear in the end, so you had better expect that if you are going to do any serious reading.
--- So it is all right to read something again, Mr. Brubecque? You had to do that too?
Deciphering that half leather book with the green boards was his first step in the process of getting himself an independent education, it was a lesson which in later years he never forgot.
--- Maybe learning something is really my own business, he thought to himself, and not what I get in lessons from the teachers at school? That is a very interesting idea and I think I will continue to read on my own. Seems simpler without the whole class asking questions and saying that they don't get the point because they can't follow what the teacher is talking about. I can go faster on my own.
In the coming months he found he could have any book in the shop for a dime, so he carted home as many for his room as his allowance would permit. Mom saw he had a taste for learning and bought him a set of bookshelves from Macy's, then added a set of three hanging shelves on the wall. Dad went down one afternoon with the car and brought the Oliver typewriter back and brought it upstairs to the table in Billy's room near the window. He was now setting himself up as a person who could collect and read books and was even learning to type out his school themes. Sitting at his desk and looking out the window evening times to the great oak in the neighbor's garden across the way, he would fancy himself becoming a writer of books, lost in an imaginary future until his mother called him down at dinnertime.
He was not completely aware that all this had come about by the merest chance, just because he had in his family a very odd mannered uncle named Albert, who lived downtown in a shabby building in a nondescript room right over a bookstore where he bought from an very odd Mr. Blot ten cent volumes which he could use to fill the bookshelves in his room, thus making it a place suitable for a young fellow who was doing serious reading and writing clever school satires on an Oliver typewriter. Late one evening as he lay in bed before going to sleep, looking at the bookshelves with the rows of volumes he had arranged there as his private library, he smiled to himself with a feeling of mild self satisfaction, before reaching to turn out the light.
It was later in that year, just after the Christmas rush that the Manager in Bloomingdale's furniture department, who had been standing in front of a classic breakfront bookshelf with delicately glazed doors, filled with immaculate sets of books in fine leather binding, stood back from it with a thoughtful pause and said almost confidentially to Mrs. Miller:
--- Yes, the people who buy this sort of furniture want it filled with handsome sets, it doesn't matter what they are, because they don't read books at all, they just want books which look good in their bookcases. Lack of education and very pretentious, these people are deplorable but they have the money to buy furniture so I suppose they have to have books to go with them.
He concluded the sale of the bookcase along with a large Persian rug to a fat lady in a mink coat and was feeling very satisfied with his sale, when he came back to the lady standing aside with the boy.
--- Mrs. Miller, we had a shipment of nice books from England last year, some looked very interesting but the people don't want individual volumes, nothing but sets! So I sent these back to the storeroom. You say your son is interested in books, Mrs. Miller, going to be a college student I suppose. Why don't you tell him to come back some weekday afternoon before closing and take a look at these extra books. If you want them I could give you a very good price because they are of no use to us here in furniture. These people want it to look as if they read books, but they never read anything more than the financial page in the newspaper. What a lack of education, but that's the kind of people I have to work with in this department. Sad, I should say!
Next week he was shown to the back room to pore over books, which were very interesting and had apparently been selected by a British gentleman with care. But to the Manager they were just bindings. He said that a check for a few dollars would cover both boxes, because his Assistant Manager needed space in the storeroom.
--- Could they send them out on the delivery truck the next time it goes in your direction, Mrs. Miller? Fine, then you can write me a check, and we will consider it done?
He showed a few of the early editions to Mr. Brubecque who opened the covers with reverence and perused the title pages with interest, adding that these were very valuable books, Billy.
--- Billy, where in the world did you find these books? You must have had a professor in your family, to have inherited such a book as this one, which he held gingerly in his hand. When you read it, handle it with care, will you? No food around when you are reading, a smear of chocolate on a page like this would be a . . . . .he could hardly continue, his mind searching for a word like a sacrilege.
If Mr. Blot's bookstore was an early introduction to the world of used books, and Bloomingdale's was a fortunate treasure-trove for this bookish boy, the used bookshops on Fourth Avenue were a series of adventures. There were books of all kinds and all sizes, impressive works from the pens of great writers as well as slim books of verse out of print for decades, curious volumes to be found only in the stalls of the used book shops. Having scant pocket money to spend, he had to choose wisely in a forest of opportunities.
