Sunday, April 20, 2014

My own private Dante

This is a post for book lovers. Fanatics might be a better word. Be forewarned.

In the summer of 2011, I went to Rome to teach for two weeks. I came a few days early to acclimate myself and, in the airport, ran into a fellow teacher in the same summer program, Jody Lisberger. We decided to walk around Rome together. We went to the Piazza Navona and then wandered into the nearby Church of Sant'Agostino. Inside, immediately to our left, was a large painting titled "Madonna dei Pellegrini" by Caravaggio. Immediately the thought came to my mind,

"I wonder where the original is?"
I was just a few hours off the plane, remember.

We walked outside. Next door was the Biblioteca Angelica. A library. It looked fairly plain from the outside. I suggested we go inside. (Background: I was supposed to give a lecture on Dante as part of my teaching responsibilities.) I spoke some rudimentary Italian, a hodgepodge of opera arias and a few courses here and there. There was a man at a desk in an anteroom. I asked him if we could go inside the library. He said yes, just fill out this card. I guess that's standard around the world. I did, and we stepped inside to this:

It was a book-lover's dream. It was like an all-you-can-eat literary feast. Those books! Row after row. Ancient, leather-bound books, reaching up into the sky. Look belowdoesn't this make your mouth water?

It did mine. I had to ask Jody for a Kleenex because water was cascading down the corners of my mouth onto the floor. I looked like a dog when you don't give it the treat right away. After cleaning myself up, I walked up to the main desk behind which three women were seated. I asked them in my pig-Italian if they had any copies of The Divine Comedy. All three of them smiled at once. "Si," they answered in unison. I asked them if they had some very old editions. "Si."  More smiles. Could I see the oldest edition? (Refresher: Dante wrote The Divine Comedy between 1308 and 1321. Gutenberg printed his first Bible in 1455.) "Si," they said.

In a few minutes, one of the women returned with a volume. She simply handed it to me. "I can look at it?" I asked. "Si." Didn't have to wear white gloves? "No." So, I just took it to a table nearby. And opened it. Jody snapped a photo.

I didn't know what I was looking at until later. I could see that this edition of The Divine Comedy had been printed in 1472 in a town called Foligno by a man named Johann Neumeister. The name didn't have that Italian ring I was expecting. I reasoned he must be German (I have several Master's degrees) and that perhaps he had worked with Gutenberg (he had). What I didn't know was that this was the first printed edition of The Divine Comedy, anywhere.

I opened the book.

Well, Lord have mercy.  Let's get in a bit closer:

There are those famous Italian words, the most famous Italian words ever written, here put down in a kind of medieval shorthand, "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura / ché la diritta via era smarrita." As translated by Robert Pinsky, "Midway on our life's journey, I found myself / In dark woods, the right road lost."

Every time I read those words, I think: Haven't we all? I stood there and drank my fill of Dante. Satiated and stunned, I gave the book back to le tre donne gentili, and I left with Jody.  We walked back out onto the street.  The sun was full, glorious.

This was my first day in Rome.                                                       

Saturday, April 12, 2014

"You can quote me"

Until about ten years ago, I kept a journal full of quotes by writers I especially liked. I love looking at these quotes, because they're like firecrackers of insight. Epiphany makers. (Note to self: find a fresher word for epiphany other than epiphany.) Sometimes a few words can sum up a messy, controversial and unfathomable situation. As Langston Hughes, through his character, Simple, the Harlem street sage, says:

"Some black men do not feel like men when they are surrounded by white folks who look at them like as if blackness was bad manners or something."
Langston Hughes

Many times a writer will tell you something you already knew but were hesitant to admit. Like Graham Greene in The Heart of the Matter:

"The truth, he thought, has never been of any real value to any human beingit's a symbol for mathematicians and philosophers to pursue. In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths."
Graham Greene

There are some words that I understand, then don't, then do:

"To be a Flower, is profound
                                Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson

Then words that capture that struggle you've had all your life, like these from Spanish Leaves by Honor Tracy:

"The Japanese say the four terrors of life are earthquake, fire, flood and father."

The difficulty with putting down a lot of quotations is that you can only devour a few at a time. La Rochefoucauld's Maxims are wonderful, but after you read seven or eight of them, they lose their ability to startle and satisfy, like eating too much licorice. Speaking of the Duc, very few have understood human nature better:

"We all have enough strength to endure the misfortune of others," he wrote.
La Rochefoucauld

Sometimes you want words to throw in the face of a charlatan, like one of those god damn moral crusaders who pretend to have God's unlisted number. That's when I turn to Charlotte Brontë:

"Conventionality is not morality.  Self-righteousness is not religion." 
Charlotte Brontë

When it's hard to look at myself in the mirror, I've got this from Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis:

"No one is a coward at all points." 
C.S. Lewis

The good thing about quotations is that they don't all have to be about profound subjects. They shouldn't, actually. Because I, for one, am hardly ever profound. Here's Brendan Behan from Borstal Boy, about mornings:

"The morning is always a good time. Till about eleven o'clock, when it begins to feel its age."
Brendan Behan

One quote I try to live by? Ok, from William Blake:

"Exuberance is Beauty."

You can say that again, W.B.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


"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.