Beg, Borrow, Steal
In what ways is Beg, Borrow, Steal a love letter to the city of New York? Describe your relationship with this city that has been your lifelong home.
The wonderful thing about growing up in New York is that you never arrive at a full understanding of the place. The city changes faster than a judge changes robes. It functions miraculously well, despite its mad self-devouring drive. You form powerful attachments to certain streets and buildings, but always at your own peril. James Merrill has a lovely poem about this. He stops to gaze at a construction site, sees the crane fumbling luxuriously in the foundation pit and thinks: “everything is torn down before you have had a chance to care for it.” This impermanence is part of New York’s glory. It’s a human mess, in the best sense. On the street, the subway, at a gathering of friends, I often feel in the presence of a secret that’s about to revealed. The spectacle of uninhibited public life is bracing, as is the constant proximity to joy, grief, deception, sincerity – the great parade of emotion and circumstance, the human chaos that you yourself are a breathing part of. A paradox about the city is that the truest New Yorkers are the people who came here from elsewhere, the people who went out of their way to choose it. Sometimes I have the illusion of seeing my immigrant grandfather in men who are younger than me: the Ghanaian cab driver, the Dominican grocer in the corner bodega, hustling as my grandfather had hustled, with that special arriviste rashness. “Apurate, hombre!” says a voice behind me when I stop dreamily in the middle of a street I know too well. The owner of that voice thinks that I, a born and bred New Yorker, am a tourist, and in a way I am. The city has formed me, yet it gives me the sense of never being fully formed, of always being a flux. It’s a feeling I try to transmit in Beg, Borrow Steal.
You seem to have lived in New York as a member of nearly all social strata at one time or another. Child of a middle class family, housing project-dwelling father, broke bohemian artist, and now you’re a solidly upper middle class with an Upper West Side condo. How has class informed your perspective on life in New York over the years?
New York looks more pleasant when viewed from a secure home and with money in the bank, there’s no question about it. But I never felt desperate, even when I was broke and bringing up two children in a federal housing project at what was the violent far east border of Chinatown and the Lower East Side. Maybe I should have been more alarmed than I was, but I had an improbable optimism about myself and my family. The generous social spaces of New York seemed big enough to hold me as I veered from one social stratum to the next. In the housing project my neighbors and I shared, among other things, the intimacy of being made to feel less important than others, when the elevators broke down, for instance, and we were left to walk up ten, fifteen, twenty-five stories to our homes. During a climb like that, at the end of a hard day, a real closeness is forged. Now I can see that my shifting social position increased my reach as a writer, though I didn’t consciously plan it that way. I had a crazy series of jobs, designed chiefly not to threaten my precarious identity as a writer: Spanish/English interpreter in Manhattan’s criminal court; selling cosmetics in front of Loehmann’s department store on Fordham Road; driving one of those obscene stretch limousines. There were times when I felt guilty about failing to give my children a proper middle-class life. But as it turned out, this upbringing was the greatest advantage I could have given my son Aaron. He feels at ease with a wide range of people, and this ease has contributed mightily to his success in life. Even during my worst moments, I never felt panicked. After all, I was still ahead of where my grandfather had been when he arrived here from the Ukraine.
What is the meaning of the title Beg, Borrow, Steal?
A writer is a kind of social outlaw. You’re constantly stealing, in the sense that you greedily take what people give you of themselves, you horde it, and by doing so steal a piece of who they are; even with the best of intentions, it is a kind of theft. You borrow from everywhere: other writers, snippets of conversations you overhear, the newspaper, friends. The quest for material is constant and turns you into a kind of spiritual omnivore. There is no better place than New York to be an omnivore. And sometimes you just flat out beg: for work, for attention, for a break, for a reader’s patience, for a subject’s time.
The subtitle of your book is A Writer’s Life. What about your experiences are unique to the career of a writer? What do you hope other writers take away from this work?
The essential ingredient is to be open, to listen, to observe and receive — like a psychoanalyst, but without the schema of diagnoses. You try to hear the nuance, the subtext, to ferret out what lies beneath, and to make it apparent, even while mundane everyday life is happening under your nose. Once you do that, people your subject pours towards you. To me that is what this book is about, letting the world pour in. That’s the writer’s life. Literary life doesn’t take place in the salon or at a cocktail party or workshop; it occurs wherever a writer happens to be, usually in the most “unliterary” places. What I hope writers take away from this book is the sense that our material is everywhere.
