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Remembering Arnold Sachar
By George Snedeker
The first time I met Arnie Sachar, it was at a health food restaurant in the West Village called, Village Natural. Robert Roth, Arnie and I met there to have brunch. Arnie spent twenty minutes asking Robert what he should order. Robert suggested that he order an omelette of some sort. Arnie told me that he liked reading Thomas Merton. He recommended a book of Merton's which I had not read and cannot remember the title of. It was not THE SEVEN STORY MOUNTAIN. He also said that there was a mystical quality to reading Merton's writings or listening to Bob Dylan's songs. He told me that he was open to mystical experiences. Several years ago, Arnie and Robert came to have Thanksgiving dinner with Danielle and I in Lynbrook. I'm not sure how we got onto the topic of antidepressant medications, but Danielle suggested that Arnie try taking one of these medications. His therapist had also suggested that he take antidepression medication, but Arnie would not consider doing this. He said that he believed in a more traditional approach to therapy which focused on understanding the origins of psychological problems in childhood. He saw this approach to psychotherapy as a political commitment.
When it was time for Arnie and Robert to take the Long Island Railroad back to the city, Danielle noticed that it was cold, that it had begun to snow and that Arnie did not bring a hat. She asked me if I had a hat to lend him. Arnie was the kind of guy who did not worry about things like hats or the weather. He had spent the afternoon talking non-stop.
I sometimes assigned an issue of AND THEN as one of the readings for my Sociology of Culture class at The College at Old Westbury. One semester, I invited Arnie and Robert to come to one of my classes. Robert had previously come to my class by himself to discuss what it takes to put out a small literary magazine like AND THEN. I think the students liked Robert better than Arnie because they did not see Robert as being political. Most of my students don't know what is meant by politics other than voting for Republican or Democratic Party candidates. When Arnie started talking about his politics my students saw him as a creature from another planet. Arnie spoke as if he were still living in the 1960s. My students long for a bigger piece of the capitalist pie which Arnie rejected as worthless.
Arnie's health soon took a turn for the worse. He stopped using public transportation because he feared an attack of diarrhoea. His doctor said that he had a liver disease. Arnie lived in Forest Hills and if he went into Manhattan, he took a car service.
The last time I saw Arnie was at Robert Roth's book party at the Brecht Forum where he gave a great talk about Robert's book, HEALTH PROXY. When he spoke, Arnie sounded like a professor discoursing about the state of intellectual life in the United States. As I remember it, Arnie made three points about the book, which I will not try to repeat. It was not what he said that mattered, but the order and clarity of his presentation. No one in the room could have done it better.
Arnie certainly looked and sounded healthy. His mind was sharp, well focused and he was articulate in what he had to say about Robert's book. However, Arnie was not in good health. He was also depressed by the fact that the kind of political movement he longed for was not taking place in the United States. Instead, the dominant political discourse was about how to provide better alienated education and how to create more alienating jobs. In short, the party line was for a bigger piece of the pie capitalism had to offer. I rarely called Arnie on the phone. He was the kind of guy who had a position on everything. He liked to argue. He also liked to have long telephone conversations. It was hard to end a conversation with him. He would always apologize for talking too long. I felt guilty for hurting his feelings when I hung up the phone. When he was in the hospital, somehow things changed. We talked about books he had read and that I was rereading like 1984. I don't have positions on everything. I do enjoy talking about books and politics.
Arnie had not been feeling very well for some time. I am not sure if it was his liver or his kidneys that were the cause of his illness. While in Flushing Hospital he had a series of dialysis treatments. These did not help so his doctor changed his course of treatment. He was also put on antidepressant medication. When the hospital determined that there was nothing more they could do medically for Arnie, he was moved to a local rehabilitation center called, Safe Harbor. The problem was who was going to pay the hospital bill. Medicare was refusing to pay for more days in the hospital. If Arnie stayed in Flushing Hospital any longer, he would have to pay the bill himself.
The last several months of his life, Arnie was very ill. Much of the time, he spent being shipped from Flushing Hospital to the Safe Harbor Rehab Center and then back to Flushing Hospital. I believe that he had been misdiagnosed several times and given treatments and medications that were not helping him.
During the last few months of his life, Arnie and I spent a lot of time talking on the phone. Most often, we discussed Arnie's two favourite topics: books and politics. He and I generally agreed about the topics and people we discussed and we both enjoyed our phone conversations. Arnie was one of the best read people I have ever known. He had read books by Paul Goodman I had not heard of. I once told him that I did not trust anarchists any more than any other left faction. Since he thought of himself as an anarchist he objected to this criticism, but he saw the logic of my position.
His biggest current complaint was the direction WBAI was taking. He did not believe that any group had a monopoly on the truth or that having been oppressed gave anyone a special insight into the nature of political reality. He believed in the universal principles of democracy and individual liberty. He believed that the psychological problems of middle class intellectuals were as important to address as starving children. For Arnie, the quality of personal life was as important as the quantity of available material goods. He tried not to feel guilty about his own life as an alienated middle class intellectual.
Arnie also tried to convince himself that he did not want to be recognized as a public intellectual like Stanley Aronowitz or the other super stars of the academic left who write for Social Text or the other left journals currently in vogue. He also tried to convince himself that he did not want to be one of the celebrities who are invited to speak every year at the Left Forum. Both Robert and Arnie spoke every year at the Left Forum, but from the floor, not from the stage in front of the room.
I spoke to Arnie on my cell phone a couple of days before his fatal accident when he fell and struck his head in Flushing Hospital, damaging his brain which required neurosurgery.
Danielle usually drove me home after my night class at the College at Old Westbury. I don't remember how we got onto the topic, but while we were talking on the phone, Arnie told me that he had two groups of friends who called him on the phone while he was in the hospital: group ÒAÓ and group ÒB.Ó He told me that the ÒAÓ group were more reliable and called more often. I remember that I nervously asked him which group I was in. I was relieved to hear him say that he had put me in the more reliable group of friends. I can remember laughing with a sense of relief. Arnie also laughed, realizing that I was concerned about which group he had put me in. He told this story to Robert Roth the next day. Arnie was a great gossip.
Arnie told me that he was feeling tired and weak so he could not stay on the phone very long. He was sitting in a chair in his hospital room, but felt like lying down. I could hear the tiredness in his voice. He lacked the level of energy he usually had to criticize people who abused power or were just political players. I was also tired after a long day of teaching and said goodnight to Arnie, unfortunately for the last time. A couple of days later, Robert told me about Arnie's accident and that he had been moved to North Shore Hospital where emergency surgery had been performed. Arnie and I would never speak again.
It is still difficult for me to believe that Arnie Sachar is no longer with us, that I will never again hear him railing against the alienation and oppression of the institutions of our society.
Danielle and I went to visit Arnie in the ICU at North Shore Hospital. He was in a coma and was attached to life support equipment. Danielle and I had to wear gloves and gowns while we were in the Room with Arnie. The doctor we spoke to said that Arnie was running a fever from an infection he had picked up while in the hospital. The doctor told us that Arnie's immune system was impaired. They were giving him antibiotics, but the prognosis was not good. Arnie died three weeks later without regaining consciousness. Fortunately his health proxy, Paul McIsaak, did not have to decide whether or not to take Arnie off life sustaining equipment.
I did not attend Arnie's funeral or memorial service. I rarely go to funerals or memorial services. Funerals and memorial services are for the living; people who attend them try to remember the person who has died. The simple fact is that Arnie Sachar is no longer with us. We will have to face life without him. I think that the best way to remember Arnie and to honour what he stood for is to try to create the kind of social movement he imagined and struggled to create.