Thursday, May 26, 2011

LAST CALL AT ELAINE'S, ft. KEVIN VAN VALKENBURG

Elaine’s, one of my favorite places in New York, is closing tonight. Elaine Kaufman, the longtime owner—and one of the best friends a writer could have—died a few months ago, and the joint just couldn’t manage without her.

One of the best nights of my life was spent at Elaine’s, in the company of writers old and young, at the wake held for W.C. Heinz, who wrote “Death of a Racehorse”—from which this blog’s name was lifted—among many other great things.

A few of us read “Death of a Racehorse” out loud to an audience that, had I been less drunk, would have made me shit my pants just by its having assembled. Later, five of us ended up at a round table together: Charles P. Pierce of Esquire and the Boston Globe; ESPN’s Wright Thompson and Jeff MacGregor; and Kevin Van Valkenburg of the Baltimore Sun.

It was one of those great, beautiful nights when we shared each other’s dreams and stories and company. I could never do justice to it.

Luckily, Kevin Van Valkenburg can. He’s done us the favor of writing about it, and allowing me to post his words here. My thanks to him for that.

Kevin’s a great man—a husband, a father, a writer, a traveler, a drinker, a reader, a romantic, and a beast. But mostly Kevin’s a dreamer. Of the five of us, I would bet that he’s the one most likely to have already been on the moon.

If this is your introduction to him, I hope you like what you read here. You’ve been missing out. If you know Kevin, well, then you already know what you’re in for: You’re in for grand company, which is what Elaine’s was all about, on our night there, on every night there, and now, tonight, with closing time coming down hard, and just enough time for one last wake.

Mr. Kevin Van Valkenburg, the floor, my friend, is yours:


The embarrassing truth about the night I went to Elaine's for the first time, a night I consider one of the most important nights of my life, is that I almost didn't go. Not that I almost didn't travel to New York. That I almost didn't walk through the door. That night in September, I stood outside Elaine's on the 2nd Avenue sidewalk, staring up at the black and gold sign for a few minutes, glancing in the window every few seconds. Then I kept walking for reasons I'm not sure I can explain. I ducked into a bar down the block, a faceless joint where a sad crew of regulars hugged their drinks as they silently watched the Yankees game. I ordered a beer, sat by myself, and contemplated staying for the rest of the night.  

I think when people look back on seminal moments in their lives, they tend to imagine all the complicated realities and What Ifs, and pause as they remember where the road forked, reflecting on why they went left as opposed to right. I do it frequently, I suppose because I'm nostalgic at heart, and also because I'm forever curious about the way we're all shaped by our choices. What I remember specifically about that night is how worried I was that I did not belong at Elaine's, rubbing elbows and tapping glasses with writers who, for years, might as well have been my North Star. Elaine's was a place where legends had talked about the craft and nibbled on bad food since well before I was born. That night, a group had gathered to say goodbye to one of the true masters of the form, Bill Heinz, and even though I could almost recite “Death of A Racehorse” from memory, all I could think was how unworthy I felt to be in attendance. This was a place writers like Gay Talese and George Plimpton called home, writers who could manipulate a sentence like a magician, and a novice like me would be sniffed out immediately, and shamed into the street.

I think the beauty of the Writing Life, though, is that we tend to recognize and embrace fellow obsessives, regardless of our varying degrees of talent. At least that's how I'm going to remember Elaine's, as a safe haven for anyone who ever slaved over a keyboard, a notebook or a typewriter. When I finally worked up the courage to walk back down the block and through the worn black front door, I made a beeline through the crowd, gently passing men like Roger Kahn, Andy Rooney and David Granger. I stuck my hand out to introduce myself to a person my gut told me was Jeff MacGregor, the organizer of Heinz's wake, and a man whose writing I had studied and worshiped for many years. He refused to shake it, and instead insisted I accept a smothering bear hug, a hug that remains one of the most satisfying embraces of my life. He said he didn't know I was coming, but he was hopeful I would show. Had I paused to think about it, I think I might have started to weep. Who gets bear-hugged by one of their writing idols in the middle of Elaine's?

I don't know exactly what motivates someone to dedicate their life to the written word. Other than only a handful of exceptions, it's certainly not money, although it's nice to get paid for something I've romanced in my mind ever since I was 15. I suppose the reasons are different for everyone. But for me, it comes down to this: I write because I want to say something beautiful and true. And I want it to connect with someone who reads it, even if we never meet, or the reader hasn't even bothered to see my name atop the story. And afterward, I want to sit at a table with a drink in my hand in a place like Elaine's and tell stories and jokes and argue about the mysteries of life with writers who long for the same thing.

That might seem foolishly romantic, and easily mockable. There are plenty of people who scoff at how haughty and overly serious it seems to care so much about words, or whether anything you write will continue to exist in someone's mind beyond the next click of a mouse. And those people, they're not totally wrong. Sometimes artists are far too serious about their own attempts to make art, mostly because the alternative—or the reality—is too depressing to accept, much less embrace. The world needs nihilists too, Danny, as Judge Smails might say.

But sometimes—in rare moments—writing truly does feel like a religious experience, and I had one that night in Elaine's. MacGregor asked Chris, Wright Thompson and I to come to the front of the room, and each read a passage from “Death of a Racehorse,” the idea being that if Heinz's work was still inspiring the young narrative writers of today, then the words he wrote, the sentences Heinz believed were beautiful and true when he wrote them, really could live on forever.

I read the section of the story near the end, when thunder begins to rumble in the distance, and the rain begins to fall. Air Lift—the son of Bold Venture, full brother of Assault—lies still as a gun is placed to his head. In that instant, I was not standing in the middle of Elaine's. I'm certain of this. I was, instead, standing in the rain, having just watched the sixth race at Jamaica, watching a beautiful colt with a broken bone in his leg be put out of his misery. The spell was broken when I stepped away from the mic, ceding the final few paragraphs to Jeff, the one writer among us who could call Heinz both a mentor and a friend.

