NOTE FROM JILL SCHARY ROBINSON: Starting this month, we will feature an interview with a Wimpole Street writer along with an excerpt from their work. I’m very excited to begin this alluring process with an interview with Mel R. Friedman.
Mel Friedman goes to no ordinary events. We met at an art gallery featuring Laurie Lipton’s astonishing work. Mel is a master storyteller. He’s got a wreath of salty auburn hair and this sleepy movie star voice which makes you want to lie down and listen to his every story no matter how long it takes. Mel may be one of the most alluring men I’ve ever seen. I don’t mean “known”—you do not have to know Mel to understand he’s got a history of flashing with the vivid flair as perfect as the diamonds he used to sell. He has stories as dashing as the Jaguars he drives. But most powerful are the stories of his father’s escape from Auschwitz, as moving and significant as his friendship with I.B. Singer, stories filled with tears.
You can read an excerpt of Mel's most recent work here.
What were the first images that inspired you to explore, to write?
There were many things that caught my attention but the first thing that motivated me to put it in writing was when I felt that I needed to use my powers of persuasion to convince my first childhood crush why I thought she was so wonderful and would want to be with me.
And so what did you write?
Oh gosh –it’s funny, you take for granted what you think other people can do. And I didn’t realize that it was unusual what I could do with words, and I described every visceral and visual stimulus that she provided that made her special to me. I captured the moment, the first day I saw her, the angle of the sun in her dark brown hair, her smile, and how… I was not very old at the time. I was all of 11. And I didn’t realize that…well, I got to her on some level. But when she's 14 and the guy’s 11 there’s not a hint of a chance. But it did get to her on some level and fifty years later I found out how much it had.
Did you have a writer in mind that you were crazy about?
Absolutely. One writer was my inspiration—Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer. He’s the man who enabled me to believe I can do this. And he provided guidance in a course he gave as a guest professor at Queens College during my days there. He came in on alternate Wednesdays and, New York being New York, there were no provisions for him to go home in the evening to the Upper Westside from an area where there was no subway service. So every week I offered him a lift to the Forest Hills-Continental Avenue subway station. I offered him a lift all the way to the city but he said, “No, no that’s okay, just Continental” and we chatted and we became friendly. He was very candid. One of the funniest lines he ever said to me—his brother (author Israel Joshua Singer) got him in to the Writers' Club in Warsaw. On the drive to the subway station, Isaac Bashevis Singer said to me, "My brother’s characters are only interested in business and mine are only interested in sex."
He was an impish fellow and he had these bright blue eyes that glistened as if they had an extra pair of double A batteries in his head to light up the eyes just a little bit more. And he had the heavy Eastern European Yiddish accent whenever he would speak – here’s an example. In all his stories where his characters would ride in the equivalent of taxis – these horse drawn carriages known as a drushke. I’m taking him out in the Buick Riviera and I say, “Mr. Singer, here” and I open the door and I start driving down Jewel Avenue and I see he’s looking comfortable so I say, “It’s a little better than a drushke isn’t it?” and he said, “Ah yes, a drushke.” I was very young at the time and very much in awe of him and I didn’t know how seriously he took me. But after I moved here, and after he won the Nobel prize he came to give a speech at the UCLA Hillel center. Of course I went there to see him. After he spoke, people lined up to meet him and I said, “Mr. Singer, do you remember me?” and he said in his accent, “Mel, do you think I could ever forget you?!”
And the biggest lesson which he gave me, which I hold to this day, was, he said, “The good writer doesn’t bother writing about the usual characters, it’s the unusual characters he writes about.” And fortunately or unfortunately, I have a slew of unusual characters to write about.
What is the first unusual character you write about?
The one I’m writing about now, my very own father.
What is the first memory of your father, a moment which came alive on the page for you?
