• Broadkill Review

"The Wubnik Prophecy" by Steve Slavin

Louie Wubnik and I met during our senior year at the Bronx High School of Science. We had both just gotten our acceptances from Columbia University. It was years before the war in Vietnam, the scandals over the college's defense contracts, and all the unpleasantness that followed.

Our story begins on a warm May afternoon in 1955 – perhaps the most important day in Louie’s entire life. It was the day that The New York Times published lists of the names of the New York State Scholarship winners in each of New York City’s five boroughs.

You know how New York marathon finishers check The New York Times the day after the race to see their names listed just below their finishing times? Well just imagine the anticipation of the tens of thousands of New York City high school seniors checking the paper to see if they had won a three-hundred-fifty-dollar annual scholarship to defray the cost of attending any college in New York State.

The winners were listed in order by their test scores. As it happens, each of the five boroughs of the city – Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island – was also a New York State county. Each county had its own listing.

The state legislature, which funded the scholarships, happened to be dominated by upstate Republicans, who strongly favored their own relatively sparsely populated counties in doling out the scholarships. So, they allocated a specific number of scholarships to the winners in each county. Consequently, the scholarship winners in most upstate counties needed much, much lower scores than those in New York City.

All of this made Louie’s feat that much more impressive. He attained the second-highest score in New York County, which happened to be the borough of Manhattan. So, if winning the scholarship were considered a measure of one’s intelligence, then Louie was one of the smartest high school seniors in the entire state.

Louie had known, of course, as he walked out of the exam, that he had done extremely well. The exam questions, which tested math and literary skills, as well as knowledge of history and a few other subjects, were right up his alley. In fact, his pals at Stuyvesant High School had nick-named him “Polly Math.” Still, perhaps not even in his wildest dreams, did he expect to have achieved such a high score.

Back in those days, even such brilliant high school students as Louie often had trouble finding girls who would go out with them. They were considered “eggheads,” a term that would eventually be superseded by “dork,” “nerd,” and more recent unflattering appellations.

Most high school boys, especially the eggheads, were somewhat shy about asking out girls, or even asking for their phone numbers. I can still remember the time I passed a note to the prettiest girl in my English class. A minute later she returned the note with her reply. “Thanks, but I’m going steady.”

Fifteen years old and she’s going steady? By the time she graduates, she’ll be married with children!

But Louie, who had never had the courage to ask out a girl throughout high school, had suddenly become a hot commodity – at least by his own estimation. Nonetheless, he could not quite summon the courage to ask girls in his classes for their phone numbers – even after what would be his life’s greatest triumph.

And then one day, he suddenly had his Eureka moment! In fact, he would now be able to kill two birds with one stone. He would look up the phone numbers of girls who had won scholarships, starting with the highest-scoring winners in Manhattan.

Back in the 1960s, each borough of the city had a residential telephone directory with listings of family surnames in alphabetical order, street addresses, and phone numbers. Let’s say, for example, you were looking for Barbara Rothstein, who had attended George Washington High School. He might have found three or four Rothstein listings in the vicinity of Washington Heights. However shy Louie might be in person, he had no fear of getting a wrong number. He’d apologize and dial the next number.

He had a set routine. When someone answered, he’d give his name, and ask to speak to Barbara. If one of her parents asked why he was calling, Louie would say that it was in reference to the New York State Scholarship. Then, nine times out of ten, Barbara would be called to the phone.

He would congratulate her on winning the scholarship, even compliment her on her high score, and mention casually that he had seen her name on the list while checking to see how he had done. Then, if only to be polite, she might ask how well he had done.

OK, so far so good. Louie would keep the conversation going – helpfully, doing nearly all the talking – and then, as casually as he could, try to close the deal. But when she agreed to meet for coffee, or perhaps even a formal date, he would almost always make the same fatal mistake: He would keep talking… and talking… and talking… and talking. Later he would tell me that he talked almost as many girls out of dates and he had talked into dates.

At least the numbers were on Louie’s side, with well over 150 girls’ names on the Manhattan list, and hundreds more on the Brooklyn and Bronx lists. And even if the phone conversations seldom resulted in dates, Louie was quite content just talking with so many very smart young women. So, what was not to like?

And better yet, he did manage one or two dates each month – even if they rarely led to second dates. Not bad for a guy who couldn’t buy a date through his entire high school career.

When Louie began his freshman year at Columbia, he was approaching the bottom of the Manhattan list. No problem. He could still work his way through the other four boroughs, even if that did entail some long subway rides.

