My exaggerated life, p.36
My Exaggerated Life, p.36Pat Conroy
He said, “Well, that’s perfectly ridiculous, and you need to tell them that.”
So I said, “Julian, what is your big problem?”
He said, “You write about Jews, you write about the Holocaust; you can’t do this.”
I said, “Well, I’ve got to do it.”
And he said, “Well then, you must make all your Jews likable.”
I said, “Why is that? That sounds ridiculous. I’ve known a lot of jerk Jews.”
He says, “My God, listen to you. I noted during the football game in your book it is not the Jew who scores the winning touchdown.”
I said, “You mean I’ve got to let the Jew score the winning touchdown? It’s enough of a stretch that I have a Jew playing in the football game.”
There are all these things that people will find not to like in a novel, and you don’t catch it as much with a nonfiction book because you’re supposedly telling the truth. The whole book I found very, very difficult to write. Then, of course, I’m going to top it off with Mom’s death and Tom’s suicide. Tom was going to kill himself in that book. I think I did kill him. Anyway, I had planned to kill John Hardin, who I put in as Tom, until my brother Tom actually did commit suicide. So I had to change those plans very rapidly. So Hardin survives—nice going, lad—because I didn’t think the book could bear that kind of burden, and I couldn’t bear putting that kind of burden into the book right after it happened. So I bailed. I hope I can be forgiven as an artist, but I bailed out of that one. It was not a wise choice; it was a choice made for me.
By this time, Nan Talese had moved to Doubleday because it was more money and prestige, I think. She got her own imprint. Again she flew me to New York and put me up in a hotel for five months. This broke up my therapy with Marion O’Neill, but I enjoyed that New York experience, and Nan wanted me right beside her while she edited. She was still a hands-on editor at that time, and we worked every day for eight hours a day in her beautiful house on East Sixty-First Street. Here’s what I love about Nan: she’s smarter than shit, and when she has an idea, it’s not just an idea; she’s got a reason for having it and can defend that idea. That’s exciting to me as a writer. She would give me homework, so I’d walk home from her house to my little Surrey Hotel and do my homework that night. The new restaurateur Daniel Boulud had a little restaurant in the hotel, and that was room service, so I ate like a fucking king.
Sometimes Nan and Gay would take me over to shit-bird Elaine’s with her lousy food. The best thing there was the raw oyster. But everybody was world famous and sitting around looking at other world-famous people. I got to hate Woody Allen. He and his girlfriend at the time—before he married her daughter—Mia Farrow—I’d watch them come in, and they had a special seat, as Nan and Gay had a special seat. I watched them come in there every night with their faces looking straight down at the floor. They’d walk straight as arrows to their seats and they would sit down, and only then they’d look up into each other’s eyes. You know, God forbid that they may see another human being they had to say hello to. Of course I’m sitting there saying what is that fucking shit all about? Oh, there’s paparazzi. There was no paparazzi in there. Everybody that went there either was somebody or wanted to be somebody or wanted to be around somebody who was somebody.
Now, I could not make Nan laugh if I put a whoopee cushion in her chair, but I’ve always tickled Gay. He wanted to watch the Knicks one time when we were working on the book at the house. I said sure, so we’re watching the Knicks, and I’m commenting. Gay looks at me, says, “You know about basketball?” A little bit. So we keep going; he says, “No, you know a lot about basketball.” Yeah, I know some things. And then finally he’s going, “You know everything about basketball. Did you play basketball?” I said yeah, I played it in college. He said “Why didn’t I know that?” Then he said, “John Irving has let everybody know he was a high school wrestler.” But I always thought if anybody learned I was a jock in New York they wouldn’t talk to me ever again.
Anyway, the editing was going well, and we had fun working together. Nan pulled that whole book together. I had given her a two-thousand-page mess, and she made that book a publishable item. She deserves that credit because I was out of my mind.
