I graduated from college with a B.A., a
concentration in Chinese, and a full scholarship for graduate work in
Anthropology. Even while I assisted Anthro professors with their
research on Claude Leví-Strauss and Bronislaw Malinowski – I was
auditing poetry and fiction classes on the side – cheating, if you
will, with the English department. Maxine Kumin, Joseph Brodsky, and
Edmund White, among others, provided a sort of opium den for my
addiction to poetry and prose.
I had the summer in
front of me before returning to NYU for graduate work. Though fantasies
of following in Pearl Buck's footsteps tugged at me, I couldn't chart a
route for myself that would make it possible to “just write” without
being impoverished. So, I went in search of a part-time job that paid
well and also allowed time to write until going for my Ph.D. and
eventually an academic job.
Early on, I had
discovered Pearl Buck's Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Good Earth
that describes Chinese village culture in detail from an insider's
perspective – and grew enamored of her writing. That Buck had lived in
China, barely escaped, arrived in the U.S., adopted seven children of
mixed ethnicity, earned a living from writing, because, “writing was
the only thing I knew how to do” – and was the first woman to receive
the Nobel Prize in Literature, only underscored my obsession with her
a role model … proof that not all writers end up with syphilis and in
The day I learned I had
gotten a job, I returned home to find my boyfriend refinishing a carved
church pew (a discarded find from the street). The toxic fumes from the
stripping fluid permeated the closet-size studio apartment. It was a
miracle he hadn't blown himself up – as he chain-smoked Benson &
“I got the job,” I told
him. I was exuberant.
“I deserve that job,”
he said. “Not you. I'm the Psych major.”
“You're not the one who
interviewed for it,” I said taking a Benson & Hedges from the pack
and lighting it with his cigarette.
“So what will you be
“Working with people to
get them to stop smoking.”
“Do they know you
“They didn't ask.”
The office was located
at the basement level on McDougal Street at the back of a Moroccan
carpet shop. The front of the shop reeked of musk incense and mint tea.
Brad, the 6'2”, silver-haired founder of “Stop Smoking, NOW!” had once
been the publisher of a glitzy women's fashion magazine. Word was – he
had a falling out with the CEO. Now he wore his uptown suits …
He told me I'd report to Steven, the Clinical Director, an 'All But
Dissertation' in Psychology at the New School for Social Research.
Steven introduced me to Paloma whom I'd “shadow.” She had been
at the clinic for five months. Paloma was also a rather well-known
belly dancer in Los Angeles/New York clubs and in movies whenever a
belly dancer was written into the script. She had perfected a unique
move. While on stage, she'd be spinning and the momentum eventually
loosened her butt-long braid until it engulfed her in a veil of black
The first week that I
shadowed Paloma working with clients, she confided that she was writing
her memoir. It was about growing up Mexican-American in the slums of
San Diego, being sixteen and giving up her child, and all those men in
the audience slipping bills into her sequins and bra … She showed me
pages and I showed her poems.
The second week I was
given a roster of my own clients. The program required the person to
come to the clinic five days in a row. Each session lasted fifty
minutes. I'd introduce myself and then lead the person into a small,
perhaps 4x4-foot room that had no window or ventilation. The
décor consisted of two aluminum chairs, a non-descript,
wall-mounted mirror, a Formica built-in counter on which sat a 15” high
x 6” wide x 6” deep box with an internal blow dryer. When you turned on
the “on-off” switch hot air blew out. On the first day, I'd ask the
client to place all cigarettes, pipes, cigars, and smoking
paraphernalia on the counter. Once they did this, they'd look at me,
forsaken and bereft. “Is that everything?” I'd ask. It never was.
lighters, cigarette holders, cigarette rolling papers, cigarette cases,
pipes, cigars, cigarette rolling machines, gifts, key chains, and
assorted heirlooms, etc. that helped form their smoking identity
covered the Formica counter. And then we'd start.
I'd ask them to smoke a
cigarette, puff, puff, puff without stopping – while watching
themselves in the mirror. Of course they'd want to stop, but I wouldn't
let them. Don't stop, I urged. You're almost there. That was
not completely accurate. By this time their lips burned, their tongues
burned, their eyes teared, they coughed. It was pretty disgusting. (We
didn't know about second-hand smoke back then …). I forgot to mention
that before they began smoking into the blowing machine, I had attached
about a half dozen electrodes to their arms and hands. Without warning
– I'd shock them; sometimes they would be puffing other times they
wouldn't. They never knew when they'd receive the shock, how many, how
strong, or for how long.
