Tag: writer

A Homage to Writer and Rebel Gerry Haslam

Gerry Haslam and I used to huddle in his or my office located in the new gym at Sonoma State College, before it became Sonoma State University. It might have been his first year. I know it was mine. That was 1967. I was overwhelmed. I was the single parent of two little boys, 5 and 2, Markus and Dylan. I was still writing my PhD thesis for the stuffy German Department at UC Berkeley, where Thomas Mann’s son Golo was teaching. Whom I hardly registered and never spoke to. The Vietnam War was raging, and I was trying to find my place, without much success in the Age of Free Love. And so, in this weakened condition, I was susceptible to Gerry Haslam’s satanic whispers that he would write literature rather than be a fussy critic of other people’s creations. To me, this was a daring heresy that I could scarcely take in. I could only see that he was a rebel, and that part stuck. And so, easily influenced, I started to write, little stories here and there in German and English. Without really noticing it, I had joined the creative conspiracy, instigated for me by this kind and clever man. He had taught me the alchemy of S + W = L. storytelling plus work to make literature. One day, twenty years later, in Weimar, East Germany where Goethe and Schiller had written, I asked my mildly Marxist professor of Germanistik (pronounced with a hard g) the Faustian question, “Why analyze literature to death instead of creating literature?” The young woman was speechless and now had another reason to be suspicious of me. At age 70, I published my first novel and, in a month or so , at almost 85, I will have published my fourth novel , plus a collection of short stories—all of it historical fiction set in Mexico where Dianne Romain and I have lived for the last twenty years.

All of this, aside from the Dianne Romain part—who is also a novelist—may not have happened without those early heretical whispers from that kind and loving academic rebel, my friend and fine writer Gerry Haslam.

Presumption of Innocence

You should never go back to see the person that has inspired one of your stories. If you do, you should never mention it to anyone at that place.

Five years ago, in a bustling Mexican city, a waitress served me tea, which I had ordered, and two fluffy orange-flavored muffins, which I had not. She had struck me somehow—a unique face, dark, perhaps Indian, a pronounced jaw, an air of sadness. Dignity. Like the other waitresses, she wore a black dress with white trims, a short white apron tied around her waist.

Now, five years later, I asked the cashier about her.

I added that I had written a story about her—an imprecise and disastrous choice of prepositions. About her.

The cashier knew exactly whom I was talking about. She described a person that was slim, dark-skinned, and raised her hand palm down to indicate a certain height.

I said that might be her, but that I hadn’t seen her that morning.

“She works in the afternoon,” she said.

I thanked her and sat down again with my love. Then something occurred to me. I got up and approached the cashier again.

“I don’t know her,” I said. “Perhaps it would be better if you didn’t mention me. I don’t want to cause her embarrassment.”

I left out that would come back that afternoon.

My companion and I walked to a hill a mile or so west of the city center. I wanted to see the spot where a European monarch and his two loyal Mexican generals absorbed the bullets of a Mexican anti-French firing squad. The sun was lovely, the jacarandas billowing. A Soviet-style 43-foot statue of Juárez the Avenger loomed over us. I could not feel the executed monarch’s spirit.

Afternoon came, and my companion went on an errand.

I walked back to the café.

The woman behind the cashier’s booth looked down a little too quickly when I walked in. The coffee counter was topped by clean cappuccino glasses, white cups, and drifts of paper napkins—and just above those, the heads and shoulders of three afternoon waitresses whose eyes glistened with suspicion.

One of them came close to fitting the description of the woman I was looking for, except that she wasn’t as slim and pretty as the woman in my story—and no longer as young. While I, on the other hand, had remained roughly the same age as the narrator in the story.

I ordered a cappuccino. The woman in question turned her back to me.

“Chico o grande?” asked another, younger waitress asked.

The situation was out of control, and I didn’t know how long I would be staying.

Still, I said, “Grande.”

I sat down and took out my La Jornada, Mexico’s national left wing newspaper. The Legislature, it reported, was blocking any discussion of widening ownership of the airwaves—radio and television—beyond the monopolists Emilio Azcárraga and Carlos Slim, men of privilege.

I abandoned La Jornada and took out my notebook instead—to show I was a writer, not a pervert. It was part of a current manuscript, about a National Rural Policeman in the 1890’s who discovers the Yaqui Indians are human and deserve the rights guaranteed in the Mexican Constitution of 1857—my protagonist rural, a man who admired Sherlock Holmes.

