The Columnist

Short Story by Neal Lipschutz

The Columnist

Max Toffer was pretty much everything I wanted to be. A newspaper columnist, an author of fiction and nonfiction, a devoted advocate of the First Amendment. He was from Philadelphia before he moved to New York to become a Greenwich Village institution at The Oracle. I learned all I knew about Toffer from the about-the-author paragraphs at the back of the novel of his I just finished, a coming-of-age story about a young, black jazz musician in Philadelphia. Toffer was an expert on a lot of things, all of them cool, including jazz and the Constitution. He defended the idea of absolute free speech, freedom of expression that had no shackles. None at all. Even if that most precious American gift was used by evil people to inspire hatred, or to slander others, Toffer stood up for it. You had to if free speech really meant free speech. The truth would win the day. I believed that.

The palpable excitement I felt every Wednesday, the day The Oracle published with Toffer’s column prominently displayed, well, it’s hard to explain. I kept it mainly to myself. Not that my friends had opposing, contrary thoughts about Toffer or The Oracle. They didn’t have any thoughts at all on the subject. If I shared with them my enthusiasm for the newspaper columnist it would just provide more evidence of my weirdness – out of place and out of touch. What was wrong with me? That’s what they always said. Who cares about this stuff? What does it have to do with here and now, Brighton Beach/Ocean Parkway, Brooklyn, New York City, USA? Technically nothing, I would have to admit, but really everything. Ideas are what mattered, wherever you lived. Nothing was more important. I had these comebacks in my head. But there was no point in talking. I wasn’t trying to win converts. They had other ways to deal with that growing, physically painful desire we all felt to one degree or another to … what? Live, I mean take it on and live. My friends were coping through a haze of pot smoke and a blast of Led Zeppelin. They’d tell me to take a hike if I talked about wanting an authentic life, a life with meaning. They didn’t get excited about the Supreme Court decisions Toffer wrote about or the heroes and villains, past and present, on the long march toward greater civil rights. There was one thing on which we friends did agree: our imagined future lives needed to be experienced anywhere but at our own specific address of Brighton Beach/Ocean Parkway, Brooklyn, New York City, USA. We had little use for the spot where we were raised.

I decided to write Toffer a letter. Unusual for me, to say the least. It couldn’t be a fan letter. It was way too square to write a fan letter, and who writes fan letters to middle-aged defenders of the First Amendment care of a weekly newspaper that publishes his stuff? I tried to be cool. When I read the letter over, I knew it was not cool.

“Dear Mr. Toffer:

“I just finished Philadelphia Syncopation and I really enjoyed it. Though it’s not about my generation, I identified with a lot of the scenes in the book. I guess being a struggling teenager in any city, whether it’s Brooklyn or Boston or Philadelphia, is going to have a lot in common, no matter what year it is. Though it’s much tougher to also have to battle all the racial discrimination and hatred, like your main character and his friends have to do.

“Though I don’t know you, I feel like I do, because I so much admire your writing and your defense of the First Amendment. I identify with the thoughts and feelings behind your writing. I feel foolish to say it, but I dream of life as a journalist and writer and wonder if you thought in today’s world there was a best way for someone like me, about to get out of high school, to go after that goal. I see from the book jacket you graduated from college and I plan to as well, but sometimes I think maybe there’s a more direct route toward what I’m after.

“I apologize that this wound up being so much about me. My main reason for writing was simply to tell you how much I love your work and how I look forward to reading your column each week. “

I wasn’t sure about mailing it, but I did. I hadn’t before tried to communicate with a writer. Sure, it was a complimentary letter and who would object to that? I had mailed plenty of complimentary letters as a kid to baseball, basketball and football players I liked, asking for autographed photographs and such. Lots of those letters, but this was different. I was amazed at how many of those athletes responded. I still remember one letter written back to me with a red pen crookedly scrawled across a piece of graph paper. It was from Jerry Mays, one of the stand-out defensive linemen of the 1966 Kansas City Chiefs. He thanked me for writing to him and told me that he felt blessed to play football and to try to be a role model for kids like me. The whole thing was maybe three sentences, but it felt like five pages. Personal. Not a form letter. He included a signed, 8X 10 black-and-white photograph of himself in a three-point stance. He was wearing his Chiefs’ jersey and shoulder pads but no helmet, like the shots they put on football cards, though baseball cards were much more popular with us. He had a big smile on his face and his hair was cut in a flat-top crew cut. He was a professional football player and still he took the time to write and send a photo. And I wasn’t even from Kansas City. I appreciated the letter for a long time. The signed photo said, “To Eliot with best wishes,” and it felt to me that he wanted to infuse that well-worn phrase with real, personal meaning.