Toward the end of the summer he was rummaging under one of the bookseller's desks where broken sets and unbound books were piled, when he came across something that looked very old. It was a three inch stack of sheets that had lost their spine with two leather covered boards, all tied up with a string. The paper was heavy and strong, the print large and clear with the irregularities of an ancient font.
A Safe Way To Salvation
Master of Arts at the
University of Oxford
He pulled it out and held it up to the bookseller, who was busy with a lady buying a decorative set of something for her living room shelves..
--- This book. . . . how much do you want for it?
Annoyed at the interruption, the man said a couple of bucks and Billy walked out of the store with a stack of folio sheets tied up with a string, as he stepped into the sunlight on Fourth Avenue to walk back toward the train, while counting out in his head the Roman numbers MDCXXXVIII which meant the book was actually printed in the year 1638. When he brought it in, Mother said it was dirty and might have mold so it should be put on in the sun, while father said it was a great buy and was glad his son showed a sense of values.
Mr. Brubecque said the book was most interesting and certainly valuable enough to be rebound. The Chambers Encyclopedia in ten huge volumes from 1888 which he had got from Mr. Blot, had a fairly detailed account of the art of Bookbinding, with pictures of a frame for sewing the sections onto strings across the spine in the old style of binding. There was information about preparation and use of hot animal glue and pressing the book while it set up to dry in a book press. He was interested and saw that he could do most of this himself, but the press was a problem, since there was a long screw in the middle, and nothing they had in the hardware store was like that. The fellow in the car parts machine shop said he could turn down threads with a die but that would cost five dollars which was out of his budget, so he had figure out another way. Old boards for the platens were no problem but those two long screws to do the compressing were, until he devised a way of making a sub-press inside the press so there would be down pressure from two inches on the long screws, which could be countered by up pressure on the shorter screws on the sub-press to be screwed out rather than in, giving three inches of compression, just enough for the thickness of the book.
And so a book press was constructed in the Miller basement and sewing of the sections was done with needle and linen thread as prescribed, and the work of rebinding old Chillingworth was begun. Two weeks later the sewing was complete, the boards had been glued up and a section from one of mother's old handbags was used for a new spine with the edges carefully tucked under the leather on the boards, and Behold, the book was rebound. Now he could not only consider himself a beginning collector, but one who could rebind as well!
--- Billy, said his Mother, this is very nice but I want you to be careful and not go too far with this sort of thing. "The Religion of Protestants", ahem, this is not something I would be reading myself. But I am not prejudiced, after all most of the country has always been of that faith and many of them are actually very nice people. But when it says "A safe way to salvation" then I am not sure if this is something you should be taking seriously. Jewish people don't talk a great deal about salvation in the next world, and I am not sure if we are really interested in thinking about that sort of thing. Well Sidney, I just don't know about this.
Her husband took a careful look at the title page.
--- But it seems to be something about the Protestant view being considered better than what he calls "charitie maintained by catholiques". So why don't we let the two of these religions fight it out, and remember that we don't have to agree with either of them since we are Jewish. Maybe someday you will write a book, Billy, "The Religion of Jews, a Safe Way to Salvation", maybe people would find that very interesting. They all laughed at this outlandish suggestion and proceeded to Sunday dinner.
Back at school Monday he was waiting at three thirty outside Mr. O'Neill's office with The Safe Way under his arm. A boy in the next grade was getting his grammar straightened out, at last he came out of the office shaking his head from side to side, confused but relieved to be out of the grammatical inquisition, and Billy went in.
--- About the book, said the historian Mr. O'Neill speaking thoughtfully , you told me your family is Jewish, so it should especially be interesting to you that this book was written in l634, in the middle of the Puritan revolution which led to the beheading of King Charles and the revolution of Oliver Cromwell, who welcomed back to England the Jews who had been forced to leave the country some five hundred years earlier. So if you want to take a personal view of the book, leaving the question of Salvation aside, you see that it was the Protestant side that welcomed your people back, as against the work of the Catholic Inquisition which had persecuted them for many centuries before.
