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Confessions of An Ordinary Man


ISSUE:  Autumn 2001

I am an ordinary man, and like most of my kind take neither pleasure nor its pursuit lightly. On the contrary ordinary men would rather earn pleasure as they have earned their success. Heirs of the Puritans Mencken claimed were as repressed as they were dour, ordinary men know that even when it comes to hedonism a sense of proportion is necessary. Yet as paradoxical as it may be an ordinary man’s expectations of life seem larger today than when that scourge of the booboisie was writing. And among the most natural of those expectations is giving and receiving pleasure—including the pleasure of sex. Mencken’s own bierstube fantasies prevented him from recognizing the extent to which we are attracted to ordinary pleasures. Ordinary men do not seek salvation in sex nor do we expect to discover personal liberation in the sweat and grunt of passion. Despite the famous Hemingway line that would serve generations of late-night TV comedians, the world does not turn over when an ordinary man has good sex—not, at least, if he is older than 16. And despite Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley daisies are merely flowers, not orgiastic memorabilia. Sex was simply never intended to provide a metaphysical slurping of what bad novelists call “the fountains of life.”

Ordinary men alternate between pride in acknowledging their ordinariness and a nagging sense that they would be better off were they able to claim a more dramatic fate. Men like me measure the past against all the needs our lives ask us to justify. No matter what my life may look like to others it is, from my ordinary man’s perspective, more fractious than those others recognize. Battered by past vanities, I look not to heaven but to earth for examples of how a man can come though. “I am an American,” boasts Augie March, my first literary hero, “and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style. . . .” I saw Augie as a kindred spirit because he wallowed in his ordinariness. I first read the opening sentences of Bellow’s great novel as a 20-year-old college student, and I could feel my heart swell with joy at finally having met a character in fiction able to speak for me, too. Augie was born knowing what men like me are forced to discover in what used to be known as the School of Hard Knocks. To survive and prosper a man must learn to roll with the punches, rock with the waves, and pray for luck.

Ordinary men have no choice but to live with their lack of vision, even if that lack of vision verges on cliché. Lack of vision populates our ranks with failed poets, small-time hustlers, inept gamblers, and cautious entrepreneurs. Lack of vision forces Sunday athletes to recognize that their marginal talents can never match the dream of what true talent does for a man. And lack of vision not only allows us to be ordinary but also allows us to worship gods as ordinary as we are. Unlike a Blake or a Ginsberg, ordinary men do not yearn for a vast cosmic consciousness. No, they take their pleasure in the limited choices available to them even as they mumble their discontent into their beer. Blake saw eternity in a grain of sand and Ginsberg howled at a universe hostile to his needs, but we ordinary men prefer a shrug of the shoulders or a grunt to such cosmic kvetching. It isn’t that we lack self-absorption but that our self-absorption is less apocalyptic than the self-absorption of poets and/or prophets. The truth is that even if I had chutzpah enough to number myself among those unacknowledged legislators of the universe I would continue to confess my sins the way ordinary men like me have always confessed—not subtly or obliquely but in as direct and accusatory a manner as possible. An ordinary man’s confession is a mea culpa wrenched from experience, a rending of accounts in which what matters is that he bring his honesty to the table. And so I offer an ordinary man’s mea culpa, urging readers to think of Onan spilling his seed to avoid taking his brother’s widow to wife. Or to recall Yeats’ “the imaginary loves of solitary beds.” In the Bronx in which I came of age, adolescents, as ignorant of Yeats as they were of the Bible, called it “jerking off.” Call it what you will, it is my text. And other than my Catholic schoolboy friends on 206th Street I never met man or boy who thought it much of a sin. It certainly wasn’t what Blake had in mind when he urged, “Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.”

Yet the most comic of subjects is serious when it deals with the needs of the flesh. For the demands of the flesh cannot be ignored, and the body cannot laugh away need or wink away desire. Salvation isn’t what adolescents have in mind in when they fist their fantasies of flesh. Forced to retreat into imagination they discover that not even inventing the object of desire guarantees romance. No one is free of love’s burdens, not even when love itself is fantasized. And masturbation is mundane simply because everybody does it, while the fact that everybody does it merely adds to the adolescent’s sense of having lost out on the real thing. As a colleague remarked years ago, when Portnoy’s Complaint, that classic of fantasized flesh, was first published, “It takes a lot more than an active imagination to turn jerking off into the thing itself.”

