Idiots First

Last modified on June 25, 2001

Portrait Life Art Critics Barrel

Idiots First. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1963:

[Idiots First] [Black is My Favorite Color] [Still Life] [The Death of Me]

[A Choice of Profession] [Life is Better than Death] [The Jewbird]

[Naked Nude] [The Cost of Living] [The Maid's Shoes]

[Suppose a Wedding] [The German Refugee]

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"Idiots First". Commentary, 32 (December, 1961), pp. 101-112.

  • Major Characters:
    • Mendel: A sick old man, informed by Ginsburg the day before that he will die the next day, desparately tries to send his "half-wit" son Isaac to his eighty-one-year-old Uncle Leo in California. He does not have enough money to buy a train ticket for Isaac. He needs "thirty-five dollars" more.
    • Isaac: Mendel's son, thirty-nine, mentally retarded, who seems to keep eating peanuts.
    • Ginzburg: The death, personified in the end of the story as "uniformed ticket collector," who would not let Mendel take Isaac to the train to California because it is "Already past twelve."
    • Mr. Fishbein: A rich Jew who won't give Mendel the money he needs: "Private contributions I don't make--only to institutions."
    • "Yascha": A poor old rabbi, who gives Mendel "a fur-lined caftan": "I got my old one. Who needs two coats for one body?"
  • Chronology of Events:
    • On a Friday night in November: Mendel awakes in fright at suppertime. The clock has stopped. He takes Isaac to a pawnshop and gets eight dollars for his "worn gold watch." Then they go to Mr. Fishbein's to ask for thirty-five dollars in vain. At a park, Mendel is almost mugged. He took a trolley with Isaac to a former friend, who turns out to be dead for years. At about eleven ("What can I one short hour"), he thinks of getting money for his furniture at the pawnshop but it is closed. Mendel goes in a synagogue and calls for a rabbi. A sexton tells him that he is asleep in his house next door. Mendel goes to the rabbi's house. Despite his wife's protest, he gives Mendel his new coat. Mendel practically snatches it away from his wife and runs with Isaac. "After them noiselessly ran Ginsburg."
    • Around the midnight: Somehow Mendel has changed the rabbi's coat into money and buys the train ticket "in the only booth open." He hurries to the gate to the platform with Isaac. Ginzburg appears in the uniform of a ticket collector and stops them. After the argument and struggle, Mendel manages to board Isaac on the train. "When the rain was gone, Mendel ascended the stairs to see what had become of Ginsburg." (Italics mine)
  • Themes:

"Black is My Favorite Color". Reporter, 29 (July 18, 1963), pp. 43-44.

