Wednesday, November 24, 2010

#168 – ADRIFT


On the news is a horror scene in the subway, a station not far from here. A pursed little man named Bernie Goetz had cornered three black men and shot them, leaving one paralyzed from the neck down. The police catch up with him and there is suddenly a right wing campaign to honor and save Bernie Goetz. It somehow – no mystery to my mind – gets all tied up with the exaltation of Ronald Reagan. Rita is on food stamps and also distributes government food, cheese and honey, to everyone on the block, whether they qualify as officially poor or not. But she is a great fan of Reagan who would take all this away from her. Also, she is Puerto Rican in this time when Washington is in the hands of racists. And now she has become a great fan of Bernie Goetz. And still she is about the nicest person I have ever met.


She keeps tabs on everyone in the neighborhood. Judging by her sweet, confident smile, and by the looks of a daughter who comes through, she was extremely pretty when she was young and thin and working as a catalog model, which was how she met her late husband. She rents to me illegally since this is a rent control apartment. She is all over the neighborhood, goes to mass frequently, knows everyone and everything. Although her apartment is cold at night, there is a feeling of plenty – a refrigerator full almost to overflowing, everything from ice cream to apple juice to turkey, sandwich spreads, ham apples, frozen deserts, and there are pantry shelves crowded with other fruits, and canned juices and meats, bread and pastries and crackers and cookies.


I am lonely here in this rented room that is so cold at night. Its linoleum floor feels refrigerated. And, moreover, I have the illusion I am wandering again in strange towns where I do not speak the language – Sarajevo, Cairo, Tokyo – though I am having this experience right here in New York where there are so many people I have known for so long. My window is on the ground floor, right on the sidewalk on 25th Street, and there is some sort of bar nearby that at 4 in the morning empties out a batch of men who then traverse the block singing drunkenly.


It has become incredibly cold in here. I am reading, and also following on public TV, the Raj Quartet – sex and double dealing, in stifling hot places. Brits in jodhpurs, lovely tragic girls, some dark and some light, the Indians looking as Indian as the Brits look Brit. My old friend John Thackray has me going once a week to a yoga session, which takes place in a high apartment on Central Park West that looks out over the Central Park reservoir, which is so clear in the winter light. Three lithe girls, John and me, and the teacher, a personable out-of-work dancer. There are signs of the times here. Books linking angels to dolphins, and two flotation tanks. John tells me, in his ironically British tones, how you an be put in one of these wet coffin-like affairs in order to have some by-the-numbers spiritual experiences. But the guy who teaches the yoga class is no yoga martinet and is anyway not the owner of the place. John, who is a world class mountain climber and always in first rate shape (though he wasn’t when were friends 20 years ago) says it is the only yoga class where what they say about how to breathe makes sense to him and works. This yoga guy is a dancer who goes to auditions. All the classes are called off when he gets a role dancing and acting in a road company of A Chorus Line.


I go over to Murray Hill to see my doctor, who is actually the son of a doctor who delivered Peter and me and was a close friend of my grandfather’s close friend, an immigrant doctor with whom my grandfather worked in the settlement house movement early in the century. I like this doctor, who by now is himself getting old, because while we talk he chain smokes and his brash nurse brings him cup after cup of strong black coffee. Once when I was back from abroad and feeling awful he sent me to a series of specialists, all of whom were elderly men with thick accents. He gives me the sleeping pills I want, and I still see him even though he had told me a few years ago my only problem was is that I did not have a regular job. He had held up as an example his brother, whom he said was in the same situation, wanting to be a writer, until he got good job in public relations. He had said I needed therapy, but the kind where the therapist does most of the talking. He doesn’t repeat any of this now, but he does say that nothing physical explains the fatigue I feel, and so maybe I should look at certain aspects of my life. In the past he had said it was probably too late to do anything about whatever it was that kept me awake. My wife went to him once for a checkup and she told me he had said I was a person with whom he would enjoy having a drink.


On my way back I run into my Aunt Alice who has just arrived from New Hampshire to spend the winter in a residential hotel in New York. She is full of ideas of things we should do. At the top of her list is the movie Gandhi which is playing on East 23rd and which I do not want to see. I really cannot take these fictionalized versions of real life. I know what Gandhi looked like. I have seen a thousand pictures. He did not like Ben Kingsley going for an Academy Award. Also, in recent years I have found I cannot stand to be in the same room with Aunt Alice, which I have thought might mean there is something wrong with me. She has always been, to the family and myself, my favorite aunt, the careful rebel of her generation.


