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The Journey Writing The Hammer and Cycle
By Charles M. Fraser
revolutionary zeal. “Yes, yes,” he answered firmly. “Most definitely.” Stepping back to his podium, he likely caught my eyes bugging at the thought: you really just said that! And it was, of course, mentioned the idealism backfired. But that precise moment stood out and remained my direction even two decades after the Cold War’s symbolic, if not literal, end. Two decades late? Indeed.
A title took another ten years to occur to me. It was in early 1988 and it was time to either make a move with my life or lead one of more routine, when the thought hit me with certainty that there was something to be done with that catchy name “Armand Hammer.” It was early evening and the day’s labor done, and I’d ridden my bike slowly down Broadway South, and experienced joy and elation realizing that, if figured out, the Soviet hammer and sickle lends significance to the title Hammer and Cycle. To concentrate, I placed my foot on the curb of the thin traffic island between 34th and 33rd, and thought “messenger service” sounded best and in cartoon panels, except I can’t draw a lick.
Less than a year later, feeling dwarfed by the substantial title’s responsibility but dully aware I needed an event to wrap the story around, I was on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to record the band Paris Green at the Pyramid Club on Avenue A. They were the early show, and the band was commiserating at a nearby apartment while I sauntered around the vacant backroom performance space with the guitarist’s camera. I remember standing by the wall, looking down at the video recorder on a table, then turning when an older gentleman asked me when the band would play. I said they’d be here soon, and wondered if they were late. He said he didn’t know either, and leaving, he smiled and thanked me. And I realized when magazine publisher Malcolm Forbes turned to leave, it was a matter of having the guts to speak up or forever face regret.
“Wait. Aren’t you Malcolm Forbes?” Smiling, he said, “Yes, I am.” I told him I’d even thought about having something to say if I ever ran into him. His celebrity was all over the New York press. His luxury yacht, The Highlander, was a society destination. He’d floated his huge, hot air balloons all over the planet, promoting the idea of making capitalism fun for everyone. So I’d wanted to thank him for doing that. He had to tell me to stop calling him “the richest man in the world” because I was nervously repeating the expression. I apologized, and of course Forbes had published the statistics showing he was nowhere near the richest list. He enjoyed plugging his magazine.
When the glossy points were talked out, he turned to leave and I stopped him again, remembering one more thing. What got the conversation really going again was when I told him the idea for The Hammer and Cycle Messenger Service using Dr. Armand Hammer, and promoting the underutilized ideal of capitalism from the bottom up.
To facilitate my capturing Dr. Hammer’s mannerisms, Malcolm wanted to set up a lunch for me with Dr. Hammer, who he said would “do anything” for him. I gutlessly refrained, wanting to avoid the public taint of personal association with the communist stigma. It wasn’t personal, but projecting an independent opinion was that important to me, which, Malcolm later agreed, was best to be cautious about in our world’s political climate.
When I asked him about Dr. Hammer’s communist links, Malcolm thought he was just caught in the middle by loyalty to his father, as my opportunist research speculates. I remember Malcolm grinned when he figured out I’d not seen Dr. Hammer’s recently published photography book of himself. Besides his umbilical telephone use, I later learned the book’s centerfold was Dr. Hammer lounging on the deck of Malcolm’s yacht with television journalist Barbara Walters. When Malcolm told me he’d caught Dr. Hammer counterfeiting Fabergé eggs, I said the counterfeits would be valuable, and the steam rose in him because his own authentic eggs were that important to him. I asked him to see it the other way as a curiosity, and he said he could. But he was angry. It seems he let Dr. Hammer out of that tight squeeze but wouldn’t disclose specifics. I was already committed to reading everything I could and learning the connections that led to Dr. Hammer’s charmed life.
