Saturday, October 15, 2011


When I moved back to New York not long after Don died, in my quest to find a place where I wasn't lonely, I had the unexpected gentle good fortune to be befriended by Kurt Vonnegut, who I of course very much admired, as would anyone who could read or have an original thought. When I would do something like call to wish him 'Happy Birthday,' Kurt would say things like "That's very neighborly of you." When I complained, or, trying not to complain because you don't want to whine to a man like Kurt was, but borderline sorrowing over the truth that writers as a rule don't generally support each other, and what I was looking for and hoping to find was a community, Kurt said: "Go to the grocery store and introduce yourself to the clerk, go to the dry cleaners and say hello to the owner, then go to the drugstore and meet the pharmacist, and you'll have your community."
So recognizing wisdom behind the sweetness I went to the Duane Reade and introduced myself to Frank, a bright-eyed, dark haired young man who had two sons, updated not long after to three. In the impersonal world of 'press 5 for the pharmacy', I would skip to the number he told me to press and get Frank. There was a certain Jimmy Stewart dearness to it, connecting with Frank, and I followed the steps of the latest family addition as he sat up, started talking, and then ran around destroying things, all the time feeling a sense of connection, since my Uncle Ralphie, one of the darling men in my early history, was a pharmacist, as my father had been in his search for where he belonged, doing what, before his later, surprising success as mayor of Tucson.
When I came back to New York from a trip I would always reconnect with Frank, refilling a prescription or just catching up with what the little boy was doing, and, as drugs became increasingly expensive-- the good kind that made you better, we hope-- I would apologize at having found a way to get them cheaper, and listen to his counsel about whether or not they had sat around too long and lost their strength if they were made in another country. When I returned from my latest foray to Bali I went straight to Duane Reade, which, to my horror, had been transformed into a One-Stop shop, with fruit and groceries and a vast downstairs of cosmetics where it was hard to find aspirin. With some difficulty, I located Frank. To my astonishment, he seemed pleased with the transformation. "You have to change with the times," he said, "or..." I don't remember what the 'or' was, but it was something like die or fail, but in any case Orwellian.
Then yesterday, as he had been aware of my chagrin at this unwanted glamorization, after beaming at the huge additional footage-- it had been something like 14,000 square feet and now was 20 something(I have never understood any of that, how they measure) he took me aside when I said I was going to drop my insurance company because they wouldn't make a deal with Duane Reade(I think I would have to go to Walmart.) He told me, in a hushed voice, that in fifteen years there would probably be no pharmacists-- the drug companies or the insurance companies or whatever companies that have no sense of or wish for connection- were trying to get it to the place where everything would be online. They had already made him cut out 2/3 of his staff, that kids graduating from college now with MDs could not earn a living even as assistants in pharmacies, that he would counsel his own sons not to try even to be doctors, as they soon would be unable to feed their families.
So 'It's a Wonderful Life' which almost all of us swallowed and loved as the Frank Capra pastille of optimism and naivete,' where the pharmacist was a central figure in that good-will Fairy Tale will no longer obtain. In a world where people don't talk to each other but engage electronically, a blessing, sure, we all love Steve, and many of us wish he had been in charge of the economy instead of the die-easies who were, it is still a tragedy that we are losing the art of real communication: people looking each other in the eye and saying exactly what they mean. I guess it's for the best that Vonnegut isn't here to see the end of what is "neighborly," though I still miss him.
But I will give a birthday party for him on November 11th, which is also Memorial Day, once Armistice Day, all the things he sorrowed over, war being the stupidest thing in his experience and people having gotten no wiser in spite of Slaughterhouse Five making it all so clear. The party will be in a Gelati parlor called Gusti in Bali, as close as I can get to the ice cream parlor that was so "neighborly" in "Wonderful Life," but with better ice cream, run by an Italian woman and her French husband who makes it fresh every day. They have three little girls in the French school in Umalas, and the school itself has created a community, so there's one for starters.
I am inviting everybody who made it possible for me to move to Bali, so of course you all will be welcome. Because without your invisible support I would never have made it to this glorious transition, where I had the clarity to know when the time came to move, and to where. E-mail me when you're coming and I'll be there at the airport. It's the least I can do to be neighborly.