Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer's Life


Michael Greenberg’s stunning collection entertainingly chronicles the hardships, delights, and moral dilemmas of being a writer and a New Yorker. To eke out a living, Greenberg doctors doomed movie scripts, peddles cosmetics on the street, and waits tables at a posh restaurant, all while raising his son on the Lower East Side. Along the way, he meets a host of fascinating city characters, including a Holocaust survivor, a repentant communist, ...
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Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer's Life

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Michael Greenberg’s stunning collection entertainingly chronicles the hardships, delights, and moral dilemmas of being a writer and a New Yorker. To eke out a living, Greenberg doctors doomed movie scripts, peddles cosmetics on the street, and waits tables at a posh restaurant, all while raising his son on the Lower East Side. Along the way, he meets a host of fascinating city characters, including a Holocaust survivor, a repentant communist, and a man who becomes a woman.
Hilarious and bittersweet, Greenberg's stories invite us into a world where the familial, the literary, the tragic, and the mundane not only speak to one another, but deeply enjoy the exchange.
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Editorial Reviews

Edmund White
Most of the unconditional admirers of New York are from elsewhere. People like me, who grew up in the Midwest in the 1950s, couldn't wait to trade in "the provinces" for the Big Apple, and half a century later we're still besotted with its incomparable vitality. But Michael Greenberg, a native New Yorker, loves the city as a child loves a parent, and in its honor he has put together a collection of tightly written, incisive chapters, each another tessera or tile in a big mosaic—and like tesserae, they are all placed at a slightly different angle to the light.
—The New York Times
Juliet Wittman
The short pieces in Beg, Borrow, Steal are in the tradition of the literary-journalistic essays that Europeans call feuilletons. Although flexible, this form requires skill and concision, and Michael Greenberg uses it brilliantly. Personal experience is at the center of each piece, but none is solipsistic; the tone is understated and ironic, and every essay contains a hard-won glimmer of insight.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
In these 45 thoughtfully crafted short essays written for London's Times Literary Supplement from 2003 to 2009, Greenberg (Hurry Down Sunshine) touches on his decades of trying to make good as a writer in New York City. Greenberg starts with early memories of growing up in Brooklyn, where he opted out of joining his father's scrap-metal business, instead dropping out of school in the early 1970s in search of a “blunt exotic experience” in Argentina and New York's Lower East Side. He ended up strapped with a young family of two children and faced years of plying odd jobs, like driving a cab, giving Spanish lessons, selling cosmetics on the street and ghost writing, all the while trying to write his novel. He fashions an anecdote for each of these experiences, in gently self-deprecating prose, such as writing for the movies and working the stock market, both to some success despite his naïveté. He tapped into an enthusiastic group of dachshund owners when he had to find another home for his child-nipping Eli, a troublesome pooch with a “disgraceful domed head”; he devotes chapters to the Negro Burial Ground and the paupers' cemetery on Hart Island, in New York City. As well, he offers touching reflections on the life of novelist William Herrick and editor Ted Solotaroff, and chronicles some funny run-ins with New Yorkers of all stripes. These are graceful ponderings by a deeply sympathetic soul, a consummate New Yorker and terrific writer. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Greenberg, a native New Yorker and author of the well-received Hurry Down Sunshine, collects 45 short essays that originally appeared in the Times Literary Supplement. Greenberg's editor gave him simple instructions: for each piece, spill a drop of blood, give it a sense of urgency, and do not exceed 1200 words. Greenberg skillfully meets his editor's requirements and seems to have carefully and artfully selected words and constructed sentences for maximum impact, much like a haiku, to which he likened his strict parameters. His narratives, which mostly take place in New York City, include an entertaining cast of characters and span from his youth in the 1970s through marriage and raising his own children to the near present day, with the underlying theme of a writer eking out a living by any means possible and, in turn, living a full life. VERDICT Each piece is about four pages long, which makes this a quick and easy read, especially for subway or bus commuters; recommended for readers who enjoy memoirs and essays.—Mark Alan Williams, Library of Congress, Washington, DC\
Kirkus Reviews
Times Literary Supplement columnist Greenberg follows his acclaimed debut memoir (Hurry Down Sunshine, 2008) with a collection of tight, readable essays. The author's refreshing approach avoids the self-indulgent and solipsistic impulses that often characterize autobiographical writing. In a concise format-modeled on that of his column for TLS, which, the author writes, "seemed as strict as that of a haiku"-Greenberg offers concentrated excursions into a wide variety of subjects, including film, literature, Jewish identity, immigration, racism, family conflict, the wildlife in Central Park, tenement housing, New York City's rat problem ("Dozens of them were hanging out like teenagers, copulating, browsing, completely at ease") and even the politics of transgendered sexuality. Although the narrative is structured in episodic fragments, Greenberg does an excellent job keeping them unified via his plainspoken, unpretentious tone. Most chapters read like anecdotes told among friends, yet at the same time the author creates poignant subtexts involving fundamental human values and emotions like love, desire, honesty and malice. In one essay, for instance, Greenberg recounts his days as an interpreter for Spanish-speaking defendants in a criminal court, and how this experience impacted his later compassion and sympathy as a juror in a case involving a janitor accused of selling drugs to students. In another, he relates the story of a tense friendship with a black man who implies that an uncomfortable number of black Americans harbor violent fantasies about killing whites. From odd jobs and family drama to political unrest in Argentina and the many pitfalls of memoir writing, Greenberg skillfullyexplores issues that range from the profoundly tragic to the delightfully funny. Succinct, entertaining personal narratives.
From the Publisher
“[A] terrific new collection. . . . This book, with its intrepidity, humor, and dark insight, offers its own, irrefutable justification for ‘the writer's life.’” —The New Republic

