Still, I did have these little surges of hope while I was in Vermont but it did not survive the trip back. I could get the concept, if just barely, of good feelings when my mind drifted to how it had just been. And I did have a sense that I had made a statement just by going to Vermont which, with its environmentalists and folk singers, the Bread & Puppet Theater, people working for civil rights and against the smug Reaganites, Vermont with its Socialist mayor of what was becoming known at the People’s Republic of Burlington, Vermont with its Green Mountains which were in fact so very green – and filled with life as compared to what in my mind were becoming the increasingly cold and stark White Mountains of New Hampshire, which were very close but could have been a thousand miles away.
As my mind roamed while on the bus down back down to the city, what had gone on up there just now in Rutland seemed to have no clear context. And after I was back in my still new and bright apartment in Chelsea with its view over an abandoned garden and then out and over low buildings almost to the Battery, I still could not recapture the recent hope I had felt in Vermont – much less the hope I had been I finding here in something like community on this block of people who had always been here – these people among whom I moved now like a wraith. Nor the hope I had found in the sympathy of David Yammer, and in my reading of Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child (its first title being Prisoners of Childhood).
And I was almost paralyzed. I had very little money, but I could not rouse myself to go for more, not even to go to Atlantic City. I had these book proposals floating around but I had lost heart with them – not just the now dead commercial one that involved lying about the West Indies that had taken me on that trip to the Bahamas with Ellen. But also the one that would be called Twins in the American Century. That last one, an editor’s idea, meant to take off from what had been in those grand houses in the White Mountains – the grandfather with his Pulitzer prize and his place on official college reading lists, my brother the good twin, who for years had been traveling the world, sometimes for the CIA, sometimes for cold war defense department agencies that taught free world allies in Southeast Asia how to kill more of their peasants – though in the book proposal my brother’s career was presented as a light element in this light book that Richard at Macmillan said they wanted if I would only give them the sample chapter they needed to make their sales people feel secure, this book that would be called Twins in the American Century, the American century being a term still current in the Reagan time, about the grandfather’s efforts as an internationalist to get America into world war II to aid the nice people (the English), with no mention in the proposal that in the White Mountains, which had become his family base, the hotels would not rent rooms to Jews.
Just my grandfather the serious internationalist, and my brother traveling on the payroll of the government for imperial reasons that, for book proposal purposes, I would not say infuriated me. And myself, the other twin, always traveling too but living by my wits, sort of, doing free lance projects and books that were sometimes real and sometime hack things and sometimes verged on what nice people would call pornography, and was associated with, I did not spell this out, the very people his brother, who had been raised as the good twin, were trying to kill, not mentioning that I the bad twin had very recently been underground in the Philippines, closely associated with figures in the Maoist New People’s army. Nor that there had been all those death threats phoned in to me in Manila and San Francisco and New York.
This was in my thoughts as, unable to sleep, I read a novel that was about someone coming to terms with his past in the most silly and sentimental way – and deciding to reconcile with them when he read the Robert Frost poem “The Death of the Hired Man,” read that famous line I could almost cry over,
Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.
How brittle and cold and cruel. How long had it been since I had read poetry, which in some distant past so much a part of my life? I reread The Death of the Hired Man. The author of that novel did not mention that the hired man in question knew he could not go home. It did not mention the hired man’s brother, who was a bank director.
Home! Shit! There was something going on with my twin who was somewhere inside me and might be back there in the White Mountains now in the family house that had come into his possession. The last of the family houses in that place across the border, the stark White Mountains, which we had believed were soft and fluffy and safe, and where our lives had started.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Back in New York there was a message on my answering machine that in another time would have been very bad news indeed but that now seemed irrelevant in the wake of my unsatisfying time in the Bahamas, and then a time far worse than unsatisfactory in New Hampshire for the English Party. The call had been from the agent Hal Dart, who said the island series would not work. The editor who wanted it had discovered that the field had suddenly been taken. An existing slick travel book series, an American venture based in Singapore where quality printing was still cheap, was to go whole hog into what we’d thought would be my territory. Most of what this American publishing firm in Singapore had done involved Southeast Asia, but they had been feeling out other places, and in my territory already have a book out on Jamaica.
I had looked at the Jamaica book. It was full of feathery color pictures, surrounded by sloppily written text, as I knew those books to be. And it had an introduction that shamelessly heaped praise on a controversial right-wing Prime Minister of Jamaica who had been installed in office, it was widely believed and quite well documented, with heavy and heavy-handed CIA help. So here was the CIA again, that awful espionage outfit that currently employed my twin brother and had been haunting me since I first ran afoul of violent and corrupt contract agents in Bangkok and Laos in the 1960s.
My peripatetic past in my present, as if it were not enough that I had just been hit hard by revisiting my early days in the White Mountains.
I had last been in Singapore in the 1970s, shortly before I got married in Manila. In Singapore that time I had gotten to know a conservative appearing yet romantic man named Richard who had stayed on in Southeast Asia after the Peace Corps and had wound up working as the text editor of these same slick guides. We became friends out there. He was little ponderous intellectually – given to using words like “vortex” – but I admired his style. He helped me with a Publishers Weekly piece I was doing for money about American publishers taking book production to Singapore. Also, Richard gave me contacts in Bali, from which he had eloped to Singapore with a gorgeous young dancer whom he married.
After Singapore Richard took the Balinese dancer home to Forest Hills in Queens, and he was there when I returned to America with my new wife from the Philippines. She and I became friends with Richard and the talented dancer.
Now Richard was still in hyper middle class Forest Hills but divorced, as I was now too. He was well into a career in traditional publishing. And he was the very editor who had said they would make an offer once they had a sample chapter or two for Twins in the American Century.
Macmillan was a bird in hand, though hardly ideal for me. While still in my marriage I had done a free-lance job on a good grey encyclopedia yearbook owned by Macmillan, an experience that confirmed what I had heard for years about what a dull place this once cutting edge publishing house had become. It now had its own bleak new Third Avenue skyscraper building, whose lack of inside décor made its offices seem more like government offices than anything in any dashing literary world.
My past in my present in more ways than one. I was dealing with the sort of knowing or unknowing contract CIA person who had become familiar in my years in Asia. And even stranger, the place where he worked now had, in a more interesting past time, published the books that my grandfather Gaga had written in his studies in White Wings and White Pines. And now it looked like Macmillan would publish this projected book about Gaga and my twin brother and me. If I could just write it.
Starting in 1916 and going into the start of my lifetime, Macmillan had issued about 20 of Gaga’s books, mostly novels, in uniform black-bound editions that were still in libraries and second hand bookstores everywhere, as well as in many White Mountains summer houses.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
My second as well as my first reaction to Peter Cooper’s strange, out of the blue suggestion – this Adult Children of Alcoholics thing – was that I am not the sort of person to do something like that. And then, amazingly, such thoughts were being blotted out by a feeling that dark things were being lifted from me. This was so fine, but I felt I would have to be very careful. And also, the awareness that it was no surprise that childhood should get into my world at this point.
