My Life with Jacques
Excerpts from “In Due Season: A Catholic Life” by Paul Wilkes
The Friday night “clarification of thought” meetings at the Catholic Worker served as a gathering of a certain, mostly Catholic, tribe, not the overtly religious ones or those working in Church institutions and none of the hierarchy, nuns for sure, a priest now and again. The life and witness of Dorothy Day and the Worker had implanted something they could not erase from their minds and they wanted to be around to hear the stories and stir the embers of their own consciences to live a more intentional life. Various ranks of voluntary poverty were in evidence as clearly as stripes on a Navy uniform. Those who had made the true commitment never wore clothes that matched and boots or shoes that were terribly popular a year or two before. Women just entering the ranks wore makeup, the men “dressed down” but even in their mannered shabbiness they were still wearing the back of the closet, not the bottom of the barrel.
This was the winter of 1974 and I was getting to know more of the Worker people – Frank Donovan, Geoff Gneuhs, Jane Sammon. I could stay there at the Worker now that I had recently become homeless, having given everything (including two floors of a Park Slope brownstone) to the woman who would soon be my former wife. But I wanted to live in the Brooklyn neighborhood, close to CHIPS, the storefront that I had helped to start. “Jacques might have a place for you,” Frank Donovan mentioned, directing me to a short, balding man who was listening intently to an animated woman with the aluminum pie plate lashed perkily atop her head, an improvised cloche by any other name. Did Jacques realize that we all were in danger? You could never tell when the rays would strike; therefore constant vigilance was of utmost importance. It was all she could do to keep the rays from entering her brain. Jacques Travers, pensively resting his cheek in the palm of his hand – a look I would grow to know and love — took in every word with a serious look that bid her to continue her ranting, which she did with even greater gusto and volume.
Jacques, I would later find, was living an aimless and dissolute life in France and on a trip to Rome was so disgusted with himself he was ready to commit suicide. He came upon an American priest, Pierre Conway, who, upon hearing his story, handed him one of Dorothy Day’s books. The idea of sharing his life with the poor, as she had done, so completely transfixed and transformed Travers that, within the year, he was on his way to America. He supported himself teaching introductory French at Brooklyn College, at low pay, decidedly not on the tenure track, meanwhile devoting whatever he earned to the small community at – and he said the address as if it were at Heaven’s Gate – “80 Winthrop.”
Jacques was a tiny man, impish would be the right way to characterize his face, smooth, virtually unwrinkled, a boy’s face really, although he was probably then in his early 50s. I had known and would come to know many good people, many holy people. Jacques was neither. He was a saint. The true saint is never merely good or holy; there is an entirely different dimension to them. They see God in everyone. It is not forced or a conceit, it is so natural as to be barely discernable. There is really no overt piety about them, nothing that marks them. It is only when you draw back and look into yourself that you know they have something you do not, and will not ever, have.
When Jacques greeted me, my suitcase and cardboard boxes at the door of Apartment 4-D, 80 Winthrop Street, in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, it was as if I was being ushered into an elegant suite at the Plaza. He showed me around proudly, never apologizing for the chipped paint or peeling linoleum, but pointing out the spindly plants that grasped for the tiny bit of sunlight filtered through a grimy window that looked out on the apartment building just feet away. He proudly introduced his companions, whom I would now join. There was Donald, a pale-faced man of about 30, who said nothing at all, but, at Jacques’ bidding, extended a hand that lay limply in my own as I tried to shake it. Freddie, described as a fine sea captain, wore a stocking cap and, after wiping his mouth with the cloth that he was also using to dry the dishes, smiled through his toothless mouth. I was then ushered into the Professor’s room, where a wizened man lay at a strange angle in a Barcalounger. I would learn their stories soon enough, I was sure. And, there was a story, as there always was for those of us who live in such places. Their fall from independent to dependent living might not have been as precipitous or chosen as mine — most were a slow slide from the tenuous edges of accepted society to one day, finding themselves having fallen over the edge — but here we were, together, none asking the other how.
