The Whacky World of Alfred Chester
Alfred at the Wheel
The very idea of Alfred Chester driving a car sent Robert Silvers into paroxysms of laughter, as he recounted how, in New York in the early sixties, Alfred told him he had finally passed his driving test and gotten his license. "I take it every year," he said. "I fail it all the time and this year I passed." After getting his license, according to Silvers, Alfred "immediately hired a car and went driving off with that friend [Extro]. They went up state somewhere. . . They drove off somewhere, with Alfred at the wheel!"
Alfred got along without a car most of his life. He took the train back and forth between Brooklyn and Washington Square College. When he went on to Columbia he continued to use public transportation, as he did during his residence in France. His budget simply would not have allowed for a car even if he had wanted one. Thus, Alfred reached his thirties without owning a car, and without acquiring driving experience.
The story Alfred told Silvers is confirmed in letters he wrote to Harriet Sohmers at the time. In one (1962?) he writes: "I'm taking lessons at a driving school and am in love with my teacher who is a little eurasian part Jap part Irish, a gym teacher during the winter and just gorgeous. He is in love with me too and we have a very sexy straight men's relationship." On August 2, 1962--no doubt around the time he announced the news to Silvers--Alfred tells Harriet he passed the test and was shopping for a car.
I passed my driving test of all things and am rushing around like a madman looking for a car. Found a lovely 59 Dauphine and paid a hundred for deposit, it was four hundred altogether, took it to the mechanic and he said it had no brakes. So I am learning to be wary. Those who know cars say I must not buy a foreign one for a trip west of the Mississippi nor a too recent American model for a trip south of the border. I spoke to Danny List of the Village Voice today who is an expert on cars especially foreign ones--I am rapidly becoming sane, and learning about motors, clutches, brakes, ets.--he said get a De Soto or Chevie before 1955 model for cheap and put in $200 of repairs. So that is my tack and I'm out looking for it. Also Susan [Sontag] told me that Antonio Garcia has opened a garage so I'll phone him this p.m. for help and/or advice.
Later in August, 1962, he writes to Harriet: "Listen. I bought a car, a lovely 54 Chevie in great condition. It is out in Queens in Antonio Garcia's garage (did I tell you he opened a garage with two other Cubans) and he's putting it into shape. Will have it tomorrow night presumably. I have to go out to Easthampton to get my plates because I registered the car from Lynn's address as insurance costs only 100 on Long Island and 200 in NY. I am going up to Maine next week and will stay a month or so." Chester drove the Chevie up to Vinalhaven, Maine. Later in the year he and Extro rode down to Mexico in it. He came back solo, leaving Extro behind, making the trip in just four days. A couple of years later, in Morocco, during one of his crazy spells, Chester relived that trip, transforming it into a hair-raising dream.
I gave a lot of thought recently to considering whether I was dead or not and in purgatory. I thought perhaps I died in Mexico coming back from Veracruz when because of my grief and a very heavy fog I nearly drove the car off the cliff. The boy I came back with grabbed the wheel only just in time. Lately I've been wondering whether maybe he didn't grab the wheel in time. (To EF, Sept. 27, 1965)
After years of deprivation, then, Alfred finally was to participate in an activity the vast majority of Americans enjoy and take for granted. One less thing to separate him from his culture. If driving, for Alfred, represented an exhilarating sense of freedom (I can go where I choose, not merely on the routes established by bus companies, subway lines and such), it was also accompanied by an intensely erotic charge. Not long before he was to leave for Morocco, on May 17, 1963, he reports to Paul Bowles that he is giving driving lessons to Harriet. They drove up to Garrison, New York, on a "lovely sumer day" and visited the Graymore Monastery. "Very titillating. . . . We had along with us an old delice of mine who's a Jewish convert and works at the Catholic Worker, and a friend, a renegade Catholic. Doubly, triply titillating. I bought a St. Jude medal (he's Patron of the Impossible) which I now wear around my neck hung on nylon fishing line. Very sexy. It's amazing isn't it how sexy religion (organized) is. Makes one think there must be something to the devil, after all."
That trip with Walter Kerrell, his old flame at the Catholic Worker, was one of the last he made in the old Chevy. On June 9, 1963 he writes to Paul Bowles, "I hate parting with my car. I'm selling it to Harriet for a C."
On December 4, 1998, Harriet wrote to me confirming that Alfred did indeed give her driving lessons. She fills in the story:
As for Alfred and the car--yes, yes, he gave me driving lessons--bitched a lot about my stripping the gears--I was very pregnant at the time and I'm sure I only passed the driving test because of it--the guy was afraid I'd have the baby right there! Alfred loved that car. It was a funky dark green Chevy and he called it Zelda (after Fitzgerald? I'm not sure). He told me he was going to give it to me when he left, but at the last moment decided to sell it to me for $100--he thought I'd value it more that way-- (what he said). I did use it for over a year until it was vandalized at someone's house on Long Island. It was the first of my many automotive loves--He even passed me on to his Allstate Insurance agent--a charming man about (really) seven feet tall--who loved Alfred (his artist client!) and was very kind to me. I still insure my cars with Allstate. That was 35 years ago!
