Crazy as a
The Death and Life of Hymie Stiehl
D. J. Herda
You've read his stuff. Everybody has. What bookshelf in all America
doesn't boast at least one volume by the Master. Six of his books--his
last antediluvian trilogy plus the mystery series, Death Wears No
Clothes--take up the greater portion of the small shelf sagging
ominously above my desk. They are sandwiched there between Hemingway,
whom Stiehl always regarded as a hack, and Steinbeck, whom he really
disliked. Which is not to say that I shared his beliefs or considered
Stiehl in the same vein with either Hemingway or Steinbeck. He was
far superior to them both in the cut of his jib ... still is, I suppose.
"The fucking hell of it all," Hymie once told me after we'd bent
a few too many at John Barleycorn's on Chicago's near North Side, "is the
more you do, the less people appreciate you. If a writer could crank out
one good book--one really fuckin' terrific novel--and then disappear from
the face of the earth, he'd be virtually guaranteed a place among the
world's great literati. He'd be immortal."
He was right, of course. J. D. Salinger proved that. Forget
Frannie and Zooey. Salinger's only real masterpiece was and always will
be Catcher in the Rye, and it's for that that he'll always be
remembered. Nonetheless, it was ironic that he, Stiehl, had made the
When Hyman Stiehl was a struggling
young writer working out of the bowels of the City of Big Shoulders, he was
garbage, pure and simple. His work was genuinely uninspired. "Except for
the dust jacket," one critic wrote about his very first novel, "it would be
impossible to tell that it was a book at all."
But as he grew older and gained some grudging recognition, first
writing about school board meetings for the Southtown Economist
newspapers and eventually growing into a position on the Society Desk of the
Chicago Herald American, Stiehl's approach to writing mellowed, and
so did his stories, his characters. He began building a reputation as a
writer of some renown. By the time I met him, he was already the poet
laureate of literature, not merely of Chicago, of course, but of the world,
for his works were equally appreciated, sought after, and even bought, for
God's sake, in New York, L.A., London, and Paris, his reputation as a Great
Writer growing with each passing year, whether or not he produced a book
worthy of literary acclaim.
"You know him?" one of my students asked casually as we stood in
the hall, talking of literary greatness and how best to achieve it.
"Who?" I asked foolishly, following the gaze of a pimply faced
young literary radical down the corridor to a stoop-shouldered old goat with
pock-marked skin and dead stogie dangling from a pale and puckered mouth.
I'd known of Hyman Stiehl, the great and famous poet laureate,
for years. But who was this? I turned to my student and shrugged, then
glanced again at the old man. His steel-blue eyes met mine briefly, and
they darted away, speeding off down the hall where they came to rest on the
sylvan form of a young maiden in a tight-fitting green knit dress.
Could it be? I wondered. I quickly shook the notion from my
head. Hyman Stiehl was a Man of the City, a Purveyor of the Greatness that
is Chicago. He was a partygoer, a shaker, a reporter of the happenings of
the well-to-do, of the people who made the city run and, as such, a major
player in the game itself. What would such a man be doing standing outside
my classroom on the seventh floor of the YMCA Community College in a seedy
area straddling the northernmost fringe of the Loop--an area appropriately,
if not affectionately, known as The Bladder, situated miles to the south of
the fashionably chic North Michigan Avenue with all its lounges, bars, and
private clubs, miles to the north of the once-glamorous Gold Coast, now
degenerated into a seedy assemblage of ramshackle buildings slowly decaying
from the inside out, like many, if not all, of their inhabitants--standing
in the hall lusting after a girl young enough to be his daughter ... his
granddaughter, for Chrissake!
I quickly surveyed his large, bulging eyes, puffed out and
encircled by several rings of time, then let my gaze drift across his thick,
meaty face to his nose—a great bulbous affair that shone bluish-grey in the
cast of a long bank of fluorescent lights stretched out overhead. Running
from one side of his nose to the other were scores of tiny blue-green
lines—ribbons of highway seen from a jetliner, at first barely visible from
high above the city, then growing ever larger and more prominent with each
passing second until they threatened to explode into a billion shards of
concrete and steel.
His mouth was the only thing about him
that did not seem too large for his overall carriage. Not his mouth,
exactly, but his lips. Two thin lines that, later when I got to know him, I
would see purse out in an effort to expand their size, as though he knew
these mere slivers of pastel were the one feature out of keeping with his
greatness and set about to change them.
“Yeah,” the student replied as the old man turned and took several sure
steps toward us. “Hymie Stiehl. You know him? We have coffee together at
Francie’s in the mornings.”
“You? You and …” My mouth fell open as I looked from one face to the
“Hey-yeah. Pleased to meetcha,” the two thin lips said, quivering lightly
as he held out his hand. “What’s your name again?”
