Saturday, September 15, 2007

How I Wound Up Being a Writer

Okay, this may not be something people care about much, but lately for some reason I've been reliving some of my past, both in waking and dreaming time. It's been on me and I've not been able to shake it. Perhaps I'm trying to get rid of some stuff that my intestinal explosion couldn't eliminate. Anyway, I don't know that this is of interest, but I hope it is. That said,......

I was the fourth of six kids born to Madeleine and Thomas Gorman in Whitestone, Queens, in a time when Whitestone still had a couple of farms left and a huge swamp, Dupey's, where there were snakes, possum, quail, turtles and so forth, all of which wound up in our back yards sometimes. It was country living in New York City in the 1950s and it was great. As an Irish family, or at least as our Irish family, we were all expected to supplement our 10-15-25 cent allowances with jobs, and at age 6 my job was taking in the neighbors trash cans on pickup days. I probably had 5 clients and I wasn't very good, but then I was only 6 years old. By 8 I was the night delivery boy for Frankel's Pharmacy, bringing drugs and diapers to 10-15 people daily for three hours, while Mr. Frankel, the pharmacist, ground his potions and put them in capsules for his clients. By 10 I worked as a soda jerk at Joe's, a soda/ice cream/newspaper joint on 24th avenue. I could make the heck out of an egg cream, a float, a banana split and so forth. And if you asked for a half-pint of ice cream, I filled that thing till the flaps couldn't possibly close.
My brother and sisters did the same. Mike was the oldest. He's now a judge in the Bronx and a lawyer/investigator for another lawyer part time. He retired from the NYC Police Dept a lieutenant about 10 years ago with 30 years on the job. During that time he became a lawyer and prosecuted dirty cops. But he was/is a fair guy. If he caught guys sleeping on the job he'd find out how many days they were on patrol, and if it seemed like a lot to him--having done patrol for years--he'd find a way to botch the case and the guy would be off the hook. Mike always did have a good sense of fairness.
Growing up, Mike was a great athlete. He played baseball for Archbishop Molloy high school--one of the best in the country at the time--and later for St. John's University, a perennial top-20 baseball school in the early to mid-sixties. He later played ball for a sort of Mets Class D farm team: he and others weren't going to make the pros, but a lot of pros on the mend from physical ailments or alcohol or drugs played on those teams with him, so it had some class. And until he turned 63 he still batted 4th and played first base for a baseball league. He never made the pros, was never signed. He was fast but not blinding; hit well but not exceptionally; played good defence but not brilliant defence; threw well but not fantastically. And the pros only go by those four things. So while he might have been able to hit .290 in the pros, without the power, or speed, or fantastic arm, he didn't catch their eyes. I know because I spoke with lots of scouts who came to see him and I was the team batboy. They always said: He's great, but doesn't do one of the four keys so well that we can't skip him. Man, that stuff made me want to die, because I watched Mike work out all year long, put weights on the end of a bat and swing it 100 times a day in the basement of our house, helped him play infield by hitting sometimes 50 balls daily to him on rocky fields and knew how good he really was.
Pat was second. She was a great artist from the git go. I've written about her before on this blog so I won't go into it here, except to remind you that she's brilliant, recognized by Time Magazine as having designed one of the top 100 designs of the Century--the MTV logo, which changed the face of design--and had Sting as a personal client for 10 years. She also won an Emmy or two, was full scholarship to Pratt and so forth.
Peg was a baton twirling thing of beauty. She teamed with Pat on some awesome doubles but as a solo she was North American East Coast singles champ one year, just to give you an idea.
Now my dad, Thomas B. Gorman, was an actor. He did 2,000 television shows and 7 Broadway shows and once had his name aboe the title of Gore Vidal's Tony Award/Pulitzer Prize Winning play The Best Man, after he replaced Lee Tracy as Art Hocksteader in that. "TOM GORMAN in GORE VIDAL'S THE BEST MAN" at the Morosco theater. So he was good.
And my mom was a radio actress credited with coining the "des, dem, dos" version of Brooklynese on a radion show created for her. She later raised us all, then went back to school, became a teacher, and finally returned to the stage before she died.
So then here I am. I'm the fourth. It seemed like every possible thing was taken. What the heck was I supposed to shine at?
Well, one of the things my brother Mike made me do for a winter one time was write jokes. I had to write jokes for 3 hours every Saturday morning as a discipline. My father, before he made it as a character actor, had been Arthur Godfrey's main joke writer, and had written for Robert Q. Lewis and Henry Morgan and others, so Mike thought we ought to do that. So I got used to writing.
And then in high school, at Bishop Reilly HS, in Queens, NY, everyone in the school had to write something creative for the Robert Frost Competition, something John F. Kennedy had mandated while still president and alive. All high school kids in the whole USA had to submit something.
I submitted a poem and won a second place among sopohmores at my school. Which meant I won. And nobody in my house had ever won a prize for writing before. So I thought I might become the writer of the Gormans and let the others do what they did. I was so darned proud.
By the next year I won a first prize and a third prize, and in my senior year I won national honorable mention for a play I wrote that was later staged at my school. Now that was something.
So I thought of myself as a writer and wrote throughout college. I managed to get four plays produced off-off Broadway, even got covered by local tv news a couple of times. I was supposed to be an up-and-comer. But then my last play got produced at the Lincoln Center Library Theater--which sat 400 and was free to the public--and the public didn't like it. They threw fruit at the actors, stood and ranted, and so forth. I didn't realize at the time--I mean I saw it but didn't really realize it--that the library theater was afternoon home to a lot of homeless people who had strong views and liked to share them. Nonetheless, I was humiliated and stopped writing plays.
Instead I wrote novels: Nobody published them. I wrote a children's book called "I've Never Seen A Cat Do That" ((Uncle to nephew):"Or a cat who goes walking with a pack on his back, moving through woods that are darker than black?(Nephew to uncle): I've never seen a cat do that. (Uncle to nephew): Have you heard of the cat who tames tigers by banks of the river? He keeps them all happy by feeding them liver. (Nephew to uncle): I've never seen a cat do that...") which was so brilliantly illustrated by a pal that one of the big kids' book publishers wanted it until she tore all the original drawings up.
So I turned to short stories after college and won some prizes, had maybe 20 published in small mags and journals and earned about $30 each--not a lot for a month of work. But I was earning a living driving a taxi, and then later cooking, and then later being a chef in good NYC joints and writing when I could.
Then I got a call from an editor, my first editor-call ever, asking me if I'd write a piece about Sex in New York. I'd never done a non-fiction piece before. The paper was The Aquarian, a weekly music mag out of New York city with an editor/owner, Jim Rensinbrink, who liked to publish poetry and fiction and who had published maybe five of my stories by then. So I did it. And then another. And then I headed down to Peru with pals and sent him one piece a week on our travels. And when I got home I discovered he'd gone out of business and all my pieces had been returned to me.
So I looked them over. They were good. I investigated a bit and found a book on marketing magazine stories and sent them out to the places that seemed appropriate. Walking Magazine sent me a contract for $700 for a piece on the Inca Trail; International Living sent me a $200 dollar contract for a piece on a little Amazon town called Requena. Two or three others were also sold and then finally High Times mag sent me a contract for $300 for a story on my having taken ayahuasca, the wonderful jungle medicine.
Man, I was hooked on non-fiction. All my years of writing fiction had brought in maybe a grand. One seven-week trip produced more than two grand, just for having fun and paying attention to where I was.
The following year I returned to the Amazon and sold High Times three stories for nearly a grand each, more than paying for the trip, and a year after that Penthouse bought a story. Then Omni, then Playboy, then Geo, and Die Zeit and Wildlife Conservation and dozens of others. Suddenly I made 25 grand in a year as a writer and was able to go part time as a chef. I loved being a chef, loved inventing one new dish daily--my credo/my discipline--but after 18 years I was getting tired of it. And then here this was. And then High Times hired me to be their drug war reporter and the next thing you knew, 10 years later, I was the editor in chief there. Wow. Time flies and so does life but I hope I made a difference in the lives of some people by getting them freed of prison, or getting them to realize the realities of what they were doing, and even finally helping get major laws changed, like when Henry Hyde had an aide call me for my forfeiture series and then began working for a change in the forfeiture laws.
And somehow, somehow, I've been able to raise this crazy family of mine on investigative reporting for nearly 20 years now, just like my father raised us on being a character actor. I'll bet he's happy if he looks at me. He knows I try really hard.
Anyway, more than anyone needed to know. I was just a kid trying to do something special that my brother and sisters didn't do and that little Robert Frost contest third-place win was the thing.
Who'd have guessed a little thing like that would sort of direct a life's work, eh?