And in Rutland now it seemed that Peter Cooper had somehow seen something else that had come into my life in this past year. From mid-1984 until the start of this year, 1985, I had gone through a stretch of being a familiar comic figure, a guy leaving his marriage who lives on friends coaches and takes over other friend’s lofts and apartments for brief times when they are away. And one of the things I had done was go to Florida for a month where my mother’s condominium would be vacant while she was off in Europe – to Florida to a boring sort of place, Naples, not on the Atlantic but on the Gulf and some it on a tame (if you discounted alligators and tropical diseases) bay. Along the Gulf some people were absurdly rich and lived, when they were there, in the sort of out any context houses I had once seen that were built but hardly used by oil rich Bedouins in the grim wastes of Kuwait. Some of the retirees, former CEOs of dull but rich corporations, had these grim new quasi-mansions. Other old people – like my mother, and my father briefly before his painful death – lived in new condominium buildings that had the style of prisons but were not so well built, for Florida contractors cut so many corners that new appliances keep giving out and if you opened a door you would not be surprised if the door knob came off in your hand.
I had gone down there in the summer of ’84 not quite realizing how this sweltering swampy place was not a place anyone was meant to live. Noxious gases from the Everglades wafted over Naples. Something called the red tide meant that if the jelly fish did not get you you would suffer rashes and welts anyway should you give in to the heat and go swimming. The phone was constantly ringing with calls from men representing various police departments trying to hold up frightened old people for “donations.”
I exchanged extremely friendly letters with this quite dashing blonde travel photographer whom I had met in the last days of my marriage. We were to meet when she got back to the city from Rome and I was back from Florida. Meanwhile, she had a cousin in Naples for me to look up. He was, of all things, a funeral director. For my ridiculously careful family of birth he would be one of the huge numbers of people who fell into the not-our-kind-of-people category.
We met at the bay in a dockside bar and restaurant, this pleasant, smiling guy, someone I thought our-kind-of-people might meet and forget whether or not they knew his place in the world. A group of men and women of varying ages came through the bar area on their way to the dining room, where the early bird special people were congregating. “Watch this,” the blonde’s funeral director cousin said. “Not one of them will recognize me.” And not one of them did though he looked them in eye as they came through. “It’s always this way”, he said. “They were all at a funeral I did earlier today, and not one of them recognizes me now.”
For a week I had my stepson down, thinking maybe we could continue the relationship even without his mother. We did a lot of fishing from a pier. For the first time since my early teens I was killing and gutting fish, which I pretended to like. And we went over to the Atlantic side for a student tour of the University of Miami’s campus. But I had the feeling we were both making up lines trying to think what the other would expect the one talking to say. It seemed unreal that there was any relationship to save.
Mostly I was alone in my mother’s condo. Just before leaving New York I had run into a friend on the Upper West side and after chatting I had said Hello at the point where I should have been saying Goodbye. This scared me. So in Florida I was trying to get off pills, and so I was not sleeping.
I really wanted to get off pills. I had brought it up with David Yammer, who set up an appointment for me with a big-time authority, a woman at St. Luke’s Hospital's Smithers, which was apparently a celebrated addiction center. I had somehow convinced her it was not so bad as it was, and she had told me how I would not be able to get drugs out of my system as quickly as I had gotten rid of accumulated alcohol. This now added to my insomnia, for now I wondered if it might not take years before I could really begin to get straight. I tried fantasizing about a beautifully sweating chubby bikini girl I had seen on the sweltering beach, which meant concentrating on a mental picture for masturbation purposes. The television was going pretty much night and day with the Olympics, live and rerun, which America was winning because the Soviets and their allies did not come. After that it was the Democratic National Convention, live and rerun.
And I talked and talked on the phone to people from my past, including a woman I had loved, though had hardly seen in the years since our initial, intensive soul mate/sexual connection back when I was 23 and my basic experience beyond intense 1950s necking had been with prostitutes. She was 20 then and married. Her husband stalked me in Atlanta. Each night I checked under my mattress to see if a bomb was there, something, I read, that the British had to do at this time in Kenya.
Awake at night in Florida now I put myself into a fantasy in which we would meet again and still be viable. Her voice still thrilled me. In cold light I phoned her in California and set up a rendezvous in the city, where I had no place to live.
And then I went back to the city and this was when I slipped into therapy by mistake. Two years earlier I had pressed hard for my wife to join me in going to a marriage counselor or some version of this new thing called couples’ therapy. She had said she despised the idea. And now, many months after our separation, she had phoned me and said she had arranged something affordable with a trainee at a place called the Jewish Board for Child and Family Services, and maybe, she said, for once I would keep a promise I had made to her. So there we were sitting in a small room with a man named David Yammer who was maybe half my age and wore a yarmulke – which seemed like a nice change from our-kind-of-people sort of situations but also seemed quite silly. The moment he tried to set up of dialogue between us my estranged wife and me she started screaming at me, which was probably not her version of what happened. She was cataloging everything I had done wrong – including things I had not done and now regretted not having done, these imaginary affairs that she said, just before I moved out, would justify her in cutting off my penis some night while I slept – which was something quite common, she said, back in the Philippines, which was where we had met at a time I had very recently stopped drinking and returned to Southeast Asia, and thought my life was really opening up.
David Yammer, apparently following something he had been told in therapy school, said now it would be a good idea if I saw you separately. And I played along. And he was horrified with only a little knowledge of where I came from that I would actually try to sleep in my mother’s Florida place. And then he was asking me about my father, who a year before had died a horrible death in a second rate hospital down there, everything conceivable wrong, and his wife, my mother, drunk at the condo, would not come to see him because she said he clearly would not recognize anyone, which I knew, and my wife who was there too knew, was wrong, but Mother stuck to it, and so did my brother, the good twin, and his very white wife, and so did my father’s sister my Aunt Betsy, known as my favorite aunt, and so did the Scarsdale widow, my aunt Peggy of his late brother Nick, my favorite uncle.
Dad was deserted. Who were these people?
And David Yammer had asked me the most strange question. How did you feel when your father died? And I was in tears. I was actually crying, which was something I had not done at since I had stopped drinking and left forever certain maudlin scenes.
And two years later, I took a bus to New Hampshire and they were all pretending they were English – my Aunt, my Mother, my brother, my sister-in-law and an Australian woman who had married a Littleton man, and they were talking about how what they called “Our London” was being ruined by the presence of blacks and Asians – Asians like my wife and stepson – I was as invisible here as was that funeral director in that Naples, Florida dockside bar.
And in these past months, I had been thinking I could drop it all now that I had gotten on to things I had actually always known about my nearest and dearest. I was reading Alice Miller now, and seeing David Yammer and taking him seriously – and I had started to think it was all behind me, these past things that now I saw could be in my life. It was all behind me, and it suddenly got worse and worse.
And here I was in Vermont now – the antithesis of Florida and also New Hampshire – here in Rutland hoping to fight my way out of things paralyzing and maybe terminal.
So I am staying here with my old friend Peter Cooper with whom I went through so much in the deep past. Now in his mid-fifties, anyone could see, as I had seen in the past, that he is not just an amusing roundish man with a quick brain, he is what seems to be an actual developed person – as I had thought he would be when we met in the time I was first free of everything over me – boarding school, college, the army, and family (I thought) – and living in New York City where, to my surprise, everything was indeed different – as summed up by how you did usually sleep with the girls you knew, though it was still the fifties and not many people outside Manhattan seemed to have any cause to speak of a sexual revolution. And anyway, it seemed now, 25 years later, that the New York I had stepped into, hardly innocent when I got there, was in a different world from the rest of America – certainly the places I had been living in since I was on my own, Indianaplis and Atlanta, and, European summers to the contrary, far away from my Connecticut home and the New Hampshire family summer base.
