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Friday, March 08, 2013

Don Quixote and His Last Windmill

Guest Blogger: Ben Hecht. He co-wrote the play “The Front Page” and screenplays for “Underworld” (which won him an Academy Award), “Scarface,” “Twentieth Century,” “Nothing Sacred,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Gone with the Wind,” “Gunga Din,” “Wuthering Heights,” “His Girl Friday,” “Spellbound,” “Notorious,” and hundreds more. But he was a newspaper reporter before, among other assignments churning out a column in 1921 for the Chicago Daily News. He collected 64 of those columns into the book 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, from which this selection is drawn.


SHERWOOD ANDERSON, THE WRITER, and I were eating lunch in the back room of a saloon. Against the opposite wall sat a red-faced little man with an elaborate mustache and a bald head and a happy grin. He sat alone at a tilted round table and played with a plate of soup.

Ben Hecht. Caricature by Gene Markey (1923)
“Say, that old boy over there is trying to wigwag me,” said Anderson. “He keeps winking and making signs. Do you know him?”

I looked and said no. The waiter appeared with a box of cigars.

“Mr. Sklarz presents his compliments,” said the waiter, smiling.

“Who’s Sklarz?” Anderson asked, helping himself to a cigar. The waiter indicated the red-faced little man. “Him,” he whispered.

We continued our meal. Both of us watched Mr. Sklarz casually. He seemed to have lost interest in his soup. He sat beaming happily at the walls, a contagious elation about him. We smiled and nodded our thanks for the cigars. Whereupon after a short lapse, the waiter appeared again.

“What’ll you have to drink, gentlemen?” the waiter inquired.

“Nothing,” said Anderson, knowing I was broke. The waiter raised his continental eyebrows understandingly.

“Mr. Sklarz invites you, gentlemen, to drink his health – at his expense.”

“Two glasses,” Anderson ordered. They were brought. We raised them in silent toast to the little red-faced man. He arose and bowed as we drank.

“We’ll probably have him on our hands now for an hour,” Anderson frowned. I feared the same. But Mr. Sklarz reseated himself and, with many head bowings in our direction, returned to his soup.

“What do you make of our magnanimous friend?” I asked. Anderson shrugged his shoulders.

“He’s probably celebrating something,” he said. “A queer old boy, isn’t he?”

The waiter appeared a third time.

“What’ll it be, gentlemen?” he inquired, smiling. “Mr. Sklarz is buying for the house.”

For the house. There were some fifteen men eating in the place. Then our friend, despite his unassuming appearance, was evidently a creature of wealth! Well, this was growing interesting. We ordered wine again.

“Ask Mr. Sklarz if he will favor us by joining us at our table for this drink,” I told the waiter. The message was delivered. Mr. Sklarz arose and bowed, but sat down again. Anderson and I beckoned in pantomime. Mr. Sklarz arose once more, bowed and hesitated. Then he came over.

AS HE APPROACHED a veritable carnival spirit seemed to deepen around us. The face of this little man with the elaborate black mustache was violent with suppressed good will and mirth. He beamed, bowed, shook hands and sat down. We drank one another’s health and, as politely as we could, pressed him to tell us the cause for his celebration and good spirits. He began to talk.

He was a Russian Jew. His name was Sklarz. He had been in the Russian army years ago. In Persia. From a mountain in Persia you could see three great countries. In Turkey he had fought with baggy-trousered soldiers and at night joined them when they played their flutes outside the coffee-houses and sang songs about women and war. Then he had come to America and opened a box factory. He was very prosperous and the factory in which he made boxes grew too small.

So what did he do but take a walk one day to look for a larger factory. And he found a beautiful building just as he wanted. But the building was too beautiful to use for a factory. It should be used for something much nicer. So what did he do then but decide to open a dance-hall, a magnificent dance-hall, where young men and women of refined, fun-loving temperaments could come to dance and have fun.

“When does this dance-hall open?” Anderson asked. Ah, in a little while. There were fittings to buy and put up first. But he would send us special invitations to the opening. In the meantime would we drink his health again? Mr. Sklarz chuckled. The amazing thing was that he wasn’t drunk. He was sober.

“So you’re celebrating,” I said. Yes, he was celebrating. He laughed and leaned over the table toward us. His eyes danced and his elaborate mustache made a grotesque halo for his smile. He didn’t want to intrude on us with his story, but in Persia and Turkey and the Urals he had found life very nice. And here in Chicago he had found life also very nice. Life was very nice wherever you went. And Anderson quoted, rather imperfectly, I thought:

Oh, but life went gayly, gayly
In the house of Idah Dally;
There were always throats to sing
Down the river bank with spring.

Mr. Sklarz beamed.

“Yes, yes,” he said, “down the river benk mit spring.” And he stood up and bowed and summoned the waiter. “See vat all the gentlemen vant,” he ordered, “and give them vat they vant mit my compliments.” He laughed, or, rather, chuckled. “I must be going. Excuse me,” he exclaimed with a quick little bow. “I have other places to call on. Good-by. Remember me—Sam Sklarz. Be good—and don’t forget Sam Sklarz when there are throats to zing down the river benk mit spring.”

We watched him walk out. His shoulders seemed to dance, his short legs moved with a sprightly lift.

“A queer old boy,” said Anderson. We talked about him for a half hour and then left the place.

ANDERSON CALLED ME up the next morning to ask if I had read about it in the paper. I told him I had. A clipping on the desk in front of me ran:

“Sam Sklarz, 46 years old and owner of a box factory on the West Side, committed suicide early this morning by jumping into the drainage canal. Financial reverses are believed to have caused him to end his life. According to friends he was on the verge of bankruptcy. His liabilities were $8,000. Yesterday morning Sklarz cashed a check for $700, which represented the remains of his bank account, and disappeared. It is believed that he used the money to pay a few personal debts and then wandered around in a daze until the end. He left no word of explanation behind.”

– from 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, McGee/Covici, 1922

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