Window on Main Street

When I was 10, my favorite TV show was Window on Main Street. On CBS, it starred Robert Young, post-Father Knows Best, pre-Marcus Welby, as a widowed novelist in his late fifties who returns to his hometown, rents an apartment over one of the stores on Main Street and basically just hangs out and interacts with the townspeople, writing a new story about a different person every week.

The show was a flop and didn’t even last the whole 1961-62 season.

I’m writing this from the Starbucks in Dumbo, Brooklyn, sitting at a table in front of a window that overlooks Main Street. But Brooklyn’s Main Street is so short and nondescript that I lived the first 28 years of my life here and didn’t know it existed.

The neighborhood Dumbo didn’t exist back then either. For those who don’t know, and there’s no reason some of you should, it’s an acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.
The Manhattan Bridge overpass is about a block in front of me; to my right, out the window on Front Street, I can see the Brooklyn Bridge overpass and cars going in both directions on the multilevel Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Those on the upper level are going east to Long Island; those on the lower level are going west to America.

The most provincial people I’ve ever met in this country are lifelong New Yorkers.

Like Robert Young in Window on Main Street, I returned last summer for a temporary stay in my hometown. I’m a writer in my late fifties. Except I’m far from the only writer in Brooklyn, as Robert Young was in Millsburg. Sometimes it seems everyone in Brooklyn is a writer. Last fall the New York Times had an article by Sara Gran, a Brooklyn native like me, who now lives elsewhere, about the multitude of authors in the borough, which it termed “Booklyn.”

So I’d like to welcome Ed (odd, to welcome one’s host but this is Blogland as well as Brooklyn) to the ranks of Brooklyn writers. I don’t know if I really am one, though. I moved out at 28, and except for four short sublets in Park Slope, Sheepshead Bay, and the Williamsburg house where I’m currently living, I haven’t been a Brooklyn resident since 1979.

The past ten months have been an amazing experience. I recommend that everyone solve her mid-life (mid-life? I don’t expect to live to 112!) crisis by moving temporarily back to her hometown.

My friends and I at Brooklyn College in the early 1970s mostly couldn’t wait to get out of Brooklyn. We thought it was horrible in many ways, an embarrassing place to live. Nearly all of my friends moved away as soon as they could — to California, Florida (as I did), Boston, Seattle, Long Island, New Jersey, Manhattan.

The first line in the first story I ever published, in the undergraduate Brooklyn College literary magazine, paraphrased Norman Podhoretz in Making It: one of the longest journeys in the world is the one from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

Seven years ago this week, I was standing by the magazine rack in the Borders in Plantation, Florida, puzzled to read a line in the Publishers Weekly review of my book of gay-themed stories: “Grayson knows New York City, where many of these stories are set, inside and out.”

Huh? The title of the book was The Silicon Valley Diet and I thought I’d set the stories everywhere but New York: San Jose and San Francisco and Los Angeles, Miami and Gainesville and Tallahassee, Chicago and Philadelphia, Atlanta and Wyoming (yeah, I published a gay Wyoming cowboy story the same year as that other one).

But then I reread the book and saw that New York was everywhere: in the characters’ pasts and somehow even in the ones that never mentioned New York or Brooklyn.

My last book was different: a deliberate Brooklyn book. The Kirkus review began, “The dynamic cityscape of Brooklyn serves as the backdrop in this” blah blah, and the Philadelphia Inquirer started with “Richard Grayson is a funny guy from Canarsie, Brooklyn…”

Actually, I’m from Flatlands, East Flatbush and Old Mill Basin — parts of Brooklyn where there are still very few writers. My childhood in the ’50s and ’60s wasn’t quite A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, not quite Last Exit to Brooklyn, and in my writing I’ve always tried, often unsuccessfully, to avoid strolling down the sticky paths of Stickball Street and Eggcreamery Lane.

When I was a kid, I used to collect Brooklyn bus transfers, which meant I had to ride every bus line in the borough. Since I’ve been back, I’ve been trying to replicate my childhood feat. Now, as then, I’m often the only white person on the bus. There’s a lot of Brooklyn that you don’t find in the mass of “Brooklyn” literature today.

Tomorrow I’ll be at my house in Apache Junction, Arizona, where the Starbucks on Apache Trail, not far from Old West Highway, has a hitching post. For horses. No horses here on Main Street: just a 24-hour parking lot, Fed Ex trucks, and a guy in a blue jumpsuit with the John Doe Fund logo sweeping up.

Because my arthritic knee is bad today, rather than walk to the nearest subway stop 6 or 7 blocks away, I’m going to take the B-25 bus. It goes along the Fulton Street Mall; over forty years ago I worked there in my uncle’s clothing store. I’ll get off by the G train stop next to the stage door entrance of the Brooklyn Academy of Music; over thirty years ago I stood there after a performance of Gorky’s Summerfolk to get the autograph of the play’s star, Dame Margaret Tyzack, whom I adored.

