The Wolf at the Door
Acceptance in a non-accepting world. Non-fiction.
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“The whore you can fuck but not be seen with. The man you would never fuck but turn to in the middle of the night to be reassured, excited and affirmed.”
The lines flashed out of me the night Arnold Sachar died. I was shocked at their intensity and my bitterness.
I first saw Arnie at a Free Speech rally at Queens College in New York City during a student strike. I think it was in 1962. This beautiful and intense figure moved from person to person, group to group, listening, speaking, engaged in the event with a seriousness much different than anyone else seemed to have. It was as if a spotlight followed him everywhere he went. Wherever he stood, it seemed as if something historic was at stake.
The next time I saw Arnie was in Spanish class. He looked spaced out, dazed, lost in some deep internal chaos. The only person more spaced out than me. Each day we would go around the room and have to translate a sentence from English to Spanish. Arnie was always the ninth person called on. I was always the twelfth. Neither of us ever got the answer right. One day I saw that the translations were in the back of the book. So I started memorizing answer 12. But Arnie never knew answer 9. So it really was answer 11 that I would have to give. Finally it dawned on me to memorize answer 11. Of course, that was the one time Arnie got the answer right.
Another time I saw Arnie was during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A solitary figure on a desolate corner on the campus, he spoke with extraordinary eloquence about the insane criminality of everyone involved. “Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Khrushchev, Mr. Castro” all complicit in a profoundly immoral dance.
His great oratory skill was something he shelved. He knew he had the eloquence to move a crowd but felt he did not have the experience or wisdom to do so. Particularly if it involved the risk of significant danger.
Over the years, he would speak and write about alienation, yearning, repression, community, transcendence. Much of his work was an examination of psychic pain and its social/political roots. He could speak beautifully about the nightmarish structural oppression that can flow out of that pain. He articulated the ways in which people resisted and acquiesced to their condition. You often could feel the rawness of his nerve endings whenever he spoke about this.
My own nerves are shot. The tragedy of my dearest friend lying in a coma on Long Island. His body flooded with fluids. His head swollen, covered with bandages, tubes and a face mask.
The tragedy of his life. Always spinning his wheels. Never able to appreciate himself. The humiliations and traumas of childhood ridicule. Physically awkward, nervous.
It is now four years after Arnie's death.
I've been writing this piece since before he died. Not all the time but going back to it. Reading parts of it to him when he was still alive. Trying to figure out what to say. How to say it.
My own body is breaking down. Two teeth broke recently. I am missing appointments. I am scared of what can happen next. And what can happen can happen very fast.
Arnie could be a bottomless pit of need. No matter how much you poured into him it could be as if nothing had happened.
As much as I loved him, admired him, respected him he would convince me how marginal, how disrespected, how ignored and isolated he was. I would say that’s ridiculous, but start, more than start, to actually believe it. So much so that when someone would ask me how he was doing or having heard him on the radio say he was terrific or God forbid just have a nice feeling towards him, I would grow livid. “So now you feel good. But I don't feel good. I had to go through days listening to this. And you get the compliment. And what good does that do me. You feel good and I am just exhausted.” He lived with ghost images, fear, deep insecurities. And a mind that could both take flight and simultaneously be imprisoned. He was always looking out the door to be validated by whoever was not in the room. Whoever was in the room lost the ability to affirm him.
When we were much younger, I would run home to tell Arnie anything and everything. Call him up and talk endlessly. Almost living my life to talk to him about it. Living experience to relate it back to him. He would do the same. My other friends resented this. And lovers resented it even more.
His experiences mostly life inside his apartment. It was lonely. But also very rich. Talking on the phone, listening to the radio, making calls into the radio. Developing a following from those calls. Transforming the role of the caller with his insight and eloquence and urgency. His room in fact could feel like control center. He being at the center of everything without moving an inch from his room.
Very occasionally he would talk about a neighbor or a restaurant. Though there was a period where he would sit in the park outside his apartment engaging the neighbors in political conversation. At times he would venture out from Forest Hills to Manhattan. And inevitably some drama, some excitement would occur. He would also come in for things we did together. And he would often stay in my apartment. Sometimes for a day or two. Sometimes longer. We organized discussion groups and writers' groups over the years. We would write public statements. We would also write petitions on very volatile and to us very crucial issues. And then gather signatures. The process was in many ways gratifying, nerve-racking, exhilarating.
