Howard R. Wolf (1936-2023) was a professor emeritus of English and a senior fellow at SUNY-Buffalo and the author of three memoirs, a novel (Broadway Serenade), personal essays, and many short stories. A Fulbright Scholar in Turkey and South Africa, he worked toward putting together a collection of stories, Exiles by Starlight, and a play, Home at the End of the Day during his 2016 residency. Mr. Wolf was a graduate of Horace Mann School, Amherst College (BA), Columbia (MA), and The University of Michigan (PhD) where he won a Hopwood for fiction.
ONE DAY AT THE END OF HIS WORLD
By Howard R. Wolf
“Each of us when separated…is but…half of a man,
and he is always looking for the other half.”
Aristophanes’s Speech (Plato’s Symposium)
Ludwig Fried, no Lindberg, John Glenn, or Richard Branson, forget Vasco Da Gama, looked a little manically for the right button in his Boeing Dreamliner 767 Emirates Air luxury panel-enclosed seat, more like a La-Z-Boy recliner. He lay matzo-flat so he could get some shut-eye as the plane hummed, almost whispered, quietly at thirty-eight thousand feet over the Persian Gulf en route from Lisbon to Dubai and then Yangon in early March.
“What the hell are you doing up here? And business class,
no less, fancy-shmancy, a real big-shot, all of a sudden he thinks he’s Marco Polo. You’re better off in Boca this time of year.”
But you told me to get off my butt, pop, remember?
“Up in the air junior birdman…keep flapping your wings, keep looking for the big plot.”
“Forget plots, I know too much about them, and I didn’t say so far, the Arab world, for crissakes.”
Buddhist, pop, old Burma.
“Did they convert in Dubai?”
“In French or Yiddish, no matter how long, you’re stopping with the Moslems. In a second you could be disappeared.”
Go to sleep, give me a break.
“You should be so lucky, you always said we didn’t talk enough.”
That was then, this is now.
“Now, then, what’s the dif, I’m still your father.”
Okay, but remember what you said, “Get off your ass, show ‘em what you’re made of.”
“I didn’t say the armpit of Africa.”
It’s Asia, an old British colony, next to Thailand.
“Still an armpit.”
Ludwig’s late father, Izzy Fried, of Mott Street a son, couldn’t sleep either, it seemed, but, then, there was neither night nor day in Freud’s basement, Ludwig’s underground world, the mind’s subway, whatever it was.
Unable to sleep, no Rip Van Winkle, he hit a few of the icons on the TV screen and was able, small miracle for him, klutz to the lack of manner born, to call up the “Flight Route” map with a photo-inset that allowed him to see the terrain over which he was flying on this cloudless and starry night.
“My son the astronaut, what are you, a night-mail pilot, Saint-Exupery?”
Just two weeks of lectures in Yangon, pop.
“So what’s wrong with your university?”
Retired, two years ago.
“But why so far? And don’t forget ISIS. Who knows who’s out there?’
Yes, why so far?, especially for someone who was a nervous flyer. For years he had thought that he might blow off an engine if he flushed the toilet in flight, to say nothing of staying up all night listening to the engines to keep them whirring.
“What? Rolls Royce has feelings?”
But he had gotten over those anxieties after giving many lectures “On Aloneness and Anonymity in American Literature” in many countries, his one essay that had become a “citation classic,” his platform for overseas travel. Readers of “small” magazines and professors loved alienation.
His ambitions had overcome those specific symptoms, if not a general sense of dread about losing himself or getting lost, his “identity theme,” as some Madison Avenue doctor of the mind had called it. But he managed to sit half-upright and look at the graphic trajectory of the route as well as photo-images of the earth below as the Dreamliner started its descent towards Dubai.
“Better you should be a shmatte salesman than make this crazy trip to nowhere.”
It’s not nowhere, pop, it’s Yangon.
“Stay home, watch a Crosby and Hope movie – The Road To Miami Beach.”
But his father had a point. The old street savvy garment center salesman, who had pounded the pavement on W. 37th Street for half a century, knew his customers.
“You’re right, sonny boy, you can’t bullshit a bull-shitter. Don’t get me wrong, I had dreams too, ship out on a German freighter, see the world, leave the sweat-shops behind, but I got cold feet, heard my mother crying. Better not to have dreams. Every time I see a cruise ship pull out of Pt. Everglades, Trinidad bound, I think about what I missed, better to burn the phony dreams.”
You can see from up there?
“Not sure up, but wide-angle vision, like a drone.”
