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Holdorff knew when he got to the Santa Cruz campus of the University of California that time was running out. In the sixteen years since he’d been discharged from the Navy, he’d been enrolled at four colleges. It had only taken him four years to get his B. A. degree. He graduated at the midterm from Long Beach State College and signed a contract for the spring semester teaching English at a Long Beach high school. Midway through that semester, he was accepted as a candidate in the M. A. program in American literature at the Southern Division of the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, his first venture into graduate school. He started the program in the fall.
The summer after his first year at S. D. U. N., he got a job dealing blackjack at the Pioneer Club on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas. One night at the start of his third semester, as he was dealing cards, a small-town school administrator sat down at his table and played till Holdorff’s shift ended. Then after filling him up with beer, he signed him to a teaching contract in the small desert town of Needles, California.
The Needles job was short-lived. He started it the second week of the fall semester and stayed till the end of the school year. About two days after he arrived, he sobered up enough to realize his mistake, and made up his mind to get out of there at the end of his contract. He left Needles in June and headed back to Long Beach and his old job in the produce department of the A & P in Belmont Shore. In the fall he got a teaching assistantship in the M. A. program at State. By the end of that school year, he’d been accepted in the Ph. D. program at the University of Southern California. Holdorff never truly understood why he even applied for this program, and he most certainly did not know how he ever got accepted. After all, his original goal was to get a master’s degree so that he could get a job teaching junior college English.
The next, and last, stop in his academic odyssey was Santa Cruz. Once again, he wasn’t sure why he made this move. His main interest was the university. He hadn’t lived more than a mile or two from a college campus since he got out of the Navy, and he’d never had much trouble getting into any of them. But things were different at Santa Cruz. He couldn’t get in.
“You can’t hesitate,” he’d said many times over the years. “Just walk in like you belong, act like you’re a member of the club, and nobody’ll question you. Hesitate just once, and they’ll peg you for a fraud, and you’re done.”
Whenever he thought he was on the road to achieving his objectives, something would get in the way. At Southern Nevada, he alienated his committee when he hooked his wagon to Roget’s star. Roget was his faculty adviser there. The return to Long Beach was only a stop gap, although it shouldn’t have been. If he’d stuck it out and gotten his M. A. degree, he might have had a good chance of getting a job at City, Compton College, or any number of other junior colleges in the Los Angeles basin and Orange County. The U. S. C. experience took the biggest toll on his psyche. He put in the most years there and still came away empty handed. No one was more surprised than he was that he even got in the school. He really didn’t expect to get accepted there, and even he realized after a couple of semesters that he probably shouldn’t have been.
The treatment he got at Santa Cruz didn’t come as a surprise to him. He couldn’t even register as an undergraduate, much less be accepted in the graduate program or get a teaching assistantship. The best he could do was unofficially audit classes in subjects he’d already taken, some of them more than once. But he kept at it, attempting at the start of each new quarter (so far he’d been trying for over two years) to get enrolled.
He liked the innovative atmosphere at the school, but this only added to his problem. Because of its innovations, it was a popular college, so enrollments flourished. Thus, it was virtually impossible for a well-traveled scholar like Holdorff to receive preferred treatment over promising young graduates from some of the most prestigious universities in the country. He still clung to the distant hope that he might some day be accepted as a graduate student or even better yet as a lecturer because of all the different teaching assistantships. Also, he thought the publication of two of his poems in a little magazine called Moondog should count for something. Not to mention the thousands of other poems he’d written as well as the lyrics to hundreds of popular songs that he’d tried to peddle unsuccessfully to various agents in Hollywood whose addresses he’d found in Literary Marketplace.
His writing was perhaps the biggest impediment to his getting an advanced degree. If he got the urge to sit down and write, he would relinquish all other obligations and immerse himself in whatever idea he was developing at the time. He once tried to write a paper entitled “the linguistic significance of lower case letters in the poetry of e. e. cummings,” and as usual, he got sidetracked and wound up writing a satirical poem about the subject. He thought of himself as a genuine poet and lyricist. No slick hype or phony intellectual scam for him. Just honest-to-god poetry and song lyrics. He wrote for the love of writing, storing the originals of reams of unpublished, but finished and highly polished verse in his refrigerator.
“If my house ever burns down,” he’d say, “all my poems and songs’ll be saved. I may die in the blaze, but my writing will live on after I’m gone.”
That’s how he talked when he was young, but the older he got, the more cynical he became, and in later years he had the feeling that his words would never be read or sung by anybody. He made carbon copies of everything, and he would put those in a wooden out-box that he kept next the ancient Underwood typewriter that sat on the kitchen table of whatever apartment he was living in. He usually waited till he had at least a hundred poems (enough for a book) in the stack before he submitted them. He did the songs a little differently. In the late ’fifties when the long playing album became the standard in the recording industry, Holdorff noticed that most albums had about ten cuts total, five on each side. So he’d send off ten songs at a time to different Hollywood and New York agents. Most of this came back to him, sometimes opened, but most of the time not. Whenever they did come back, he’d put them in a new nine-by-twelve manila envelope and send them to another name on his list. Some of the carbons of the verse he wrote went to the few people to whom he dedicated them.