That is as good an explanation as I know of why, despite attempts to fold the act into the Zeitgeist of the 1960’s, masturbation never found its niche as a political issue. It simply couldn’t attract the kind of people who were willing to commit to a cause (those who threw themselves into the struggle for civil rights and demanded an end to the war in Vietnam). Masturbation lacked cachet. If it had any appeal as a political issue it was in the university alone (and to marginal groups even there). It didn’t succeed as an issue because even during the height of the Vietnam War American men believed that they had the right to make both love and war.

Yet the embarrassment the subject commands even today is puzzling if we look at the success that homosexuals, to take the most obvious example, have had in making their emergence from the closet a matter of public record. If nothing else, confession of sexual proclivities has long been a staple in creating an acceptable public persona in a nation that views confession as not only good for the soul but as offering the possibility of a cheaply arrived-at new identity. It frees a man to sin and then to confess again. There is a reason for all those tabloids one sees at the supermarket checkout counter. They sell redemption to a populace whose appetite for redemption can never be satiated. Does anybody doubt that Bill Clinton would have been better off had he owned up to Monica from the start and immediately thrown himself on the mercy of the American public? Confession may not always be its own reward but it usually offers the sinner the possibility of a future filled with rewards.

II

When I was an adolescent, it never occurred to me that masturbation was a sin—and not because I wasn’t Catholic. Like other urban adolescents, I did the hand because I lacked the opportunity to do the beast with two backs. Pleasure alone was not what I sought (although I certainly wanted it). I needed sexual fantasies that could deny the betrayal inflicted on a body that polio had robbed of the use of legs. Because I was imprisoned within a body that wasn’t “normal,” jerking off became part of a truce I arranged between ambition and imagination. In imagination I included myself in the ranks of those Erving Goffman called “the normals.” Yet no matter how passionately I gave myself over to sexual fantasy my “real” life remained anchored to a body with useless legs. I obviously wasn’t normal, despite my attempts to convince myself that fantasizing sexual prowess would help me overcome my physical limitations. Sooner or later, I would be forced to accept the body polio had bequeathed me. I knew that. And sooner or later, I would be forced to give up my fantasies. I knew that, too. Yet as I daily struggled with all the paradoxes being crippled imposed on me I masturbated in the hope that someone who wasn’t normal could still manage to make himself into an ordinary man.

As I remember my sexual adolescence, I also remember that the year between my 17th and 18th birthdays, when I set out to re-create myself physically by remolding my broken body, was probably the single best year of a life that has been filled with its share of good years. In memory, that year remains as sharp and hard as a diamond. To approach life with such fixed concentration that it continues to feed one pride 50 years later is to have lived with rare intensity. On the one hand, I was detached from a body I knew more intimately than any adolescent should know his body. On the other, I felt an overwhelming sense of my own physical presence, as if some dybbuk of muscle, bone, and flesh had taken root in my soul. Never again would I feel so strong a sense of my physical singularity. Never again would I come as close to feeling those intimations of immortality Wordsworth speaks of in his magnificent ode. Flooded by an exuberance I can only speak of as matchless, I believed, quite literally, that I was not only captain of my bodily fate but that I was also in control of my destiny. The sheer physicality of that year still fills me with joy as I call up the weight lifting, the pushups, the way I flung my brace-bound legs through the streets of my neighborhood on the swing-through gait of a cripple absolutely confident in the strength of his arms. Never have I felt such immense gratitude for being alive. My crutches were like gigantic aluminum wings, slashing the air as they carried me forward. Of course, I knew it was illusory, even back then. Crippled or whole, no man controls his life. Yet for one year I was as much a visionary as Blake, as if all I had to do was imagine being in control of my life in order to be in control.

