Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Ceiling Leak


A few years ago, I awoke one morning in my New York apartment to notice there was a darkish bottle-shaped patch on my ceiling. It looked damp, and had that pre-drip hue to itthe ceiling not quite saturated yet, but almost. We'd had a violent thunderstorm the previous evening. So, I reasoned the person above me, an older lady who lived alone, had negligently left her window open. In came the rain, and it created a little flood in her apartment. Now I was seeing the results on my ceiling, water about to drip down. I got on a chair and had a closer look. Strange. I saw that the patch had a glossy, viscous look to it, not like water.

Then I noticed the smell. The only way to describe it is to say it was the smell of death.
                                                              
Which, in fact, it was. 

Later, the police forced opened the door of her apartment. They found the body. It was determined she had been dead for four days. I'll leave it to your imagination to figure out what that oily patch was on my ceiling. Maybe some verbs might help. Suppurating. Decomposing. Putrefying. Then some nouns. Intestines. Effluvia. Liquids.
                                                                   
Not the actual leak, but what it looked like

I passed the lady on the street from time to time. We never spoke. I don't think she ever had any visitors. What we had in common was that we both lived alone. It was then that I came face to face with how I might die.

Some of us will die with friends and family at our side, holding our hand and speaking words of encouragement as we begin the last journey to wherever we must go. Some of us will have a priest or rabbi or minister near, comforting us with words we have heard all our lives in churches or in synagogues. Others of us, though, will die alone, without a single person beside us, and rot in our beds, leaving a stinking smell as a reminder of our existence. I pray that someone is there with me, to hold my hand, and speak to me, as I die. The simple fact is, I can deal with growing old alone, but I don't want to die alone.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Mothers


"Mothers are all slightly insane," Holden Caulfield says at one point in The Catcher in the Rye. I always knew what he meant. It was never a quote that I puzzled over. In five words, he nailed it.

Yes, mothers are all slightly insane, some more slightly than others. They're insane because they can never be certain, ever, that their child(ren) is(are) completely without harm. They are on some kind of alert twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. Some part of them never sleeps. You can't be that attentive and worried for that long and not be slightly crazy.  Combine this worry with powerlessnessas soon as the boy or girl steps out of the house (out of the room, actually), they can't do a thing to protect them.
                                                                     
My mother holding me, age 7 weeks

Of course, the more children you have, the nuttier you become. And let me add that raising four or five children will make anyone a bit nuts. But I don't think that is the kind of nuts Holden meant.  I think it's the unbearable helplessness of protecting someone you would die for, twice and thrice over.

So, they act strange sometimes. They say strange things, ask strange things, do strange things. It seems like they've lost it sometimes, their basic intelligence goes out the window. They repeat themselves. They make inconsequential remarks. They approve of almost everything. They lose their balance. They reach out a hand. They begin a sentence. They look around the room. There's no one there.
                                                                           
Holding her twins with me pondering. She had three children within eleven months

I cannot imagine that pull, like the moon pulls at the tide, that you can never free yourself of as a mother. The pull toward the child you gave birth to.

I think of my own mother, of her difficult life, and of her living alone after her divorce. For years. I think of all that she tried to do with that ache and pull toward her children. I think of her carrying that pull and the ache of loving me and that love unrequited, and how can you stand that day after day year after year? I think of her probably thinking she hadn't been a good mother, and how that must have devastated her after worrying about us so deeply and so continuously.  
                                                                               
In Old Greenwich sometime in the 1970s

It's too late to tell her that I love her. I'm not here to say anything silly like, tell your mom you love her before it's too late.  I'm just here to say to you, Mom, that you deserved better. But I can't. Because you're dead.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

What Ebony Magazine taught me


I don't remember when or where I read my first copy of Ebony Magazine. It was surely sometime in the late 1950s, though. How would I have found a copy in my segregated world of Virginia Beach, Virginia back then? It wasn't until 1959 that the schools in nearby Norfolk where integrated and then just barely. I grew up in a white Southern world with little knowledge of black people beyond their roles as cooks and maids. It's almost impossible to describe the effect of a background like that. No, it is impossible.
                                                                             

In any case, somehow I got my hands on a copy of Ebony. (I later subscribed.) Now, I would venture to say that most white people never read Ebony in the 1950s and 1960s and probably still don't. It was really Life Magazine for black people. It was, basically, a way to show all aspects of black life in America, from the heralded high achievers to the everyday ordinary man and woman. It had an agenda, and that was to always show the positive side of black life in America. It didn't shy away from speaking up about civil rights, but that wasn't its main purpose, at least as I saw it.

