Notes of a Naïve Son
The echoes of an unruly night on Broadway are fading and the first rays of the sun are seeping over the dusky old gargoyles on the Hotel Belleclaire’s facade.
They stare down forbiddingly, maybe even pityingly, as a boy in an abused navy blazer with a tie loosely knotted over a rugby shirt turns the corner and trudges down West 77th Street, lugging a book bag that grows as heavy as rapidly-hardening cement with each step.
He drags himself a half-block past the school entrance and throws himself down on the steps of the attached church, bemoaning his fate. The white-lit cross on the corner dims. He opens his book bag and takes out a Bic ballpoint, his three-ring binder, and the slim Dell paperback edition of James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain that he should have finished reading more than a week ago.
Once again, he has found himself in a state of Code Red academic emergency: a three-to-five page paper is due for Dr. Stone this morning. Now he feels deeply and sincerely sorry. For himself. His grades have been poor this trimester and his college advisor has warned him that his acceptance at several universities hangs in the balance. He must improve. His parents will be terribly disappointed. He’ll be setting a poor example for his brother in middle school. He pictures Dr. Stone’s lips thinning in disdain as he admits he has nothing to turn in. This will not just be a public embarrassment, but in the parlance of a certain mid-1970s subculture, “a clambake.”
Rustling trees and singing birds in nearby Riverside Park seem to mock his despair. He tries to rewrite the paperback’s flap copy as his introductory paragraph. “In this obviously semi-autobiographical first novel, James Baldwin deals with the themes of sin and redemption…” It’s no good. His hand cramps from the effort of writing so much nonsense so quickly. In panic, he actually tries to read the book, searching for a few plot points to throw in for the sake of authenticity. Something about a sensitive boy’s relationship with a harshly punitive father and a distant unknowable God. Yes I know, he thinks guiltily, I should’ve read it. He flips more pages and is surprised to find the lyrics to a Rolling Stones song in a church scene. “This could be my last time, This could be my last time, May be my last time, I don’t know…”
He drops his head into his arms and then looks sideways at the cross on the corner, uttering the same silent prayer for academic redemption that students must have muttered when this august institution was founded in 1628.
He looks at his Timex and sees it’s a few minutes past seven. Shadows withdraw from the gargoyles. The gate goes up in front of the Toy Chan Laundromat. The sexton arrives to open up the church. And then a figure comes into focus just across the street. A dark slim smallish man emerging from one of the tweedy old apartment houses that line West End Avenue like sturdy respectable Brooks Brothers sports jackets.
He moves quickly, with a certain elegant self-possession that’s hard to miss even at this hour. His eyes are large, luminous with an almost alien alertness. He crosses the street and starts to pass the church steps, perhaps on his way to a cup of coffee or a brisk walk through Central Park. The boy looks at the picture on the back cover of the book and then at the man, scarcely believing his good fortune. It can’t be true, yet it is. To grow up in New York City in this era is to be constantly reminded that the extremes are not just possible, but likely. He’s seen priceless artworks in some of the greatest museums in the world and mountains of rotting garbage on the street. He’s visited friends in Fifth Avenue penthouses and in tiny one-bedrooms in Alphabet City. He’s watched Jacqueline Onassis climb out of a limousine, dark nylons rustling inside a fur coat, and seen Miles Davis shuffling down the street with a dog and cat shuffling along beside him as if they too are on heroin. He’s walked past the Metropolitan Opera House fourteen blocks downtown and ridden the 1 train with ranting derelicts all the way up to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. He even knows there’s a swingers club in the basement of the gymnasium his phys. ed. class sometimes visits. So why shouldn’t James Baldwin come walking by at an opportune moment, deus ex machina as Dr. Stone said of another great work of literature he was supposed to have read?
“Excuse me, sir?” The boy holds up the unread Dell paperback edition, with that combination of brashness and shyness that only high school seniors in serious trouble can pull off. “But did you write this?”
The great author stops, taken aback. He lives in France most of the year, and the abrupt speech rhythms of the Upper West Side may now strike his ear as terribly crude and unrefined.
“What do you want?”
Realizing this is as close as he will ever come to Divine Intervention, the boy pleads his case. In the time-honored academic tradition, he wheedles, he weasels, he cajoles, he even tries to charm. And when all else fails, he promises.
“I swear Mr. Baldwin, sir, if you help me out, I will not only read this book, I will read everything you have ever written and everything you will ever write. I will be your fan for life.”
The enormous brown eyes stare back coldly, as if taking a moral inventory, or as Baldwin himself would call it “an instant X-ray” of the boy’s brain, lungs, liver, heart, bowels and spinal column. Then the famous author’s shoulders heave with a weary sigh and he checks his watch.
“So what is it exactly that you need to know?” he says.
“Um.” The boy clears his throat awkwardly and looks down at his mimeographed assignment. “How is, like, the theme of awakening woven through your book?”
And for the next hour or so, they talk. Or rather, the author speaks. Haltingly at first, impatiently, and then realizing, he has a rapt audience, with a kind of grudging slowly and expanding generosity.
“Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.”
He speaks of what led him to write his first and most famous novel. He talks about growing up not so far from here, in Harlem, one of nine children in a poor family with a cruel and abusive evangelist for a stepfather. He speaks of casting about for a way to escape his circumstances, but knowing the pulpit was his destiny.
He speaks of being a boy preacher between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. He talks about getting up early on Sunday mornings and trying to find the Spirit that would allow him to preach the Word of God. He talks about the moaning and swaying in the pews, the shouts and murmurs, the rising and falling cadences, the secrets and gossip of the congregation, the old songs and hallelujahs, the tambourine rattles and organ swells, and most important, of discovering the incantory power of language.