Arnie knew by heart almost everything any number of people had written. He would read things over and over again. Study them, constantly engaging what he was reading. Naturally people would be very flattered by this. I remember him calling up the radio, it was Paul McIsaac's show actually, and asking Carl Oglesby how he reconciled something he was saying with something he had written twenty-five years earlier. Oglesby laughed and said, “I wrote that? It sounds pretty good. But I don't remember a word of it. I have absolutely no idea how to reconcile the two.”
On the phone he was always summarizing things he had just read. As well as read me passages of something that particularly grabbed him and on occasion he would read me a whole article. There was however a three year period when I had forbidden him to read me anything, except maybe something he had just written.
My stricture was a result of Arnie having read to me for five hours an autobiographical piece in Working Papers in which Elinor Langer describes her experiences as a social activist in the 60s. Arnie had a good speaking voice and a love for anybody who put words to paper. And so when he read me Langer's piece I just didn't know how or when to ask him to to stop because he was enjoying himself so much. But for the last two hours I could hardly breathe and I didn't want to have that experience ever again.
The last year I would call and get off very quickly. I did most of the calling but I ran away from him. His obsessiveness mixed with the direness of his condition was harder for me to take. He grew both more mired, attached and simultaneously liberated from his demons. I felt bored and disconnected. Something I had never experienced before. I would yell at him. I felt at times it crossed over from frustration and wished to shake him out of repetitive patterns into abuse. I got off on it. Looking for any traces of what would bother me, then go after him. He mostly said it didn't upset him. He thought I was trying to ground him (not grind him down), bring him back to some sort of reality. I felt I was crossing a line. Being more caught up in a drama than trying to help him. I didn’t trust myself. I was locked in.
The horrible panic of that last night. I was too depleted, too exhausted from all the years of reassuring, trying to calm him down. It felt often that he was crying wolf. But the humiliation, fear, panic was there and it was real. Terribly, terribly real. Trying to be talked down from his panic insecurity. But also really fearing the wolf in ways I couldn't fully grasp. Sometimes crying wolf because the fear was familiar and in some strange ways felt safe. The horrible security of a familiar even very negative state. Now the wolf was really here and it was gorging out his insides. And I no longer had the energy needed to help in the way I might with someone else.
His last night before the accident he called me six or seven times. Every twenty minutes he would call me frantically from the hospital, trying to calm himself down. He was having a hard time breathing. He also said he felt as if sitting, lying, standing, walking were entirely different functions, totally divided from each other. No connection at all between them. This terrified him. Terrified me. A couple of weeks before, his doctor put him on a small dosage of an antidepressant that seemed to throw everything off. People speaking to him the week I was in Montreal said he sounded different. Less connected. And just as arbitrarily they took him off it. No blood test, no nothing.
As we were talking his doctor came by. The two of them started laughing. The laughter made me nervous. For I had a feeling the doctor in some way accepted Arnie's picture of himself. Not exactly laughing at him but not entirely with him. Which may have made the doctor a little too cavalier. In reassuring Arnie, in a need to settle him down, he might have misjudged the actual severity of his condition.
Arnie got off the phone but not before I told him I needed a break. The whole thing was exhausting me. Wanted to watch some TV to regain my equilibrium. I remember thinking that this could be the last time we ever spoke. Paul called me very early in the morning telling me that Arnie had fallen, cracked his head against the hospital bed and was in a coma. I think his death was one part negligence. One part inevitability. That last night that we spoke he told me that he thought he would be dead in two or three days.
In the early years of our friendship, I ran home to tell Arnie almost anything and everything that happened to me. I would call up and we would talk endlessly. I remember calling Arnie once from a pay phone upset about something Denise Levertov said at a reading of hers. Almost living experience so that we could relate it back and forth to each other. This led to resentment from other friends. And some deep resentment from lovers.