Later, I even read Succeeding Against the Odds, the autobiography of Ebony's founder, John H. Johnson.  It's good.  By the way, when Johnson learned that 12% of his readers were white, he wasn't especially pleased.  "I want to be king of the black hill," he said, "not the mixed hill."  Sorry, Mr. Johnson!  I'm staying!

Looking into Ebony for me was like taking a trip to a foreign land. It was absolutely transfixing. Why? Because I saw black men and women, black families, doing the same things my family did. I had never seen that before. I saw black people in advertisements--with no white people. I saw them getting on airplanes, drinking Ballentine's Scotch, using Listerine, buying Goodyear Tires, ordering a Bell Telephone, using a GE hairdryer. Only someone who grew up in the segregated South as I did would understand how powerful this was.
                                                                           
                                                                                   
                                                                              
                                                                               

There was normally a story about a famous black person--Sammy Davis, Jr, Jackie Robinson, Harry Belafonte, Ralph Bunche, Marian Anderson and so on.
                                                                                

But there were many more stories that didn't make the national news, the stories of a high school baseball coach, a stock car driver, a construction foreman, a ballet instructor, the head of a reform school. My favorite department was "Speaking of People." It was a section that featured small but significant successes of ordinary people. This, more than anything, made a permanent impression on me. Here you had people who were just ordinary folks, doing well at what they did in just about every way you could imagine. I loved that part of the magazine.
                                                                      

Only drawback: Ebony had a disappointing recipe/cooking section, "A Date with a Dish". It was like many of the other cooking sections in magazines of that era, and that was the problem. With such an amazing tradition to draw from, the dishes were incredibly bland and ordinary. I knew how good it could be! It continued that way far into the era of Gourmet Magazine. Alas!
                                                                               

Well, can't have everything. The fact is, I read Ebony regularly from about 1959 to 1969. It influenced me, enlightened me, entertained me and surprised me. I don't read it anymore. I hardly read any magazines anymore. I'm glad it's still with us, though. And I wonder if there are many others like me who, through Ebony, crossed the color line when you simply couldn't any other way. And were the better for it.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Books & Co., RIP


Some people mourn movie theaters that have closed down. Some, amusement parks by the sea. Some, those old fashioned drug stores with counter service. Some, race tracks.

I mourn the passing of bookstores. I lived in New York City for thirty-five years, and I saw many of them close. Some of these privately-owned bookstores were marvelous, too marvelous for words. When they closed, it was hard on the heart. Take Books & Co., which was located on Madison Avenue and 74th Street.
                                                                     

I wrote earlier about my sighting Allen Ginsberg emerging from that bookstore one day. The place was a two-story gem with rust-hued brick walls, one of which had an astonishing floor-to-ceiling selection that stretched on and on. Exploring that wall of titles, you felt like Howard Carter when he looked into Tutankhamun's tomb for the first time and was asked by those behind him if he saw anything. He replied, “Yes, wonderful things.” The place had a staff of seasoned book sommeliers who paired you with the right book for your particular taste of the moment. You could give them the barest direction, and they'd come up with something delicious for you. It was impossible not to make a discovery there.  I spent many happy hours in that store.
                                                                         
Books & Co. staff with Jeannette Watson, owner, center
In doing some research for this post, I discovered that a book has been written about the store and its owner, Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books & Co.  Who would have thought? I remember seeing Jeannette Watson, slim, with bright blonde hair, always dressed immaculately, obviously proud and pleased of her bookstore, as well she should have been. She was a hands-on, caring owner who, for twenty years, offered New Yorkers the most exquisite experience of the mind. As far as I'm concerned, Jeannette Watson was a saint, if there ever was one.
                                                                               