His father might be right: better not to have dreams. But he felt incomplete, just “another” writer in a small college on the edge of the Great Lakes. Not a unique fate, but his, and his clock was ticking, not quiet, digital, the Big Ben of the unlived life, the great American theme, but his. If he was going to snag the brass ring, he had to get on the carousel.
“Major, minor, what’s the dif, boychik? Up here everyone’s uncreated equal. Who could be a big-shot when you know you’re a nebbish in a nebula.”
Are you sure you’re you? Have you been going to night school?
“Plenty of time on my hands and who else would care so much?”
But he still was looking for the big story, the one that would put him on the map, the knock-out punch: an agent, book deal, major review in The New York Times. He hadn’t “folded his wigwam” yet, as his mother used to say.
“Think small, Luddy, look at me. I tried big, factory in Cuba, look what happened! Better a store for intimate apparel in Great Neck. My brother, Hesh, was right, ‘Think small, Izzy. Better bikinis than Bikini Atoll!’”
You should have tried stand-up comedy, pop.
“Wish I could sit-down, no chairs here like Our Town.”
You’ve learned so much, how did it happen?
“I’ve been auditing your dreams.”
The darkness below, except for the dim lights from some scattered villages or nomadic encampments, now gave way to a tracery of lights that separated the landmass from the Arabian Gulf.
Narrow bracelets of light soon formed diamond and pendant shaped patterns. He didn’t know if these patterns were the outlines of the airfield or advertisements for Dubai’s fabled wealth, but, then, the glittering arc of the Dubai Marina came into view.
It was the real, if surreal, deal. F. Scott Fitzgerald would have been jealous and Van Gogh might have cut off his other ear. As Ludwig scanned the arc of lights in the distance, he had a momentary impulse to cancel the trip to Yangon and spend a few days in Dubai, the Hong Kong of the Middle East, Disney World in sheik’s clothing, but then he remembered his bank account, dim sum, not the edible, and came to his senses.
Sitting in the business class lounge of Dubai’s International Terminal, an hour to wait before he boarded the next flight for Yangon, he looked at the gleaming high rises and hotels that he could see in the distance through the gold-edged floor to ceiling windows, the new New World.
The sail-shaped Burj Al Arab at 1000 feet rose above the other glitzy hotels and leaned towards the Gulf. The Fairmont Palm and Palm Jumeirah were dim bulbs against the radiance of the Brancusi-like Five Star tribute to the oil-rich Gulf state.
He thought of Frank Lloyd Wright’s sketch of a mile high skyscraper that would overlook all of Chicago and Lake Michigan, but it was only a drawing. The Empire State Building alone, as seen in 1931, might have held a candle to this colossus of luxury as an object of wonder, this glittering tribute to man’s capacity for self-indulgence.
“Good to see you got a word in for Manhattan, you’re a real Harvard snob.”
Columbia, pop, like Obama. Time you went to sleep.
“Distance” was a key word for him, he now understood, if it hadn’t been clear before. He had been reaching out for decades and failing to grasp life’s, at least Fifth Avenue’s, trophies: literary success and an artsy, lithe, intelligent, and passionate, even loyal, Sarah Lawrence graduate on his arm.
“The Grand Concourse and City College would have made more sense. Burn the phony dream, Luddy, here’s a Zippo lighter.”
The 7th Avenue shlepper might have a point, but the old man’s early success, before the IRS busted him, had made the phony dreams, if that’s what they were, possible. He had inherited the dream in his Bronx childhood, Grand Course, but still the Bronx, not Manhattan, and he felt some responsibility for making it come true, phony or not.
He thought of Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. It was something like the obverse of his reverse: The Day-Dream of the Lower East Side Produces Ambition.
“What do the goyim have to do with it?”
Goya, pop, Goya!
“You need some sleep, give it a rest, next thing you know,
I’ll be thinking about how the IRS broke me so I couldn’t pay for your third year at Yale…
“and sent you to Europe so you could chauffeur your crazy uncle Hesh around Europe.”
At least I met Hemingway.
“Big deal, look what happened to him.”
His father had a point: he was wasting his time with too many ifs.
“Better you should be happy.”
“If, pop, not Biff.”
Just as he was about to nod off, head sinking into a plush
silk cushion, with Fly First Class embroidered on it, he heard the announcement to board the flight for Yangon.
“Bon voyage, sonny boy, have some egg foo yung for me.
Burma, pop, not the House of Chan.
“Better Broadway, but, whatever, I’ve got your back. You don’t have to prove anything to me, only to yourself.”
Is this you talking?
“I let you down when I went broke, I had to find ways to make up for it.”
