Wordtrip Grand Master
Joined: 13 Apr 2004
Location: Back home in south Jersey
|Posted: Mon Jan 03, 2005 1:23 pm Post subject: 2005 Free SS: 2nd -The Man Who Put the Sin in Cynic
|© 2005 Walter Giersbach
The Man Who Put the Sin in Cynic
Carl Starrett was a self-described cynic. No one in our group can recall when he first showed up for our periodic get-togethers for lunch uptown. Or, whose coattails he had ridden in on. But from the first, he was entertaining because of that humorous or sarcastic expression in which the intended meaning of the words is exactly opposite. Cynicism nailed down with humor.
Carl was pushing forty and his hair was receding faster than the Jersey shoreline. Thing was, he always talked softly and with great precision, and you had to listen in order to hear. I almost missed getting his answer when someone asked him where he had been before New York.
“Los Angeles. Movie stuff,” he said. His words were little feathers that floated over the table before landing in someone’s minestrone.
“Ah, stars and starlets,” someone said with false authority.
“I knew Doris Day before she became a virgin,” Carl answered without cracking a smile.
Maybe the second or third time Carl joined us we were having lunch at Smith & Wollensky’s on Third Avenue. I think it was Frank, the movie critic for an East Side weekly shopper news, who popped out with a question that should have given him entry into the witless protection program.
“Why’s everyone call this a New York strip steak? It comes from Kansas City,” he said, poking at his menu. “Why don’t they call it a Kansas City steak?”
Poor Frank was a walking testimonial to fast-food franchises, but not fine dining. We knew by then that Carl was sharp-tongued. I wanted to bite mine just to keep from saying something he’d use to show I should’ve kept quiet.
“What,” Carl said calmly, and we waited. “What, they’re going to name a steak after a city with three people in it?” He was the master of the long drawn-out pause. He’d drop a word or phrase and then wait for someone to pick up the bait.
I was just a trade-magazine editor, but we were all in the news or media business, more of less. Words and their delivery counted greatly.
“He is so cynical I can’t believe it,” Frank said to me as we were saying goodbye on the street.
Carl overheard, came back to us and said, “A cynic’s just an idealist with experience.”
Not everyone laughed all the time. Allen the Stockbroker got rankled once at something caustic that Carl said. Allen is the only one I know who might be called debonair. While he might look like a broker, it’s attributable to his three good suits. He shuffles paper in a back office at Merrill Lynch. “I might safely predict, Carl, that you’ll end up in the electric chair or die of some lingering, loathsome disease,” he said.
We waited through the long pause, and then Carl said, “I guess the way I go depends on whether I get in bed with your philosophy or your girlfriend.”
He was a magician with words. And that was the beginning of the end. First step, when you hear something witty is that you pass it off as your own bon mot. But then Carl started getting quoted, first in Frank’s movie column and then in anecdotes passed around at Dorian’s and other bars we hung out at. Pretty soon, I realized people weren’t just repeating his remarks. They were attributing them to Carl Starrett. They would drop his name, and that’s pretty far up in New York’s momentary notoriety.
As the Carl anecdotes circulated more and more widely, they in effect created Carl. He became the Man in the Street who was quoted once in the Village Voice. But we knew it was an anecdote written by someone we knew. He really hadn’t been quoted standing in the street referring to Mayor Abe Beame and a telephone booth.
That summer he started getting invited to parties and gallery receptions. People would point him out in the crowd at the Electric Circus on St. Marks Place. They would cluster around waiting for these pearls to drop from his lips. He started wearing black. Shirt and pants and frock coat. He took to carrying a silver cigarette box that he filled each morning with 20 Picayune cigarettes.
Like many I knew who came to the Lower East Side in the late ‘60s, he didn’t seem to have a background. Or one that mattered. We were all in New York to go somewhere rather than having come from somewhere. Frank thought Carl was a former convict from Colorado. Klein, a biker who lived on Second Street, insisted he had been a priest in Sausalito before being defrocked. Who really knew? Or cared?