These clients were
paying a lot of money for the program. Some were there by order of
their doctors, insisting that they “stop smoking before the surgery.” I
had men and women with partial lungs, lung cancer, emphysema, heart
disease – the gamut. The fee was non-refundable.
After the second
cigarette, I'd take out my large pickle jar. In the jar were cigarettes
steeping for weeks, sometimes months. The water was a viscous brown
“This is what you're
doing to your lungs every day.”
They'd look at me in
Then I'd ask them to
smoke another – same routine as before. They'd look at me in disbelief.
Inevitably they'd say,
“I get it, I get it.” But they didn't, not yet.
Then I'd turn over the
12”x12” split-screen Plexiglas slide.
“This is a
cross-section of a normal lung,” I'd say, pointing out the pink,
healthy tissue on one side of the slide, then, pointing to the other
half of the slide, “This is a cross-section of a smoker's lung.” Think:
black, spongy, moldy. It was nightmare-ish.
At the end of the
session, we'd go through a checklist of what they'd be doing in the
next 24 hours and how they'd handle their cravings before they returned
to the clinic the following day. I'd give them tips for not smoking,
“Drink lots of water. Buy wooden toothpicks. Breathe,” I'd say. “Good
luck.” Then I'd go into the bathroom, light up, and draft poems on
“Stop Smoking NOW!” stationary.
The clinic offered much
material to write about: the Moroccan men in the front wearing
colorful, embroidered hats, their midday meals of pungent tagines,
their slippers with curled toes, their stories of Morocco. And there
were the sagas that clients divulged. Why they smoked. When they
smoked. These stories sometimes resonated horrifying confessions of
I became quite good at
getting people to stop smoking and developed a reputation. Clients
requested to work with me. I coached one woman who later became
president of a prestigious university, another who became Secretary of
the Department of Health and Human Resources, and a man who was one of
the richest in the world – with several private islands to his name. It
was this man who asked my boss if I was available to go to one of his
islands to work with his Board of Directors and get them each to stop
“Do you think you could
stop smoking at least for the time you're down there?” Brad asked.
“It's one thing to smoke in the bathroom or on the roof …”
Stop Smoking, NOW!
had since moved from McDougal Street to 57th
and Fifth Avenue; I'd since split up with my
boyfriend and was living with a tyrant choreographer in an enormous
loft on Chambers Street.
“I have an extra room
you can rent for $125,” she told me.
I took it. The best
part of the deal was that the jazz musician Don Cherry lived in the
adjoining loft on the other side of my bedroom wall and I'd listen to
him play deep into the night; the worst part was the choreographer –
she was a screamer.
accommodations on the Caribbean island were in a “members only” club
hidden behind lush vegetation. The well-appointed interior included of
a lot of marble, a lot of mirror, and something larger than a king-size
bed. Each morning, breakfast of fresh fruit, breads, coffee and cream
in a silver pot, and tropical flowers arranged on white linen arrived
to my Italian mosaic-tiled beachfront porch. At 9:45 a.m. a chauffeured
car arrived to take me to the plantation-style hotel where I'd be
greeted with “Good morning Ms. Beckman.” I'd go to my office, which had
been set up with the blower box, Plexiglass slides, and of course –
consisted of working with one or two board members. I'd put them
through the program and then my car arrived to return me to my villa.
hours” I'd explore the island on my Vespa, play tennis (Sidney Poitier,
who was a guest at the club with his family – volunteered his son to
help collect my tennis balls), scuba dive with a scuba instructor who I
watched spear a lobster 30 feet under water then grill it for us on the
beach that night, or just relax on my chaise and have food and drinks
delivered by a member of the hospitality staff.
Once or twice, I worked
with a client after lunch, but not often. At night I'd get dressed up
and dine with the board members – all of whom had high international
profiles. One night at dinner they questioned me as to why I was
spending time with the native islanders. Why I declined their
invitations, say to join them at the Baccarat table or see the
spectacular “view” at their villa – to instead attend a church revival
meeting with the guy who took care of my beach chair? Unbeknownst to
me, they were insulted. This had not been my intention; rather, I
wanted some authentic island experience.
The croupiers knew I
was a guest of the owner of the island and I had unlimited chips at my
fingertips. I tried gambling twice during my trip and then decided to
just cash in. For drinks I signed, we'll call him, Mr. X's name. At
times, I'd just return to my room to smoke and write poetry.
