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I went to the University of Iowa, home of the Iowa Writers Workshop, wanting to be a writer. I soon discovered that I wanted to be a writer more than I wanted to write. I was living in an old three-story rooming house, in a small room on the top floor—not exactly a garret, but close enough. I went to class now and then and to bars every night. The room next to mine was occupied by a guy my age who also wanted to be a writer. Except he actually wrote. He had arranged his class schedule so that his mornings were free, and he wrote all morning, every morning. If I was home and not sleeping in after another late night, I would play a record to cover the annoying sound of his typewriter.
One Sunday morning, there was a knock on my door. There’d been a party the night before, and I hadn’t gone to bed until 4 a.m. I couldn’t imagine who it could be—none of my friends would be up and about at 8 a. m. on a Sunday. “Aren’t you gonna see who it is?” said my girlfriend Ellen. She had her own place, closer to campus—she actually attended classes—but spent weekends with me. “It’s probably the guy next door wanting to borrow typing paper or some goddamn thing,” I mumbled. I stumbled across the room in my underwear, opened the door, and stuck my head out. There, instead of my neighbor, was a middle-aged couple. The man, dressed in a plaid flannel shirt and baggy corduroy pants, looked familiar, with a face that was at once tough and soft, part Robert Mitchum, part Dustin Hoffman. The woman was pale, slender, and elegantly dressed.
He didn’t bother with a greeting. “You got a record player to sell?” he said. I nodded. “I do.” The day before, I’d placed an ad in the DI—The Daily Iowan—for my stereo. “Hold on,” I said. I could be gruff too. Leaving the door slightly ajar, I picked up last night’s blue jeans and t-shirt, put them on, and returned to the door. “Come on in,” I said softening my tone for the woman’s sake. He stepped in. She took one look at the room—the empty jugs of cheap wine and overflowing ashtrays on the floor, the body hidden under the bed cover—and stayed where she was. I pretended to not care about the mess—épater la bourgeoisie!—but in fact I was embarrassed by it and was relieved when she chose to stay put.
The man crossed the room, carefully stepping over the wine bottles and ashtrays. He stopped for a moment in front of my DIY brick-and-board bookcase to peruse the titles, before joining me at the stereo. He looked it over and after trying it out with the record that was still on the turntable from the night before (Kind of Blue by Miles, if memory serves), he asked me what I wanted for it. “Fifty bucks,” I said. “I ain’t got that much bread on me,” he said. Bread? What manner of aging hep cat have we here? I wondered, eyeing him. Instead of asking him how much he did have, I just shrugged—I was tired and wanted to go back to bed. Plus I was a little peeved at this rude dude who’d woken me up at eight goddamn o’clock in the morning and now wanted to haggle over a few dollars. As he walked away, I looked at the woman, still standing quietly at the door, and wondered what she was doing with him.
That night, as I sat at the bar at the Mill, drinking draught beer, it suddenly came to me. “I know who he is!” I blurted out.
“Know who is?” said the guy on the barstool next to me. He was also a writer who didn’t write. The Mill was a gathering place for writers who didn’t write.
“I’ll tell you later,” I said. I finished my beer and hurried home. I pulled a book out from a stack of books on the floor, and sure enough, there he was on the inside jacket cover of The Man with the Golden Arm: Nelson Algren. The stack on the floor was for books I hadn’t gotten around to reading; once a book had been read, it graduated to its correct place on my alphabetically arranged bookshelf. Nothing else was in order in my room, but my books were. Was that what he’d been looking for when he’d paused in front of my bookshelves—one of his books? And if it had been on the shelf, rather than on the floor, would he have accepted my price?
I didn’t give much thought to the woman who’d been with him. She was probably some professor from the English department, or the wife of a professor, showing him around.
One afternoon, years later, I was driving home from work, when I happened to hear a story on NPR about Nelson Algren and his 20-year, on-and-off-again love affair with, of all people, Simone de Beauvoir. Could any two people have seemed less suited for each other? She was the convent-bred, Sorbonne-educated product of a well-to-do French family, a brilliant student who went on to become a feminist icon. He was a tough guy from a working-class family in Chicago who preferred a poker game to a literary salon and low life to high society. (He liked to quote Whitman: “I feel I am of them—I belong to these convicts and prostitutes myself/And henceforth I will not deny them—for how can I deny myself?”) Yet there it was: For all their differences—or because of them?—he’d been the love of her life, and she, his. She wore his ring and called him her husband; he wanted her to live with him. But they couldn’t work out the logistics. She refused to leave France (and perhaps Sartre, her former lover, now her platonic companion); he wouldn’t leave Chicago. Without his beloved losers—drifters and grifters, hustlers and hookers—who would he write about? Things became even more difficult after the FBI, under the petty and vindictive J. Edgar Hoover, took away Algren’s passport because of his refusal to denounce the communist party—he’d once been a member—and his lifelong support for left-wing causes. There was also tension between the two writers: He never wrote about his friends; in her novels, that’s all she wrote about, and he’d been hurt by some of the things she’d written about him.
The affair petered out, but not the love. When she died, she was buried, next to Sartre, with Algren’s ring on her finger. He’d died several years earlier, killed by a heart attack, after exploding in anger at a reporter for asking personal questions about de Beauvoir.
Listening to the story, I remembered the woman at my door. Was that who’d been with Algren that Sunday morning years ago?
The next day I went to the library—this was pre-Internet—and found a photo of de Beauvoir. I sat back in my chair. For years, I’d been telling the story of how I almost sold a record player to Nelson Algren. Now I had a rich detail to add. How many men could say that they’d once invited Simone de Beauvoir into their room?