My Cousin Myron Aspires
It’s funny how things start. I was talking with my cousin Myron last month, when out of the blue he says, “Whenever I go back to Brownsville it is as if I had never been away.”
I said, “Myron, you haven’t been back to Brownsville in twenty years, what the hell are you talking about.” He wouldn’t say.
Come to think of it, I don’t know if I’ve told you much about Myron. Perhaps, you’ve never met him. He is about six months older than I am and a real, redheaded tough guy. Much of the family thought Myron an idiot savant, although they often dropped the savant when talking about him. By age 6, Myron could tell you the odds of winning the local numbers game, on any given Friday, to three decimal places—but he was eleven before he could tie his shoes. If you wanted the current line on the Yankees, or the odds of getting precisely 7 hearts and 6 spades in a bridge game, you could get them from Myron, but if you walked beside him on Hopkinson Avenue you needed to be alert, as often as not, he’d walk into a tree.
My theory is that his mom, Mildred, made him the way he is. She had this thing with names beginning with “m.” She named Myron’s twin sister Myrna and the word was that her husband had to change his name from Stanley to Marvin—a sort of mini-conversion— before she’d marry him. We don’t see much of Myrna—she’s been studying to be a nun since 1958— and Marvin has selflessly dedicated himself to “Makers Mark Bourbon.” My mother, predictably, always refers to Mildred as “that moron.”
Myron dropped out of Thomas Jefferson high school, which as they say in their yearbook, “proudly serves Brownsville/East New York, after his sophomore year. Brownsville-East New York is a brick poor, very rough yet depressing neighborhood in South Brooklyn, last celebrated by Alfred Kazin in, “A Walker in the City.” In the spring of 1957, for example, there was not a single unbroken window in the entire four square miles served by the school district. Thomas Jefferson HS was, as Myron put it, a special New York school for adolescents gifted with short tempers and weapons training. He felt, wisely, that with a name like Myron, he wouldn’t survive his junior year there. So much for the boy named Sue theory.
As it turns out, Myron is a really smart guy. He made a fortune counting cards at blackjack— long before the technique became widely known—and at a progressive betting scheme at racetracks. He’s been depressed lately, as he said he couldn’t find a new challenge. Unfortunately, he said that to me. We had much our usual exchange. I kindly pointed out, that no one with a wife like his Margie could possibly be short of a new challenge and he offered ways in which he might improve my smile.
He called about three weeks ago to ask me how to spell palmetto.
I said, “Myron, don’t you know what a dictionary is?”
“Yeah, he replied, “but the word looks funny.”
After I had assured him that many words “look funny,” he let me in on his latest scheme. Myron has decided to be a best- selling author. He wants to be like Dick Francis and write race track mysteries. He took one of those courses offered by Writers Digest and had spent the last few days struggling with what he called the absolutely, essential element—the opening line. Writer’s digest gives it straight in, “The Opening Line Principle” (available at $19.95 + s/h) as:
“Successful writers need to grab readers by the throat and keep them hooked! … There are dozens of ways to hook readers with the first sentence…but only a few that work every single time…”
Myron began to call me a few times every day with questions—spelling, grammar, great literature. When I tried to point out that I wasn’t an expert in any of these areas, Myron would point out that I was his only cousin, of around his age, with a college education. After a week or so, Myron read me his opening line:
“Inside the black gate of Aqueduct race track, a hot-walking machine creaked round and round.”
I didn’t think this was all that amazing, but how many opening lines, from even the best books, grab you by the throat. Sure, there is “Call me Ishmael,” as a friend recently pointed out, and Dickens has some doozies—“Best of times, worst of times,” from “A Tale of Two Cities,” or “whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life…” from “David Copperfield,” for example. But others?
What are your favorites?
My most memorable is, of course—“In a great green room there was a telephone and a red balloon.”
Anyway, I was in the middle of telling you about Myron, and as I was to quickly find out, his first line was the downfall of his writing career.
It all came out when I went to meet Myron at Katz’s deli, on Ludlow Street. I was fifteen minutes late and surprised to find Myron waiting for me outside. Myron doesn’t do waiting well—if you are late to lunch, you normally arrive to find him eating. From a block away, I could see the smoke coming out of his ears.
“I got thrown out,” he said, answering the question I hadn’t gotten to ask.
“For,” I questioned, although I was pretty sure I knew the answer?
“I asked for lean corned beef,” he replied. “They don’t know from lean corned beef.”
As you probably know, truly lean corned beef —lean, not dry—is the holy grail of secular Judaism. Sadly, and with ever diminishing hope, the search continues throughout the greater New York area.
It turned out that wasn’t what was eating him though. He took a thin hardback— “Lord of Misrule,” by Jamie Gordon, from his backpack. I knew the book. It had just won the National Book Award.
“Read,” He said.
I read: “Inside the black gate of Indian Mound Downs, a hot-walking machine creaked round and round.”
Except for the name of the track, it was his line exactly.
I couldn’t believe that Myron would plagiarize; nor could I believe that Jaimy Gordon had stolen the line from Myron—but when did the goddess of coincidence first don boxing gloves? I let it go.
“I’m scooped,” he cried.
I could tell he was hurt. I guessed it would be months, perhaps even years of serious therapy—or couch time with cousin Bernie, as it was referred to in our family, before he recovered.
Worse yet, I thought; “Now I’m going to have to be nice to him.”
But there was to be no down time for Myron.
“Did you know,” he asked instead, “that there is no age limit on participants for the U.S. Table Tennis Olympic team trials?”
With that, he showed me the two ping-pong rackets in his backpack.
“Follow me,” he said. “I just bought a table.”
PS. It wasn’t until after Myron left for the table tennis matches in China that I found my copy of “A Walker in the City.” As I read the first line— “Everytime I go back to Brownsville it is as if I had never been away,” I realized I’d been had. Myron had all along been pulling the college guy’s chain. I can’t wait until Myron comes back from watching the table tennis matches; I think I have a way to improve his smile.