- Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back, Wherein he puts alms for oblivion.
- Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida
In a city where life grates against nerves already edgy from the unwanted intimacy of boom boxes and blaring car radios, one learns to accept gifts in the spirit in which they are tendered. We New Yorkers discover early on that we are, of necessity, specialists in the art of the quick study. It’s either that or a slide into that gray miasmal swamp where death looms as the only suitor. In this city, the need for survival transforms gifts into icons of grace and redemption. What we seek is proof not of our courage but of our deserving. For to be singled out as deserving is considered reward enough by most New Yorkers. Where survival is concerned, each of us carefully notes signs of favor and mercy. “We would see a sign!” is the cry of those who have been born and raised here, as if the gifts we hunger for can touch God’s benign calm and carry us beyond the raucous needs of man in his cities.
Loss is another matter altogether. If gifts feed a New Yorker’s sense of having been chosen, loss triggers his need for balance and symmetry. For New York is a city in which even children learn to live within the boundaries of the mind’s cautions. New Yorkers are taught to look on loss as personal, a notch on the gauges by which they measure well-being. One is grateful for gifts in this city because they seem so fortuitous. Loss, on the other hand, breeds consequences as formidable as they are absolute. And it is these consequences that we New Yorkers fear as they lie in wait for us like enemy soldiers at ambush.
Whatever else it may do, living in this city feeds a man’s hunger to remain in favor. The very streets seem turned to the pitch of what has been unexpectedly taken away, an apprehension that grows as the city feels itself besieged by the loss of what once made it so brilliant and distinct. A city in which the sense of possibility could be confronted in even the poorest of neighborhoods, New York today seems bruised in its very soul. Even during the Great Depression, the dominant idea in this city was that life was becoming better. Optimism bloomed like those luxuriant hothouse flowers in the Bronx Botanical Gardens. More recently, however, that neighborhood sense of possibility has given way to the feeling that if one chooses to live in this city he defines himself as a victim. The city’s casualties are so clearly visible—and it is in the nature of things that losers expect to lose. The Dodgers and Giants bailed out for the West Coast in 1957. Child’s, cheap French restaurants, Horn and Hardart’s, jazz on 53rd Street, Wanamaker’s, Altman’s, Gimbel’s, Klein’s, Chock Full O’Nuts, mello-rolls, Greenwich Village bookstores, free concerts at Lewisohn Stadium—all vanished from a city that increasingly defined itself by what it had lost. The lingering bitterness of what was taken looms like a brilliant but bitterly cold sunset on the horizon. New York was patched and peeled by the very ambitions it had once created for the rest of America. Under siege, the New York mind proved curiously fragile, transformed by its own fears even as it encountered an inner landscape that pulsated to uncertainty about the city’s future. Meanwhile, in the distance, suburban malls gleam like stars in the night.
“Tell me no stories and I’ll tell you no lies!” A wary boyhood chant tuned to the anticipation of future loss. It’s natural enough to feel anxiety in the wake of power. Only saints and madmen greet the prospect of loss with gratitude. But New Yorkers have been blinded by all the expectations coming of age in this city bred in us. Curiously enough, even in its decline, life in the Apple remains a knife to the belly of the American heartland. In TV land, where Newt Gingrich recently made a contract with all of America, there is a certain wistfulness in the efforts we New Yorkers expend simply to prove ourselves “normal” and “ordinary,” The truth is that we want both saints and madmen to be like us. Yet we insist that we ourselves aspire neither to beatitude nor madness. Our pessimism threatens to become engrained, while our apprehension about the future would chill even the daring souls P.T. Barnum singled out as “lovers of the curious and marvelous.” The center of the maelstrom may yet prove more terrifying than even Poe guessed as he sat in his cottage in the Fordham section of the Bronx. Like him, we, too, have begun to understand the price demanded of losers—and like him, too, we reflect the turmoil within even as we dive into the maelstrom’s heart.