I didn’t want Toffer to get the impression that I was just some weird kid who sat in his room reading all the time with no life and nothing better to do than write letters to busy journalists. Ok, that was part true, but only part. There was a portion of me that was reasonably like everyone else. At least I thought so. I played sports. I hung out with friends. At times, I had girlfriends. But the sits-in-his-room-reading-and-writing-to-writers part of me did seem like it was the growing part. The mainstream high school senior part was shrinking. I envisioned Toffer at 17, in a middle-class family in a middle-class apartment in old Philadelphia. I imagined he lived the same dichotomy I did.

After mailing, I only thought about the letter when the Oracle was published. When three weeks and three new Toffer columns went by I figured I wasn’t going to hear from him, which was ok. The letter loomed before me as a growing embarrassment. Probably shouldn’t have sent it. Luckily, I was certain it had already been hauled away with the rest of Toffer’s garbage by the city sanitation department. But then, a few days later, I received his reply. It was a postcard, not a picture postcard (“wish you were here” with a 1950s shot of Niagara Falls out front) but a plain mailing postcard, which meant his message was out there for anyone to see, including the mailman and my mother, who retrieved the mail each day from the box in the lobby. No matter, there was nothing that needed hiding. Toffer’s message was short and to the point. It was typed. “You should come by some time to discuss writing and related matters.” That was it. My first thought was of the difficulty of typing on a postcard. It was small, it was stiff. How did you get it to hold its place in the typewriter roller without bending it permanently and making it unmailable? On the front of the card, he’d typed my name and address and in the upper left his own home address, complete with apartment number. Once I got past his typing wizardry – he’d certainly banged out enough words to become a master of the machine – I realized he was inviting me to his apartment to talk. His apartment. A guest in his home. The world famous, ok maybe that was too much, but certainly famous enough (and more than world famous to me) columnist and author had invited this shaggy haired high school senior to his Greenwich Village apartment for an adult conversation. I was petrified.

It was hard to think of other things. The invitation from Max Toffer raised my opinion of him, though I didn’t think there was any room left at the top. It also left me with much more of a problem than if he hadn’t responded. It was an invitation but it also didn’t check all the boxes of an invitation. There was no phone number for contact. His address was only listed in the place laid out by mail etiquette and tradition for a return address in case something went wrong (did he really want the postcard sent back to him if it couldn’t be delivered to me?). His address wasn’t in the body of the message. Maybe by habit he always put in his home address in the return space. I started to doubt whether he actually wanted to meet at his apartment. He didn’t explicitly say apartment in the text of his message. Could it be he wanted to meet at the Oracle office? Or somewhere else? A Village coffee house? My spotty knowledge of Manhattan estimated the newspaper office was about a half-mile from Toffer’s home. Also, there was no time frame offered. Nothing like “Wednesday afternoons are usually good for me,” or “how about one Saturday morning when you don’t have school.” Was I supposed to just stop by – at the apartment or office – and see if he was free? I guessed the newspaper office, being the home of an alternative weekly, was probably a pretty informal place. Maybe you could just stop by. After a lot of fretting about all this, I concluded that his postcard was hazy enough to require another communication from me. By phone or by another letter, it was incumbent on me to press for more details of the offered meeting: basics such as when and where.

Though I was working on the high school newspaper and saw reporting and columnizing joining fiction writing in my hazy view of my future as a capital “W” Writer, I already knew I had a big problem: it was hard for me to talk to people I didn’t know. I kept hearing my own voice ringing hollow and goofy in my ears when I had to conduct interviews. The burden of having to make the next move with Toffer was similarly difficult. I did want to meet him. I did want to hear his voice discuss writing and anything and everything else. If he’d just provided on the postcard a certain time and place to meet I would have been there. I was convinced of that. It would have been difficult to summon the courage, but I would have been there. This was much harder. It seemed I had to respond, to clarify, to push myself on him.

I procrastinated. Now that football season was over, I didn’t have a specific beat to cover for the school newspaper, but there was an article about an arts program I was working on. No set deadline, but I slowly pushed ahead. I hung out with my friends. And all the time the postcard, and my lack of response, sat there, just in back of whatever was going on in the moment, always there at the edge of my consciousness. Sometimes it forced its way ahead of whatever else was happening at the moment and occupied the entirety of my mind, leaving me sad and disappointed.

About three weeks after I received Toffer’s post card, we had a Friday with no school. It was teacher training or conferences or something. They weren’t very clear. It only pertained to public schools in Brooklyn. Apparently, other boroughs had other days off for teacher training. I didn’t have work that day. I hadn’t gotten back to Toffer and realized I was too twisted up to write back or call for more details. With all that stuck in my mind, I took the subway to Greenwich Village.