Arbol said...

Peter, have ever think about retrying to publish your kids book again?

Morgan said...

inspiring (as always)

From childrens books, Texas ranch, NYC, writing, Amazon, India, Peru, exploring, investigating and on and on and on.

There are so many characters in your Theatre of Magic. Wonderful!

many thanks

kayw. said...

My Dad wrote a play called "Late Arrival" that was off-Broadway in the 50's and I remember it starring a Tom Gorman. Dad was Charles Oxton. Does this sound familiar? kaywarnock

Peter Gorman said...

Well hello. And yes, that was my dad performing your dad's work. I was too little to see it, or if I did, to remember it. Any chance you have a script on PDF? I'd love to see it.

kayw. said...

Hi Peter,
No,I don't have a copy on PDF. I'm a bit technologically challenged. If you wanted a copy of the script, I could photocopy the one I had and send it to you.(My folks really liked yours, by the way.) Thanks for confirming for me.KayWarnock

Peter Gorman said...

Kay: THis is from my sister Peg, who remembers your dad's show. She was two years older than I.

Hi Pete, yes, I just looked up the author and it was Charlie Oxton. I remember I think we had gone to see it, probably the first play I was allowed to go to. Tom used the "Lincoln" book in the play as a prop, I remember. Also I was very impressed with the set design because they had a staircase on the stage. The actors would go up and down throughout the show. When it was over I asked Tom what was upstairs and could we go up there to see the rooms. I found out the trick of set design, what a rude awakening, there was nothing up there but a platform!
The Oxtons had girls who were all a riot and who loved to have fun, and a little older than we were. Pat and Mike and I had a lot of fun with them at their house. You guys were probably there too. I remember being convinced that climbing out an upstairs window onto the roof of their house in, I think, Connecticut was a good idea. Hence my severe fear of heights! Mom and Tom and the other adults there saw what we were doing and had a fit. But it made such an impression on me that I still remember it as if it was yesterday. My hands are sweating as I write this...
Tom and Mom thought the world of them too.
How cool that one of their kids would remember our parents. Where is she now? I presume a woman because they had girls that I remember. I love technology too!!!