#58 – BUT PRINCETON
What was most appealing about this Penthouse article was that it would get me to Berkley, where the exile people I really liked were based. The economist Walden Bellow, who had chaired that last meeting I went to and who was making a name for himself in wider circles, and Joel Rocamora, a charismatic and suave organizer who made sure money went from the million-person exile Philippine community in California to the New People’s Army, this Maoist rebel movement that had spread to every province in the heavily populated thousand mile long island chain that had been an American colony starting at the turn of the century, and before then a Spanish colony since the late middle ages.
The timeless old feudal barons who had opposed Marcos and gone into exile plotted their return from quite grand houses in very conservative neighborhoods on the San Francisco side of the bay. Neighborhoods that had seemed to me as retrogressive as parts of New England. Walden and Joel, on the other hand, seemed men of the present. They appeared to be the NPA ambassadors to America. They operated in Berkley, which had quirky bookstores, exotic street food, music everywhere, architecture that brought a smile, and pretty girls on roller skates.
This was my first trip anywhere since all the changes had begun. My first if you did not count my going down to Princeton to visit my cousin Rob, whom I had thought of as an ally since he was the only one in my generation in the family who had gone into the arts.
He had prepared for a career in the theater as carefully as if he were becoming a lawyer. From M.I.T he had gotten himself a fellowship to the Guthrie Theater in Minnesota before trying his hand in New York. Then after a decade as an actor in the city, he had retreated to the McCarter Theater in Princeton.
When I got to their blue house on a tidy street near the campus I sat for a time talking
with Rob, and with his wife Cynthia, who had even better credentials for being an artistic friend since in livelier days she had danced with Merce Cunningham. But what seemed to be on their minds at first was that I was wearing a shirt with bright colors and a sporty denim jacket as opposed to a tweed jacket and the sort of unobtrusive shirt that could be worn with a tie. They did say I looked young and alive, and just a couple of years ago I had seemed to them old and worn, though they had not said anything at the time.
I told them that I was finding out all sorts of things, including many dark things, about the family. I thought we might be allies. We spoke of Cousin Margaret’s recent painful death on a ventilator that came right after she had called Rob and said she wanted to die because of what they had done to her in the past and because of their nagging in the present. We brought up Rob’s late brother Paul, who had been arrested for everything from carrying a sawed off shotgun to kidnapping, and had been killed 20 years back in a suspicious road accident. And we talked about his appealing sister Deirdre, my favorite, who had recently told them for the first time that when very young she had been raped by Paul.
And then the conversation was over. Rob said, “I have such good memories of Gaga and Nana and the White Mountains. If it was not the way I remember it at White Pines, I don’t want to know.”
Then we had talked about how for Peter and me a vibrant teenage gang had assembled, whereas as when Rob, who was seven year younger, hit that age he was always alone. I pointed out that those summers in New Hampshire with the gang, me together with Elysa, had lasted only a very short time.
Rob put his face into a theatrical sobbing expression and said, only half humorously, “At least you had that very short time.”
I did not mention that in my good adolescent days in New Hampshire Rob, far from the debonair Englishman he would become, was a lonely young hanger-on, an angry little boy in a Robin Hood hat, a boy who seemed always about to sob or scream.
I left the blue house and began wandering the pretentious town – with its Williamsburg like facades and its black people's slums, and then I was wandering the old campus where black people from the town had cleaned and served at the undergraduate clubs, which usually did not take Jews, not to mention Negroes (because, I had heard it said more than once, the Negro staff would not like it).
And now I set out to wander the dark campus, past those uncomfortable fake gothic buildings with their leaded windows that let in winter winds, and their foul communal lavatories. Now there were a few new buildings that were no more inviting than the old. I did not go in the art museum. When in college I had only gone in it to look at Chinese bronzes for the only art history course I took. Recently the Time’s John Russell Had written a piece praising the Princeton art museum for putting no emphasis on anything except works of art that illustrated a point about art. Russell was the critic who said we should look Titian’s man being skinned alive rather than the far too popular Impressionists.
I went to the U Store, where you could buy sweat shirts and suspenders and ash trays and socks wall hangings proclaiming in orange and black that you were from Princeton. There were also books, the sort of selection of best sellers that I would have expected in some small Philistine town.
In my back pocket was a Bantam paperback anthology of the romantic poets, whom I had stopped reading the year before I went to Princeton back when was 17, in the time after being thrown back with family in Europe and seeing that all the changes in my life had changed nothing. It was as if nothing had happened, neither my discoveries in poetry nor in politics. Neither my sudden academic rise, nor my New England debating championship, nor my summertime popularity, nor my then very recent discovery of art – not even my romance with Elysa. Nothing had ever happened. I would have to start again. And although I would continue to seek girls, I had stopped, before Princeton, dealing with so much else that I loved. Such as Keats and Wordsworth.
But in this new present I had been reading these poets on the subway. And sometimes at night. And on the train down to Princeton. Entering these poems again was time travel for me. Thomas Gray's country churchyard elegy: "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,/And waste its sweetness on the desert air..." Wordsworth above Tintern Abbey: "...when first/I came among these hills; when like a roe/I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides/Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,/Wherever nature led: more like a man/Flying from something that he dreads, than one/Who sought the thing he loved." And Keats on the Grecian urn:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hadst not thy bliss,
Forever wilt though love, and she be fair!
As I wandered this grim overbearing campus now, a place where as much as in the White Mountains of New Hampshire nothing ever changes, I realized that for the first time in a long time I was getting a sore throat, which had been my expected childhood disease.
But the moment I was on the train back to the city my throat felt fine.