There’s no help for it. Those who lose what they value are thrust against angles of balance and layers of symmetry that are not only dangerous but must be faced alone. Study the face of a man trying to explain the loss of a valued object. Watch his eyes narrow and sense how his tongue had begun to feel the thickness of lead. Then listen to the story he tells, as if the mere act of telling can purge him of problems of scale and proportion. Who knows better than we do that loss is a visible sign of God’s irritation? In this city, one’s sense of expectation can turn bleak and tragic in a moment. Buoyancy and exuberance can give way to fear and dismay in the blink of an eye. And humiliation and self-doubt can attack even as one’s tale of loss and victimization is being told.
It’s not the mere disappearance of some random possession that creates a New Yorker’s dread of loss. The face of victimization speaks of lives transformed by absence. Furtive, irritable, self-pitying—even the toughest among us discover that it is not some trivial “thing” that has been taken but the value of a man’s good name. Losers bemoan their missing birthrights. They wince at the memory of what has been stolen, conned, taken, given away—but definitely, harshly, and apparently irremediably lost.
Like Cassio’s reputation. And without an lago to feed a man the kind of skeptical perspective that mocks all worth. Not that what loss calls to mind is invariably painful or even, for that matter, particularly serious. It’s one’s sense of having been singled out by a malignant fate that is truly painful. Loss inflicts the anticipation of permanent darkness on us, for what has been lost is suddenly absent from the life this city that once told its citizens they were tough enough and brave enough to earn on their own. Only the intimacies of loss still hammer away at us, an insistent metronome sounding the unenviable future. More rash and quixotic than we are prepared to admit, loss thrusts us back into a world of secret debts and troubling memories and fear for the future.
We suddenly discover that we can no longer assume that the gifts we have received are the gifts we have deserved. We learn that to experience loss is to be infantilized by a fate in which chance rules and God defies Einstein and decides that He can play dice with the universe. Is the fact that loss makes grown men cry to be ascribed to accident? Not when a man accepts his inability to deal logically with what has been taken away. Not when the shadows of childhood nightmares cling to his grief about loss. For loss is judgment rendered—a judgment that the victim, if he is a true New Yorker, probably considers deserved.
Why else do we New Yorkers try to placate fate with ritual and superstition when called upon to deal with loss? I know men and women sophisticated enough to buy their bagels from Zabar’s and their opinions from The New York Review of Books who nervously throw salt over their shoulders as they confess to having lost a ring or a watch. Like young boys who beg God for a momentary triumph, secretly promising to be good to their parents if He allows them to hit the game-winning homer, we discover what we should have known all along: that when it comes to explaining away adversity neither logic nor reason are of much use. The one is limited, the other laughable. We may not know why we have been trapped by misfortune, but if chaos has truly come again we understand that we can throw logic and reason to the winds for all the good they will do. God may be in his heaven—but who says that means all’s right with the world?
The recent disappearance of a wallet inspired these reflections on what being a loser means in New York today. Not that losing a wallet is like losing an eye or a leg or a loved one. On the emotional calculus with which I measure what is and is not bearable in my own life, losing a wallet—even one filled with much more money than mine possessed—is distinctly minor. Yet at the time I learned of my loss, it was heavily weighted with significance. Tell me no stories and I’ll tell you no lies. The facts, plain and simple: two weeks before my 61st birthday, I lost my wallet while pushing in my wheelchair through Manhattan’s Chelsea. On a sunny afternoon in early May, in a city blessed by a sky that hung over it like a curtain of baked blue clay, I wheeled west, toward the great river Paul Goodman knew as “the lordly Hudson.” And I lost my wallet.
That my wallet was lost in Chelsea is one of those signs a true New Yorker must consider significant. Tell me that place is a metaphor for life, and I’ll tell you that Chelsea embodies what I have known of as home for almost four decades. Not only is it the neighborhood in which I currently live, it has also served as my place of beginning again. On Aug. 24, 1957, my wife and I spent our first night of married life in Chelsea in a run-down hotel on Twenty-Third Street. Signs and portents for two New Yorkers born and bred. Accurate enough, it turned out—at least, as far as signs and portents can be viewed as accurate or inaccurate. Our sons were born and raised in Chelsea, and they have both recently returned here as adults. For Harriet and me, this neighborhood is as much possession as place. Chelsea vivifies the past even as we engage in something as pedestrian as doing our weekly supermarket shopping. And in vivifying the past, it makes the present even more real and intense. Ask our two sons for their images of childhood and you will be offered neither well-groomed suburban lawns nor the bucolic silence of a snow-covered prairie in winter—but the Empire State Building, lit and looming like a gigantic Christmas tree just outside the kitchen window.
