Sunday, September 2, 2018

371. How I Mourn


Dark Knowledge, my novel about the slave trade in New York, has appeared twice in August in the LibraryBub newsletter, which lists small-press and self-published books of interest to librarians.  The newsletters were opened by librarians 4909 times, and the Amazon link for the book was clicked 409 times.  Dark Knowledge, which I think of as historical fiction, was also listed in the Mystery & Thriller category in LibraryPub press releases picked up by NBC, ABC, and CBS. 

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Dark Knowledge (Anaphora Literary Press, 2018), the third novel in the Metropolis series.  Adult and young adult.  A fast-moving historical novel about New York City and the slave trade, with the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront. 

Browder - Cover - 9781681143675-Perfect - 2

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

For my other books, see BROWDERBOOKS following the post below.

How I Mourn 

         We all mourn in different ways.  My partner Bob, whom I had been with for fifty years, died recently.  For some people, my mourning for him might not seem like mourning at all.  No long face, no tears, no black.  I had seen him through to the end, but he didn’t need me now.  No more pills to give him, no more huge bags of groceries to schlep up four flights of stairs, no more summonses in the middle of the night.  As requested in his will, he had been cremated and his ashes scattered at sea.  He was free, and so was I.  So how did I mourn?

         On the second Sunday after Bob’s death, I had hoped to chat with a friend of mine, a Sister of Mercy who would drive in from New Jersey and then lunch with me nearby.  Since Bob’s hospital bed was still in the living room (pending collection the following day), I thought we could talk there beside his bed, with a coffee table between us, while I sipped wine and nibbled cheese as I had always done on Sundays with Bob, while she had her usual glass of ice-cold water.  It would probably be the last time I would do it.  But she phoned to say that, for reasons of health, she couldn’t come, so we rescheduled for a later get-together.

         And so, contrary to expectations, there I was alone in the apartment on a Sunday.  The week before, I had gone to my local library to see Mae West in She Done Him Wrong, a pre-Hays Office film with her starring opposite a very young Cary Grant.  In the film she uttered her famous line, “Come up and see me sometime,” and sang Frankie and Johnny Were Lovers, an old song that has been echoing in my mind ever since.  (Bob, who loved Mae West, would have applauded my seeing the film.)  But no such attraction was available this Sunday, so what to do?  I was all dressed up for company, and no company was coming.

         My solution: sip wine and nibble cheese by myself.  At first I was going to do it in the living room beside Bob’s empty bed, as a gesture of remembrance and mourning.  But then I decided to adjourn to the kitchen, which would be drenched in midday sunlight and offered the wide surface of a table where I could spread out my only Sunday companion, the bulky New York Times.  This I did, scanning the first section at length, as I sipped and nibbled.  Not as good as sharing the moment with a friend, but better than nothing.  And then I went out to lunch.

         As often in the past, I lunched at Philip Marie, just a block away on the corner of West 11th Street and Bleecker.  As I anticipated, it was crowded and noisy, but the noise was New Yorkers relaxing and having fun, so I didn’t mind and engaged in a bit of people-watching.  Several waiters recognized me from earlier visits and said hello, well aware that I would start with yogurt and berries, and end with a cappuccino topped with milk foam sprinkled with cinnamon.

         So who were the people I was watching?  Near me, a quiet foursome, two young men and two girls, none of them boasting stellar looks, but having just as much fun as anyone.  On bar stools at the bar, a very heterosexual older crowd, the men in long pants (shorts prevailed at the tables), two of them – both in caps, one with the cap reversed -- engaged in a friendly tussle that almost became a wrestling match, while they both flashed hearty smiles.  Then they interrupted the friendly sparring to take a photo of their neighbors at the bar, an older man and his ample dark-haired girlfriend, who bunched their heads together and beamed loving smiles at the camera.  