No one should be admired because he is willing to meet his fate. Like my hero Augie, I would discover that modesty is not among the luxuries an ordinary man can afford. Only a fool thinks himself heroic because of what he is forced to endure. “If I was smart,” Dick Butkus, the great linebacker for the Chicago Bears, once said, “I would’ve been a doctor. But I’m not smart. So I hit people.” Such wisdom makes sense to those of us trying to differentiate between our own muddling through and the larger-than-life action demanded of a hero. One does what one can to survive, which means one does what one is allowed to do.

Yet hope and fear are intimately bound, and one touches skepticism in the act of embracing hope. I love Blake’s visionary passion but I came to trust Tennyson more than I ever trusted Blake. Like Augie, Tennyson is an ordinary man.(Unlike Augie, he is also humorless.) Even the poems steeped in myth derive from his ordinariness. One envisions him pacing the sidelines like a high school football coach wondering if it’s time to send in a new quarterback. Living as a cripple made me obtuse enough so that by 18 even my physical limitations began to seem liberating. However perverse it sounds, I structured the quest for a new self around my sexual fantasies, so that jerking off became just another example of Emerson’s “compensation.” The act didn’t define me; it defined the needs from which it had emerged. Call no man enemy but be aware of a man’s potential for envy—even when what he envies is your pain.

III

I don’t remember exactly when I first heard that among the legacies of polio was that it could leave a man sterile. I do remember that by September 1951, when I entered college, I was convinced that I could not become a father. The idea’s origins must have been planted in me by something I had read or heard yet I cannot recall what it was. It probably doesn’t matter anyway. In the ‘40’s and ‘50’s a good deal of nonsense, both of the folk and “scientific” varieties, was believed about illness. To this day one discovers people convinced of the truth of the old Victorian canard that masturbation leads to feeblemindedness. Regardless of its origins, my fear of sterility, illogical as it was, created a reality of its own. I was a young man faced with the prospect of living my life with the aftereffects of a serious illness. Unlike such visible consequences of polio as walking on braces and crutches, the fear of being sterile was so powerful that I couldn’t even speak of it. Not to be able to be a father was as painful a prospect as I could conceive, and I forced myself not to think about it even as I recognized that what had been taken from me stood at the heart of the very ordinariness I desired. Sterility was a greater indictment of my future than the braces strapped to my legs or the crutches beneath my shoulders. Yet as a fate, sterility made sense if only because it offered itself as just another immutable law of illness.

My war with polio had dominated my life from the moment I took sick at 11. Like all such wars, it was as impregnable to logic as it was unassailable by evidence. Struggles against disease grow simply because they exist. If one survives a serious illness, one feels overwhelmingly grateful. And because I had survived I had no right to question polio’s power to define the future. Disease had to be placated, and it seemed only natural that I was sterile, since sterility seemed a logical consequence of the disease. To question a fate imposed by illness seemed subversive, if not sacrilegious, especially since I lived in a nation engaged in a postwar love affair with everything that was normal and ordinary. The inability to father children was even more painful where the triumph of the ordinary was celebrated everywhere I looked. By the 1950’s the Second World War was being transformed into a struggle for the hearts and minds of ordinary men, as befit an international cataclysm that had been fought and won by ordinary men. From Ernie Pyle’s G.I. Joe to the advertising executive in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit to the one-armed ex-army officer in Bad Day at Black Rock, he was made synonymous with courage. Had Spencer Tracy ever been more American than in that film in which he thrusts his presence into a small-town western landscape so ordinary that it is murderous?

Despite Dr. Kinsey, the procreative urge reigned supreme in the America of those postwar years. In the ‘60’s, middle-class values would change and the ordinary would be forced on the defensive. But in the ‘50’s the triumph of the ordinary looked permanent. And I believed that a man unable to father children was an outcast. In all other areas of life I had already exhibited considerable daring.(At the risk of immodesty, let me note that cripples are daring simply by insisting on the right to define life for themselves.) A man incapable of becoming a father was a man who had been unmanned in his own eyes and in the eyes of the nation.

