With this sixth installment of Eccentric America, we rest our case. $1Let no other nation hereafter claim mental vigor in excess of our own, nor courage, nor genius, for we yield to no one in our resolute diversity. Let the band strike up and the horsemen mount, and the American parade strike off down new streets, winding and wending like the Mummers and strumming their eccentric, banjoed anthem.
And where does our circumnavigation of singularity cross its outward track? Why, in the great City of New York, of course: home of Rollerena and his wand; now-vanished Moondog and the historical Sewer King May; of questionables such as The Purples and the Schwartz named after shorts, and of the bona fide real thing, represented by Ray Dirks, O sleeping beauty!, and the 150-pound Fats Goldberg.
So ends our celebration.
Yet will the celebrants carry on.
Forty-second and Madison. Four-thirty in the afternoon. The traffic ponderous.
And there he is!
Sweeping out of the traffic on 42nd, daring to cross in one slashing move, his skimply little outfit aflutter in the breeze, sequins sparkling in the day's final rays. It's Rollerena! His crown appears tipsy atop his blond wig, but there is no timidity in this lithe figure. He's almost careless the way he slashes through traffic on his red roller skates. Then he gracefully glides up to the taxi sitting at the light on 42nd, his wand held aloft, poised, waiting to whip through the air above the cab and bless it and all of its passengers.
There it is! The wave of the wand!
And now he is gone again.
New York, New York. This is where the eccentrics all come.
They call New York their home, and New York doesn't care. New York doesn't even look up when they come into town. New York has seen sequins before. New York's a tough audience. Someone gets a name here, they graduate Magna Cum Quat.
Historically, New York has turned out some of the great eccentrics.
Moondog, of course. There are hundreds of blind men who work the streets with tin can and sign, asking for nickels and dimes, some of them doing very well, undoubtedly some of them not even blind. Of them all, Moondog was the best. He used to work the area near CBS and ABC, in the 50s along Sixth Avenue, not so much asking for charity like the others, but selling his poetry or his record or some such thing. He was sure to catch the eye, what with the wind whipping his cape around, his legs bare against the chilling wind, standing there looking almost regal in his Viking helmet. The word is Moondog has gone to Germany.
Another was The King of the Sewers, Teddy May. Teddy became famous for diving into the muck and finding the loot from a holdup, then going on the stand and telling even the judge to shut up and listen when the King was talking. Teddy was a little guy, not much more than 5-2, with a loud voice, faulty grammar and filthy speech. But he carried a lot of weight in New York for about 40 years, until around 1940, for he was the only man in New York to have a map of the sewer network. He carried it around in his head. Late in life, Teddy admitted he had stolen the original map from the department. Their only one.
One way to define what an eccentric is is by defining what he is not. The Purples, for example, John and Alice. Their name was derived from the purple tie-dyed outfits that John dreamed up and Alice designed. They are often seen on sunny days riding their bicycles to Central Park, where they scrape up horse manure, bag it and take it back to the Lower East Side to use in their Garden of Eden, which, according to local residents, threatens to eventually overcome the neighborhood by mysteriously growing in larger and larger concentric circles. Alice, by the way, says she is a native New Yorker. From Brooklyn. John says he is a native of "the seventh planet, Uranus." An eccentric is not that far out.
Another example, the reasonably good-looking public relations man, Bermuda Schwartz Wonderful name, but not his mother's creation. It was his. Thought it would help business. But an eccentric does not go against the grain for reason of resultant fame or profit. He does so out of conviction or simply because that's what makes his life more satisfying.
Therefore, also left that is Moshe Pumpernickel, who used to cry at funerals, but got 10 bucks an engagement.
Another failure as eccentric is Hy Simon. Hy didn't get to his size today by subsisting on what's left in the Kelvinator. A free-lance photographer, Hy eats wherever his press card will get him in the door. There was a time at Gallagher's before a luncheon honoring Lou Brock when several waiters came past Hy on their way to the kitchen, carrying sheets of little pizza-like hors d'oeuvres. Hy scraped three little pizzas off one of the sheets as it was going by and gulped them down. The waiter stopped, looked at Hy with great disgust, and pointed out, "They haven't even been cooked yet." That's what keeps Hy from being an eccentric; he might eat pigeon feet if a waiter carried them past him on a silver tray.
And so who are the eccentrics of New York?
We give you Ray Dirks.
The Maverick of Wall Street.
A conscientious objector when there was no war.
The man who brought ex-Yippie Jerry Rubin to Wall Street.
The man who's sleeping in the front row.
There was a night about a year ago when Dirks and his wife, Jessy, and two business associates had just finished dinner at Sparks Steakhouse on 45th Street, and Dirks had grown quiet. More than quiet, asleep. Anyone who knows Dirks knows he enters the twilight zone about 9:30 or 10, because he goes to work around 6 every morning, 7 days a week. They had a party at their place in the Village once, with about 50 people there for some kind of momentous occasion, and when he couldn't stay awake any longer, he quietly went up and went to bed. He knew no one would mind; they all knew him. He tries very hard not to fall asleep when he's having dinner at John du Pont's and he is seated beside Mikhail Baryshnikov, not wanting to offend someone he does not know. Once at a jazz place in the Village -- Sweet Basil, Jessy thinks it was -- he was sitting in the front row, a few feet from the trumpets, and he fell asleep. It astounded and insulted the group's leader, who stopped evrything. "There's a man asleep in the front row," he told the audience. From the back came a shout, "It must be Ray Dirks."