“A writing memoir that belongs in the company of classics such as Grace Paley’s Just as I Thought, Annie Dillard’s Living by Fiction, William Gass’s Fiction and the Figures of Life, and Eudora Welty’s One Writer's Beginnings.” —ForeWord Magazine
“Darkly comic. . . . Greenberg’s gifts as a storyteller—his spare style, shrewd use of detail, easy way with unpredictable references . . . lack of sentimentality, and sense of the surreal in the ordinary—are evident throughout the book.” —The New York Review of Books

“Greenberg, a native New Yorker, loves the city as a child loves a parent, and in its honor he has put together a collection of tightly written incisive chapters, each another tessera or tile in a big mosaic. . . . Greenberg is an acute observer.” —Edmund White, The New York Times Book Review
“Brilliant. . . . Personal experience is at the center of each piece, but none is solipsistic; the tone is understated and ironic, and every essay contains a hard-won glimmer of insight.” —The Washington Post
“Greenberg is at the top of his form. . . . His writing [has] an attractive subtlety. . . . [It is] efficient, understated, languidly witty.” —The New Criterion
“Bring[s] together 44 of his finest. . . . The quotidian is illuminated and refracted through a cool, audacious eye. . . . Direct, unbuffered, sharp-edged.” —The Boston Globe
“Greenberg captures . . . the everyday texture of metropolitan life . . . with diaristic immediacy.” —The New Yorker
 “Greenberg’s descriptions of his encounters with mentors, his dealings with the movie world and his endless family dramas are rendered with biting humor and insight. The unflinching stories are so well written, readers will wince.”—Florida Times-Union

“Succinct, yet beautifully detailed. . . . Sometimes tragic, often funny, always moving true-life tales.” —PopMatters
“Quietly elegant, effortless, valuable, and perfectly crafted, like gems or teardrops . . . [Greenberg writes] the way Chagall would make a stained-glass window, using familiar materials and skills to create something delicate and undeniable and new.” —

Beg, Borrow, Steal will become a bestseller today and a classic inspiration tomorrow. Just as people carried Kerouac and Bellow in their back pocket, Greenberg’s conversational tone stays with you, and you want to read his essays again and again.” —

“Poignant. . . . Most chapters read like anecdotes told among friends. . . . Greenberg skillfully explores issues that range from the profoundly tragic to the delightfully funny. . . . Succinct, entertaining personal narratives.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Graceful ponderings by a deeply sympathetic soul, a consummate New Yorker and terrific writer.” —Publishers Weekly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590513415
  • Publisher: Other Press, LLC
  • Publication date: 9/8/2009
  • Pages: 232
  • Product dimensions: 5.54 (w) x 8.58 (h) x 0.92 (d)

Meet the Author

A native New Yorker, Michael Greenberg is the author of the memoir Hurry Down Sunshine, published in sixteen countries and chosen as one of the best books of 2008 by Time, the San Francisco Chronicle,, and Library Journal. He is a columnist for the Times Literary Supplement. His writing has appeared in such varied places as O, The Oprah Magazine and The New York Review of Books. He lives in New York.
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Read an Excerpt

My old man was like Zeus’s father Cronos: he couldn’t bear the idea that any of his children might surpass him. Life radiated from the central pulse of his scrap-metal yard; the world beyond it seemed to make him defensive and nervous. Self-conscious about his lack of formal education, he took my bookishness as a personal affront. “Which do you think is worth more,” he once asked me, “a commodity or some goddamn idea?”