Donald and Freddie shared a bedroom and I didn’t note where Jacques slept. He brought me into a small room, whose walls barely spread wide enough for a single bed, neatly made, that was to be mine. A colorful throw covered the blankets, two of them, actually, electric blankets minus the electric, but neatly smoothed in place. The bedspread, Jacques noted offhandedly, had been knitted by Dorothy Day over thousands of miles of Greyhound travel. I now had a home; I now could devote myself to the work to which I felt called.
I never had the discipline or inclination to keep a diary, but we did keep a log at CHIPS so we could follow up on our guests, as we called them. And, today as I leaf through those early pages of CHIPS history, I know that something very good was being born. We prevented the poor and handicapped from being evicted. We got jobs where none were to be found. We rescued battered wives and children from abusive husbands and fathers. There was a spirit among us who were outcasts – by choice or by fate – that our common destiny was just that – common. We, the volunteers, and those who came through our door were different in kind, but not in essence, one of the few philosophical distinctions I can remember from those blurry 8 o’clock classes at Marquette. It is strange how, once you get past the smell and the many conflicting and sad stories – a good percentage true – there is a certain comfort in being with the poor. Pretenses, posturing, preening – the Triad of New York literary life – had no place. You just could, as the lingo went, “get down to it.”
Day after exhausting day as I fell into that bed at 80 Winthrop, I had the sense that I was finally on track; I was clearly following the dream that had come in and out of focus for much of my adult life. I was living an ordained life – not ordained by ecclesial power, to be sure – but, in a sense consecrated. Obedience may have been lacking as there was no one to be obedient to, but poverty and chastity were mine. Both were easy. I had nothing, so there was no concern about earning, preserving, enhancing. My sex life had become so desiccated, I never much thought about the fact that I was a 37-year-old heterosexual who might be expected to have the normal urges. Yes, of course, I could see that certain hips were more finely shaped than others, a well-tailored silk blouse could caress a woman’s body beautifully, the bouncing ends of a well-turned Page Boy haircut had an undeniable allure, setting off that tingle deep within me. But that was behind me now. I quickly cauterized such thoughts from going any further.
In the midst of the city, there was a monastic rhythm to my life, ora et labora. The ora began before sunrise at my bedside before going to the tiny church of Holy Cross over on Church Avenue for early mass. Then to labora at CHIPS to take on whatever came through the door. I was a man on a mission. I was disciplined, my prayer life punctuated the day. I rarely raised my voice; I gave myself selflessly to the poor.
Do not give to the poor expecting to get their gratitude so that you can feel good about yourself. If you do, your giving will be thin and short-lived, and that is not what the poor need; it will only impoverish them further. Give only if you have something to give; give only if you are someone for whom giving is its own reward.
Dorothy Day’s words encapsulated exactly what was going on in my life. Or, so I was convincing myself.
When I came home to 80 Winthrop, I looked upon it as the real testing grounds for my faith. Stale, damp, airless, permeated by the unmistakable stench of cockroach feces – a smell all their own, these noble survivors of millennia upon millennia – lay heavy in the apartment. Each time I walked through the door, I held my breath. Then, when my lungs could take it no longer, I gasped, hoping that by overloading the system, my sense of smell would be short-circuited, knocked out of commission. For Jacques, it was a happy little household, a frame of mind – or soul – I struggled so hard to achieve. Donald, a former Green Beret, walked about like a zombie, loaded with many milligrams of thiazine, the last firefight in Vietnam running a continuous loop in his mind. The professor, who refused to rest in an actual bed for fear that meant he was dying, cadged bits of toast and English muffin into recesses of the Barcalounger, providing a steady food supply not only for the cockroaches, but the mice who eagerly visited him when he lapsed into sleep. He was indignant when I changed his urine-soaked pads, glaring at me with eyes at once alert and distant. Freddie, an otherwise good-natured man, mumbled incessantly, his monologues like verbal Muzak. No dish or glass behind the cracked glass in our battered kitchen cabinets matched, most of them were chipped. The refrigerator needed cleaning; the stove was crusted with the memories of many meals.
