“Here You Have Time
To Think of Your Soul”
Unable to find work as an animator, I was working as a messenger for Empire Messenger Service, in the Fourteenth Street office.
During a spare moment, sitting on the hard bench waiting for my turn to make a delivery, I would read. I was as much an avid reader as ever. More so perhaps, because apart from the many other benefits of reading, books were cheap and plentiful in New York.
Almost as easy to get as drugs.
I recall reading some of the great Russian novelists during this time, which, with their impoverished, hungry, or insane characters (sometimes all three at once), closely matched my own situation during this time.
I know for certain I was reading Solzhenitsyn, because I used to read excerpts from his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich out loud to the other guys waiting around on the hard benches with me.
It had started as a joke.
“Hey, Flasher! What you reading today, man?”
Did I mention my nickname at the office was Flasher?
I hope so, because I’m sick of explaining it.
“I’m not a flasher,” I’d answer. “I’m a kiwi. From New Zealand, remember? Reading a Russian. It’s about a guy in prison in Siberia.”
“No shit? We seen you reading all the time and wondered what was wrong with you. New Zealand? Where’s that?”
I explained again as best I could. It was down by Australia at the bottom of the world.
“Oh. Australia, huh? I’ve heard of that.”
“Good book?” asked another.
“Yeah,” I replied. “You really sympathize with the guy. Shukhov’s his name. He’s in prison in Siberia, freezing and starving.
“Ugh!” I shuddered. “Makes me cold just reading it.”
I laughed at myself and my vanity. I thought I was cold and hungry, which was true, being a struggling artist at times I was, but Ivan Denisovich was freezing and starving.
There’s always someone worse off, isn’t there?
“What’s he in prison for?” they asked.
I told them, then I had an inspiration. “Want to hear some?” I said.
No one said no, so I began reading aloud.
It was the part where Shukhov is waiting to be searched by the guards and is nervous about the piece of blade hidden in his mitten. It was a lucky choice to begin reading there, not just for the perfection of the writing and the tension drawing you in, but it was a good choice because most of my fellow workers had had run-ins with Authority in their lives and could empathize. Possibly they had even been searched themselves by unfriendly cops with big guns and nasty clubs. For a fact some had spent time in the jug, usually for non payment of child support or drug busts. At least, that’s what they confessed to. Certainly, like millions who’ve read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, they sympathized with Ivan Denisovich Shukhov.
“You should rejoice that you are in prison.
Here you have time to think of your soul.”
Ah, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, you magnificent bastard!
After that, anytime someone wanted to hear some of it, they would simply ask quietly or come and sit close by expectantly. Then I would begin reading aloud from whatever point in the book I was at. I enjoyed it immensely, the words seemed to come alive when spoken aloud and I could see the story afresh in my mind’s eye. Sometimes my audience numbered eight or ten, sometimes half that, but usually somebody was waiting around and wanted to hear it. I eventually read through One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich aloud more than three times during those winter weeks, sitting on the hard benches with my audience of fellow waiting messengers.
Waiting for a delivery and the chance of a tip.
Waiting for a call from a film company and the chance of a job.
Some of my coworkers wondered at the wisdom of all this reading and suggested I join them at their various downtime occupations instead. Occupations that included buying, selling, smoking, shooting or snorting dope, gambling with dice or cards, sleeping it off in the “John” or finally just pitching the whole thing in, taking the day off and heading for a bar or strip joint way uptown.
I went with them once. I figured I owed it to myself, as an artist, to gather human experience from every strata of the socioeconomic order. An artist must experience life! Besides, I wanted to see the strippers. It was quite a day, what I remember of it, involving about a dozen drunken, drugged up, disgruntled Empire messengers, five overworked strip club bouncers, eight cops in four cop cars, three terrified pre-op transvestite strippers and one worldweary police desk sergeant.
He let us all go after we promised never to return to his precinct.
You should have heard the strippers curse us as we left!
“C’mon!” said my coworkers at least every other day. “Screw work! We’re off to the strip club again!”
“That’s okay, mates,” I’d reply, remembering the first time and the hateful look in the desk sergeant’s eyes. “Not today, much as I’d like to. I’ve got to work. I need the dough.”
It was a low paying job, why did I take it so seriously, they wondered? After all, the boss could go and take himself a giant flying leap! Life was short!
“Man, where’d you say you were from? Australia? Well brother, here in New York you got to take it easy. Take it easy or you’ll wear yourself out! Sheee-it! You’ll end up with your freaking ass in a sling!”
“My what in a what?” I asked. I was still having trouble with the American accent from time to time.
I had no understanding of an ass sling.
“Crazy Limey!” they laughed.
“I’m not a Limey,’” I protested. “I’m a kiwi."
“From New Zealand, remember?”