Among the family, my violent fights with him were famous. The last one occurred when I was fifteen. I followed him around the apartment, taunting him with a line from my latest poem, “Which do you think is worth more, flesh or steel?” At the end of his rope, he took a wild swing at me. I dodged it easily, hearing the crush of bone as his fist hit the wall. I fled the apartment, and when I returned, three days later, his hand was in a cast. “You have guts, but no common sense,” he said. “One cancels out the other. A total waste.”

A week later, I moved away from home, supporting myself with a night job in a bookstore.

Nevertheless, when I was in my early twenties, driving a cab, with a newborn son at home, my father offered me a chance to join the family business. “You get all the major holidays,” he said. “You quit work every day at five. And to make a living you don’t have to be a genius.”

He seemed hurt when I turned him down. “Those notebooks you scribble in won’t get you on the goddamn subway,” he said.

He was right, and during the lean years that followed I sometimes imagined that he was eyeing me with satisfaction. I was getting what I deserved. The idea of writing for a living was ludicrous to him, unless you were as famous as Arthur Miller or cooked up gags for one of his revered television stars. My literary ambitions were self-destructive and pretentious.

The family metal business was not pretentious. Pig iron scrap metal, and cold roll steel were the deities of our household. They represented value stripped down to its zero point, tangible and unadorned. To get by in my father's world, you had to be tough, like he was. He didn't have colleagues, only enemies. Every dollar, he taught us, had to be pried away from men who would just as soon see us starve.

My brothers, Robert and Ben, had accepted his offer to join the business, and when he died, nine years ago, they inherited it. More than a livelihood, it had become the source of our family's identity, our New York achievement. Our immigrant grandfather had started with scrap metal back in the 1920s. Prior to that, in the Ukraine, iron work had been the family trade. Robert and Ben enjoyed our special status for keeping this tradition (and, by extension, our Jewish forefathers) alive.

I am stunned, therefore, when I learn that my brothers have decided to liquidate the business and retire while still in their prime. The news puts me in the untenable position of mourning the passing of something that I had strongly rejected.

I ride the number 6 train to the South Bronx in order to see the place one last time. When I arrive, the cinder-block warehouse is almost empty. "You're looking at a carcass," says Ben, reading my mind. The building has already been sold, he tells me. In a month the new owners will move in, a sprinkler company that used to be down in TriBeCa. Robert examines the remaining scraps of steel, doing his best to look busy. They seem embarrassed by the state of affairs, and uneasy about my being there for no apparent reason other than to scrutinize their lives. "What will you do now?" I ask. "Learn to cook," says Ben sarcastically. "Climb mountains," says Robert. A rat hurries along the warehouse wall. I am reminded of Freud's remark that when rats appear in a dream, they usually stand for the dreamer's siblings.

Sitting with them in their cramped, dusty office, I feel the presence of our father. His larger office was in the adjoining room. It looks much as he left it, except for the addition of an exercise bike that my brothers rarely use. Robert once had aspirations to be an artist, and on the wall opposite our father's old desk hangs a painting he did of the warehouse crammed with rolled coils of steel. The picture of prosperity. "I feel that I'm letting Dad down," says Robert quietly. "He never would have allowed this to happen."

Our father's stamp on him was enormous. A few weeks after our father died, Robert started wearing his pinkie ring, a blue sapphire set in a square of gold. He took to smoking his cigars, driving his old, wheezy Mercedes, and thrusting his chin out like our father, growling at people without provocation. I thought of Patricia Highsmith's character Tom Ripley assuming the mannerisms of his victim Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley, though in Robert's case this was a benign, seemingly unconscious homage.

A couple of months later, as if snapping out of a trance, he ditched the Mercedes, put away the pinkie ring, and returned to himself—solitary and shy. I realized then that this had been Robert's way of mourning: he had been keeping our father alive in himself.

Ben has few misgivings about quitting. Liquidation, in fact, was his idea. "When I feel guilty," he says, "I remember what I went through with the old man. And I think, to hell with it, I had enough. I can't stand this place anymore." As the eldest son, Ben felt coerced into joining the business. Expectations for him were higher than for the rest of us. Had the pressure been less, he believes, he might have led a more rewarding life doing something else. Our father punished him for that ambivalence. "He'd come in and slap his cane on my desk, spoiling for a fight.  'So you want to get out of here?' he's ask. Everything I did was wrong." For thirty years they tormented each other with accumulated rancor.

We go to a diner for lunch and return to the office. The afternoon drags slowly on. The phone is silent. The truck awaits a buyer. The line cutter, which was used to shear rolls of steel into sheets like plywood, will soon be hauled to Mexico, where metalwork is thriving. My brothers worry about getting paid. The business has always been small, with rarely more than six employees. Two remain, hanging around with nothing to do, impatient to go home. They remember our father differently than we do. "We called him The Pigeon," says one, "because every time the cutter went silent he'd stick his head out the office window to see what was going on." One morning, eager to get to work, he jumped out of his car while it was still in gear. "It smashed into a fire hydrant, but your father didn't notice. Or he didn't give a damn. He wasn't easy to work for, but that man had drive." The drive kept the business going. My brothers, they believe, have broken a tacit contract. "There just wasn't enough hustle in them. Together they couldn't do what your old man did alone."

