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Honestly

Title page: Honestly by Steven Zultanski. Published by Book*hug, 2018.

I never met my great-uncle, Dick Stryker.

But about ten years ago, while visiting family, I found his copy of Joyce’s Ulysses; the inside cover was stamped with his name and the pages were dotted with marginalia.

I asked my parents who he was, but it had been so long since anyone had mentioned him that they could barely remember the rumors: he was a pianist and a composer; he was jailed for being a conscientious objector during World War II; he spent two years in a prison in Ohio; his father kicked him out of the family; he moved to New York; he was gay; he was an alcoholic; at some point, he burned his face off somehow; he might have been homeless for a time; he refused to have anything to do with his family.

I wanted to know more, I wanted to feel a slightly stronger mild connection to this person I’d never heard of.

At first, it was hard to find information about him; as you might expect, his name is difficult to google.

There are many Dick Strykers, and most of them are the pseudonymous authors of porn.

But I did find a brief reference to our Dick Stryker—my Dick Stryker—participating in an early production by the Living Theatre, and this led me to the published diaries of its founder, Judith Malina, which contain frequent references to Dick.

Turns out he was roommates with Malina and her partner and collaborator Julian Beck, and he wrote music for many of their early plays.

Unfortunately, the diaries don’t provide many personal details, but the glimpses into the company he kept suggest that he lived an active artistic life, despite his eventual obscurity and disappearance: he hung out with John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara; he played one of the radios in the first performance of John Cage’s Imaginary Landscapes IV; he studied with composer Lou Harrison; he wrote the score for one of Jackson Mac Low’s plays, and Larry Rivers played saxophone on the recording.

I have no idea if this recording still exists—probably not, but I hope so.

He attended anarchist meetings.

He dated a poet, Harold Norse, who wrote many poems about their tumultuous relationship.

He had difficulty finding work because he was a felon.

He washed dishes.

He frequently missed attending or participating in concerts because he was washing dishes.

The most moving anecdote in the diaries is a prank: Dick and Judith attend a séance, but he won’t behave.

Either he’s angry at his friends or he can’t take the ritual seriously; for one reason or another, he continually acts up.

He spells out evil messages on the Ouija board, and is eventually kicked out when he forms the word hate.

When I read this, Dick came alive to me; he felt close.

On the one hand, I simply love that he made a life so far from his conservative suburban roots, that he conjured spirits with weirdos in the East Village, participating in things that people in our family would find pointless, unproductive, and unusual; but even better, I love that he refused to play along, that he fucked it up, that he threw cold water on everyone else’s optimistic spiritualism with a harmless and silly but slightly mean joke—a life-affirming kind of joke, probably funnier in retrospect.

But later in the book, he and Judith get into a physical altercation.

The incident is recorded in detail in Harold Norse’s memoir: backstage after a concert, Dick confronted Judith about a debt, she slapped his face, he pushed her, she tried to steal a flute from a flautist with the intention of beating Dick with it, the flautist wouldn’t let go and struggled with Judith, she bit his hand until he bled, and then Dick spat on her and ran away.

It wasn’t the end of their friendship; they continued to live and work together.

But a year later he moved out, and after that his name rarely appears in her diaries.

I emailed Judith.

She wrote back immediately, excitedly: she was so happy to hear from a relative of Dick’s, he was a dear friend but then he dropped out of her life, she didn’t know what happened to him, no one knew what happened to him, she was eager for news, she wanted me to put her in touch with him, she wanted to see him again.

I wrote back and corrected the misunderstanding: Dick had been dead for fifteen years, I didn’t know what happened to him either, that that’s why I had written, I was hoping she had more information, I was ...

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