Arnie would do much the same. But his experiences were largely listening to the radio, calling up shows, reading the newspapers and journals, talking to various people on the telephone and interactions with his parents. Occasionally he would venture out. And always something dramatic would occur.
The last year of his life was the first time I felt even a little estranged from him. Very connected but not excited to speak to him. It was like falling out of love with someone you still loved very much. In the last year I felt that I was abusive towards him. We would have wild fights. I felt continually provoked by him. I hit back. And I started to hit back at a shadow presence of a previous consciousness. Because he was in some ways changing. I was addicted to the dynamic. I apologized at times. He felt though that I was trying to help him, ground him, help him shake the frozen state he was in. I often felt he was one small turn of the screw away from doing something that would pull him out of the places he felt stuck. But that one screw turned the wrong way could also unravel everything.
One night about a couple of years before he died, Arnie fell flat on his face while we were walking and talking in the rain. He bruised his lip and his face.
He often was in extreme states of anxiety, and had a fear that at times bordered on terror. His insecurity was real. The SELF-LOATHING was real. The self-almost rape was real. “Robert you don't believe that I feel the way I say I do.” Often someone exaggerates a feeling to get the kind of affirmation or attention to pain they think they deserve. And I think it is important to respond as much as possible to the pain felt and not get bent out of shape by what can feel manipulative or dishonest. Or in my case feel mocked and diminished. Because in truth you are not exactly there at those moments. This is all much easier said than done.
What do I do with him. There is just too much pain there. He dies; it all is unresolved. There was both a frozenness and an immense ability to feel. A solipsism and powerful empathy. An insecurity and an extraordinary confidence. A prophet scared of his own shadow. And then he would get up in a room to hushed silence as people waited to hear what he would say. Years of eloquence and profound engagement creating the anticipation. Knowing something extraordinary was going to come. For me that moment at my book party--him ambling up, getting into his composure--was overwhelming. His eloquence and seriousness breathtaking. His affirmation so loving and deeply vital to me.
Late at night after appearing on Carletta's radio show we screamed at each other on the streets down by Wall Street as we walked back to my place. He started talking about how desolate his life was. “Who is ever celebrated the way we were just celebrated,” I answered.“Well it was only one show,” was his fallback position. And we screamed even louder. Who has people like that speaking so warmly about what we have done. Carletta putting all her magic into the show. And then there was Ahmed, the great trumpet player and bandleader; Monique, an exquisite poet singer, partner with Ahmed; Elinor, Arlene's mother making her media debut from her apartment in Brooklyn—first quiet soft almost inaudible gaining strength as the show went on. “The magazine is real for real people,” she said. Creating instant anxiety in Arnie that the magazine was shallow. Arnie wincing, his insecurity, his neurosis tapped into. He should have been able to wince without me jumping on him later for it. Since I knew also how much he really appreciated the comment. “Do you have to notice everything?” he said.
“I can't put myself down without putting you down. You have me boxed in,” he then said, half laughing. “Fuck you,” I said only a quarter joking.
But now Arnie's gone. It is extremely painful for me to be working on the magazine without him. I feel very incomplete. I feel lost at sea. We would talk five or six times a day. When new pieces are coming in now I can't call him. If there is a problem I can't call him. If we get a compliment I can't call him. I won't be able to work with him to figure out what order the pieces should go in. I won't be able to work out political and social ideas with him. I can't argue about things as openly and completely with any other close friend. There is no one else I can obsess with. No one else I can argue with in the same way. Anyone else I would drive crazy.
Arnie had a profound prophetic imagination. And an extremely active and insightful political mind. The great pacifist/anarchist Igal Roodenko said that we are all instruments in the orchestra. Arnie's presence lingers and has become a part of many of us. But in its fullness, it really can't be there. That section of the orchestra is silent. And the music I play sounds tinny and very lonesome and totally inadequate without it.