Aunt Alice asks me to come to dinner at her club. She say the words “my club” in the English way she learned in her years in London. It turns out, strangely, to be the National Arts Club where some very safe artists have studios and which is stuffier than the Players Club, where my father went when he was in publishing, and nearly as stuffy as the Century, where my father once took me to lunch to tell me I should not take an offered book advance because my grandfather never took money until he had finished a book. For this dinner Aunt Alice brings along the daughter of someone she knows. Match-making is being attempted.


The girl, who has a pretty face but wears a tailored suit, talks about a long love affair she had just gotten over. She works at what sounds like a boring job in finance. Her lover, however, was a painter. She talks of the long quiet evenings at his place where she would read and he would paint, and it all sounds so ideal that she must be sadder than she looks. There is nothing much between us, though it seems like there should be. She speaks about how her father has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Aunt Alice talks about her brother, my father, and his long decline into death with Parkinson’s – giving us and this girl, my aunt seems to be saying, the bond of having things in common.


Near my place I run into a neighbor, Harvey, who had been John’s best man years back when he married an appealing young actress at the Little Church Around the Corner, the Actor’s Church. Harvey is a smart lonesome guy who had a long affair with a woman who loved him but whom he rejected when they were in couples therapy. He works at part-time college teaching and never speaks about ambitions to do anything else. He is amusing in his pessimism about the political state of the world and the sad state of the arts. He lives in a studio apartment in London Terrace, an old middle class and upper middle class development, with strict controls on rents, that covers a full block just west of me. It has a long waiting list to get in. Elliot says it has dawned on him that he has such a good deal he will never leave, though he is unhappy that he did not think at the beginning to go for a one bedroom. I used to think we were at opposite ends – Elliot always down, me usually just back from some adventure or off on another. Now it looks like we may be interchangeable.


Monday, November 22, 2010

#167-EXPLANATION

At end of the summer in Indianapolis I went to Connecticut for a long weekend with them all, Mother and Dad and my brother Peter at our house in Connecticut. When I stepped down from the train at the Westport/Saugatuck station what got their attention was the new hat I was wearing. A hat I had seen in a store window on a Friday afternoon and that had seemed just the thing to wear for when I was up in Chicago that night. At the train station in Connecticut, they all said in turn, amused and exasperated, that now he has a pork pie hat. Home!

At the beginning of November I spoke to them on the phone, an election night duty call much like a duty holiday call, though like those holiday calls I actually did want these occasional connections by phone back then. When it was clear the awful Eisenhower would win I went to a pay phone on a windy street so as not to be overheard calling home from the United Press bureau. To avoid an argument I skirted the issue of the election. Dad had said he could hear in my words that I had picked up a Middle Western accent, though actually in Indiana some people thought I sounded British.

The pork pie hat. The hint of a Midwestern accent. Always something that brought me back to a sorry role in the lurking family story, which I tried so hard to sweep under the rug until this time 30 years later when I was at last on the hunt for what was there behind the family fa├žade.

When in Connecticut on the long weekend I told them only of the up times in Indianapolis. Of getting promoted to covering the Legislature for United Press, of getting bylines. I did not tell them of things that would only bring them back to their constant jibes. For example, this girl I went out with whose father had the Muzak concession for Indianapolis. On the walls of their homey kitchen there were framed sampler style sayings about the divinity of music and its soothing of savage beasts (breasts?) while down in the basement a huge spool of tape, set on its side, was turning night and day sending out the most awful syrupy stuff to every waiting room and office building in Indianapolis. She was a sweet girl and bright, and I did not want them attacking her even though it would only be their version of her and she would never hear it.

Was this why I was so angry? That they could not see beyond themselves? That nothing was meant to be real? It was crucial to their sense of who they were that my late paternal grandfather had been for a time quite famous, an American novelist who had been on most freshman English classes required or suggested reading lists.

I could not talk to them about what really interested me because they could not connect, perhaps, to any stories that they did not themselves create. So I didn’t tell them about the little man who had just been released from prison after 17 years – one of the stories I was on. It turned out he had been the grand wizard or dragon or something of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan in a time leading up to World War II when the Klan had run just about everything from politics to outright crime in Indiana. But he had been convicted after it was found he had kidnapped a girl, forced her into a Pullman sleeper compartment in one of the many trains running up to Chicago, and there he had not just raped her, he had bitten off her nipples.

