PART ONE: SEVEN BEGINNINGS
1. Call me Amschl
2. This is a true story
3. Two letters shaped my early years
4. Call me Franz
5. Summary of beginnings
6. Literary infinity
7. Eldridge Street Shul meetings
Call me Amschl.
All right, so don’t call me Amschl.* Nobody does anyway. Except when I’m called up to the Torah by my Hebrew name: Amschl ben Moshe.
* pronounced AHM-shl
This is a true story.
I’m sorry I yoked these two words that invariably begin late medieval Jewish folktales, even though I like the phrase “true story” for its literary ring, its trisyllabic succinctness, a kind of rite de passage into a make-believe world where beneficent ghosts — what else? they’re Jewish — often play a part.
But back to true story.
True story, let’s face it, is a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron like weather forecaster (the only people in the workforce who, like presidential advisors, are paid for constantly being wrong).
True story, indeed. You have to be either an ox or a moron to hold credible that coupling. True story belongs in the same oxymoronic oxcart with dark light, sweet lemon, military intelligence.
Either a narrative is true or it’s a story.
It cannot be both.
End of story.
But you know what?
Come to think of it—
I changed my mind. I just said a narrative is either true or it’s a story; it cannot be both.
On second thought, mine can.
A true story.
* Or: True story?!
Two letters shaped my early years. Isn’t it strange to have part of the alphabet influence your life? Here’s where true becomes story and story becomes true.
The letter was “K.”
But that’s only one letter, you say. What’s the other? The other was also “K.” One “K” for Danny; the other, Franz.*
Now one doesn’t readily draw a line or connect the dots between Danny K and Franz K. But with me they are inextricably linked. Here’s how:
In my teens and up through my first year or so in college, people said I looked like the first K. They said I moved like him, had his gestures, his ease of mimicry, his comic timing. Who knows? Perhaps in admiring — even adoring — him so much from childhood, something rubbed off. For a while I could actually get away with saying I was Danny K’s son. Truth is, I loved his films and personal appearances long before people (usually girls) told me of the resemblance. I danced well, had a good sense of humor, sang, and eventually learned to imitate his double-talk and to lip-sync his greased lightning presto Russian composer’s song, which I would perform at college parties. When I was a youngster, my beloved Uncle Monia, a lifelong bachelor like the other K, would take me to see Danny K in person in New York. We would arrive at the theater in time to see the stage show — even now as I write this, the excitement of seeing Danny come out slowly from the wings as if teasing the audience, a smile on his face, his quirky, little boy’s giggle, and a wave of laughter and applause fills the theater, even now I feel the thrill and anticipation overwhelm me — and then we see the feature film, and then — rapture! — stay for another stage show, which with Danny K was entirely different from the first show. (In those days, they didn’t clear the movie theater after each show like they do now. Also, in those days, we had more time on our hands. We were able to stretch time, expand time, save time.) Oh, the joy of seeing Danny K twice.
Years later, when I was grown, I saw him in person, when he had a show on Broadway. How did I get to see him, me, a guy whom Danny K had never heard of? First, I wrote to his publicist in Hollywood, but she turned me down. Then I called the New York theater house manager, said I’d spoken to someone at the studio and they said to contact him, that it’d be okay since I was a filmmaker. The house manager, a decent chap, told me to address the envelope to him and he would see that Danny gets it. I wrote Danny c/o the theater manager and included an ad for my documentary film about Sholom Aleichem’s children. I figured: one Jewish humorist to another, and wrote that I want to present him with a video of my first documentary, which I had made last year.
To my good fortune, the manager wrote back inviting me to visit Danny after one of his Wednesday matinees — to just come to the stage door with this letter.
Danny K welcomed me in a light blue robe, as if he’d just taken a shower after the show. I was surprised how tall he was. For in his films one never got a handle on his height. Maybe because he never stood still. I thought I was tall and lanky but Danny, at six foot two, towered over me. He was very cordial, asked me to be seated, and expressed an interest in how a very young filmmaker had made the Sholom Aleichem documentary. We chatted a few minutes more and then, realizing how exhausted he must be after a performance, I thanked him and said goodbye. Only after I left did a flood of questions I should have asked him inundate me.
The moments I had with him slipped away like a trout in water. I wanted to relive, replay my time with Danny, but all I was left with was a fading, vacuous aura and a vague hunger for more. Even as I shut the door behind me I already felt a strange sense of loss, palpable as pain.
Like Danny K, I had a long aquiline nose, light brown wavy hair combed straight back, although his hair had a more reddish tinge. During my second or third year in college, my hair darkened and my features sharpened. With shorter hair my ears protruded somewhat. Even my humor became more serious.
I became more interested in books and literature than patter songs and imitating Danny K. People (different people from the aforementioned) began saying I resembled the other K. My God, you could be K’s son, they told me. Well, I am, I would joke, parlaying my old other K routine with just a change of first name. Actually, my beloved Uncle Monia looked more like Franz K than I did.
If character is fate, as Paracelsus — or is it Heraclitus? — once wrote, then looks is not a distant second. What, or whom, you look like can also direct, or at least influence, your path in life.
In fact, the affinity to the other K seemed so strong (in other people’s eyes, not mine) that a wonderful gym teacher I had in college, Mr. Schuman was his name, once spoke to me about it.
One September, in the beginning of my junior year, he told me: “Boy, have you grown over the summer! And you’ve changed too. You look like—” and he stopped. “Have you read anything by Franz K?”
“Ever see a picture of him?” Mr. Schuman asked me.
“Well, find one and you’ll see you look like him. Tall. On the thin side. High cheekbones. Serious demeanor. Even, no offense meant, slightly protruding ears.”
I looked through biographies and found a photograph of K as a young man. I wondered if I too should sport a derby and an old-fashioned, rounded high-collar white shirt to enhance the resemblance.
A few years later I bumped into Mr. Schuman at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which was presenting the Czech National Theater’s staging of
I introduced myself and asked if he remembered me.
“Of course. How are you? What are you doing now?”
I told him I was taking a Master’s in film at NYU and asked good-humoredly if I still looked like K.
Mr. Schuman studied my face.
“Even more than ever. Now you could really pass as his son.”
“If he had one.”
“Of course, if he had one. How could you pass as K’s son if he didn’t have children?”
I didn’t answer right away, for I was stuck on a little word. If. I could write — if I were to write, if I could write — a complete dissertation on that word. That tiny word, I thought, is the engine for all of imaginative literature.
“On the other hand,” Mr. Schuman continued, “in a K-esque world anything is possible.”
“Except skipping generations. I’m too you ...