Gersh Kuntzman, the New York Post columnist, told me he was preparing a column on a rite of summer, the arrival of frogs to Chinatown, by buying some and bringing them to a friend who ran a restaurant on the Upper West Side, and I asked if I could tag along. He cheerfully agreed and gave me directions to his apartment in Park Slope.
I was greeted at the door by a slight man in his mid-30’s, with freckles, wire-rimmed glasses and curly brown hair.
We went into Mr. Kuntzman’s study. He put a computer into his knapsack and asked me what my angle was. He’s lately published a thrown-off book about baldness called Hair! , and I said I didn’t understand how he could care about the subject when he had so much hair.
“O.K., just look at this picture–” Mr. Kuntzman handed me a picture of himself 15 years ago. He had on a black gown and a mortarboard slanting off a thick mass of hair.
“Is that a wig?” I said.
“No, no. But the picture explains everything. Wait till we get on the subway.”
We were in a hurry, because he had to buy the frogs at the right moment so he could bring them fresh to his chef friend when the lunch run was over. Then Mr. Kuntzman’s wife came in from her walk. Julie Rosenberg is a tall, striking woman with wide cheekbones and pretty eyes. She warned him not to bring any frogs back to the house.
On the subway, Mr. Kuntzman described his career. He’d been in graduate school for Russian literature when he realized that he’d never get pleasure from seeking out undiscovered writers in the original Russian, so he quit and got a job at a wrestling magazine and was soon writing fake letters to the editor about Andre the Giant, using friends’ names. Before long he was at the Resident , then the Post .
We got to Mott Street ahead of schedule and checked out the garbage pails filled with frogs. Mr. Kuntzman rummaged intently in the muck. He’d done most of his legwork already and had been told two tricks of how to pick a good frog. But we had time to kill, so we went around the corner and sat down for a lemonade.
I asked him about the picture in his study.
“O.K., the guy in that picture was a nebbish. An undateable nebbish,” he said. “He’s a funny guy. A nice guy. Everybody likes the guy. But no one’s sleeping with him. His daily experience in college was the same social-outcast thing that bald guys experience. So I could sympathize.”
“Well, how did you get your wife?” I said.
“I met her in January 1991 at a party. She was very funny, and I fell instantly in love with her. Not love at first sight, but love at first conversation. I was totally smitten. But I was the guy in that picture. So we were friends for eight months. Totally platonic.”
Mr. Kuntzman sighed as he collapsed back into that terrible period.
“I always had to run through a war of attrition till women would be attracted to me,” he said. “Eventually, after months of knowing me, they would be attracted to the whole package.”
Mr. Kuntzman was like a character from a Russian short story. I said that he was self-deprecating to a fault.
“I believe I am genuinely self-deprecating. I’m not proud of a lot of things. I don’t think what I do is great or even good”–he leaned forward with a suddenly fierce expression–”but I defy you to find someone who could have done all the research and all the writing on that book–70,000 words, start to finish–in two months. It’s by no means a great book. I wish I had had more time. But I’ll tell you that it’s not bad. And the typing alone of 300 pages would take some people a month. Just the typing!”
“Let’s be psychological for a minute.”
Mr. Kuntzman shut his eyes. “I have no psychological insight.”
“What do you think of people who do O.K. work, but they think it’s great?” I said. “I have some friends like that.”
“They’re serious assholes.”
“All right, fine–they’re assholes. What is a guy who does O.K. work and says it’s no good?”
Mr. Kuntzman didn’t have to think about it. “The word for that person is a dick. The difference between an asshole and a dick– and there is a difference, which is not appreciated–an asshole is someone who deserves our scorn. But the dick is someone who just deserves ridicule.”
Now I was beginning to see Mr. Kuntzman as a character from an old Yiddish joke, one of those guys in the old country who insist that they’re nobodies ….
Mr. Kuntzman told me about an exchange he’d had with a reader.
“As a writer, you know that most letters you get are handwritten, and they’re like virulently anti-Semitic. Someone will cut out a photograph of Ariel Sharon from the Post and circle it and write, ‘Slimy Jew bastard–die!’ Why they send them to me, I don’t know. But recently I got this letter from someone who said, ‘I can’t help it. I love you. You’ve become such an inspiration to me. Now my life has focus.’ So on.