“This is D. J.,” the student responded. “You know, the guy I told you
about. The writing instructor?”
yeah, yeah, sure,” he said. His eyes glowed suddenly brighter and his
brows—already sprouting in every conceivable direction—seemed to rise and
swell to twice their previous size. “Oh, so you’re D. J. Yeah. I’ve read
your stuff. Some of it. A little. In the papers. Or the magazines. Very
held out his hand, and I grasped it firmly, surprised at how weak it felt,
how light the grip, delicate, effeminate practically.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Aww, shit. Don’t think nothin’ of it.”
stared awkwardly at him for several moments. Or an hour or more. Half
expecting my student or Stiehl or someone to say something so that I
wouldn’t have to. And when it turned out not to be so, I decided to make my
move, to take the bull by the horns, wow him with my wittiness. So I
shifted my weight to my left, which I’ve always considered to be my best
side, and uttered the immortal words, “So you’re him?”
Hymie shrugged. “He.”
“He. So I’m he. Guess so. Everybody’s gotta be someone.”
laughed. He laughed. We both laughed. And as we stood there laughing, his
eyes once again swept along the hall, stopping to feast upon the tightly
sheathed young girl of his lurid dreams as she sashayed past the water
cooler before slipping finally out of sight.
It was the first and last I’d seen of
him until the big faculty party at a posh private college, where I taught
days, off Lake Shore Drive. I was there as the guest of one of the faculty,
a petite young brunette who taught writing during the day and God knows what
at night, or so it was rumored. And if she was as good at the one as I
damned well knew she was at the other, I was anxious to get to know her
Hymie was there, too, of course—in rumpled coat and baggy pants—standing off
to one side, fielding questions from men and women who looked a curious
cross between Michigan-Avenue chic and Northwestern Literati. And
when his eyes first settled on mine, they froze, then quickly darted away,
then slowly drifted back. Suddenly he laughed, excused himself, and snaked
his way through the crowd until he came to rest alongside me.
“Hey,” he said, smiling and grabbing my hand. “How the hell are you?
Haven’t seen you around.”
“Around where?” I asked. “Here?”
“Yeah,” he said. “You know. Here. There. Wherever the city beats,
wherever the pulse pounds.”
wasn’t going to come,” I said. “Except for this friend who talked me into
it. I thought it would be kind of fun to see how the other half lives. I
mean, I figured it's time I learned a little something about real
He frowned suddenly and leaned very close to my ear. The smell
of stale cigars hung about him like mist over the Great Smoky Mountains.
"This," he said softly, "ain't real. Not real people. Not real life."
"No?" I replied, baiting him as best I knew how. "What is it,
"You wanna see real?" he asked, ignoring my question. "Come
on. Get your hat and let's go."
"Go? Now? Go where?"
"Where there's real. You know, the real city, the real people,
the real guts behind this town. What makes this whole goddam asshole of a
city work. Come on. I've got a cab waitin' outside. You wanna see real?
I'll show you real. You got any money?"
"Hey, no, I'm sorry," I said.
Hymie shrugged. "That's alright. Everybody's broke these
"No, I mean, I can't. Go with you. I mean, I've got this
woman. I came with her. Denise? Maybe you know her, petite, brown hair,
kinda cute ..." I allowed my voice to trail off dramatically. "I really
shouldn't just, you know, take off ... "
"Hey," he replied, sensing my hesitation. "It's okay. You
wanna stick around here with your girlie, just say so. Me? I gotta get
outa here. The air stinks, you know? It's so goddam thick in here it
stinks. Sometimes if you sniff the air real deep and long, you can actually
get a feel for the type of people in a room. Here, there's so many stuffed
sardines all smelling alike, I can't tell nothin' except it's crowded as
hell. And that much I can see with my own two eyes. Tell you what," he
said, pulling a crumpled Irish farmer's cap down over the rolling dunes of
his forehead. "I'll see ya."
He turned to make his way toward the door when panic suddenly
seized me. Here I was, a struggling young writer, a struggling young
teacher, you could take your pick, it didn't matter much to me, talking
face-to-face with one of the greatest literary figures of our time, the
greatest of all time, maybe, inviting me to partake of life with him,
his life, the life, and I was about to let him leave without me, walk
out of my life, possibly forever, all because of a sloe-eyed,
honey-and-cream complexioned woman I'd known for all of a week and a half.
Okay, and maybe a couple of things I'd heard about her and her insatiable
libido in the teacher's lounge between classes. Christ, I didn't know
what the hell to do.