I look back now on that New York experience as a happy time. I still felt a bit queasy, but stable, as if I’d survived something, but barely, and I needed to watch myself, be careful. When Nan brought me to New York to work on that book, she was doing me a great favor because she got me out of harm’s way, got me to that hotel, and then whipped me into shape for the next five months, whipped that book into shape and got it together the way she wanted and could be happy with.
She always goes crazy when I do my nature thing. I had the white porpoise in Prince of Tides, and in Beach Music I have a manta ray come flying out of the water. She wanted to cut that, and she finally says, “I’m so tired of you and your scenes about”—she’s frustrated, and then she finally says—“your scenes about seafood.” Well, I got to keep the manta ray, but I was such a weak spirit at the time I didn’t fight Nan much. I basically did what she wanted me to do. But I look back on that time in New York as a great time in my writing life.
I even thought of staying in New York, but then I looked at a couple of apartments, and it was one of the most disheartening things I’ve ever done in my life. I hated the real estate agent; I hated the people running the buildings; I didn’t like anything about New York real estate. The guys that guarded the door seemed like jerks to me. When I thought of actually living there, it didn’t get me. And what am I going to do now? Start going to literary parties? No, I didn’t feel like that.
One afternoon I was working in the Surrey Hotel, rewriting a chapter in Beach Music. Late in the afternoon a knock on the door came. I opened the door, and somebody threw something on the floor. That was the delivery of the divorce papers. Not everybody realizes this: Lenore asked for the divorce. I don’t think I would ever have asked for one, because of Susannah. But there it was, and I had to deal with it.
A couple of days later, I get another visit from a very unprepossessing guy. He sort of looked like a bream. I said, “Hey, how you doing? How can I help you?”
He said, “Mr. Conroy, I’m from the IRS.”
I said, “Come on in.”
He said, “You didn’t hear me. I’m from the IRS.”
I said, “The Internal Revenue Service? That’s how you make a living. I write books. That’s how I make a living. What’s the difference? You must have business with me. Come on in and sit down.” And I said, “It’s late in the afternoon, and I’ve got a full bar.” I still was not drinking, so I had plenty in it. I said, “Let me fix you a drink.”
He said, “Well, I’m on duty.”
I said, “It’s 5:30. When do you go off duty?”
“Well, officially, 5:00.”
I said, “Yeah, let me fix you something.”
I fixed him a drink, he sat back, and he said, “I’ve got bad news for you.”
I said, “Generally, that is the business of the IRS. You must hate making visits like this but, you know, it’s not personal. Somebody sent you to do this, so I do not resent you for it.”
He says, “Mr. Conroy, you have not paid taxes for the last two years.”
I said, “You know, I don’t do my taxes; my wife handles all that. But I remember they always make me sign this line that says I am paying my taxes.”
He said, “You signed every one of them. What has not happened is you’ve not sent the check along with the signature.”
I said, “Well, how much do I owe?”
He said something like, “You owe us $250,000.”
And I said, “So my wife—”
He said, “No checks have been sent with the forms. There’s also more bad news. The IRS is fining you $200 a day until you pay this off.”
I said, “I’ll be glad to pay it off, but I’m going to have to finish this book, and the book’s going to have
And so we sat. We talked about his family, we talked about my family, and when he left we shook hands. Here’s what was interesting about this man. Here’s what happened from that visit. He cancelled the $200 a day fine.
Unfortunately, I have never been able to involve myself with money, because that is where anxiety overwhelms me. I had so little money as a kid, and I suffered from not having some of it as a kid. You know, I did not grow up in a Sudanese refugee camp, and I know the difference of that kind of poverty. It was not poverty I grew up in. I grew up with cheapness. The Depression did something to my mother and father that made money a strange, alienating thing for them. It twisted them both in odd ways. It twisted their children in ways that were even odder.
