By Susan Shapiro
When Ian Frazier, a mentor I’d met working as a peon at the New Yorker, asked me to teach a writer’s workshop with him at Holy Apostles soup kitchen, it sounded like an odd place for a nice Jewish atheist. Yet when in doubt, emulate those you admire. So in March of 1994, we made a plan to meet at the Chelsea Episcopal church that housed Manhattan’s largest soup kitchen, feeding 1,300 people lunch daily.
“See you there at 10,” said Ian (nicknamed Sandy.)
“Ten? In the morning? You said after lunch!” I was an insomniac freelancer who first ate at three.
“Just for a few weeks. Until we get a group together,” Sandy promised.
On a cold Wednesday, I dragged myself out and hailed a taxi. Cabbing to volunteer seemed lazy, but I figured the God I didn’t believe in wouldn’t mind which method of transport got you to a good deed.
At 28th Street and Ninth Avenue, a thousand people were waiting in line around the block for the free lunch. A guy with dreadlocks complained I was cutting in line. “I’m teaching the writing class,” I explained. He nodded, letting me by, as if I’d said the magic words. Sandy was sitting in the dining room under a “WRITER’S WORKSHOP” sign, next to tables for TB testing.
After they ate, soup kitchen regulars asked about the grassroots writing group. Since few gave last names or addresses, I marked down descriptions. A big unshaven man named Tim said he would come. I wrote down, “Tall scary guy.” Juan, who had a Spanish accent, said, “Been there, done that.” He explained he’d been in a prison-writing group in 1975 with John Cheever. “He got the Pulitzer Prize for “Falconer.” What did I get?” Juan asked. Seventy-four signed up for the workshop. Eleven showed.
We gathered in a small room at the church and gave out free notebooks and pens. When the class asked why start a writer’s group here, Sandy said, “Writing is a way of organizing experience and defying loss.” I said that writing was a way to turn the worst things in life into the most beautiful. Each week we suggested such topics as “My Worst Night,” “If I Hadn’t Seen It, I Wouldn’t Have Believed It,” “When One Door Closes, Another Opens” and “My Best Mistake.” Some pieces were incoherent. Others were talented, brave, unique.
Wanda’s began, “Abandoned by eight families: foster, step and blood.” L.M.S., a 25-year-old rapper in baggy pants and backwards baseball cap, wrote “Where is my home, my true home, my twin home, my self-employed home?” Harriet, a WASPy woman in her 50s with silver hair, wrote about being raped at gunpoint in Brooklyn, and hugged me after the session. Alan, a funny former thespian with a cane wrote, “From the moment Gary and I met with his famous opening words ‘I know what you want,’ until his death 20 years later from lymphoma cancer, there wasn’t anything we wouldn’t do for each other.” Tom, a Connecticut man, chronicled receiving third-degree burns on his face and wearing a Jobst garment that looked like a silk stocking. Fearing the bank guard would think he was a robber, he called first to explain, because “I didn’t want him panicking and shooting me.”
As an NYU and New School journalism professor who had helped many students first see print, I felt several of the dramatic tales of life on the streets should be published. Sandy disagreed.
“Don’t want to exploit their pain,” he said, speaking slowly, as he always did. (I spoke at 10 times the speed.) “It’s amazing they show up and trust us with their stories. They don’t need pie-in-the-sky dreams. They can’t handle more disappointment.”
“But what if they succeed?” I asked.
Over the next decade, members were published in Street News, Cover Magazine, The Forward, New York Post, The New York Times and Harper’s — feats we proudly announced at a public reading at the church at the end of class each spring. A typist printed and Xeroxed everyone’s work and Sandy put together a yellow-covered book as a keepsake. Several writers got clean and sober, found housing and jobs, and volunteered at the soup kitchen themselves.
In 2004, at a reading for my memoir “Lighting Up: How I Stopped Smoking, Drinking and Everything Else I Loved in Life Except Sex,” my former NYU student Connie introduced her husband Ken Arnold, saying he was ordained in the Episcopal church.
“Hey! I know another Episcopalian priest!” Since I divided the world into two religious categories — Jews and non-Jews — I was pleased I knew two Episcopal big-shots. “Do you know Elizabeth Maxwell at Holy Apostles?” It was probably like asking someone from Tel Aviv if they knew your Israeli cousin Steve Schwartz.
“I do,” Ken said. “She does great work at the soup kitchen.”
When he took a job running Church Publishing, the Episcopalian Church’s publisher, I said, “Hey I got a book for you,” the least sophisticated book pitch ever. I handed him a copy of last year’s Holy Apostles anthology, Xeroxed at Kinko’s. Ken loved it! I called Sandy, out of my mind with glee, about co-editing this anthology. Both of our names would be on the cover! We’d do readings together! And joint TV appearances! We’d be brilliant!
