A Chicagoan Subdues the Big Apple

Noted Greek-American author Harry Mark Petrakis will be honored during 100th anniversary of Cretan Enosis celebrations.

By Harry Mark Petrakis

Thus far in my life as a Midwesterner, I have traveled into New York a score of times.

My first visit came in the summer of 1958 after I had been writing and submitting stories
for about ten years. All were rejected. Finally, in the spring of 1957 my short story,
“Pericles on 31st Street,” was published in the Atlantic. In 1958 a second story was
published in the Saturday Evening Post.
While working on stories, I had also written an undistinguished first novel with the lurid
title of Cry the Black Tears. Following a merciless critique by a respected editor, I had
dispatched the book into a closet where it remained for years in an aura of failure and
shame.
Seeking to implement the suggestions that the merciless but helpful editor had made, I
began a second novel. I also acquired a literary agent in New York named Toni
Strassman. I sent her the first 60 pages of the new novel I titled Lion at my Heart.
My brother Dan, who worked for U.S. Steel Corporation, had arranged a job interview
for me at their company headquarters in Pittsburgh. My flight from Chicago to Pittsburgh
for an interview was being paid and I arranged a stop in New York to meet Toni
Strassman. We had lunch and, afterwards, she took me to meet the editors at Viking
Press. She did not tell me she had sent those editors the first 60 pages of my new
novel.
I will never forget the two renowned editors I met that day. Marshal Best was the
Managing Director, and the other man, a senior editor bearing a great mane of white
hair, was Pascal Covici. Both men were legends in publishing. Best had brought into
print the work of Wallace Stevens, Dorothy Parker, and Erskine Caldwell in the United
States and Graham Greene in England. Covici was editor and friend to a number of
eminent writers. Saul Bellow, John Steinbeck, and Shirley Jackson would each dedicate
one of their novels to Covici.
Best and Covici had read my novel. They praised the work and offered me a contract on
Lion at my Heart with an advance of $1500. My delight was boundless!
Afterwards, Toni and I joined by another friend, Vasiliki Sarant, the widow of the brilliant
writer Isaac Rosenfeld, went to the roof garden of an elegant New York hotel to
celebrate. We sipped champagne and, seeking to cool my fevered psyche, I walked out
on the terrace. Under a star-adorned sky, the skyline of New York glittered below me.
In pallid imitation of words spoken about New York by a writer I vastly admired, the
gargantuan novelist Thomas Wolfe, I vowed, “I’ll bring you to your knees, bitch
goddess!”
Back in my hotel which bordered Central Park, I phoned my wife for the third time that
night and while we spoke of a future stunningly resurrected from futility and failure, the
clomping of the horse carriages carrying tourists through Central Park could be heard
through my open window. In that moment, I felt New York to be an enchanted city.
A dozen years later, alone in New York with an open evening, I planned to attend one of
the plays being performed on Broadway.
In a theater whose name I cannot remember, a play had been adapted from Saul
Bellow’s book, The Last Analysis. That dark comedy involved a cast-off TV comedian
whose self-analysis takes place within a dysfunctional group of relatives and friends.
Bellow and I shared the same bright and engaging attorney, Samuel Freifeld. I had
dined several times with Bellow in Sam’s residence, so while we were not close friends,
I had come to know the writer whose work I admired. I considered it would be gratifying
the next time I met Bellow to tell him I had seen The Last Analysis and then we could
discuss the production.
But there was a dilemma. The theater across the street from The Last Analysis was
performing the Follies Bergére, a cabaret musical from Paris that had played to
enthralled audiences around the world.
Convincing myself that I would simply check if seats were available, I inquired at the box
office. The cashier told me a second row center seat had just been cancelled.
I could not resist that serendipitous opportunity. For the next two hours I sat
mesmerized before a pageant of song and dance performed by magnificently endowed
beauties with only the tiniest fragments of clothing concealing their bodies. They
pranced and danced, strutted and swayed, until my stunned eyes, suffering sensory
overload, began to blur. Afterwards, walking the Manhattan streets on my way back to
my hotel, I marveled at the peerless wisdom of my choice.
A decade later, my wife and I were visiting New York staying at the Wyndham on 58th

Street. Rising early the morning after our arrival, my wife still in bed, I went down to
bring back some breakfast from one of the ubiquitous and aromatic delis that abound in
New York.
The interior of the deli was crowded with men and women snacking before work. Behind
the counters, fleet-footed waiters took orders, while agile-fingered cooks tossed eggs
and bacon onto the glowing grills.
I moved slowly forward in a line, biding my turn. When the waiter across from me cried,
“Next!” I started to order at the same instant a man behind me cried, “Bagel and
coffee… black!”
I glared at the intruder in silent reprimand. After the waiter filled his order, I started to
order once more and was preempted by a woman beside me crying, “Egg sandwich on
wheat!”
I was outraged and seethed as I waited for her order to be filled. Meanwhile, having
witnessed my vulnerability, a dozen smirking deli patrons surged forward to bypass me
again. From deep in my chest I bellowed, “Two bagels and two coffees!”
I hadn’t realized how loudly I shouted until, perhaps fearing my impassioned bellow was
the cry of a terrorist demanding silence, the deli froze into silence. Ignoring the
disapproving expressions from patrons I passed, I carried my bagels and coffee back to
the Wyndham.
The following day, as our flight ascended from LaGuardia for the return trip to Chicago,
from our plane window I looked down at the glistening, receding landscape of New
York. I remembered my foolish boast made decades earlier about bringing the great city
to its knees, a feat I had never accomplished.
But I felt a curious and perhaps perverse satisfaction because, for a moment, I had
managed to freeze a small fraction of the population of the Big Apple into a stunned and
attentive silence.