Jeannette Watson (center) with Erica Jong

The store closed in 1997. Before it did, there were efforts to save it, but they were futile. It was learned later that Ms. Watson had yearly put about $100,000 of her own money into the bookstore to offset losses. The rent was too high, though. Remember the neighborhood, one of the toniest in the world. So, we lost it. But for twenty years, those of us fortunate enough to have lived in New York at the time, had something very special. And we knew it. 

Gone, but to anyone who spent time there, surely never forgotten.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Terrible Infant


It's a surprising thing to find yourself, or something you've written, as a source for part of a famous dead poet’s biography. Especially a famous dead poet with an exotic, volcanic life. I’m speaking of Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891). I wrote an essay for a magazine about Rimbaud's time late in his life as a coffee trader in Ethiopia, about how he got there, unlikely as that was. I was thinking about writing something else about Rimbaud, so I promptly went to everyone’s convenient source of choice, Wikipedia. Lo and behold, there it is, citation number 64, a reference to the article I'd written thirteen years ago and nearly forgotten.

It made me think of how strange it is the places we end up in our lives. Here was this enfant terrible, possessed of extraordinary poetic powers, who ended up in a small house in Harar, in what is now eastern Ethiopia, having abandoned poetry forever some fifteen years earlier, counting his money, forever concerned that local merchants were cheating him out of a few pennies, or whatever currency they used.

But that’s not the way it began. 
                                                                        
Arthur Rimbaud

He sprang full blown as a poet from a small city in northern France. He was writing lasting poems by the age of sixteen. Arthur Rimbaud was a poet whose life was like one of those Roman candles that goes astray and sweeps erratically across the sky with the possibility of crashing into a house or a person or you. Everything about his life was dramatic, self-destructive and extreme.
 
He wrote incendiary, sometimes gorgeous, sometimes fearlessly sexual and often frustratingly complex poetry in the remarkably brief period he wrote poetry. Which is to say, from the age of sixteen to the age of nineteen or twenty. His most famous poems are "The Drunken Boat" and "A Season in Hell." Nothing had ever been seen like this in French poetry before, even from Baudelaire. After the age of twenty or so, Rimbaud stopped writing altogether. No one knows why. The rest of his life, he was a wanderer. He went in search of something he could never find, because it wasn't there. He looked for it in Paris, in Indonesia, in London, in Cyprus, in Yemen. And, finally, in Ethiopia.
                                                                                
Rimbaud by Picasso

Some artists love Rimbaud because his chaotic, fiery life gives them reassurance for their own. Or what they would like their own to be. (I am a passenger on that ship.) And Rimbaud's life was as chaotic as any self-destructive American artist's has even been, if not more so. Typical is the affair he had with the (married) poet Paul Verlaine that ended with Verlaine, in a rage, shooting Rimbaud in the wrist. As Allen Ginsberg said, "Rimbaud seems to be a complete turn-on catalyst to every poet in small town isolated, or big megapolis, staring at the city lights over the roof."  What that means to me is: don't let those small town minds stop you from becoming the comet that you are. So you destroy a few things, or lives, along the way. You're an artist. Yes, an artist! A pass for crashing through life!
                                                                               
Rimbaud in Ethiopia

The last years of his life Rimbaud spent exporting coffee from Ethiopia—an astonishingly able linguist, he learned the language quickly—and smuggling guns. All he cared about was money. In those later years, someone realized who he was (Rimbaud had become famous in Paris without knowing it) and asked him about his poetry. "Disgusting!" Rimbaud replied.
 
One of his last letters, written to his sister from a hospital in Marseilles, where he was soon to die at the age of thirty-seven, says, "Our life is a misery, an endless misery. Why do we exist?"  I can’t imagine myself saying that. But, then I couldn’t imagine my life unfolding the way it has, either.