I hated myself for even noticing such things. But then, I would come upon Jacques, sitting quietly on the sofa that he changed to and from a bed when everyone was asleep, so as not to call attention to himself, reading St. Thomas’s Summa Theologica in the original Latin. And I would know I was living a truly extraordinary life with an extraordinary man. Or, on a shopping trip with Jacques when money was especially low and I reached reach for the gallon jug of rotgut Gallo only to have him say, “Oh, no, Paaaul, we must have a wonderful wine tonight. Theeese Cabernet Sauvignon!” His joie de vivre, his mellifluous French accent, his sense of beauty, and of the importance – in the midst of our poverty – of a good glass of wine, made me see that there was a brighter path than that I was trudging along. “Cher Paaaul, we can be poor of pocket, but we can never let our spirits be poor.” Coming from Jacques, it was never an admonition, only encouragement.
Holy Cross parish is set is what was once a quiet blue-collar Flatbush neighborhood of Irish plumbers and policemen and transit workers. It is now a sad place in the midst of urban decay, with a rusting refrigerator teetering over a Church Avenue gutter clogged with paper and garbage, where poor West Indians, Haitians, and Mexican struggle for their first American toehold. At that time, it had become predominately black and was called a “transitional neighborhood,” but, of course, the transition had long since past, and its fate was obvious. To passers by, with their windows rolled up, or to those who once lived here and knew the neighborhood in a previous life, it was considered a very dangerous place. The church, once open all day, was locked securely except for mass times.
But for me Holy Cross in Brooklyn was what Corpus Christi on the Upper West Side of Manhattan was to Thomas Merton, a place that as much found him as he found it. It was a sanctuary where a weary soul finds rest from the world and tries to pray. A place where he (and I) sought not only God’s solace but His insight and direction for our lives. There are five frescos over the altar at Holy Cross, depicting Christ’s first visit to the Temple, when he was separated from his parents, the Last Supper, crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension. And beneath the frescos, at the top of its soaring altar screen – a majestic golden reredos – is a stark, bronze crucifix. This was the symbol of the God I had first known, looking up the altar at St. Benedict’s, a God who was distant, powerful, and cold, who I could only speak of and to in hushed tunes, if at all. An irritable, unappeasable crucified God, who tallied my many sins each night and could present me with a bill of lading that would surely ship me directly to hell.
But that was not the God to whom I now prayed. A veil was lifted. There was another God behind, beyond, within this one, a battlefield hero, unbidden, but willingly and never questioning the cost or my worth, who had volunteered his life so that mine could be spared. He was a Vatican II God whose once impenetrable shroud had been torn asunder and I was bidden to come closer, to feast at the table of his Eucharist and drink the blood he had willingly shed. For He was my friend, my life’s companion, He was all I ever needed. And what could I do but love him and try, in some small way, to return a portion of the life he had first given me.
Mine was a strange case of spiritual schizophrenia, at once feeling the rising power of God within me, his presence so palpable, and yet sensing my utter inadequacy as I looked across what continued to be, day in and day out, an unbreachable chasm. I worked so hard to love the Professor, Donald and Freddie. I could see their humanity, their great struggles to be whole. I could see they had not been treated kindly by life. But something was missing. My affection for them did not come naturally – as it did for Jacques. It was a supreme effort, all the time.
I lingered after mass most days as my prayer list was so long and I wanted each petition be phrased with different wording, as if I were writing a story and didn’t want to bore God with repetition. I prayed to this God that I now knew in a new way that Angel’s leg would heal and that Peter Skelly would stop drinking, that Donald would wake up from his posttraumatic miasma and that he would smile for once. Only at the end did I mention myself. And each time I felt selfish and weak. After all, I was finally living the life I had always hoped to, a life for others. A life where my needs simply didn’t matter and why should they have a weight at all in the face of the grinding poverty and disease and the desperation of my people. I felt so blessed to be at 80 Winthrop with Jacques, where I could share on a daily basis the life of the poor, the mentally ill, the marginalized. And to have CHIPS, which for the past three years had provided me with a passport into people’s lives, so that I might be trusted with their agony. Not many people get this opportunity; I knew that well.
Lord my God, I call for help by day;
I cry at night before you.
Let my prayer come into your presence.
O turn your ear to my cry…
I am reckoned as one in the tomb;
I have reached the end of my strength…
You have taken away my friends
And made me hateful in their sight.