And now in this time of seeming hopelessness, something had called me to Vermont for a reunion with Peter Cooper and I found that his eager new wife worked on an assembly line for villainous General Electric and played the organ every Sunday in Rutland's Christian Science Church. And moreover, Peter was a member of a Congregational Church that he took seriously on both a mystical and social action level. I was not accustomed to dealing with church goers.
I try to accept what he seems to be accepting. And it reminds me of the year I was out of collage and had gone to Indianapolis to do political reporting for the old United Press – covering a legislature that met for only 90 days every two years but it was enough to pass a long series of anti—labor laws that made union activity a criminal act. And with a 4 to 1 Republican majority they had gone through the standard right-wing things, from resolutions opposing creeping socialism and Daylight Savings Time to calls for even more intensive persecution of suspected Communists. And then they went after the juvenile codes so that while I as there nighttime burglary (wink wink) in this old Klan place became punishable by death, even if the burglar was a small child.
But I did try to keep an open mind and convince myself that there was something firm and positive in Hoosiers cheering who they cheered – well maybe not their governor, a man named Craig who was a former commander of both the American Legion and the Indiana State Police with an implied Klan background, and whom I saw circling the state fair stadium standing up in the back of a long black convertible with his arms folded on his barrel chest, surrounded by armed thugs in state police uniforms. That was too much for my attempted tolerance, but maybe, I decided, I could be open-minded about maybe Arthur Godfrey, the big radio personality who was becoming more and more right wing and openly bigoted, who did a performance at the fair with maudlin music and a tortured trick horse that was the centerpiece of the fair entertainment that year, though nearly topped by an orchestra that did an imitation of the sounds of Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians.
I had not made much of an effort to be tolerant in this way since then. And Peter Cooper was no a member of the Kiwanis, much less the Klan, and his wife was anything but vicious, and he did have this book just out, giving us a bond, both of us now having published novels, as we had said we would when back in those early New York days. And yet, this was not my world.
I went to an amateur running of a Neil Simon play that Peter was in, and so were so many from his Vermont circle, and moreover, they all seemed to be tied to the same therapy group, which was a really lightweight seeming thing coming out of something called Transactional Analysis – which was apparently the I’m Okay, You're Okay syndrome.
And yet, it meant so much to me that everyone in Rutland seemed to know Peter. And I came here because I was desperate. And I listened closely when Peter gave me advice from his position as a man who had pulled his own life together and headed a state alcoholism clinic. He advised me not, as I thought he might, to join AA even though I was now ten years without a drink but had not done the program. No, he said, I should join – me a non-joiner – something called Adult Children of Alcoholics – me, who had so successfully avoided even thinking about my childhood, had never given anyone a childhood in anything I had written. No one, much less the characters based on myself.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
But it was so good to see Peter Cooper. A little like a return from the dead, Peter thinner now, and confident now, still witty, and with a kind of energy I had not seen back when we were drinking. Back then it might have seemed unlikely to me that either of us would live this long. And Peter now was not just breathing but a part of a community, which was clear right here at the small, smoky bus station in Rutland, this old quasi-industrial town in the foothills of the Green Mountain.
Two people waiting in the terminal, one a quite old woman, the other a thin crew cut guy with a Semper Fi tattoo, waved and called out to him when they spotted him. This would happen wherever we went in Rutland. He knew everyone. Peter in a context new to me.
We drove straight to his house. He had just been opening the package from his publisher, The Countryman Press, and the book looked good. The countryman press was a small but respectable publishing house down in Woodstock, Vermont, which I knew from another time as a town filled with non-Jews, non-Catholics, non non-whites. The press was run by a man named Peter Jennison. Peter Cooper said he had taken his manuscript there via a man he knew who was living in retirement near Rutland. This was Keith Jennison, who was Peter Jenison’s brother and had been a near legend in the publishing world. Keith appeared in many literary memoirs. But when I first met him he had been brought in as he to revamp a fairly obscure, and not very literary, house, which entailed his being editor on one of the small books on countries I had been doing for money. He was a refreshing change from the school marm types who usually edited such books.
My encounter with Keith had taken place in the summer back in 1970, when my Bangkok novel was coming to an end. I stopped in at his office to see how a small book I wrote on Malaysia was coming along. This was just after I arrived back from Singapore and just before heading to New Hampshire to visit not family but the woman who had been a such a startlingly vivid girl, Mickie, in White Wings. Also, I needed to do a final tinkering with the manuscript, and had an idea I could do it in the mountains. Keith and I had gone straight to a bar on Third Avenue where every time he raised even a finger our drinks would be topped off or refilled. We talked about my father, whom Keith had known for years in publishing circles, and about my late novelist grandfather, who had been on English class reading lists when Keith was in college. He spoke about them without seeming to treat me as their extension. We talked mostly of the special character of northern New Hampshire. Keith knew the White Mountains. He had written an amusing text in the voice of an old-time Yankee for a picture book that had the Old Man of the Mountains on its cover. (When I got to New Hampshire, I saw an old copy of Keith’s book that Mickey’s parents had left on a corner table in the formal living room of White Wings.) These connections had seemed like a good omen back then, and again now when Peter took me over to Keith’s retirement house in nearby Castleton, which was visually the most perfect of Vermont towns with its big clapboard houses around an inviting green.
All of which made me intensely happy for Peter, and hence a little hopeful for myself.
There was a chill in the air. I would have to remember to get something warm. My wife had gotten the blankets when we split up, and I anyway tended to own so few clothes that if I were dressing up I might have to use one of the now disappearing press-while-you-wait services.
From Castleton we went back Peter's place to meet his wife Julie, who was just getting home from a factory job she had taken. She turned out to be an enthusiastic, curly haired, not young woman who had a smile that could have put her in the desirable heartbreaker category.
The end of a cul-de-sac they lived on, was separated by a grassy divider from gas stations and convenience stores and strip malls on a main road into Rutland. But there were tall pines beside their house, and the air was northern air, and I could almost hear remembered northern bird cries from deep, deep in my past that seemed to be coming into my present here in the anti-New Hampshire.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
My brilliant and funny old drinking companion Peter Cooper was up in Vermont, reportedly a new man. It had been 16 years since I had seen Peter, who had closed so many bars with me in the old New York days. He had recently written wondering what had become of me and would I like to visit him. And I had recently been thinking anyway that I would like to check out the good things I had been hearing about Vermont that I never heard about New Hampshire – environmentalists, guitar players, free thinking liberals, painters, peace activists, governance by Democrats.
I had known Peter since I was a child and he was to me a distant somewhat older young man in suburban Connecticut, racing around in wobbly old cars that needed mufflers, overweight and on the move. When his name came up, parents shook their heads, which made him all the more intriguing.
Then when I was first living in New York he was too, and, the lapse in time making us contemporaries now, we became friends. And there was a floating party in the city. He knew my girlfriend. I met her at a party given by his sister. And a little later I introduced him to his first wife.
