Jules Feiffer, the cartoonist, drops his pencil into the great mulch of hotel-room litter around his bed, thereby compounding the tone of vexed surprise he's aiming at someone on the other end of the phone he's speaking into.
"You make them up! That's why they're called ideas!" he is saying, while he grubs fruitlessly around the rug for the pencil.
It's nice to see that Feiffer, at 50, has yet to acquire equanimity, either intellectually or physically. He is the original push-the-PULL door man, in fact, always turning the wrong way when he gets on the elevator so he has to lunge for the bottom panel; then he gets off on the wrong floor and scurries back; and when he loses a collar stay, he blames it on "facism" (adding a small chuckle).
And intellectually, he is still Mr. Hip-Urban-Left-Wing-Intellectual-Angst-ridden-Identity crisis, as defined over 23 years in 11 books of cartoons, two novels, one memoir, three plays, three screenplays and one collection of drawings.
At breakfast, he is handed a review of his own book, a cartoon novel entitled "Tantrum," about a middle-aged man who wills himself back to the age of 2.
"No," he says with a shy, voracious smile. "I'll read it later."
Then; "Is it good? Is it?"
Feiffer grabs the review and reads with slow fascination, chuckling a chuckle he might have learned from word balloons in comic strips, which he started reading in the Bronx when he was 4.
"Heh heh," he says, just like that. "Heh heh."
As one of the rebels against Eisenhower's 1950s, Feiffer, first appearing in the Village Voice in 1956, became not only a creator of a generation but a spokesman for it: alienated, socially concerned, self-absorbed, dicing with the terrors of responsibility, atomic warefare, love, the FBI, neurosis and so on.
Even in 1979, he retains a touch of Bohemian cachet in his navy-blue turtleneck. He is wonderfully bald, and blinks a lot behing rectangular, wire-rimmed glasses.
And he still worries about reviews. Reading this one, he flinches and blushes and finally beams. After all, he had not intended for life to be as adventurous as it's been.
"Originally I wanted to be a comic-strip artist," he says over two eggs, sunny-side up. "I loved that fantasy world. But the Army put me in touch with the kind of rage which was uncontrollable. I was in from '51 to '53. I didn't go to Korea, no, but that didn't make the fascism of any Army any easier to take, the mindless brute power, power with all the gloves off."
The Army had him working in an animated film unit. He ended up in a publication unit, where he refused a promotion to private first class.
"I didn't want to accept anything from the Army," he says.
And out of the experience came his first big success, a cartoon story called "Munro," about a 4-year-old who is drafted by mistake."I wrote 'Munro' so I wouldn't go crazy," Feiffer says, "I tried to sell it all over New York. But it wasn't for kids, and I didn't have a name as a cartoonist with adults."
In 1956, Feiffer hit with the newly founded Village Voice. He's been drawing his social and political satires for it ever since, and now he's syndicated in "a couple of hundred" newspaper and magazines.
"Back then, comedy was still working in a tradition that came out of World War I," he says, scrubbing at his chin to erase a smudge of yolk. He keeps scrubbing as if people had told him all through his youth that he had yolk on his chin, no you haven't got it off yet, there, that's better.
"Comedy was mired in insults and gags. It was Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Burns and Allen, Ozzie and Harriet. There was no such thing as comedy about relationships, nothing about the newly urban and collegiate Americans. What I was interested in was using humor as a reflection of one's own confusion, ambivalence and dilemma, dealing with sexual life as one knew it to be."
Feiffer was part of a new generation which also included Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, allealing to the newly acquired responsibilities of a new intelligentsia born out of the G.I. Bill, the boredom of the 1950s, fear of nuclear holocaust, psychoanalysis and existentialism, among other influences.
"It was terrible. You couldn't say anything critical about America, you couldn't join a rent strike without being accused of being subversive. Humor became a natural outlet."
So Feiffer gave us characters such as Bernard Mergendeilar, anxiety-prone and always failing with women; Passionella, the chimney sweep who became a famous movie star by acquiring the largest breasts in the world; Harold Swerg, who was better than anybody at anything but he wouldn't do it -- he just wanted to be a filing clerk," says Feiffer; and Walter Fay and his lonely machine -- "He created a machine that would do anything he wanted, but he rejected it when it got too possessive."