The best story of all, though, was the night at Sparks Steakhouse. Lewis Schaffel, a friend of Dirks', happened to be eating at Sparks' that night, too, though he and Dirks had not noticed each other. What Schaffel did notice from across the room was a man who was tilting sideways in his chair. The chair had no arms. And Jessy was not paying particular attention. Dirks went the way of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, slowly but steadily leaning further and further until, like the man on the tricycle in the old Laugh-In, whaaammmm! he hit the floor. "I knew it had to be Dirks," said Schaffel.
Quite naturally, there was a bit of commotion because when Dirks hit the floor, his chair ricocheted in the other direction, and people at other tables feared the poor man had had a heart attack or something. But there was no problem. Dirks got up, a bit embarrassed, Schaffel helping brush off his jacket and saying hello, and then Dirks sat back down and asked for the check.
Ray Dirks will tell that story on himself, a fact which immediately separates him from the usual pretentious, heavily starched Wall Street broker. They think a tan summer suit is daring. Dirks himself seldom wears a tie. This time of year, he's usually in sweaters. And when he does put on a coat and tie for the picture, his shirttail will be out. Not intentionally; that's just the way he is.
And John Muir & Company, where he is the No. 2 man, he has made in his image. The place is a constant frenzy, papers strewn across desk tops, cigarettes ground out everywhere, telephones ringing unanswered, salesmen rushing frantically from one thing to another, most of them with their ties loosened, shirtsleeves rolled up, some of them in jeans. Imagine. On Wall Street, jeans. It's all Dirks' doing. He put a sign on the wall that says "Earlyto bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise." No one believes it's there because he thinks it's cute. They also believe they can make a million, literally. He has people who do no more than answer the phone and take down orders who make a hundred grand a year in commissions. He has dangled an overgrown carrot before his salesmen, upping their percentage and cutting the house's commission. He sells handfuls of one-dollar and two-dollar stocks.
So far it's worked. John Muir & Company is growing so fast it's on the verge of being out of control. "We're going to make billions," Dirks says. "Not millions, billions." He doesn't care what the rest of Wall Street thinks. The rest of Wall Street thinks he's crazy.
There are those who think Larry Goldberg is crazy, too. It's his eating habits. Used to be, he ate on Mondays and Thursdays. Even Larry will admit that was a little crazy. Now he eats every third day.
To begin at the beginning, Larry grew up in Kansas City. He also grew out. In the third grade, he weighed 105 pounds. By the time he finished college and went to Chicago, he weighed 300 or so. He got a job selling advertising space for the Chicago Tribune, though after sizing Larry up, they only allowed him to call on used car lots on the South side. It was in Chicago that Larry fell hopelessly in love with thick-crust Chicago-style pizza. He quickly passed 325 on the bathroom scales. "And I really had it rollin'." He refused to go down to the stockyards to weigh himself and wasn't on a scale again for two years.
Finally, he came up with a diet. Mondays and Thursdays, anything he wanted all day long. Any other day, an orange. From 325 to 150. Suddenly, he was gaunt. 6-1, 150 pounds. He decided he liked gaunt. For 20 years, he has remained that way. He'll be 47 this month and he still weighs 150. He also wears the same clothes: madras shirts, khaki pants, saddle shoes and crew sweaters. Never anything else. "I got a look in Larry's closet once and that's all he's got," says Sandy Garson. "He must have had 10 pairs of saddle shoes. Not one other kind.
They met one Sunday at the Whitney Museum. It was not exactly an accident; Larry was doing what he calls "working the museum," which involves standing out in the lobby of the Whitney or the Guggenheim and waiting for someone he thinks looks nice. "You get a better quality girl at museums," he says. Sandy, he liked.
"It was an American folk art show," she said, "and I had a smile on my face when I came out."
"Was it good?" Larry asked her.
Sandy was caught a bit off guard, but said yes it was.
She kept walking. He kept talking. He walked out the door, down the steps, pushing the conversation, until Sandy began to appear nervous.
"I'm Larry Goldberg of Goldberg's Pizzeria. Hungry? I'll give you a free pizza." Sandy figured what the hell.
It was some kind of romance. On Mondays or Thursdays, they would eat dinner together, sometimes taking a bus to Queens. He is a gourmet of a fashion, having grown up with Calvin Trillin in Kansas City and having the same fervent relief that Arthur Bryant's ribs are the greatest thing on either side of the Mississippi. Trillin, by the way, still calls him Fats. Larry, by the way, is still trying to create the pizza cone, which has been in the test kitchens for the better part of a decade. He doesn't own any of the three Goldberg's Pizzeria's in New York anymore, but is franchising them across the country. Last year, around Christmas time, he combined his two great abilities by selling fortune cookies with one-lie jokes in them to Bloomingdale's. Larry is a failed comic, you see.
"Berkowitz and Goldberg," he says. "Used to work the Improv and the Bitter End. The Bitter End is closed now. The Improv, too. I was dating Berkowitz at the time; that didn't work out, either."
Neither did he and Sandy.
It sounds like an ending Woody Allen would have written. Larry had talked of getting married in one of his pizzerias; he would bake an enormous heart-shaped pizza for the occasion, on which a plastic bride and groom would stand. Sandy found herself drawing away from that. She moved to Maine. Larry couldn't handle that. They broke up.
"About two or three weeks later, I was back in New York," Sandy says, "and Larry called me up and asked me out to dinner." Sandy knew the romance was doomed. "I told Larry it wasn't possible. I was only going to be in town for the weekend. And he was only eating Mondays and Thursdays."