But we had gone our different ways. When I had last seen Peter he was living in a musty old hotel that had become a hippy haven in the then nearly over-the-hill mill town of Rutland, which was not one of the Christmas card Vermont places. He had been working at a sexy ski lodge called the Wobbly Barn that was mainly a drug place, located halfway up Killington, a mountain made incredibly ugly with ski trails and denuded open slopes that put me in mind of strip mining. But now Peter was married again and, as I had heard from his half brother, with whom I had made that trip in Wobbly Barn times, Peter was so functional that he was doing PR for the Vermont State Fair at the same time he was the director of a state alcoholism agency. And he was back to his first love, writing, and he had just been published. When I phoned to say I would take him up on his invitation to Vermont he said this was an especially good omen, for I was a published writer and the bound volumes of his first ever book were expected any day.
So I went to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and hurried past its beggars and con artists for the second time in three weeks. And I was on a the bus again, which should have been something more to be depressed about since even the times when plane and train fares had matched bus fares you never saw the kind of underclass, beaten down people you saw in bus stations in either antiseptic airports or stately old railroad depots. I did like the sort of buses I had used in third world places – buses on which there were always live chickens in the rack above you as you traversed the length of Cuba, or went all the way down the Malay Peninsula, or across Indonesia, or into the lawless part of eastern Anatolia, or Nicaragua or Panama.
Now it was a time for mundane buses in America, but on this latest trip north it did seem possible that a trip into a future was underway. And so in my mind it followed that demons could be held at arm’s length and there might even be a little hope. Not like it was three weeks back when I was on my way to a past, traveling to my brother’s place in New Hampshire and my mother's awful fake English party – moving back in time on my way then to the middle of a land where I had long ago been happy and could never be happy again.
Ah despair! The literary sweetness of despair.
And yet it was different this time, three weeks later, heading north again. What was around me seemed to have entered the present. It was virtually the same route as I had taken on the way to Littleton, first the New York Thruway, and eventually the bus leaving the thruway just before New England to move slowly around Saratoga, which I had hardly noticed the last time, but now seemed like an exciting slice of 19th century grandeur with its signs pointing to mineral baths, and its old town buildings with mansard roofs, and the bright white fences and rows of bright flowers, plus bright white grandstands and winner’s circle, at the historic old race track, that somehow had in its architecture a hint of the sexy allure of the place as it had appeared in old movies and bad novels about Clark Gable type gamblers and Linda Darnell type easy women. And when the bus left New York state for Vermont some of what I saw seemed greener than anything I had noticed three weeks ago – well along in September now but at least some of what I was seeing – some of the fields if not the trees – as green now as in my memory of other days.
So I was on a bus again, a mundane American bus, but this time feeling some sort of version of the surges I had felt at other times when I set out on trains into such hard places as the Sudan’s dread Darfur tribal region with the old steam locomotive breaking down every few hours – or soft places, such as Chiengmai, city of beautiful women, which you reached from Bangkok on trysting trips in the comically erotic red plush Victorian style first class compartments of the Royal Thai Railways. A surge, like the remembered surges of hope and desire when I took ships to Naples or Alexandria, or Saigon or Haiti – or when I left New York by air to Bangkok or Manila or Beirut or Paris and so many other places that I was amazed I could still remember them all.
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
I had been floating all these other ideas too, for I knew it was easiest to get a new book contract if you had, as I did, a substantial book in print and in at least some of the stores. So I had proposed the Caribbean and Bahamas hack books, and one about great rivers of the world, an idea I got one night from Alex Bespaloff when I was wondering what to do next and he suggested to me that a book could be written about anything. So I did a proposal centering on the Ganges, the Nile, the Mississippi, the Amazon, the Congo, and the Mekong. It would mean a lot of traveling, returning to so many places where I had been in what were coming to seem like better times. It should, I told myself, mean happy traveling.
My agent was also circulating a plan I wrote up for a book about California – proposing that I go from California place to California place, from the Yuppie singles complex Marina del Rey, to some group sex thing at perhaps Esalen, to some guru things, to some right-wing political things, some health nut things, some showbiz things, some lingering love and peace and drug things – a book making fun of all these things I had not experienced so much as I would have liked. Another good excuse for new adventures on what could be a clean slate. My life. Adventures. It felt a little like those many times I had come to a standstill, and then, with a one-way ticket, flown off far away from friends and lovers.
So from practically the moment I moved into Chelsea I was loading up on reading matter to put myself in position for life and writing. I plunged into old aricles on rivers in library issues of National Geographic. I waded through a dense West Indies history by the detail-oriented, Oxford-educated Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago. And I found all sorts of California books, such as Ben Stein’s surprisingly vivid and sexy account of what happened when he, so conservative, started making big television money and driving a Mercedes.
It was as if I were ready to write about anything so long as none of it entered into my early personal past. I would only go back so far – as in my Bangkok novel, which took place on the fringe of the Vietnam War in a part of the world that, though I lived hard there, I had never seen until a couple of years before I started the book.
But something that nagged at me was my memory of times when I thought my background – my pedigree, as a Brit in Hong Kong once unkindly put it – could give me safety. I was to be the top editor of an underfinanced, locally printed, fly-by-night magazine owned by people I did not trust. Its subject was Chinese food, about which I knew nothing beyond that I liked to eat. In my bio in the first issue I went wildly out of context and mentioned my grandfather and his honored books, and also my father and his prominence in publishing.
I had just been married in the Philippines and everything seemed wrong. I got us a dog, a silky haired member of a local street breed called Japanese terrier. The dog and I loved each other, but she acted up when my wife was present, in the early stages pissing indoors and later, when housebroken, ripping up things as big as a double-bed mattress. Sometimes my wife would hit my dog. We were in a place my wife found that had a small patio looking down and over a part of the city and out across the bay and to the British-owned part of the China mainland. Once the dog disappeared for nearly a week and we knew that eating dog meat was something acceptable to many people here. In the Philippines my wife has actually come upon the carved up carcass of her pet mutt. When my dog somehow found her way back, thin and dirty and exhausted, it was like being saved, though my wife did not seem so excited.
And fear of failure was in the air. My writing career had become some sort of parody. I had real book contracts from a real publisher in New York, but my work on those projects had petered out. I lived off local things including regional airline magazines, and a guide to Macao financed by the gaming syndicate, and the Chinese edition of the Reader’s Digest, and, worst of all, doing a newsletter and producing documentaries for National Iranian Radio and TV, a job that included writing peon’s to the dread Shah.
When I added forebears to my magazine bio I felt like a little coward scurrying into something small and safe, and in reality I did not expect to feel comfort from the pedigree. I thought of the telephone room in White Pines, the biggest and most formal of the big White Mountains houses, where when I was talking into the old wall phone to my girlfriend I was head to head with a genealogy chart. It showed I was related to another girl I had called from the telephone room, one who did not think it strange that there should be such a thing as a telephone room. And I thought of how at times I had been given family histories written by great aunts. I had found I could not read them. And it was not just because one of these family histories had come to bigoted halt at the point an old aunt discovered a Jew in the lineage.
Back in college when I was something called editorial chairman of the Daily Princetonian and arguing vociferously for the paper to support things that were not seen as right in the gray Eisenhower era – like the U.S. recognizing Red China, or the college getting rid of its nasty, exclusionary eating club system and its related racial quotas and near banning of blacks. On the paper I was with guys who now were famous. Dick Kluger later produced book after book, including a widely honored one on the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision. Bob Caro wrote best sellers about Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, neither of whom he liked. Johnny Apple was a key political writer for the New York Times and was often on Sunday morning TV talk shows.