Despite his success on the phone, Louie still found it difficult meeting young women in person. While he was no Errol Flynn, he also wasn’t the worst looking awkward, shy, unfashionably dressed guy on the Columbia campus. But he felt much more comfortable working his way through Brooklyn, and then the Bronx.

By the following May, just when it looked as though he’d have to move on to Queens, the new lists of scholarship winners came out. Well, you can take it from there. Three years later, Louie was still working the lists.

During these college years, Louie would keep me abreast of his social life – or lack thereof. As I remember, one of his “dates” stood out, albeit perhaps more for me than it did for him.

The name Susan Goodman may not ring a bell, but what about the name, Paul Goodman? Need a hint?

He was the author of Growing Up Absurd – a popular book about how large corporations eroded our traditional social institutions. I never read it, but back in the sixties, everyone was talking about it. Paul Goodman was a very prominent anarchist, psychologist, writer, and member of the so-called “New York intellectuals.” In short, like Louie, he was a polymath.

As luck would have it, not only did Susan Goodman win a state scholarship, but she agreed to go out with Louie. Perhaps his ceaseless banter reminded Susan of her father – in a good way.

Regretfully, there was no second date. So, I asked Louie for a blow-by-blow recap.

“Well, when I got to their apartment – which actually wasn’t far from Columbia, -- Susan invited me to sit down in the living room, and I met her father.”

“Paul Goodman!”

“You’re familiar with his work?”

“Just from hearsay, Louie. I mean, everyone’s heard of Growing Up Absurd. So, did you get a chance to talk to him?”

“Actually, we never left the house. He, Susan, and I sat in the living room for three hours.”

Unbelievable! So, what was he like?

“It’s hard to say.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, he barely opened his mouth. I guess he’s a very good listener.”

I could not believe what had happened. But that was typical Louie Wubnik. Except this time, he apparently managed to strike out not just with the daughter, but with the father as well.

As graduation approached, Louie had a new worry: What would he do for a living? After all, how many philosophy/English lit/history majors could they be hiring?

A couple of friends suggested that he become a public-school teacher. The exam was ridiculously easy, although he would need some education courses over the summer. And, given his relatively frugal lifestyle, he could probably get by on a teacher’s salary. Better yet, he’d have summers off. So, what’s not to like?

But then someone told him he could work as a substitute teacher without having to go through the bullshit of getting a license. So, he decided to give it a try.

It turned out to be the only job he would ever hold. And in several ways, it proved ideal in meeting Louie’s needs and personality. Perhaps the one that stood out was that he got to teach a wide variety of subjects before dozens of different audiences each year.

Perhaps his favorite was science – or more accurately, any of the sciences. Whenever he got the chance, he loved to discuss weather forecasting, which gave him the excuse to talk about what would eventually become known as the Wubnik Prophecy.

For reasons unknown, Louie had carefully researched the New York City weather records going back to 1869, which lead to his amazing discovery. If it had snowed during the second half of a year, it also snowed during the first half of the subsequent year. And if it did not snow during the second half of a year, then it did not snow during the first half of the subsequent year.

This pattern had held for more than a century. And it gave rise to the Wubnik Prophecy: If it snowed during the second half of year one, it will snow during the first half of year two; if it did not snow during the second half of year one, it will not snow during the first half of year two.

As word of his prophecy spread among weather forecasters, Louie was occasionally invited to radio and TV weather-oriented shows to discuss the forecasting tool he had discovered. And as someone who loved to talk, he was happy to expound upon all the possible implications of his prophecy.

He became something of a minor celebrity, especially on the Upper Westside of Manhattan, and, of course, among weather forecasting enthusiasts. People would even ask for his autograph or pose with them for a photo. Once, I even found someone selling t-shirts proclaiming, “Sputnik, Wubnik … what next?”

Louie was also a great music lover with an extremely wide-ranging taste. When he substituted for a music teacher, he dragged in his “portable” phonograph with at least a dozen LPs and would play a dazzling array of selections ranging from Scottish bagpipes and Andean windpipes to Broadway musical overtures and twenties jazz. It seemingly didn’t matter if the students were first-graders or high school seniors.

Almost two decades after having graduated from college, Louie was still just a substitute teacher. And his friends were still asking him why he didn’t become a full-timer and earn a lot more money – and get a good pension.

