I Promise Not to Ridicule Those Rich, Powerful Jerks

Scrooge isn’t the only geezer to be visited by murmuring spirits at this time of year. While I was rattling around the Sag Harbor house the other day, these lines came back to me: “I’m just a whisper of smoke/ I’m all that’s left of two hearts on fire/ That once burned out of control/ And took my body and soul/ I’m just a ghost in this house.”

Actually, it isn’t like that at all here at 150 Madison Street, but I’ve always thought those lines (from Hugh Prestwood’s song “Ghost in This House,” as performed by the incomparable Amanda McBroom on her 1991 CD Midnight Matinee ) to be just the thing for the romantic soul that wants to feel sorry for itself, and so I thought I’d better quote them just in case any reader out there might also be feeling the need. As for everything, there’s a time and a place, and for “Ghost in This House” it was six or seven years ago, when the blood in my veins coursed hot and 86 proof and I thought I was in love-love being then, for me, a compound of nine parts anxiety and one part everything else-and I remember playing McBroom over and over, about 20 times in a row once, maybe 30, accompanying each repetition with generous lashings of the Famous Grouse of blessed but forever memory, each wee dram sinking me deeper and deeper into the sweet agony of heartsickness.

Of course, to sit here writing the last column of a year and a millennium is bound to set the voices of memory fluting through the eaves, and this place is no exception. What I will always remember is the telepathy, the coziness, the companionablity. The shop gossip and the high, good humor it evoked at the dinner table and during the Law & Order commercial breaks.

But that’s all done now. It hasn’t been as easy as I tried to let on a few weeks ago, but as the auctioneer says, finally, “All done!”

So here we are, then, beginning a new year, new millennium, new life. A lot is going to be different. For one thing, future relationship choices are likely to be made with clearer head and eye, without Mr. J. Bar-leycorn present in even a supernumerary matchmaking role. As we golfers say, my problem hasn’t been so much with the swing as with the club selection. From now on, I’m looking for something softer, gentler. I’m too old to go on being the laboratory in which someone else works out the sources of their discontent, then says thanks for the use of the facilities and moves on.

I’m also glad to be physically leaving a place I no longer recognize, let alone feel really comfortable in. These pleasant fields, towns and shores weren’t cut out for all the noise that’s fallen on the land. All the anger, pushiness, exploitation. Last summer, the publicity was like an unrelenting artillery barrage. By Labor Day, we were the media equivalent of shellshocked and even as late as Columbus Day people were still reeling from the barbarian occupation. I guess if you’re making money off them, it’s O.K., especially if you could laugh at them behind their backs, but that didn’t apply, at least not directly, in my case.

So it’s all yours, Jerry. I’ll keep my memberships in my clubs, and keep the likes of you out of them, but that’ll really be for old times’ sake and at least I won’t be taking your money while I do it. The bottom line: You and your kind have won-the girl (literally), the brass ring, everything. Enjoy.

This ends a big chapter in my life. When I began this column in October 1987, I was living on 76th Street. Shortly thereafter, the market had its 500-point, one-day break. Donald Trump boasted-with questionable veracity-that he’d seen the break coming and sold out and I promptly christened him “the Prince of Swine.” That initiated a pattern that I think it’s come time to break. Egregious and contemptible public behavior in the Trump mode deserves rebuke, but I think I got carried away thereafter, especially after I rusticated myself-beginning in 1988-first in Bridgehampton and then in Sag Harbor, and was obliged to watch the game from afar and the players, too many of them, up close at “dah beach.” I found the spectacle revolting, and said so, but perhaps went too far down the food chain in my scrutiny and choice of descriptive detail.

It was my choice to get ad hominem. I don’t believe sins against public dignity and taste are committed by persons unknown or by abstract forces. I accept, as a character in my new novel-in-progress observes, that character is destiny, but experience teaches that, as often as not, it’s my destiny and someone else’s character that we’re talking about. You will be told, generally by those causing you hurt or other trouble, that blame is not a legitimate emotion for a properly adjusted individual to feel, but I have trouble squaring that assertion with our society, which is dominated by law and lawyers and courts engaged in the evidential fixing of blame and adjudicating suitable penalties therefore.

The only penalty for public misconduct a writer can exact from the rich and famous is ridicule. The more specific, the more wounding. These swine have names, faces, physical peculiarities. Many of them are short. A billion dollars can protect a man from most things, but from the second-by-second awareness he’s 5 feet 4 inches it can’t, and I felt free to trade on that awareness. This produced a few good jokes, and a few good lines, and not a few hurtful ones, and I’m not saying that the objects of derision didn’t generally deserve what I gave them-but enough is enough.

What drives me-and my foolish heart, I suppose I should add-is idealism. As long as the observation holds true that, in addition to an extra five inches of height, great wealth can’t purchase a sense of humor, I can see nothing about money to make a thoughtful, caring person envious. Indeed, the longer I observe the wealthy, the more it seems to me that there’s a point-say, around $300 million-at which they cease to love their money for what it can do for them, and begin to look askance at it because someone else has more. What a sorry way to live!

Anyway, to do battle with the vermin who dwell in the gutter, people like me have to get down in the gutter ourselves, and because we don’t really understand gutter warfare, we’re the ones who emerge most soiled, and not necessarily victorious. I’ve tried, but I just can’t master the art of dancing to the music of the cash register. So there’s nothing left but principle to stand up for.

Which principles? I continue to believe that the good and examined life is the life lived by the strictures enumerated in National Lampoon’s Animal House , which struck me when I first saw it in Atlanta a quarter-century ago, with the same force of revelation as was felt by Saul on the Damascus Road when he was braced by the Big Fellow. You may call it just a film, but to this writer it is the repository of enduring truths: “Knowledge is good”; “Women-Can’t live with ‘em, and can’t live without ‘em!”; “Do you mind if we dance with yo’ dates?”

In Dean Vernon Wormer is made flesh what a teacher of mine once referred to as the Old Testament’s “Fierce Justicer.” Obviously, when the Creator looked upon His creation and saw that it was good, but that Adam and his descendants would screw up Eden just as the Dan’s Papers crowd have screwed up “duh Hamptons,” He immediately placed mankind on “Double-Secret Probation,” and we’ve never gotten off. And after the past month, I’m more certain than ever that the best panacea for the heartsore and soul-weary is a toga party or a road trip-if only I could find one.

But most of all I will continue to try to stick to words I heard the late, immortal folk singer Josh White sing in the darkened Thompson Gym at Exeter back in around 1952 or 1953. “Gonna live the life I sing about, down in my soul, down in my soul/ Gonna fight for the right and shun the wrong.” Serious stuff, but it requires a certain positive lightness of heart and spirit to carry off effectively. I’m going to give it my best shot.

A new millennium is a wondrous thing. Too wondrous to start off with a frown. God bless us every one. Hugs and kisses. Big smile, now. Onward!