When I made my case in our student editorial meetings, these guys used to joke about how I was ridiculously serious. One recurring line was that it was clear "Fred never had a childhood" – though of course I knew that they found me different when I drank.
But that was then, and change was threatening now. I could not get New Hampshire out of my mind. And Margaret was dead. And the main real life character in my last book was killed a with close-up shot to the back of the head when he stepped out of a plane in Manila with my collaborator Max Vanzi close bywhile I was in San Francisco working on the final draft. And just before the assassination my father had died, deserted by my brother Peter, his wife my mother, his late brother’s widow my Aunt Peggy, his sister my Aunt Betsy, who I had thought of as my favorite aunt – all the people most important to him in the family world he had tried so hard to hold together, even though as an adult he rarely visited the family base in the White Mountains. They would not believe what I and my then wife saw in the hospital. They swore he had to be in a deep coma and would recognize no one. They swore it, but they would not come to see for themselves. And I knew they were wrong, about the actual state of my father and about their entire lives.
And my marriage, about which I had had such hope, had ended less than a year later. And I was trying hard but with no success yet to get off sleeping pills and tobacco. And I did start therapy – when a marriage counselor, brought in long after the separation, asked how I felt about my father’s death and I started sobbing, which was not something I ever did. This young therapist also seemed amazed when I had no place to live after the breakup I had, for a solid steamy summer month when my mother was in Europe, used the ugly little barren Florida condominium where my father had spent most of his last days.
In addition to therapy, I had started reading Alice Miller – beginning with The
Drama of the Gifted Child, whose original title was Prisoners of Childhood. I liked it better than Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia, which like the Alice Miller book had been recommended by Linda Butler, who was key to my life in Lebanon and now visited me while on a trip up from Washington where she had finally settled.
I thought of all those many places where I had lived. And here I was, as trapped as I had been in overrated cities like Beirut and Hong Kong, here in New York feeling like I was trying to punch my way out of a huge, wet paper bag. I had to pull myself together. I had to do something. I had to exorcize what had just taken place up in the White Mountains.
I had an idea. I would betray the harsh White Mountains. I would look into a place that felt like it should be my place. I would go to the anti-New Hampshire – Vermont!
Saturday, September 5, 2009
Even in this dark time I still went up to Walter Karp’s place on Sunday afternoons – as I had been doing for years when I was in the country, including nearly every Sunday during the last years of my failing marriage when my travels were practically at an end and I was living with my first wife, her son and eventually her mother too in that cramped place with an 81st Street address but a view of an air well. It was two blocks over from Walter’s solid old West 79th Street apartment where he and his sparkling second wife Regina and their clever young son and daughter lived.
Walter, dark and intense, seemed sure and confident in his words and his movements. He was of medium height but he carried himself the way a self-confident short man would. And although tightly wound, he smiled easily. Though with his dark eyes boring into you, he talked so fast there was often little chance to get a word in. This was how it had been in the 20 years I had known him. He talked and talked. It might be about something light, such as the arrival of some slightly famous politician’s famous lover at the upstairs bar at Sardi’s, where Walter did his drinking when he was not drinking at home. But from some light matter he would switch to a fast-paced verbal version of what he planned to say, perhaps about the Spanish-American War, perhaps about the compulsive lier Ronald Reagan, in a chapter for the latest of the political books for which he was becoming known.
Sometimes it was just Walter, Regina, me and Walter’s younger brother Richard, who was becoming a writer too. Sometimes on these Sunday afternoons we would be joined by old friends from his days at Columbia, such as a psychotherapist who had known my brother while an undergraduate and wanted to tell me what a fine person he was. Or it might be Walter’s best friend, who was going blind and suffered manic depression but made a living now conducting walking tours of New York’s more historic neighborhoods.
No one could forget that Walter had been valedictorian of his Columbia class. And his friends repeated over and over the story of how he had upset his professors and his peers by refusing to go to graduate school and instead taking a position writing picture captions for Pageant Magazine.
Now he wrote only deadly serious articles and books. On some Sundays there would be some well-known magazine editor present, maybe from American Heritage or maybe from New York magazine or The Village Voice. Often at these times I would feel more like an observer than a participant, which was not unfamiliar.
I was surprised when one Sunday afternoon as he got to work on a six-pack Walter brought up my childhood. My childhood was something I rarely talked about, and tried not to think about. This was shortly after my book on the Philippines had come out and Walter had put a copy on display in his living room. He had this great idea, he said, for my next book, which he said should be a light autobiographical work about me and my foreign adventures, and my grandfather whom Walter knew of as a novelist and internationalist, and my twin brother Peter, whom I occasionally referred to as someone who worked for the CIA and sometimes the military. Walter had heard me speak about my brother having been the good little boy who got top grades and was the family pet, while I was always the bad, dumb, trouble-making twin. The book, Walter said, should be called Twins in the American Century. It should go from childhood right into the present – this amusing, but also significant, family story, he said. A story that, he said, would bring America in the current era into focus. And it had to go back into childhood.
And so at Walter’s I was actually in a conversation about where I came from and about the need, for the sake of my writing career, to revisit it. I did not say how unpleasant this felt, and I also I did not say just how furious I was that my brother should be in the CIA, and I also I did not say how I had thought it might seem to my brother that I became involved with people, from Manila to Managua, that in his world were considered America's enemies.
I knew, but shoved aside for the moment, how in the most potentially deadly ways the childhood battles, good twin versus bad, were being played out. But I did not keep the present antagonisms at such a distance as I did the parts that began in childhood.
And I certainly did not say how anger rose fast when it seemed to me that my foreign experience and my brother’s were considered of equal worth. I controlled myself, for Walter did not seem to me to see much beyond his impression that it was an interesting family.
I actually did make a stab at that book Walter suggested. My agent also liked the idea. I had doubts, but even before I found my bright apartment I was at work on an intricate proposal, which stirred some interest. An editor at Macmillan said he was almost certain they could make offer if they could see a sample chapter.
Of course I knew these sample chapters were required only for internal purposes, so that the sales people could be led by the editorial people to believe that if an advance were given there really would be a book. And I could not write even such a pro forma sample of Twins in the American Century. I was suddenly furious, and not just about being trapped into dealing with childhood. For I was being asked to be light about things that I knew on some unexplored level were as serious as death. And might have to be explored, much in the manner of entering a jungle whose overgrowth could stifle and choke.
And it made me furious that anyone – though I knew no one doing it yet – should push me to enter that jungle.
And something else had come up about family that seemed to me (though I would not say it out loud) connected to the Twins in the American Century idea. On a Sunday afternoon before the dark time, Walter had been speaking and laughing about a time when he was in college and was invited to be a Scarsdale girl’s date for a country club dance. After the dance started he was asked to leave that stuffy suburban town because the grown-ups had discovered he was Jewish. I shook my head and remained silent even though I knew Walter would have been amused by my experience with the same event.
