ELYSIAN FIELDS LOST
"Now DERE is a MILLIONAIRE!" were the first words out of my new landlady's mouth concerning my soon-to-be neighbor, Max Friedmann. "Heez bin rentin' fromee fo' fotey-tree yeers now." Sure, a millionaire who, instead of having made a reasonable investment in a comfortable St. Charles Avenue condominium forty-three years ago, decided to rent something from her which was no bigger, nor more comfortable, than a college dorm room. Yes, it was in the posh upper Garden District area (and, yes, he had the private use of a garage - a flimsy tin structure whose wooden support beams were rotting and termite-infested), but over the years, the place had become somewhat rundown compared to the renovations which had been done on most of the surrounding estates and highly treasured Creole cottages. I just couldn't believe it (mostly because I couldn't understand it, as with other things).
But I came to understand eventually. My first encounter with Max was as I was moving into my new apartment. He walked right up to me, a decrepit old man of seventy-two years, and greeted me with much enthusiasm (which, I was made to understand by the landlady, was not his usual custom). "Are YOU my new naybuh?" he asked with eyes wide open. His language was typical New Orleanian, but one could tell that he had a considerably better upbringing than the landlady, as his pronunciation had been forged to as near an accent-free state as possible. (Only a hint of the detestably typical, New Orleans "Yat" accent managed to escape Max's speech.) This he gained in private schools up in the Northeast when he was a youngster, I later came to discover. Max invited me into his tiny apartment for a beer - I was consternated by the filthy, neglected condition that it was in! "She hasn't painted this fo' me in twenty years!" he would always say whenever I chastised him for living in such miserable conditions. The paint on the ceiling hung above in giant, teetering flakes, the walls were grey from constant barrages of cigarette smoke, and each doorknob and light switch in the place was black with the grime of decades of human contact. He kept his car in very good shape, though. It was almost new-looking, in fact. That seemed to be the only thing he really gave a flip about, other than his new air conditioner. (God help you in New Orleans if you don't take care of your air conditioner, especially if you don't occupy an older, more roomy flat where there is good air circulation in the summertime!) Oh, and his bed sheets - he was always extremely meticulous with those, keeping them always in clean, snow-white condition. But, all-in-all, he couldn't have cared less if his apartment looked like a crack house. I offered to help him paint it numerous times, but he would always dodge the subject, saying that the landlady was going to send one of her hired hands over to do it one day. At first, I felt sorry for him. I thought he was just another old guy who never ended up making much of himself and who was pretty much alone in the world. From all objective observations, he was a poor old man who was living alone by consequence, and not by choice. I couldn't have been more wrong.
Max seemed to favor me for my Anglo-Saxon heritage and phenotype. He loved to talk about Germany and his family's roots there. Since I speak German, he would always ask me how to say this or how to say that in German, and he would always remark sadly how long it had been since the German-speaking members of his family had been around. One of the very first things he did when he met me was to check to see what color my eyes are (he was delighted to see that they are blue). I really couldn't quite grasp all of this at first. What was the big deal? The big deal was that Max and his family were Jews (Max seemed to have a problem with that the whole time that I knew him). Max despised all things Jewish. He particularly despised being Jewish. He seemed more like a Nazi really, with his constant and unrelenting remarks about Jews and non-Aryans - particularly about blacks. Strangely enough though, Max didn't seem to mind Asians, especially Japanese. In fact, he really seemed to admire all Orientals - Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and all others. He would often travel way out into New Orleans East to a place known locally as the Vietnamese Village where he would buy Oriental foods, and converse with the Vietnamese New Orleanians. This was surprising, because Max was afraid to drive too far out past the CBD. Actually, I seem to recall him saying how he would take the bus out there sometimes. That would be a feat requiring the keenest ability to follow bus schedules (it was hard enough just getting downtown on a New Orleans bus or streetcar).