--- This might seem far fetched to you, but there are still threads of these tensions alive. Your Dad can tell you about the difficulties Jewish people have in the world today, all that trouble in Germany and a lot of prejudice still going around even here. From the other side, the Irish Catholics have a long memory of Protestant English oppression and cruelty, even back before the time before your book was printed. Whether Protestants or Catholics go to heaven or hell seemed irrelevant, salvation was not the issue when the British armies were trying to crush down our unlanded Irish poor, burn the churches and take over the farmlands.
--- My mother's family came over in the second year of the Potato Famine, and we can never forget that any more than your family forgets fleeing out of Spain to find a safe place in Holland or Germany. This is one of the things you learn from history, that prejudice and oppression go hand in hand and they have been living as parasites on the human race for a long time now.
Billy knew from the Passover ceremony at home that they were descended from the people who had been captured and taken as slaves to Egypt, but this was the first time he had personally thought about himself as a Jew with a history of persecution from the time of the Inquisition. Yes, he had been right not to participate in the prayer in the school auditorium. He had thought at first that it was something about the wording which bothered him, but he knew that it was really of the idea of their Christian salvation which did not include him. Not that he wanted to go to heaven with those students fervently reciting their prayers, singing their Christmas songs and nibbling chocolate bunnies at Easter time. Maybe he would stay with his own people although he wasn't quite sure who they were, since many of the businessmen he saw on Yom Kippur in the orthodox schule didn't seem to be his people at all.
But there was something bothering him that set him apart from either camp. It occurred to him that his name William Miller was awfully Protestant sounding. Maybe he should someday change it to something like David Miller, or even better Moses Miller. That has a great sound with the two letters setting off each name strongly, a really gutsy name.
--- I like that, he said to himself, and the people who are friendly to me could call me Moe. They might even call me Mose, but that would be too much the old guy like in a Western. But how about going all the way, like maybe Moishe? "With this water I baptize thee Moishe Miller in the name of our Lord and . . . . ". No I seem to have my signals crossed, better scrap that one.
--- Hey Moe, you coming to the schule tomorrow evening. Some of the young people are doing their Hebrew lessons upstairs and you should really keep up with that or you will lose it. Why study Latin when you could be studying a real language with a history, Moishe boy? We'll come by and pick you up and go on over together, you just be standing there on the corner at seven thirty and we'll see you then. You know, fellows, that Moe is really a pretty good guy, he looks a little snobby but he's really one of us, and we get along just fine now that we broke the ice.
Thinking of names it would be nice, he thought to himself, to put his name on the title page of each book with one of the rubber stamps Uncle Albert can get made in the city. Well, what name should I ask him to order? How about this?
--- That would look nice and the Latin has a good touch. Mr. O'Neill has a stamp saying "Stolen From Richard O'Neill" which is clever but too much a joke for a serious book. But it is the name that is the problem. Isn't that William Miller pretty plain, sort of ordinary? Maybe I want to think of myself someday as the famous author Witherington Miller; or the way businessmen in the Times obituaries do it with an initial first, like W. William Miller or even J. W. Miller? No, someone is going to take that as Jew Miller. Whatever you are, someone else is going to call you something bad, they've got an insulting name for everyone, and I can't get away from being a Jew so why bother about a name? Let it rest for a while. I've got better things to think about.
--- Doctor, do you think it is anything serious? I should just keep him in bed and warm with plenty of fluids, is that all I can do? Yes, I'll keep an eye on it and call you if anything gets worse. Thank you for coming over so quickly but I was worried, she said, as she handed him an envelope with two dollar bills for his house call.
He was miserable, coughing in fits and bleary eyed, but what bothered him most was being confined to bed, where propped up as he was with two pillows against the headboard, he couldn't even read comfortably. So there was nothing to do but think and the thoughts were tumbling through his mind faster and more disorganized than usual because, as the doctor said, he had a fever.