Chelsea is also a place of loss. Like places of beginning again, places of loss stamp themselves in memory. That Biblical prince of loss, Esau, lost his birthright inside a tent in a desert he knew and presumably loved. That the tent was the natural habitat of his less scrupulous and more worldly brother, Jacob, may be a fine example of Hebraic irony, but it is an irony that grates against my own Hebraic need for justice. Poor hungry fool persuaded to sell a birthright for a pot of lentils. Fit banquet for a loser. Like the Salvation Army’s Christmas dinners, this was not the kind of bargain a New Yorker would enter into willingly.
Yet we New Yorkers are still expected to admire hustlers in their hustle. Even wandering the deserts of Moab, Jacob was the archetypal city boy. As I am, New Yorker to the bone. Why, then, does the doltish Esau command my sympathy? “Dolt! Jadrool! Idiot! Schmuck!” my mind screams. It’s useless. Esau is no city boy—just a country bumpkin in the desert. Still, the story of that boorish hunter and the Israelite hustler continues to burn against my rage for justice, like an itch frozen in place beneath the skin. Like Natty Bumppo, Esau is a mighty hunter. And like Natty, he is not a man for words. Why should he be? Look at what the poor sucker has been tricked out of. “Schmuckl” my mind echoes soundlessly. “Idiot! Dolt! LOSER!”
Tricked by a Biblical hole-in-corner man convinced not only that he is “special” but that God Himself has confirmed him in his specialness, poor Esau can only show his skill and courage through his prowess as hunter and warrior. And so Jacob must go him one better, must prove himself even more courageous than his hunter brother. Who else wrestles with the angel of God? That Jacob endures is only to be expected. For Jacob is like the hustlers one sees plying their trade on Times Square. Only Jacob knows he is not destined to be counted as one of life’s losers. Ultimately, he will triumph even over his jealous God. Is it any wonder that the Machiavellian Jacob takes blind Isaac’s dying blessing and becomes the last of the great patriarchs of Israel?
And is it any wonder that when I first heard the story of Esau’s stolen birthright as a boy of eight in the Mosholu Jewish Center Talmud Torah, I hated the flagrant injustice of it. Never mind those rabbinical explanations. Eight-year-old boys want neither Talmudic exegesis nor spiritual plumbing. No Biblical story angered me more. Even today, when I re-read it, a fist of rage pounds my New York heart. Poor Esau, poor dumb hairy dunce, robbed of his birthright. Esau, I tell myself, is like me—a passionate wooer of this physical world. Didn’t he, too, possess a sense of fairness? One does not have to be an injustice collector to understand that my classmates and I rightfully should have prayed to “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Esau” rather than to “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Was loss meant to blind a child of New York to pity? The story of that stolen birthright marked the first time I sensed just how capricious and arbitrary the God I had been commanded to worship could be. And just how little sympathy he had for the losers among us.
If Esau is the prince of loss, my missing wallet reaffirmed my own position as one more New York soldier in the ranks. I still don’t know how that wallet was lost. Maybe it wasn’t lost. Maybe it was simply swallowed up by the remarkably fresh May air, an image I find tempting—my wallet giving itself to the benign spring afternoon. Like a fleshed-out scene in a Renoir painting. Or maybe it was stolen, to be disgorged as one more statistic in the annals of New York crime. All I know for sure is that I had a wallet and that my wallet then disappeared. How is less important than the way in which, as soon as I was conscious of its loss, that wallet made demands on memory and perception.
Yet why should the loss of a wallet be responsible for letting me know I can no longer keep secret one of my embarrassing memories? Whatever sources of symmetry and balance I may claim, the simple truth is that the loss of that wallet thrust me back into the day of my marriage. And that was a shock. I didn’t want to go back as a loser. After all, more than 39 years have come and gone since that August afternoon. Yet here I was, embracing a time far more impromptu than it was romantic. It’s not enough to explain memory’s jolts. Even if imagination is as devious a suitor as we have been told, why should something as pedestrian as a lost wallet force a man back into that not-so-simple beginning to the complexities of a lifetime of marriage?