The first memory—he took me to school, first day of first grade, and all the kids' parents were there, and the parents were pretty worn down, drab and plain, and just pervasively doing what they had to do before going on to their workday. On the other hand, my father walked into the classroom looking like he just came off the pages of GQ. He had the perfect three-piece suit and a dapper hat and, as he told me as a kid, "I will never leave the house without my shoes being polished." He was a charming guy. And even when we went to the supermarket, even before I got past the so-called latency stage to understand sexual attraction, I was amazed at how good he was at “chattin’ up the ladies” as the song goes. He was always a charmer and always had a spark of energy to him. And as we got older and travelled together more, when I was in business with him during my twenties, I was just fascinated and amazed with all the tales he shared and the adventures that went on.
How would you describe yourself?
It’s so personal and I need to really think about what I’d say—let’s just say I’m a person who knows I have unique tastes and sensibilities and I try to realize them any way I possibly can. There was a person who once said “as long as it isn’t illegal immoral or fattening—“
There are very few writers who can write the stories they fear they never can tell. But you have told your father’s story with power, lacerating intimacy--how did you come to do that?
There were many challenges—trying to put certain painful emotions aside and trying, like my friend Mr. Singer said, to recognize that these are just too unusual stories to not to be told. If I hadn’t found Wimpole Street Writers I never would have considered it, but, at the time, my friend Mr. Rifkin pushed me. Mr. Rifkin and I became acquainted years ago at Queens College where we were both rock music critics for Newsbeat, one of the two campus newspapers. I had been invited to write reviews by the paper's arts editor several years earlier after a chance meeting. I'd say the time spent at Newsbeat became an integral part of developing my writing style. So, when Mr. Rifkin reconnected with me some thirty-something years later here in Los Angeles, and invited me to hear him read something at one of Jill's Wednesday night groups, I was intrigued.
And I realized when my father got sick and he passed away, it would be awful to not be able to share this tale, the good and the bad on a multitude of levels. His story was, as Mr. Singer would have said, too unusual not to tell. I wanted to explore the horrors of 2000 years of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, what it’s caused, and the havoc it has brought upon subsequent generations. And, to be quite honest, I wanted to write it because I think it is a strong story and there aren’t many people around who were close to their reality!
Do you have a special time set aside for writing?
Literally, I write when I know that I have a block of time. Usually that is preceded by me knowing there’s a deadline coming Wednesday or Sunday for the group and I’ve got to put something together and in my head I start to think about where the next chapter’s going. Writing for me isn’t so much a matter of just sitting at the computer. The story could arrive in the pool when I’m swimming or when I’m riding on PCH from fourth gear to overdrive with the red-tell taillight coming on as I'm rolling down the window. The urge happens when I’m doing easy things. I usually won’t think about my writing when doing my work ‘cause there’s so much strenuous detail required in my daily work and I must focus.
Wimpole Street has been a wonderful experience in this regard. It could not have come along at a better time, because at the time I joined this group, I was feeling more and more frustrated. I felt I had a creative gift and there was more to it than restoring cars for myself and for my friends. But the creative experience of writing is incomparable to even the most imaginative aspects of my work. Here, there is, with the writing, something tangible and physical to look at.
This morning I reread the Gazette with that piece I wrote in Spring 2016—half-full is my God, what an incredible piece that was, and half-empty is will I be able to duplicate this quality? I hope I can.
Is there a place you return to, an image of a tree or a view you return to when you write?
I know exactly what it is. I visited there six years ago and I could not wipe the smile off my face for about an hour. One of my fondest memories of my young years was the summer I turned 13. My parents gave me a choice and I believe I made the right choice…They said, if you don’t mind not being in New York for your bar mitzvah, your grandparents are willing to make it in Belgium. And I said, yeah, sure, let’s do it. I got to go on an airplane and go to another country and we stayed in this beautiful little town which now is priced out of existence—you’d have to be a multimillionaire to now afford what we did there that summer. We stayed in a three-bedroom apartment on a seacoast town called Knokke on the northern sea coast of Belgium, about half an hour from the border with Holland. We rented bikes for the summer and my parents enrolled my brother and I in a beach club and every morning we’d ride the coast to the club and the traffic wasn’t so heavy then and we’d watch the surf and, because it was the North Sea, it wasn’t a hot ‘n’ humid Jones Beach type of experience at all. My absolute fondest memory of a place, from when I was growing up. And the whipped cream on top is my brother and I and another distant relative entered a big fencing championship at that club towards the end of the summer. I took first place and my brother took second, and I’m left handed—and they say left handed fencers have an advantage.