Malcolm offered to provide me with an editor for the book. “You’ll need one. Everything won’t happen in your head.” I took him seriously, and said I would seek his help through his office when I’d figured out more of the book. He said I should accept his help then, and even told me he was dying to emphasize how much he wanted to help. I didn’t want to believe it and didn’t want him to die. But when asked where, I voted to circulate money in Africa for Malcolm’s big 70th birthday extravaganza and silent farewell party. We’d become friends. He’d seen a family resemblance to someone he remembered, my advertising legend uncle, J. K. Fraser. Malcolm encouraged me to visit Cornell’s Founder’s Wall where my aunt and uncle are chiseled. Then he praised Princeton’s glory because the Cornell prestige was so thick.
When we returned to the front room of the Pyramid Club where a friend of his waited, Malcolm shook hands with the band and was told he and his friend’s motorcycles couldn’t be parked on the sidewalk. So they left, having other places to go. But Malcolm said what we’d talked about was enough and has entailed a profound significance for me. The conversation meant enough for me to imagine if political idolatry were shaken enough, these memories would have first appeared as a column in Forbes called “Legacy” that interviews people about their own.
In 1989, John Robinson at Archive Film asked what I thought of events occurring in Tiananmen Square, and my frame of mind answered I needed a similar big event to hook a story to in the Soviet Union. I paced my Manhattan apartment during the 1991 Soviet August coup, imagining the messenger in a dacha outside Moscow, hiding from an official enforcing the communist dream. The plot had stepped up to the title’s plate.
The 1990s were spent in fits, but started with realizing ideals had to embody real people. An identity required the central character’s name. I’d walked a block down Second Avenue after leaving Howard Winer’s 50th Street apartment with his “for the airplane” copy of Forrest Gump in my hip pocket. I thought that success catches the market’s attention, the film version’s Tom Hanks was a winner, and “Hank” an all-American name, while “Greenway” stood for capitalism’s path properly paved. Hank Greenway. Soon after environmental economist Charlie Komanoff dropped by the 29th Street apartment, and when I told him the protagonist’s name, he told me the cool coincidence that “Greenway” was just officially adopted as the name for safe bike paths crisscrossing America.
Every writer wants what they write to be a big deal, and though nothing substantial was written yet, out of respect I thought the novel deserved the biggest literary agent in the business to have the proper impact. Andrew Wylie just happened to be a client of Elite Couriers, with whom I rode throughout the 1990s. During those years, The Wylie Agency was my favorite place to wait for a package in the evening, surrounded by bookshelves. I wish I remember the guy’s name who worked for Mr. Wylie then, when their office was smaller. But my sense was that networking wouldn’t replace what had to be accomplished internally.
My reclusiveness was overcome with sitting enough evenings among their client Allen Ginsberg’s books. I hand delivered my handwritten apology for that time I’d turned away when Mr. Ginsberg and I had smiled at one another while passing on Second Avenue near 9th Street. My letter wasn’t answered but had possibly been noticed, because when I dropped off my New York Cycling Video and Film Festival flyer, the guy who worked for Wylie said, “You should be writing something. You have his attention. Do you know how hard people try to get his attention?”
I said I was bringing something published in a couple of weeks that included the book’s title: A January 1995 Total TV review of Diane English’s Double Rush, which also included in the author description: His novel, The Hammer and Cycle Messenger Service, seeks a publisher. I knew who I wanted for an agent. A few years afterward in literary agent Sarah Chalfant’s apartment, while waiting for her own package, she dragged it out of me that I hadn’t figured out the novel yet, but left me with “At least you know it’ll be read.” I was still noticed semi-officially. In May 1998 I dropped off my last Total TV essay, one about the retirement of Diane English’s Murphy Brown, and a few weeks later on the street the woman to whom I’d delivered it said, “They want you to keep bringing things.”
I had mentioned to Malcolm that the title was intimidating. Actor Drew Bongianni had only just recently introduced me to his childhood friend Mike Hammer, and though the name was just coincidence, it was a big one for me. In 1994, Hammer was a Total TV editor, and since I’d missed out on CBS’s Double Rush money that filtered among some bike couriers, my pitch to Mike was that I deserved a taste by writing a review. He sold it to his boss, and the gig was official when a group of us went to an Elvis Costello concert in Central Park.