One night I had fled Princeton, hitch-hiking on Route 1 as I often did, for the pleasures of the city – which could mean the second hand book stores on Fourth Avenue and a young call girl named Alma who had a hopeful smile and powdered breasts and worked the rail at the Tango Place just north of Times Square. Holding on to what money I had, I took my paternal grandmother up on dinner at her New York apartment, where she held court in a tiny replica of their big houses in the White Mountains that had been so much a part of my early years. That night at the dinner table – as formal as in the mountains, right down to the finger bowls and the careful servers – she talked about what she said was an awful thing that had happened in Scarsdale to her son Nick and his wife Peggy. What had happened was that some girl in Scarsdale had brought a boy to their country club dance and it turned out the boy was Jewish, so of course he was asked to leave. But the worst part came afterwards, she said, for at Scarsdale’s Episcopal church – the smug, faux gothic one with the British flag – the minister had railed against the country club no-Jews rule. And so the leaders of the congregation had asked the minister to resign, to leave Scarsdale, just like Walter. The point seemed to be how awful for Peggy that not just the girl but the minister too had behaved so badly.
Thursday, September 3, 2009
That scene in that raw mill town where everyone was faking accents and pretending to be English and talking trash. I was back in a familiar situation of being IN a place – with that presumably formidable family in the aesthetically nurturing White Mountains – but not in my heart OF the place.
Even less of the place then when back in adolescence while in the mountains I kept quiet about crucial matters that made me an outsider. In a long winter at boarding school I had become a Socialist – something I would not give up – and a pacifist – about which I was a little less sure – and most of all a believer in fostering equality, all of which had added to my outsider status in the winters but was something apparently not known in the mountains in the summer with people from these family compounds that were in so many ways walled off from the life of ordinary people.
IN but not OF. A lifelong pattern. Like it was when I was in the army but in the midst of an exciting journalism career that meant rarely showing up for the army. Or in that journalism career though I did not believe in objective journalism. Or in my final go-round as a job holder, after writing unpublished novels and roaming Europe and Africa, when I was turning thirty and needed money because of the allure of a woman who wore the new “no bras” – and I went to work for a year at a prissy outfit called American Heritage Books, where I pretended to be enamored of sentimental, whitewashed history – and after they fired me for cause went to work for a smarter and much richer and boozier, and strangely confident, outfit called Time-Life Books, which was a great place to get laid but a terrible place for real writing. As it was when I was putting in time on a trade paper that glorified retail merchants, or when I went to Nicaragua and for the sake of getting a story pretended I had respect for the puffed up, quite psychotic dictator of that country, America’s free world ally General Anastasio Somoza.
Or pretending I saw the points made by American officials and mercenaries in Vietnam, Portuguese officials and mercenaries in Angola, or professional Englishman in America. Or when I pretended for a magazine article while in Costa Rica that I was one with the Americans who settled there for right-wing racist and/or criminal and/or tax reasons. Or in the Far or Middle East pretending respect for war-loving journalists. Or in Lebanon pretending I was in a progressive part of the world. Or at a dinner table in Atlanta in apartheid days with maternal relatives, so handsome and charming, whose restaurant table was at the edge of open floor upon which diners threw pennies at dancing “pickaninnies.”
Or in those times when I took airline tickets and lived in hotel suites given to me as non-cash bribes so that I would say in print nice things about them – a form of fakery of which I had just now done a reprise in the Bahamas.
But here in Chelsea, where I was living by accident as the darkness descended, it seemed I was outside the pattern – though so depressed when I got back from my mother’s birthday party that it might not matter.
In the months before the Bahamas and the dark time in New Hampshire I had chatted most days with Rita, who held court from a bench across 25th Street in front of her rent-controlled building where, before this apartment I was in now came free, she had rented me a room illegally. She was a boisterous, motherly, Puerto Rican woman who was curiously right-wing in her views but not her life – a fan not just of Reagan but of Bernie Goetz, a sick young white guy in the news who had decided to pump bullets into black men in a subway car. And she was also one of the warmest and kindest people I had ever met, den mother to the whole block and a genius at working government programs so that if anyone needed, for instance, government cheese or honey she would bring some right over.
Chelsea had the reputation of being a fashionable part of New York’s gay world, but I was finding my end of it more like a lost 1940s/50s America. Many people on the block had lived here all their lives, as had their parents before them. Rita’s building, which was across the street from my new building, looked more like apartment houses in the Bronx than Manhattan, which is to say it was horizontal, only three stories high but of such length that if it could have multiple entrances.
An unshaven and tiny old Hispanic man started a bicycle repair business on the sidewalk that ran by my building – my building with the curious Venetian façade on the south side of 25th Street – right across the street from Rita’s. He worked most of the day squatting on the sidewalk, pieces and parts of bicycles and screws and nuts and wrenches spread out in front of him, bicycle chains and frames and wheels chained to the sturdy post of a sign that tried to explain New York’s alternate side of the street parking rules. This tiny old man always had open whisky bottles in paper bags, but was seen as so reliable that some women on the block trusted him to watch their children.
Across the way, on the corner of Eighth and 25th, a new Korean run grocery opened, and people in the neighborhood who had not met before bought flowers and fruit there and talked to each other around the salad bar. I began to greet my neighbors, which seemed almost hopeful if strange.
A good looking woman from Brooklyn in the street-side front apartment across from my garden-side rear apartment worked at an airlines counter out at Kennedy. Her husband, a jolly dark Venezuelan, was studying for an accounting degree, for which I helped him with his term papers. Sometimes he came over happily sporting the uniform of a Central Park soft ball league. Sometimes he was in ski gear, on his way to Cortina Valley in the Catskills. A couple on the 4th floor, small, round regular people I might not have noticed in another time, talked in the elevator of how they spent time in a cottage “upstate.”
I took a bus to Atlantic city, read a book about odds bets at craps, played at the old Claridge, which was on its last legs in a desperate casino incarnation, and came away with a net of almost precisely a hundred dolls, arwhich I used to buy furniture from a delicatessen man whose notice I had seen on a supermarket billboard. I got two stools, a kitchen chair and solid butcher block table on wheels.
For a year I had been a cliché figure, a divorced man living nowhere – friends couches, a maid’s room on 87th St., a stifling condo off season in Florida on the edge of the Everglades, a fancy renovated coop loft in the popular new Flat Iron district with fancy people from my not always fancy international past, an artist friend’s dirt encrusted illegal loft on Canal Street, where I rendezvoused with a woman from 30 years back who flew in from California, and neither of us could accept who and what we had become. She noticed, as she had 30 years ago, that I had no permanent abode.
One night a naked woman, haggard face and young bouncing body, ran into the street near the Korean deli. Rather than gawk or hoot, the neighbors wrapped her in a blanket, stayed with her till hospital help arrived.
The only other brand new business near me after the Korean store was an instantly dingy Greek coffee shop. The rest of the businesses here were old ones. Across Eighth there were still stores that seemed out of my distant childhood – ice cream that was decades away from Hagan Daaz, a shoe store selling Thom McCann shoes, facing a very old store for non-designer fabric by the yard. And there was a faded, linoleum-lined place run by very old people who overcooked very thin flat hamburgers and still served Coca-Cola in original Coca-Coca glasses which otherwise could be found only in antique stores.
Behind the stores across Eighth were the massive, identical buildings of the International Ladies Garment Workers union – greenery and benches and big spacious apartments inhabited by a mixture of very old union members or their surviving spouses, and younger people who years ago had gotten on waiting lists as the old ILGWU people began to die off.
Chelsea. I am in this scene and can imagine myself of it.
Rita was always on our block as was Freddy the super, a huge round man who, like so many here, had lived on the block since birth. He was usually seen in silhouette walking down the center of 25th Street, tilting from side to side, one thick arm stretched out daintily to hold a leash attached the world’s smallest dog.
