Close Encounters: Jerzy Kosinski
November 23, 2007 • (0) Comments
A Thanksgiving Day investment board discussion at The Motley Fool turned up a literary reference to Chauncey (Chance) Gardiner, the character played by Peter Sellars in Hal Ashby’s 1979 film adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel, Being There. A poster in the thread quoted Chauncey to counsel patience during November’s rough patch in the markets. Instead, I was reminded of a “chance” encounter of my own and dashed off this reply. At 2am in a dark bar in NYC, you’re liable to encounter anybody. More liable, perhaps, if your tastes run to famous authors and strenuous conversation.
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Chance is one of my favorite literary characters. Quite a few years ago as a dissolute youth, I found myself at 2am in an empty bar on the edge of NYC’s meatpacking district. It was a long time before that area became a happening place, but this bar was a notable warm spot on a dark street and my buddy and I simultaneously, impulsively ordered our cabby to pull over. The room was empty, but it smelled the way livelier places sometimes do and it had two significant things going for it: it was open and the bartender was a good-looking gal of about 26. There was a good chance she could use the company.
We were making small talk with her over a couple of Jack Daniels, neat, when a furtive-looking fellow came in and took a stool. He had a woman with him, an obvious hooker. By that I mean a real street-walker, complete with that late-career commercial uniform they seem to favor: wobbly platform heels, torn fishnet stockings, unseasonal hotpants and a short, pumpkin-colored Naugahyde jacket in the late Eisenhower style. This one had a fake-shearling collar and cuffs and she wore it over a knit tube-top that seemed anxious to unravel whenever she laughed, something she appeared to do often, barking “heh-heh-heh-heh” in a kind of staccato screech. Her knees were dirty.
As the woman lit a cigarette, the man ordered rum and cokes for both of them. That’s when I recognized him. Jerzy Kosinski, controversial author and Holocaust survivor, lecturer at Yale and Princeton and recent possessor of good critical notices for his role as Grigory Zinoviev opposite Warren Beatty in Reds. My buddy and I ordered another round and sat back, anticipating a show.
We were on maybe our third drinks while Kosinzki and the girl whispered together animatedly, smoking nonstop, when the bartender placed a full bottle on the bar before us. At two in the morning, weirder things have happened.
“The gentleman wants to have a round with you.”
We looked up and observed Kosinski and the hooker smiling conspiratorially. She had something wrong with one of her teeth, but wasn’t otherwise remarkable. He looked well-kept, but dangerous.
“I read The Painted Bird in high school,” I replied.
“Then you’ll let me introduce you to my friend”, he answered evenly, moving his stool. It was obvious that he didn’t know her name and she laughed her ridiculous laugh, waving away smoke and wobbling above her heels.
“Whatever you say, Perfesser.”
There began a weird evening of intimate talk, argumentation, and armchair anthropology that lasted until the first garbage trucks rumbled up near daybreak and the bartender showed us out. Through it all, Kosinski was observant, a good listener, clearly a provocateur. I think he would have liked nothing better than for my buddy and I to become friendly with his “date”, who gave her name as Anne and said she was thinking of changing it but who sat more-or-less quietly throughout the discussion, occasionally interjecting a laugh or announcing to nobody in particular that she needed to pee.
I wish I could tell you that he explained “Being There” or that he appreciated my comparison of Chauncey Gardiner to Eliot Rosewater, another vaguely Christ-like character of 20th century fiction. He seemed more interested in us and grew most animated at my accounts of what went on at southern roadhouse turkey-shoots I’d attended before moving to New York. That a drunk man could fire a shotgun at a paper target, that another could count the pattern of pellets therein and reward the shooter with a fresh fifth of Jack or a frozen turkey or a spiral-cut, honey-glazed ham, or even if it were payday, the contents of a cigar-box into which other drunken men had placed their bets, gambling at a salubrious outcome.
“I’m not a gambler,” he told me, winking, “but I like risks.”
Quite a long time after our encounter, I read his obituary in the NY TIMES and it dawned on that me that Jerzy Kosinski was one guy who left everything to Chance.