Fred Schwartz - An Appreciation 

A couple of years ago I set myself to do something I’d thought about off and on for years, to write my story of an old friend from my college days. The only venues I had in mind for any eventual publishing were the alumni magazines where such a thing might be of interest, and the piece was composed with this idea. One little problem was that, at Columbia University, I was enrolled in the College, whereas Fred was a student in the School of General Studies. I was correct in supposing that Columbia College Today, the alumni magazine, could not consider it because Fred was not an alumnus of the College. I submitted the story to the editors of what seemed to me the most likely other venues. I had their compliments, but they regretted that it was beyond the scope of what they usually publish. I was sorry, since besides purposing a little commemoration, I thought it would have been refreshingly different to have an article like this in an alumni magazine. As the reader will see, my story is not the usual stuff of such magazines.

Frederick S. Schwartz, G.S.’73 – An Appreciation

In fiction, we readily accept conflict and misfortune as natural parts of life. In history as well, the worst does not surprise. We expect and demand a narrative that aims to reveal life in all its dimensions. When these elements are lacking, and we read only of success and things going right, there is little of interest – we even suspect that the truth is being withheld from us, since we know from common experience that things are not so. Intelligent and mature readers rightly reject such simplistic formulas. The frank examination of life in its naked and sometimes terrible complexity happens, fortunately, in a private sphere, in the encounter of the reader’s consciousness with that of the writer. We are not disinterested, but the fact that we have no personal stake in a story allows us to relate freely to it, to appreciate the story and the telling. We do not judge stories or their protagonists (or their authors) on the mere basis of how well things work out.

In the social sphere, we have different attitudes. We are status-conscious and egocentric. We constantly evaluate ourselves and one another, comparing, deciding who is doing better. The criteria for these judgements – prosperity and recognition above all – are very clear to everyone, but questioned little. We may feel sympathy or even pity for the less fortunate, but rarely that their lives are or were nonetheless worthy of some measure of respect, attention, or admiration. When is a life valid?

In a setting like Columbia we expect a concentration of intelligence and ambition, a high-achiever profile, people with something special brewing inside when young, with great expectations of themselves, convinced that they might accomplish something of real value. When things don’t go so well after all, such individuals may suffer far more than others who didn’t set the pole so high, but who managed anyway to have something like the life they imagined for themselves when younger, and to be content.

An alumni magazine tends toward the heroic narrative, whether in the articles that feature the most illustrious graduates or in the class notes that announce the personal and professional landmarks of life. At reunions everyone is upbeat; admissions of failure or grave doubt or regret pass only between the closest of friends. This is entirely normal, but it gives us much less than a full picture of life. It may be worthwhile to put things in perspective. May I tell the story of a friend who didn’t fare so well?

I attended the College from 1969 to 1973. In my second year I moved to a frat house on West 115th Street near Riverside. While no one took the fraternity stuff very seriously in those years, there was fraternity there in the basic sense. We were a broad mixture – mostly College and Pharmacy students, with a few from Engineering, G.S., and Barnard. At some point Fred moved in, and we spent a lot of time hanging out together. He was a few years older than I was, a G.S. student majoring in English. A very intelligent, hypersensitive type, very friendly but socially a bit timid, and especially awkward with women. He was small and not at all athletic. He’d transferred to Columbia from Goddard, where he’d spent a year or so. He had literary ambitions, and tried his hand at short stories and poetry. He didn’t get far with his writing, however, and I rarely saw anything. The fact was that, although diligent, he had a lot of trouble staying focused enough to study and pass his courses. But he did, graduating in May 1973.

I was an art history major and aspiring visual artist. We were both interested in the arts in general and naturally in pop culture, and we passed many an hour debating the merits of this or that recording, book, or film. In particular I remember Fred’s enthusiasm for the novels of Brautigan, Heller, and Pynchon (I heard a lot from him about Gravity’s Rainbow and V.), and the poetry of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. In music he loved the Incredible String Band, Dylan, the Band, the Byrds, and especially Richard and Mimi Fariña. (He was friends with a woman who worked for J. Walter Thompson Advertising and who had known Richard Fariña during Fariña’s improbable gig in the belly of that beast. The three of us attended the 1971 film version of Fariña’s autobiographical novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me.) He was also the one who “turned me on” to Lord Buckley, the extraordinary monologuist and Hip Messiah.

A true romantic, he loved Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling movies and wished he could have lived the life of an Ernest Hemingway or a Jeremiah Johnson. He adored historic aircraft and would have loved to be a pilot like Rickenbacker or von Richthofen. (At the same time he fervently believed in disarmament.) He fantasized, in fun, about having a life different from his own, the life of a handsome and adventurous type, someone quite unlike himself.

He had a lunatic laugh. Occasionally he would exclaim, as Puck, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”, followed by the mad laugh. His favorite Zap comic cover was the Hopperesque R. Crumb drawing “Plunge into the Depths of Despair”, in which a woman gazes out the window while mumbling vaguely “See if there’s anything good on”, to which her husband answers “Why bother?”. Although only a comic book illustration, it possessed cosmic significance, at once humorous and devastatingly tragic.