The words of Psalm 88 pierced my soul with their searing awareness; I found my heart pounding, both in my own agony and the fleeting bliss I could feel at the same time. I tried to shrug off my inner conflicts as just a stage one had to go through. Didn’t de Foucauld and John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila go through their desert experiences before they truly encountered the power and the surety of the God, the Christ they sought? Didn’t Therese of Lisieux have a crisis of faith on her very deathbed?
I knew that life was no longer this half-baked loaf of mush I had been living, life was now intentional, purposeful, even biblical. If I presumed to live a Christ-like life, I had to ready to suffer my agony in the Garden, the small daily crucifixions, the abandonment of friends, scorning by society. My mind took me places, to both heights of insight and forlorn depths I had never experienced before.
Some friends from my former life did eventually find me and I could tell just by their tone of voice on the phone or when they saw me at CHIPS that they believed I had completely lost it. Barry Jagoda, a successful NBC producer who would go on to serve in the Carter White House came by 80 Winthrop one evening, just as I was going out to the garbage chute with a sodden lump of the Professor’s diapers. I slipped one hand out from beneath and Barry, without hesitating, shook it. Of such moments are casual relationships transformed into impermeable friendships. We sat on a couple of threadbare overstuffed chairs in the dimly lit living room, with Freddie mumbling in the kitchen, the Professor ranting in his room, and Donald marching patrol duty in the long hallway. Our talk was of Columbia classmates ascending the media ladder. Tom Bettag was on his way to becoming the producer of Dan Rather’s Nightly News on CBS, Mollie Ivins had put her sweater sets and pearls aside, reclaimed her Texas roots and boots, and was a nationally known columnist. Paul Friedman was about to produce the Today show. Paul Branzburg, our Harvard Law graduate, had, at 28, won a Pulitzer Prize with the Louisville Courier-Journal. And then, there was Richard Stone, who, in the midst of a successful run of front page stories at the Wall Street Journal, had gone to the roof of his West Side apartment buildings, and jumped.
“Go, figure,” Barry said.
“Depressed. Was he depressed, Barry?”
“We’re all depressed. We just don’t jump off buildings.”
I was saying “right” but I knew something was very wrong.
In the year before the founding of CHIPS, and then during its first year of operation, I had been researching and writing my first major book, which followed a statistically average 1970s family through a year of their life. Although “You are there” portraits are quite ordinary today, it was then a relatively new form, immersion journalism, where the writer simply stayed with a subject for an extended period of time and wove a narrative around real life events. For me, the subject was a Long Island family: foreman father; at-home mother; perky, older daughter starting college; sullen, teenaged son drifting aimlessly after high school; and angelic twelve-year younger daughter. The Neumeyers, as I would call them to protect their identity, had graciously and bravely opened their lives to me and the resulting book chronicled their quest to live the American dream. And, as with many of us, their not quite achieving it.
As I was to find out, Newsweek had prepared a lengthy review of the book, Trying Out the Dream: A Year in the Life of an American Family. Jill Kremetz, the famous photographer, came to CHIPS to take the accompanying author portrait.
When I look at the proof sheets of that photo session today, all I can do is weep for this pitiful creature. Frame after frame reveal a man contorted in a scoliotic posture, with rings beneath his hollow eyes like swollen charcoal smudges, set off by complexion as sallow as parchment. His unwashed hair lays lank on his head, accenting a wretched haircut. Even though it was a dark, moody winter’s day, he squints as if looking into a glaring light. When he tries to smile, it is a grimace, as if in pain. When he attempts to look pensive, he looks drawn. When he obviously tries to strike an authorial pose, he appears dazed. My brain was urging me to convey certain, expected emotions. My soul, more honest, balked at such commands. And my face reflected soul, not brain. That pitiful Jamaican-made parka looked as cheap and useless as it truly was. Frame after frame: leaning on a table, against the door jam, seated, walking on Sixth Avenue, gesturing …something was very, very wrong with this man. Anyone could see that.
“By the way, congratulations,” she said with a smile that I was to wrongly interpret. She came closer with her 50mm Leitz lens.
“I know…I guess…Newsweek is a pretty big deal,” I said, somewhat sheepishly, not used to such smiles.
“And the Literary Guild. Very impressive.”