I had not heard anyone mention the Klan until this guy was released, and now, knowing how it had controlled the state, so much that puzzled me was suddenly clear. The Legislature I had been covering had just passed a law that, if the courts did not object, would mean a 10-year-old child could go to the electric chair in Indiana for nighttime burglary. Everyone knew who did nighttime burglary. Non-white rapists.

And I had seen the governor, his name was George Craig, standing in the back of a black convertible, surrounded by men with guns, standing as if he had his arm his arm up and out in a way that was halfway between a blessing to his people and a fascist salute. He was driven slowly around the racing oval at the state fairgrounds stadium. He had risen not in the usual ways of politicians elsewhere but through the state police and the American Legion, which has its black marble national headquarters right here.

With this new information about the role of the Klan in Indiana, so much fell into place. The Klan control has been recent enough that almost all the puffed up politicians I covered had to have been members to be in politics. Governor Craig, and cruel, taut senator William Jenner, who had taken over as inquisitor from the disgraced Senator McCarthy, and the obese Senator Homer Capehart whose family manufactured juke boxes that the mob insisted every bar purchase – all these bizarre men. And the Southern racist layout and traditions of the city. And the prevailing suspicion of foreigners, including denizens of the East Coat. And the ever widening use of the electric chair. It all fell into place with this information about the Klan.


And now 30 years later in New Hampshire on the search for what went so wrong that my cousins were coming to horrible ends, I thought back on that time in Indiana and wondered if there were not some piece of information, such as what came out when the prisoner was released in Indiana, that would be about something so awful that it would explain everything.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

#166 - CONNECTED

The anger in that sports bar had been connected. Not like the free flowing anger of the past. As in those mornings I would awaken in the first place purely my own, a room with a view over a clean, colorless avenue from a brick rooming house in Indianapolis of all places. Awake and tight and taut and shaking from extreme anger, an anger that could have no end, a floating anger though nearly focused on my parents, on being raised as the dumb bad twin with the bright twin brother, on being belittled.


But that part would come in and out of focus, for it seemed too flimsy to explain the intensity of my anger. And as I walked through the flat Midwestern city, breathing its unique flat air, on down past its black marble Roman or Nuremburg style national headquarters of the dread American Legion where the Commie hunters marched and schemed, on down past the lazy old Claypool hotel, wreathed inside and out by cigar smoke, where the politicians hung out, and then past small hotels where the small town assemblymen could find inexpensive short-time girls who poured into town when the legislture met, which was for two months every two years, and on down through on of the city’s skid rows, between missions and unsaved sidewalk drinkers, on to the old Indianapolis Times where I was in the United Press enclave, covering strange Hoosier world McCarthy era politics, some by phone, some from over at the grandiose state capitol.


By this time at 21 I was well beyond family expectations of me. Only my father’s patrician mother seemed to see what I was doing – first by proving to be bright in boarding school, than discovering that there were girls who could like, even love, me. And then I was filling up the school’s trophy case with brass, wood and plastic regional debating trophies that towered over the sad little things won for stupid ball games by my school enemies. And soon I was briefly in Paris, stepping into the paintings I saw there, and later in college finding I could write even though my brother was the chosen writer. But also so many down times when I froze up.


And this now was an original time, roaming in the unknown Middle West. But awakening under the shadow of the past, and filled with white hot but diffused anger – anger that drifted away as I stepped out into the flat air of Indianapolis and ducked in for coffee next door at a Toddle House restaurant where there was a gray woman behind the counter who had a concetration camp tattoo on her fleshy upper arm. I ordered a cheese omlette, and as usual there were bits of egg shell in it.


The anger left now that I was walking through the city, left as unexplained as it had arrived when I was sleeping last night. And it is seeming so strange that after all I had done and was doing that I could still be angry at those people I came from. For now I am enjoying this plain old middle America city that I ridiculed in letters to friends. For it is a place of my own. I have been meeting people, the father of a childhood Connecticut friend, this father out here in exile with his own best friend’s wife. And a Marxist couple – the man had been an organizer for the fabled Electrical Workers Union that the McCarthyites destroyed. He and my friend’s father are working for money now, both of them with new identities as machine tools salesmen. And I am writing a novel a night, though it leaves me time for the piano bars and the small hotels and the non-professional girls I meet. I am my own person, an actual reporter and writer and rewrite man in this place that no one I am related to has ever seen. And I am almost feeling at home on the weekends when I take one of the four parallel train lines to Chicago for jazz and Second City and the Art Insitute and big black Southside clubs.


Thirty years later in the summer of deep probing I was thinking of in this time when I was 20. Thinking over my life now that I was on a mission to rescue an abused girl. Thirty years later when the anger was finally becoming focused.