I was less than meticulous in checking into Carl’s biography. I wish I had been more demanding. Instead, I happened on the truth by accident. It was the night that the lights went out in New York—the first power failure when everything got real mellow, and not the second outage when Harlem resembled the Tet Offensive. We had all gathered at the Dom—the cavernous bar downstairs from the Electric Circus on St. Marks. It was our neighborhood watering hole and spiritual home. The beer taps worked okay even if there was no electricity. There were candles on the bar and we all had flashlights. Several people, including Big Willa from Brooklyn and Sammy the Madman, had portable radios, and they were all tuned to Cousin Brucie on WABC. I even saw Allen Ginsberg at the end of the bar, drinking alone and wearing his red-white-and-blue cardboard Uncle Sam hat.
It was around midnight or so when things broke up. I was among the last to leave because even Big Willa was starting to look good by that time. I saw Carl had left his silver cigarette case on the bar, so I put it in my pocket. The next day was Saturday, and I figured I’d try to find where he lived and give it back.
It was Big Willa who knew where Carl lived, in a shotgun flat upstairs from a Korean grocery over on Avenue C. She had been there once. Even though she was beginning to look less good in the sunlight that next morning, I let her show me the way. Fat people sweat a lot, but it had been cold that night and I wasn’t totally ungrateful.
Carl answered the door. He was wearing black silk pajamas. Still in character, even at night when no one was looking.
I got all goggle-eyed as soon as I stepped inside his apartment. There was a Persian rug on the floor. The 19th Century gas lamps had been restored and were working. I recognized a Utrillo on the wall. A windup Victrola with one of those large horn speakers was playing something classical on a scratchy 78 record.
Carl saw me staring.
“It’s amazing what you can do with a sharp eye for a bargain. A large inheritance helps,” he said.
Big Willa had already gone into a bedroom and returned pushing a wicker wheelchair. There was a young boy in it, his head wrapped in a scarf.
“My son Jamie,” Carl said. “Coffee or tea?”
We had coffee and somehow Carl felt compelled to tell me his story while Willa read to Jamie.
“I was left with some money when my wife died,” he said. “Not enough to buy a museum, but enough to be a paste-up artist—and do what needed to be done.”
Now, he added, he was focused on seeing that the money would go to charities devoted to medical research. Specifically, he wanted a cure for leukemia. His son was in the first stages, something-something about lymphoma and platelets.
Well, the rest of the day was shot for me. Willa went back to Brooklyn, but I couldn’t help thinking. This guy we all laughed at was mentally somewhere up there looking for a cure for his dying kid, trying to save humanity in the process. And he was doing it all by himself out of a tenement while holding down a job he didn’t need. He had karma we would never see.
Of course, I told Klein and Allen and Frank when I saw them. I mean, the story just tumbled out because it was so unbelievable that I had to share it and confirm the reality.
That was my mistake. Frank went to his editor of this little shopper news and got him to print an editorial asking for donations to medical research in memory of little Jamie. And here, Jamie wasn’t even dead.
The story got uptown the next week. Liz Smith carried something about it in her “Page Six” column in the Post. It made us all wonder. This cynic was a saint. And what were we doing? Drinking all night and shooting for some small-change recognition.
And then Carl called me up. “How could you do it?” His voice was plaintive, pleading. “How could you invade my privacy?”
Those were the last words he ever said to me. They’ve haunted me ever since.
The next thing I heard came a month later. Frank saw it on the AP wire and called me. Carl had been arrested. Cuffed and taken to the Ninth Precinct. Seems his son Jamie was really a fourteen-year-old girl—a healthy, libidinous runaway masquerading as a boy with a bad white cell count. Seems his inheritance was viewed as embezzlement back in one of the flatland states. Seems his graphic design job was kiting checks. He was what forgers call a paper hanger.
New York City is pretty liberal, but even here people frown on that sort of stuff. Mainly, I think everyone felt they’d been stiffed into feeling sorry for Carl.
Fame. What’s it get you in the end?
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