While walking south on Fifth Avenue, executive editor Jay B. Gissen told me he had worked for Malcolm Forbes. The next meeting, Mike informed me he was going to TV Guide and Gissen would edit the Double Rush review, becoming The Hammer and Cycle Messenger Service editor both Malcolm and I wanted.
Jay was the right man. He loaned me the James Ellroy novels of two word sentences that inspire explanation, cadence and rhythm. He had all the novels of John LeCarré and Martin Cruz Smith. I wasn't reigned in but encouraged to explore. But first I wrote something just for Jay to see, and he told me not to give him any more crap like that, wasting his time. Everything was in place. I knew how the book ended and started. I had vignettes that breathed, but no book.
My bike courier job allowed me the freedom to think, but I fell short financially. It was so bad I had a portion of manuscript delivered to The Wylie Agency that I wouldn’t even show Jay. I lost the Manhattan apartment and slept through the winter in a Rockaway Beach hotel, and then went to LA for six months in 1999. I learned that the desert’s not warm at night because I’d wanted to take the train, leaving me with hundreds less pauper money. But I saw that people slept in boxes, so I followed their example catty-corner from the sheriff’s downtown office. One night a patrol car even roused me with a light and I stuck my head out of the box. They told me to sleep somewhere else, but I didn’t move. I was more afraid of being around people sleeping on the street than sleeping across from the sheriff’s.
Parents don’t send their kids to school to financially fall apart. But after Jay and Mike loaned me money for a month in a 55 dollar a week room without TV, where I read On The Road again, one night back in the box a woman woke me screaming at the sky that she didn’t want to walk that route. She looked at me and said, “You shouldn’t be here. Go to my church.” Then she threw a dollar at me and pointed in the direction of the Gless Street Dolores Mission where I went the next day, as nothing else fell in my lap in the library.
I slept and ate with Mexicans who loved having a gringo around and taught me dominoes. I read the want ads, but the charity gig from the church required actual interviewing. So I rode past the mountains and Mulholland Drive and was roused by security for sleeping beside a small plaza parking lot. Having taken to Dr. Hammer’s advocating of afternoon naps, I’d rested wherever I wanted in New York. I refused to accept the absurdity of punishment and had to give a good explanation for the security guard’s bosses. Then I sat in an audience of three for a presentation, where we were told about a job that used to pay so much an hour for placing flyers on car windshields in parking lots. But now their system was the flyer’s code buyers gave when customers actually bought their product.
In response to their “Hey, where’re you going?,” I was vehement I’d call, and returned to the church where the supervisor Arturo wanted an explanation as to why I didn’t want that job from the people who’d just called. Another time, Arturo sent me to a meeting where a legitimate organization was trying to form a cooperative for street-corner laborers, but I was asked to leave in order to remove the question of whether or not I was a spy. What a kick.
I went to a Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition meeting and used Charlie Komanoff’s name, leading to friends and a job packing boxes of camera equipment on Sunset Boulevard. Three months later, I went back to NYC on a three-day Greyhound bus trip.
I messengered for nine months and took six weeks in the summer of 2000 to camp and stay in small central Florida hotels around where I grew up. Sleeping alone on little Echo Lake, I woke to watching a bear drink from the lake on the other side, and read Anatoly Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat. I was also wondering what this new pivotal character name would do, which had come to me transitioning back from LA: Colonel Srilenko. Colonel felt like the right rank for defending communism’s noble quest.
Back in New York I met my wife and tried writing short fiction for magazines and money. One idea was that every paragraph began with the word “So.” Luckily, just months later, I saw an old issue of The New Yorker where Rick Moody did that exact same thing. Plus, nothing could interest me like the novel. So I began on the page in earnest after riding west on 27th Street, riddling myself, “How? How will I finally write it?” and the answer was, “Just be your sarcastic self and explain.”