He seemed quiet and peaceful later that afternoon when his mother came in with a thermometer and a glass of lemonade. Sitting against pillows with the crazy quilt folded up over his feet, his hands over the security blanket which he had long ago frayed in nights of sleepy fidgeting, he was unable to avoid a restless feeling which was not entirely owing to his bronchitis. Looking across the bed past the ball posts, he was staring at the bookcase loaded with his volumes above which hung the triple shelf with his most prized possessions. His eye was roving from spine to spine but the bookcases now seemed a part of the wall, flat and out of focus like a photograph snapped at the wrong distance. The titles on the spines merged into a landscape of books like tree trunks in an imaginary forest where no pathway had been trod, where he felt he was lost and couldn't find his direction. . He took a few deep breaths and was half asleep, but a secret cache of thoughts was still cascading in his mind.
--- These books I have been so busy collecting, why is it that I find them so interesting even before I have read them ? Could I be like those people the store manager talked about, people who want rows of books in leather bindings on their shelves as part of the furniture, nothing they would read, nothing that they even could read if they wanted to?
--- That first book by Herbert Spencer, did I buy it because it had such a pretty leather binding or because I thought it had something that I really wanted to read? Admit it was the binding at first, but there is nothing wrong about that, like looking at a pretty girl. Or can a person get caught by attractive bindings or a smile or a nice figure and never get to understand what is inside, beyond?
When he recovered and was up and about, he went to the library and took out a book that he knew would be difficult reading, just to see if his interest in new subjects like psychology was real. One Saturday afternoon he sat down with Dad and told him about the afferent and efferent nerves and how they operated the muscles in the body. Dad picked up the book and said this must be five hundred pages, and you think you understand everything in it now? Well, maybe not everything but enough to tell you about the way the nerves work. They talked for two hours, his Dad said that he had given him a well thought out lecture, which he thought very interesting as something new to him.
--- So I did really know how to get into the content of a serious book. I was not a leather binding and pretty gold spine collector, I was a serious reader after all, wasn't I?
It was many years later while he was typing out his three hundred page Doctoral Dissertation from handwritten notes stored in a cardboard box, that he suspected that, yes, there might be a problem with books if they began to occupy the wrong track in his mind. Some time later, standing in the dark back room of a used book shop in an academic town in the West, he had collected a great armful of books he was eager to buy, and was just about to put the books on the counter for Mr. Ferney to add up when he came back from getting the mail. He glanced through the plate glass window from the dark interior into the bright sunlight outside, just as a girl he knew slightly was passing with sunlight shining on her waving blonde hair. He set the books on the counter, went out into the street and walked with her to a cafe where they sat at a small table on the street with coffee and donuts and talked for two hours until the sun began to slide downwards toward the horizon.
He never went back for the books, nor did he haunt bookstores as frequently for rare and curious books. He had by then collected enough for years of exploratory reading and he would add more books to his lifetime library as time went on. But there was no longer a compulsive urge to stack the shelves until they overflowed into boxes in the cellar. Books were a special kind of highly specialized tool, useful to get certain trends of thinking started or to help put loose thoughts into order. Some books could be used to relax and help you go to sleep, others were full of adrenaline and would gyrate you into new circles of thought. They were still worthwhile, but they were just books.
It took some years to get firmly to that point, but at last when he had completed his Doctorate at the University, he started to understood better what books were for and what is their best use. After all, hadn't Emerson said that he didn't read a great deal? But he used books to get his top spinning! Very interesting that thought, might be something to it.
He thought to himself that evening as he sat by the crackling fire, contemplating an article he was writing for a Journal on student performance, that college students are very passive, they take their reading assignments and digest them to a putty. then wait for the teacher's grade as sign of success. Wouldn't a little more independence of mind be good for them, he thought as he spread the burned out logs with a tong and prepared to go upstairs to bed?
--- Maybe go to the bookshops downtown next week and look for some more Emerson. It is important to keep the top spinning, and I could use some of Emerson's thoughts for my students in my course "Independence and the Western Mind". It might just come in handy.
A later chapter in this curious saga can be found in Going To Harvard
Prof. Em. Middlebury College