On Being a Footnote

by Alan Catlin

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On Being a Footnote

Once upon a time I wrote a monthly column for a NPR station to publish in their newsletter. I didn’t have any real restrictions as the director (1) of the station never read the column and, apparently, the monthly newsletter.  I was screened by the newsletter manager and all went well for a couple of years until the newsletter editor took another position and the station’s director began reading the column.

Artwork by Gene McCormickHis blunt assessment was, “Why are we publishing this guy?”(2)  My feeling was, “Why am I writing for these guys?”  It wasn’t like I was getting paid.  Ironically, I was just beginning to get  a nice following, complimentary letters from listeners and readers, who looked forward to my column, especially the one I and been writing about a recent trip to England. The director’s disdainful assessment of the column was, “The guy is writing about his vacation, who wants to read that?”(3)  Apparently, some people did. I assumed the director did not find travel writing a form of serious communication, though I liked to think of myself in the good company of Evelyn Waugh, D. H. Lawrence, Doris Lessing, Henry Miller even Emerson,(4) though I make no pretentious claims to be in their league as a writer.

One of my earliest columns was On Being a Footnote in other writer’s careers.  At the time to a couple of obscure references of places and events I had been to that other writers had also attended.  One in particular was a lecture referenced in Edmund Wilson’s, “Upstate”, where our greatest literary critic gave a speech, actually delivered, as in read, (5)  a piece on Harold Frederic, a rather obscure Utica author who was the chairman of the English Department at Utica College’s (6) primary literary subject.  Even mentioning it recalls my graduate days(7) where one of my fellow students prefaced every remark he made in  class with, “When I was at Yale with Hugh Kenner….(8)” I thought of saying “Yeah well, when I was at Utica with Edmund Wilson….” but it sort of lacked the panache, so I refrained.  Most of us wished our fellow student had remained at Yale. I know the professor did who looked as if he wouldn’t mind clubbing him like a seal.(9)

While I may not have been directly noted in the pages of Mr. Wilson, I  was there.  Similarly, I felt a strong connection to former UC teacher, Richard Hauer Costa who wrote a biographical sketch of Wilson, “Edmund Wilson Our Talcottville Neighbor”.  The book is a revealing portrait of the man in his natural habitat, a sturdy stone home in the wilds of Upstate New York many miles from nowhere in roughly three quarters of the way between Utica and Watertown.  For those of you who don’t know the area, that means, deep in the heart of snow country. 

Although, when I first read Costa’s book, I have read it three times now, I had never visited the house (10) nor had visited Wilson’s favorite restaurant in “town” the Hulbert House, a very proper place that is or was, virtually unchanged since it was built. Or so it seemed. Except for the bar area, that is, which had those annoying Lottery machines, video games and a sign that welcomed snow mobilers.  Obviously snow mobilers and lumber jacks did not eat dinner on lace table clothes and they left the dining area undisturbed. 

I also did not know Dick Costa then, despite having signed up for one of his classes before he decamped to Texas to teach at A&M in College Station, where he became a professor emeritus. My original column cited the tenuous connections of almost taking a class from him and from our shared interest in Wilson and for having overlapped, though never meeting, at the same small college. Later, we would meet and becomes good friends, sharing an abiding love for the twin, greatest pleasures in life, literature and baseball. Though, I am not an official footnote in Dick’s career, unless someone publishes his correspondence, we are closely connected by geography and happenstance.

More concrete footnoting, one that could be looked up quite easily, is my appearance in William Safire’s “On Language” column in the New York Times.(11)Mr. Safire had put out a call for interesting bar slang language and I answered with a number of examples from my work. He was so taken by what I sent, he named the column after  them, “Behind the Stick”,  which indicated that: whenever you worked in bar, you were behind the stick (beer tap) whether there was one or not.  In fact, the night club I was working in, did not have beer on tap at all, but other member of the trade used to regularly inquire, “How was life behind the stick?” To which I would reply, “When I find one I’ll let you know.”  How they would reply falls under the category of unmentionable.  If you were to find a remaindered copy of William Safire’s, “I Stand Corrected: More On Language”(12) you could look me up in the index and find a reference to Alan Catlin on page 35.

Years later, in quite another kind of bar, Albany native William Kennedy would often make an appearance. At the time they were filming his epic Albany novel, “Ironweed”, in and around the neighborhood where I was working.  On some of those visits, we would have literary discussions which may have influenced his decision to stop by the tavern with a group of his friends while undertaking a commissioned essay for a worldwide forum” On Writing About Your Favorite Place on One Particular Day”.  For those who know Kennedy’s work, Albany, is obviously his favorite place.