As he headed towards the stairway to the plane, he glanced at the kaleidoscope of lights beyond the airport and wondered if wasn’t going too far, if it made sense to jump ship now. He hesitated at the first step, looked around, and knew that he had to find out if he was chasing an illusion.
“You may be a shmuck, Luddy, but no son of mine takes a dive.”
Slightly nauseous, he hesitated, but knew he couldn’t turn back. It wasn’t the point of no return, but it felt as if he were walking the plank.
“You’re no Irwin Shaw, kid, but, hey, give it a shot, I may have jumped ship too soon.”
Up there you have a lending library?
“Easy, Ludwig, you’re beginning to sound like me. Remember, you’re a Yale man.”
Columbia, 116th Street, Manhattan, pop, uptown, but Manhattan.
He had been informed at the last minute that he would arrive on the eve of a water-festival in honor of Aung San Suu Kyi’s 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, an unexpected move by the former military junta to make their influence clear.
So he was disappointed, but not surprised, that he found the Yangon airport virtually empty as he approached the visa window, not sure if his letter of invitation, certifying that he was a “foreign expert,” would satisfy the bureaucratic scrutiny of the sullen officer in a crumpled military uniform.
Once in Shengdu he had, American-style, told the Chair of the Literary Cadre that he was only “half an expert” and had been told that the university would complain to the US Embassy. He wouldn’t kid around this time.
The official pored over the documents, gave Ludwig the once over, and then asked, “True expert?”
Tempted to say, “half,” his position in life, it seemed, Ludwig nodded.
“One hundred dollars for visa.”
“Credit card, okay?” he asked.
“Only uncrushed dollars.”
His travel agent had told him about this seemingly bizarre demand for crisp, unwrinkled currency, and he had come with a small stash of them and passed one under the Plexiglas barrier.
The officer held it up against a screen, snapped it a few times, and then stamped Ludwig’s passport.
“Good money, welcome to Myanmar, we’re a poor country, we need foreign experts.”
“Watch out you don’t get crushed, Luddy.”
I know about being crushed, pop, don’t worry.
“You’re telling me, I’m an expert.”
Only a few people milled around the baggage claim area, so it was easy for Ludwig to find his L.L. Bean backpack. For the first time in his life, despite apprehensions, he had decided to act like an adventurer, a belated trekker on a Lonely Planet trail. Maybe not act, but act like.
“A real Hillary, all you need is a Tenzing.”
Years ago, a high class phony, had told him, “Pretend you’re a big-shot. Who knows? You might become one.”
It had worked for Les Finebloom, erstwhile colleague, chevalier of a lower order, faux multi-culturalist, now Chair of Global Ethnicity Studies at Hobart, bank account in Geneva, Switzerland, not New York. It might work for him – Ludwig Fried’s Burmese Nights, homage to Orwell.
He looked eagerly and anxiously through the glass partition that separated the baggage claim area from the arrival terminal. Among the few people who stood behind the barrier, only one, a frail young man in a faded blue longyi, held a placard: “Welcome to Dr. Fried!”
Well, he was a “doctor,” but not a real one, someone who could help you if you had a hernia. Real writers, at least the ones he admired, hadn’t gone to graduate school. Some good ones had, but they hadn’t been the ones who tattooed his psyche in his adolescence.
He waved at the young man, who looked as if he could use a good meal, pointed at himself, and smiled. He flexed his fingers a few times to indicate that he would be out in a few minutes.
When he cleared customs, “nothing to declare,” and walked into the waiting area, no air-con, he was struck by the oppressive heat and humidity.
“Welcome to Myanmar,” the young man said, “My name is Thet Ko Ko, you can call me Ko Ko. The director sends his apologies. Because of the sudden holiday, a water-festival, no one else was free to come. He and the staff will meet you on Monday. I’ll take you to your hotel. Ko Ko will be your friendly guide until then.”
“What day is it now?” Ludwig asked.
He knew it would be a long weekend, maybe too long, but it was too early to tell what his two weeks in another country would turn out to be like.
“You wait, sir, I’ll get the VW and then drive you to your nice boutique hotel, just across from the college.”
Ludwig had googled the hotel: Lotus Boutique and been pleased to see photos of an illuminated koi pond, a rooftop terrace that faced a gold-domed pagoda, and some lacquered objects, a tapestry of elephants hauling teak out of a steep ravine.
Thinking of the map that had drawn him to Hong Kong some years before -- splashes of neon color and reflections of glitzy high rises in Victoria Harbor -- he wondered if the Lotus Boutique would be consonant with the images that had inspired him to make the trip. But he didn’t have to be a magician or French literary critic to think that the image and the reality might be different.
