Hello out there!
William Saroyan’s Influence
By David Arthur Walters
“Hello out there!”
For crying out loud, is anybody out there?
There I was in Manhattan thirty-two years ago, cupping my hands to my mouth and shouting over and over:
"Hello out there! Hello out there! Hello out there!"
Each time I hoped I'd get it just right and thereby launch an acting career catapulting me to fame and fortune on stage and in film. But each time my entreaty fell flat; everyone ignored me except the drama teacher.
"Keep trying, David."
I had enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I was assigned to play the role of the itinerant gambler in William Saroyan's play, Hello Out There. I didn't have the slightest idea who Saroyan was or what he represented. I certainly didn't know he lived in France to evade taxes and that his plays were enjoying a revival in the United States.
My teacher had summed me up as a desperately lonely young man who had drifted into the city to gamble with destiny. Her assessment was correct. I had no plan but to take a gamble.
I had arrived at Penn Station a few months prior with forty dollars in my pocket. I could barely understand a word New Yorkers were saying, they were talking so fast and with a funny accent. But I did manage to get directions to the cheap hotel and to catch a dizzy cab ride uptown. I laid out twenty-five dollars for a week's rent, scrounged a paper out of a trash basket and looked for a job. An angel must have been looking over my shoulder: I found a position way out in the Bronx over the Whitestone Bridge, via three subway trains and a bus. The location was so remote that I'm probably the only one who wanted the job; that's what angels are for, you know, to provide things made just for you.
I had always aspired to be much more than what I was hired for: in this case, a loss and damage freight claims manager in the traffic department of a department store chain. So I saved and saved, then plunked down my hard-earned cash at the Academy. I would be a great actor. That seemed to be the obvious escape from my meager, grinding circumstances. Most of the waiters and bartenders I knew on the Upper West Side were studying acting, so the art came highly recommended. It was only many years later that a sex-fiend friend of mine who was teaching psychology at NYU told me that actors are the most neurotic people of all, and that's why they take up acting. Maybe I’m neurotic.
I didn't like my acting classes at the Academy. They seemed to be a big waste of time. After reconsidering my decision to be an actor, I figured I was entitled to something greater than pretending to be somebody else. I was entitled to the truth about myself, in order to be the living truth. I had not heard of "truth in acting" yet. My every "Hello out there!" at the Academy rang hollow: I was obviously getting nowhere fast in the glamorous world of drama.
There was a saying amongst some of the students that the fastest way to succeed in acting is to screw your way to the top. Some of my acquaintances were prostitutes. I admired their beauty but I stayed out of the business myself; not because I thought prostitution was beneath me but because I was straight and the chances of finding an attractive rich woman who was not already being fully serviced were very slim.
Maybe I was not neurotic but I was certainly confused. To add to my confusion, some of my pals uptown introduced me to LSD, hence I was hallucinating during rehearsals. I was not the only actor tripping on stage. It was the cool thing to do back then: many of us didn't know any better, as confused as we already were by daily drinking and pot smoking. Acid helped especially with our roles in Waiting for Godot.
After vocalizing "Hello out there!" several times one evening at the Academy, my intuitive teacher had me lie down on the stage and do a deep relaxation and visualization exercise. I thought nothing of it, for freaky stuff was going on everywhere in those days: hypnosis was considered to be really far out. After I went down the imaginary steps as instructed, I entered into the so-called alpha-state, where I was at one with myself as the number one person in the universe. Then she had me imagine that I was prone on a beach, listening to the surf lapping the shore, feeling the sun beat down on me, feeling the gentle breeze on my face, stuff like that.
A few months later, there I was, on South Miami Beach. It didn't occur to me that I was there by virtue of the power of suggestions made to me at the Academy, suggestions I had forgotten about because of the suggestion that I forget them. Still, what a fool I was in regard to my own behavior. I was practicing hypnotism myself by then, something I'd learned out of a ninety-five cents brochure. One of my subjects brought his mother to meet me, and she declared in Spanish that I was Jesus and started kissing my hand. What did I know? Nothing really, least of all that I myself was under the influence of posthypnotic suggestions.
I soon wound up on Waikiki Beach after a detour back to Manhattan because of a mime actor I met on South Beach. He was wearing nothing but a black sock over his privates while sunning himself on a white sheet. I chatted with him until two old men started yelling at him to put on a bathing suit because his appearance was insulting their wives, who kept looking over at him. He suggested that Florida is a just a sand bar compared to Hawaii. He said he had just been to Hawaii and that it is was thousand times better than Florida, even though Hawaii has a kill-a-haole day every week, and suggested I would love Hawaii. But first the detour:
I had fallen in lust with a Jewish American Princess whose sugar daddy had abandoned her on the way down to Florida. She landed on Miami Beach, at the hotel where I was working night shift, and we smoked some of her pot and had quite a time of it on the floor of the deserted lobby the night she arrived, and things progressed from there. I quit my hotel job and followed her back to Manhattan.
