December 1991, I came out of New York Law School at 11:30 pm after a five hour Constitutional Law final. Cold, windy, raw, the World Trade Tower looming a few blocks away- I thought it ugly then, miss it now – the Commerce Clause ricocheting around my head like shrapnel in a tank (to the same effect), I did not have it in me to hike over to City Hall and the Lexington Avenue Express to Grand Central. Alone on the corner of Church and Worth, I flagged down a cab, jumped in, skipped eye contact with the driver, an average looking black guy who gave me a surprising, pleasant ‘Hello, where to?’
I responded with a mumbled, “Grand Central, don’t take Park”, nestled into the corner, eschewed the seatbelt, pulled my bag tight to my side, closed one eye, kept the other half opened to insure he did indeed stay away from Park. Took a bump on Sixth that forced me to open both eyes, I scanned the glass divider, taped to it behind the driver was this picture of Grant.
I looked at it, stared at it, held my curiosity for half a block before asking, “Why do you have a picture of Ulysses S. Grant on the glass.”
“Ah, you know him,” he sounded surprised – which, if you dwell on it, is perhaps a bit disturbing.
“Of course,” I answered, but not in that tone reserved for cab drivers who insist on engaging in conversation at exactly the moment you are in no mood to talk to anyone, never mind the stranger driving you the long way to your destination, “so why his picture?”
“I just turned forty,” he announced, and I knew at once where this was going, sat up, “and I’m driving a cab, trying to finish school, kinda’ the loser’s track, you know? So, I put that photo there to remind me that when Grant was forty he was bankrupt, lived with his wife and kids in his father-in-law’s house, worked as a clerk in a feed store . . . . talk about losers. . . eight years later he was President of the United States . . . . that’s it, man, nothing’s ever over.”
We talked the rest of the way to Grand Central, I don’t remember the details, I remember it as the best cab ride I ever had (maybe the only one I remember?) and every time I see this photo, I think of it, and my wife’s reaction when I relayed the story to her at 1 AM: she nodded sagely, waited a perfect ten heartbeats before saying, “Amazing . . . . you had a cab driver who spoke English”.
There is a second element to the Grant story which has always struck me, and, taken with the story above, has served, these last years, as a mental talisman of sorts: After he was President for two terms, he formed a Wall Street firm with his son and a charmer named Ferdinand Ward. Grant & Ward did very well, though it was clear, early on, that Grant had merely lent this name to the company. In May, 1884, the firm failed when it was learned that Ward was using everyone for his own purposes, said purposes included a Brownstone in the city and mansion in Connecticut. Grant covered the losses to clients (without, it appears, any requests for help from Congress or President Arthur – who owed him big-time), bankrupting his family (again). Four months later he was diagnosed with throat cancer, a de facto death sentence in 1885 (during the Civil War his incredible stoicism in the face of adversity in all forms was fueled by up to two dozen cigars a day . . . Shelby Foote ascribes the habit, and occasional binge drinking, to more Freudian causes involving the absence on campaign of Mrs. Grant).
It is at this point that, for me at least, the story resonates so vividly: instead of punting, the man who made seven successive attempts to solve the Gordian knot that was Vicksburg (a campaign still taught in military schools around the world, a masterpiece of logistics, strategy, engineering, perseverance; made all the more brilliant by the fact he was continuously second guessed and sabotaged, politically [see Henry Halleck] and militarily [see General John A. McClernand]), until he took it; contacted Mark Twain, sat down and wrote his memoirs.
In horrific pain, no medication because it would dull the writing, occasionally choking on the tumor, drinking his meals, losing weight rapidly, he wrote, sometimes as much as 50 pages a day. By June, 1885, he could no longer walk, was propped up in a chair writing furiously, the cancer pretty much everywhere. On July 18th, he finished the manuscript, he died on July 23rd.
Personal Memoirs was published in two volumes, they were one of the biggest best sellers of the 19th Century (if not the biggest), the family’s fortune was reinstated and, amazingly considering the circumstances, they are the standard by which all Presidential memoirs are measured — although that’s not really fair as they are generally considered a masterpiece of the form worthy of mention in any discussion of 19th Century literature (pretty good century for writing, too).
Mark Twain thought the memoirs the equal of Caesar’s Commentaries, extraordinarily high praise from a great writer who had no compunction writing devastating critiques of other writers. (see Twain’s essay on James Fennimore Cooper, Fennimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses).
Great critical praise through the years, resurrected every time a President writes a memoir . . . . . . . but the most poignant comment of all, one that speaks to me, is undoubtedly Gertrude Stein’s: “I cannot think of Ulysses Simpson Grant without tears.”