Over the years he had a recurring dream, nightmare would be a more appropriate word for it, in which he died in a blaze in his apartment, and from somewhere overlooking it, he saw fire investigators sifting through the debris until they stumbled upon the refrigerator, emptied its contents and swept them away.
When he failed his comprehensive exams at U. S. C., he wrote a poem to the graduate dean expressing his outrage at the treatment he was getting. There were five professors on his graduate committee, and only one of them knew anything about T. S. Eliot, which was his specialty. The other committee members were linguistics and romantics and Renaissance scholars.
He’d been asked to explicate the first seventeen lines from the second section of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (“right up my alley”). He considered himself to be an Eliot expert. The point of his explication was that the passage is a parody of the scene from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra in which Enobarbus describes Cleopatra sailing her sumptuous and lavish barge. He thought he’d argued persuasively in his paper that Eliot’s language clearly showed that he was poking fun at Shakespeare’s elevated verse style. After all, Holdorff pointed out, wasn’t Eliot really describing a twentieth century call girl with “her strange synthetic perfumes,/Unguent, powdered, or liquid troubled, confused/And drowned the sense in odours”? What else could Eliot be doing but satirizing the elegant, tragic, elevated, dramatic picture that Shakespeare had painted? Holdorff took the satire angle one step further and wrote that Cleopatra herself was merely a high class whore, a woman “O’erpicturing that Venus where we see/The fancy out-work nature.”
That explication was Holdorff’s undoing at U. S. C. He was failed outright by the committee and told that he would not be permitted to petition to take the comprehensives again. But that didn’t stop him. He got possession of the exam, and with his adviser’s blessing, he went to each member of the committee and questioned him/her on specific points of his essay. There were three men and two women on the committee. One of the women had taken off to Europe on sabbatical leave, so, mercifully, Holdorff didn’t talk to her, but he made the rounds of all the others.
The first one he spoke to was a Wordsworth/Coleridge scholar, who, when Holdorff questioned him, admitted not having read “The Waste Land.” The second committee member he spoke to, Amsterdam, taught courses in freshman composition only. He hadn’t taught a literature course in five years. The only reason he was even on the committee was because he was the coordinator of the graduate program in literature. He pleaded innocence to failing Holdorff. In fact, he suggested to the committee that they pass him because he knew Holdorff would protest the failing grade. Amsterdam told Holdorff that he didn’t stand a chance of getting the committee’s unanimous decision reversed.
The third committee member he approached was a linguist, and her only comment to him was, “I’m a linguist, and I don’t even understand literary interpretation. I merely went along with the other members of the committee.” There was such finality, such intransigence in her tone that Holdorff felt like his balls had been cut off. He began to think he was lucky that the other woman on the committee, a short, overweight English Renaissance scholar with bulbous varicose veins popping out at her knee joints, had gone to Europe, thus relieving him of having to deal with her.
The only member who could have known what Holdorff was doing, and therefore could have defended his thesis before the committee, had his own reasons for failing him. He was an American lit. scholar whose doctoral dissertation had been on the Latinate words in Wallace Stevens’ poetry. He failed him because he believed Stevens was a better poet than Eliot and he resented Eliot’s popularity in academic circles. He rejected anything that was done by anybody about T. S. Eliot. Once again Holdorff had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Thus outraged and injured, he wrote a poem. He always wrote a poem or a song when he got desperate, when there was no further recourse, when all avenues were exhausted. Poetry was his vent. After all, if Ab Snopes could burn a man’s barn down over a lousy hundred dollar rug, why couldn’t Holdorff write a poem to express his own indignation. So, he grabbed a couple of the cancelled postal envelopes he carried around in the breast pocket of his corduroy sports jacket and dashed off “Holdorff’s Reply.” Then he slipped a clean sheet of white paper and a carbon copy into his Underwood and transcribed the poem:
Dear Dr. Amsterdam (and other ships at sea)
I hope you haven’t figured
That you got the best of me
By keeping me from ending
(You knew I wanted to pass my test
And that I gave it my level best,
So you played the game called “cats and mouse.”
Still I don’t feel that you’re a louse.)
No, my kind sir, contrary
To that, I feel you’ve made me free:
This mouse has left; now all you’ll see
Are frightened mice, led by Mickey.
And when they cry and try to plea
I know that you will think of me
And pass them all with accolades
Giving degrees despite the grades.
And so I’ll know (henceforth it’s true)
That I’ve passed more Ph. D.s than you.
He felt so inspired by this burst that he wrote an afterword:
There is no greater Humanity
In all of U. S. C.
Than that existing just for me
In the department of humanities.
For that’s where Amsterdam resides
Who neither compliments nor
Anything I give to him:
He considers me a minor whim.