Once again, it is that August Saturday in 1957. Four P. M, and Harriet and I, now man and wife, have been driven to Chelseafrom suburban Yonkers by my friend Leo G and my cousin Leo B. Leo G’s black and yellow ‘55 Merc bounces like a rodeo bronco across the 1920’s cobblestones of the West Side Highway. An hour and a half since the two of us were “joined in marriage” by a friendly if bored and tieless Justice of the Peace in a ceremony as awkward as it was mercifully brief. In an elopement cemented by fear, all I can remember of the ceremony, even as Harriet and I wander Chelsea’s streets on our honeymoon walk, is the way I kept my right hand pressed against the wallet in the jacket of my dark blue suit. Why had I needed that reassuring touch of the familiar?
To this day, that hand against the heart is my most vivid recollection of the marriage ceremony. It may seem a commanding symbol, but I was not pledging loyalty to state or faith or profession. Nor was I trying to reassure myself that the three or four dollars needed to get married in New York in 1957 were in my possession. Symbolic gestures are rarely as dramatic at the time of occurrence as they ultimately become in memory. Not even the passage of 39 years can keep me from acknowledging that a hand over the heart seems a more calculating and less romantic gesture today than I thought it was back in 1957. For that callow young man, hand over heart was an admission that whatever identity he could claim had been stored inside his leather billfold. Not the contents of his character but the contents of his wallet would define him as he entered marriage.
Harriet and I had eloped (at 24, the act neither as extravagant nor as emotionally dingy as Hollywood wanted us to believe) because her parents did not approve of a man whose legs had been crippled by polio as a prospective son-in-law. Yet my focus was not on that ceremony as an act of defiance but on what my wallet represented. Why was the touch of that dark brown cowhide with its evenly spaced gold fleur-de-lis’s (like white-on-white neckties, a distinctive style of the fifties) so important? Why do I still seek its caress in memory? And why do I still need the intimacy of fingers probing that breast pocket? Does the touch of love reside in that secret holy place, too? And what man wants to think of his wallet as a holy place anyway?
God knows what that wallet offered so unpolished a 24-year-old. I would never have admitted it back then, but I was a lot more afraid of what I had gotten into than any bored and tieless Yonkers Justice of the Peace could possibly have guessed. Young men take their comfort where it is offered. And whatever comfort I might claim had been tucked like a neatly folded handkerchief inside the breast pocket of that navy blue suit I had worn only once before. At this distance, it doesn’t seem like much of a beginning. No sturm und drang Wagnerian strains to rend the very heavens. Only I needed what any man about to be married in Dwight Eisenhower’s America needed—all the reassurance I could get.
How else explain why I remember the contents of that wallet more vividly than I remember anything else about our elopement? Ask me what my wife of 39 years wore that afternoon and I shrug shamelessly. When I confess this, Harriet is bemused. If I can’t remember, why should she tell? Her ego, like mine, has been weathered by a life together. Maybe that life together has been as full and rich as we two like to think—but it’s light years removed from the fears and expectations of 1957. Thirty-nine years into the duel of love and we are still left with notes for a future waiting to be defined. The truth about marriage is still a lot simpler than those psycho-babble best sellers would have us believe. In 1957, my wallet defined a life that, whatever its deficiencies, was in my possession—and in my possession alone.
When I remind her of what was in that wallet, Harriet laughs. Three photos (her college yearbook picture, a photo of my younger brother and me standing behind our solemn parents on the day of my brother’s high school graduation, and a cracked and tattered Box Brownie snapshot taken ten years before Harriet and I eloped which shows a very fat fourteen year old dressed in a striped polo shirt and khaki chinos who is hanging like a slab of beef in a butcher’s window, shoulders bubbling over wood crutches, legs encased in braces, right hand clutching a claw-shaped first baseman’s mitt (in a kiss to Kafka and Walt Disney), a social security card in which the first digit had been rubbed out, and 47 dollars in cash in the form of three tens, two fives, and seven singles.