I thought that if I could get at the anger I would know what they did or did not do to me and/or her and/or those other cousins of mine who now were joining the dead.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

#165-TODD BAINES

I make a detour to drive over to the Profile Club. It is closed for the season but there is no gate to bar me. The old clubhouse, nearly as old as the even smaller clubhouse at the Sunset, seems unchanged in any way except a new roof that uses asphalt, rather than wood, for its shingles. Nothing of any importance different since my young days except for the installation of a small swimming pool on the other side of the dirt driveway that passes the clubhouse.



I drive down to the old pond near the fairway where we used to swim. As in the summer, I am looking for memories. I want to play with the picture of myself at not quite 16 standing on a diving board the day Ellyse made her first appearance on a small rocky beach down to the left from where I was standing. I was wearing a brimmed canvas hat I had purchased at a hardware store in Littleton. Showing off, I dove into the water with the hat on, and I swam nearly to the beach underwater, shooting up out of the water to introduce myself to this new pretty girl.



I see now that the pond is still there, but many years must have passed since anyone has been swimming in it. You can hardly see the water for the tall reeds that have grown up. It must have been abandoned when the swimming pool went in. Yet this is still the very pond that is always somewhere in my mind, and it does bring a vivid memory, though not the memory I had planned to conjure up. The scene in my head now is a different one from that same time that will never go away. 





Poor Todd Baines. He is here at our swimming place at the Profile Club. Terri in her sexy green two-piece bathing suit has just been making a gesture with her index finger and little finger that must be something sexual, since she, at 14, is so well developed she must be very advanced. And Ellyse is here, so young and beautiful. And some of the others, the younger Conrad’s and Colby’s, big families with big summer houses, who had been my childhood summer friends in the White Mountains and were now, in their stages of adolescence, as tall as their elders.

Their elders out on the golf course. Men with liver spots on their balding heads, gray haired women in long skirts, with bags of golf clubs each of which is protected by a little knitted sock. Some of the men are very old and here all summer, others not quite so old work in the city and come up on the weekends in Pullman sleeper cars on the overnight train from Grand Central.

It feels to me these old people are being eclipsed by our summer gang – Kyle and Larry and Tom and Ted and Ron and Daniel, and these girls I have known for so long who suddenly look like women. Terri and Ellyse and all the others, Nancy and June, and Cassie and Marge, and on and on, here as we are all coming into lives that I think I know will not be like the small lives of the often pretentious people we come from. I make allowances, but I know they are pretentious, for I am a big reader.



And here is Todd Baines, with an ear-to-ear, buck-tooth grin, in a category by himself, not connected to the older people, and certainly not to us. We have all heard how he was wounded in childbirth by an incompetent doctor who wielded forceps clumsily. One of the many misfortunes to have overtaken the Baines family – right up there with Judge Baines dying before his pension was due, and so old Mrs. Baines, whom no one knew did not have family money, lives a small life in a cold little house, and confident, good-looking Karen Baines, her daughter, is doing something in the fashion business in New York that has tongues up here wagging. It does not take much to get the tongues wagging in this place which is grandiose but so tiny. It was a big subject when it turned out someone in one of the old summer houses had placed on each bed, of all things, an electric blanket. As if they were criminals.



Todd goes out on the shaky little diving board near a sluiceway where water runs off from the spring fed pond. He is wearing old-time swimming trunks that seem to come down to his knobby knees. With a big smile, he leaps off, grabs his knees, hits the water with a loud splash – and from the far shore he is being applauded. Not applauded by people making fun of him. But really applauded by someone who is enthusiastic. A big floppy woman with ribbons in her hair and bright flowers portrayed on her summer dress. Acting way younger than her age.

She is clapping with all her might. And people are telling each other the news that this woman is, of all things, Todd’s wife. 

I am amazed about the enthusiasm of this woman and amazed that the young people here are not making fun of her and Todd out loud. He seems as outside the accepted world here as I was when I started boarding school and found myself the most unpopular boy, and the slowest too, in my class. By now it has changed. Still, I am amazed to see Todd happy. At nearly 16 I have become a champion boarding school debater, and I have decided I am a socialist and a pacifist – and will never be like so many of these people I come from. And I will have beautiful women, like the women Ellyse and Terri are becoming, not like the ladies with socks on the heads of their golf clubs. I am not like these people. And yet I seem to hear myself saying to myself that Todd Baines can’t do that. Todd can’t get married. Todd can’t have happiness.