Also, I always talk about how much I love the British rock of the Sixties. However, the owner of the club was an Englishman and he had a turntable and speaker and a car battery ‘cause there was no electricity down by the beach, and he played these mid-Sixties rockers all day long -- Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Small Faces, the Who.... absolute heaven.
Do you have a plan for finishing the book?
Well, the book has a very unhappy ending. The sneak preview is—this woman my father got involved with, the one who wanted to rearrange the furniture, he ended up living with her. Then he fell madly in love with another woman in South America and it didn’t work out. So he returned to the first one, she became pregnant, and he said to her, “Look it’s not my place to tell you what to do, the decision is yours.” She had the child and he loved being a parent for the second time. He had been married at 19 and now he was more established and could enjoy the whole concept of child rearing. But she was a difficult, emotionally challenged individual. One summer afternoon, she left the child unattended while she napped. The window was open. The child climbed up on the desk and went out the window. He perished. In the summer of ’97. He was five and half years old. I’m going to have a hell of a time writing that chapter, but its coming.
To this day I believe my father would have lived longer had he not gone through that. After this tragedy, his attitude was “How can this be? Haven’t I suffered enough losses?” It truly broke him down.
Tell us about growing up in Queens.
I was born in Manhattan but we lived in an area of Queens called Sunnyside, It was pretty much the beginning of Queens. Our building was six stories high. We lived on the top floor and when I looked out our living room window the I had a perfect view of Manhattan across the East River—the Chrysler building, the Empire State Building. These were the lights I could see at every night after sundown from my living room. Not many Queens residents enjoyed a perfect view of Manhattan from their living room night after night.
When did you begin to think—I need to tell my stories—I must write my stories?
Honestly? To actually think about writing my stories came to me in the mid-1970s, I’d lived here a couple years and a friend of mine asked me to accompany her to a UCLA Extension writing course and I wrote a chapter. My mother was still alive at the time and when I told her what I was writing, her face turned white and she said, “You can’t do this, you can’t do this, too many people will be in danger, people in the diamond business,” and I figured in my head okay, and then it didn’t come to my mind again until five years ago when I was introduced to the Wimpole Street Group. I thought about it and I thought—no one can be hurt anymore because these people aren’t alive anymore so what’s the difference? It’s safe to tell. And of course I wasn’t using the real names.
I go by the tales that I’ve heard but everything I write about comes of things that went on in my lifetime that I’ve seen with my own eyes and I didn’t even realize how I take it for granted that people experience things as intensely as I do, and the older I get the more I realize that—and it’s an awful word to use but—people are so dead inside. They just are. Maybe that’s why so many people have settled for things I just couldn’t do. And on the other hand they’ve done things I’m just not capable of. People I knew and grew up with married in their early twenties and wanted to raise a family. I almost did it but I got out three months before—the invitations were even printed. I just remember, I’ll never forget–she was a very pretty young woman, I met her in a summer camp. She was also a child of survivors so there was a common thread which is either good or bad but as long as we were boyfriend and girlfriend, I’d take her to concerts with all these backstage passes and that was fine, but when she started talking about setting the date, and about her cousin Joey who lived in one of those horrible brick four-family Canarsie homes with the upstairs and downstairs with the Feders air conditioners in the windows, and she said “Oh Joey’s gonna get his pharmacology degree and work on Flatlands Avenue” I just…said to myself…I know there has to be more than this. And I tried to approach her, to talk about my concerns. I felt so terrible, and I realized I really did her a favor because her answer was “What are my family and friends gonna say?” It wasn’t “I can’t live without you..” But I realized…so many people, they just roll along. They have a list.