  • Major Characters:
    • Nat [Nathan] Lime: The narrator. A forty-four-year-old bachelor "with a daily growing bald spot on the back of [his] head." He runs a liquor store in Harlem employing two black helpers, Jimmy and Mason.
      A large part of my life I've had dealings with Negro people, most on business basis but sometimes for friendly reasons with genuine feeling on both sides. I'm drawn to them. At this time of my life I should have one or two good coloured friends but the fault isn't neccessarily mine.
      Nat lost his father, "a cutter with arthritis in both hands," when he was thirteen and had been raised by his mother, who sold paper bags from a pushcart in Ellery Street. He fought "in the jungle in New Guinea in the Second World War."
    • Ornita Harris: A "slim" young black widow, "about thirty years," who supports herself as a manicurist after her husband, "a window cleaner on the big buildings," died falling fifteen stories. Nat falls in love with her and would like to marry but she is "afraid."
    • Buster Wilson: A "beanpole boy," about twleve, Nat tried to make friends with when he was ten. Despite Nat's services (taking him to the movies, Hershey chocolate bars, "Nick Carter and Merriwell books," etc.), the black boy hit him in the teeth: "Because you a Jew bastard. Take your Jew movies and your Jew candy and shove them up your Jew ass."
    • Charity Sweetness: Nat's cleaning woman, who "eats in the toilet" to avoid eating at the table with Nat.
  • Chronology of Events:
    • When Nat was ten: his experiences with Buster Wilson and his father "in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn."
    • "Years later, in the prime of [his] life": Nat meets Ornita "at the bus stop, crosstown 110th" in "the end of November." He picks up her green gloves she has dropped: "...I [Ornita] don't like white men trying to do me favours."
    • About a week later: Ornita comes to Nat's store for a bottle of scotch. She accepts a dollar discount he offers. She comes to the store for a fifth of whisky about every two weeks after this.
    • "One night in June": Nat and Ornita go out together to the Village.
    • "In August": They go out the second time. Nat is impressed with the purple dress Ornita wears. In the furnished room he has rented, they make love and he falls in love with her. "That same week" he had "a hold up" in his store and gets injured. He stays in the hospital "a couple of weeks," during which Ornita comes to see him and says: "I'm sorry it happened."
    • When Nat gets out of the hospital: his mother is dead. When his week of mourning is over, Nat proposes marriage to Ornita. Her answer: "I like you but I'd be afraid. My husband woulda killed me." He decides to wait and she starts to come to his apartment. "When she wasn't so nervous she was affectionate, and if I know what love is, I had it."
    • The winter two years ago ["a terrible winter night, very cold February"]: After dinner at Nat's friend, he has to take Ornita to her place on the subway because of a strike. They get mugged by three men on 115th. They say, "No more black pussy for you...She deserve to have evvy bit of her hair shaved off" before hitting his head.
    • The next night: Ornita does not appear although they has a date downtown.
    • The nex morning: Nat calls Ornita. She tells him that she cannot marry him because "I got enough trouble of my own."
    • That night: Nat visits the house of Ornita's brother where she has been staying. He is told that she has "left for a long visit to some close relatives in the South."
    • [The beginning and ending of the story]: Charity Sweetness, having been worked for Nat for a year and half, eats her "hard-boiled eggs" in the bathroom. Nat cries out: "Charity Sweetness--you hear me?--come out of that goddamn toilet!"
  • Themes:

"Still Life". Partisan Review, 29 (Winter, 1962), pp. 95-112.