“I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I’m so reluctant to think of my work as high-quality. Because I think that anyone who thinks of their work as being great is extremely obnoxious. I thought this guy was maybe being sarcastic. So I wrote him back: ‘Listen, I can’t tell if you’re serious or being sarcastic. Either way, I approve. But you should know–if you’re being sarcastic, I don’t think it’s warranted, because I don’t think I’ve put myself out there as the greatest writer.’
“And this guy wrote back and said, ‘I was not being sarcastic. Why would you immediately leap to thoughts of sarcasm?'”
Mr. Kuntzman glanced at the clock: 1:45. We jumped up.
The less about the frogs, the better. My father believes that some people have a Victorian basement, a part of their personality that is submerged beneath respectability and filled with unspeakable cruelty. I realize that I have a Victorian basement, and Mr. Kuntzman probably does, too.
We carried two bags of clubbed, skinned frogs onto the subway. I told Mr. Kuntzman I wasn’t sure what he was saying about praise and quality.
“Why does anyone work in the newspaper business? Expenses and free newspapers is why. It’s easy work, and it’s fun to meet all these people. It’s embarrassingly untaxing to do what we do. Look at my fingers–not a callous on them. But you see, I felt that this reader may have felt that I was putting on airs. A lot of people interpret self-deprecation in a writer as putting on airs. I think you must know what I’m trying to say, but it’s not something I’ve ever put into words.”
The ordinarily glib Mr. Kuntzman suddenly became silent, staring at the subway doors.
“Vincent Price was not a good actor. But he knew that he was not a good actor, and he was winking at you even while he was chewing the scenery.
“And”–Mr. Kuntzman’s eyes lit up–”that made him a good actor. Because he knew he wasn’t a good actor, and he didn’t sit around saying, ‘I should be doing Hamlet .’ He was in on the joke. Like I’m in on the joke. Isn’t this a joke? I’m not proud it’s a joke … but it’s a joke.
“So that’s what bothered me about that reader. If he thought I’m not in on the joke; if he thought I’m being a self-aggrandizing asshole.”
We left the subway and walked to the Avenue Bistro on Columbus Avenue. Chef and owner Scott Campbell came out and led us back to the kitchen. It was crowded, and we had to press ourselves into the corner as Mr. Campbell, a tall, affable man with red cheeks, chopped up the frogs’ legs. A blond waitress came by and almost fainted. Mr. Campbell dumped them in a pot of milk, tossed them in flour, then sautéed them in olive oil with garlic.
We ate them in the kitchen. Mr. Campbell’s culinary philosophy is to let the real nature of a protein come through. So these were really frogs. His wife Linda came up and ate one. “These are lovely,” she said. “They’re sweet and succulent. It’s like halfway between a poultry and a fish–”
Mr. Kuntzman finished writing his column sitting at a table in the bistro with his computer, then we walked back through Central Park to the East Side.
He described some desserts Mr. Campbell made, and I realized how the guy in the picture in the study looked different from the guy next to me.
“You used to be heavier,” I said.
“Right,” Mr. Kuntzman said, as if I had discovered a secret. “I was 30 pounds heavier, and you know what the difference was?”
“Apple juice. That’s the big thing: apple juice. My wife explained this to me, and you know how recovering alcoholics are often the biggest proselytizers about liquor? I’m that way about apple juice. It’s a killer, that apple juice. And it’s a silent killer, because it hides behind the mask of healthy respectability. A silent killer.”
“You’re not being serious,” I said.
Mr. Kuntzman stopped next to the reservoir.
“Yes, I am. It’s a menace, is what it is.”
“Well, how much apple juice were you drinking?” I said.
Mr. Kuntzman hemmed and hawed.
“I don’t know, a half gallon–maybe a quart a day. But I am convinced that apple juice and its seconds, such as Sunny Delight and other such beverages, are responsible for 90 percent of childhood obesity. The juice of one apple, you say what can be harmful about that? An apple a day keeps the doctor away. But 20 apples a day? Eventually that’s 20 pounds.”
Mr. Kuntzman could be something of a crank. I was saved by his beeper. Mr. Kuntzman checked the screen, and it was his wife. I lent him my cell phone to call her.
“These are totally antisocial, and totally dangerous on the road,” Mr. Kuntzman said, covering his mouth with his hand so no one would see him using the phone.
He hung up, and we had to go our separate ways. I said in parting that he’d gotten off some pretty good jokes in his book, and he nodded, agreeing.
“So you do appreciate some of your lines,” I said.
He shrugged. “I’m a writer. If I don’t do it, who’s going to?”