“Coming into political consciousness I had imagined a radical movement similar to the beggars’ march in The Threepenny Opera. It would be a home, a place to gather for the despised, the grotesque, the disenfranchised, people in pain, outcasts. Together we would menace the society in our very being in our very acceptance of each other's humanity, in our essential beauty and defiance.” (Robert Roth, &then, 1987)
He was often filthy. He at times smelled of shit. He would cut himself up shaving. Splotches of raw razor cuts in between thick black untouched facial hair. Finally he went to get a weekly shave. He loved the warm towel and neck massage from the barber. At one point he would buy He-man shirts designed specifically for heavy set men. They were sexy and colorful. And a surge of compliments would come towards him. Until the shirts were tattered and torn. And somewhere in his mind when he put them on he expected the same excitement. He was genuinely confused why it wasn’t happening. Further confirming his belief that nothing he did would change how people perceived him physically.
We walked down 8th street. He had mismatched shoes. One possibly four sizes too big. His foot was swimming inside the shoe. He was almost shuffling down the street. His pants falling, the cuffs tattered from being stepped on. Ran into Sohnya who panicked when she saw him. Thought that he would be a target. That he looked so spaced out and homeless. She dragged him into a shoe store and bought him a pair of shoes.
One night, it was an isolated incident, he shit all over my bathroom. Somehow it wound up on the walls. In an attempt to clean it up he was smearing it everywhere. He looked almost like a kid finger painting. I gagged. Yelled at him. Ran out in the middle of the night to a bodega for cleaning material including a painter's mask. Felt horribly guilty. Squeamish and uptight. He said he didn't blame me for yelling. I didn't even realize he was in touch enough not to take offense.
Years later when he was sick, brought him home from the hospital. The apartment was reeking of shit. All over the floor. In every room. I was shocked and horrified. Again I ran out of the apartment gagging. Again I was ashamed of my squeamishness. Felt someone else could have handled it better. He did not even know that it was there. The floors covered with shit. His bed beyond filthy. He described his apartment as “messy.” I convinced him to hire two close friends to clean it.
At times there were moments of recognition. He saw himself in the mirror and saw he had grown significantly bald. It surprised him and upset him. He had looked that way for years.
The constant stigma of Arnie's life. He craved a certain normalcy while simultaneously defiantly living outside the world.
Whenever he was relaxed a calm came over him.
Delicate hands, almost fragile
Beautiful spirit soaring
The searing humiliation of himself as freak. Me never knowing how to fully engage that feeling. How to help him through it. How not to get caught up in the compulsive self-laceration. And through it all we thought together, created together, worked together. Tried to engage the world, to help change the world together.
“Can't you ever accept people's love. You just torment me with all this nonsense.” I would yell at him. “Okay then you're right; you are just a repetitive bore. You only speak in headlines, and say the same fucking thing the same way over and over again. Who the hell would want to talk to you. Everyone should be bored with you.” Then I would catch myself and laugh. “And if they're not bored with you then something must be wrong with them.”
It was a tough time between us. His inability to accept or embrace our various joint achievements as well as those of his own felt like a put-down. But it wasn't. It was just some horrible internal dialogue flowing out of him towards me. In a world where so little affirmation was coming our way it still felt like a put-down. Because even if you feel somewhat confident and proud about something, one slight negative gesture and you can dissolve into nothingness. One step out of a bubble—is it a bubble, or is it a community of shared consciousness—can unsettle you and make you feel totally inadequate. I needed his support. I needed his affirmation. I felt abandoned by him in those moments.
And yet the stigma he carried was greater than mine, as painful as mine is for me. Don't know what to do with it. It is so hard to think about, so hard to relate. How does someone who feels ugly but knows the world thinks of them as beautiful feel as opposed to someone who feels ugly and the world confirms that feeling almost every minute of every day?
A line I wrote once but never used in a fiction piece I was writing about someone whose body looked “lopsided.” “It is where the spirit broke free from the armoring of the body.”
How not to live vicariously through his “freakishness.” Thinking of it as a manifestation of freedom. Him bearing its brunt while I'm drawn to it as liberation. To have him play out my fantasy of someone totally outside the world. I once wrote that for some left-wing people the only good oppressed person was a dead oppressed person. Here was my version of that.
We betrayed each other in some core place. Betrayed is a strong word. Probably too strong. A word unfair to either of us. And yet there was an aspect of betrayal certainly on my part not knowing/understanding the depth of the stigma, the humiliation he experienced almost constantly.
