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the column of lasting insignificance...
—for September 26, 2015 by John Wilcock

Manhattan Memories
Chapter Four

Chapter Four—Into the '60s
More Working at The New York Times
Mexico On $5 a Day
What Richard Condon taught me
Henry Miller's wise words

Be missed--especially if you are gone!
Be just in time--and time will be just to you
Be a lady--but not in the bedroom!
    --The Philosophy of Be #2 (35c from Pegasus Press)

NEW YORK'S dull, dingy subways could be improved at least 1000% by letting contracts to an imaginative vending company which would install Scopitone jukeboxes, change-makers, slot machines that pay off with subway tokens, and a whole battery of gleaming devices to dispense soup, pizza, sandwiches, candy, flowers and small items of clothing...When a girl says she'll never do anything to hurt you, it usually means that she already has but you don't know about it yet....Why not allow UN stamps to be used anywhere, instead of just at the UN post office? That way people all over the world (one sales point in each country) could buy stamps and contribute directly to world peace, as well as providing a convenient all-purpose stamp....More censorship idiocy: Rhode Island's attorney general has allowed the sale of Tropic of Cancer at Brown University for "educational reasons” but threatens to arrest any student carrying it off campus....There's been at least one Friendly protest about Doyle Dane Bernbach's current ad campaign for Quaker Oats (a black-hatted figure saying: "Have I got news for thee!"). In a letter to Advertising Age, a New Jersey Quaker writes: "While the use of 'thee' may seem an anachronism to most Quakers, for many Friends the term still expresses an especially tender relationship. We are dismayed to see it mocked for commercial purposes."...Why don't they make colored aluminum foil decorated with patterns and flags?......The quarterly magazine December (Western Springs, Ill.) boasts in its current issue: "We have printed one poem and one prose selection that we consider excruciatingly bad. A free subscription will be awarded to the first person who sends us a note identifying these two selections"....This column's longtime Surprise Club is operating again: send me any number of self-addressed envelopes plus a quarter for each and they'll be returned to you containing offbeat bits and pieces from different parts of the world...Not that I expect Time magazine to accept my thrice-offered suggestion that their "Religion" section be re-titled "Superstition", but I wish they'd treat their religious news with the same critical analysis that they apply to other sections of the news. When Time gets around to religion, all their critical faculties become suspended and they write up this unexciting subject in the hypocritically unctuous manner that most people adopt when meeting ministers.....The English-language Athens News reported the jailing of one Eias Venetikoglou for "appearing naked in front of female tourists at the wood of Areios Pagos". In his defense, Venetikoglou stated that he "only wanted to exhibit the immortal male Greek beauty".... Bugged by the increase in what they term "pirate radio stations" (mostly set up on ships in international waters) which compete with their monopolistic state networks, several European governments have been trying to change international law to put the stations out of business. This typically totalitarian maneuver is explained (and opposed) by the Innovator which claims to cover "applications, experiments and advanced developments of liberty"...."Swinging lovely, exquisite female; experienced, broad-minded, 30; wishes to be swung by experienced swinger. Object: gymnastics. Desperate! Box XX (typical ad from a remarkably frank West Coast newsletter called Single People's Advertiser) ….Describing the FBI as "a band of liars, bullies, thugs, sneaks, wire tappers and blackmailers," the British magazine Resistance reveals that (Hoover's gang) maintains an office in London and asks what is the function of the director?....Robert Wolf types in the word "Nationalize" on those pre-addressed envelopes of Con Ed and the phone company before mailing them back....Ed Koch and the other VID big thinkers may believe they have cleaned up MacDougal Street by agitating for removal of the parking meters but the main difference is that there are now two fast-moving streams of traffic instead of one....The New York League for Sexual Freedom has been picketing the Central Library for making erotic books available only to "researchers" and not to the general public...."Writing is active, sometimes fiercely so; reading is passive, sometimes almost the same as sleep. But a writer reading is still at work, still writing, no matter what he reads" --William Saroyan in The Daring Young Man On the Flying Trapeze (Harcourt, Brace & World, $5.95).

– A random column from the Voice, early Sixties

In its first few years the Voice suffered from a chronic shortage of money and eventually claimed they no longer could afford my weekly $25 stipend. They would be happy, Dan said, to keep running my column as long as I would write for free and although I said that was no problem, it still made finding employment an immediate priority. In my characteristically thorough way, I compiled a resume and sent it to every newspaper in town, and many of the magazines. It resulted in a solitary offer of an interview—from the New York Times which, impressed by my Fleet Street credentials, hired me to fill a place on its seven-member travel section staff.