When I was working for the Baltimore Sun, I dreamt of some day writing for a national magazine, any national magazine. When I got to New York and began to write for smaller national magazines, I read the New York Times Magazine with awe, at once hoping yet never really believing I would someday casually walk up to a newsstand, open the Sunday Magazine to see my name on the index page. To see my name on the spine of a book? To have it reviewed by one of the biggest and most important magazines in America? Selected by a prestigious book club? The young writer who had stopped his car on the George Washington Bridge some ten years before and brashly bellowed out his challenge to the dusky Manhattan skyline had achieved them all. And here I was, unshaven, in cast-off clothes, acutely embarrassed by all the attention.
I don’t know what got into me, standing there in front of CHIPS, the Mad Man of Sixth Avenue, Mr. Voluntary Poverty, Mr. Voluntary Celibacy. It must have been the perfume. Or the sheer closeness of a female’s body. Or the mind numbing fast I was observing on that, the third day. It was a pretty fumbling gesture, but I asked Miss Jill Kremetz for a date, something I never was very good at, and a skill I hadn’t practiced for many years. She let me down gently. “Paul, that would be sooo wonderful but….” she was very in love with her man. Who just happened to be Kurt Vonnegut. Who she would eventually capture in marriage. She would go on to serve as taskmistress and wet nurse for this wonderful, unruly, depressive, alcoholic, and blindingly talented man. Behind that girlish smile, I would later learn, was a woman of steel. She had her eyes on the prize and was not one to waver or tarry, certainly not with the likes of me.
I didn’t think much about the picture-taking session after that day, except to be strangely happy with the rejection. CHIPS was by now both mystifying various city social service agencies and becoming known as refuge of last resort in our part of Brooklyn. When social workers, priests and nuns didn’t know where to turn, they turned to us. When neighborhood people knew of a family put out on the street, they came to us. We started an overnight shelter, which at the beginning was the usual gathering of drunks, addicts and the deinstitutionalized mentally ill. On a bitter cold February night, the first mother and baby showed up at our door, presaging what would be a more and more common plight in the years ahead. A couple of old bedspreads were nailed into the ceiling, providing as much dignity and privacy as we could afford this modern day Madonna and Child.
I was sleeping half of my nights at CHIPS now. Getting everyone settled was often difficult – fights, epileptic seizures, drug withdrawal, psychotic outbursts – Catch-22 had nothing on CHIPS. But then the storm would calm, as if the Lord were there in the boat. The gentle breathing of the young mother, the snoring of men whose nasal passages were ravaged by cocaine, the sudden cry from a storm-tossed mind, the whimper of a baby. Ultimately, all sweet sounds in the peaceable kingdom we were trying so hard to create.
I had read Thomas Merton’s famous mediation in the fire tower and I thought about it as I lay awake on my cot one night, the tiny, crowded room finally quiet. With all the difficulties of this new life, what a fortunate man I was to be able to share my life so intimately with these, God’s ambassadors. There was a mystical dignity about the poor, a clarity I had never experienced before through the many, blurring lenses easily summoned in a middle class life. I hadn’t understood this quality in the early days of CHIPS, but now, living at 80 Winthrop with Donald and Freddie and the Professor, spending nights here with an ever-changing group of the homeless, there were moments of blinding grace that sometimes astounded me. The homeless mother tenderly tucking in her tiny baby boy beneath those threadbare blankets. The way the schizophrenic, Roger, carefully folded his jacket into a neat square and placed it under his cot. Morris, who had spent decades on the street, his many layers of clothing suddenly transformed into so many petals of a flower, in so many muted shades, his swollen legs finally allowed horizontal rest, his chapped, gnarled hands folded over his bloated body like an innocent school boy. Even the bare 40-watt bulb that shone over the entrance to our wretched bathroom glowed with a radiant warmth, the Christmas star.
“God has given me the sense, the need – I don’t know how to put it – an instinct for the Absolute…an extremely rare gift of which I have been aware from my childhood.” I read the words of Leon Bloy by that faint light and I knew exactly what he was talking about. Bloy, along with DeFoucald and Dorothy Day, Francis of Assisi and Peter Claver, all were granted a clearer and clearer vision of where their energies should be focused, what they had to pursue, how they had to live. Bloy, a Frenchman, was one of the great beacons by which the Catholic Worker movement was guided, a man – thank God – of great inconsistencies, “his flirtations with piety alternating with crude rebellion” as one biographer would put it. I had no idea how prescient those words were that night.