One friend said that Arnie carried the pain for both of us.
Twenty-five years ago when Akemi saw the condition of the sheets in my apartment where Arnie slept, she was outraged. I thought well what does he know? He is so oblivious why bother cleaning the sheets. A strange fatigue on my part. They'll get dirty again in no time. Something deeply punitive in my own passivity here. Can't fully locate what it was. He just accepted the humiliation of his condition. Expected almost nothing from the world. When I changed his sheets he expressed his appreciation without me even saying that I had changed them. So he was much more aware than I realized. And so there it is. What that “it” is is probably something I don't want to look too closely at.
Michael Sahl just told me at a concert of his at The Cell one of the people in charge said, “Who is that?” referring to Arnie, whose dentures were falling out as he became all excited by various friends being there. Especially excited to be with Michael and Margaret and celebrate the concert and their achievement. Michael pretended not to have a clue who or what the person was talking about. The cool hip trendy edgy sophistication of the place violated.
Edgy. That is what the New York Times says about plays or books or music or art. Or they might complain that something wasn't edgy enough. Or subversive enough. Such bizarre terminology emanating from the belly of the beast. Very much also the terminology of the fashion industry: Revolutionary, cutting edge. Nothing means nothing. Don't even know where to go from here.
I do remember one night my dear friend Aziza, her father very much involved in liberation struggles in Africa, she just beginning her career as a fashion designer, sitting in my living room, listening to me go on and on about this very point. Until she lifted her head from a sketch she was doing, flashed a smile and asked “How about ‘self-determination’ for the name of my new line?” Brought me off my high horse. And we both started laughing.
Back to my high horse. Raw exploration, deep insight wind up as a blurb or an ad. Everything is commodified. People themselves are constantly referred to as “brands.” It feels almost stupid to say something that obvious. And yet it is so taken for granted, so pervasive, so unchallenged.
But even in its purest form where those terms actually had the power and authenticity of people deeply engaged in struggle there was often something hollow and manipulative about them. For example, “Power to the People” too often morphed into “Sorrow to the People.”
Almost anything you do politically runs the real risk of you becoming the “useful idiot” of forces larger than yourself. The alternative often is to fall into a world-weary cynicism. A know-it-all fatigue. A terrible resigned despair.
Arnie and I would together always attempt to negotiate a political/social terrain fraught with this danger. We would talk constantly. Working out ideas, discussing things. Writing public statements. Our conversations at times would be so rarefied that someone overhearing them would not know what we were talking about. Some of the concerns were constant. We would go back to them over and over again. But as much as we talked it does not really help me now in figuring out how to address a problem that is new. The same basic principles might apply but that helps only up to a point.
One day I was in a café and obsessing about a problem that I knew only Arnie would fully understand without me having to lay out the givens that we had worked out over decades. And I was really in pain that I could not speak to him. So I called my friend Bernie and said I need to discuss something, something I could only talk to Arnie about. I'm in agony about it. You are my second choice, a very distant second. Do you mind? I knew Bernie was a dear enough friend and someone rightly confident enough in his own thinking that he wouldn't take offense. He laughed and said sure. And it was exactly what I thought it would be. The very best second best conversation imaginable.
I loved Arnie's parents. They looked entirely different from each other. But in a room of thousands you could pick them out as Arnie's parents. He looked exactly like each of them. When they weren't fighting they very much enjoyed going out dancing. They were also great storytellers. Roz had a particular gift with words. Being able to take words that were in the air and give them her own particular slant. She also would continually be giving away gifts. She would create spontaneous parties anywhere and everywhere at any time of any day. A present could be a tiny trinket wrapped in tin foil. Or something significantly more valuable. When she died Dave beyond grief kept repeating how he could never give people gifts the way she could.
Roz in very real ways was very brazen, she would speak her mind. But she was also incredibly fearful and her feelings got hurt easily. A fearfulness and sensitivity to slights she passed on to Arnie in an extreme way. Arnie had enormous courage in putting his ideas out there. But he could fall apart over almost anything in an instant. As for Dave, a veteran of World War II, I remember him going to an early teach-in about the Vietnam War and getting up and saying “My fucking son is right about this fucking war.” This to the great delight of the audience and to the extreme embarrassment of Arnie.