He wasn’t into it.
“Sue, I’m late for my own book,” he said, talking slower than usual. “I can’t take on another project now.” His wife and kids weren’t thrilled with the time he’d spent in Siberia researching for his latest project.
“But it’s your program,” I said, dejected. I didn’t have kids, so I became emotionally involved with my books; they were my children. This was our baby. But he didn’t want it.
“Can we do it another time?” he asked.
He wanted me to abandon our child. Or put it up for adoption. But I was going for it — with or without him! “Now’s our chance.”
“Nobody’s work should be reprinted without written permission.”
“Of course they’ll give permission!” I yelled. “What writer wouldn’t want to be in a book?”
“They confide painful personal stories in a secure, limited atmosphere,” he argued. “They’re not shouting their humiliations to the world at large.”
Unlike me, who spilled my sordid past in risqué memoirs, I bet he was thinking, while he wrote respectable humor and family histories.
“Validation and success help them!”
“Listen.” He paused in the Sandy way that meant he disagreed, my neediness made him nervous, and I was exhausting him. “Do me a favor. Don’t mention it to Wednesday’s group. Don’t get your hopes up because it might not happen.”
Nothing like pouring ice on my blazing book passion. I called the Reverend Elizabeth Maxwell, who ran the soup kitchen, to ask if she’d co-edit the Holy Apostles soup kitchen anthology. She was thrilled.
“What about Sandy?” she asked.
“Sandy loves the idea. He offered to write the intro so we can use his name on the cover,” I said. An atheist Jew lying to a female reverend seemed more mixed metaphor than sacrilege. Plus I was sure Sandy the Grinch would come around.
At Wednesday’s group, I handed out the notebooks and pens. “I thought of new topics today,” Sandy said, not asking if I had ideas for subjects this time.
“Is it true we’re going to be in a book that’s being published?” Carol asked, excitedly.
“Yeah? Is it true?” the Spanish poet John wanted to know. “Can I be in it?”
“When’s our deadline?” Jay asked.
“Can I edit my work?” asked Tory.
Sandy glared at me, but I hadn’t told a soul. Had the Reverend?
“You want your stories to be in a book?” Sandy asked, looking surprised.
There was a rousing chorus of Yes! Sure! When? Of course! How much money do we get?
“It’ll be so cool,” I jumped in. “Each writer who gives us permission to use their work gets $100.” I handed out the slips Church Publishing had faxed.
“Can I have the money now?” Dave asked.
“No, we haven’t signed the contract yet,” I said. “We meet the editors Friday.”
“Can we get the money Friday?” Dave asked.
“Do I need an agent?” asked Norman, a poet.
“What about film rights?” Luecia asked.
They were so hyped they could barely write new pieces that week.
I looked at the permission slips. Some had signed two or three of them. Sandy shook his head.
Liz and I hammered out details with the publisher. We’d call the anthology “Food for the Soul” and use work by the 23 members who’d given permission. The $5,000 advance covered $100 for each contributor, along with two free books. It would come out around the holidays, under the not-too-religious sounding imprint Seabury Books.
“We already have the cover,” the editor e-mailed.
Uh oh. I pictured a cover showing Jesus holding a tray. Not good because Jews were big readers but my people had a subconscious rule not to buy books with Jesus on the cover. Oy. This could be a problem.
At Church Publishing, I froze when the editor handed me their catalog, with a picture of Jesus holding a tray. It was a Michelangelo painting I must have seen in a museum. Luckily, the cover for “Food for the Soul” showed a bowl of soup on a plate, with a pencil. Reverend Liz gave them a picture of her in clerical collar, noting she was associate rector of the church. I assumed they’d suppress my Jewish name, cleavage-bearing author’s photo and provocative titles. But the publicist said that their top books sold 3,000 copies, while my books sold more, had landed me on TV, radio and in Elle, Glamour and The Oprah Magazine. The Jew with cleavage and risqué titles stayed. I loved Episcopalians.
After “Food for the Soul” wound up being featured on “The Today Show,” by the Yale Divinity School and on NPR, and got raves in The New York Times and Chicago Tribune, I asked Sandy if he’d originally chosen me to co-teach with him 13 years earlier because he liked the way I taught, or that I’d helped my students get published.
“Well, I liked that you taught,” he said. “After I came up with the idea for the soup kitchen class, I realized I’d never taught before. Since you were already at NYU and the New School, I figured you knew what you were doing.” Turned out I was just the only writing teacher he knew.
Susan Shapiro is the author of five books. This excerpt is from her latest memoir Only As Good As Your Word: Writing Lessons From My Favorite Literary Gurus (Seal Press, 2007.)