Finally, Louie had heard enough. He typed up a list of reasons why he didn’t and would hand a copy to anyone who asked. Here’s the list:

Substitute teaching gives me the opportunity to teach a wide variety of subjects.

I find it much more interesting to teach a wide variety of students in many different schools rather than being confined to just one school.

I refuse to take the required mindless education courses and the moronic teachers’ exam.

If I feel like sleeping in, I just disconnect my phone.

I prefer to live frugally rather than to do work that I don’t enjoy.

Louie lived in the small rent-controlled Upper Westside apartment where he had grown up. In fact, it was the only place he had ever lived. When he was in his late twenties, his parents moved to Florida. He was finally was able to move from sleeping in a hide-a-bed in the living room to his own bed in what had been his parents’ bedroom. In the early 1990s, he was still paying just $217.40 a month.

The apartment was filled with books – perhaps Louie’s sole extravagance. Of course, he had bought virtually all of them used, and almost never left home without one. Once, when I was visiting, I opened the refrigerator and found it filled with books – except for the freezer.

For decades, the West End Bar was the hangout of choice for Columbia undergrads, old grads, and neighborhood hangers-on. Louie, who barely drank, often presided over his own table of friends and acquaintances, nearly all of whom were men about his own age. In fact, some of us had known each other since our freshman or sophomore years at Columbia.

Sometimes Louie would hold court for hours, but he was always happy to yield the floor to anyone who had something interesting to say, even if it took hours to say it.

But one evening, when Louie was becoming growingly preoccupied with his rapidly approaching four-oh birthday, everything would change. Someone had goaded him into explaining his famous New York City weather records prophecy – that if it snowed at all during the last half of one year, it would snow sometime during the first six months of the following year. And had it not snowed during the last six months of one year, it would not then snow during the first six months of the next year.

At his table that evening was a couple he had never met before. The guy was the typical fortyish Westgsider, with the standard scruffy beard, growing paunch, and phony regular guy manner. But, of course, it was the woman he was with that caught Louie’s eye.

She was no more than thirty, wore her straight brown hair very long, kind of late-sixties hippie-chick style. As Louie explained his meteorological observations, he became aware of how intently she was staring at him. He began to wonder how he could manage to get her phone number. Clearly, they had made a connection.

Luckily, the problem was solved for him by his friend Theo, who mentioned he was having a party next week and invited everyone to come. Louie noticed her writing down the address.

Louie counted the days till the party. He was the first to arrive, keeping his eye on the door. Finally, she arrived – and without the guy. Louie immediately made his move.

After allowing him a ten-minute soliloquy, which centered mainly on his very memorable visit to the Philadelphia zoo, she placed a finger on his lips, while looking deeply into his eyes.

No one had ever done anything like that to him. It was the sexiest thing he had ever experienced.

“Would you like to leave?” he asked.

“I thought you’d never ask. So… your place or mine?”

“Yours.”

“Is that the shortest sentence you’ve ever uttered?”

“Clearly,” he answered with a big smile.

A few minutes later they were undressing each other. Every time he began to talk, she placed a finger on his lips.

It turned out to be, by far, the happiest and most exciting night of his life.

From that night forward, Valerie and Louie were inseparable. Within two months she had moved in with him, happy to be freed from the exorbitant rent she had been paying. She was a newly minted attorney working for Legal Aid, which entitled her to work long hours for a fraction of what her classmates at Harvard Law School were earning at the large law firms.

Most of them looked down their noses at her, but a few did confide that they wished they had the guts to do what she did. For Valerie, it wasn’t a hard choice. After all, we were indeed a nation of laws, and every American who needed legal assistance was entitled to representation. End of discussion.

Louie loved her passion for her work and had begun to think of how he might assist her. Of course, he had his own opinions about the law – and about lawyers as well – so they had some interesting discussions.

When Louie learned that Valerie had won a state scholarship, he looked up her score. Eighth in Queens was quite impressive, especially with all those Asian kids taking the exam. He wondered how well he would have done if he had taken it ten years later.

Every Saturday night or Sunday morning they would do the Times crossword puzzle, and spend the rest of the weekend hanging out with friends and going to the movies. Of course, she often needed to place a finger on his lips so that he would not disturb their neighbors with an unending commentary.

One day Louie surprised Valerie by making a suggestion that might help her at work. Wasn’t Legal Aid always looking for volunteers to do pro bono work?

“Of course! Aside from more funding, that’s our biggest need!”

“So, where do you get your volunteers?”