How have your family and friends responded to being written about in your work?
Not always happily, I’m sorry to say. It’s a tricky proposition, writing about people you know, people who are close to you. It’s an ethical matter really: what you are giving is only your version of people, but there it is, with all the cold authority of the printed word, whether the people you write about approve of it or not. They can’t answer you. As a writer, you have the final word. Looking at it from the point of view of his poor subjects, Philip Roth remarked, “It’s like having a very long argument with someone who won’t go away.” When I take my notebook out, my wife goes silent, as if to say, ‘I won’t give you any ammunition.’ She once wrote a letter to the editor of a magazine claiming I misquoted her. It was true, I had. They ran the letter, and it’s the only thing people remember about that piece. In that one case, Pat had the final word. I loved it.
Your writing often touches on Jewish themes and history and yet you are not particularly religious. What meaning does being Jewish hold for you?
For me, being Jewish is a bit like being an émigré. If you leave the fold, as I have, you enter a kind of private exile. Yet when among Jews I continue to feel at home. A kind of mischief jumps to life in me, I hear myself say riskier things, mainly because I feel instinctively that I will be understood. I love the community I come from, full of characters, survivors, people of conviction who insist on who they are, take it or leave it. On the other hand, my associations with being in synagogues are not happy. To be caught in “a net of memory and expectation” was how Harold Rosenberg described his New York Jewishness. The memories he is referring to are tribal, ancestral – the shared tragedy of being a Jew and the shared joy. The expectation is the peculiar pressure Jews like Rosenberg and me put on ourselves to live up to an ideal whose meaning we can never quite explain, even to ourselves.
You talk in Beg, Borrow, Steal about giving your son Aaron “all of the drawbacks with none of the perks” of being Jewish. What do you mean by this?
I haven’t given Aaron the rituals of Judaism, the sense of belonging, the mythologies, and pleasures, the calendar, the great stories of Saul and David — all the things I had as a boy. Those are the perks, and they are considerable. All I gave him was a name that makes him implacably a Jew in the eyes of others. Aaron works for UNICEF as a child protection specialist. He lives in the world of international catastrophe and aid. Being a Jew in the world isn’t always an asset.
You attended a tiny Hebrew day school for eight formative years in your childhood. How do you think being educated in this insular environment has informed your life and work?
The Hebrew School I attended made me a writer. For eight years we crawled through the Five Books of Moses, in Hebrew. Among other things, it’s a great work of literature. It gave me a sense of myth, drama, tragedy, revenge, love, betrayal – the entire spectacle of human possibilities. It taught me about primitive emotions and refined ones – and the relationship between them. Imagine reading the Greek tragedies in ancient Greek when you’re eight, nine, ten years old. That’s what it was like. My teachers were European for the most part, recent immigrants, alumni of the camps: Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Treblinka, Terezin. Everything about my early education was fantastical, horrifying, wondrous and extreme. There wasn’t much math or science. It was completely impractical. But it was the best education I could have asked for.
In Hurry Down Sunshine you wrote extensively about your daughter Sally’s sudden descent into bipolar disorder at the age of 15. After the difficult experience of watching your child lose her sanity, you had another child by your second wife. How did you enter into the decision to become a father again after what you’d gone through?
I was reluctant to have another child. But after Sally had her breakdown, my wife Pat’s devotion to her was crucial. What could have led to the end of our marriage served to bind us more closely. Not having a child with pat, after this experience, was out of the question.
How has the way you have parented Brendan differed from the way you raised Sally and Aaron? What do you attribute these differences to?
I’m more aware of the fragility of life than I was with my older children – a combination perhaps of what happened to Sally and my being older. Essentially, however, my parenting hasn’t changed: share your enthusiasms and be open to theirs. It’s expensive, but delightful.
Even allowing for the fact that you live in New York, you have interacted with what seems to be an inordinate number of real characters over the years. Do you seek out relationships with whack jobs or do they find you quite by accident?
I think we recognize each other instinctively. It’s a way of being in the world, a certain subversive glint in the eye that says, “Hey, I know you….”
Do you have an obsession with rats?
Yes! I have an absolute horror of them. I have four brothers. You can imagine the savage household we grew up in, almost devoid of feminine influence. Freud once remarked that when rats appear in dreams they represent your siblings. When I catch sight of a rat skittering along the street, disappearing into a crack in the pavement, I see a representation of the life I had to leave. I know, I know, it’s completely crazy!