JW at the New York Times

One of my jobs while working at the Times, was descending to the third floor composing room on Thursdays to monitor the assembly of the travel section pages for the Sunday edition. The noise from the shouting and scores of clattering machines was overwhelming. Rows of Linotype machines, seven feet high, dominated the room each manned  by a skilled operator with a sheaf of stories, punching at his keyboard to turn out a line of hot metal type every ten seconds.

Composed of a lead alloy, the bulk of the lines would be technically 10/11 Times Roman--meaning the words were 10pt on an 11pt hot metal slug—all of which would then be carted over to the solid steel tables and placed in a metal frame divided by column measures.

My task was to stand across the table from the compositor and oversee his placement of the slugs, being ready to direct any cuts that might be necessary if there were too many lines to fill the column. This required a unique skill—the ability to instantly read the lines upwards down and backwards, so as to indicate immediately where the cuts should be made. There was one inviolable rule: DO NOT TOUCH. We were all cowed by a terrifying rumor that the entire floor would down tools instantly and go on strike if any non-member of the printers’ union should exceed his mandate.

When the frame was full, a page proof would be pulled and taken back upstairs to our seventh floor office for proof reading.

The Times was a benevolent employer with an excellent canteen and generous benefits, but working for the travel section became somewhat monotonous, its rigid schedule bound not only by the seasons but dictated by the advertising department in that editor Paul Friedlander would be instructed: “Three two column pieces, four five columns, two three columns and three four columns”, the quota for stories that week being dictated by the space left over after advertising had been fitted in.

Paul, a pleasant boss, was kind to me but bemused by what he assessed as mild eccentricity, such as the way I rode to the office on a folding bicycle which, on arrival, I stowed under my desk. Most of my work confined me to this desk, reading and editing stories, but during my three years at the paper I took one lengthy trip, adding a two-week leave to my two week vacation to make a trip around the world on Pan Am. 

Jim Thompson on our silkworm tour

Editing a story one day by Hong Kong staffer Peggy Durden, I was talking admiringly to her on the phone and she invited me to visit. My first stop was Honolulu, then Hong Kong where Peggy arranged for me to be driven into the New Territories from which China could be observed. I loved the hubbub and strangeness of Tokyo; was escorted around the canals of Bangkok by Jim Thompson, visiting the little homes whose inhabitants raised silkworms as part of the silk industry whose revival for which he had been responsible; was initiated into the exotic game of strip chess (don’t ask) by a nubile receptionist in Karachi; wandered the byways of Delhi’s Red Fort (taking a picture of its temporary scaffolding which the Times printed on my return) and finished my trip with visits to Istanbul and London.

Clearly I had always had the travel bug but after my spell at the Times traveling became the most important part of my life.

When the Times  and I parted company after three years, it was with mutual enthusiasm--I to write the first of several books, Mexico On $5 A Day, for Arthur Frommer. A lasting memory of the Times is Herb Mitgang's comment after I had admired one of his pieces: "I always try to get motion into my stories; to make them move." It was one of those little tips that I've always remembered.

Arthur Frommer, the man who invented cheap travel for Americans, got the idea for the $5-a-Day books in the early 1950s when he was serving as a GI in Germany and discovered that existing guidebooks tended to list only the "best" (i.e. most expensive) hotels. He published the book himself, retailing at $1.95, paying the printing bills with money from 2,000 copies engendered by an ad in the Times Book Review.  When I first met him, at a cocktail party, he told me that when people saw the title in uptown store windows they were amazed that Europe could be done so cheaply, and immediately went in to buy the book, whereas in Village bookstores passersby sneered, saying "Is he kidding? I do it on $1 a day".

Frommer described himself as somewhat square. "A lot of kids feel that the book takes a somewhat bourgeois approach to Europe but I don't think I ever was as offbeat in my approaches or as liberated as the pioneering elements of youth were at that time.  I was always looking for establishments in which anyone of any age could stay. Places with four dry walls, fairly traditional establishments, not the places where you stay in a sleeping bag on the floor."

When we last discussed the matter, 20 years ago, I asked how he felt about the oft-made accusation that guide books "spoil" otherwise tranquil places by flooding them with hordes of people. "That's so exaggerated" he said. "It doesn't really happen. It's amazing to see how many people go to the most remote and unusual places and never think to buy a guidebook. And one can never hope to sell books to more than an infinitesimal number, say 5%,  of the visitors going to a particular destination. In fact guidebooks may be the only kind of publishing in which you can predict in advance precisely the maximum number of books you can sell".