I got off the train about 10 o’clock and walked over to the Oracle’s office on Second Avenue. It was quiet out front. I figured it was early in the day for them and not a deadline day. I soaked in the surroundings, which put a smile on my face. Those hippiesh streets provided a hard-to-pinpoint comfort for me. Everything was loose. The downtown world of young people promised the backdrop for the life I wanted to lead, artistic and free and different in every way from the dragging, argumentative, tied-to-bad-jobs adults who inhabited the place I was from, which was less than an hour’s subway ride away. Imagine that. I thought about going in. When a tired looking woman who looked to be in her mid-thirties pulled open the door and started climbing the steps (a sign said the newsroom was on the second floor), I grabbed the door before it closed behind her. I held it for a bit but let it close without going in. I was going to ask the receptionist if Toffer was in and free. But what would I say when she asked my name and business? It had been weeks since Toffer wrote to me. There was no way he’d remember my name. It seemed awfully complicated to start at the beginning with my letter to Toffer, his postcard back, and the ambiguity of his message. I finally walked away from the front door and towards Toffer’s apartment building.

Toffer lived in a tall though undistinguished building on Sixth Avenue just north of Houston Street. There was a doorman. I was surprised, but why not a doorman? Counterculture, doorman, in 1973 it was all mixed up. Sixth Avenue was busier than Second, and I hung out for a while near the corner, waiting to see if Toffer would emerge. I didn’t have a good plan if he did walk out of his building. What would I say if I saw him? “Excuse me, Mr. Toffer, I am the guy who wrote you a letter like two months ago, maybe more, and then you responded a few weeks ago with a not completely clear postcard. By the way, how do you type on a postcard…” He would run the other way, or call a cop, certain I was a crazy person. The better plan was to leave a note for Toffer with the doorman. That was a little odd, too, but not nearly as nutty as an on-street encounter with the man himself. There was safety in writing. No face to face with a person whose achievements made him so intimidating. What was I going to write? I realized I should have brought the postcard with me. Then I could have scratched a follow-up note about meeting, with all the reminders of who I was and what his response had been right there in his own typewritten flourish. But I didn’t have the postcard with me. I’d put it in the desk drawer in my bedroom for safe keeping. So in a new note I’d have to explain the prior back and forth, hope Toffer remembered, and eventually get to the main point: when and where did he want to meet up? As I was thinking this all through, I wandered closer to the building. The doorman was outside on this sunny spring day. I was lost in internal composition but did eventually notice the doorman staring at me. It was not a friendly gaze. I guess this is among the things doormen do. They keep an eye out for suspicious characters. No doubt I fit that bill in his eyes, a long-haired kid doing nothing but hanging around outside his building. The doorman’s hard eyes were enough to prompt me to shelve the note-to-the-doorman plan.

On the first part of the near-empty midday subway ride back to Ocean Parkway, I considered the excursion a net positive. Now that I had seen the newspaper office and Toffer’s apartment building, a trip back to each seemed easily doable. I could bring the postcard and write a note. I could call the newspaper’s general phone number and ask for Toffer or leave a message for him. The newly found familiarity with the landscape would make any plan easier to execute. By the time the train was solidly into Brooklyn, my optimism faded. I could have done any of those things today. But I hadn’t made a move. Why was that going to change in the near future? It wasn’t going to change.

By the Church Avenue station I started to nod off, lulled by the train’s motion. In my dreamy state, I imagined a conversation in Toffer’s book-lined living room in his airy, sun-lit apartment. We talked about college and his growing up in Philadelphia.

“You remind me a lot of myself when I was your age,” Toffer said, smiling. “Here’s an idea. Why don’t you forget about college, at least for now? Become my assistant. I’ve got too many assignments and too many obligations as it is, I could use the help. Someone I trust. Someone who sees the world as I do.”

I saw myself nodding and then flashed to a new scene. I had my own apartment in a divey part of the East Village, basement level. Every day was an adventure, doing Toffer’s leg work. Research. Conducting interviews. I would get more at ease doing interviews though the sheer number of them. Toffer credited me in his columns. He thanked me in the preface to his next book on civil rights. Later on, he’d help me get my own reporting assignments for The Oracle. I would take classes at City College at night, partly to avoid my mother melting down about my not going to college.

I was still dreamy when the doors opened at the Ocean Parkway station. I jolted up and ran out onto the platform just before the doors closed, avoiding being trapped until the next stop. It took a few moments to fully regain my bearings. The wind was strong off the beach, carrying the somehow unspoiled aroma of the ocean. The imagined new life that came from meeting Toffer faded fast as I stood totally still on the elevated platform. Then, recovered, I headed down the stairs. I told myself again there was time to get back to him, to set up a meeting as he had clearly offered in his postcard. If he didn’t want to meet me, he wouldn’t have offered. No one was forcing him. Wasn’t he a man who said what he meant? As I closed in on my apartment building, past the schoolyard and the high-fenced Little League field where the overgrown grass buried childhood heroics, what remained of my resolve disappeared. Just melted away completely in the uneasy comfort of my familiar surroundings. I wasn’t going to follow up. I knew that then as well as I knew my own name.

About the Author

Neal Lipschutz

Neal Lipschutz' short fiction has appeared in a number of digital and print publications.