Harry Mark Petrakis famous Chicago writer talks to students at the Chicago Academy for the Arts
Updated: December 17, 2013 6:01AM
The stark truth is that without the income I earned through five decades of lecturing and those semesters I spent teaching, I wouldn’t have survived as a freelance writer.
As a youth I performed in school plays, mostly Greek tragedies in which I played those haunted kings, Creon and Oedipus. I had no dramatic training but a strong voice, which I used flagrantly to compensate for my lack of acting skills. I did not perform my roles as much as shout them, did not enthrall my audience as much as try to overpower them. Fortunately, my voice fitted the dramatic crescendos of Sophocles and Euripides.
After my first novel was published, I was invited to present a few readings for libraries and for members of our parish church. One of my early lectures in Chicago was for a women’s club and was made memorable by the collapse of a lady in my audience who, while I was speaking, fell from her chair on the aisle onto the floor. The only other male present was the club caretaker and, while one of the ladies phoned 911, the caretaker and I carried the stricken lady to a couch.
I confess now to recalling the old theater phrase, “I knocked them dead.” I wondered if anything I had said precipitated the lady’s collapse.
Following the publication of my second and third books, the lecture invitations increased. For several years, I was represented by the ColstonLeigh Agency in New York.
In my third year of lecturing, the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who with her husband Henry Blakely had become good friends, referred me to her lecture agent, a lady named Beryl Zitch, who ran an agency called the Contemporary Forum.
Beryl was a small, vivacious woman as well as a zealous agent who actively promoted me for college and club appearances. I began more frequent lecturing and started receiving larger fees.
As the lecturing increased, I would leave home for two to three weeks on a road trip that would have me speaking before a university or club on successive days. I’d fly out of O’Hare or Midway airports in Chicago and then follow an itinerary Beryl had set up. I’d speak by day and travel at night by bus, train or commuter airline to another college.
I’d arrive in a small college town in the evening to be picked up by an associate instructor in the English department. From the lack of enthusiasm some of these greeters displayed, I suspected straws had been drawn and the loser sent to meet me.
If my arrival was early enough, we’d have dinner and then he’d drive me to my hotel or motel. In those days before the reassuring signs of Holiday Inn and Ramada became ubiquitous across the country’s landscape, the hotels and motels all seemed to bear names resembling the sections of cemeteries, Sleepy Hollow and Shady Rest.
The lobbies of these shabby hostelries smelled musty as mausoleums. In a corner a local would be sprawled in an armchair, his eyes closed and his body motionless. I could never be sure whether the man was dozing or dead and had simply been forgotten.
From the lobby, by elevator or by stairs, I’d ascend to hallways dimly lit with low wattage, unshielded bulbs, the wallpaper a nondescript pattern of faded flowers. The worn rug beneath my feet vibrated the tread of the countless weary and melancholy travelers who had walked those desolate corridors before me.
If it was summer, the room’s creaky air conditioner rattled and ran intermittently. In winter, steam hissed and knocked in the rusted radiators.
Whatever the season, all the mattresses emanated scents of futility, loneliness and illicit love.
In the morning I’d shave before a vanity mirror with myriad cracks. Staring at my distorted visage in the glass, I saw reflected back at me the forlorn faces of all those poor wretches who had stood in the melancholy dawn before that same mirror.
A different instructor or a professor would pick me up in the lobby and, after a cup of coffee and a muffin, we’d begin a day of visiting classes or speaking at an assembly. This routine, as numerous poets and novelists traveling the lecture circuit would confirm, could be both exhilarating and exhausting.
Exhilarating because of the spirited effort one needed to sustain a dialogue with the young men and women. The process could be exhausting, as well, because of the vitality and curiosity of the students, their eagerness to have substantive answers about writing and life when no definite answers existed. Their hunger for explanations assaulted me like a virus sucking away my energy.
The fact that the university had brought me in suggested to them that I was a paragon of wisdom and experience. While making an effort to answer their questions, I also tried to conceal the truth that I was still in a process of discovering who I was.
Those years of cross-country trips merge into a sequence of sprawling campuses, a multitude of youthful faces and a cacophony of strong young voices. The procession of teachers was generally cordial; some had even read one or two of my books in anticipation of my visit.
From time to time I would find one critical or resentful of my heralded appearances. One blunt-tongued teacher at a college whose name I’ve forgotten referred to me as a “courtesan of literature.”
“You come in for a single day and speak several times,” he told me. “You bask in the students’ enthusiasm and applause, then you leave. You don’t have to deal with the students, day after day, class after class, for months at a time until you are sick and weary of them and they’ve become sick and weary of you.”
Against such a gloomy recollection, I draw on a more glowing memory of a time when I flew into Waco, Texas, for a visit to Baylor University. The weather was bleak, the small commuter plane rocking, a heavy rain pelting the windows. I sat in my cramped seat, nervous and brooding, wondering if there wasn’t a less onerous way for me to earn my living. The plane landed at the Waco airport with a series of bumps as if the pilot were also at the limit of his patience.
When I emerged from the cabin and descended the steps, instead of being met by the customary English instructor, I was greeted by a delegation of about a dozen students. One exceptionally lovely girl stepped forward. She had beguiling blonde tresses, an exquisite face and great luminous eyes. She flashed me a warm welcoming smile as she handed me a solitary full blooming white rose. With a limpid Southern drawl reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind,” she said,“Mr. Petraaaakisss . . . Baylor University welcomessss you . . .”
In that sparkling moment my weariness fled and I felt rejuvenated. However, that greeting is all I can remember of my visit to Baylor.
Now, looking back at half a century of traveling across the country so many times, speaking at a plethora of schools, I know those multitudes of young people I met then would also be decades older now. Here and there, like a flash of light in an overcast sky, I recall a face or echo a phrase.
In such moments I cannot help wondering pensively if the volume of words I spoke provided some small value in the years they have lived since then.
Harry Mark Petrakis is the author
of 23 books. More information on
all his work can be found at http://harrymarkpetrakis.com.