Although I did not attempt to probe the “scientific” basis of my conviction that illness had left me sterile, I parroted the idea that a man was better off knowing the truth. Even a mind as unscientific as mine knew that not every fear was rational, yet I was so ashamed of the possibility that the determination to keep my fear to myself grew stronger with each passing day. Postwar America was a more reticent country than the nation I live in today and I had no trouble guarding my secret fear until the end of my sophomore year in college, when the truth came searching for me in the guise of a friend about to leave for Europe. On a June afternoon we sat in a local luncheonette as he told me that he was looking for someone to take his place working for a physician on the Grand Concourse. “The pay’s good, Lennie. Any chance you would be interested?”

“Take your place doing what?”

“Doing what I do,” he said mysteriously.

“And just what is it you do?”

Richie cleared his throat, gaze nervously shifting to a man in a blue suit paying for cigarettes at the register. “I jerk off,” he blurted out. “I jerk off and then I donate the sperm.” That Richie had a job was surprising, for never had I known anyone so single-mindedly devoted to getting into med school. That he sold sperm was an even greater surprise, for selling sperm was not among the topics Dr. Kinsey had covered. Yet after an initial reticence, Richie was eager to speak of what he did. For two years, it turned out, he had been working as “a sperm donor.” (Even in 1953 the word “donor” disturbed me, for it was already obvious that not only did power emerge from the barrel of a gun but that selling one’s sperm was not the same as donating it.)

“Who buys sperm?” I asked incredulously.

“A doctor on the Grand Concourse. He inseminates women who want children but whose husbands are sterile.”

“What is it he asks you to do? Tell me again.”

“I jerk off. I jerk off into a vial and then I bring it to Dr. L.”

“You jerk off? For money?”

Richie shrugged. “Of course, for money. It’s my sperm.”

“You get paid for that? It’s hard to believe.” The sin of Onan might leave a man panting with fantasies of Elizabeth Taylor, but that it could leave him with money in his pocket was a more heady prospect than I was prepared for. I felt as if my grandmother’s Yiddish saying, “In America anyone can make a living” had taken on flesh. “How much do you get?”

“Ten bucks.”

“Ten bucks a shot?” I whistled. I had just accepted—gratefully, I should add—a summer job at a hospital five blocks from where the two of us were now sitting. As most summer jobs did in 1953, it paid minimum wage—fifty cents an hour, if I recall rightly. For a single shot of sperm Richie was being paid as much as I would make typing up invoices and answering telephones from ten until two, Monday through Friday. Where but in America could one man “donate” his sperm for as much money as another man made working 20 hours a week in a sub-sub-non-air-conditioned hospital basement? “That’s a lot of money just for jerking off.”

“If you’re interested,” he continued, aware that envy was pressing me to greed’s bosom, “I can arrange for you to be tested,”

“What kind of test?” I asked suspiciously.

Richie sighed. “Didn’t you take high school biology?”

“Amoebae and protozoa are what I studied in biology. I don’t jerk off dreaming of amoebae and protozoa.”

“Dr. L. does the test himself.”

“What is Dr. L. going to test me for?” I demanded.

“To check your sperm count. If it’s high and the sperm is motile, you’re a good candidate.”

“Candidate for what?”

“Candidate for what?” Richie mimicked. He was growing exasperated.

“What am I a good candidate for?” I persisted.

“For making women pregnant. That’s why he pays ten bucks a shot.”

“He wants to see if I have the right stuff?”

Richie sighed again. “He wants the women he treats to become mothers. You donate the sperm and the sperm impregnates the woman. Beyond that, it has nothing to do with you.”

“If I take this test, can he tell whether I can have kids?”

“That’s why he does the damn test.” Suddenly, Richie looked up at me, puzzled. “Why shouldn’t you be able to have kids?” We had been friends for many years but I had never spoken of my fear of sterility to him.

I shrugged. “If I get tested, then what?”

“If you pass you get the job. He wants smart people. I told him you were smart. Until now, I believed it.” He paused. “When I return, I get the job back.”

“Do I have to be tested?”

“If you’re interested in taking over, yes.”

“Does the polio make a difference?”

“Polio took your legs, not your sperm.”