Not long after he arrived in Morocco, in a 15 August 1963 letter to Dennis Selby, Alfred expresses a wish to buy an old car, if he gets money Girodias owed him for republication of The Chariot of Flesh. Three seasons passed, however, before he acted on these wishes. "I now have a thousand dollars in Gib," he wrote to Norman Glass on May 22, 1964. "I'm buying a car, I hope." A letter to Edward Field a week later opens with mention of his purchase:
I was standing with my new volkswagen at the garage when the mailman passed and gave me your letter. (Isn't that a casual way of saying I bought a car?) It cost $300 and there's plenty wrong with it, and will probably go up to an initial cost of $500 by the time I can go to Fez. But as my cousin Lennie said, better spend a little on an old junkheap and know what you're putting into it. . . I've already spent nearly $20 today on new brakes, the horn, etc. There's something wrong with the transmission or gear in third, when I take my foot off the gas pedal it makes a noise. But the VW mechanic said it would hold out awhile. And also he said the steering aparatus is fucked up, but that can hold too. I would like it to hold anyway until I can find an honest mechanic. Dris' friend the cop down the street who wanted me to buy his huge Citroen has a good mechanic. Well, anyway. It's about 1950 or '52 model, a cream-colored convertible, adorable looking. With bucket seats of leather. Old and used and lovely. I'm going to buy two rubber things like what you slept on at Paul's so we can camp out on our trips.
At once Alfred is dreaming of trips, of camping out with Dris in the Moroccan countryside. This was just the first in a string of cars Chester tried out. Three days later he is writing to Glass again saying that he'd decided against keeping the Volksagen and had settled, rather, on another car:
It's a bright red 61 Dauphine in very good condition. Cost $300 which is a steal. I'd put a deposit on an old VW but then a very cute mechanic came and told me it was ridiculous to buy it. Until he came along, a price like $300 was unthinkable for a car newer than 1953. I was almost decided to go to Gib and pay import duty into Morocco. (As I've got my residence now, I can't bring things in free.) I could sell the Dauphine tomorrow for twice as much and soon, the mechanic says, it will be more valuable, for gasoline (petrol to you) is going up and the Dauphine uses practically none.
The car he names Aisha Kandeesh. "She's the lady with goat's feet, beautiful hair and lots of gold who calls out to men alongside streams with their mother's voices and then they go mad if they listen."
Hopes he expresses to be off to Fez soon don't materialize because of a problem with the car's radiator, or cooling system. "My car has been a problem of course, and Dris and I haven't stopped fighting since it arrived," he writes to Field on June 8. "Now it's in the garage again because the motor overheats. But the mechanic says it's nothing. I know the car feels I don't love it, and it's true I don't because it's French and sort of all plastic and junky."
He finds a mechanic who seems to fix the problem, and writes to Norman Glass on June 13, 1964: "We'll have fun with the car. I'm dreaming of picking up a boy and fucking him in it." But, just ten days later he is writing to Field:
There is one thing wrong with the car (so far) and nobody seems to know what it is. After twenty kilometers, it suddenly gets hot and uses up all the water. They said it was the radiator, but that's been cleaned. So now they say he [the mechanic] didn't clean it well. It's been costing me a fortune getting things fixed that weren't broken. Anyway, it takes me out nearly every day to the grotto of Hercules or Cape Spartel and I swim and do exercise and lie in the sand.
Dris, he says, was for taking along a lot of water and going to Fez.
On June 28, Chester reports to Field that a Mr. Caneday, "a former missionary from Minnesota who has been here thirty-seven years," has taken an interest in the car and loaned him an automobile book, which he is reading. "I think if someone is interested in mechanics or science, life must be very full. Anyway, according to the book, there could be any of ten thousand things wrong with the car, or all of them." By July 15 he tells Field that six mechanics couldn't find the leak, but he himself did. With all the problems, however, he's come to hate the car and thinks of selling it. "If I buy another car, I'll spend more and get a guaranteed one. There's a nice DKW for $600 which the Renault company is selling."
"I bought a new car yesterday," he writes to Field on July 26.