  • Major Characters:
    • Arthur Fidelman: A "former art student on fire once more to paint." He is still in Rome and moves in "a crowded windowy, attic-like atelier on a cobblestone street in the Trastevere." He falls for Annnamaria and becomes a "sucker" for her to gain her love.
    • Annamaria Oliovino: A "pittrice" (painter) Fidelman shares a drafty studio with. A "thin, almost gaunt, high-voiced, restless" woman, "with short black uncombed hair, violent mouth, distracted eyes and tense neck...with narrow buttocks and piercing breasts." She always begins her abstract expressionistic painting with two brush strokes that look like "a small black religious cross." She is from Naples and has been living in Rome for two years. Fidelman guesses her "to be no older than twenty-seven or -eight."
    • Augusto Ottogalli: One of Annamaria's male visitors, who visits her on Monday and Friday afternoons after his work in a government bureau. A "solemn grey-haired gent...with wartery blue eyes and missing side teeth, old enough to be her father."
    • Giancarlo Balducci: A crosseyed illustrator. One of Annamaria's friends.
    • Orazio Pinelli: A sculptor Fidelman meets at Giancarlo's party.
    • Clelia Montemaggio: A "middle-aged old maid music teacher" living donwstairs. She plays Bach on her old upright piano.
  • Chronology of Events:
    • " very cold late-December morning": Reading her advertisement, Fidelman visits Annamaria and moves in her studio an hour later, "already half in love with her."
    • "One morning": Annamaria is sad after reading a long letter just recieved. Fidelman treats her lunch at the trattoria at the corner, Guido's. Later she receives Augusto Ottogalli. When he visits, Annamaria takes him to her room, "at once locked and bolted."
    • After several visits: Augusto comes to Annamaria with a priest. In fury, she throws at them anything she can lay hands on until they retreat. But when he returns alone, she retires to her room with him without complaint.
    • "After the incident..for a week": Annamaria is depondent and stays in her room, sometimes crying. Fidelman's work is going poorly. She continues to eat lunch with him at Guido's. He starts to give her presents and she starts to borrow small sums from him. She announces "one morning" that he has to pay additional for water and elecrticiy. "One day" he is permitted to look on as she sketches herself nude in his presence.
    • Fidelman increases his services to Annamaria but "her increase was scorn." "For a week" he tries not to see her, figuring "it bored her to see so much of him." "For two weeks" he speaks to no one but Celia, who attemts to entice him with pastries and Bach's music. Unable to work, he thinks of painting Annamaria, at first tries her as nude and then paints her as "Virgin with Child." After eight days, Fidelman completes the painting.
    • "On the ninth day" [Friday]: Fidelman shows Annamaria the painting. She wails and sobbs, "You have seen my soul." They embrace "tempestuously." Fearing Augusto's visit, they wait until six. She cooks supper for him. Afterwards, in her locked and bolted bedroom, after three doorbell rings (the first, the postman; the second, the portinaia; the third, her imagination), he spends himself in her hand. She furiously shoves him out of bed and into the studio, exclaiming, "Pig, beast, onanist!"
    • Fidelman continues to serve Annamaria, shopping, cooking, and cleaning for her without consummation of his love. "One night at the end of February," she lets him go with her to a party at Giancarlo's studio. He is told by Orazio that Annamaria is a "fake" artist. After witnessing two fist-fignts at the party, Fidelman is ordered to pose in the nude for Giancarlo and Annamaria. The former draws "a flock of green and black abstract testiculate cirlces." The latter does a "gigantic funereal phallus" that resembles "a broken-back snake." Overhearing Annamaria begging Giancarlo to sleep with her, Fidelman offers her himself but she cries, "Don't dare come near me."
    • "The next morning": Fidelman awakes sneezing. Annamaria is in a bad mood. Although feverish, Fidelman wanders in the rain, sitting for hours on the Spanish Steps. "In the late afternoon" refused to be let in, he reluctantly goes in Clelia's apartment. While she is playing Back instead of Chopin he requested, he gazes at "a bowl of white carnations" placed on the piano and strikes upon the idea of painting himself. He runs out of the house.
    • Fidelman gets a cassock and black biretta at a costume shop, deciding on drawing "Portrait of the Artist as Priest." When Annamaria finds him painting himself as priest in the studio, she rushes into her room with a moan.
    • "After stelthily re-entering the studio": Annamaria follows his progress closely with agitated eyes:
      At last, with a cry she threw herself at his feet.
             "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned--"
             Dripping brush in hand, he stared down at her. "Please, I--"
             "Oh, Father, if you knew how I have sinned. I've been a whore--"
             After a moment's thought, Fidelman said, "If so, I absolve you."
             "Not without penance. First listen to the rest. I've had no luck with men. They're all bastards. Or else I jinx them. If you want the truth I am an Evil Eye myself. Anybody who loves me is cursed."
      She then reveals that Augusto is her uncle and lover, with whom she has had a baby she threw into the Tiber on the night it was born. Augusto has become impotent since then and he has been imploring her to confess so he can get back his power. Although Fidelman forgives her, she asks for the penance. He tells her to undress and she agrees if keeps on the biretta: "In her bed they tightly embraced. She clasped his buttocks, he cupped hers. Pumping slowly he nailed her to her cross."
  • Themes:

"The Death of Me". World Review, 26 (April, 1951), pp. 48-51.