What he didn't mention, but what I can definitely affirm from my own travels, is that however much purists might feel that once they've discovered a place the drawbridge ought to be pulled up, the residents themselves rarely share this opinion. Tourists bring money, jobs, and a better standard of living.

Before my final break with the Frommer organization over their miserly unwillingness to pay reasonable expenses, I wrote $5-a-Day books on Mexico, Greece, Japan, India, and California as well as working on some of the budget guides to Las Vegas, Washington, and Boston. Arthur’s former partner Paul was probably the most unfriendly man I ever met. He had zero respect for me on the occasions that we met and flatly refused to increase the $1,000 expenses for researching and writing a book that he had paid a decade previously which meant, of course, that I was eventually obliged to fund my escalating expenses out of the meager sum they paid (no royalties ever). Frommer himself, though genial, was equally tight-fisted and I sometimes felt that he must have been the origin of the phrase “the check’s in the mail” because his promises were usually worthless. Amusingly, several years later when I called to tell him I’d given his daughter’s first travel book a plug in my column, he replied enthusiastically. “I’ll send you a copy tomorrow” but of course it never arrived.

Mexico on $5 a Day was my first book and writing it proved to be an exotic adventure. I quickly discovered that there were already two Mexicos, only one of them cheap. This was a country where poverty, matched by ingenuity, converted old tomato containers into plant pots and obsolete license plates into makeshift stoves; a country whose impressive culture had bred a peasantry who could create beautiful artworks—selling for pennies—from recycled tin cans, and that overlaid crumbling walls with murals of world class stature.

They were resourceful, carrying a chair atop the roof of a car, its legs held by hands inside the open windows. If the car was for sale, a chalked shorthand $ sign with the price as sufficient.

I traveled everywhere, often on second-class buses with my seatmate’s chicken half in my lap, staying in $2 rooms or—for a few pesos--in a hammock on a La Ventosa beach, awakened to the joyous cries of fishermen returning with the fresh shrimp I would be eating for breakfast. Taking extensive notes everywhere, I visited Guanajuato where there is always music in the air and lovely San Cristobal where you can guess whether the Indians are married or not according to the ribbons they wear on their hats.

As I said, there were (and are) two Mexicos, and the other one was the tinselly collection of world class hotels whose guests spent more on a single lunch than a poverty-stricken native earned in a week. I understand tourism and I appreciate the contentment of a nice place to stay, but when our Western “civilization” imposes itself on a foreign culture, why does it often seem to be so crass?

Back in the capital, I was thrilled to discover that the author Richard Condon was living around the corner from the apartment I rented near the Monument de la Revoluçion. He was being lauded for his best seller, The Manchurian Candidate, concerning a brain-washed Korea veteran (who had been programmed to kill a U.S, presidential candidate), later described as ”horribly prophetic” by John Frankenheimer who produced the eponymous movie. (It was withdrawn from distribution after John Kennedy’s assassination).

My roommates, the artist Walter Williams, and cartoonist Mort Gerberg, invited Condon to what, in retrospect, was a hippie-style party and he was extremely gracious and seemed to enjoy himself. He was friendly and kept in touch with me long afterwards, once endeavoring to get me a role on the publicity staff of a Frankenheimer movie. I suppose he might have been simpatico to this young writer, who clearly admired him, because of his own reputation as something of a maverick. Condon, said one of his biographers, “ridiculed, among other things, American politics, Ronald Reagan, the U.S. Mafia, Hollywood agents and the fast food business, all representing interconnected aspects of the same mad reality”. A decade later, during the hippie revolution, Condon and I argued fiercely about the aims of the new generation to which he was very unsympathetic. But he played a significant part in my writing life because his style was everything a columnist should emulate.

For years he had served as a publicist for Hollywood movie companies, but for the rest of his life turned out a string of best-selling novels, some of which—like Prizzi’s Honor— also became successful movies. When he left the U.S, he lived first in Paris, then--for two years each--successively in Spain, Ireland, and Switzerland, a conscious plan, he once told me, to learn all about the culture of his new country so that he could write knowledgeably about it. Which, of course, he did.

