The summer of ’32, when Hank Fonda and Jim Stewart shared a small walkup in Hell’s Kitchen (Hank just fresh of his divorce from M. Sullivan), they caroused and palled around together through slim times where J. Stew couldn’t find anything but bit parts way off Broadway and Fonda had to sell blood for a bottle of scotch to keep them company for the night. Jims had a gangly and stuttering way of comporting himself that was off-putting to others, with not even a fin for meat and/or potatoes to add to his rangy frame.
So, the two aspiring thespians sweated it out for a New-York summer together in a dank, stuffy five-dollar room just off Broke and around the corner from Complete Failure. Every play either of them would get a part in seemed to fold in a matter of weeks. In the long, boring, humid afternoons they’d go around to the last of the speak-easy beer bars and beg free meals, if they had enough cabbage for a split needled glass of Heavy Wet, at least. And when the suffocating nights would hem them in — the moon’s bulbous bulging face like the devil’s twin howling demonically from a tenebrous perch — they’d walk the streets and walk the streets, hangdog and woebegone in thrashed suits and holy shoes, peddling no wares except those they’d stuffed inside a boiled shirt to hide from the world until daylight.
Finally, after a month of no casting calls, J The Stew decided to chuck it all into the fan, and (after selling half-a-pint of blood) went out on a delirious bender to end all benders. At least, that was his intention. Fordy Boy went along for the ride, a grievous companion to what untold horrors he knew not. He just wanted to stick by his buddy.
So, out the two young dropouts went into the cascading neon and brighter lights of The Big Apple’s rotting core. Where they trotted off to is still a matter of some debate. But eventually Stews ended up in the crapper of some underground backroom pool hall, his shoes in the sink, his necktie hung from the stall door, pants in the trashcan while his own personal moon went on residing in the sink’s meadow.
And that is how one Irving Berlin came upon him at close to 3 in the a.m., Jims blowing apart a harmonica and mumbling through the lyrics to Meet Me Tonight In Dreamland. Mr. Berlin was taken aback, to say the least. He tried to offer some assistance to the obviously deranged youngster, but Jimmy The Stew just scowled at him and screamed, “I am not an assassin! I put asses in the seats. Assist my assets out of these assays…plays…shit. Assess, please! Oh shellac is me!” And then promptly passed an exorbitant amount of gas, quite loudly and indiscreetly, as it were.
Irv was taken still even more aback by this display, and the stench of what’d been let loose by Stew’s bowels was beyond any rancid or putrefying essence that The Berliner had ever known. That’s when The Fond arrived to the rescue, slamming open the door, demanding, “Hands off my buttercup, ya bastard man!” IB was now caught twixt a stink and a stinkier place. Fonds was blocking the exit to the small commode, and was also betrothed to ragged rage of alcohol’s spell, ribald and deranged as ever. He locked the door behind him and sternly advised all listeners to, “Get ready for some motherfucking rumbling!”
That’s when The J Stew snapped out of his stupor. He lifted his rear from the sink basin, pulled his drawers from the trash and over his legs, and, after tying them back on around his waist with a shoestring, he blew a loud blast into his harmonica and solemnly proposed, “Let us all be gentleman together, please.” Berlin was freaked, and was a bit more than a lot nauseated by the horrifying putrescent stench now encompassing them. He covered his mouth with a handkerchief and tried to stroll towards the locked door, but Fondy was still boldly not going anywhere away from it. Hank menaced at Berls. Stews waivered a bit, almost going down, but deftly catching himself on a coat hook, stammering, “I will not…I shall not.”
He burped and mumbled, stooped over and gripping the wall hook for balance, “I, sir, will not be intimidated by luscious threats on my…human…hum…huma…anity! Doggone nuts, by golly good gosh…fuck! I should be fucking famous. What the hell’s wrong with…with all a’ you assholes! I should be like a god to you. But no. Nope. I’m just some no-good nobody who’s all washed up…all a done before he’s ever had a chance to…to even dip his Nelly toes in the goddamn water. Gosh darn it all, already. Fuck it.” He then asked Mr. Berlin for a light, and then a cigarette, “If, sir, you’d be so damn kind.”
Berlin, who was doubling over from the now ungodly stinkers issuing from Stew’s innards, obliged the tippled kid, hoping it’d give him a chance to break for it. Which it did. Fondy had gotten so excited by his buddy’s theatrical tirade that he’d come over to hug, “You poor fucking bastard. You skin-and-bones piece of shit, you,” leaving the exit unoccupied.
While the two sauced kids hugged it out on the linoleum The Big B made for the door. As he made his egress he stopped for a brief moment to look back at the two lowly miscreants he’d left behind. They were arm in arm on the floor in a small pool of what may or may not have been urine, laughing and singing and delighted beyond all measure. Irv thought to himself, while taking a giant gulp of fresh air, ‘They’ll never amount to a damn thing. But, shit, God bless this motherfucking America. God bless this land of piss and shit, this land that I love.’ He then went home and wrote a song about it, which Kate Smith later performed to some great acclaim.