What Mom did to us all with money is sick. I got a dime a week when I was a senior in high school. Guys on the basketball team would invite me down to Dairy Queen for a hamburger and a Coke before practice; I’d never do it, and I’d kid around, “I got to work on my game.” And it was just because, you know, a dime a week, I can’t do it. I came across a girl the other day who asked me, “Why didn’t your parents let you date in high school?” It wasn’t they didn’t let me date; I didn’t have enough money to date. “Hi, would you like me to buy you a bean sprout?” My mother could utterly humiliate me with money. No one was better than her on that. I just did not have money even to get girls into a movie theater. “Oh, you want popcorn? My God, what a pig. Oh, you want Coke with that? Isn’t popcorn enough? Do you want anything? Nah, my God, just concentrate on the movie.”
But she really got me on the hops, our big dances. I would dread those things. Senior year at the Citadel was the big one. We have homecoming; then we have the Ring Hop, when we receive our ring. That’s the biggest moment in a senior’s life and the life of a Citadel cadet. You walk through a huge gold replica of the ring, stop, get your picture taken, kiss your date, and then after that go out to dinner. That’s when you get to wear your ring for the first time. It’s a huge deal on campus. I’m desperate because I don’t know who to ask for a date.
Well, this girl Ann Burnett had lived a couple houses down from me on the base in Beaufort. I was friendly to her, and she wrote me all during college. They moved to California, and she still wrote, and one day she wrote, “Who are you taking to the Ring Hop?” I said, “Right now nobody. You want to come?” But she’s in California; it seemed like asking somebody to come from China at that time. But she worked, had a job, so she said, “I’d love to come.”
Well, I was pleased as could be, but oh God, here it comes. The letters I got from her said, “Pat, I know you don’t have any money, you can’t work as a cadet, but any help you can give me on the plane ticket or the room, the food, would be appreciated.”
So I said, “Mom, I know this is going to be hard, but I think I need some real money for this thing.”
She said, “Well, Ann’s got a perfectly nice job. I’ve written her mother, and she makes a lot of money.”
“Ma, I don’t care, okay. I would like you to send me fifty bucks.”
Oh, Mr. Rockefeller.
The check didn’t get there. I’m going to the mailbox every day; it’s not there. It arrives the day Ann arrives. I open it up; I usually get ten dollars a month. Mom made it a big fifteen, because of the Ring Hop. So I said oh, my God, this is going to be so humiliating. Well, we walk through the ring, Ann met the generals, and she likes that. She was a Marine’s daughter so she had a good time.
Then we go out to dinner, and I’m with these other guys, my classmates, we’re all going out to dinner together, and they’re ordering real food, doing it big. Ann orders a Singapore sling; she ordered a salad and appetizer, escargots bathing in garlic butter. All these guys order their steaks; she orders a steak. Everybody orders a big steak except me. So she looks up, says “Pat, what are you ordering?”
I said, “Well, I got a glass of water. I’m dehydrated after basketball practice.”
She says, “You got water and a green salad?”
I said, “Yeah, I just can’t eat. Practice, you know, it makes me nauseated.”
Then dessert comes, and whatever she ordered was on fire. When our bill arrives, I have to go borrow the money; I had to beg the money from a friend in the men’s room.
I said, “I’m so sorry.”
He said, “Pat, you’ve got quite the name as a mooch.”
My worst nightmare.
Okay, that got me through dinner. Then we go to breakfast the next day. I just have a cup of coffee, and I can’t even see her head, there are so many waffles between us, and now I’m borrowing from my teammates; I’m borrowing from my roommate. Then it comes time to pay the hotel room. I can offer not a cent. I take Ann back to the airport, and guess how much I can pay for her flight? I was as embarrassed as I’d ever been in my life.
Ann and I used to write regularly until that. I never wrote her again for thirty years. I disappeared from her life. She disappeared from my life. Then I was searching for her for years, because I like to have a chance to explain myself to someone. Finally somebody saw her in California. I got her address; I wrote her a letter and told her the whole story of what happened at the Ring Hop. “Ann, I did not have enough money to take you out to dinner, to buy you breakfast on Sunday. I did not have any money to help pay your plane ticket from fucking California. Could I send you a check for $2,000? Will you let me do that for not having paid for anything for you?”