It was all so different from the more obviously colorful but unanchored places of my past. And, moreover, it was still here when I got back from New Hampshire. I still lived here. And even in the deep darkness that enclosed this time I had an idea that this was the place where, in ways I could not delineate, my life would change like night turning to day or vice versa.
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
In the Bahamas Ellen becomes busy setting up the details of her life. One morning we walk for hours in the hot sun looking for a place to go later for lunch that will serve her beer.
She is constantly on the phone to airlines making arrangements for where she goes next. One moment it is Rome. The next it is where her alcoholic mother lives. She has a complex system of plane connections that she keeps changing until she settles on a version that means that on our last day she will be leaving Nassau eight hours before I do. And this tells me something unpleasant about myself, for I find I am panicking.
It seems silly while I am thinking it, but anyway this time together is over and I can move on with my life. Back in the city I am again in my 25th Street apartment that has a view. I go uptown to visit my old friend Walter Karp on West 79th. This is where I slept on a bunk bed in the first days after leaving my marriage. Once I had the place for a summer in exchange for Walter and Regina using my Cheyne Walk apartment in London. I have been visiting here for 20 years.
Walter generously has my book Revolution in The Philippines on display on what looks like a library dictionary stand in his living room, and I am grateful, and I am surprised that this brings me no pleasure.
I also hurry to meet up with three other oldest friends, Al Prettyman, Alex Bespaloff and John Thackray. Alex has become famous for his books on wine, Walter has a following for his political books. Al is an admired teacher, philosopher, singer and writer who started his own publishing company. John, an Englishman who grew up mostly in Brazil, is an accomplished raconteur and has written plays and has recently turned himself into a world-class mountain climber. None of us was much recognized when we first became friends. When with them now I remember being with them years ago when life was still opening up.
And now there is a phone message from my wife that she has signed the divorce papers, and will not ask for a cent (though her lawyer wanted her to try for a cut of everything I might earn, especially from my book and articles about the Philippines). I note that I feel nothing. There is a message from my twin brother saying there is a plan to go to New Hampshire, where he is taking my mother who is coming up from Florida for her 75th birthday. The party will be in Littleton, this mill town where, my Aunt Betsy (my late father’s rebel sister) lives. I can stay with Peter and his wife in the Farm House over on the Sugar Hill-Franconia line. The Farm House, of which Peter became owner way back when our grandmother died and I was in Indonesia, has not been a house with a farmer serving a farm since the later days of the 19th century when it was transformed into the first – now the last – of the big formal summer houses that were to give our family definition.
I take a bus from New York's begger-infested Port Authority terminal to Littleton, which is a northern mill town where the summer people from the correct White Mountains summer towns, Sugar Hill and Franconia, went once a week for serious grocery shopping in McGoon’s, which has always been there. McGoon’s is basically a summer peoples’ store, where they could buy their S.S. Pierce canned goods and their maids could rule on the ripeness of melons. I will stay with Peter in Sugar Hill. And the next day he and his wife and I will return to Littleton where Aunt Betsy now lives – not in a summer person’s house but in a small house on a steep hill that goes up behind Littleton’s old movie theater.
Maybe this is what I need to relieve this creeping depression I feel. For I am overwhelmed with memories from the moment I step off the bus in Littleton. Memories of times when I felt alive.
With my twin brother Peter – who here in rural New England is wearing a necktie – I ride in his fairly new mid-size station wagon into what a concerned outsider will soon call, not totally with irony, my magic kingdom – this place in the White Mountains that I so rarely see these days – this place that was once the center of the world, and I wonder if it could be again – though I know it can’t.
We take the interstate, which did not exist before I was an adult, from Littleton 12 miles to the exit for the village of Franconia, which for years now has had a cinder block supermarket next to the Dutch Treat, which is a sort of diner posing as a restaurant across the main road from a small store that is too personal to be called a convenience store but does have cold cuts and some good cheese for odd hours, and also tee shirts and batteries and sweaters. And also over there an the old Esso station that used to be run by a man named Chuck Vintner who looked after the summer people’s children to the extent of surreptitiously placing governors on their car engines so as to make it impossible to go so dangerously fast as they had been spotted going. He did this to my parents’ very plain maroon Chevy station wagon that I took to New Hampshire the summer I was 18.
Vintner’s place is long gone, but I still see it. And back across the road, by the Dutch Treat, I also see not so much the characterless supermarket as the IGA store that used to be there and that I had thought would stand forever. Like the supermarket it was owned and overseen by a family named Aldrich that is solidly grounded in this area. But unlike the supermarket, the old store was a personal store, with all sorts of canned and fresh food crammed into a simple clapboard building where there was always an Aldrich in attendance. One year the summer people were amused that the Aldriches had bought a share in a race horse and shoppers were given up-to-the-minute reports on the horse’s not very successful progress on Florida tracks.
From Franconia Village Peter turns onto an old iron bridge across the small but raging Gale river. Then we go past the turnoff to an historic old iron smelting furnace and then, as the car climbs, suddenly we have a panoramic view of the Franconia Range, which is a little hazy this day. The mountains have a cold blue tint – Mt. Lafayette rising above its woods, which are streaked with avalanche scars, to far above the timberline, Lafayette next to the somewhat gentler, more curved, somewhat ski-trail scarred Cannon Mountain with its cable car Aerial Tramway, from the days when European alpine skiing began in America right here. And though you cannot see it, you know that on a high stone outcropping on the bare Franconia Notch side of Cannon is the rock formation called the Old Man of the Mountains, which is shown on state promotional literature and license plates and road signs – the great stone face celebrated by important writers from Hawthorn to my grandfather.
At a turn in the climb up to Sugar Hill the road passes the Iris Farm, a pure Christmas card farm with spruced up barn and a silo, and with good looking dairy cows on its rocky land. We were taken there as children. Behind and above these cows, the official view of the Franconia Range. And now, the mountains still in sight, we take the left turn for what a sign says is Birches Road. I doubt if that name is used, for it was always called Davis Road. I think it must be as hard to get people to say Birches Road as it is in the city to get people to call what everyone still knows as Sixth Avenue by the new name it was given in the l940s, the Avenue of the America. I am pretty sure Davis, whoever he was, was not a summer person. I was pretty sure he lived in some distant time before these woods I see had grown on abandoned farmland, and local people still lived on this road.
Birches road née Davis road is still narrow and I still see it as unpaved, though it has scruffy blacktop now. It was populated almost entirely by our people, with no year-round people at all unless you counted the rare time our cosmopolitan grandparents would stay into a winter. It feels to me as if all the summer people are still around, whether in residence or not, whether alive or dead, whether or not their families still own anything in this part of the world.
On the right now is White Wings, the gentle old and somewhat rambling summer “cottage” that was my grandparents’ first house of their own after they moved East from Chicago where, my grandmother once explained to me, they had become too liberal for the Midwest – which seemed so strange to me since Sugar Hill and Franconia were so Republican in both their year-round people’s and summer people’s versions.
White wings is well back from the road. These two wings are connected with outdoor walkways on both floors, and they face and are parallel to the mountains. One wing is still kept, I know, just as it had been in my grandparents’ time, even though they sold it in 1949. The other wing has had different versions since new owners moved in and it was no longer my grandfather’s study when he needed absolute silence to write the books on which the family still stakes its identity.