Why, I wondered, wasn’t a future doctor aware that the virus that had left me with dead legs might also have left me sterile? Yet the test would tell me all that I needed to know. It would force me to face my fear. “Does it matter to the doctor is what I mean,” I explained. Then I added, “I’ll take the test.”

“Tomorrow?” I nodded. “Is it settled?” I nodded again. As self-conscious young men did in 1953, we shook hands. Richie handed me a glass vial and told me to bring it to Dr. L. the next day. If I tested positive, then the job would be mine. And I could become a father, an ordinary man.

IV

It was settled—if I passed the test. I dreamt that night of women melting into the heavens of the Bronx, only to be transformed into smiling infants. In the morning, when I awoke, I was eager to rid myself of the humiliation I had carried within me for years. Ten o’clock saw me pushing down the staircase of the subway station at 206th Street as I had taught myself to do during my annus mirabilus. The weight of my body on my left hand, I pushed off the banister as the crutch beneath my right shoulder pressed piston-like—up and down, up and down. Once I stood on the platform I nervously fingered the vial in my pant pocket. It took less than ten minutes for the D train to reach Tremont Avenue, where I left it to make my way upstairs. Body sweating, I sailed into the hot morning air on the swing-through gait of an experienced crutch-walker, moving swiftly down the Concourse, eyes focussed on the blue awning in the center of the next block Richie had told me to look out for. Beneath the awning stood a doorman in a blue vest, already sweating from the fists of morning heat. Dr. L. was expecting me, I explained. He yawned. “Elevator’s down the hall,” he said. “Apartment 12C.”

In 1953, the Grand Concourse still evoked a sense of status and wealth to anyone who had grown up in the Bronx. It seemed fitting for barren women who hoped to become pregnant to come to this Art Deco apartment house, as if the marble and bronze sconces lining the ornate lobby could feed their dreams of fecundity. The decline of the borough that would follow the completion of the Cross-Bronx Expressway was not yet visible. In five years the borough would begin its rapid descent into the graffiti-splotched eyesore mocked by an entire nation as it watched the Bronx burn between innings of the World Series. But in 1953 the Concourse still possessed the grandeur that had made it so powerful a reflection of the ambitions of the borough’s tribes, the Jews, Italians, and Irish who now knew that they, too, were in the American grain.

On the 12th floor the door opened to reveal a beige wall decorated by a lithograph of a mother and child. The man who rose from his chair looked like the Englishman in Alexander Korda’s Drums, his hands graceful and his clear blue eyes visible behind wire-rimmed glasses augmenting his civility. Bounding forward, he grabbed my hand and shook it enthusiastically, as if I were some old friend whom he hadn’t seen in a long time rather than a college student whose sperm he was to test. Not knowing how else to react, I reached into my pocket and handed him the vial. Drum roll sounding inside my head, I felt that I was not only helping an unknown woman avoid her barren fate but also grabbing at the ordinariness I passionately desired.

Dr. L. smiled, took the vial, and placed it on the desk. “The stuff of life,” he said.

“Did Richie speak to you about me?”

“He did. I’m pleased to meet you, Leonard.”

“I hope this works out.”

“So do I, young man. So do I. Leave your number with the nurse.” He drew himself erect and saluted. “Welcome aboard.”

V

Fear lines the openings through which one defines the reality of the past. Forty-eight years have come and gone since that morning, yet in memory it is a scene straight out of Marx—the brothers, not Karl. Strut and word and gesture assume meaning in the blessing of laughter as I spy the ordinary man I hoped to become. Between desire and reality fear lies in me like poison neutralized. Yet it is impossible to avoid the humor. Do I speak of it as “jerking off” or as “the imaginary loves of solitary beds”? Is it Yeats or the language of the streets? Does it matter what I call it? Sex in the head, even sex with one’s hand, is as humorous as Mary McCarthy said writing about sex invariably is for a writer. Yet humor recedes as memory reconstructs old fears. I struggled to make myself an ordinary man, but in my struggle something so humorous proved pivotal. How desperate I was to pass Dr. L. ‘s test. And how dependent my becoming an ordinary man had been on my ability to become a father.