Something had been planted in me, something that continually stalked me, which put me at unease when my life was only devoted to myself, my needs, status, acclaim. The Hound of Heaven, relentlessly pursuing. And now I was beginning to sense what a life with God, with His chosen ones, the poor, could be and I understood what Bloy had found. “…it involves an insatiable and ravenous hunger for what the earth does not contain and its effect upon its possessor is an unbounded loneliness.”
Dorothy Day talked of the “long loneliness” of her life, of Dostoyevsky’s “harsh and dreadful love” the unadorned love for the poor that selfishly demanded everything of a person. Finally, finally, I had a hint of what this life could be. It was transcendent at times and, at others, excruciatingly lonely. At once so sure, and then, so much folly. Spiritual and holy, vain and self-righteous. The sentiments collided like bumper cars in an amusement park, impacting with a dull thud, rattling the teeth, mind, and best of intentions, before erratically veering off. I stared up at the ceiling, a history of overflowing sinks and toilets from the floor above written on the stained acoustical tiles. In the dim light, I gazed out over my flock, their bodies heaving gently under the tatters of blankets.
Feed the hungry.
Give drink to the thirsty.
Clothe the naked.
Shelter the homeless.
Visit the sick.
Visit those in prison.
Bury the dead.
I could recite the Corporal Works of Mercy from a child’s memory, my rudimentary theology shaped in grade school by the Thomistic Q and A of the Baltimore Catechism. In my own simple way, I was trying my best to now live these seven mandates for which we will have to give account at the Last Judgment. “Lord, when did we see you…” O, I saw them now: I saw them so clearly. Not that I saw Christ in them. I was not that good a person; I was not Jacques. But I saw my father and mother with their six children sleeping in that airless attic. I saw the retarded children I went to school with at St. Benedict’s. I saw the encephalic child my sister Francis bore, whose name also was Paul. I saw the look of hopelessness on Peter Skelly’s scab-ridden face. I saw the faces peering through the thick glass at Kings County Hospital, Building K, the Psychiatric Ward. No, not Christ, but those marginalized by birth or fate.
I turned back to Leon Bloy just as the light went out. We hadn’t paid our electric bill and the city made good on its promise. So much for altruism. This Corporal Work of Mercy had to be ransomed by hard, cold cash in the morning. Another bump in the road to supposed holiness. I had to smile. More purification. I rolled over and fell deeply asleep.
Who was it that brought the March 24, 1975 Newsweek into CHIPS? I glanced at the review, winced at the pathetic picture, unbelieving that I could look so gaunt, so miserable. Surely this was not me. I was the rescuing angel, the happy, fulfilled servant of the poor. Clyde, Janine, and Anne were terribly excited about the review, showing it to everyone who came in. Our homeless guests glanced at the magazine, then at me, not quite putting the two together. When someone they knew had a picture in a publication, it was usually a mug shot.
Newsweek’s circulation at the time was around three million. At least one of those copies found its way to an 18th floor corner office at 90 Park Avenue, just a few blocks from where I had worked at Harper & Row. A second phone call came into CHIPS that was not from or about someone in need. Would Wednesday at 10 be convenient for Mr. Wilkes? Anne Enright, who in her real life was an executive secretary, took the call with great aplomb, affecting – or was this my imagination? – just the slightest hint of a British accent. She wrote the appointment on the back of the only piece of paper at hand, still another notice from the New York Sanitation Department that we were putting too much garbage at the curb.
I had not worn a suit in many years, and when I went to my small closet at 80 Winthrop, there, in a protective bag, pushed to the back, was a blue suit I had bought not long after my discharge from the Navy, over a decade before. It looked perfectly fine to me. Months later, when I wore it a second time, someone noted that both its purplish hue and narrow lapels of another fashion season gave away its age. As I came out of the subway on Park Avenue, I realized how long it had been since I had been in Manhattan. The sleek, silver-skinned buildings loomed overhead, appearing to lean menacingly over the median dividing the busy street. Cabs came screaming out of the Grand Central underpass, hitting an uneven manhole with underbody- rattling regularity. People seemed to be running by me, jostling the slow-moving, tentative man in the somewhat blue suit who had already forgotten which was the even side, which the odd, crossing Park three times before I reached my destination. I was in a city of ghosts; I walked like a man in a trance.