“Don’t tell me you take those frogs seriously, Luddy.”
Since when are you into French literary theory, you didn’t even finish high school, and don’t you ever sleep?
“Night school, Luddy, long nights, and I don’t sleep when you’re thinking or dreaming. I’m your father, remember Anchises?
Next thing I know, you’ll tell me I’m Aeneas.
“You left home, didn’t you, looking for a new one? I told you to stay put, putz around in your own garden like Voltaire, but you hit the road, a real Kerouac, and I had to stay with you, I’m your father. You want to be a big-shot, to stand out, I said you could end up in a bamboo cage for saying the wrong thing, I can see the headline: LUDWIG FRIED DETAINED AS MOSAD AGENT. ”
But the Lotus Boutique even might be better, he thought: a hammock covered with a mosquito net that swayed with a wind under a banyan tree. He once had stayed in a hotel like that in Kerala near the beach where Vasco da Gama had landed. That was the travel book he had hoped would be a best-seller: SITE-SEEING IN THE DIASPORA.
He had travelled for a week with the aspiring Bombay actress, Manju, daughter of a diamond merchant, who had sung Summertime for him one night on the beach, her gold embossed sari glittering in the moonlight.
“And you call yourself a loser?”
The book was turned down, too colonial, the editor said.
“And the girl?”
She became a nurse when she saw what life was like outside of Bombay’s gold coast. She wrote to me later and said that stars belonged in heaven.
“I see some of them, but I’d rather have Hindu nookie.”
Grow up, pop.
The VW squeezed through an alley and pulled up in front of the Lotus Boutique, a three story building that stood at the end of a small square. A chipped fountain in the middle of the square bubbled brackish water over a small Buddha.
Ko Ko opened the car-door for him.
“Here you are, sir, your home away from home.”
He smiled with the pleasure of someone who knew some American idioms that he had picked up from TV shows.
“Is the school far away?”
“There, sir,” he pointed, “just across from your new home.”
Ludwig looked up. A warped tin sign hung from the moss-covered third floor balcony of a commercial building: Welcome To Parami Prep!
“What does ‘Parami’ mean?”
“An old Sanskrit word – virtue, learning through dialogue.”
“You should be lecturing, Ko Ko, not me.”
“Too late for me, sir, I’m lucky to be a chauffeur at this new school in a new Myanmar. Many people have to beg in front of the hotels to stay alive, like these women. Without this job, I’m nobody again, invisible, alone, unknown.”
A group of women, faces daubed with what looked like war-paint to Ludwig, sat cross legged around the fountain.
As he looked at them, each made a gesture of touching her right forearm with her left hand, and extended a bowl of mysterious looking nuts.
Ludwig looked questioningly at Ko Ko.
“A sign of respect, sir.”
One of the women, voluptuous, with eyes like transparent jade, looked imploringly at him, gestured towards the Lotus Boutique, and let him see that she was bare-breasted under her shawl. He didn’t know if it was poverty or solicitation, but he wondered if he would reach out to her later in the evening to help him get through a long night in a windowless room.
“And the make-up?”
“Thanatkha, a traditional way in which village women protect against the heat and preserve their beauty. Much wisdom has come from the tribal people.”
“Even the Rohingyas, the persecuted minority?”
“Better to not talk about them, sir.”
Button your lip, Luddy, play it safe.
“Here, let me carry your back-pack. Time to see your new home.”
His “home” turned out to be a neat, but sweltering and windowless room. Years ago he had heard a lecture on “Descartes’s Dream” about the night in which the philosopher had conceived of the “cogito” in an “oppressively hot room” near Munich. Ludwig found the room so hot that it seemed clear to him that he would be likely to think: I shrink, therefore I was.
“I got out of the tenement, Luddy, you’re not trapped.”
A cracked wooden fan creaked slowly on a high ceiling.
‘Teak, sir, our national wood. My father used an elephant to drag the trees out of the forest until they took it away.”
“The military, sir, long ago, another Myanmar now, we hope.”
As he looked around the bare room, it wasn’t clear to him how long he would be able to stay in what felt like a cage, but he would have to make it through the weekend before he asked the director of Parami Prep to find a glitzier place for him. He didn’t want to ask for an upgrade and act like another ugly American the moment he arrived.
“I told you it wouldn’t be Boca.”