She writes back and says, “Pat, how many times do you think I’ve dined out on the fact I went to the Citadel Ring Hop with Pat Conroy?”
When I got her on the phone, I said, “Please let me send you $2,000. My mortification was complete.”
Ann was terrific. She just said, “Pat, I don’t even want to let you off. Going to the Ring Hop with you is the best thing I’ve ever done. You’re not going to send me a cent.”
But I was still horrified, after all those years.
When I was writing The Lords of Discipline, I had rented a place on Sullivan’s Island so I could do research in Charleston. One night I went to a debutante party in Confederate Hall when I was hanging around the South of Broad crowd, them not knowing that I was cruelly amassing material that I would use to hamstring them later in their lives as they traveled their innocent ways toward death. But I was enjoying this party, and what I picked up on was that the girl who was coming out had just barely made the cut, just barely snuck in there. Her father and mother were struggling; he had had business reversals and was in trouble.
It was a nice party, the girl was enjoying herself—it was her night—and then I hear the bartender tell her father, “We’re cutting off the bar. You’re at your limit.” I then see the girl rushing up, because guys were coming to her saying the bar was cut off. This poor father put his hands up, said, “I’m sorry, honey. We had a limit.” When I saw the look on that girl’s face, it almost killed me. It was hopelessness and despair, embarrassment for herself, her father letting her down on this most golden of all nights. I couldn’t take it. I went over and gave the bartender my credit card and said, “Put it on that.” It was the first big-wheel thing I’d ever done, and of course I was terrified they were going to find out I’d overdrawn my account by nine million dollars and they’d spit the card back at me. But the drinks started again. I couldn’t stand seeing the look on that girl’s face because I knew exactly what she was going through.
Now my brothers and sisters think I am hideously profligate and ridiculous in the way I use and do not use money. They consider it a serious flaw of character. They are all ants working and storing up for winter, and I am the Jurassic grasshopper. Their definition of me is Pat goes in to buy himself a Buick. Why would he buy himself a Buick? Pat has always been an old man, and old men buy Buicks, and Pat was an old man when he was eighteen.
And then they say Pat goes into a showroom, and the guy says, “Would you like me to show you a few cars?”
Pat says, “No, show me just one car.”
Pat sees the car, he likes it, and the guy says, “Would you like to test drive it?”
Pat says, “No I wouldn’t; I just want to buy it.”
The guy says, “Well, that is $20,000,” and Pat says in his fierce bargaining technique, “I’ll give you $25,000.”
But I didn’t want to be like my mother. I really did not want to be like that. And I didn’t want to be a bathroom guy, the guy who runs from the check. He sees the check walking toward us, and he suddenly finds himself in desperate need of the men’s room. I call this the money shadow. People can seem perfectly normal, even fabulous human beings, until we come to the point when the check arrives.
But I have been an expert at finding people who could go through my money like it was nothing. What an idiot I was. God, what an idiot. It is a long, involved, stupid story where all the worst parts of my personality come out and gather up in a force that was irresistible and unturnable, and of course ruined my life.
Jim Roe was my financial counselor, my investment guy; he handled all my money, and he was one of those crashing towers in my life. He was the most successful cadet at the Citadel when I was there. He was regimental executive officer, second in command of the corps. He was vice president of the class. He was best military. Every military honor you could win, he won. The most coveted thing in our class is the Willson Ring. He won the Willson Ring. He was the perfect Christian boy from Rome, Georgia. Went to Harvard Law School from the Citadel, which ain’t easy, and was head of the Southern Club at Harvard Law School.
He and I were not friends at all. He was very military: militantly military, not my type of guy at the Citadel, but I didn’t have many types of guys at the Citadel. I was a lonely lad there. John Warley told me this later, that he and Jim went their freshman year to General Mark Clark, our famous president, and both of them wanted to know how to go about stopping communism.
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