          The star of the occasion was a young African-American woman, phenomenally thin, with a wide-brimmed cowboy hat.  She arrived to much applause at another table where seven older white men rose from their seats in turn to give her a hearty hug of greeting, and one of them a kiss as well.  She then took her place at the table, where loud laughter was soon heard, and she repeatedly beamed and clapped her hands in appreciation of something someone had said.  An odd combination of people, but what the hell, this is New York.  And as always, being aware that this moment was special and not to be repeated – not with the same cast of characters -- I was struck by the rich, intense, heart-breaking fragility of it all.  But at least I had captured the moment, juicy and unique.

         After that, it being a mild day, overcast, with a gentle breeze, I once again walked down West 11th Street to the river.  En route I passed the Spotted Pig restaurant. Fronted by a leafy row of potted bushes and plants, it was open as always, with a spotted pig signboard dangling over the entrance.  But I was well aware that the management has been entangled in a nest of #Me Too accusations, so even on this pleasant Sunday walk, the grim news of the day obtruded.

         Arriving at the river, I sat on a bench facing the water, just opposite the old Erie Lackawanna terminal in New Jersey – a happily preserved Beaux Arts masterpiece, as I recently learned online.  The sky was overcast and gray, but at times a bit of sunlight filtered through, and I could see on the roily gray surface of the water the dancing dots of silver that I love.  On the grass nearby lay dozens of would-be sunbathers, but with little sun.

        Next, I walked along the river to Pier 46, which I went out on, checking as always to spot sprouts of seaside goldenrod growing out of the rotten old wooden pier below the new one.  Sprouts there were, here and there, plants that in a month, fully grown, would burst into terminal bright blossoms of gold: like so much on this walk, a sign of irrepressible life. 

         Continuing my walk, I came to my little garden with the big bronze sculpture of an apple, dedicated by sculptor Stephan Weiss to his friends and neighbors of the Far West Village.  I had the garden to myself and one fluttering Monarch butterfly that darted about over the pink and red and yellow and blue flowers blooming there in the profusion of late summer.  What assaulted my eye were masses of black-eyed Susans, blasts of bright golden yellow at the very peak of their bloom.  If at times I uttered a curse or two while in the garden, it was because I had spotted a bit of trash among the flowers and had to stooped laboriously to pick it up.  Not everyone treasures and respects the garden, which I long ago adopted as my own, picking up the trash of interlopers, whom I scorn as pigs.

         This was the farthest point of my walk, from which I retraced my steps.  During the whole outing, and even in the noisy restaurant, I was singing over and over again to myself, in my own inept and off-key way, the song I had heard Mae West sing in the movie:

Frankie and Johnny were lovers
Lordy, how they did love
Swore to be true to each other
As true as the stars above
He was her man
But he done her wrong.

I’ll admit that this one stanza obsesses me.  I sing it over and over to myself – ad nauseam.  But only to myself; I try to spare others the ordeal of my dubious singing.

         The song's later stanzas tell how Frankie learns that Johnny has been seeing Miss Nellie Bly, a relationship that was more than casual.  So Frankie whips out a .44 revolver and shoots Johnny dead, following which they lock her up and throw the keys away.  Not a happy ending, but crime most decidedly does not pay, whether shooting your lover or doing your lover wrong.  How I knew the tune I can’t imagine; floating around in the depths of my psyche are all sorts of old songs that, when the occasion arises, start playing in my head.  But what intrigues me about this song – which exists in many versions – is its indifference to Victorian morality, which in the lyrics doesn’t even exist.  Online research tells me that the song was inspired by a real shooting in St. Louis in 1899, though the song only appeared in 1904.  The shooter, 22-year-old Frankie Baker, got off by claiming self-defense, though the lyrics give the song a different slant.  Some say the song existed long before, but the familiar version appeared in print only in 1925.  By then, of course, Victorian morality was dying or dead; a young woman can’t be a lady, in the Victorian sense of the word, if she’s doing the Charleston, or swigging gin in a speakeasy.

