No one should be tarrying at Third Street near Lafayette on this Saturday of the end of November when the wind was up and the sun couldn't crack the smog. But it doesn't take much to gather a crowd in Manhattan. There, where a few decrepit brownstone houses shrank like windwhipped shrubs from the blasts of everyday traffic, a yowling cat had attracted humanity. The cry was emitted from between pointy teeth that were clenched to a piece of liver. It was angry and continuous, and directed from the top of a stoop.
"Look at her . . . She wants to get in." They are standing on the sidewalk, and look up the stairs at the cat.
"Do you know why?" asks the bulbous-nosed harridan in slippers. The bystanders wonder why.
"Because her kittens are inside."
"Well, why don't you let her in"
"Let her in, he says! . . You hear him? 'Let her in'!" They heard.
"You see how skinny she is? That's the way she is all the time -- and her kittens too. They're always starved. I sit down here in my kitchen eating and they're pests. They go crazy. They climb all over me. She's not so bad though . . . but those kittens! I give her a piece of food and they jump on her and take it away. So I locked them in upstairs. Then I give her a good piece of liver for herself and what does she do? . . She grabs it and runs out the door and up the stairs . . . Look at her now!"
And indeed the people are impressed. Murmurs of awe at the phenomenon; five people with undefinable twinges of regard for the eternal mother. There hasn't been such communion on the block since the garbage strike.
A burly young man with curly platinum hair peeks up at the man who would let the cat in. "Beautiful, isn't it? Mother Love."
"What can you expect?"
"Universal. Some things are universal. They live forever -- in China, Russia. We are always singing the same songs."
The tall man looks down. This one is more engaging than the cat. Is this white owl with his enormous green eyes up to something? "Yes I suppose so," he says, and begins to edge toward the crossing. There is not much traffic on Saturday afternoon.
"The greatest art is the commonplace. Of course, it must also symbolize the universe." Is he going to follow? The lady is bending her fat knee up the steps, showing her fringed white petticoat. "You can't beat it. All the stuff that's written today is crud. It's freaked out."
"You think so, eh? Well, well." The tall man is looking up and down the avenue before crossing. No cars, but the traffic signal says "Wait"
"I'm Ron. I live around here. I'm a writer."
"That's good. Well . . . keep up the good work." And he tries to skip across the avenue. But a truck careens around the corner and heads for him, so he has to retreat.
"Watch out!" solicits Ronald. "Let's go now. I'm going the same way . . . you have a pet dog, don't you? You walk it around. A poodle, right?"
The tall man must accept the fact of his company.
"What's your name?" Ron asks.
"No, Til-ford Merck . . . " There are problems connected with a prep school accent.
"O.K.. Sorry . . . You're a professor, right."
"How'd you know that?"
"You have lots of time on your hands. You carry books. You dress neatly. You walk straight. And all that jazz."
"O.K. that's enough, Ron." Merck is flustered, and somewhat complimented. What amazing green eyes on the roly-poly. Why has he never noticed him on the street? Somehow professors cut more of a figure. He was sometimes surprised at how much an unknown student would know about him. "You students are observant."
"I'm not a student. I work on disassociating people, but I'm really a writer." Merck isn't going to be so naive as to ask about disassociating people, so he says, patronizingly, "How's the Great American Novel coming?"
"Very well, thank you. But it's not the Great American Novel. It's the
Great Universal Novel."
"Oh, that's even better" . . . then, with a sudden suspicion, "On the millennium, and the second coming?"
"In a way . . . Everything -- plot, style, language, effects, will be for all times and all peoples."
"A fine idea," though he is slightly baffled as to what it might be.
"Don't you really think so?" Ron has sensed the confusion.
"Maybe. Who can say?"
"You can help me, Tilford."
One of those silly traps that suck one in. "I'm never called Tilford. Those who don't call me 'Professor' call me "Merck."
"Merck, you can help me."
"But you're not a student."
"Must I be enrolled to learn from you?"
"Well no, naturally."
"All I want is your opinion."
"Opinion on what?"
"On my book."
"But I can't do that. I'm not even a professor of literature. I'm a psychologist."
"That's even better. You won't be so prejudiced. You know the wellsprings of the soul."
"All I know are statistical tests."
"But what is the Universal but the One Great Statistic?" Merck was startled... then . . . "No, no, there are hundreds of better readers."
Fifty yards to go. Has the opportuning ceased?
"Just the first chapter. Maybe I won't like your criticisms. Maybe you'll like to go on with the reading of it."
"Perhaps some day when you get it in shape . . . "
"No, I have it right here . . . The first chapter . . . I can give it to you now."
Merck stops before a fairly well-maintained brownstone house. Its sculptured outcroppings, window frames and shutters, and a visored roof are freshly painted black. The front door is apparently secure. Various labels upon it announce that it is watched by the Pinkerton Agency, managed by the Tishman Realty Company, and off-bounds to peddlers, loiterers, and all manner of unauthorized persons, supplementing the bad news pinned on the iron garden fence below that is directed against children at play and defecating dogs. Iron bars dig grimly into the frosted glass of the door and the frames of the first floor windows. Merck is wishing that he did not have to unlock three locks to get in.
"Is the woman you live with your wife?"
"What woman? . . She doesn't really live here."
"Is she a psychologist, too?"
Muriel a psychologist, that's amusing. "Not at all. What makes you think so?"
"I heard her call you back one day when the dog wanted to go out. She said, 'This dog needs therapy.'"
"Ah, yes, oh, well . . . "
"She said you should write an article on the failure to complete toilet training in poodles."
"Just a joke. She's picked up a few phrases . . . Here, give me that manuscript and I'll see what I can do with it."
"Thank you, sincerely."
Merck seizes the paper and clambers up the stairs. In less time than it would take a mugger to reach him, he has opened and closed the big door. Then he feels absurd and realizes, further, that no return visit has been arranged, so he spins the locks again and opens the door, and then again closes it. Muriel is standing there inside, looking at him surprised.
"New York is crazy," he says. "A friend is a stranger and a stranger is a friend. I am an all-around stranger to all. Where do I get that peculiar feeling sometimes -- I laugh when others say it -- that from beneath this monstrous collection of structures oozes the primitive American ideal of brotherhood?"
"I don't know," says Muriel.
"Of course, you don't. I'm just wondering."
"Well, I just might know," she asserts huffily.
"I must ask Professor Thomas. After all, it's he who teaches 'The American Cultural Tradition'."
"There's no telling without an expert," Muriel declares, in a suspiciously affirmative tone.