Isaac Bashevis Singer and
The Lower East Side
(Mead Art Museum/
University of Wisconsin)Late in life, Bendit Pupko got rich. To paraphrase Blossom Dearie's My Attorney Bernie, "Someone told him to buy, he bought; they told him to sell, he sold."
He was a writer, and his stories, our narrator informs us, "lacked any sense of organization, but on every page I found some lines to surprise me." Such as? "The day was cloudy and the sky loyal."One day, Pupko told another writer --- the writer persona for this story --- that he, too, would one day praise him. The writer replies, "There isn't enough money in the world to make me write about you."
"Not even for ten thousand dollars?"
"Not even for ten million."Pupko goes into decline. His wife, who has a beard (Pupko likes beards on women, refuses to let her shave it) comes to the narrator's apartment. She lights a cigar.
"When you told him you would never write about him, he took it very badly ... You won't believe it but from that day on he was never the same. Sick as he was, he was always full of joy. He used to make plans years in advance. But since that day he never lifted a pen."When our author decides to give in, it is too late. However, just before Pupko dies, he reads the hard-won praise in proof-sheets. "Didn't I tell you?" he scrawls in the margin.
Later, our author runs into Mrs. Pupko at the Automat. "She still had her beard and wore a man's hat and shoes. She immediately limped over to my table and sat down as if she had an appointment with me."
I wanted to ask Mrs. Pupko why, since her husband is no longer alive, she had kept her beard, but I remembered her words, "Nu, one musn't know everything."
And thus it ends, a brief, lovely masterwork, complete with a touch of fictional pointillism. In less than 5,000 words Singer has caught a whole culture (New York Jewish writers), eccentrics (a woman with beard and cigar), tests of money vs. honor ("Not even for ten thousand dollars"), the madness of grief ("You've killed my husband") --- all with such economy --- not excluding surprising throw-away details. Of, for example, writers in acts of random kindnesses:
I had a Negro woman who cleaned for me once a week but I had forbidden her to touch my papers. Besides, she was old and half paralyzed. Often when she came I paid her for the day and sent her home because I saw that she had no strength to work. I worried that she might collapse while working in my apartment.In this volume, included with this story by Singer are over fifty black-and-white photographs, mostly taken by Bruce Davidson in the 50s and 60s in and around The Garden Cafeteria at 165 East Broadway.
Like Singer's work, they are funny, strange, stark. Unfortunately the editors decided to pad things out with several spurious add-ons: an essay about the pleasure and pain of photographing Singer; an interview with Bruce Davidson; a piece about the Lower East Side of New York of yore.
Thus, we are given 15,000 words to support a piece of fiction that needs no support, photographs that need no explaining. The commentary is of the nature of, "The unnamed elderly woman ... defines the setting and epitomizes the forbearance and resilience of the denizens inside." This proves little except that when they start handing out those two-bit words ("forbearance," "denizens"), it's time to head for the hills. Or the potty.
By cutting verbiage and adding twenty more of Davidson's photographs and ten more Singer stories, the editors would have offered an even finer homage to a master, a writer who deserves to be classed right up there with Anton Chekov, Stephen Crane, Guy de Maupassant and Ernest Hemingway.