         Be all that as it may, the song has put its print on my mourning – or lack of mourning – of Bob.  My mood now is not one of grief; I’m quietly happy.  I was there for Bob when he needed me, but now I'm free.  I’ll always mourn him, but I’m free, and so is Bob.  And if Bob is aware of all this, he won’t mind, he’ll applaud.  If he had outlived me, he would have done the same, and I too would have applauded. 

         I have a way of sucking pleasure from small things.  So here’s one final thought, prompted by that day’s trivia: what do all these things have in common?

·      Mae West
·      Two men on bar stools engaged in a friendly tussle
·      A young woman in a cowboy hat at a table with seven older men
·      Silver dots dancing on the surface of a river
·      Goldenrod sprouting in the rotten wood of a pier
·      A yellow blast of black-eyed Susans
·      Frankie and Johnny Were Lovers

I can sum it up in one word: life.  So at that moment, ten days after Bob’s passing, I was aware of two things, and am keenly aware of them today: (1) I’ve never had a greater loss; (2) I’ve never been so alive.  And that is how I mourn.

Coming soon:  The Way of Justice: Dorothy Day.


All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.

1.  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  In her Reader Views review, Sheri Hoyte called it "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City."

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017 and 2018.


"If you want wonderful inside tales about New York, this is the book for you.  Cliff Browder has a way with his writing that makes the city I lived in for 40 plus years come alive in a new and delightful way. A refreshing view on NYC that will not disappoint."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Bill L.

"To read No Place for Normal: New York is to enter into Cliff Browder’s rich and engaging sixty years of adult life in New York. Yes, he delves back before his time – from the city’s origins to the 19th Century that Ms. Trollope and Mr. Dickens encounter to robber barons and slums that marked highs and lows of the earlier Twentieth Century. But Browder has lived such an engaged and curious life that he can’t help but cross paths with every layer and period of society. There is something Whitmanesque in his outlook."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Michael P. Hartnett.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

2.  Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.

For readers who like historical fiction and a fast-moving story.


"A real yarn of a story about a lovable pickpocket who gets into trouble and has a great adventure.  A must read."  Five-star Amazon customer review by nicole w brown.

"This was a fun book.  The main character seemed like a cross between Huck Finn and a Charles Dickens character.  I would recommend this."  Four-star LibraryThing review by stephvin.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

3.  The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, but no porn.  Women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)


"At times amusing, gritty, heartfelt and a little sexy -- this would make a great summer read."  Four-star Amazon customer review by BobW.

"Really more of a fantasy of a 19th century gay life than any kind of historical representation of the same."  Three-star Goodreads review by Rachel.

"The detail Browder brings to this glimpse into history is only equaled by his writing of credible and interesting characters.  Highly recommended."  Five-star Goodreads review by Nan Hawthorne.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

4.  Fascinating New Yorkers: Power Freaks, Mobsters, Liberated Women, Creators, Queers, and Crazies (Black Rose Writing, 2018).

Fascinating NYers eimage.jpg

Short biographical sketches of colorful people who lived or died in New York.  A cardinal who led a double life, a serial killer, a baroness with a tomato-can bra, and a film star whose funeral caused an all-day riot.  


"Fascinating New Yorkers by Clifford Browder was like sitting down with a dear friend and catching up on the latest gossip and stories. Written with a flair to keep the reader turning the pages, I couldn't stop reading it and thinking about the subjects of each New Yorker. I love NYC and this book just added to the list of reasons why, a must read for those who love NYC and the people who have lived there."  Five-star NetGalley review by Patty Ramirez, librarian.

"Unputdownable."  Five-star review by Dipali Sen, retired librarian.

"I felt like I was gossiping with a friend when reading this, as the author wrote about New Yorkers who are unique in one way or another. I am hoping for another book featuring more New Yorkers, as I couldn't put this down and read it in one sitting!" Five-star NetGalley review by Cristie Underwood. 

©   2018   Clifford Browder   



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