But I decided he wouldn’t have known any better than I how to extract himself from the situation I was in.

I wrote for about an hour. I never looked at her. God knows what they were thinking. Eventually, M—I think that’s what the cashier said her name was—came out from behind the coffee counter and began waiting on people.

The city was filled with wedding parties. Twice, while I was writing, groups of young women, in their twenties and thirties, dressed expensively and to the nines, in heels too high and grooming too perfect, perhaps still unmarried, came through the door, and filled the room with an air of privilege and desperation.

When I got home, I wrote a letter to M—in Spanish—and sent it to my friend, who said he would print it out and hand deliver it.

~ Estimada Señora M, I began.

Please forgive me for the considerable discomfort I believe I caused you last Saturday. I am the gringo that entered the café and asked after you.

Five years ago, I sat down in your café and could not help but observe some of the people chatting there, drinking coffee, and giving you little orders as if you were there to serve them in all ways—not just in things they would eat and drink. I did not think they were aware of the assumptions of privilege behind their behavior—which may have been obvious to a person who was waiting on them.

Someone like you—a person of dignity, kindness, and beauty—also, humor. When I paid for my tea and the two orange–flavored muffins I had not ordered, I said, “They were a awful temptation, so I ate them.”

And you had said, with a smile, and without missing a beat, something like, “Yes, but the storm has passed now and life can go on.”

Then I went home and wrote a story about a person similar to you—but not you.

It was a love story. The narrator recognizes a woman in the Zócolo in Veracruz who works in the café where he has had breakfast. She is wearing a simple, lovely dress, red hibiscus against black, and high heels. It is an evening of danzón, and the plaza is filled with spectators seated in metal chairs watching the dancers.

The woman seems to be waiting for someone, who finally arrives. They dance together with much pleasure in each other. The man is tall, attractive, his clothes are still dusty from work. Although the dance form is formal, one can nevertheless see they adore each other. Still, something seems to be separating them, perhaps an unhappy marriage on his part.

There is a sad parting, with few words. He leaves on old black bicycle.

After he has left, she feels the narrator’s eyes on her, recognizes him, gets up and comes over to him, indicating that he shall dance with her.

He says he doesn’t know how. She insists, and teaches him the basic steps. After two or three dances, she says it’s time for her to go.

“It was a temptation,” she says.

“You’re not talking about the muffins,” says the narrator.

“No,” she says.

“And not about me,” he says, with a smile.

“Tampoco,” she says. “No.”

Then she leans over and gives him a peck on the cheek and walks away in the opposite direction from that taken by the man with the black bicycle whom she obviously loves.

This story came solely out of my imagination, but also—in a way—honors you.

I wrote the story in English, but if you find a way to forgive me and want to read it, I will translate it and send it to you— by the same courier friend that is bringing you this letter now.

My behavior last Saturday was clumsy and inexcusable and put you in an impossible situation.

I asked the cashier not to tell you I was coming to catch a glimpse of you again. I suppose I was also coming to see someone I had created in my story. I told her I did not know you and did not want to bother you or cause you embarrassment.

She, on the other hand, felt a warranted obligation to warn you that a stranger was asking about you—perhaps some sort of stalker or crazy person, or worse, a chupa-almas—someone that sucks on people’s souls for their stories.

I did not include this last phrase.

I knew as soon as I entered the café that the cat was out of the bag, and that you knew about me and that I was a suspect—that I was the observed one, instead of you.

I did not know what to do, and for that reason I began writing in my notebook—not about you, but about the situation.

You must have thought I was out again to steal one more part of your privacy, your dignity or your soul.

After paying my bill, I turned around and you were standing ten feet from me, looking at me, full on, with a face that was striking in the sense of being stricken—a dark brow full of anger, outrage, confusion or perhaps disappointment that I was not decent enough to speak to you directly.

I do not know what you were feeling. And I could not step out of being a writer to being a person and simply ask you.

Please forgive me. It was not my intention to cause you such unhappiness.

Nor to become just one more of your clients that shows a presumption of privilege—in my case, that I should presume to spy on one of my inspirations as if they were some sort of trinket of literature and not a person with feelings and rights.

Please forgive me.


And then I wrote my signature and mailing address.