This was the first house they sold off – when I was 14 and delighted that it went to a family from Grosse Point, Michigan, for the family had a daughter just a year younger than me who had perfect tanned skin and real breasts as seen in her two piece bathing suits, and an inviting puppy face – and was quick and funny and fun – the most heartbreakingly sexy girl I had, till then, ever seen close up.
After White Wings, Mrs. Gilman’s house, which is really our old caretaker’s cottage, moved here and made good-taste rich, after a caretaker was no longer needed. It was renovated for the use of Nana’s prominent old friend, Mrs. Lawrence Gilman, who was the widow of the Herald-Tribune’s music critic, and since Mrs. Gilman’s death it has been in the possession of Virginia Mallory from the clan, situated further along Davis Road, of my grandfather’s Princeton roommate Otto Mallory. It has a formal look now, but I still see it as it was before it was moved a hundred yards to its current place from where it was warm and scruffy, heated with a pot belly stove, full of generations of the caretaker’s family – and near a barn which no longer exists. And then the Farm House, the first of the big houses, dating a least to my great grandmother’s time – a sprawling old place that I never saw as a farmer’s place, for at some point in the late 19th century they put in a kitchen so big it could have been in a hotel kitchen, and there was a cross walk to an annex that led through a room with a pool table and a professional looking rack with many pool cues and one of those elevated strings of markers for keeping score, just like in the pool and billiards room up at the Sunset Hill House. After my grandmother died (I was in an obscure part of Indonesia at the time) my brother and his wife got possession of the Farm House. They closed off the huge kitchen and put in, for some kind of retrenchment reasons, a tiny city-like kitchenette, and they brought in workmen to tear down not just the big old kitchen but also the walkway with the pool table. Though at a point at the end of what had been the walkway they let a Norwesgion cousin by marriage built up a small weekend cottage that was as warm as most places here were cold.
After the Farm House, we see the place where the Playhouse had stood – a somewhat rustic brown building with French doors, on the outside a semi-circular terrace, on the inside a stage with small dressing rooms once used for amateur theatricals, and a very smooth oak floor for easy gliding in the past at charity dances for which the way-in was lit with long strings of Japanese lanterns and the men wore white dinner jackets and the women were in gowns that set off bare shoulders, smooth female backs, and the tops of mature breasts. I remember my pretty young Aunt Betsy and my gorgeous cousin Nancy, wife a of a dashing new naval officer, coming in to kiss me goodnight, when I was not quite six. They were on their way to the last benefit dance, which was to raise Red Cross money that would go to the British. When we were in our early teens and the place had been abandoned for a decade, we and kids our age had refurbished it and used it for our own kind of dancing, which in the 1950s was vertical necking done in darkness.
And then the dark brown, shingled octangular House on the Hill, looking like something from the cover of a gothic novel. It too was sold off by now, this one to a pair of retired schoolmarms, who like so many people were not our kind of people. Down behind it was our old tennis court, overgrown now with weeds.
Across from the Farm House, on the other side of Davis Road, the start of a long, narrow, twisting driveway to what had been the biggest of the family houses, leading there through a White Pine forest that had been planted on fallow farm land by my grandparents, a drive so narrow that drivers going down it always honked in case someone was coming the other way from what had been the center of my world when young – the biggest and most important of the houses, this one with the same name, White Pines, as the trees of the cultivated forest. It had been built by my grandparents in a stately combination of clapboard and stone. It was set on the edge of a lawn looking out from under striped awnings, and over white benches and in-ground bird baths, over iron streaked boulders and blueberry and thorn fields and then quite vast woods owned by my grandparents, leading out to still vaster woods that led to and up the very mountains that comprised this official view, a view with no sign of human life in it except the ski trail scars on Cannon and a place near the top of Cannon where from far away you could see, in an indentation near the summit, a moving Aerial Tramway car, no bigger in our view than a match box, silhouetted for a moment against the sky.
So here I am now, in this most familiar of all places, these houses, ghosts from the past, this landscape.
And the next day I am into a scene that changes everything.
Afterwards that scene hangs there just below consciousness. It is as if I've been caught in something as unreal as one of those amateur theatrical productions – The Importance of Being Earnest or Private Lives – put on by dilettante expatriate business people and embassy people in foreign places – Cairo or Hong Kong – plays about made-up worlds staged in places where the actors live temporarily.
And the scene in Littleton as it unfolds seems as far away in space and time as those scenes I have just left in the Bahamas. And yet, unlike in the scenes in the Bahamas, I cannot dismiss this place as a fraudulent facade that has no hold on me. It is raising questions I have never asked about the course of my life – about all the things concerning myself that I have never written about.
Some of the furniture brought into this house by my Aunt Betsy is from the big summer houses in the more correct nearby summer towns where she and all of us spent such important parts of our childhoods. What she has done here is like how her son stuffed such summer establishment things into a characterless Upper West Side apartment. In Aunt Betsy's house, which the family thinks was once a factory worker's house, the past permeates a stately old foldout desk, three apparently valuable if rickety cane-bottom chairs, a high wing-back armchair, a stiff and formal feeling sofa, an old-time wooden fireside stool. The room itself may not live up to older family standards, but the heritage had been inserted. Aunt Betsy speaks through her characteristic stutter with an accent she took on in many seasons of adventure in London after her husband's RAF death.
My mother seldom goes to New Hampshire, but my brother has driven her up here for her birthday. None of them (us) except my brother and aunt come up here much, despite our roots here – my aunt now in this small mill town house, my brother ten miles away in the last of the big family houses.
My aunt is cheerful at this party on this working persons' street. She is matching my mother drink for drink. Sometimes when my mother drinks she sounds Southern. Sometimes, like today, she sounds English. She is beaming. She exchanges looks with my brother, who is beaming too, and lying back in his chair, with his legs stretched out and his tweed trousers edged back revealing argyle socks. His fingers are linked over the tattersall vest that covers his stomach. He and Mother are beaming, as if to say isn't it amazing, such a high-toned gathering here in this homely New Hampshire mill town.
Peter coughs like an old Englishman. His wife Rosemary is talking about flower shows. She was born in colonial Malaya on the island of Penang and is English. She assures people she is not Irish despite her family name, Sullivan – getting this in because being Irish might be like being dark, like an actual Malay from Malaya rather than a white element of the English-officered India Army that was based in Malaya. She has refined her English accent to the point where she sounds just like our late grandmother Nana even though Nana came from Chicago, not England.
And there is a middle-aged woman from Melbourne there who married a Littleton man who worked abroad for oil companies and is now home to stay. She talks in the high-pitched tones of a young upper class English girl about her happy days in a boarding school not in England but in Australia.
And now they are all speaking – my aunt from New York, my brother from Washington, my mother from Connecticut and Florida, my sister-in-law from Penang, and the boarding school woman form Melbourne – all speaking about something they call "our England" and how it is becoming overrun with black people and Asians.
And I am thinking of my recent divorce after my departure from the Upper West Side apartment where I lived with my wife and her son and her mother, all of whom come from the Philippines. Gradualy I realize I am furious. Fake English people talking about “our England.” I am wondering if anyone at this birthday party has any idea how even I feel when they make these bigoted remarks about people of African and Asian heritage.