Condon became a big influence on my writing, and especially on my writing of columns, because he taught me how much could be conveyed with the judicious use of commas, parentheses, dashes, colons and semi-colons—occasionally all in the same paragraph. In some of his writing, this condensation is brilliantly displayed. He might start a sentence, for example, talking about a roomful of people having a discussion, make a diversion--between commas--to detail the history of a chair one of the characters was sitting on, and return to the theme before the reader noticed he had been away. Somehow it worked.

The more I got into writing travel books with their chronic need for brevity to get all the facts in, the more valuable this kind of punctuated shorthand became. My happiest example concerned Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue which, I wrote, “is a mix of the irredeemably tacky and the incongruously intellectual. Oriented to youthful exuberance, the five blocks between here and Haste Street teem with life: blues music bars, a legendary hang-out café (the Mediterraneum), four first-rate bookshops (Cody’s, which stages regular poetry readings, is the biggest; incense and Schubert-filled Shambhala, the most esoteric; and innumerable sidewalk stalls selling tie-dye dresses, buttons (Question Reality and T-shirts (Subvert the Dominant Paradigm).

Mexico on $5 a Day

Using the formula by which I came to measure the information quotient of my travel reporting, I would count (the words in italics) which I felt offered actual information, in this case 30 out of 70.

It was while still in Mexico that Elias Benabib, the owner of a downtown bookstore, introduced me to the works of Henry Miller whose writing also became an influence on my thinking. My first reaction was total shock that anybody could write in such a free, confessional manner.  How could someone lay out anything so personal? I asked myself. I had never known writing like this. Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, and other works had been written at least 20 years before, but the books—published in Paris by Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press—were still shocking enough to be banned in the U.S. The distinctive green-covered volumes were confiscated by customs’ officials from anybody who tried to bring the across the border.

I was particularly impressed by The World of Sex, not so much by its earthy sexuality, as by its uncompromising, impelling, irrefutable common sense. I reprint some of his words on the Christmas cards I send out every year.

 “Life moves on whether we act as cowards or heroes. Life has no other discipline to impose, if we would but realize it, than to accept life unquestioningly. Everything we shut our eyes to, everything we run away from, everything we deny, denigrate or despise serves us to defeat us in the end. What seems nasty, painful, evil, can become a source of beauty, joy, strength, if faced with an open mind. Every moment is a golden one for him who has the vision to recognize it as such. Life is now, every moment, no matter if the world be full of death”—Henry Miller (1891-1980)

Marihuana and Miller, not to mention Mexico…this persuasive combination set my course for years to come.


Chapter Four—Into the '60s
London’s underground press
Jean-Jacques Lebel burns US flag
Everybody’s friend: Jim Haynes
Lenny Bruce and the kitchen tapes


Manhattan Memories is available at amazon.com.


comments? send an email to John Wilcock

also available on amazon.com...
Marijuana—The Weed That Changed the World

National Weed (1974, issue #3)


Over the past year, my combined medical and support costs from a stroke I had in April 2014 have been more than $100,000. If you'd like to help, use the Paypal donate button, or better yet, buy my book, and thank you. —JW


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A Budget Travel Pioneer on a Time When $5 a Day Was Real (Frugal) Money
nytimes.com: Frugal Traveler

by Seth Kugel
John Wilcock at the New York Times

It was the first handwritten letter I'd received in 5 years. Or maybe 10. Signed by John Wilcock, a man I'd never heard of, and postmarked Ojai, Calif., it was waiting for me when I returned from my São Paulo-to-New York summer trip. Mr. Wilcock wrote that he had been an assistant editor at The Times Travel section back in the 1950s, and had written the first editions of “Mexico on $5 a Day,” “Greece on $5 a Day” and “Japan on $5 a Day” for Arthur Frommer in the 1960s.

By George, I thought. This man was the original Frugal Traveler.

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Manhattan MemoriesManhattan Memories
An Autobiography
by John Wilcock

"A GOOD WAY to describe John Wilcock is to say that he is a talented bohemian counter-culture journalist who once played a major role in the emergence of America’s underground press. Born 1927 in Sheffield, England, he left school aged 16 to work on various newspapers in England, and on Toronto periodicals before moving to New York City. There in 1955 he became one of the five founders of the Village Voice in which he and co-founder Norman Mailer wrote weekly columns. Wilcock called his column “The Village Square”, an intended pun. He and young Mailer were not quite friends, although Wilcock was at times annoyed, but always amused, by Mailer’s monstrous ego."

-From the preface of Manhattan Memories, by Martin Gardner