It’s a wonder the three men – the president of Westinghouse Broadcasting and two vice-presidents – who were awaiting me in decidedly more stylish suits, took me at all seriously. I imagined they concluded: well, you know, these eccentric writers. Win Baker, George Moynihan and Don McGannon shook my hand, asked my preference in coffee, which was brought in elegant china on a tray by a secretary wearing – so much for retrieving a detail from the junkyard of my mind, the one on John Fairchild and Women’s Wear Daily – a classic Dior suit. She sat the tray on a teak table, polished to shimmering perfection, between two copies of Trying Out the Dream, with tiny slips of paper peeking out between the pages.
“You’ve done something extraordinary here, Mr. Wilkes,…may we call you Paul?….” the words trailed off, then came back in, a stronger signal, from a faraway radio station. “…a seminal work not only in journalism…incisive portrait of American life never seen before.” The words floated in the air. Didn’t they know, hadn’t I been clear that this was a past life, one I had left behind? But, then, again, why was I here in the first place? Why did I dig out this suit? The bumper cars slammed into each other, again and again. They were speaking, but the words weren’t computing. “Perfect for a major television series…”
It was only when I got back to 80 Winthrop that the pieces started coming together. Donald was pacing the hallway, his footfalls like the drumbeat to which he very well may have been marching. Freddie’s imaginary conversation was heating up; whomever he was talking with couldn’t understand that the steam lines were out and the mess decks were closed. Only the mice were content, squealing in a feeding frenzy as they scampered over the Barcalounger. I closed the door to my room and sat on the Dorothy Day quilt. I had just been offered a prime time television series based on my book. A contract was being drawn up for more money than I had ever made in my life. The fact I had no television experience didn’t seem to matter. I would be in charge of the entire production and the on-air host. What was I doing?
I never considered myself a journalist or writer “on the news.” I had chosen magazine writing from the beginning, not breaking news. Quite frankly, I never considered myself a quick or incisive thinker. I liked to tell a bigger story by telling a small story that was somehow representative, and that was exactly the thinking behind Trying Out The Dream. One family, average income, then about $12,000 a year, suburban, white, Protestant, 2-3 children, working father, stay at home mother, post-World War II migrants from an urban area. I had no idea I was writing about the American family about to undergo the most profound change it had experienced since the Industrial Revolution. I was writing about the kind of family that would in a generation be reconfigured by the emerging role of women in the marketplace. Not only my marriage, but half of all marriages, would end in divorce. The classic family was about to become an endangered species.
Westinghouse’s idea was not for me to film the Neumeyers, but to find representative families from across America, of different incomes and education, races, occupations and, using the technique of Trying Out The Dream, create a documentary portrait of the American family for the bicentennial year, 1976.
Living as I was with such religious fervor, it amazes me I just didn’t say no. In trying to reach a decision, I employed the spiritual discipline of discernment, imploring God to show me the right path. I prayed, with head bowed at the kitchen table, with eyes upturned after mass at Holy Cross church. I read Scripture, sifting the spiritual tealeaves. I tried to extract meaning from the parable of Christ being offered the world by a cunning devil. Peter, the cock crowing the third time. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” I picked up the phone to call Westinghouse to tell them no. I laid it back on the cradle so softly, not even God could hear. I looked for signs. Something Freddie would say or a person that came to us with a special need, the way the Wandering Jew curled around a Venetian blind cord. Was it lovely or strangling? I tried to convince myself that I didn’t have to choose. Yes, that could be the answer! I could do the series, continue to live at 80 Winthrop and work at CHIPS.
But my heart was telling me something else, something that made me profoundly sad.
As I looked at my life, I saw the supreme effort I was making. Yet, how deeply unhappy I really was. Try as I might, I did not see the face of Christ in my roommates or the people who came to CHIPS. When I was honest about it, I realized my prayer life was stifled, arid, forced. I was, in a certain way “successful” in my work, but it was a hollow success. People looked at me as good and patient and caring. I imagine those that didn’t think I had gone completely mad admired me for having sacrificed everything to give my life to the poor.