During the summer I had
met Bob Dylan at the bar of the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village. We
became friends – I visited him at his townhouse on McDougal Street and
he visited me at the loft on Chambers Street above the Chicken Delight.
When he called the clinic, the receptionist would deliver the message,
“Lay lady lay called while you were zapping Mr. or Mrs. …” He had
wanted to visit me on the island, but then got busy putting together a
“Are you writing?” he
asked. I was sitting on the porch listening to the ocean.
“Some,” I said.
It was around the third
day that my hosts discovered I was making long long-distance calls from
the room phone; they asked that I use the Watts line – similar to an
800 number and not as costly as my room phone – I committed the dialing
code to memory and immediately started calling everyone I knew
Unlike Clinton, I did
inhale. And, on those occasions, I did get the munchies. One poem I
wrote was about how a member of the hospitality staff had climbed a
palm tree for me at night to pick a coconut. I returned to my room
having no idea how I'd get into the furry fruit. At wit's end, I
started throwing it on the porch floor and against the walls and -–
finally it cracked. Very pleased with my ingenuity, I sat in bed
digging out the white meat with a hanger I had untwisted. Though not
one of the more “textured” poems I wrote on the island, it was a
snapshot of a time I will never relive. Capturing not only time, but
all the senses of the moment – is largely what drives me to write.
When I returned to New
York with a hefty check and the sultry experience still fresh in my
skin, I picked up a Village Voice and went in search of my own
apartment. Eventually I found a one-bedroom on Thompson Street in the
Village, and with the funds from my trip put down a deposit and one
It was fall, and I had
decided not to go to grad school in Anthro. The decision to turn down a
scholarship, and having to tell my father I wasn't going to pursue the
Ph.D., was difficult, but I wanted to write – how I would support
myself remained a big question mark. I continued working at the clinic,
smoking and writing between clients. I could choose whom I worked with,
make my own office hours, and write training manuals at home, but I
knew it was time to leave the clinic, despite urgings not to. From the
beginning, I saw the clinic work just as a way to earn money – and have
time to write; I never took it seriously as a career path.
Dylan was traveling and
“Where are you calling
from,” I'd ask.
“Laredo,” he'd say, or
Durango. “Wait til you hear this song I'm writing.”
He had asked me to
join him, but I (stupidly?) said I needed to be in New York. Since I
was staying in New York, he suggested that I go up to Harlem and visit
a Mrs. Jamison. She was a voodoo psychic of some sort.
powerful…she sees things,” he told me.
So, I went to Harlem.
Standing on the stoop of a brownstone with every window – top to bottom
boarded up, I knocked a few times with no answer. When I saw two men
looking at me from a “window” of an adjoining building, I took it as my
cue to leave.
But before returning to
West 4th St, I went to a local
Haitian restaurant and
curried goat, plantain, coconut cake, and fresh watermelon juice. A
couple of days later, I decided to write up my experience and submitted
the review to the Village Voice. It was published the
following week and I was paid $25! I wrote another and another. I wrote
about restaurants, theater, art exhibitions, Brazilian musicians,
ranches and spas – whatever excited me. When I wrote about the husband
and wife dance team Eiko & Koma I told the editor, “If you change
anything, I don't want it published.” I had written it as poetry. She
didn't change a word or comma.
By winter, I had found
an editing job with flexible hours at a medical reference publishing
company on the Upper West Side. The two other editors were also
“writers.” We exchanged writing and discussed books and authors. The
eccentric, red-haired, six-foot publisher appreciated my interest in
poetry (on the bottom of my resume) and she invited me to research and
write brief bios of the poets included in a series of poetry reference
books that were pretty useless since they didn't contain any complete
poems. And when there was down time – I wrote poetry, bad poetry, but
I eventually left that
job too. This habit of moving nomadically from job to job continued for
many years; however, I did quit smoking.
MADELEINE BECKMAN is the author of Dead
Boyfriends, a poetry collection (Linear Arts Books). Her writing
has been published nationally and internationally. She is the recipient
of fiction, poetry, and essay awards, including a New York Foundation
for the Arts prize and a Hemingway Award. Phillip Lopate chose her
personal essay “A Natural Nemesis” for the International New Letters
She is also the recipient of artist fellowships, including the Heinrich
Böll Foundation grant (Ireland), Fundaçion Valparaiso
(Spain), and Ragdale (US). Ms. Beckman works as
an editor and teaches Creative Writing and Journalism at Stern College
for Women and privately.
[copyright 2008, Madeleine Beckman]