An Austin from, I think, 56 or 57. It was love at first sight. Did I tell you I sold the Dauphine and good riddance? The leak was in the radiator itself, I think, although I hated the sight of it too much then to dismount it and see. I never want a small car again and my instincts were right about those crappy French cars. The Austin is a dream, though it's older than the Dauphine. It is passport blue with sky blue leather inside, real leather. The original upholstery barely worn. The outside is also the original paint job and the car has obviously been loved. We drove straight out to Arcila and it was like driving a Rolls or truck. Dris said it made his asshole open to see how happy I was. (His image for happiness is always that the asshole opens.) It cost $500. Mr. Caneday tested it and approved glowingly, though he says that after 30,000 kilometers I would have to have the motor rebored which is why it was cheap. It's done 77,000 kilometers. I have to rebuild my personality around the car now; it's like suddenly becoming a person who travels first class on a liner.
Just after purchasing the Austin, late in July, Alfred and Dris take a four-day jaunt to Fez, stopping at Shauen and Larache on their return. In temperatures around a hundred and twenty degrees fahrenheit, the car overheated every ten kilometers or so. Back in New York, more than a year later, while living on St. Mark's Place, Alfred recalls the trip, writing in The Foot:
We drove on like we were being baked in an oven and then, I guess somewhere near Souq-el-Arba, suddenly the trees were green again. Of course they are green all over Morocco. They never stop being green, summer or winter. But to imagine the heat, you have to see bare twisted screaming trees. No, too dead, dried, withered to scream. A creak maybe. In a slow deadening breeze like a furnace room. And at Souq-el-Arba the trees suddenly became green again. Tall, luxuriant. Richly, greenly leafed. It was cool, cool. Cool! You could almost smell the ocean. We were nearing home. (250)
Then, in November Alfred and Dris were joined by Norman Glass and his Moroccan sidekick Hajmi for a longer trip to the south of Morocco--taking in Marrakech, Tiznit and Tafroute, putting about 3000 kilometers on the car. At one point Chester threw Glass out of the car because he "got fed up with his queening it while Dris, Hajmi and I worked all the time" (EF, 17 Nov. 1964).
In Essouira I told him to wash the windows and he said, what do we have them (the Arabs) for? So I told him to work or get out and started screaming that just because he stole money he didn't have the right to consider himself a duchess and threw his bags at him and also a box of Quaker Oats (the scene was in public).
When I brought up the subject of Alfred's driving with Edward Field, he was quick to reply. "Oh! He hit so many chickens and Moroccan children! I don't think he ever hurt any of the children." When Field first wrote and told Alfred of his plans to come to Morocco with Neil, Alfred at once began to think of driving them around. He wrote to them on January 22, 1965, "I keep imagining myself doing all the driving. O, I can hardly wait to show you all the beautiful things I've found." He mentions Fez, Schauen, the thermal baths at Moullay Yacoub, and Marrakesh. Indeed, Alfred did drive Field and Derrick around in the Austin when they visited Morocco in June of 1965. Field remembers how terrified he was on their ride to Shauen. "There were all these hairpin turns and he'd turn around and talk to us while he was driving!" Another time Alfred took them to a kind of "religious encampment, a saint's tomb" and drove right up and over the rocks to it, like the vehicle was some kind of animal. He blithely left the car where it came to a halt, without worrying about parking it conventionally. (telephone, 25 Nov. 1998).
During the spring of 1965 Alfred expressed more and more concern about Dris's foot. A growth of some sort had appeared on his ankle, causing irritation, swelling and alarm. Remedy first was sought at the holy spas at Moullay Yacoub, which Chester writes of in The Foot.
To reach Moullay Yacoub, you turn off the main road between Fez and Meknes and you begin a ten-mile climb on roads that twist and turn and turn and twist. Hairpin curves. Through the strangest landscape south of the moon. . . . It keeps getting hotter. The heat is being shoaled up, nudged toward the center ten miles away. And the smell of sulphur is beginning to come at you.
At one turning is a well with a little grove of trees where pilgrims rest, and for a tip boys bring you water in enamel cups. Road service. Otherwise there is hardly anything but a few hot dry villages here and there, and some farmland on hills where the earth isn't too salty, too sulphuric, to let wheat grow.
Moullay Yacoub is down, down, down in the center of the world. It is probably in the core of an extinct volcano.
You park the car up above the walk down endless stairs in ferocious heat to the pools and bathhouses. Larbi [Dris] filled the place with sanctity for me. And the first three or four days were the happiest of my life. The happiest? You know what I mean. Though maybe they really were. (263-64)
The waters of Moullay Yacoub helped Alfred's sciatica but did not effect a cure for Dris's foot, so Alfred thought then of taking Dris to London for medical attention. "Can you check around for bone-specialists or orthopedic specialists?" he asks Norman Glass in a letter of May 22, 1965. By mid-June, just after Field and Derrick's visit, with money, passports and an invitation for Diana Athill, Chester's editor at Andre Deutsch, they are off to London--in the Austin. They leave the dogs in the care of a Moroccan friend, Mohammad.