That wallet could have belonged to any New Yorker about to be married in Elsenhower’s America. The wallet I would lose 39 years later held a good deal more—and what it held reflected the aspirations Elsenhower’s America had helped instill in me. Its owner’s circumstances were somewhat altered—and all for the better. It contained only 87 dollars—four twenties, a five, and two singles. Not much more in the way of purchasing power than its 1957 ancestor. And no photos, other than the one on my driver’s license. But its plastic windows and leather slots bulged to overflowing with how a New Yorker lived in America today.
A collective catch-all for a man’s life. In one plastic slot, oblivious to which of the two would be honored, American Express and Visa gold cards kiss back-to-back. In another are the lines of culture I claim for my own—a membership card, expired, for the Jewish Museum, and an unexpired membership card for the Met. Other cards cascade in memory: a D’AG Plus card for one of our neighborhood supermarkets; another card deeming me worthy of “check cashing privileges” at another neighborhood supermarket; an AT&T calling card; a NYNEX calling card; an access pass to state parks; a lifetime admission pass to America’s national parks; a Blue Cross/Blue Shield hospital card; a GHI health insurance card; a discount card for a stationary chain; a red, white and blue card for the Automobile Club of New York; a blue and white card for the Ford Automobile Club; a drug prescription card I had used the day before yesterday to pick up antibiotics for Harriet at the New London Pharmacy on Eighth Avenue; a National Public Radio membership card from WNYC, NPR’s New York affiliate; three coupons for a Tenth Avenue car wash clipped from a circular left on my windshield a week ago; a dry cleaning ticket from the Penn House Cleaners for a jacket dropped off three days ago; the registration for my 1993 Mercury Marquis; and my wallet ID—name, address, and telephone number dutifully filled out.
My lost wallet defines the life of a middle-class New Yorker in 1996 as surely as Homer’s Catalogue of the Ships defines the mythic warriors of The Iliad. Nothing more accurately details the intimate yet public aspects of a man’s life than the contents of his wallet. Mine was filled to overflowing with minutiae—credit cards, driver’s license, telephone numbers jotted down on torn napkin edges, receipts so old I can no longer tell what they were originally for, stray lines that had popped into my head in some bar or restaurant—a debris hinting not only at who I was but at what I expected from life in this city.
Take that ticket for the safari jacket. I have never been one of those men who is particularly interested in clothing fashions. Nonetheless, I harbor among my vanities the way that jacket frames my chest and shoulders. Big men are usually more vain than they are willing to admit. Even sitting in my wheelchair (which in itself should make all such vanities laughable—but doesn’t), I feel a surge of affection for that safari jacket. No matter how much I try to deny it, the thought of that jacket soothes the Hemingway wannabe lurking in my soul like a gunman at play. I love it as I have never before loved a piece of clothing—not even that “lucky” black turtleneck sweater I wore in college until it literally unraveled on my body.
I knew it would be easy to retrieve my jacket from the owner of Penn House Cleaners, where I had been bringing clothes to be cleaned for 24 years. Yet the thought that what little notion of style I possessed could so easily be taken away from me was irritating. The loss of a style that was distinctly mine—no matter how pedestrian it might seem to others—was not the kind of loss a New Yorker is willing to acknowledge. “Kill my style,” writes Sandburg, “and you blind Ty Cobb’s batting eye.” Sandburg is too self-consciously plebeian for my tastes, but I, too, believe style should be given away voluntarily, if it must be given away at all.
Despite having come of age in the same Bronx neighborhood that gave this America both Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren (each four or five years younger than I and each formed by the rich stew of expectation that bubbled through the Bronx in the decade after World War Two), fashion is not a topic I speak of with ease. Yet my sense of style is mine alone. “Cliche becomes event,” claims Adorno. Admittedly, he is not talking about safari jackets draping the shoulders of aging Hemingway wannabes but about the music of Mahler. Yet even if I have as many problems with Adorno’s Teutonic Marxism as I do with Sandburg’s plebeian sentimentality, he has accurately stated the case for me. A lost wallet may be a life’s container, but I am a writer—and writers know the price expected of those who voluntarily choose cliche.