I wrote Saturdays and Sundays. Then for some months, I woke at 4 a.m. on weekdays to work until 9 a.m., and then arrive after the regular job started, a compromise On Point’s James Dudley gave me, and relinquished more and more of until I’d arrive at 3 p.m., just to finish the day. Whatever the schedule was, the book started the day. The time of my life was spent living inside that novel, figuring it out. A couple weeks were spent reading printouts until that got in the way of just thinking. I’d stop and write notes whenever ideas hit. It’s said it’s the best job ever, if there was more money.
I clung to the concept that continuity is everything. I’d wondered to Jay how writers keep up remembering everything, and my method was re-reading from the beginning and then starting over. I wrote what the book told me to feel, where re-reading is writing and growth from original ideas. I began every morning with a few paragraphs or an idea from where I finished yesterday. An idea never went from a scribbled note directly in the book: Ideas were stored for re-reading that section of the book.
During one of our visits up the river with Jay’s family, I referred to the novel for the last time, Jay saying, “I’m tired of hearing about it. Show me something, or don’t mention it again.”
There were one hundred pages Jay said could be a novella when we convened for an evening review in his RIOT Magazine office. In retrospect, I guess he was ribbing me by repeating “novella,” as it did bother me hearing it. The story was gone over meticulously: He told me what he couldn’t believe had happened without more characterization. How the voices of other narrators weren’t much different from Hank’s. Tools with which to wonder. He said to not constrain myself. Keeping things straight had made some of my writing tame. Truly, those hours and friendship and advice are more important to me than satisfying Malcolm Forbes’ intent to provide the novel with an editor.
A couple years later, anticipating that the overwritten manuscript would round out, I delivered a draft to The Wylie Agency and six months after that, received their rejection letter. I tried again and the desk guy knew they didn’t accept unsolicited submissions, but took it after exacting an animated discussion. So after that one’s rejection and the next draft done, I waited for Wylie in front of his office one morning in the spring of 2009. I wanted to verify if he knew who the office had rejected, plus symbolically conclude my pursuit of “the biggest agent in the business.” Wylie walked through the door past the one I held open for him. This is it, I thought, and there was enough momentum to carry through with it. I followed quickly and said, “Excuse me, Mr. Wylie.” He stopped and nodded off building security, and I stepped over, introducing myself with my name and “Hammer and Cycle author.” He’d kept his hand held out, and I shook it.
Our conversation waded through various topics, and even hit on his having heard that I’d expected him to represent the book even when I knew better, and that I was really just there for the symbolism that no one but me has to care about. Wylie himself had launched his career going to Big Sur to personally lure Henry Miller to change agents and I. F. Stone in the Congressional lunchroom. It was natural that the novel deserved that much respect from me. I told him I didn’t want to explain my personal reasons for agency loyalty. They meant something encouraging, and I didn’t want that lessened by his admission he hadn’t had a clue. He even uncovered that I’d actually handed an early manuscript of the book, now lost, to David Brown, because he was Helen Gurley Brown’s husband, who made films and movies.
He also asked about my name, because author Charles Frazier was stamped on the public’s consciousness. I said I couldn’t change my name because of what it meant to me since childhood, in Charles M.’s similarity to Malcolm X. He said, “You should keep your name.” He asked questions to see how aware I was of the Internet, and said, “Now you’ll become an expert at finding an agent.”
I queried every agent I found, and missed one in the first round because they were on the top floor. Peter McGuigan had ridden in Washington D.C. and sent me D. McGillivray’s Reader’s Notes that made an advantageous checklist. So as Kristen Nelson of the Nelson Literary Agency advises regarding acquiring an agent, the business is so fickle it’s not necessary to be loyal or have expectations from receiving an agency’s reader’s notes. But the novel’s failure to be represented was a victory. Because while publishing does profit from popularized culture, I’m satisfied that it’s the novelists’ heritage to pierce the façades.
Never giving up on The Hammer and Cycle Messenger Service was a privilege.
#Real #Writing #Communism #Determination #Publishing
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