He wasn’t even sure he could make it through the weekend alone, so he asked Ko Ko to come back in the late afternoon after he had rested a while to take him on a tour of Yangon. If he still felt that the room was like a prison cell when they got back, he would check into the Excel Pagoda, a nearby three star hotel he had seen on the internet before leaving America.
Ko Ko arrived at early twilight in the Parami Prep van, a used VW, and asked Ludwig what he would like to see.
“I’ve only studied the map a little, Ko Ko, but show me the old British buildings and the famous Strand Road, and then I’d like to see where most of the students come from. I’ve been told that they come from poor village families. I’ve heard about Dalla Township on the other side of the Yangon River.”
“I know a missionary there, I can take you to his childcare hostel. But you might prefer to see Inya Lake where An Sang Suu Kyi lived during her years of house arrest. She could see the American Embassy on the other side. Some people say she would signal to them with a lantern to let them know if she needed help.”
“Another time, I’d first like to get a general sense of the city, so I’ll know what to see during the next two weeks – the big picture, please drive slowly.”
“Still looking for ‘big’!”
“Soon the rains will come, sir, and then it will be hard to see anything, but now you still can see the old British Empire.”
Ko Ko came virtually to a stop at every major building. Flatbed trucks with exhausted laborers piled on top of each other like deflated tires, indistinguishable from tires, slowed traffic; and processions of monks, novitiates, and elders jammed the streets along Sule Pagoda and Merchant Roads.
“Here you can see our Raj, Doctor Fried.”
“Ludwig, Ko Ko.”
“To the left, see the Irrawaddy Flotilla Building, and there, Lloyds Bank, but grandest of all, the British Embassy. Look, St. Mary’s Cathedral.”
Ludwig was tempted to ask Ko Ko to show him the synagogue, Musmeah Yeshua, which had to hire nearby Moslem merchants to make a minyan, but it was located in a remote part of Yangon, even as the whole city seemed to be a maze in which he might get lost forever without a guide. No Moses, he might find himself wandering in the wilderness of this Buddhist metropolis.
“Get yourself a GPS, Luddy, you’re my Yankee Clipper.”
But you told me to stay home, remember?
“But you didn’t listen, so now, be a mensch.”
Easy for you to say, pop, you never left the Garment Center, spent your whole life on 37th Street. You never risked getting lost. You never woke up alone in Bangkok, Boston, Kerala, Kuala Lumpur, Manila…
“What is this, a geography lesson?”
I took them for you, so cut me some slack.
“I did better with slacks.”
It’s time to get serious.
Like his father, Ludwig was ambivalent about almost everything: stay home, join the navy and see the world; book a room at the Shangri-La, touch the hands of beggars who reached through the barred windows of night trains en route from Calcutta to Hyderabad; dream of dancing like Fred Astaire in the Rainbow Room, get up at dawn to harvest date-palms on a kibbutz in the Negev; write the great American novel, become a letter-writer in a remote Turkish village; love one good woman, play the field like Errol Flynn….
The clock was ticking. The time had come to cross the Rubicon of his mixed and mixed up feelings. He had the feeling that he could gain greater clarity about his life if he let Ko Ko show him how people lived on the other side of the Yangon River.
It wouldn’t be the road to Mandalay, but that road, like other Manhattan fantasies -- skyscrapers of the imagination that had arisen out of the memory of poverty and insignificance, memes that passed from father to son -- hadn’t led anywhere that made him feel whole and complete.
“Put the blame on meme?”
A thousand people waited at the Pansodan Jetty to board the ferry to Dalla. Its moss covered and splintered hull didn’t look to Ludwig as if it would be able to cut through the water and stay afloat.
A number of ill-fated sea-journeys and drownings came quickly to mind – The Caine Mutiny, Kon-Tiki, Lord Jim, Moby-Dick, “The Convergence of the Twain” – so he paused with one foot on the creaky plank that might be, he thought, the last one he would step on.
“Is it safe, Ko Ko?”
“So far, sir.”
“Your grandfather came to American steerage class in 1906, Luddy, huddled in a blanket near the engine-room, you can do it.”
Easy for you to say! You wouldn’t even take the Brooklyn Ferry.
“Go ahead, be a Walt Whitman, see if I care.”
I can’t believe it, you’ve become an English major wherever you are.
“It’s all in your mind, my kaddish, don’t believe everything you think.”
Ludwig waited for a few children to go ahead of him to lighten the weight on the plank and then, putting a hand on Ko Ko’s shoulder for balance, stepped onto what felt like a tightrope joining the Canadian and American sides of Niagara Falls.