“Those three years in the pulpit—I didn’t realize it then—that is what turned me into a writer, really, dealing with all that anguish and that despair and that beauty.”
The boy listens, taking a few tentative notes, knowing just enough to keep his mouth shut. He understands a little bit of what it’s like, trying to follow a path that someone else has laid out for you.
“So why didn’t you stay in the church?” he asks, hearing the sexton moving chairs behind the big red doors.
Baldwin looks at his watch again, probably asking himself why on earth he’s bothering. Almost in spite of himself, he goes on, about always knowing there was something else within him, about spending long afternoons taking refuge in the New York Public Library, where he discovered the great writers.
“I read them,” he tells the boy pointedly. “I didn’t just flag them down like cabs on their way to Broadway.”
The boy nods, taking more notes, feeling a kind of secret excitement growing within himself. He gets this. He identifies. He can perhaps even use some of it to write his paper and save himself.
“I knew I was black, of course,” Baldwin is saying. “But I also knew I was smart. I didn’t know how I would use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing that I had to use.”
The boy nods again, remembering how some of his own teachers have admonished him to make better use of his brains. It’s almost seven-thirty now, an hour before his first class. He can see the custodians up the block unlocking the school’s front doors. A few early morning dog walkers in sweats straggle out into daylight, letting their animals drag them down the sidewalk.
“But how did you know what you wanted to do with your life?” the boy asks suddenly.
A kind of wary amusement crinkles the corners of Baldwin’s eyes. He understands that the discussion has shifted and this is no longer just an academic question. Rather he’s caught the young man’s attention at some deeper level and unbelievably, this clueless white boy is looking to him for guidance. But instead of dismissing him outright or answering directly, he tells one more story.
This one is about finding a mentor. About traveling all the way down to Greenwich Village one day after school, as if traveling from one end of the universe to the other, and meeting a man named Beaufort Delaney, a painter and bon vivant. And in turn, Delaney introduced him to the world of art and the music of Louis Armstrong, Ma Rainey, Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Fats Waller, and Duke Ellington. But more importantly he showed a young black man that he need not be defined by inferior minds.
“Beauford never gave me any lectures,” Baldwin says. “But he didn’t have to. He expected me to accept and respect the value placed upon me.”
The student puts his pen down, knowing a gauntlet has been dropped at his feet.
“There, does that help you write your paper?” Baldwin asks, lowering his eyelids with barely veiled irony.
Clearly, it is not his role in life to help the sons of privilege find their way. What they make of his words is up to them. Still, this conversation doesn’t seem to have been entirely disagreeable to him. With a curt wave, he starts away.
“Mr. Baldwin, can I ask you one more thing?” the boy calls after him.
“Why did you use that Stones’ song in the church scene?”
The author blinks, the last remnants of good will withering on his lips. “That’s a gospel song,” he says.
And with that, he’s on his way, face turned up to the sun rising over Central Park. The West Side is thrumming to life now. The 104 bus rumbles down Broadway. People in suits trundle off to work, trying to grind a living out of a cash-strapped city. The notorious Bird Man makes his morning appearance outside the Belleclaire, cawing and swearing at the teachers arriving early to prepare their lesson plans.
But the boy scarcely notices. He is busy, writing, feeling himself transported, imagining himself both inside the story he’s just heard and outside of it. Never mind the original assignment. He’s inspired now. He has gone to the source and heard the true story. He looks down at the words he’s scribbling and thinks yes. Maybe I could do this. Maybe this is my calling. Not that his own story is nearly as dark or compelling. But for just a fleeting moment, he can imagine a different kind of future for himself. He’s never been much of an all-round or an athlete. And his parents’ expectations that he will become a doctor or a lawyer have never sat comfortably with him. But as he watches his hand skittering across the page, turning the famous writer’s words into his own, he thinks: this is it. This meeting has been the moment he’s waited for all his life. An awakening. Someone has stepped from the shadows and shown him his true purpose in life. I’m writing, he thinks. Goddamn it, I am a writer. He pictures himself being carried along on the wild surging torrents of words past the obstacles, over the rapids and beyond and over the edge of the waterfall into another life.
He sees himself as a wunderkind enfant terrible on the scene, scabrous and honest, impressing Brearley girls and arm-wrestling Norman Mailer at book parties. Susan Sontag slipping him her phone number. Jerry Salinger slapping him five. Saul Bellow giving him noogies. Philip Roth catching him in a bear hug. You did it, you little momser. You even made me blush. A long appreciation at the front of the Times’ Book Review. Towering piles of his books at Doubleday & Co., Brentano’s and Scribner’s on Fifth Avenue. Margot Kidder eying him on the set of the movie adaptation of his perfectly scandalous first novel. And of course, James Baldwin greeting him warmly on the Champs Elysee years from now, giving him that wary half-smile and finally admitting yes, he did see something in the boy on that bleak and early morning.
With minutes to spare, he finishes his instant masterpiece. A shade less than three pages and a little off-the-topic perhaps, but a substantial piece of work to be sure. He checks the spelling, packs up his bag, and heads off to the first class of the day.
Dr. Stone’s noble profile creases in a smile of incredulity as the boy walks into the classroom at 8:30 sharp and drops the finished paper on his desk, resisting the impulse to swagger to his seat.
A week later, it comes back, with a grade in razor-cut red at the top:
A gentleman’s C, with the comment “Please read the book.”