One time I along with my lover, Charlotte, and her mother, Betty, who was in from Minnesota, visited Roz and Arnie in Forest Hills. At one point Betty referred to Arnie and his mother as husband and wife. A look of primal horror crossed both their faces. I literally fell off my chair laughing. Another time Arnie rolled in the middle of the street kicking his feet against the pavement in response to something his mother said—a four year old throwing a massive tantrum. Until her death they would spend hours in the kitchen talking.
Dave was kind of a tough guy, wiry and small. He was also an athlete. He told me a story of being in the bowling alley hitting strike after strike. Until he was a frame away from a perfect game. The whole bowling alley gathered around for the last frame. He got so nervous he threw a gutter ball.
He had been a bat boy for the NY Giants and also once delivered some dry cleaning to Mae West. It would be story after story. And here he had a son who would do nothing but spend hours on the phone in his room calling up the radio. Being extraordinarily eloquent and in his own way having a significant influence on the political and social movements of the day. This both amused and worried Dave. He did not know what would become of Arnie when he died.
Arnie's special gifts were appreciated early on. His father was an accountant. Some of his clients were mobsters. One was called in front of a congressional committee investigating organized crime. He asked if Arnie, who was fifteen, could write his introductory remarks. When the time came he read Arnie's words as if they were his own. It was in large part a paean to the greatness of the country. His gravelly voice became more and more filled with emotion as the senators and the gallery grew increasingly spellbound.
The Forest Hills Streaker—I got a call once from the managing agent of the building Arnie lived in. He heard complaints that Arnie was running naked through the building. I told him that couldn't be true. But I asked Arnie about it. He said his belly was so big and wearing pants so cumbersome that when he had to throw out newspapers he would poke his head out the door, look around and when he saw no one, would dash or sort of dash out of the apartment totally naked, make his way up one flight of stairs to a recycling area and then return to his apartment as quickly as possible. He was surprised anyone had noticed.
Arnie Sachar at Riverside Church. I remember attending a major political event at Riverside Church. There was a young black woman always rising from her seat cheering every comment that had any passion, integrity and militancy behind it. When Arthur Waskow spoke, he threw out what he clearly thought were a series of show stoppers. But they had virtually no impact on her. She remained glued to her chair. Just polite tepid applause at the end. I asked Arnie would he rather be praised by one of the high-powered left intellectuals he was preoccupied with, but not have her budge from her seat. Or have her rise with wild enthusiasm and have the left intellectual barely acknowledge his words. He said I was being totally unfair and started to giggle.
One time we were at a party. Arnie was in a corner talking with one of the sexiest, most beautiful women imaginable. She took a real liking to him and asked him to dance. She held onto him and started grinding against him. His face flushed, his body tensed. Arnie getting more nervous by the second started quizzing her compulsively about her position on various issues, trying to find the one issue that could drive her away. She ignored the bait and continued dancing. After a while though she did get discouraged. Not that there was a cause and effect, but a few years later she wound up in a torrid affair with a higher-up in the Carter administration.
His father told me a story of Arnie playing softball as a kid. The last inning, the bases loaded, two outs. Standing in right field completely lost in his thoughts, his glove absentmindedly stuck out in the air, when without him even knowing it a fly ball landed in it. He was the hero of the game. The whole team ran out to him and triumphantly carried him off the field.
He wrote a magnificent piece about what it was to feel ugly when much of the world actually saw him as ugly, freakish. The places he shut down, the places he soared. The places he embraced his “freakishness,” the places he craved to be respected and accepted in deeply culture bound terms. It was here—in his need for that acceptance—that the greatest tensions and struggles existed between us.
In camp the counselors and fellow campers would seek Arnie out late at night. In the darkness, they would talk intimately about their desires, pain or intellectual interests. Sometimes in the case of the counselors the conversations turned to books or politics. During the day he was often shunned, mocked, had practical jokes played on him or, in the case of his fellow campers, he was also at times physically assaulted. Not to the extent of causing serious physical injury but enough to leave lasting harm to his psyche.