When she finally came out, I handed her my playbill and a pen and blurted out something about how much I loved her in The Forsyte Saga, The First Churchills and Cousin Bette. I guess I went on too long because this is what Dame Margaret said as she took my pen:

“Dear boy, it’s really very nice to hear all that, but you know, it’s sometimes good to know when to stop talking.”

Welcome to Brooklyn, Ed. I’m out of here.


Crad Kilodney: Canadian Man on the Street

One of the writers in my 1979 “Some Young Writers I Admire” article did have a substantial, if offbeat, literary career in Candada, but as his Wikipedia entry notes, he “retired from writing in 1995, and is now self-employed as a day trader.” As he told the Toronto newspaper Eye Weekly in his final interview, “I intend to disappear totally. I already stopped writing two years ago. I will never publish another book–why should I? I’ve produced more literature than this country ever deserved.”

Yet he’s still well-known and admired by those who bought his books directly from the author in the many years he sold his self-published editions on the streets. For example, see the reminiscences of this Greece-based blogger:

Kilodney would stand on the busiest streets in Toronto with a small cardboard sign hanging from his neck. They would read
Pleasant Bedtime Reading
Putrid Scum
Slimy Degenerate Literature
Dull Stories for Average Canadians
Literature for the Brain-Dead
Worst Selling Author — Buy My Books
Rotten Canadian Literature
Albanian Chicken Stories

His face was serious, even forbidding to some people who passed by and happened to make eye contact with him. I don’t remember ever feeling intimidated by him or if I spoke to him much the first time I saw him. Soon enough, however, I knew him well enough to stand around and chat with him whenever I saw him. He would complain about how bad business was and gape stupidly at passers-by who ignored him. I remember him once droning, “Hockey books. Hockey books. Get your hockey books.”

Once, a tough-looking teenager passed by as we were talking and shot him a glance.

“You know,” I said when the kid was about five paces away, “I don’t think he’s going to mention to his friends that he saw you today.”

“Are you kidding?” Crad said. “He’s forgotten me already.”

I first read something by Crad Kilodney when I was an MFA student at Brooklyn College in 1975. The fiction editor of Junction, the literary magazine of BC’s English graduate students, I found an issue in our files that began with a remarkable story, a punning, sly narrative told by a father watching his five-year-old son Dick at the beach as he muses on three topics: crabs, sand and McKinley assassin Leon Czolgosz. It ends with the narrator observing “an interesting natural phenomenon” when his child gets hit by a lightning bolt. Five years later that story, its nondescript title changed, would become the title story in Kilodney’s successful 1980 commercially-published collection, Lightning Struck My Dick.

Before that, in the 1970s, I read many of Kilodney’s wonderfully funny, weird, idiosyncratic stories (“The Hardworking Garbagemen of Cleveland,” “The Mentally Disturbed Astronomers of Cincinnati,” “Forget That Grapefruit; Here Come the Midgets”) in many literary magazines, from Rick Peabody’s Gargoyle and Ed Hogan’s Aspect to Tom Whalen’s Lowlands Review, which devoted an entire 1978 issue to a Crad Kilodney chapbook, Mental Cases.


It was through Tom that I learned the real name of Crad Kilodney and we began an intense correspondence, sending long letters back and forth several times a week between Brooklyn and Toronto. I learned that “Crad” (his identity has never been revealed and I will not do so here) was born in 1948 in Jamaica, Queens; raised on Long Island; had a degree in astronomy from the University of Houston; and moved to Canada out of disgust with Watergate and U.S. culture generally. He decided to become a writer and had an early success with the first unsolicited story accepted by The National Lampoon.

While on Long Island after college, he’d worked for a leading vanity publisher, giving him a lifelong affection for and inspiration from the crackpots who paid to have their horrendous novels and bizarre conspiracy theories and weird treatises “published” by Exposition Press. In Canada he’d had a series of miserable jobs in publishing, working as a sales rep for major publishers like McClellan and Stewart and finally ending up doing menial work in book warehouses among colleagues he considered mentally deficient.

At the first of many meetings during his annual summer visit to his grandparents’ house in Jamaica (my mouth still waters thinking of the sweet “Greek goodies” made by his grandmother, who once owned a diner), when we were both about to have short story collections come out from commercial publishers, I learned of Crad’s plan to quit work and begin selling his books on the street.