It took ten days of traveling for Alfred and Dris to reach London. "The trip took ages and was a horror," Alfred wrote to Field from London July 2, soon after their arrival. Dris had a fever, which delayed their departure. Then, the Moroccan authorities held them up, confiscating 2100 pesetas, causing them to miss the ferry to Spain and spend a night in Ceuta. "In Algeciras they searched every inch of the car for kif, including the doors and cushions." In Gibraltar they had to wait a day for banks to open. The trip through Andalusia was hot and slow. The car continually overheated; they crawled along at forty km an hour. They stopped in Granada, but did not visit the Alhambra.
We didn't go inside. It cost sixty pesetas each, and Larbi [Dris] said, for less than that you can fuck a boy in Morocco. Which means not only that there is no greater pleasure than to fuck a boy, but that a boy must actually be violated for an amount less than one ticket to the Alhambra.
I concurred in his reasoning. Like a shmuck, I concurred in his sentimental and dishonest reasoning. It seemed poetic at the time.
So we didn't go into the Alhambra. Nonetheless I want you to see us up there on the hill--majestic, gorgeous as two kings, the Sultan of all the Arabias and the Byzantine Emperor. Never mind which is which. There we are, so stunning that the early morning sun stops dead in its cool mountain tracks. Stops dead and exclaims its admiration. (282)
In Madrid they could not find lodging, so backtracked to Aranjuez "where Paul [Bowles] had said to stop in the first place."
And finally coming across the French frontier, just outside of Biarritz on Sunday morning a German car with a Spanish family ran into us. They crossed over into our lane and left fenders smashed. Their car being new was very damaged, the way new cars can be. Ours is just the fender. But Dris banged his head on the rear view mirror which broke and he got a cut on his eyelid. They took him to a doctor who did nothing but call an ambulance and he was taken away to Bayonne without passport or money, while I was left in a state of shock at the scene of the accident surrounded by kindly gendarmes. D. had whispered to me he was all right and just thought this was the way to our fortune, and maybe it was but neither of us could go through with it. The car was finally hauled into a garage and the cops said for one franc I could get a bus to Bayonne, but all I had was foreign money and no place to change it, being Sunday, and when I told them this they shrugged and left me. So I had to walk all the way into Biarritz and finally changed pesetas at a hotel, went to Bayonne and found that Dris had run away from the hospital. It took me all day to find him because the last place I thought to look was the police. But he was there, having gone to them and insisted they feed him and take care of him. So they did.
The car was left in Biarritz for repairs and they took the train on to London.
A venerologist in London quickly diagnosed Dris's foot disease as Breit's Disease, a result of VD, which affects the joints. (Alfred noted that he thought he'd had the disease since contracting it in Paris in 1954.) The problem, according to the doctor, usually cleared up when the VD itself is taken care of, and since Dris showed no signs of VD, they assumed it would soon disappear.
The trip back down to Tangier evidently was uneventful. They picked up the car in Biarritz and drove it down through Spain to La Linea, where they crossed the Straits. They had not fixed the car in France as the value of the car there was less than the value of the fender. On his return, on August 2, he reported to Glass, back in London, that the "trip down was calm and lovely. . . . The car is here and the fender is still in the back seat, and I am blackmailing my insurance man, so he will blackmail the other insurance company. I should be at the police now and I should be looking for a garage, but I'm sitting here writing you."
Meantime, Susan Sontag visited, Alfred went a bit nutty, and Dris's foot got better. On September 17 he is writing again to Field:
I don't have a driving license anymore. My NY one is valid only in NY. (They got me. Maybe all the crazy letters I've written in the past have finally ended up in one dossier.) My international one isn't valid at all. And I failed the Moroccan one and can't try again for six months. Dris took his first test today and failed, and I'm furious since I paid 26,000 francs to an auto school. He'll take his next test Saturday. You fail if you miss one sign on the cardboard. I think they want them to fail so that we won't have the use of the car. I think I'm persona non grata in Tangier.
The car, then, is put in storage. On October 8 Alfred tells Norman Glass that he'll have to sell the car if Dris doesn't pass his driving test. Though I've found no record, apparently he does sell the car before leaving Morocco for New York in December.
* * *
"And Alfred was kicked out of Tangiers because of his driving?" Ted Solotaroff asked me during my interview with him.
"Is that what you heard? His driving?" I replied.
"At first I said, 'How could anyone possibly be kicked out of Tangier? What could you possibly do to be kicked out?' And it was either Edward or someone else who knew Alfred who said he would get high and then drive. He had this crazy old car and he would drive it in a way that was a menace to life and property and finally he just accumulated. . ."
That's one story.
* * *
Alfred never again owned an automobile after his escapades in Morocco. As he darted about from Morocco to New York, to California, to Capri, to Paris, to Jerusalem, to New York, to Athens and back to Jerusalem, he gave the reins over to airline pilots and taxi-drivers.