Twirling a pen. A pencil, a swizzle stick, for a time a dirty toothbrush. Twirling ever faster, while rocking back and forth, the more excited or delighted or upset he would get. It would unnerve some people. Others simply enjoyed it as a basic feature of any conversation. Another friend, Paul Meyers, a wonderful poet, did that also. But not as noticeably. He had a different rhythm. Used different fingers. It was fun to see them in a room together.
Early on we attended parties at David McReynolds's apartment on the Lower East Side. Dave was deeply involved with the War Resisters League. He helped organize massive worldwide protests, was a political theorist and a very out gay man. When we wanted to discuss some pressing political issue with him, we would go to the WRL office. However, whenever Arnie would attempt to get into a discussion with him at a party, Dave would always say, “Arnie, no talking at parties.”
Arnie walking crossing the street as cars were whizzing by looking like Jesus walking on water. He never getting hit not even close. His doing this caused no small degree of anxiety in many of us. Though at least in my case it was clearly offset by the knowledge that nothing had ever happened so it was very unlikely that it ever would. He did get a jaywalking ticket for crossing Queens Blvd. once. There had been a large number of deaths and injuries so the city cracked down. His day at court was filled with one adventure after another which he recited with great gusto and humor.
Arnie, beside himself with excitement, was talking with the ex-lover of a woman he was totally hung up on. As they were walking down the street, he nervously pointed to his pants, now wet with semen. He had ejaculated without even touching himself during the conversation.
The chief rabbi of Poland was visiting the chief rabbi of Warsaw. They were in the synagogue. The first rabbi, suddenly overcome, ran up to the ark, threw himself on the ground and said, “Oh Lord I am nothing in the face of your glory.” The second rabbi overwhelmed by the sight of the first rabbi followed suit. “Oh Lord I am nothing in the face of your glory.”
The Shamis, the caretaker of the synagogue, totally transported by the sight of these two wise, holy men prostrating themselves with such fervor, stopped what he was doing and threw himself on the ground. “Oh Lord I am nothing in the face of your glory.”
The first rabbi turned to the other and said, “The nerve of him to say that he is nothing.”
In their book Bound by Love, Lucy Gilbert and Paula Webster talk about how those men who could not dominate on the athletic field would assert their patriarchal power through their intellectuality. Arnie and I would talk about that often.
A Buddha, Arnold Sachar
By Louise Rader
When I first met him
I felt unnerved
by his intellect's power
to pierce illusion,
by his rocking roundness
as if prayer were a physicality,
by his ungoverned giggling
echoed in the swizzle stick
he twirled fizzing air,
by lucence then sudden
constriction in his eyes
stunned at a society
with love, joy, communion
by his refusal
to put on constraints.
of his longing, written,
his voice from the radio,
the presence he bestowed
on a moment,
Here, each leaf falls
into a ground mosaic.
Arnie was timid. He was fearful. He had a soaring confidence. It was like he was always rehearsing for the State of the Cosmos Address. The one that at the precise right moment when called upon he would deliver to the universe. And it would also deliver him from the humiliations and pain of the world. So a conversation with him could be like watching someone rehearse in front of a mirror with you being the mirror. He could be very repetitive to say the least. I would roll my eyes at times when he read me something he wrote. In conversation there were way too many times when he wasn't speaking with you, but at you.
That was the down side. My friend Andy calls it the talking sickness. It is hard at times to distinguish hysteria, compulsiveness, real insecurity from a bullying insensitive arrogance. A very not uncommon trait of forceful people in the grips of massive insecurity.
Arnie was always pitching to be brilliant, more than brilliant. At times it felt like his life depended on it.
“I am not James Baldwin,” he would declare. As if not being James Baldwin was the next best thing to being him. That the failure of the intent was much greater than any other achievement imaginable.
What do you do with that? What could James Baldwin do with that?
Other times Arnie was expansive beyond measure. His face relaxed. His anxiety lifted. He could separate himself from his fears, his insecurities. In fact he had separated himself from that aspect of a radical/intellectual culture that could feel almost pathological in its need to compare and evaluate and situate people in a hierarchy of consciousness, intelligence, understanding, location and power. A movement acting in many ways as a parody of the dominant culture. The depth of Arnie's warmth and appreciation for people at those moments was a thing to behold.