The bus system in New Orleans - the Regional Transit Authority (RTA, for short) - was a subject of much loathing for Max, as he depended greatly on it to get around, even though he had a beautiful new car to do that in. (I guess he just didn't like to drive much.) Taking a public bus in New Orleans is generally a hassle, even for the young and agile. But for the old and loud-mouthed, like Max, it produces headaches, heartaches, and at times, incidents with the police after one finishes slinging racial slurs at a black bus driver for not providing a valid transfer. (Yes, old 72-year-old Max actually raised such hell on the buses at times that the drivers would stop their buses, get off and call the police who, being black at least half of the time themselves, would issue Max citations and perform body searches and the like after receiving volley upon volley of slurs and insults from him.) I'm really surprised that Max never got himself killed on those buses!
Going back to why I couldn't have been more wrong about Max. He asked me once if I would like to come over to his family's house to do a little laundry and to meet his older sister, Beatrice. I couldn't resist, of course, and was I surprised when we got there! The house was located in the heart of one of the most selective uptown neighborhoods, just right next to Audubon Park. The house itself wasn't but thirty or forty years old, and it was quite large, the second floor family room affording a very nice view of the park and Tulane University's St. Charles Avenue campus. I met Beatrice - she was bedecked in an intricately patterned, Oriental style housecoat of silk, looking much like an old Chinese empress, seated in an antique Louis XVI chaise, and attended to patiently by her maid, Constance, a black woman who was then probably between thirty-five and forty years old. Beatrice gave me a very dry "How do you do?" which immediately wrapped up all communication between us. Constance, on the other hand, was very nice, and she wanted to know just everything about me - whether or not I liked living next door to Max, how old I was, whether or not I was going to school, and so on and so on. Max had given me a kind of warning about Constance before we arrived, telling me all about how she loved to irritate him by greeting him with big hugs and slobbery kisses - something he explained with a very grimacing wince, shuddering at the thought of it. (He seemed to think that Constance knew what a bigot he was, and therefore did her best to annoy him with all the affection!) Well, big, uptown house, empress-sister, maids - yup, Max was loaded all right. That trip put my doubts to rest for good.
So why did he rent that tacky little hovel? And why wasn't he ashamed to live in such degenerate conditions? To make the matter more confusing, Max's admiration of Asians brought him to develop the very peculiar habit of inviting Japanese tourists (total strangers, always visiting students on break or vacation, etc.) to over-night at his grungy, smelly little flat. Now, with the reputation that the Japanese have for being so clean and tidy, you would think that Max might be a little embarrassed to invite Japanese guests over, but he apparently wasn't in the least. He would run into them while waiting for the streetcar, and he would make friendly jokes to them about the streetcars being our American "sheen-kon-zen," or, "shing-kun-zen," or something like that (it means bullet train in Japanese - the kind of trains that do 200 miles-per-hour), and before either would know it, Max would have an international visitor staying over with him one or two nights. I once came over to meet one of these Japanese guests of his. The young man didn't seem to mind the grime and cigarette smoke - after all, it sure as hell beat spending between $200 and $300 a night at some glitzy French Quarter hotel, or some big convention hotel on Canal Street or on the avenue. Even if he did mind it, neither of us would have been able to understand because most of the time there would be too great a language barrier.
"The jigs are getting woirce and woirce!" Max would always say to me. Jig was his word for a black person. He was always fond of telling a story of his which had to do with former New Orleans Mayor, Ernest "Dutch" Morial, who rode as the honorary head of a St. Patrick's Day parade a long time ago. (Dutch Morial was New Orleans' first black mayor ever - he has since passed away, and they renamed the New Orleans Convention Centre after him at the start of the 1990s.) Max's little story goes that somebody in the crowd asked who that was riding as the parade head, and that somebody replied, "What? Ain'choo nevah hoird O' no Irish jig befo'?" Max would say, "Jig - that's the poirfect woird for them because they're always jumping around, bobbing up and down . . . ."