Bullshit, I said to myself finally. Denise can find
herself another lay, and I quickly turned to trace Hymie's path toward
We had almost managed to snake our way out of the room when
Hymie stopped suddenly. There, standing directly in our way, was Dick
Alexis, the president of the college, the man who had once hired me and the
very next day forgotten my name and everything else about me except that I
was on the college payroll in one capacity or another, and--next to
him--Denise. Denise of the peaches and cream. Denise of the insatiable
libido. And, even more incredibly still, next to her, absolutely the most
stunning creature I had ever seen in my life. Tall, raven-haired, with
silky white skin that made Denise look like a bag lady with the gout. She
was younger than Denise--by far--possibly even a student, seventeen or
eighteen, nineteen at the most, the kind of goddess an old man would die to
possess. Or even fool around with for a minute or two. No shit.
For a moment, I thought I had caught her deep, limpid pools
staring at me, through me, making my knees tremble wildly and my spine begin
to sag. Then, just as quickly, the pools were gone, and she was smiling,
laughing, as Alexis bent past Denise and whispered something witty,
something sexy, into the young girl's ear, the way college presidents are
wont to do when in the company of raven-haired goddesses. I hated her
suddenly, this apparition from another world, this Madonna-whore of the
Western World. And I hated Alexis, too, of course, although for him, it
was no big deal. He'd done this a million times before, been with her or
someone just like her a billion times or more.
But how? How could I suddenly feel so angry toward such a sweet
young thing whom I didn't even know? Merely because she had prostituted
herself? Because she had disillusioned me? Because she had failed to live
up to my precognition of how goddesses should act and talk and smile and
laugh? She was playing up to him; that was obvious. And the way she looked
at him, taunted him, toyed with him, and the way he responded, it was
obvious too that they were not exactly passing ships in the night.
Shit. Who am I trying to kid? Knowing Alexis' reputation for hiring
the most devastatingly beautiful women in the universe to fill even the most
menial of college appointments--and his evenings away from home, I
imagined--I couldn't help but feel she'd been used. Once, twice, maybe
dozens of times. Or, rather, allowed herself to be used. Willed
herself to be used, and that was even worse. Maybe she believed that, by
fucking the college president, she would be fucking the world and all that
was in it. Or, shit, maybe it wasn't she who was doing the fucking, but
Alexis. Could it be? Was it possible? Was she in fact purer than I'd
imagined--standing there, confidence burning in her eyes, worldliness raging
in her groin, security overflowing her very D-cups? Could a
nineteen-year-old girl be both seductress and seduced, lurer and lured at
one and the same time by a fifty-year-old college president, married and
with three kids tucked away somewhere in some goddam cat-infested suburb far
from the twinkling lights of the city? Driven and driver into depravity?
immortality? immorality? nirvana?
For several moments we stood there, Hymie,
the goddess, and I, and maybe Denise, too, I don't know, I can barely
remember, and suddenly I began to fear that I was trapped. "She's such a
slut," Denise whispered. Somebody whispered. I don't know who, really. I
didn't even look. Standing barely inches from the goddess's right thigh,
feeling the heat undulating across time and space, the unmistakable charge
of electrical impulses arcing from her body to mine, causing the auditory
receptor hairs inside my rapidly degenerating ears to tingle, standing right
next to her and, no matter how much I wanted to hate her, the way she was
playing up to Alexis, throwing herself away on a man so unworthy of her
classic Grecian beauty, I couldn't peel my eyes off her. Not for a
second. Not for a century. Even when Denise or someone else turned to me
and said something about the party gearing up, I failed to catch it, chose
instead to ignore it, to place the blame silently upon the swelling din of
the room. It was then that I knew I was trapped. Captured. By her
beauty. By my own vulnerability.
Still she laughed with him, toyed with him, grabbed hold of his
arm at precisely that point where the elbow bends back, at that most
delicate, sensitive, personal point where there is no room for error as to
understanding what is intended. Understanding what it is she wishes to
convey through that touch. And would she look at me? Acknowledge me?
Throw me a morsel by which to sustain myself for another few moments? Not
on your life. But she looked at him--him, this overblown bag of
lakeshore wind--and in a way that signaled unmistakably that she was ready,
this Whore of the Universe. Not just flirting with another man, but
with Alexis and all of his pretentious, garish, collegiate airs.
Jesus Christ, how I hated him.
Suddenly I felt a strange aching in my heart. Not as though I
wanted her. More as though I realized I couldn't possibly have her. Not
now nor ever. Not so long as she was with him. I felt the need for air; I
felt the need for escape; I felt the need to put myself as far from this
woman and Alexis and the stink in the room that Hymie had talked about as
possible. But now Alexis was talking with him, with Hymie, who seemed to
know Alexis from years back. At least from their body language. And now I
would have to stay and listen to the chatter, cringe over the bragging,
waddle through the bullshit. I would have to watch the overt glances, ache
over the subtle touches, struggle beneath the tremendous weight of all the
crap Alexis loved to throw around. I'd been to parties at which he was in
attendance before. I'd seen him with other goddesses.