Having never in my life met such a misanthrope, I wondered why he would subject himself to a public he despised. On the other hand, he was very kind to nearly everyone he met: he spent three weeks with me in Florida one winter and when we traveled to New Orleans to teach at NOCCA in Tom’s writing program, Crad was excellent and much loved by the students. I still recall how they adored his reading of a story with about sixteen false starts, “Jap Scientologists Ate My Grandfather.”

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Working on the streets of Toronto for seventeen years — often he’d stand near the Toronto Stock Exchange building — Crad lived a meager existence selling the nearly 30 little books he published under his own Charnel House imprint. (He also occasionally had a commercial book out, like Pork College from Canada’s respected Coach House Press.) His titles were often memorable: Bloodsucking Monkeys from North Tonawanda; Bang Heads Here, Suffering Bastards; Sex Slaves of the Astro-Mutants; Junior Brain Tumors in Action; Suburban Chicken-Strangling Stories; I Chewed Mrs. Ewing’s Raw Guts; Simple Stories for Idiots; Foul Pus from Dead Dogs. Ignored and ridiculed by most of Canada’s literary establishment, Crad nevertheless had for years a secret affair with an older, respected writer (she had won the prestigious Governor General’s Award) that ended only with her death.

As “The Rev. Crad Kilodney” (he was a Universal Life minister), he wrote a monthly advice column for the Canadian porn magazine Rustler, in which he answered mail from people with sexual perversions, all attributed to real-life people who’d crossed him or his friends, like the Minneapolis Tribune reviewer who called my first book “unbelievably bad.” He also had a column in Toronto’s alternative weekly Only Paper Today, “Crad Kilodney’s Vanities,” in which he reviewed horrendously awful vanity press books; later, he got Tom Whalen, me and other writers to join him in creating deliberately terrible short fiction for several volumes of his Worst Canadian Stories.

By the late ’80s, Crad had become a Canadian cult figure, beloved by many who befriended him and championed his works. A film documentary about him premiered at the 1993 Toronto Film Festival. In a 1988 prank, Crad submitted a number of stories by famous writers to the CBC Radio literary competition, many under absurd names. When the stories by Hemingway, Chekhov and others were screened out by the jury, it made a funny news story as Crad said he’d proven that the establishment could not recognize quality literature.

As his Wikipedia entry notes, in 1991 Crad was arrested for selling commercial goods without a license, “making him the only Canadian writer ever arrested for selling his own writing. At various times he kept a tape recorder with him and recorded quite a bit of bizarre byplay between himself and prospective customers; the tapes are extremely rare and are collector’s items (much as original printings of his books are). Several of his stories (such as “Henry”, featured in Girl on the Subway) are also inspired by these experiences.”

Crad and I gradually grew less close over the years. He did not want to get a computer to correspond by email. To me, his stories began to be more scatalogical (one book, a very dark one about his life on the street, was called Excrement) and to some extent racist and xenophobic. I believed he stayed too long on the streets, but what else was there for him to do?

Finally, when his grandmother and then his parents died in the mid-’90s, his inheritance allowed him to retire and concentrate on being an investor — something he’s been very successful at. He specializes in Canadian mining and energy stocks and has become quite well-known in these circles. The Toronto writer Syd Allan has set up some Crad Kilodney web pages which for a while contained monthly columns by Crad. But he’s gone from the literary scene, which has led to blog entries like Whatever happened to Crad Kilodney?


I hope one day that some publisher will revive Crad Kilodney’s literary career and republish his best stories, like “The True Story of My Dentist, Dr. Mark Litvack,” which begins:

You know how it is when you’re a writer. Everyone you know wants you to write about him. One of these days, I’ll put all of those people in one story, give each of them a few good lines to say, and that’ll be that.

However, my dentist, Dr. Mark Litvack of 1500 Bathurst St., Toronto, has finally persuaded me to devote a story to him. The fact that I have a bill outstanding since last year is not the main reason for doing so. When I find a fascinating character, I can’t help but sit down and write about him.

I’ve come to learn quite a lot about Dr. Litvack, or Mark, as I call him since we’re about the same age. He never rushes with me, because he likes to chat. Sometimes he poses questions I cannot adequately respond to when he’s working on me, but I’m sure when I grunt, he knows exactly what I intend to say. That’s the kind of rapport that one only finds between a writer and his dentist.

Before I get down to the story itself — although it’s more of a biographical sketch, I guess — I want to take a moment to tell you that a lot of my success as a writer is due to Dr. Litvack. When you have pain in your mouth or have lost a filling, you just can’t concentrate on writing nice Canadian stories. At least I can’t, and I’ll bet if you’re honest, you’ll admit you can’t either.

So I see him regularly to take care of those cavities before they get big. Usually I don’t have any because I take good care of my teeth. Dr. Litvack showed me how. He took out this giant-size plastic set of teeth and showed me the proper way to brush. I also floss, which a lot of people don’t. A lot of the confidence that comes across in my writing is really the result of good oral hygiene

Crad, we hardly knew you.

