I apologise for this column. I know that the last thing on everyone's mind as SA enters a 21-day lockdown is American author Joe Gould, but Gould fascinates me, and so does fellow US writer Joseph Mitchell.
Sometimes I think I am Gould, sometime I'm more Mitchell. Maybe there's a little of Joe and Joseph in all of us.
Mitchell was a legendary staff writer for the New Yorker for 58 years. Janet Malcolm describes the awe with which new writers came and peered at his closed office door, listening to the sounds of a typewriter issuing from within, lingering near the elevator, hoping for a glimpse of him.
Mitchell's beat was creative non-fiction. He walked the crowded streets of downtown Manhattan, haunting the docks and Fulton fish market, not looking for stories as much as he was looking for people - people were stories, he figured.
He wrote about Mazie, who took tickets at the Old Venice theatre; he wrote about Sloppy Louie, who ran a restaurant in the fish market; he wrote about 32 waterfront rats who arrived on a ship from Casablanca. He wrote beautifully, seemingly effortlessly, with elegance and humanity. And in 1942 he wrote about Gould.
Gould was a Greenwich Village character. He had a phenomenal memory and claimed to be the world's leading authority on the behaviour and language of seagulls. He claimed to have translated Longfellow into seagull, and gave recitations at cocktail parties, accompanied by a shirtless seagull dance. He often wore a shapeless slouch hat that his friend the poet ee cummings had given him.
Gould was born to a wealthy family but since coming to New York he had become an alcoholic and slept in flophouses and doorways. Each night he had a regular circuit of establishments he visited to cadge money for the Joe Gould Fund for Purchasing Alcohol. He wrote poetry and essays, but whenever he was offered employment he refused, for fear it would impinge on his grand project - The Oral History of Our Times.