A boy in ragged clothing led them to what seemed to be a special section with folding chairs under a wide umbrella in the fore part of the ferry’s upper deck, gave them a ticket, and held out his hand for a tip.
“Let him have one hundred kyats, sir.”
“Only ten cents, his dinner.”
Embarrassed, Ludwig gave the boy five hundred.
The ferry began to move, rocking slowly. Downstream towards Moulmein and the open sea, the river had a silver sheen in the still bright light of early twilight, but the water close up was shadowy, sludgy, and squdgy along the bank where dead fish lay rotting.
He wasn’t sailing to Byzantium or any other literary port of call.
“Not chunkin’ on the Irrawaddy either, but I saw worse on Hester Street, and your uncle Hy survived Corregidor, you can take it. Don’t be a shmendrick.”
As the ferry eased towards the dock on the Dalla Township side of the river, a bamboo jetty that looked more like a collection of chopsticks than a slip, Ludwig signaled to Ko Ko for them to move close to the gangplank so they could be the first to get off.
He didn’t want to get crushed like a betel-nut between heavy baskets of linen, kitchen utensils, and rice before he saw what life was like on this side of the river. He had gone this far out comfort zone for him to get crushed like a sampan he once had seen splinter apart against the prow of a Star Ferry in Hong Kong’s Victoria harbor.
He was only going to spend two weeks in this part of the world, but he didn’t want it to be the end of his world. But if it was going to be the end of Ludwig Fried, he wanted it to be a meaningful one: a farewell to aloneness, literary shtik, rumination, self-enclosure, sense of loss, word-play, quest for a home, escape from home, and a sample case of other tics.
He had dreamed long ago and far away of a world larger than the comfortable, narrow, and privileged one in which he had grown up, and now he was at the edge of this new world…
“So what’s wrong with comfortable? You prefer maybe the Czar should come back and ship you to Siberia ”
…but that same world hadn’t prepared him for a life of exploration, still he had pressed on…
“Your uncle Hy, the fresser, became a presser when he came back from the war. He was a pinko, waiting for the revolution, but even he had to make a buck, even he fought the unions who wanted to kill us. ”
…acting out, he now understood, his father’s contradictory dream of escape from poverty and anonymity.
His father had been lost in the city and was afraid of getting lost among people he didn’t know and who didn’t know him. His father had been afraid to end up alone and unknown, unknown and alone, if he had boarded that freighter. He had been afraid to leave home.
But where was home? he wondered, once you had left the first one to make a life? Thomas Wolfe had failed to find it. Ludwig remembered an English folk-saying, “A stag, when he is hunted, and near spent, always returns home.”
Well, he was the hunter, unarmed, looking for a version of a new life, and, although he often tired himself out with inner travel, he wasn’t spent.
“I spent more at Belmont, Luddy, looking for a winner, give me a break. ”
He always had thought of his father as being a tough guy. After all, he knew some bookies, race-track touts, corrupt union officials, models who were on the “light hustle,” a phrase he once had heard his father use. But it occurred to him now that his father hadn’t gone anywhere by himself except Miami Beach once a year where his older brother lived.
“I should have gone to Hollywood, I could have been a producer…
I don’t blame you, pop, you did what you had to do.
“I should have gone to Hawaii…”
It’s okay, it’s okay, I’m out here for you.
And he thought of some lines that his father had scribbled on the inside cover of a book by Robert Frost he had given to Ludwig when he graduated from college: “Once kids who wanted to steal my ice and wagon attacked me, and they beat me black and blue, but I wouldn’t let go of my wagon, never let go of your wagon.”
He regretted that he hadn’t said, “You have a touch of the poet, pop.”
“No, you’re the writer. I shipped, you submitted. I worked with material, you used paper. I had bolts of gabardine, you have bolts from the blue, me swatches, you notes, me returns, you rejections, but we’re not so different, two dreamers, but I lost my nerve. You became nervous.”
You’re hard on yourself.
“So look who’s talking?
A row of thin, bare-chested bicycle-rickshaw riders, faces hidden beneath wide-brimmed straw hats, some with ankles bent from pedaling heavy loads, looked imploringly at him and Ko Ko as they stepped onto the dock. Some pointed to their bent limbs, others held out hands, desperate, palms up.
“I know this one,” Ko Ko said, “he won’t cheat us and leave us nowhere if we don’t pay more -- he’s got a two-seater with an umbrella.”
“What do you want to see, sir?”
“How children live, Ko Ko, especially ones who have no families. I’ve read that many children are abandoned, especially girls, if they have a disability or parents can’t afford them.”