  • Major Characters:
    • Marcus: A tall and skinny tailor, or a "clothier," who has "prospered" into ill health and has had to employ two assistants, who somewhat resemble the eccentric employees of the Wall Street lawyer in Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener." Although they are skilled workers and respect Marcus, they constantly fight each other and his business suffers.
    • Josip Bruzak: The presser, "a heavy, beery, perspiring Pole," employed by Marcus. He lives in a half-ruined rooming house near the East River and constantly guzzles beer at work. He has left his "tubercular wife" and fourteen-year-old son in Poland and weeps over the letters they send to him "abouth every third week."
    • Emilio Vizo: The tailor, "a thin, dry, pigeon-chested Sicilian," employed by Marcus. His strangeness is that he is "always whispering to himself." His wife has five times run out on him.
  • Chronology of Events:
    • "[L]ong ago before the war": Marcus has had to employ an assistant tailor, Emilio Vizo, and a presser, Josip Bruzak. Although eccentric, both are very skilled workers ["a demon with a needle" and "a master presser"].
    • "For more than a year": Neither Bruzak nor Emilio have seemed to notice one another although they have made strange noises in the rear room of the store.
    • "[T]hen one day": "as though an invisible wall between them had fallen, they were at each other's throats." Marcus sees them silently confronting each other in the rear of the shop, the presser squeezing a heavy pressing block and Emilio holding a pair of cutter's shears. He asks them what has happened but neither answers. Obeying him, however, they go back to work. Softened by their compliance, he says with tears in his eyes, "Boys, remember, don't fight."
    • "[O]n the very next day and thereafter": Bruzak and Emilio "broke out of their silent hatred into thunderous quarrelling that did damage to the business."
    • "[O]ne noon": Marcus asks Emilio why he fights and hates Bruzak. He doesn't reply. Marcus asks Bruzak the same questions "that evening" but he does not reply either.
    • "[T]he next morning": Marcus tells Emilio and Bruzak about "a homily" given by his father in his poor childhood days: "Children, we are poor people and strangers wherever we go, let us at least live in peace, or if not--." He then makes them promise not to fight any more and they promise with wet eyes. But they start fighting again immediately afterward.
    • "Twenty-four hours later": Marcus calls up a carpenter and has him build a thick partition halving their work space. Emilio and Bruzak are silent for a full week.
    • "One Monday morning": Angered by a broken salami and by a battered hat respectively, Bruzak and Emilio go for each other. Emilio catches Bruzak's arm with his burning iron just as the latter stabs the former in the groin with a knife. Marcus intervenes and suffers a heart attack: "Although the old Jew's eyes were glazed as he crumpled, the assasins could plainly read in them, What did I tell you? You see?"
  • Themes:

"A Choice of Profession". Commentary, 36 (September, 1963), pp. 235-241.

  • Major Characters:
    • Cronin:
    • Marge:
    • Mary Lou Miller:
    • George Getz:
  • Chronology of Events:
  • Themes:

"Life is Better than Death". Esquire, 59 (May, 1963), pp. 78-79.

  • Major Characters:
    • Etta Oliva:
    • Armando Oliva:
    • Cesare Montaldo:
  • Chronology of Events:
  • Themes:

"The Jewbird". Reporter, 28 (April 11, 1963), pp. 33-36.