Nothing illustrates the risks a writer runs as he shapes perception to the demands of memory better than his use of cliche. Cliches about style can define any writer’s purpose. Greater than the panic I felt on learning that my wallet was missing was my sense that my right to assert my own idea of what I might yet become—a right I claimed to value above all others—had been stripped from me as if it were some casual charity bestowed by others. That one’s selfhood could so easily be seized pushed me from irritation to the gates of rage. Take away Sandburg’s style and you take away his poet’s eye. Take away my taste, however provincial you deem it, and you steal my lingering New York fantasy of being healed in a city where resurrection is the ultimate gift.
Once aware of the loss of that wallet, it seemed only natural that I retrace my path through Chelsea. Yet before I could allow myself to search the streets—streets I had known for almost four decades—I compulsively went to my desk and listed everything I remembered that had been in my wallet. On a piece of paper on which my deepest fears were realized, I discovered that the particulars of my life were missing. A ledger of absence for a life that no longer belonged to me. Disrupted by loss and challenged by memory, it was as if I had been transformed into a schoolboy forced to confess his humiliations in public. Enraged, emptied out, overwhelmed by what the loss of my wallet signified, I understood that I had lost something of far greater value than money or library card or driver’s license.
No city makes legitimate the need for documentation in quite the same way as New York does. Even for those of us who still love it in its decline, this city has grown irritably European, particularly in the demands its beauracracies insist upon, We New Yorkers expect to be battered by those who are, nominally at least, our public servants. We like to think of ourselves as “tough,” yet in no other city is public service as easily accepted as a form of public abuse. And that is what makes any kind of loss in New York a nightmare capable of separating a man from his own past. Lose your wallet and you lose proof of your individuality. What I valued was not what that wallet held but the life it had defined. What I owned affirmed the past simply because it made the past personal. In order to possess the self that had belonged to me until I lost my wallet, I needed the certification of the documents it held. My fears and my ambitions and my sense of who I was—they all resided in my lost wallet. I was more accurately defined by what that wallet contained than by the loose fantasies roaming my mind.
Like a gambler forced to call in his chits, I viewed each missing item as one of memory’s markers. I understood the debts ringing my life. It wasn’t that I could no longer assume the purchasing ease of credit cards or the proof of identity a driver’s license offers that was so troubling. Telephone calls to American Express and Visa would end the one problem and a horrific few hours at the traffic bureau on Worth Street would end the other. But the loss of credit cards and driver’s license—even the loss of that stationary discount card— threatened the most crippling of all losses, the loss of identity. “Experience costs blood,” the old Yiddish saying has it. How much more blood does identity cost? Who wants to admit he cannot hold on to the self he has created—year by year, card by card, piece of paper by piece of paper?
I discover my wallet is missing when I seek the ticket for my safari jacket at the Penn House Dry Cleaners. Until then, the day’s drift has been pleasant. A morning spent working on a story suggested by one of those napkin notes jotted down in the Greek luncheonette across the street. A quirk of fortune wriggling out of its leathery burial in my wallet-writer’s grave. Before I switch off my computer, I re-read what I have written. A good morning’s work. Later, after I discover that I am just one more New York loser, each word seems to reflect the chaos of a life suddenly made raw and unsatisfactory. Like Eliot’s Sweeney, loss teaches me to hate words.
I stopped work on that story so that I could leave the apartment to meet a friend for lunch. On the afternoon in 1957 when Harriet and I had eloped to Yonkers, my friend was pitching in the major leagues.
Nearing the end of his career, he was what was still known then as “a good journeyman pitcher”—a big right hander with a decent curve ball who had, through the usual years of minor league apprenticeship expected of ballplayers in those days, managed to absorb the kind of baseball savvy that lends experience value.
But the man sitting across the table from me in this Chinese restaurant in Chelsea was in his early 70’s, and he was battling not major league hitters but cancer and a recent fall in which he had broken his arm. Just back from a short hospital stay, he was still obviously in some pain. If anything can be said in favor of the pain we all confront as we age, it is that it snaps shut the dreams of youthful comeback each of us secretly harbors. As a man grows older, the value of pain becomes to teach him that his dreams are finished and that he has earned the right to focus on how the beginning of the end shapes up.
