Close Encounters: Jerzy Kosinski

On a recent investment discussion board I frequent, someone mentioned Chauncey (“Chance”) Gardiner, the character played by Peter Sellars in Hal Ashby’s 1979 film adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel, Being There.  Chance had long been one of my favorite literary characters, so I dashed off the following reply.

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Quite a few years ago, before marriage and children put a crimp in my nocturnal adventures, I found myself at 2am in an empty bar on the edge of New York’s meatpacking district. It was a long time before that area became a happening place, but this bar was a notable warm spot on a dark street, and my buddy and I simultaneously, impulsively ordered our cabby to pull over. The room was empty, but it smelled the way livelier places sometimes do and it had two significant things going for it: it was open and the bartender was a good-looking gal of about 26. We reckoned she could use the company.

We were making small talk with her over a couple of Jack Daniels, neat, when a furtive-looking fellow came in and took a stool. He had a woman with him, and her appearance and manner left little doubt that she was a working hooker. By that I mean a real street-walker, complete with that late-career commercial uniform they seem to favor: wobbly platform heels, torn fishnet stockings, unseasonal hotpants and a short, pumpkin-colored Naugahyde jacket in the Eisenhower style. This one had a fake-shearling collar and cuffs and she wore it over a knit tube-top that seemed anxious to unravel whenever she laughed, something she appeared to do often, barking “heh-heh-heh-heh” in a kind of staccato screech. Her knees were dirty.

As the woman lit a cigarette, the man ordered rum and cokes for both of them. That’s when I recognized him. Jerzy Kosinski, controversial author and Holocaust survivor, lecturer at Yale and Princeton and recent possessor of good critical notices for his role as Grigory Zinoviev opposite Warren Beatty in Reds. My buddy and I ordered another round and sat back, anticipating a show.

We were on maybe our third drinks while Kosinski and the girl whispered together animatedly, smoking non-stop, when the bartender placed a full bottle on the bar before us. At two in the morning, weirder things have happened. “The gentleman wants to have a round with you.”

We looked up and observed Kosinski and the hooker smiling conspiratorially. She had something wrong with one of her teeth, but wasn’t otherwise remarkable. He looked well-kept, but dangerous.

“I read The Painted Bird in high school,” I replied.

“Then you’ll let me introduce you to my friend”, he answered evenly, moving his stool. It was obvious that he didn’t know her name and she laughed her ridiculous laugh, waving away smoke and wobbling above her heels.

“Whatever you say, Perfesser.”

There began a weird evening of intimate talk, argumentation, and armchair anthropology that lasted until the first garbage trucks rumbled up near daybreak and the bartender showed us out. Through it all, Kosinski was observant, a good listener, clearly a provocateur. I think he would have liked nothing better than for my buddy and I to become friendly with his “date”, who gave her name as Anne and said she was thinking of changing it but who sat more-or-less quietly throughout the discussion, occasionally interjecting a laugh or announcing to nobody in particular that she needed to pee.

I wish I could tell you that he explained Being There or that he appreciated my comparison of Chauncey Gardiner to Eliot Rosewater, another vaguely Christ-like character of 20th century fiction. He seemed more interested in us and grew most animated at my accounts of what went on at Southern roadhouse turkey-shoots I’d attended before moving to New York. He was utterly fascinated that a drunk man could fire a shotgun at a paper target, that another could count the pattern of pellets therein and reward the shooter with a fresh fifth of Jack or a frozen turkey or a spiral-cut, honey-glazed ham, or if it were payday, the contents of a cigar-box into which other drunken men had placed their bets, gambling at a salubrious outcome.

“I’m not a gambler,” he told me, winking, “but I like risks.”

Quite a long time after our encounter, I read his obituary in the NY TIMES and learned that risky, all-night rambles had been part of his habitual writing regimen. Whatever he learned during his tours of the dark urban demimonde, Jerzy Kosinsky was clearly a risk-taker in his work. I’d like to think it would amuse him when I say that, with his death, he left everything to Chance.