One night as Freddie was out in the kitchen, preparing supper, I lay on my bed reading The Catholic Worker. Like a shaman, I continued to read the bones and twigs I kept tossing out before me, trying to discern what they were saying, what I should do. Maybe I would find the answer on these pages. Freddie had the radio on, something rare in our apartment. It was a familiar voice, but I mentally blocked my ears so the voices of heroism and holiness could rise up from the Worker and bring my life back into focus. I wanted a line, a phrase to leap from those stark, unadorned pages, but that voice from the radio would not leave me alone. Was the song played more than once? The refrain crept into my consciousness, then pounded again and again, resounding down the long hallway, flinging open the door, assaulting me in my room as I lay there, defenseless.
…it’s too late…
Though we really did try to make it.
Somethin’ inside has died
And I can’t hide and I just can’t fake it
Not Origen or Aquinas or Merton or Dorothy Day or Matthew, Mark, Luke or the lovely John. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Shelter the homeless. The Corporal Works of Mercy had been drowned out by Carole King. It’s too late. It’s too late. It’s too late. It’s too late. It’s too late. It’s too late. It’s too late. It’s too late. The words echoed in my ears.
I still try to pinpoint exactly what it was that caused me to leave the life I had sought so ardently and gave up so much to live. Carole King? Freddie’s mumblings? The smells? Grinding poverty, day in, day out? Angel’s leg refusing to heal after all our good intentions and surgery?
I vowed to reclaim my life with the poor, but down deep, I knew it already was over. I spent less and less time at CHIPS. I avoided 80 Winthrop Street, sitting in Prospect Park, pretending I was reading. I drove my red, white and blue Volkswagen van out to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge – that elegant expanse of latticed steel – crossed it, made a U turn and crossed it again. I lingered over coffee at Snooky’s on Seventh Avenue, a nocturnal creature in the window, right out of a Hopper painting. I walked through the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, carefully reading each tiny sign in the midst of stubbles of brown deadness, killed by the winter, awaiting their spring. Something had died and I couldn’t fake it.
On a blustery, cold, late spring day, Jacques helped me load my few possessions into the van and, as we stood at curbside on Winthrop Street, asked if I needed anything from the apartment to furnish my own. “Take whatever you need, Paaaul, we will find more,” he said with that wonderful French lilt to his voice. “The bedspread; you must take eet with you,” he said, turning to go back into the building. I took his arm.
“I think it needs to stay here, Jacques. I don’t think…well, I don’t think I’m the guy for it right now.”
He looked up at me. He stood no more than five feet tall, so he looked up to most people. “Your face has ze look of a man who has failed. Someone who disappointed other people. Eet is not so. You will find ways to live with the Christ, new ways, fabulous ways that you can not even imagine right now.”
The world will never know of Jacques Travers. He will never be remembered in books of saints, his name never invoked in solemn tones in masses on his feast day. But he will live in my heart forever, one of those anonymous saints who form the great “cloud of witnesses,” without whom our world be not simply be poorer, but would probably dissolve in sheer exhaustion at the venality of the rest of us. I was blessed with many things in life and to know him was something that continues to shape my life. He knew how to be good in the simplest, happiest way. No choirs of angels, no drum roll. Just that impish grin. Present. Jacques Travers was present.
“I did disappoint you,” I continued. “And the guys. I said I wanted to live this life. And I couldn’t, Jacques. I just couldn’t do it anymore.” I had to look away; I was going to embarrass myself. I was ready to cry at all the wrong times, it seemed.
“You disappointed no one, mon cher. You served like a good soldier. Each day you were here, each smile you gave when you did not feel like smiling. You gave us so much. You must go where the heart leads. Not where a book tells you. Or someone wagging a finger to do theese or that. Non. God is a God of love. You cannot command love. It comes from here,” he patted my chest. “Your heart is good; listen to eet.”
I held that little man in my arms for a long time until he gently pushed me away, giving me a little squeeze on the shoulder as he would often do to perk me up when I appeared down. “Au revoir for now. And come back to visit with us. Anytime. You are part of the family. “