“We have connections with most of the city’s largest law firms.”

“How many partners and associates do you get from each firm?”

“Well, with a few exceptions, maybe a handful.”

“Valerie, I have an idea.”

“I’m listening.”

A week later, Valerie and Louie sat at the largest table at the Westend Bar with nine loquacious middle-aged men. They were all Jewish lawyers, and each had a story to tell.

The stories varied, but the plots were similar. Most, after graduating near the top of their class at Columbia and NYU Law Schools, had been turned down by the city’s white-shoe law firms. No Jews allowed. In fact, despite the fact that half the lawyers in the city were Jewish, some of these firms did not have even a single Jewish associate.

One of these gentlemen had an amusing anecdote to tell. A couple of others smiled knowingly seconds after he began.

Cravath, Swain, and Moore was perhaps the poster child of the WASP Wall Street firms. Not only did they not have even one black, Hispanic, or Jewish partner, but also not a single Italian-American partner. But finally, in the 1970s, the firm was basically forced to offer an Italian-American associate a partnership.

Old man Moore was about ninety, and the last surviving founding partner. He vehemently disagreed with their decision, and at the board meeting when the decision was finalized, he went ballistic. After ten minutes of yelling and cursing, he picked up a chair, threw it against the wall, strode out of the board room, and never again set foot in the building.

Back in the day, most of these attorneys now sitting around the table had little alternative but to go into business for themselves, and each of them eventually enjoyed at least some measure of success. Now they wanted to give something back.

Another member of the group observed that most of the attorneys at the old white-shoe firms were highly skilled at dealing with corporate mergers and acquisitions, estates and trusts, and corporate lending. Obviously, the clients served by Legal Aid needed help with evictions, medical bills, police arrests, and bankruptcies. Cravath, Swain, and Moore, Sullivan and Cromwell, and the other big firms did not provide this kind of legal expertise.

Louie and Valerie exchanged a look. She had never seen him so quiet. But she knew how proud he was for putting this meeting together. These attorneys would not only provide thousands of hours of pro bono work but make handsome monetary contributions to the Legal Aid Society.

She was amazed how Louie had made the connection, and then put the meeting together. She was even more amazed that none of these attorneys had ever been approached by Legal Aid.

Along with Louie’s other friends, I wondered if they were planning to have children. But something told me that they weren’t. After all, they lived in a small, rent-controlled apartment they could never afford to give up, and each had essentially taken a vow of poverty. In fact, I sometimes wondered if Louie’s non-materialistic existence wasn’t one of the things that made him so attractive to Valerie.

It constantly amazed me how much she had turned his life around. I used to kid him by calling him “middle class.”

“That is inaccurate. I’m lower class. Just look at my W-2s.”

I wondered if you really needed all that much money to be happy, especially if you happened to live in Manhattan anywhere below, say, 125th Street. Of course, having a rent-controlled apartment didn’t hurt.

I marveled at how accepted Valerie was of Louie’s many foibles. But then again, as they say, “Love is blind.” And perhaps, also deaf.

Their marriage would last ten years. Then, one day, a tumor that Valerie’s oncologist told her was benign turned out not to be so benign. Five months later she was gone.

Louie was inconsolable. There were no words that could provide any comfort. Then, one day, when he was going through her possessions, he found a small notepad. It contained shopping and to-do lists. Between two of the pages, he found a scrap of paper with these numbers – 1877, 1878.

He puzzled over their meaning – if any. Then he noticed that she must have written them just around the time they had met. But what significance could they possibly have?

Then, he guessed what they might be. He rushed to his copy of the city’s weather records that went back to 1868. When he got to 1877, he realized immediately the grave error he had made! It had not snowed even once during the second half of 1877. But during the first six months of 1878, there was a total snowfall of 8.1 inches!

Valerie had checked his work and found this mistake. And yet she never told him. Clearly, she did not want to hurt him.

He was crying. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t stop the tears. He bawled for hours. She understood just how much his prophecy meant to him, so she never said a word.

If Louie could be with her right now if only for a few seconds, he would tell her how deeply touched he was by her gesture. Later, he began to wonder what else she might have done for him that he had never noticed.

What could he do even now that might have pleased her? It didn’t take him long to figure that out.

He decided to make a full confession! From then on, whenever he was asked to appear on a weather-oriented program, he would state that the Wubnik prophecy held true only since 1878 – and not since 1869. And each time he did, he had to hold back his tears.