The Washington Tavern must have made his list of favorite places in town as he cruised by to do some brief interviews with patrons and the bartender on duty, who happened to me.  Not only am I quoted in the article but, in the subsequent reprint of the essay in the Sunday Times Union, Albany’s newspaper for who Kennedy worked before he became: William Kennedy McArthur Genius writer, my picture was as well, wearing one of my signature awful ties.  He didn’t refer to me as the Man of Many Ties but just about everyone else did (13) once I had decided that, “They told you, you had to wear a tie but not what kind of tie.”  Thus began a long career of obtaining hundreds, if not thousands of outlandish ties, many of which were donated by customers and friends.  But that’s another story that will never be footnoted.(14) To my knowledge, Kennedy has never reprinted his Occasional Non-Fiction, but if he ever does, I should be among the footnotes.

Some time after the essay appeared worldwide, a German journalist contacted me for an interview. Apparently, had seen the original essay in German and was curious to talk to the bartender who wrote poetry.  Apparently, he was doing an informal article on America and would be in the area and could he stop by for a talk.   Sure, why not? Come on a Tuesday, after lunch, all I have to do is talk.

And I will talk. 

I asked him what he wanted to talk about. I’ll answer any of his questions.  No questions, just talk.  Now there are several things in this life you have to consider never doing. One is never give a monkey a machine gun(15), another is act like a total jerk and ask a bartender for an extra hot Bloody Mary, and a third is never piss off the person who is about to serve you something you are planning on putting on your body  A fourth is to ask a veteran bartender to just talk. 

So I did, pausing every once in awhile to breathe, for about two hours. He appeared to be taking notes, though I think he was just humoring me.  He smiled every once in awhile, when I paused to make meaningful glance that indicated an end to a funny anecdote, before segueing into another. I’m not sure if he noticed when I shifted from telling stories that had actually happened, to ones I was making up as I went along, gradually upping the ante into realm of speculative fiction.  I’m good at stuff like that. 

Not that it mattered when the article appeared in Omni, then the second largest circulation magazine in Germany, there was only a general paragraph about the garrulous bartender in Albany, New York who wrote poetry. Or so I am told by the guy who read it for me, and who said it was a paragraph the reporter could have written without actually stopping by the tavern.  No matter. I often wonder if he had an ulterior motive. What was he gathering material for? Somewhere in German noir fiction there just might be a garrulous, slightly sinister bartender.

Though, that was not the end of my German experience.  Some months after that article appeared, a middle-aged German couple stopped in the bar for a half pint of lager and a sandwich.  They claimed they had read this article in Omni magazine about the bartender in Albany, New York and they just had to see him for themselves.  They regretted their English was not good,(16) but they were glad they came. In fact they wanted to purchase one of the half pint mugs as souvenir to show their friends back home.  I was feeling magnanimous that day, after all it is not every day that you became an official tourist destination; I gave them the mug with all my best wishes.

  1. He is still director of the station and shall remain nameless.
  2. The told the quoted statement by a marketing representative of the station who was in the  director’s office when they were spoken.
  3. Ibid
  4. Emerson wrote extensively about his travels in England and no one mocked him for it (except for the Brits who, no doubt, deserved his astute critical comments)
  5. He droned on.  Wilson was old, uninterested in delivering the paper, maybe thinking about his cocktail hour martinis. You could say without qualification that, “He was there in body but not in spirit.”  And so was I.
  6. UC was part of the Syracuse University system then; a powerful recruiting tool as your diploma would be one from Syracuse University with a little, at Utica, in a bottom corner you could easily white out as many people more prominent than me by far, did.  Not me.
  7. At State University of New York at Albany.
  8. Might not have been Kenner but someone of his rank.  Memory fails me here.
  9. He is still around performing his poetry and writing I have read with a couple of times at group performances and, to his credit, he doesn’t seem to shift the conversation to “When I had my poem in The Nation….” after being introduced any longer the way he did in graduate school.
  10. Not open to the public even now.  A friend and I peeked in the windows once thinking no one was home. His daughter was in residence, however, despite furniture covered in sheets etc. and we were mortified to have invaded her privacy. The friend took a picture of me standing on the front porch but I’ll be damned if I can find it.
  11. Selections from the article are published in “I Stand Corrected More from On Language” with an actual footnote referencing this author, page 35. I’d love to know who the clown was who called me at home around five thirty the morning it appeared just as I was getting to sleep to tell me I was in the column. Most bartenders work nights, dude!
  12. Avon Books 1986
  13. Some referred to me less kindly. Some threw things. Some swung at me. I ducked. So it goes.
  14. I once told two of my regulars in reference to my tie collection, “Yeah, when they write the book about my ties, they will refer to this as, ‘His blue period.’ I was joking. There is no such book planned to my knowledge.
  15. A memorable phrase I once heard applied to a prominent New York State lawmaker as follows, “Giving that man a position of authority is like giving a monkey a machine gun.” And he was right. I won’t name him even though he has long gone the way of all flesh and once ran for governor of New York State.
  16. She was right, her English wasn’t very good, but my German was worse.