I'll never be Bill Heinz. And if I'm brutally honest with myself, I'll never be Jeff MacGregor or Chris Jones or Wright Thompson. But that's OK, in a way, because my struggle to write something beautiful and true is my own. It has to be, because otherwise it would ring false. Talese and Plimpton never became Hemingway and Fitzgerald, even though they drank wine in Paris and wrote gorgeously about the world they knew. That was their Paris, and one day, I'll have my own.

As the night continued on, the crowd inside Elaine's began to thin out, and our circle grew smaller. Charlie Pierce—another writer whose words have given my life direction (then and now)—arrived and sat down at our table, and for the next several hours, we shared stories and laughs and drinks and memories. Wright told us about growing up in Mississippi, and what it was like to write about his father after he died. Jeff explained his own back story, how he once hosted the new version of The Dating Game and then nearly hosted a late night talk show, only to give it all up for a chance to write. Charlie regaled us with tales of covering political campaigns, and Chris made us laugh until we fought back tears when he talked about finding Ricky Williams on the other side of the world. I'm certain that countless writers have had a night like that in Elaine's, nights when Norman Mailer and David Halberstam discussed the Vietnam war, or Roy Blount Jr. and Dan Jenkins argued over boxing. But this one was mine. And it breaks my heart to know that, after tonight, it will no longer provide shelter and that bad food for dreamers like us.

But Elaine's, of course, was just a place. Beautiful and true as it might be, a place is not forever. The writers at my table that night, however, those are my Full Brothers. They're like a second family. I have a matchbook Wright gave to me from that night, where he scribbled a line from “Death of A Racehorse,” and it means as much to me as anything I own.

I go back to Elaine's some nights in my head, just to hear the laughter and remember the jokes. And when I'm done with that memory, I sometimes think about the sixth race at Jamaica. I'm standing by the barn, watching Air Lift try to lie still, fear in his eyes.

I can feel the rain falling, and I can hear the thunder in the distance.

21 comments:

  1. Thank you. That's all I have to say.

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  2. Beautiful, KVV. I've been waiting for one of the Full Brothers to share that night with us. As Deb said ... thanks.

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  3. Damn fine work by KVV. Damn fine.

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  4. Kevin, I don't think anybody who read your recap of the night would argue that you belonged at that table.

    I think I speak for all Scotts near and far when I say having that opportunity to be drinking with those legends, hearing their stories, would be like going to the movies with Scorsese or cussing with Bob Knight. It would be perfection.

    This might sound a little too kiss-assy (just pretend that's a word, folks, and move along), but on a smaller scale, the way Kevin felt that night is how I feel when I read this blog. We get to chat up Chris and share the comments section with Scott Raab, Gene Weingarten, Mr. Charlie Pierce, etc. For most of us, it's the closest we're going to come to rubbing elbows with legends. Really, it's as good as it gets for those of us not on an esteemed masthead.

    Twelve years ago or so, when I was younger, hungrier, I e-mailed a handful of my favorite writers, wanting to pick their brains. As a huge fan of The Sporting News growing up, I was thrilled when Dave Kindred e-mailed me back. His advice was great, but the thrill was more "Holy shit, Dave Kindred now knows my name!"

    It's the same thrill I get with this place, this bastion of words and truths.

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  5. Wow. That was sensational. Thanks for sharing, Kevin. Now I'm mad I never went to Elaine's.

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  6. Kevin, I've been waiting to hear this story since the first time you mentioned it. It was more than worth the wait. The scene of you sitting in that bar, contemplating whether to go in, is perfect, as I think everyone has been in a similar position at some point - even the legends you were nervous about meeting.

    Now, how about your thoughts on Mike Brown...

    There's a classic story by George Plimpton that people would enjoy. I don't think it's online anywhere but it is in the New York Magazine book that came out a few years ago with their best stories. He took a guy who won some contest to Elaine's for a night on the town.

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  7. Seriously. What is this salty discharge coming out of my eyes? Great Kevin -- No doubt in my mind that was a legendary night and Elaine's will be dearly missed.

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  8. Thanks. I missed Missoula for a long time after I left. Then one day I realized it was the relationships that I really missed. I cried. You just took me back to that day. Places are just places; it's the people who make them something special.

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  9. Never got to go to Elaine's. Now, I really wish I had.

    Great stuff, Mr. Van Valkenburg. And thanks, Chris, for posting this.

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  10. Very cool story, Kevin.

    I have one of my own. I'll make it brief; this seems like an appropriate place to mention it, after I've lurked here and enjoyed reading the posts.

    The first time I was there was with Wright, too. He was working at the Times-Picayune and I was still in college. My two other friends, Seth (who was already working for ESPN) and Evan, were with us. I'd gone to New York because I was planning to move there after graduation, and was trying to land a job. Wright finagled a table by the front glass window; it was packed. I'm not sure how he did it. We were very young and sat there and stared at the old writers for a while, watched Elaine move slowly around the room. Someone came up with the idea that we should take my disposable camera and ask Neil Leifer, the great photographer, who had taken so many timeless pictures, to snap one of us with that shitty little camera while we stood outside. It would be a joke, but a also a metaphor.

    So we waited on him, outside in front of that window. He was sitting at a table with George Plimpton and some other lions inside, drinking. He never came out. George Plimpton finally did. So we pretended not to know who he was and held out the disposable camera and asked him if he would mind taking our pic.

    And he did.

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  11. I've had a copy of Brian McDonald's book titled Last Call at Elaine's sitting on a bookshelf behind my desk for months. Tonight seems to be the right time to finish it.

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