Suddenly Hymie turned his head half toward me as if to whisper a
secret. I pulled closer to him so I could hear above the growing noise.
"Christ, I wouldn't mind fuckin' her," he said in a voice loud
enough to carry to the end of Navy Pier and back, and then he shuffled his
feet right past a stunned crowd, parting Alexis and his busty young
companion like Moses and the Red Sea.
I suddenly felt all eyes upon me. My feet clung tenaciously to
the floor as if they suddenly had some vested interest in the real estate
along North Lake Shore Drive and, as tenants in good standing, were not
about to vacate the premises even a second before their lease had expired at
the end of the month. My face grew redder and hotter by the moment as I
realized just how many people, including Alexis, Denise, and the goddess
herself, had heard the remark. I didn't say it, I proclaimed via a
sheepish grin. Don't look at me, for Chrissake, I didn't say it!!!
But it didn't work. They did look at me, and just about
the moment I thought I would die or melt away beneath their hostile stares,
my feet grew tired of their inactivity and began shuffling slowly but
steadily across the grey-tile floor.
"Have a nice day," I heard my lips mutter to Alexis as I slipped
past him. I found myself winding my way down the stairwell and out through
the arched opening leading toward the thick summer air, and when I finally
emerged, I could hardly contain my fury.
"Jesus Christ," I shouted as I slipped into the cab and slammed
the door behind me. "What the hell did you do that for? It'll be a miracle
if I still have a job in the morning. Alexis knows everyone in this town.
What the hell did you have to say that for? What the fuck did you
say that for???"
"Aww, forget it," Hymie said, fumbling for a match to re-ignite
a stogie that he had originally lit in the spring of '46. "They're nothin'
but a bunch of horses' asses, anyway. You wanna spend the rest of your life
kissing up to them, that's up to you. Me? I got better things to do,
thanks. Besides, you always got your night job."
"Oh, yeah," I said. "Right. That's easy for you to say.
You've got a secure future. You've got money in the bank. Me? I need
this job. You know, to help provide for the little things in life. Food,
shelter, clothing. My night job at the ‘Y’ doesn't pay shit."
"Thirty-fifth and Shields," Hymie barked at the cabbie,
motioning off to the right as the car shifted into gear and lurched from the
curb. "And step on it, will ya?"
"Not to mention," I continued, "that that fantastically
beautiful woman in there, the one to whom you so eloquently alluded upon our
unceremonious departure, will never look at me again so long as we both may
live. Let alone Denise ... "
"Denise?" Hymie said suddenly as he blew a puff of smoke against
the back of the cabbie's head. "That little bitch with the perky tits? Is
that her name?"
"She's the fellow instructor. The one who invited me to the
"Ahh, shit. You're better off without her. She's not your
girlfriend, is she? Jesus, the one you were telling me about? Oh, shit. I
could tell you stories about her would make you blush. No class. None at
all, you know? Christ, she's had half the college, faculty and all.
Including Alexis. Used to ball him on the conference room table at lunch
hour. Door unlocked. Unlocked, hell, it was wide open. The one on the
fourth floor, you know? Room 457, I think it is. She's still got her ass
prints etched in the varnish. Check it out, you don't believe me."
I shook my head. "I don't believe you."
Hymie grinned. "Hey, kid, you're all right. Got your head up
your ass sometimes, but basically you're okay."
Hymie leaned forward and rapped his knuckles against the
driver's back like he was knocking on a door. "Hey, Hor-hey," he growled
contemptuously. "I said Thirty-fifth and Shields, not Forty-fifth and
Michigan, comprende? Where the hell you takin' us, anyway? Come on,
wetback. There's fifty cents American in it for you if you get us there
"Where the fuck are we going?"
Hymie looked stunned. "Nice language from a college professor."
"Never mind that. Just tell me where we're going."
"Where the hell do you think we're going? Where did I tell you
we're going? We're going to find out what this goddam town is all about,
that's where we're going. We're going to experience life, that's where
we're going. We're going where it's real, we're going where you can't fake
nothin', we're going where when you fart out your ass it stinks, pure and
simple, no doubt about it. That's where we're going." He sucked on his
cigar until the butt glowed ashen red against the black stillness of the
Chicago night. "Anything else?"
There were lots of anything elses, but only one popped into mind
clear enough to verbalize. I still don't know why.
"Yeah," I said. "Are we going to see the White Sox?"
Hymie's eyes rolled twice around their sockets and his head
turned toward the cab wall. "No," he said. "We're not going to see the
White Sox. We're going to see life. We're going to see real. We're going
to see Jungle Jim Rivera." He sucked once again on his cigar. "Any more