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From the Vault of Art Shay: Mentors Amongst the Raptors

By Staff in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 16, 2011 5:00PM

The University of Iowa Writers' Project is a hoary and whorish adornment to modern literature that has attracted the likes of me with my Time magazine camera and — as inmates — the likes of John Irving, Tom Brokaw, Tennessee Williams, Nelson Algren and Kurt Vonnegut (poker fiends both), and the one-shot tutorial guru champ, Frank Conroy, who produced the classic novel Stop-Time, and who served as the mentor — that is to say the mentor — of UIProject's Tom Grimes' recent depressing book of that name. Conroy mentored poor Tom so hard that, after producing one interesting book (Mentor, a must-read for every would-be pro writing aspirant), he is now teaching creative writing on fat tenure at Texas State University. Scared, one guesses, into the creative shallows of teaching.

Having wondered in print if his mentor Conroy (who had scored six figures early on and would help Grimes snare about half of that on his wild praise) was sage, father, agent, zeitgeist, drinking buddy, editor or what, Grimes made me recall the moment that Algren (also) hated himself but on a postcard from the coast, for having taken $650 of the University of Washington's cash for having appeared before their mentor-hungry wannabe writers and "sucked, and smiled and wheedled and lapped and meached and dandled and fondled and whinnied." And even laid the adorable admirer transporting him in her Ford Phaeton.

Some months later, answering the letter of a young writer, Joe Haas, saying he felt his career to be on the edge of a precipice, Algren advised him to "step back" lest like most, he fall into the abyss. The creative abyss over which Nabokov limned a rocking cradle.

I used to review books for Herman Kogan at the Sun-Times and John Blades at the Tribune. Both became dear friends who expected me to do my own version of Joe Heller's Catch 22 - which Algren praised in its first big time review. Like Heller and me, Nelson realized that combat. If you survived, could be a lot of fun, and a canvas as wide as the dark Republic itself. I never came up to my own standards in fiction and began (until I found my own camera eye) hiding behind the cameras of some 30 great Life magazine photographers as a reporter — writing captions, schlepping equipment. I worked with with mentors like Francis Miller, Eisenstaedt, McCombe, Gene Smith, Walt Sanders, Ralph Crane (Rudy, a tall, handsome LA refugee from Switzerland, was reliably reputed to have bedded Rita Hayworth, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford on successive days!!! He was also a great Cordon Bleu class cook. )

But the subject of this meeting is mentoring. At first, my mentoring was quid pro quo. Steve Keeley was a national racquetball champ. I was the photographer following the pro tour. I had played one wall handball growing up in the Bronx. I wound up working out with "Bo" (for "Hobo," which he was and still is in his mid-fifties) and the likes of Marty Hogan — racquetball's Babe Ruth — in many a sweaty hour between tournament matches all over the country. Only once have I ever beaten Keeley; the day in 1979 when I was shooting him for Sports Illustrated. He had stuffed five bagels down in an Ann Arbor loxery, and had gone from there to the airport for me. But the plane was two hours late- so we went back to his gym. He was so logey I beat him the first game 21-12. Just then several airline stewardesses perched on the balcony and one screamed, "There's this chubby little guy just beat the shit out of Keeley!"

We soon had a crowd of 30 and it took all he had to beat me the second and third game. To his shame until this day, the racquetball magazine reported my win.
Keeley — who has hoboed in more than 100 countries by now — was born with a love of scholarship, and of writing, and animals. He is a graduate veterinarian. I am his writing mentor. Let me say that Bo is the best born writer I have ever read. All he needs, like most writers, is editing. Let me illustrate with a few lines from a recent collaboration.

I wish I had the year or so it would take to pick and choose amongst the thirty feet of notebooks Steve has amassed in more than 100 countries. I'll be telling you more about Steve another time, but I will tell you that he lives in a ten-by-ten hole dug into the toe of California, Mexico and Arizona — a mile from an Air Force gunnery range. He and his colorful neighbors roam the desert nights in pick-ups scoring scrap aluminum falling out of the sky. Let me first share a raw note Steve just sent me from Sumatra, describing his recent stay in Saigon.

"Dear Art: I Was Robbed by a transsexual ring of thugs in Vietnam. After the tragedy, as I was shoved out the hotel by the comely manager, a real girl with buck teeth advised me, 'No go in hotel. lady boys rob tourists.' It was midnight on the streets of Saigon and, having ridden a motorbike behind the 'T-date' with her lovely hair blowing in the wind getting caught in my teeth, I didn't know the location. I stormed the streets an hour before flagging a taxi driver with enough English to drive to my hotel. The thugs had lifted my key, so I couldn't identify it. I expected the T's in laying in wait, or having fleeced the place, but everything was shipshape. I lost just a $300 U.S. cash reserve."

(He had preceded this with a note describing being completely taken in by a gorgeous female-ferrying him around town on a motorcycle. A female who turned out to be one of his really male robbers.)

Not as a voyeur, but as a student and teacher of writing (as a, if you'll allow, mentor), I display for you what writing is in its essence: truth; trust betrayed; the ability to observe yourself being screwed; the ability to get something about it down for someone you like and think intelligent, and just maybe capable of getting you a hearing with other smart people. Second example followeth- and that will be all on Bo for the time being, except for some pictures that will follow.

(Dateline Mexico- where hundreds of out-of-work wetbacks from the norte — male and female — are sneaking back into Mexico looking for work, crime, drugs or salable garbage.)
by Steve Keeley as told to, cut and retouched by Art Shay

"Out of the clear Baja blue a smoke finger guides my buddy and me to the first scrap heap. "Where there's smoke there's treasure," she bays, staring up as at a rainbow. The early pickers get the prizes and she, portly in a scavenged red miniskirt, steps ahead."

(I'm giving you Bo's phrases I enjoyed mentoring, ever so slightly, into English. )

"A year ago it cost $5 to become a certified rag picker, but now no one bothers to batten on the the collection scam.The strategy is to jog to the first wisps ahead of other sky watchers to ask the burner for permission to scrap the clothes that he kindly sets aside before applying the match. For every clothes picker who recycles at yard sales, ten metal recyclers vend to scrap yards. A hierarchy in poverty is evolving despite itself. "My Martha is a pro, so tough she wears her clothes out from the inside. Not really mine, but there's a base charm to mascara and dirt under the fingernails. Dirt — with substance but no valence number — becomes one of the elements of life. It comes from scratching away at a land and its refuse.

"No sun-damaged clothes, test the zippers, nothing that has touched soiled toilet paper: gaudy outsells conservative: snatch kid's stuff to cover the baby zoom. Everything must compress into this garbage bag," she orders huffily. The huff of leadership in strange cause. In thirty minutes we score a dress, cap, pair of joggers, purse and pajamas from a vacant lot behind the flea market, It's hard not to exult."

If you can't wait until this time every Wednesday to get your Art Shay fix, please check out the photographer's blog, which is updated regularly. Art Shay's book, Nelson Algren's Chicago, is also available at Amazon.