Richard Peabody: Mondo Literature

In the 1970s I published stories and poems in over 120 litmags–back then the now-quaint term “little magazine” was used somewhat more than “literary magazine.” At least 110 of those publications no longer exist, including Tom Whalen’s Lowlands Review, Dennis Cooper’s Little Caesar, Peter Cherches’ Zone and Miriam Sagan’s Aspect.

Nearly all of those still publishing are at universities: Shenandoah at Washington & Lee, Epoch at Cornell, Bellingham Review at Western Washington, Cimarron Review at Oklahoma State, Oyez Review at Roosevelt.

The only non-academic literary magazines on my 1970s bibliography currently active are Hanging Loose, ACM: Another Chicago Magazine, Apalachee Review (then Apalachee Quarterly) – and the 31-year-old publication that the Washington Post Book World has called “Washington’s preeminent literary magazine”: Richard Peabody’s Gargoyle.


Gargoyle was founded in 1976 by Rick and two others, but a year later he was the only member of the original triumvirate left. He ran the mag until 1990 with several different co-editors but he’s been pretty much on his own since then. Dedicated to printing work by unknown poets and fiction writers, as well as seeking out the overlooked or neglected, the magazine also published “name” writers — sometimes before they were “names” — like Kathy Acker, Rita Dove, Jennifer Egan, Naomi Shihab Nye, T.C. Boyle, Russell Edson, Allen Ginsberg, Ben Marcus, and Rick Moody.

(Check out the authors he’s corresponded with over the years in the magazine’s archive in the Special Collections at George Washington University’s Gelman Library.)

Richard Peabody is also the founder of Paycock Press, which in the ’70s and ’80s published some small press masterpieces of poetry and fiction, like Michael Brondoli’s The Love Letter Hack” and Harrison Fisher’s Blank Like Me and more recently published the work of two D.C. writers I knew, both of whom died far too young: the Collected Poems of pioneering gay poet Ed Cox and In Praise of What Persists, stories by the late Joyce Renwick, known to many of us who attended Bread Loaf in the ’70s as not merely a terrific writer but our caring writing conference nurse.

Rick has edited or co-edited nearly twenty anthologies since 1982’s D.C. Magazines: A Literary Retrospective, including A Different Beat: Early Work by Women of the Beat Generation, Mavericks: Nine Independent Publishers, Conversations with Gore Vidal, Grace and Gravity: Fiction by Washington Area Women, and the just-published Kiss the Sky: Fiction & Poetry Starring Jimi Hendrix.

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Probably Rick’s best-known fiction and poetry anthologies are the ones he and Lucinda Ebersole did for St. Martin’s Press in the 1990s: Mondo Barbie, Mondo Elvis, Mondo Marilyn and Mondo James Dean, featuring such writers as Sandra Cisneros, A.M. Homes, Kathryn Harrison, Denise Duhamel and many others.

As if being an unparalleled literary impresario and entrepreneur isn’t enough, Rick is also a superb poet and fiction writer. I singled him out in my ’79 article on young writers for his first book of poetry, I’m in Love with the Morton Salt Girl. Since then, he’s published such poetry collections as Echt & Ersatz and Last of the Red Hot Magnetos, filled with work that Guy Davenport called “fresh, spritely, and enviably energetic.”

In addition, Rick is the author of the novella Sugar Mountain (Argonne Hotel Press, 2000) and two short story collections. You can sample his short fiction online: “Stop the War or Giant Amoebas Will Eat You” (2003) and “The Rain in Eritrea” (2005). Rick has taught at the University of Virginia, Georgetown, University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland.


Full disclosure: I first knew Rick as the editor who rejected my early submissions to Gargoyle 32 years ago. After several years, he finally took one of my stories; I was interviewed by the magazine in 1981, and I’m also a contributor to his and Lucinda Ebersole’s Mondo Barbie and Sex & Chocolate anthologies.

I don’t see Rick very often — the last two times were in March 2005, at a writing and publishing conference at Florida State in Tallahassee, and in June 1995, when I paid a surprise visit to Atticus Books, the excellent U Street bookstore he owned for a number of years — but he’s been a great friend. This D.C.-area literary legend currently lives in Arlington with his wife and two daughters, and no doubt he’s currently working on at least half a dozen new writing and publishing projects.

Once, in talking about our writer friends from the ’70s and early ’80s who went missing in action, Rick said, “Richie, you and me, we’re survivors.” I guess. I guess all the writers from my 1979 “Some Young Writers I Admire” I’ve blogged about here are. If you think it’s that easy, let me know around, say, 2032.