Tuesday, June 8, 2010


That house I was looking at on Lake Champlain had similarities to our old family houses. Ours had been more substantial, though they too were basically summer houses, and they too were in a rarefied setting – ours the tight little summer communities of the White Mountains, not so unlike this rarefied little segment of lake front with understated shingled houses connected to each other by a woodland path high above the lake. The path was said to follow an old Indian trail. It ended at a rustic tennis club which I could tell by its smell was a place for white protestants and no one else.

The bigotry of these places was always on my mind when I was in or near them, and this time there were even more reminders, for all week I had been hearing on the car radio about Senate hearings underway just now for that guy Rehnquist, who had worked early in his career against school desegregation and then when in the Nixon justice department, had nearly gone to jail for all the things he was doing to deny rights and punish anti-Vietnam War demonstrators, jailing them and denying them free speech and all the rest, also fighting to save brutal racist cops and Klansmen, and working behind the scenes to help Nixon survive his Watergate crimes. Rehnquist had been nominated by Nixon to the supreme court, and now there was news every day about how he was about to gratify the perverse Reagan by being promoted to chief justice.

Again there was talk about the “restrictive covenants” on Rehnquist’s houses, his promising never to sell a house of his to a Jew or a person of color. There was such a restriction on the deed to a house he owned in Vermont, which I heard about on my car radio in the midst of Vermont, this restricted thing just like in the New Hampshire version of home. And he did the same with a house in New Mexico, which I had innocently thought might be free of East Coast style cruelty

And now I am standing above Lake Champlain , my back to the water, looking at this shingled cottage that my old friend Jason, now rich in retirement from investment banking, owns in addition to his big log early retirement house in the center of the state. He had had the big house built to his specifications, but this one had been owned before him – surely with a restrictive covenant on it – by one of those thin-blooded Foreign Service officers to whom it was likely no one in the government ever paid much attention. The old man, keeping to Wasp cheapness, had decorated it with cheap do-dads – each of the little bedrooms set up to remind him of places he had been in his minor assignments, one of them filled with things like the laughing Buddha’s sold to tourists in Chinatown though I think he really meant it to be something more like actual Asia, and in the European room, cuckoo clocks and Bavarian figurines, women in peasant dress, men in lederhosen playing tiny accordions (like what I had seen once when I was in the army in Atlanta and renting a room in a house owned by the sad, boozy widow of a major).

Inside, an old propane stove for late summer nights, wobbly stairs leading up to the niggardly bedrooms high over the lake. No décor downstairs except a set of prints of comic, brittle men in white wigs from old copies of Punch such as American businessmen and corporate lawyers love – though also a haunting painting of summer clouds by Jason’s brother Bruce.

Jason whom I had known since we were 8, and who still drank nearly as heavily as I used to drink, and still was for some reason a loyal Republican, which was something I had never been, and also loyal to Yale, though he made fun of it, and still married to Nina, who spent his money and told everyone he was a Philistine. Jason had sworn he would never get divorced, sworn it way back when his parents broke up and switched partners with another boozy couple in Connecticut.

In the afternoon on the lake I had felt him out, wanting to tell this person from of my past what was going on in my life now. But when I said something about coming from an alcoholic home he got stern and said there had never been any such thing in his background, though he and I had been with his father and step mother when we had all drunk past the point of comprehension. And he must have known some the things his otherwise often kind father had done. But he would never get divorced and he would stay loyal, even, I thought, if he had to stay drunk to carry it off. And so I did not try to go into matters from the past that were worse than alcoholism.

Still, he was my oldest friend. We had traveled together. We had crossed paths in the draftee army. We had planned out a magazine that I was sure would take over from the declining New Yorker. We had shared an apartment on 13th Street off Second after the army, and stayed friends even after he, with help from the Yale placement office, veered sharply away from things like magazines and concentrated on things like houses and money.

So there was no connection here between my present and this past I had been probing and attacking – this past that I saw bringing darkness into the present and killing the people of my generation.

And I plunged into sadness again, sadness that again quickly gave way to this new cleansing version of anger. And then I smiled inwardly and outwardly as I breathed in the sweet, charged, chilled air of a late New England summer.

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