“That’s true, but not all are mistreated. People need to know about some of the good, but unknown, people who look after them.”
Ko Ko told the driver, who began to pedal slowly, to take them to the orphanage.
“Is he strong enough to take both of us?’”
“In some ways he’s stronger than we are, but he gets no credit for what he does. Puts food on the table, that’s all. He does what he has to do.”
That’s what you did, pop, gave up your dreams, so we could live. You became a nobody so we could be somebody.
“So become a nobody. What? You want to be like me? See if I care.”
I thought you said “Never let go of your wagon.”
“Give it a try.”
I can’t win.
“Maybe that’s the point.”
I don’t know if you’re Confucius, Charlie Chan,
or a fortune cookie.
“Such a big difference?”
Enough already, this isn’t the Milton Berle show.
The bicycle-rickshaw driver turned off a narrow paved lane onto a dirt path that led through a crowded stand of tall banana plants whose broad leaves brushed against Ludwig’s shoulders.
The dappled light grew darker until the bicycle-rickshaw broke through the thick grove into a clearing where a fading sun cast light on a neatly trimmed courtyard in front of a bamboo hut with a wide porch.
A large wooden cistern stood in the middle of the clearing. A group of ten or twelve naked boys and girls ran around, splashed each other, and laughed. A thin, bare-footed, white-haired man with opalescent eyes, wrapped in a pristine white sarong, stood on the porch, and watched them. He smiled slightly, but softly.
“Tell me something about him. He has amazing eyes, like gems,” Ludwig said as he waved hello.
“More valuable than the ones you’ll see in the Bogyoke Market. Biyot Kesh came from Malaysia to take care of them. He’s a Christian missionary. His father was brought from south India, Tamil Nadu, to work on the rubber plantations in old Malaya, but made money, somehow, so his son could be educated. He never forgot his father’s early years, near starvation, and poverty.”
“His own, I think.”
“You know a lot about him.”
“Yes, I bring special guests here.”
“Welcome,” Biyot said, “I’ll introduce you to the children as soon as I dry them off and they’ve put on their longyis.”
“You watch them carefully.”
“And watch over them, too, they have no one else yet, but I work with adoption agencies. Some of them will have real homes soon, I pray.”
“Get your towels, children,” Biyot called out.
The children climbed out of the cistern and ran shouting towards a clothesline, grabbed fresh towels, and lined up before Biyot who carefully wrapped and dried off each one.
“Time to rest before dinner,” he said, “take your places on the porch.”
“I should be as orderly as you,” Ludwig said.
“They need to know that they belong somewhere.”
“I know the feeling.”
“Join them, sir, if only for a few minutes. I do sometimes. It’s like meditation, Ko Ko knows what I mean.”
Ludwig looked at Ko Ko who nodded, “You’ve come this far, sir, why not? You have nothing to lose.”
Biyot unrolled bamboo mats for all the children and one for Ludwig.
“Please, sir, have a reflective and mindful rest,” Biyot said, gracefully indicting a place for Ludwig, “you’ve come a long way. In the meantime, I want to show Ko Ko some of the new fruit trees that we’ve planted. We’ll be back soon.”
It seemed a little silly to Ludwig, but he didn’t want to be rude, and, after all, he had come half way around the world to learn something new, if possible, about himself and the world.
“That’s my boy, a real learner, a Yale man.”
Columbia, pop, FDR, Lou Gehrig, Eisenhower, Obama, Paul Simon…
“OK, so be a big-shot, see if I care.”
Used to the routine, the children quickly lay silent and still. Ludwig hesitated, made sure no one was looking, and stretched out on the mat.
A light breeze brushed some palm branches against the tin roof of the hut, and a wind-chime tinkled faintly in the distance. Otherwise, there were no sounds but the children breathing and his own inner murmurings, but they soon subsided and a rare sense of calm came over him as if it were a waterless wave.
There had been a few moments like this in his life, but not for a long time, not since the Age of Aquarius, the “flower children.” A young instructor at the time, he had joined a group of students for a “love-weekend” in the Zoar Valley, south of Buffalo, to oppose by example the horrors of the Viet Nam war by listening to Judy Collins records and dancing, some naked, in the woods.
At some point, it had begun to rain and students paired off and disappeared, as if they had known each other for years. Ludwig found himself standing alone next to a naked young woman with long hair. They looked at each other, hesitated, then held hands and went to her cabin where, chastely, they slept peacefully together in a sleeping-bag.