We took a couple of road trips together. During winter break in late ’71 we took the Greyhound to Florida to stay with a mutual friend and classmate, drove out to Key West, and enjoyed, for about $20, an hour’s flight in a four-seater. I took photographs of the landscape below; Fred was in heaven just to be up there. During a spring vacation we hitchhiked Route 80 out to Colorado to stay with some friends of his, and went camping in Rocky Mountain National Park. We had our share of good times.

He had an alarming habit of crossing streets without looking. Once we were crossing Broadway and he had a close call. I said, “What’s the matter with you?” He answered that he wasn’t worried, because someone who’d read his palm had told him he wouldn’t die until he was in his forties, when he would be hit by a truck. (At the time, working as a security guard at Barnard, there was a Sikh grad student who was an adept at reading palms.) I didn’t think Fred took such predictions too seriously, especially one as bizarre as this. He had a spiritual side to him, but on the whole he was skeptical of mystical beliefs.

Although not at all the conventionally popular type of person, most people who knew Fred at all well were fond of him in spite of his awkwardness. You could tell right away Fred had problems. He was on medications – tranquilizers or antidepressants I supposed. I knew that his father had died when Fred was scarcely an adolescent. He had a difficult relationship with his mother, and with a brother too if I recall correctly, and rarely spoke of them. After I’d gotten to know him a little bit, he confided to me that he’d left Goddard after a very bad lysergic experience, after which he had a sort of breakdown. If I have to guess, he probably he wasn’t in such good shape even before.

In 1974 The New Yorker ran a Charles Addams cartoon, for me a classic. It portrayed a 20th-year college reunion, in a setting strongly resembling the Van Am Quad. Milling around was a small crowd of men in their middle years, all shabbily dressed. One alumnus was saying to another, “I thought it was me, but maybe the school’s no damn good.” We had a great laugh over that one.

We continued to hang out together over the course of the next several years. He was always having trouble getting work. For a time he worked as a substitute teacher in New York City’s public schools. Never a forceful or authoritative person, and not well-suited for that tough environment, he got the worst from the kids he had to attempt to manage. He told me they had nicknamed him “Stay-High” because of his evidently medicated condition.

He tried to break into copywriting for advertising agencies. I helped him to prepare a portfolio of sample ads. We’d brainstorm like the real Madison Avenue guys and come up with the ad copy and visuals, and I’d make the sketches. We had fun with our project, but nothing came of it. I often wondered how he got on, and how he would ever make it.

Finally, around 1980, he decided he couldn’t take New York City any more. He moved up to Portland, Maine, a more laid-back place, where he had some relatives. His mother had died and he had a very modest inheritance. Although I was sorry to see him go, it seemed the right move. I also have to admit that, although I cared about him as a friend, by then I hardly knew what to do with him. We stayed in touch with the occasional letter, his much shorter than mine. Even his handwriting seemed medicated; he only needed fifty words to fill a page.

I took a vacation trip by myself in summer of 1982, planning mainly to go camping in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I made a detour to Portland to see Fred. He wasn’t making any great headway in life, but was in good spirits – at least glad to see an old friend – and we spent a day or two together before I moved on.

I saw him once again in August of 1986, when I drove north with my (then) wife to see a bit of Canada. On the way we stopped in to visit Fred. He was living in a big Victorian house that had been subdivided into apartments. We arrived early in the evening and parked the car in a graveled area in the front yard. Fred greeted us warmly and we went inside and spent the next hour or so catching up. After a while he remembered that he ought to signal to his neighbors that he had some guests and not to be concerned about an unfamiliar vehicle parked in the common area. He grabbed a sheet of paper that happened to be on his desk, hastily scribbled a note, and went outside for a moment to stick the note under our windshield wiper. We resumed our yakfest and had some dinner.

It was late when we decided to turn in for the night. I still had to bring in our bags from the car. I went outside to get them and noticed the note stuck under the wiper. The wind had blown it over so you could no longer see Fred’s note about his guests. Instead you could see another, in Fred’s characteristic hand, on the reverse side. It said something like: “Dear God, please help me, I am so lonely…” That was about it. It chilled me. For a moment I asked myself if he had done so knowingly, to somehow tell me a thing too raw to say directly. In his letters he sometimes complained of his desperation, but never as strongly as this. Did he want me to respond somehow? Then I dismissed the thought, ascribing the use of that piece of paper to Fred’s absent-mindedness. I folded and adjusted the note so that his pitiful prayer would no longer be visible, took our bags, and went back inside. I said nothing about it. The next day, before we left to head north, I discreetly pocketed the note.