Sometimes, when I had to go off to the store for groceries, Max would manage to hitch a ride along with me. He always managed to talk me into going to the A&P store on Magazine Street. That was his favorite store, he said, because he owned stock in A&P. It also happened to be one of the best priced markets around the area and, as an economic consequence, it attracted those unfortunate people who were of the lower social spheres of the area (mostly African-Americans from nearby public housing or affordable housing). And what do you suppose old Max would do at the cash register when we went to check out? He would, without fail everytime, take out money from his wallet and wave it around at the black cashiers, asking them if they took cash because he forgot his food stamps at home again! I could have just died the first time he pulled that with me. The second time, too! Then I asked him to please not do it anymore if he expected to catch rides with me to the market, but he did anyway. So, from about the fourth or fifth time he did that, I just started to make unannounced trips to the market, and I tried to leave him behind as much as I could. He was a really prejudiced old fart, and it showed up in sadistic mean streaks (like at the A&P). But I thought Max was interesting, and he was always good for free beer whenever I visited (even though it was the very cheapest beer available). I found him to be a sort of surrogate grandfather, and he treated me much like a grandson. It was a pleasant symbiosis and, for me, a series of lessons on what not to be like if and when I grow old.
Max never married, nor had he any significant relationships, at least none that I could ever completely pry out of him at first. He told me a lot about himself, at least more than he had probably ever told anyone else before. He hinted about a failed relationship that left him heartbroken a long, long time ago, but refused to ever go into any detail about it. Apparently, he had tried but lost. It's not like he had no interest in pursuing other relationships. In fact, I think he was a very sexually-oriented type of person. And in fact, maybe he was too much of such a type to ever pursue a truly meaningful relationship. (But I'm no Dr. Ruth, so I won't try to elaborate on that hunch.) Max was always making a sexual pun out of the least likely of things. For example, he always had a perverse interest in the objective welfare of my cat, always asking me, "How's your pussy?" or just, "How's pussy?" (sometimes throwing in, "You gettin' any, by the way?"). It seems as if Max was living proof that there existed a sexual sort of rat-race long before any among us today realized it. At times, I'd look at Max and become afraid that I was actually looking at what I might become in my old age - alone, with only tired memories and war-wounds from the battle field of love and human sexuality. To me, sex is one of the sorriest facts of life. It seems to be something that we need to be involved with to reach one aspect of happiness and fulfillment. Maybe it's not just the sexual act itself, but certainly it's that closeness to another that sex so often serves to facilitate. I'm sure that kind of human closeness can be achieved via other avenues, but for most of us, sex is a primary source of it. Well, in any event, it is a fact, real and existing. To rephrase the phrase: "Nous en pensons, donc il est." ("We think about it, therefore it is.") And for Max and those like him, its absence results in a numbing and painful obsession for it. His goal was to just be content in life, not happy. That way, safety from pain, the pain of loss or of unhappiness, is assured. "Better not to have at all, than to have had and to lose," he would insist, vigorously refuting the old romantic notion that it is better to have loved and lost, than to never have loved at all. I wouldn't have called Max a cynic exactly, rather just a sort of person who rejects many things, but never everything - a "rejectionist," I guess.
I think that Max just rejected a lot of things in his life and, as a consequence, he missed out on a lot, too. This is why he lived in a dingy hovel, because it was his belief that things are bad to have because you can lose them and become saddened by their loss. He didn't think that things are bad to have for any Every Man sort of reasoning - that is, you can't take anything but your deeds with you to the grave. Max was strictly concerned with the here-and-now, and couldn't have given two cents about what favors your good deeds done on earth could win you on your judgment day. No, Max was too much of an agnostic for those sorts of philosophies.