The fact that the story has a happy ending adds to its humor but doesn’t lessen my memory of the fear. An 18th-century novelist might write, “You guessed it, reader. My count high, my sperm motile, I was to experience the joy of fatherhood.” It’s as good a conclusion as any other. The next morning Dr. L.’s nurse telephoned to welcome me into the ranks of those for whom the stuff of life had overwhelmed fear. I was now numbered among the inseminators, for I had passed the test with what she spoke of as “flying colors.” Like Richie, I was to be paid ten dollars per “specimen.” But my joy had nothing to do with money (although, I hasten to add, the money was most welcome). Liberated from fear of sterility, I stood on the verge of an ordinariness I desired as strongly as I have ever desired anything.

VI

That summer was among the hottest in New York City’s history. And the city in 1953 wasn’t the air-conditioned New York of today. One went to bed in a sweat, one awoke in a sweat, and one sweated day and night—at work, at play, even in sleep. As if a perpetual wetness had wrapped around my body, I would leave each morning for my job in the sub-sub-basement of the hospital—like Augie, determined to go at things in my own way. I masturbated “specimens” for women I would neither see nor know.(Dr. L. went to great lengths to keep patient and “donor” unknown to one another, with separate entrances to his office.) Haunted by a desire to bear children, with their futures framed by a passion for the ordinary equal to my own, those women were seeking what I now knew I possessed—”the stuff of life.” No longer plagued by the fear of sterility, I felt that jerking off was one more routine, not much more erotic than eating or sleeping. Dr. L.’s nurse would usually call me every other day. Telephone voice like that of a secret Comintern courier, she would tell me what time the “donation” was due. I would sit behind my battered steel desk in my cubbyhole hospital office, stripped to the waist as the sweat rolled freely down my chest, back, and arms, and her conspiratorial voice would transform sperm into a “delivery.” “Delivery at four tomorrow,” she would command. And without waiting for a reply, she would hang up.

I was expected to get to the Art Deco apartment house on the Concourse as close to the time she had specified as possible. My work at the hospital ended at two and when I was to make a “delivery” I would retreat into a lavatory near the freight elevator—rarely frequented, so far as I could tell—and select one of the two narrow toilet stalls. Closing my eyes, right hand gloving my penis, I would give myself over to fantasy as the formaldehyde smell permeating the sub-sub-basement kissed the rush of imagined desire. Despite the heat and the smell I embraced my imaginary passion, giving and taking pleasure in couplings as picture-perfect as a Puritan ever offered the stroke of his hand. It didn’t matter whether I evoked a Hollywood beauty or fantasized about the young woman with angular face and dancer’s legs whom I passed as I walked to the hospital each morning. Yet I never envisioned myself as a lover with normal legs. The object of passion could be bathed in romance but my own body was out-of-bounds. A masturbating Sisyphus, even in fantasy I clung to braces and crutches as the true badges of the ordinariness I had prayed for.

After I came, I would leave the hospital and walk through humid sponges of cloying air toward Jerome Avenue. Tired and sweating, I would sit in the bus moving down the Concourse—an ordinary man in training for the real fatherhood he would discover nine years later. It is difficult to do justice to the joy and hope that sprang up in me that summer. I would never drive cart and plow over the bones of the dead, as Blake urged. But I would become an ordinary man who desired what ordinary men were expected to desire in 1953— marriage, children, a position in life.

Maybe the 1950’s were as narrow and repressive a decade as history claims. But for one Bronx cripple, masturbating in the hope of becoming an ordinary man, it was a remarkably rich decade. I still wonder whether the visions I masturbated to filled any wombs. God knows I hope so—for I owe those unknown women in their need far more than they can owe me. Even if I helped produce progeny for them I felt no need to know about it. That wasn’t the sort of bargain an ordinary man made with God or fate in 1953—especially not with a God so enraged by what Onan did in spilling his seed that he snuffed out his life. It wasn’t the stuff of life that made a man a father. It was what one gave those for whose lives one accepted the responsibilities that defined an ordinary man living an ordinary life.

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