The princess soon said, "Photography is my island, and I’ve got to get back to it. We’ve had a hot time but I’m finished." She was a professional photographer whose film development rendered a sort of grainy effect to her art. She was also the star of several porno-movies. She lived and developed her film in a huge flat above a whorehouse in Midtown. What a fantastic dish she was! Men would come up to me drooling and tell me how lucky I was.
So I said, "OK, then, I'm going to my own little island, a real one." I collected my little roll of money from under the mattress, and two hours later I was on a flight to Hawaii. Soon after landing, I was on Waikiki Beach, feeling the sun beat down on my face, and the gentle breeze, and so on. Such is the power of suggestion!
I've returned to New York several times since then and back to Hawaii again, with a few side-detours on the side, including visits to Miami Beach and San Francisco. In fact, I moved to San Francisco at one point and tried to make a go of it. I checked into flea bag hotel with one little bag of clothes and a huge trunk of books. As I was sitting in the lobby during the first evening, I was suddenly convinced I had arrived in a much better paradise than Hawaii. At least a dozen half-naked girls came downstairs all at once and traipsed through the lobby. Little did I know that the bar next door was a strip joint. I met one of these lovely ladies later – she said she was working her way through college.
I discovered a biography of Saroyan in a San Francisco bookstore. I read that he had lived in the Bay area. He left home at fifteen, so I had two years on him, as I left home at thirteen. I learned he had written, in six days, the most famous of his plays in San Francisco, the award winning The Time of Your Life. He refused the $1,500 Pulitzer Prize for it because, he said, art shouldn't cater to commerce. The play is set in a San Francisco saloon filled with colorful characters, and stresses a positive philosophy summed up as, "In the time of your life, live." Saroyan presented a positive outlook on life in most of his plays, about simple people who are rejected by society but who are still able to find happiness in life's mysteries and beauties. His optimism was successful during the Depression, then fell out of favor with the rise of cynicism after World War II. His popularity plunged after 1945, and he never regained the success he had once had.
But what really impressed me was the revelation of what I deemed to be the secret of his success: he wrote and submitted a story every day, until an editor sat up and took notice. I thought I'd do that myself someday, and become a famous writer of truths, if I could find any.
So San Francisco was my second encounter with Saroyan. Yet I soon forgot about him and about voicing "Hello out there!" even though I was still a desperately lonely young man despite my few short, frantic affairs. One romantic detour was a marriage that failed because she didn't want me anymore; in my infinite ignorance and deluded stupor, I couldn't imagine why not, so I kept running back and forth between cities believing surely someone would love me for whomever I might be. Surely somebody would recognize the true me, the innocent me, and let me know who I am by loving me unconditionally. I remarried into a self-perpetuated disaster. Yes, there were the good moments, now buried in the ruins of that second divorce, but it was still a disaster. My best girlfriends had warned me to be a lover and to never marry, but I was a fool ruled by suggestion.
Much has apparently transpired since then although nothing much has really happened. I'm back in Hawaii again, where my experience with Hello Out There has begun to recur along with the repressed memories of some of the consequential sins I committed since I first left New York City for sandy beaches so long ago.
Now I realize I was loved when I was a baby, but not since then, not really. Not even Jesus loves me. I will never believe in Big Daddy, not after what I've seen. Strangely enough, however, there is something in me that loves people, the child in people, the innocent inner child that is me. Babies are originally good. Then what happened? The problem is not prenatal, it's postnatal. It has a lot to do with those damned suggestions people are always making, especially the ones made while thumping the holy books. That is, 'You're evil, you're evil, you're evil," ad infinitum, and mostly in reference to "it" i.e. sex. One of my first memories of "it" as a child was babysitter shrieking at me in the bathroom: "Don't touch it! It’s dirty! Don't touch it!" And so forth. I had, instead, a toy machine gun to play with, to shoot "krauts" and "gooks" with, represented by my playmates, who, in turn, considered me to be their kraut and gook. Our football coach in middle school proudly showed us boys a picture of a dead Japanese soldier with his cut-off penis in his mouth.