As he was about to cut into an egg roll, my friend put his knife down and stood up, a movement so sudden and unexpected it had the effect of making this still physically imposing man appear to shrink into himself. I watched him struggle to remove the wallet from the back pocket of his pants. What was he searching for? The truth is, I don’t know. I assume it wasn’t for money, since we were just at the beginning of our meal. I’d like to believe he was looking for some yellowed clipping from The Sporting News to prove he had once been good enough to lead all American League pitchers in earned run average. Or maybe be was searching for some non-baseball memento trapped in the record of accomplishment he knew as his life, something that, for whatever strange reason, he wanted me to know about. His reasons were far less important, as far as I was concerned, than the reality of that wallet.
Unless a man is a fool, he learns that identity and dreams, rather than his pleasure, are what he has finally stored in his wallet. Even money speaks not of wealth but of the services he has rendered and the goods he has purchased. In New York, a city as money-conscious as any city in this world, not even losers believe that money alone constitutes the record of a life. One cannot buy the documents that go toward defining identity. A man earns his identity down through the years. And none of us can randomly pull new dreams from the empty spaces of old lives—which is why lost wallets strip existence of significance, even as they strip their owners of the past that once guaranteed their singularity.
I felt curiously uplifted at lunch with that friend battling terminal illness. Both of us knew he was dying. But he was dying in a world in which the record of his life had already been made. Pain could not be ignored, but pain was not equal to the endurance a man facing his end needed. Endurance was the final gift that one’s body, however battered, might offer the soul. Not an idea without its embarrassments—but how else can we treat loss? Faulkner saw endurance as one of those rare qualities a man might just as easily discover in himself as in others. In a Chinese restaurant in Chelsea, I think I understood that, too, watching a friend endure pain as he had endured memory—to affirm a life already lived.
Maybe what my friend was telling me is that we have no choice in the matter. We are all, New Yorker and non-New Yorker alike, ultimately destined to go down as losers. But as my friend and I randomly talked about teaching and about a boy’s game that still possessed a purity of line simple enough to outlast even the pomposity of what has been written about it (we had met 15 or so years after his pitching career ended, when I was teaching a course in Emerson and His Contemporaries, and he, a college student of 50, gently corrected a pretentious remark I made about American individualism and the great game), it struck me that what we New Yorkers fear is being called on to endure not pain but the loss of the personal past. This is what threatens us, even as the gargoyles of terminal illness line up to plague our dreams. It is what we fear in loss. For if courage is what a man brings to the task of being human (maybe not exactly what Hemingway had in mind when he dismissed the word as unusable but a definition I can go with), then perhaps endurance is simply a better name for courage. No one ever said losers cannot transform the world as they take their leave of it.
No man can brag that he possesses courage until the moment of his death. To its credit, even in its decline New York gives a man a sense of how well or how poorly he has endured better than any other city I know. Like the contents of lost wallets, the lives of men reveal records which long ago ceased to make much sense even to those who have lived those lives. Yet they are still our records, as they are still our lives. Courage may not be a question of habit alone, but habit certainly plays a role in its acquisition. Baseball players are not philosophers, but they have the distinct advantage over the rest of us of being men who have learned the value of habit early in life—just as we learn the value of the things that lie hidden in our lost wallets.
How accurate my instinct had been when I pressed hand to breast pocket on that August afternoon in 1957. For at that moment, my wallet was my true heart, all I could honestly pledge to a woman I loved. Was I just one more New York loser back then, too? If so, I didn’t realize it. This city had taught me that, to some extent, a man should take pride in the identity cards he carries. And I was grateful for the lesson. I still am. There are worse fates than being a New York loser—skeptical, suspicious, struggling for the return of identity. Losing my wallet simply reaffirmed what I had learned as a child in this city—that the things one loses reveal not only what a man is but what he wants to become, even as he recognizes that the time has come to contemplate an end to all but the final loss.
In memory of Saul Rogovin, 1923—1995