He mocked presidents. He warmed the cockles of aspiring intelligentsia by assuming they'd all read Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales," then taking them one step beyond in sophistication by poking fun at it.
"I'm talking, I suppose, for a very narrow segment of American society -- people who don't form policy, but form dissension to that policy."
Though some aspects have changed since he began. He had a character named Huey, for instance, who epitomized the macho aspects of Bohemian society in the late '50s: tough, experienced, adored by women whom he treats with cavalier indifference.
"I did a strip recently, a farewell to Huey, where I had Bernard [who always admired Huey] run into him on the street. Huey had turned into a fat bald guy who's in air-conditioning sales."
Breakfast finished, Feiffer discovers he's running late for a Hadassah luncheon he's supposed to address. He loses his collar stay, tries one necktie -- "Whaddaya think? You like it? I think I'll try the other one -- then scrambles into the lobby where he insists on signing his bill.
"You don't have to. It's taken care of by your publisher," says the room clerk.
"No, no, I wouldn't feel right somehow," Feiffer says. He signs and rushes for a taxi.
?Sir? Sir? You forgot your tickets!" the room clerk shouts, waving a folder at him.
He gives a bill to the doorman and gets into the cab.
The good fight, he says on the way to Haadassah, is still there to be fought. The tradition he began may have been inherited by Woody Allen, "but there's nothing he does that would lead you to say, 'How does he get away with that?' There's no politics or danger in what he does -- and he does it brilliantly from time to time."
Like most Americans in 1979, Feiffer is disappointed: "I was a sucker like everyone else. I thought things were going go get better. There once used to be a thing called the American dream."
Certainly, his work had not been a morale-boost for America: movie scripts such as "carnal Knowledge" and"Little Murders," for instance. He is persuaded that we've gotten nowhere in our attempt to alleviate sexual anxiety; and he's encountered a new form of it in worrying about his daughter Kate, the issue of his only marriage. It ended in divorce. He does not want another.
"She's going on 15. Where is my 2-year-old when I really need her? I'm behaving every bit as badly as any father -- shotgun Feiffer.
He is still prone, he says, to "periods of overwhelming guilt, and a lot of excess nonsense. I've been in psychotherapy for 15 years or so. I find it terrific. It does everything but cure me, thank God. I always thought that at 50 one would be able to handle problems with equanimity. I can handle them, I've found, but not with equanimity."
And the big problems, the same ones he started with, remain.
"How can anybody say that the left-wing won when the rich own what they've always owned, when the split among the classes is as hard-line as ever. There's a national acceptance of racism now, rather than the revulsion we had in the '60s. We're walking under two umbrellas: Life is unfair, and you can't throw dollars at problems. You can throw dollars at the Army and the Pentagon, but not at the poor. Nixon won!"
The cab gets stuck in an inexplicable traffic jam 50 yards from the door of the hotel where Hadassah waits.
Feiffer is strangely peaceful. One wants to urge him on, make sure he gets inside on time. As he said, "I always wanted to sit in my room and work while grownups took care of things for me. Then I found out that if I didn't do it, it didn't get done. Now I like doing it."
Finally, he bails out of the cab, trying to carry it, it seems, one too many things for two hands. Inside the hotel he ricochets from bulletin board to bellboys, asking for Hadassah, which he finds and which welcomes him, a wonderful sea of fresh hairdos, perfumed and bustling.
Feiffer is asked if he didn't once create a character named "Marsha, the Enormous Mother," a few of which might be present and still angry.
"Oh yes, that was the 'Hostileman' series I did for Playboy," he says as a Hadassah matron lays a copy of "Tantrum" in his hands.
"Dedicate it to . . ." she begins.
"Anybody got a pen?" Feiffer roots through his pockets till somebody else gives him one. He autographs the book and gives the pen back to a woman standing next to him.
"It's not mine," she says with a smile that looks as if she's been understanding Jules Feiffer all of his life.