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I Remember Joe Heller -- Part 1

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AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Zabar's deli in Manhattan sells the best fresh orange juice in the world. -- Joe Heller

In autumn 1967, my life turned a sharp corner. I impulsively decided to audit Joe Heller's playwriting seminar at Yale Drama School. His mordant new novel, Catch-22, was suddenly as relevant as Bob Dylan, whose music I would learn he loved.

Although Catch-22 is about Heller's experiences back in World War II, his novel was a bible to young and old people who opposed our participation in the Vietnam War.

I was elated as I waited for him on the first day of class.

I was dying to study him.

I wanted to figure out how to be a writer.

I wanted a clue about a triumph of the human spirit.

I wanted to be in the same room with a man who touched so many lives in a good way as a result of digging down deep into his own feelings and making the masterwork Catch-22 from his hellish World War II experiences as a very young bombardier.

In his two-hour class, instead of teaching playwriting, Joe Heller complained about such things as the fake orange juice at Yale's cafeteria. He bragged about fresh orange juice at Zabar's deli in Manhattan -- the best in the world and only four blocks from his apartment.

He also bragged shamelessly about earning big bucks -- $100,000 -- to polish the script of the so-so movie Sex And The Single Girl. (In Philadelphia, my hometown, and in New Haven, people didn't discuss salaries.)

I kept re-reading Catch-22. Trying to connect the man to the novel.

After the first rehearsal of his new play being performed at the Yale Drama School. Heller announced he was a wreck. He told his playwriting students about tossing and turning in anguish at the Midtown Motor Inn over what he'd seen at rehearsal. All night long, maniacs on either side of his room banged walls and played radios. Then the punch line: at 5 a.m. a distraught Heller discovered that, in fact, the radio built into his own night table had been playing all night.

To increase his anxiety even more, Stacy Keach, the star of Heller's play wouldn't be attending the first week and a half of rehearsals.

They've been rehearsing a different play all this week, Heller moaned. It's called Waiting For Stacy.

Heller added that he was having trouble remembering the reasons he'd brought his play to Yale.

I wrote down every word he said. And even tried to write his unreconstructed Coney Island accent phonetically. The word daughter, for example, was dawtah.

He was so refreshingly blunt, even impolite, especially when compared to Yale English professors who I ogle at monthly sherry parties. I am invisible, a department wife.

Joe Heller would have wreaked havoc at one of these parties.

His first words to our class one day were an example. As he sauntered toward us in the gloomy hallway of the Yale Drama School annex, he announced, Today's Rosh Hashanah, a religious holiday, right? No classes on Rosh Hashanah, right? So what're you doing here. Hah-hah-hah, he added insincerely to indicate he was joking. I smiled painfully to myself. He was pushing back against New England waspy Yale, a self-satisfied universe of worn oriental rugs, pale green walls and blond preppies wearing loafers without socks in winter.

Unfazed by the fact that he was the only person laughing albeit insincerely at his Rosh Hashana joke, Joe Heller shifted his gum massage toothpick from the side to the front of his mouth, sighed and said to us, okay, okay, you convinced me. We'll have our class.