Gee, I was a lonely little boy, and I couldn't imagine why. I was a bad boy who wanted to be good. Maybe there was something wrong with me. “I am innocent!” I plead to an imaginary friend. “I didn't mean to commit sins, to make the same mistakes over and over!
“But who will forgive me, who is competent to do so? Nobody knows me well enough to love my real innocence as I do. But there is a still a chance, I suppose, for everyone is innocent at the core, and knows it very well. Maybe they will see me too in that core of original goodness.”
Hello Out There kept recurring to me. There must be a message therein for me, I thought. I tried to find a copy of the play in Honolulu, to no avail, but I found a few old reviews, dating back to 1942, that refreshed my memory. I realized that the play had acted as a powerful suggestion at an impressionable time during my youth, particular when my mind was rendered uninhibited by psychotropical substances. No longer can I blame my years of sadness on the influence of my depressed father – I am seldom sad since I reached the bottom of being, where I seriously asked myself over a six-pack of Tecate if I wanted to be sad, and answered in the negative.
Saroyan departed from his usual optimism in Hello Out There. It has none of his usual humor and fanciful twists. The setting, a jail in Armadillo, Texas, is realistic and grim. The love interest is touching, but it portrays loneliness, fear, and suffering instead of passion. It is a story of man's betrayal of man, of his cruelty, of his desperate and futile isolation from his fellows.
In a 1955 article in The Nation, Saroyan disowned Hello Out There, declaring the play "worthless, if not in fact a mistake." He said, "As a dramatist, I simply do not believe I have the right to identify human beings as the enemy of human beings. Is there any enemy at all? Is time an enemy? Nature? Change? Loss? Failure? Pain? Death? Not in my thinking. All things, including pain and death, are friends for no other reason than that they exist, and the friendship of them must be discovered, measured, understood, and cherished."
The plot: A roving misfit, a gambler, comes into town, where he has an affair with a prominent citizen's wife. Caught in the act, he is falsely charged with rape and thrown in jail. He taps a spoon on his cell floor (Saroyan once worked for a telegraph company). Frightened, lonely, injured by a blow to the head from the woman's husband, he cups his hands to his mouth from time to time calling, "Hello out there!" The jail's cook appears - the jailer's lonely daughter. They talk, and, of course, fall in love. She exits to find a gun to help her lover escape, but when she returns she finds him shot dead by the husband, who had entered the jail with a lynch mob while she was gone. The husband is also desperately lonely: he is isolated from the mob by his need to save face rather than admit his wife was unfaithful.
There you have it. A man's life is snuffed out, a girl's heart is broken, and a husband's conscience is damned to a living hell, because a womb is private property. There was no rape; murder must still be resorted to in order to protect a man's dignity in his property. Yet, surrounded by cruel circumstances, a new love comes to light, even though it's the dismal light of jail. During their intimate conversation before his death, the falsely accused gambler said to his respondent love:
"All I need is somebody good like you with me.... You got to have somebody staying with you all the time through... all the different kinds of weather a man's got to go through before he dies... somebody who even knows you're wrong but likes you the same...."
That very need was the motive of my life up to a certain point, I reflected, and its disappointment the source of my self-inflicted misery. Nowadays I love to be alone at great length, but not forever. People just do not realize how happy a man can be when he is as good as dead to the world. No wonder monks smile. No matter how alone they may be, they have a Friend, imaginary though He may be. Life is better for one who has a friend through thick and thin, and I am lucky to have one of those. No matter how happy one can be being alone, one is still lonely for a moment or two, from time to time, and that brings him back to his friend.
I found A Connoisseur's Anthology of the Writings of William Saroyan in a used bookstore last week. It cost me all of a dollar plus four cents tax - the best things in literature may not be free, but they're cheap. When I picked up the book, I soliloquized, “Is Saroyan my angel? Is this guy following me around after all these years? I still know next to nothing about him?”
My eyes alit on an excerpt from Rock Wagram: "Loneliness is every man's portion, and failure. The man who seeks to escape from loneliness is a lunatic. The man who does not know all is failure is a fool. The man who does not laugh at these things is a bore. But the lunatic is a good man, and so is the fool, and so is the bore, as each of them knows. Every man is innocent, and in the end a lonely lunatic, a lonely fool, or a lonely bore."
William Saroyan perceived the essential goodness of men and women cast out into a bad world. My seemingly casual encounters with his work profoundly influenced my life. The profundity was always there. Now I understand why he repudiated his grim and dark play. Nevertheless, as my life nears its end, I cup my hands to my mouth and shout in my most meaningful voice:
"HELLO OUT THERE!"