I step outside for some air. The last time I was here, in the 1980s, barefoot crack whores prowled the streets in the freezing cold. Today, the neighborhood is slightly less dramatic, though ample signs of misery remain. Flanked by two enormous waste-burning plants, men in rags lower traps into the East River. One snares a blue claw crab. The man next to him looks on jealously. Squatter camps made of discarded car parts spill out from under the expressway.

Shortly before he died, my father recalled the day I turned down his offer to join the business. "It was just as well," he said. "You wouldn't have lasted. Your brothers will do better."

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 4 of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 3, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A writer's life? I can't figure out how he is a writer...

    I expected a gripping tale of the writer-as-artist's life...struggling, not being able to pay bills, the excitement of NYC. What I got was chapters that did not flow together (much less relate to what I had just read), odd stories about people, places, and things that had very little to do with - well - anything. I wish I could get my money back, plus timed served reading. I have this weird thing about reading books all the way through, trying to find some redeeming quality, but I couldn't. I was counting down the pages till I was through. Not recommended. Not at all.

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  • Posted February 21, 2010

    "Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of supression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining." The Adventures of Augie March, S. Bellow, 1953

    Wry and rueful, frequently wise, 'Beg, Borrow, Steal, A Writer's Life' is antidote to the bombastic self-advertisement and corruption of contemporary literary memoir. For admirers of 'Hurry Down Sunshine', 2008, Michael Greenberg's newest book will be a welcome, and less harrowing, return to the mind and milieu of a man who wrote so wrenchingly and well on his adolescent daughter's psychotic break. (The present volume gathers stories that earlier appeared in Greenberg's Freelance column for the Times Literary Supplement.)

    Like miniature portraits etched in ivory, Greenberg's stories beg to be carried in a pocket by the heart. Economical of language yet generous in spirit, they are finely drawn in a plainspoken style that is both taut and selectively terse. Set beyond fame's obliterating currency, his subjects move about the margins of a storied city's vaporizing glare. Greenberg's quietly powerful tales are illuminated from within by lives lived inside the author's circle of acquaintance. They ring with the truth of one about whom it may be suspected has outlasted his darkest fears and deepest disappointments, yet still takes nothing for granted.

    Sometimes family, often Jews, mostly New Yorkers, writers and minor celebrities mingle here with tailors and salvage dealers, bohemian aristocrats and public housing tenants. The unexpected and the overlooked are the stuff of these tales, told from the inside out.

    A blockbuster film to his credit, a criminal judge interviews the author when he is called for jury duty. An Auschwitz alumnus leaves an ambiguous, Gogolian legacy the author must share on the arrival of a surprise beneficiary. A chance meeting at a cocktail party affords a once powerful editor an opportunity for reflection, which seeming to have outlived his legend, he misses, furnishing the author an ambivalent epiphany; he'd rejected Greenberg's early fictional efforts. Elsewhere, an idle hour in the Lower East Side's Tenement Museum inspires a deceptively mundane travelogue that metamorphoses into a searing meditation on the stark emotional legacy of a grandfather's rise from "shtetl nobody."

    Greenberg's habit of writing as close to home as he does to the bone instigates a few of the scenes animating these tales, as when his wife Pat brings a friend home to dinner. Georgina, Greenberg writes, had been "scoured of maleness by hormone infusions and sex reassignment surgery... and looked oddly ageless ... with a touch of smugness, justifiable perhaps in one who had partially succeeded in overturning one of Nature's most intractable laws."

    Feeling like the proverbial fifth wheel, Greenberg obnoxiously begins-notebook in one hand, bourbon in the other-- to "interview" Georgina when Pat erupts, tracing a perilous fault line in the couple's marriage. The story continues after Georgina has gone and Greenberg has asked Pat "what she thought had motivated Georgina to do what she did to herself." It's writing with power out of all scale to its brevity. It works by the author's peerless handling of the tension bristling between disclosure and restraint, self appraisal and elision. "[T]he ultimate freedom." Pat goes on, "I am what I say I am. Not what I was born..."

    If a deep, arresting poignancy is a regular feature of these stories, the author's clear, unblinking gaze and heroically stealthy economy have left no budget for sentimentality. More, please, Mr. Greenberg. Soon.

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    Posted November 23, 2010

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    Posted January 27, 2010

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