  • Major Characters:
    • Schwartz: A crow-like talking bird that can speak Yiddish and English and even make Jewish prayers. He calls himself a Jewbird, once removed from a Jewfish. He is running from "Anti-Semeets" and flows in "Harry Cohen's top-floor apartment on First Avenue near the lower East River."
    • Harry Cohen: A frozen food salesman. "A heavy man with hairy chest," whose mother is dying in her flat in the Bronx.
    • Edie Cohen: Harry's wife. A kind-hearted skinny woman, not courageous enough to protect Schwartz from her husband.
    • Morris Cohen: Harry and Edie's ten-year-old son. He is named after her father but they call him Maurie. "A nice kid though not overly bright." According to Schwartz, he is a kind of boy that "won't be a shicker or a wifebeater" and will never be a scholor but "maybe a good mechanic."
  • Chronology of Events:
    • "On a hot August evening a year ago": Schwartz, a skinny bird, wearily flows in through the open kitchen window of Harry's apartment ["That's how it goes. It's open, you're in. Closed, you're out and that's your fate."] and lands on the table when the Cohens are having supper. The Jewbird tells them that he is running from "Anti-Semeets" and vultures and that he goes "where there's charity." After "davening" he gets marinated herring. Although Harry does not want him to stay, he lets him stay the night because of Maurie: "Let him stay, papa....He's only a bird."
    • "In the morning": Cohen orders Schwartz to leave but Maurie cries, so he reluctantly lets the bird to stay for a while:
             "So all right," said Cohen, "but I'm dead set against it. I warn you he ain't gonna stay here long."
             "What have you got against the poor bird?" [said Edie.]
             "Poor bird, my ass. He's a foxy bastard. He thinks he's a Jew."
             "What difference does it make what he thinks?"
             "A Jewbird, what a chuzpah. One false move and he's out on his drumsticks."
      Although Schwartz wants to stay inside, he lives out on the balcony at Harry's insistence, in a new wooden birdhouse Edie gets for him.
    • "When Cohen brought home a bird feeder full of dried corn": Schwartz says, "Impossible" and Cohen is annoyed. Edie gets herring for him.
    • "When school began in September": Cohen once again suggests the bird to leave but Edie prevailes on him to wait a little while until Maurie adjusts to school. Though nobody has asked, Schwartz takes on full responsibility for Maurie's performance in school: he oversees the boy's school lessons and violin practice.
    • Maurie's work improves in school and even his violin teacher admits his playing is better. When "there was nothing lower than C minuses on Maurie's report card," Schwartz celebrates with a little schnapps on Edie's insitence. But he angers Harry not agreeing with his hope to send his boy to an Ivy League college.
    • "One night when Edie was at the movies and Maurie was taking a shower": Harry begins a quarrel with Schwartz:
             "For Christ sake, why don't you wash yourself sometimes? Why must you always stink like a dead fish?"
             "Mr. Cohen, if you'll pardon me, if somebody eats garlic he will smell from garlic. I eat herring three times a day. Feed me flowers and I will smell like flowers."
             "Who's obligated to feed you anything at all? You're lucky to get herring."
             "Excuse me, I'm not complaining." said the bird. "You're complaining."
             ...."All in all you are a goddamn pest and free loader. Next thing you'll want to sleep in bed next to my wife."
             "Mr. Cohen," said Schwartz, "on this, rest assured. A bird is a bird."
    • The quarrel deeply disturbs Schwartz and he sleeps badly. He tries to stay out of Cohen's way and keeps to the birdhouse as much as possible. Sensing his unhappiness, Edie advises him to take a bath so that he can get along better with her husband. The bird's reply: "Everybody smells. Some people smell because of their thoughts or because who they are. My bad smell comes from the food I eat. What does his come from?"
    • "In late November": Schwartz freezes on the balcony, already feels twinges of rheumatism. Cohen, after reading articles about the migration of birds, orders him to leave soon. But the bird stubbonly refuses to depart so Cohen embarks on a campaign of harassing him. He brings a cat into the house, supposedly a gift for Maurie. The bird complains but Edie only says: "Be patient, Mr. Schwartz. When the cat gets to know you better he won't try to catch you any more."
    • Weeks go by, "on the day Cohen's mother had died in her flat in the Bronx, when Maurie came home with a zero on an arithmatic test": Cohen, enraged, waits until Edie takes Maurie to his violin lessons, openly attacks the bird. He grabs Schwartz's leggs and whirls him around and around his head. The bird manages to catch Cohen's nose in his beak. Cohen punches the bird and flings him into the night. "Schwartz sank like a stone into the street."
    • "In the spring": Maurie looks for Schwartz and finds "a dead black bird in a small lot near the river, his two wings broken, neck twisted, and both bird-eyes plucked clean."
             "Who did it to you, Mr. Schwartz?" Maurie wept.
             "Anti-Semeets," Edie said later.
  • Themes:

"Naked Nude". Playboy, 10 (August, 1963), pp. 48-50, 52, 122-124.

  • Major Characters:
    • Arthur Fidelman:
    • Scarpio:
    • Angelo:
  • Chronology of Events:
  • Themes:

"The Cost of Living". Harper's Bazaar, 84 (March, 1950), pp. 142, 209, 212-213.

  • Major Characters:
    • Sam Tomashevsky:
    • Sura:
  • Chronology of Events:
  • Themes:

"The Maid's Shoes". Partisan Review, 26 (Winter, 1959), pp. 32-44.

  • Major Characters:
    • Orlando Krantz:
    • Rosa:
  • Chronology of Events:
  • Themes:

"Suppose a Wedding"[A Scene of a Play]. New Statesman, 65 (February 8, 1963), pp. 198-200.