Even people with virtually no power in the world can function as conduits for forces that oppress you. And the actual powerlessness of the person doing it can be forgotten. Or even if you fully understand the absurdity of it, that understanding might only deflect a little the injury you're experiencing. This can work in all directions.
Every slight in the street, in the supermarket, at school would somehow be overcome by the sheer force of Arnie's brilliance. That the affirmation of a small select group of “special” people would undo or provide salve for that injury: He funneled so much of himself into that hope. Really only a partial hope. Because he understood how toxic it all was. Trying to get out from under it. He was in fact bitter at the end that he had bought into it as much as he had.
Simultaneously, unaware of his own power Arnie could hurt people pretty badly. Trying to prove himself he could ignore someone or appear condescending in conversation. He could talk over people, ignore what they were saying. Or focus exclusively on one person at the expense of another. So powerful was his attention and focus, that his ignoring someone could create rage and insecurity in that person. As close as we were, that person at times could be me.
Being pushed aside in a conversation, I might snap back in front of people, embarrassing him. Did this the other day with another close friend who pushed his body between me and someone I was having a conversation with and just started talking as if I wasn't there. He had done similar things before and we had spoken about it. But in this case, he had just done a reading and it was the host of the reading he did this with. So I embarrassed him and her and myself. I felt bad about it. He felt bad about what he had done. We spent the whole next day apologizing to each other.
But still there was no excuse on my part. My own anxiety, maybe jealousy, more likely insecurity had kicked in. It is just simply not a good thing to embarrass someone that way.
Arnie and I were two people thrown into turbulent waters, flailing away, terrified of drowning. Sometimes it was as if one of us was pushing the other's head below water so that the other could keep his own head above it. Most times though we would help each other stay afloat and at times, glorious times, we would swim spectacular distances together.
There is no more Arnie. His funeral and the memorial were quite extraordinary. Tributes to him, tributes to the world he imagined. A tribute to the smaller world we helped bring into being. With the magazine, with his statements on the radio, with his eloquence at public gatherings. To the discussions he worked so hard to bring about. At his funeral I looked out at the people in attendance, such a wide variety of people, and realized that Arnie finally had the discussion group he always imagined.
I can't think of a better way to end this piece than with Arnie's own words, an excerpt from “A Bitter Outburst,” Arnie's last essay:
I wish to advance an oppositional culture. One which moves entirely outside the existing framework. I am not concerned with being so-called adjusted or mature. Existing cultural norms are often malignant. Even benevolent social democracy gives civil liberties and material well-being in exchange for efficient production and consumption. Highly disciplined wage-labor with concessions from the boss. The illusion of comfort. Severe anxiety underneath. We have a self essentially conditioned to fit the machine. I was involved with anarchist-pacifist politics, the sixties counter-culture, the early seventies social movements. We meant to turn things upside down. To foster the return of the repressed. Open fugitive spaces. Political movements were reaching towards transcendence and ecstasy. Nowadays this is implicitly and explicitly ruled out by the left-liberal establishment. They are trying to reform the machine. We were trying to stop it. I ultimately come from a place where I do not fit in. I think a radical movement is ultimately internal as well as external. A breakthrough into a subversive consciousness. I wish to move outside the given. To negate the social order. I am not speaking of strategy or tactics. My disposition is rather mystical. I am exploring a different reality. Perhaps even an altered state. A move away from conventional notions of rationality. At one point we were taking emotional risks. Perhaps even playing with fire. At one level I might wish to withdraw from politics. Pursue an interior journey. Simply step out of the world. But paradoxically I also want to change it. To break the collective chains. To affirm the wild and strange. And reach towards the seemingly impossible.
What a ride this has been! Arnie I love you.
Robert Roth is author of Health Proxy (Yuganata Press, 2007) and Book of Pieces (And Then Press, 2017). He is also co-creator of and then magazine since 1987. "The Wolf at the Door" appeared in Book of Pieces.
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