But Max's life was an oxymoron compared to his agnostic carpe-diem attitude. He thought that, at the end of one's life on earth, one just completely disappears from existence, and that one had better live and enjoy each day as it arrives without giving too much consideration to the long-term quality of one's life. But Max would qualify that line of reasoning to fit the circumstances. Why not a nice condo on the avenue? "Because," he'd explain, "it just doesn't pay to have anything nice here in New Or-leenz!" (He would always say "New Or-leenz," like Mick Jagger singing about his brown sugar, to be sarcastic and to mock the place by pronouncing it like some tourist who listens to the top-40 too much.) He was like me in that sense, that New Orleans ( [nu]-[warlenz] ) had chained him down in a love/hate relationship; that it, along with our hopes and aspirations for it, had been betrayed by a number of embarrassing and disappointing social, economic and political factors throughout its history. Again, I would get a little frightened to hear such things come from Max, things that matched my thoughts and feelings exactly. I knew exactly what he meant by that, that it doesn't pay to have anything nice in New Orleans. If you have a nice car, like Max had, somebody would steal it or the radio in it, or, at the very least, some moron would carelessly dent the side of it with the opening of another car's door at a shopping mall or a recklessly guided grocery basket in some supermarket parking lot (that can be almost as demoralizing as when somebody steals it!). Somewhere along those lines, Max and I both believed that, if you find yourself wishing for something really hard, you probably really don't need it. But what's really scary for me is that I find that I continue to believe that. Max and I also agreed totally about cars and what a pain in the butt they all are. The Automobile: A Plague Across America was going to be the title of a piece that we were going to do jointly and submit to various large American newspapers like The New York Times (certainly not The Times-Picayune of New Orleans), to describe how horrible it is that the American populace has been made to become so utterly dependent on something so utterly undependable as the automobile. It would have been a master-piece in modern American, freelance journalism! Okay, moving on . . .
I mentioned how Max liked to make sexual puns all the time. (He would order hors d'oeuvres in a nice restaurant by referring to them as "whore's ovaries," just to be embarrassing, it seemed.) Well, I think that's what he did as kind of a hobby. It must have taken him hours of sitting around to think of some of the linguistic puns that popped up constantly in his speech. He had a pun for just about anything that deserves mocking. Louisiana was "Lousy'ana" (I can't argue with that one!); the Mississippi River was the "Missisloppy"; and an interior decorator would come out of Max's mouth sounding like an "inferior decorator." His sense of humor tended to be a little morbid at times, as well. He would ask things like, "When's the next moirder going to be?" He would always carry a police whistle with him whenever he ventured out, as his sense of humor would get him in trouble with passers-by on the streets sometimes (he would take out that whistle and blow on it frantically to attract attention and thereby avert any harassment that he may have had coming to him for any stray racial slurs that slipped off his tongue while in the presence of minorities out on the streets). Carpe diem!
Max always managed to get around quite a bit, despite the hassles he created for himself. Besides venturing clear out to New Orleans East, he was also fond of traveling across the river to shop and, on a couple of different occasions, I would run into him doing some reading in the University of New Orleans library way up on Lake Pontchartrain across town. Sometimes, we would have lunch there (if I had enough time between classes). He was always going downtown, too, as he owned a couple of buildings on Canal Street where he had tenants renting space for shops. I accompanied him downtown on a couple of these trips, and we would pose as grandfather and grandson. I had never had my rear smooched so much in my life, not even when I was a sergeant in the army! But I guess old Max was used to it, since he was always going into the various shops and checking on how things were going for his tenants. I took a strange satisfaction in seeing how the Jordanian owners of an electronics store in two of Max's buildings smooched up to his Jewish behind - it kind of made up for all the news about the horrible acts that were committed back then by Arabic and Persian-speaking Islamic terrorists toward Jews and Americans in places like Beirut and Jerusalem. One of the stores was run by a Korean woman. She had given Max a gold-plated watchband one day just because he had let it slip that he was going to be needing a new one before too long. He told me that he had absolutely no intentions of weaseling a new band out of her, nor did he realize that she would react like that if he mentioned it in casual passing. But he said that she insisted, so he couldn't refuse. The strangest thing about that was that I really believed him. He had another Korean tenant - a young lady who ran a frozen yogurt shop. She would always give Max free yogurt. Max called her "his little Korean girlfriend." (I wonder what she would have thought of that?)