  • Major Characters:
    • Maurice Feuer: A retired Jewish actor trying to influnece his daughter in her choice of a husband.
    • Florence Feuer: Maurice's wife, once an actress now a beautician.
    • Adele Feuer: Maurice's daughter.
    • Leon Singer: A young sporting goods store owner from Newark Adele is engaged to.
    • Ben Glickman: A poor beginning writer in the building--a tenement house off Second Avenue in Manhattan--who seems to share Maurice's value in life.
  • Chronology of Events:
  • Themes:

"The German Refugee". Saturday Evening Post, 236 (September 14, 1963), pp. 38, 39.

  • Major Characters:
    • Martin Goldberg: The narrator. A twenty-year-old "poor," "skinny, life-hungry" student who supports himself giving English lessons to refugees from Hitler in the summer of 1939. His students are all "acomplished men" and Oskar is one of them. His other students are: "Karl Otto Alp, the former film star; Wolfgang Novak, once a brillian economist; Friedrich Wilhelm Wolff, who had taught medieval history at Heidelberg."
    • Oskar Gassner: A fifty-year-old refugee from Germany. He was an accomplished Berlin critic and journalist before the Nazis destroyed his career. He has just emigrated to the U.S. parting his gentile wife. He desparately needs to master English so that he can secure his new job in America, a lecutrer at the Institute of Public Studies. "He had at one time studied English...he managed to put together a fairly decent, if sometimes comical, English sentence." But "the thought of giving the lecture in English just about paralysed him."
    • Frau Gassner: Oskar's wife. She and Oskar "had met as students, lived together, and were married at twenty-three." She refused to come to U.S. with Oscar because she did not think he wished her to come. Oscar susspects that she is "a Jew hater" in her heart. Although "he had lived with her for almost twenty-seven years under difficult circumstances," he thinks that "[she] had been ambivalent about their Jewish friends and his relatives." Her mother is "always a violent anti-Semite."
  • Chronology of Events:
    • On a late June evening in 1939: Martin, sent by the college, visits Oskar at "his stuffy, hot, dark hotel room on West Tenth Street." Martin learns that Oscar has had two English tutors, who have given him up, and that he is the third. After the successful first lesson, they have a walk around Central Park Lake. Oscar buys him a bottle of beer.
    • After Oscar moves to a two-room apartment in a house on West 85th Street: they meet three times a week at four-thirty, work an hour and a half, and then they converse at the 72nd Street Automat. Oscar seems to be learning and his mood lightens. He cannot, however, write his lecture even in German.
    • By the seventeenth of July: they start working on the lecture. But Oscar cannot write. "When he gave up attempting to write the lecture, he stopped making progress in English....He had plunged into an involved melancholy." He expresses his hatred of the Nazis and says, "I feel certain that my wife, in her heart, was a Jew hater." Martin learns that Oscar had attempted suicide during his first week in America--at the end of May.
    • One afternoon: Martin finds Oscar's room empty. Fearing that Oscar might commit suicide, he searches for a gun and finds a letter from Oscar's wife in a drawer. Oscar has been in the public library. He still cannot overcome his block.
    • Mid-August: Things are going steadily worse both in Europe and for Oscar. Martin visits him every day, "as a friend, neglecting my other students and therefore my livelihood." Martin learns about Frau Gassner from Oscar. "One day, toward the end of August," Martin shows Oscar the notes of the lecture he has written for the refugee. Oscar does not like them and starts to write Martin a letter to say what he has missed. By doing so, Oscar practically finishes writing half the lecture. He calls Martin on the phone to report this:
              "I thank you," he said, "for much, alzo including your faith in me."
              "Thank God," I said, not telling him I had just about lost it.
    • During the first week in September: Oscar completes his lecture. Assisted by Friedrich Wilhelm Wolff, it is translated into English a week later. After working on his delivery for two weeks, Oscar gives the lecture successfully. "He had awakened from defeat....His blue eyes had returned to life."
    • "Two days later [from the lecture]": Oscar takes his life by turning on the gas stove in the kitchen. He leaves Martin all his possessions. Martin finds a recent airmail letter from Oscar's "anti-Semitic mother-in-law." After Oscar abandons her, Frau Gassner is "converted to Judaism by a vengeful rabbi." She is caught and sent to a small border town in Poland with the other Jews. She is shot in the head and dumped in a ditch with the other victims.
  • Themes:

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