After that I still had an occasional letter from him. On the good side, he had taken up photography, and had published a few images in locally. He also had had a few poems published, one in the Portland Review. But his work troubles continued – he’d try one venture or another, but nothing worked out very well. For a while he worked at a call center doing canvassing for the Red Cross (I couldn’t think of a less suitable person for telemarketing), and edited their newsletter. He did intake interviews and wrote reports for a substance abuse center for adolescents. As a volunteer, he worked with patients at a local mental hospital. Of them he wrote, “These people have it inordinately rough!” I didn’t know how he endured it all, but he kept on. In one of his last letters, he seemed optimistic. He mentioned reading Mary Gordon’s* novel Final Payments, and remarked that he hoped also to begin making his own final payments and begin to really live and to contribute to society in a tangible way. I think he was trying, with heroic fortitude, to overcome his terrible karma.

I had been teaching photography at Hostos Community College (C.U.N.Y.) in The Bronx since 1980. I was on a very friendly basis with many of my students, most of them Latino or African-American, with life experiences quite different from mine. We had many interesting conversations both in and out of class. Once I happened to recount to a student a curious dream I’d just had – this was in late 1990, just before the winter break – in which I found myself at the dentist’s. The peculiar thing was that I wasn’t sitting in the chair as usual. Instead, I saw my teeth – which in the dream resembled a full set of dentures – resting on a round ceramic dental tray, awaiting the dentist. For me, dreams are most often absurd, and their meanings banal, if not obscure. The student, a woman from the Caribbean, was anxious. She told me it was a bad sign, as in dreams the teeth are understood to signify death. A remarkable yet understandable interpretation, but still basically superstitious, it seemed to my rationalist mind, and I didn’t think much more about it.

Late the following January I got a telephone call from Fred’s aunt in Portland, and she had very sad news. Fred was dead. Shortly before Christmas he had taken a temporary job as a clerk in a department store. One day he was heading for the bus stop to go to work, and evidently, in his haste to get to the stop ahead of the bus (already pulling over to make its stop), had run off the sidewalk and into the street, directly in front of the bus. It was very quick. He had a severe head injury and was apparently killed instantly. That was December 21, 1990. He was forty-four.

I was overwhelmed to think of it all. She went on to explain that, after the accident, she and Fred’s uncle went to the house to collect Fred’s belongings. Among many things (mostly books) she found his address book, and found my name and number there. She’d heard my name and had some idea who I was. She had been making a long series of telephone calls to Fred’s friends to give them the news. I was still in shock, so she did most of the talking. We spoke for the better part of an hour. I don’t know if I recalled at that time my dream, or the uncanny prediction of the palmist.

She told me that Fred had been schizophrenic and had been taking medications, mainly antipsychotics, for many years. I felt like a fool for supposing that his problems might have been anything less severe. She said that although Fred always complained of not having any friends, a crowd of 150 people turned up for his funeral. And, by pure coincidence – or so I suppose – that Fred the airplane freak would have enjoyed immensely, a formation of aircraft passed over the cemetery kind of low, seeming to make him a last salute.

Allen Schill
February 2008

Among Fred’s letters, which I collected while he lived in Portland, I found a poem that I’d forgotten I had, the only such thing of his that I have. I think it’s not bad at all.

(For Pappy Boyington)

2 Blue Angels close
800 miles per hour
50 feet above the runway one bird upside down
landing gear fully extended
Hot Damn 2 Banshees screaming

Sun tanned old men
big beer guts
polyester hats
silently sobbing
the roar of 1600 horse power Rolls-Royce Merlin
starting up
the big four blade propeller
glinting in the sun
Athena’s shield always shining
the old men loved that bird
boldly capturing the sun

Boys and girls
punk attire
dripping ice cream bars
solemnly spilling Sprite
stare up at aluminum birds
once the Whistling Death
once the Sweetheart of Okinawa
once the bent wing bird
once the fork tailed devil
now properly known as F4U Corsair
now properly known as P-38 Lightning
Do the old birds care?
the men still polish them anyway

that old Delta Dart
a 50’s relic
as fast as anything
out there now
still tips her hat
to marauding Bears
flying close
the old Delta Dart
roars off the runway
climbs almost straight up
does a double loop
vanishing in 30 seconds

Finally old and new birds land
old men dry hidden tears
wooden chocs under sturdy landing gear
the sky silent for another year
only the birds’ wings
whisper to me of flight

Frederick S. Schwartz
Portland, Maine, March 19, 1989*

Footnotes and photograph:

* (Barnard ’71). (Nothing against her, of course, but to be honest, I think the editorial habit of interjecting class and year would be a little out of place here.)

For those who don’t know (I had to look it up), “Pappy” Boyington was, during World War II, a Marine fighter pilot who shot down many Japanese planes before being shot down himself and taken prisoner. He won the Medal of Honor. He died in January 1988. Pease AFB (Air Force Base) is in New Hampshire and held air shows periodically. Like Fred, Boyington liked to attend air shows, and since he was a sort of celebrity at such events, it is just possible that the two met, although I have no evidence for this.

* The poem, typed separately, is dated (by hand) as such, but the handwritten letter with which it was mailed is dated the same, so I presume the poem was written earlier.

Below: Fred Laughs, New York City, 1979. Photograph by Allen Schill.

© 2014 Allen Schill. All rights reserved in all countries. No part of this document may be
reproduced or used in any form without prior written permission from the author.

© Copyright Allen Schill

Using Format