When I was in elementary school, all the teachers, when they would try to discipline me they would say, “You know if you don’t watch out, this thing is gonna be on your permanent record. And if you think some day your boss is gonna stand for A, B, C, and D.” That day, I was in all of third grade, I said to myself, I’m gonna be self-employed, like my father. He got up when he wanted, he went to work when he wanted, and when he wanted to travel around the world for work he did so. Many times he said to me, “I really don't give a damn what people think. I'll do what I feel is right.” For better or worse, I've adopted the same outlook.
Do you have another world you work in?
I was in the diamond business, but starting in the early Eighties the business changed. I saw the writing on the wall. People who deal in high-end diamonds still do and they still complain. But I was dealing in the small diamonds, those used in jewelry manufacturing. Back then, there still were actual jewelry manufacturers here in the US. Now it’s all made in China and so forth. But I was attracted to the Customs brokerage field because I knew I was a detail person and could handle its requirements. So I spoke with the folks at customs, and they said, okay, if you want to do customs brokerage for others you’ve got to get a broker’s license. The broker exam is given twice a year, and there’s a 90 percent failure rate. But listen— after eight years of Yeshiva Jewish day school learning Talmud and Commentaries in Hebrew and Aramaic—the broker’s exam, I won’t say it was easy but I wasn’t gonna not pass it.
I built my business from the people I knew in the jewelry business and got referrals. Then some of them went on to other commodities, which, even though they were a pain in the neck, I always believed, don’t throw away a good customer. I’ve had customers go from 4 to 6 shipments a month to 4 to 6 shipments a week. My theory was always--have a lot of clients, a little here, a little there. But I don’t have to depend on any one client.
Are you enchanted by the magic of jewelry?
Absolutely not! I get more excited about the magic of vintage vehicles. Jewelry is a commodity. I look at a parcel of diamonds, I pick it up with tweezers, I ask how clean is it, how’s the make how’s the proportion, how much is it worth on today’s market? Could I buy it at the right price and is there a profit to be made?
What is it about you and the Jaguar?
Exquisiteness. That’s a passion I got from my father. We shared it throughout our lifetimes. He bought a Jaguar in Astoria when we still lived in Sunnyside In those days the Jaguar parts depot was located in Long Island City, only minutes away, so getting parts was not an issue. He bought it used and I came to look at it for the first time, I took one sniff of that leather and said, Oh my God. I was hooked.
Do you have an On the Road story?
One poignant memory: I was about eight or nine he woke me up on a Sunday morning. He said c’mon we’re going for a ride. I said where are we going he said it’s a surprise. I said if we’re going for a cruise in the jaguar I don’t care where we’re going as long as we’re not going off a cliff, I’m fine. And we took a ride to the Westside of Manhattan, in those days the vessels used to dock there and…turns out there was a ship from England that had docked the day before which his mechanic had told him about. A whole slew of brand new Mark IIs had just arrived.. There was no security or terrorism concerns back then. We pull up in a Mark I, my father says can we come in and look, the security guy says “Sure” and I stood on the lower wooden pallet, and I look at a Mark II and I only came up to the top of the door where the window is. I saw what the interior looked like and I said “Oh this is so much better than a mark 1” and my father said, “I want to get one but I don’t know. Your mother has her eyes on a Buick, which they ended up getting. I said “Someday I’m gonna get a Mark II.” It was like nothing else--a multi-stimulus of the senses—the smell of the wood, the leather, the pleats, the backseats--and the dashboard! I just thought it was heaven, I thought it was a work of art. And it’s no coincidence that it’s the only car that’s ever been exhibited as a work of art at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.