When they broke camp and left the valley, he never saw her again, afraid that he might try to be less chaste the next time. Looking back, it had been absurd an experience, one of the era’s many delusions, to think that this kind of retreat from history and communion in the woods could do anything to stop the napalming of villages.
But this almost druidic ceremony in the wood had enabled a generation to get through the war with the knowledge that there was an America they could believe in if only one could reach out and lovingly touch others.
The gathering in the woods had been an ineffectual, almost embarrassing, form of resistance to military madness, but the sense of community had left Ludwig with a unfulfilled need to escape the confines of his all too self-conscious world. He had been searching for a solution for decades and had done many foolish things over the years to find it. He had looked for communion in many of the wrong places.
But now he felt that he had found it, if only for a moment or a day, and he would do everything in his power not to lose it.
“So what’s the ‘it’, mister big-shot?”
To tell their story, not mine.
As his breath rose and fell with the helpless children on the porch who depended on Biyot for life-support, he knew that his mission had changed. He had come to Myanmar to teach for two weeks, but now he knew that he would be the student.
He had to learn what it felt like and meant to live as a helpless person, a nameless person among those whose lives would go unrecorded unless someone wrote about them and told their story.
“So where will you be in all of this? I thought you wanted your name in lights. You’ll be a nobody.”
Nothing and everything, pop, I see that now, no one and
“Could be a best-seller, a real Pearl Buck, maybe a Steinbeck, you may have found a way.”
He thought of a phrase from a book he had read in adolescence, “the we of me,” but maybe the “me of them” made more sense now.
“This could be your fortune cookie, Luddy.”
Looking at the skyline of Yangon as the ferry approached the Pansodan jetty – the newly resurfaced facades of the Australian and British embassies rising above ramshackle warehouses and tin-shanties – he thought of Fitzgerald’s words that had haunted him: “…the city burst thunderously upon us in the early dusk – the whole white glacier of lower New York swooping down like a strand of a bridge to rise into Uptown….”
That New York was gone…
“You can bet your bottom dollar.”
…and Fitzgerald’s words don’t make any sense to him in Yangon…
“Now you’re talking.”
And I can learn more here.
“What? And get lost again?”
No, find myself…
“Next thing I know, it will be Yasnaya Polyana. Lost, found, me, we, visible, invisible, famous, anonymous, I’m getting dizzy.
Don’t worry, Ko Ko can be my guide, and you’ll be with me,
you’re on my back, but you have my back, I see that now, maybe I’ll go to the peak of Mt. Hkakabo at top of Kachin Sate where you can see India and China. Who knows? Maybe I’ll see you.
“Forget miracles, you’re on your own.”
He had been in Yangon less than a day, but something had changed. It would still be a long weekend, and he would be lonely before he began teaching on Monday, but Ko Ko had said that Ludwig could call him for another local excursion.
If he got too lonely, he might reach out to the woman who had been sitting by the fountain. But if he did and she still reached out to him, he hoped he only would lie with her calmly, a home away from home. He wanted closeness now more than the sex-opiate.
He was beginning to understand that home could be anywhere. Lying next to the children on the porch and feeling that he was at one with them and could tell their story at some point made up just now for the windowless room at the Lotus Boutique, a room that now represented an enclosed space, one of many, that he wanted to leave.
He could check out and leave, if he was too uncomfortable, but the children would remain helpless unless their story was told by him and others so that their world would change. These changes came slowly, and maybe not at all, but they only became possible when someone spoke up for them.
The time had come to disembark. With Ko Ko at his side, he no longer felt that he had to avoid the press of the crowd for fear of being crushed. In fact, he now wanted to be become one of the crowd, and he needed to absorb the sounds and smells that would be useful to remember if he ever tried to write about his experience in Myanmar.
He only had been in Yangon less than a day, but it felt as if he had come close to the end of the world he had known. It was hard to believe that he had come to the end of being the old Ludwig Fried after just one day in Yangon, but every now and then someone caught a break.
It was even imaginable that Ludwig Fried -- ruminator, connoisseur of loss, archeologist of the self, reluctant traveler, epistolarian, antiquarian, scribbler, wondering and wandering Jew – might have a second act.
Time would tell. He still had to get through two weeks in Yangon. He only would know if he had become a somewhat different person when he returned to America and sat down to write something different that might make a difference.
Howard Wolf worked in the Veltin studio.
Veltin Studio was donated by alumni of the Veltin School, a school for girls in New York with a highly respected visual arts department. As the plaque just outside the entrance attests, this studio was used by poet Edwin Arlington Robinson during most of the 24 summers he spent at MacDowell. Perhaps most famously, Thornton Wilder put the finishing…