Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Another Goodbye

Our summer on the boat is already drawing to a close.  Hard to believe, the seasons, the years, kaleidoscopically flying by.  This is an unusual year for us, a late arrival and now an early departure as we are flying to London to visit old homes, haunts (mainly theaters and museums) and friends. I call it my London farewell tour. We’ll be there for a week and then board a ship in Southampton for an Atlantic crossing, our fifth and our last such crossing as well.  The cruise makes several stops including, Rotterdam, two in Norway, the Shetland Islands, and three in Iceland, Boston where we’ll have a day with our son, Chris, ultimately arriving at the Brooklyn pier (Brooklyn figures prominently in my life).  Jonathan will meet us there with our car packed and from there we’ll begin our drive back home.

It will be some time before we return home; meanwhile my blog will go into “quiet mode” as it is impossible to update while traveling.

Wistfully, I post some pictures to mark our departure:

 Pecks Ledge Lighthouse in the background, a shot from the cockpit as the boat returns to port.

 A sunset scene back at the dock, a sailboat languorously passing by the homes on the east shore of the Norwalk River where we used to live.

 Perhaps the original house in Shorefront Park where I walk in the mornings, built in 1870, set high on a hill, one time overlooking the river but now with the entire area fully developed, homes blocking the view.

The Thunderbird of my teenage dreams as exhibited on “Cruisin’ Night” at our Club.

 Another sunset overlooking the bow of our boat.

And finally, a moonrise on the Norwalk River.

Hope to return next year!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Crow Fair and Desperate Characters

One of the pleasures on the boat is having some time to read.   Thomas McGuane’s short story collection, Crow Fair impressed me, reading one short story each evening to completion.  He is a gifted writer and although Montana is his focus and thus the western experience of writers such as Wallace Stegner and Raymond Carver encroach, there are also palettes of Updike and Cheever.  His characters are universal, flawed, sometimes funny, but fundamentally ones you identify or sympathize with, real people in stories that are so natural the denouement suddenly seizes you.  Above all, survival, emotionally as well as physically, is a leitmotif threaded in these stories.  Now I fully understand his close friendship with Jim Harrison.

His story Hubcaps has an exposition that is reminiscent of a Cheever story….By late afternoon, Owen’s parents were usually having their first cocktails.  His mother gave hers some thought, looking upon it as a special treat, while his father served himself a ‘stiff one’ in a more matter-of-fact way, his every movement expressing a conviction that he had a right to this stuff, no matter how disagreeable or lugubrious or romantic it might soon make him….Owen’s mother held her drink between the tips of her fingers; his father held it in his fist.  Owen could see solemnity descend on his father’s brow with the first sip, while his mother often looked apprehensive about the possible hysteria to come.

On a Dirt Road is particularly Carver-like. Ann and the protagonist “need new friends.” A couple moves in a home down the dirt road street where two cars cannot pass, so they see their new neighbors in such a mode neither acknowledging the other. Ann wants to have dinner with the Clearys, old friends, of which our protagonist has tired. Ann says she'll go alone with them to a local pizza joint. Off she goes and our protagonist decides to go meet the new neighbors who turn out to have “issues.”  Nonetheless on the spur of the moment he invites them to go to the pizza place to surprise his wife and the Clearys. The surprise is on him.

In A Long View to the West a man is caring for his dying father who is in the habit of telling or I should say retelling the same stories.  Clay asks his father how he feels about dying, the reply being ‘How should I know? I've never done it before.’  This is when he realizes that he is more frightened than his Dad, also realizing that he needs those stories.

Motherlode is about a “cattle geneticist” who gets caught up in a dangerous scam, way beyond his level of expertise, and he pays the consequences.  The suspense is so carefully built by McGuane that the reader is caught unawares at the end of the story.

Prairie Girl is about a woman who rises from “Butt Hut,” a brothel to bank president, by marrying a gay man from the banking family, having a child by him, and raising the boy as the true love of her life. Peter always wonders about his Mom, never realizing the truth.

River Camp incorporates all the writer’s themes, the role of nature in our insignificant lives, dysfunctional relationships, and the danger that lurks just below the surface because of something which is greater than ourselves.  Two old friends, sometimes adversaries, book a strange guide to lead them on a camping trip in the wilderness, learning more about each, their wives, and then the brutal truth about the guide and what nature has in store for them.

The title story Crow Fair concerns two brothers who learn that their dying mother, suffering from dementia, had a long affair with a Crow Chief who they set out to find. In so doing, the brothers go their separate ways.

Idiosyncratic, funny and sad at the same time, and beautifully written, McGuane tugs at the reader’s heart with simple truths about life.  I’ve mentioned only a few of the stories.  These stories, like Cheever’s and Carver’s deserve to be reread.

Now on to an outstanding novel. Thanks to Jonathan Franzen’s unremitting praise of a “forgotten novel,” I picked up Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters before leaving for the boat.  Here is yet another American classic I could put in the same class as John Williams’ Stoner which was written only five years earlier (Stoner 1965; Desperate Characters 1970).  Those were turbulent years and each novel deals with the turmoil in subtle ways, but mostly through relationships.  Each is written in absolutely exquisite, compact prose. 

Fox’s novel has a special familiarity to me as it is set in Brooklyn, near Brooklyn Heights in the late 1960s, my last years in the exact same place.  Her descriptions of the decadence of New York City are real as it was written at the time when it was experienced.  This is juxtaposed to the decay of the inner lives of the two main characters, Sophie and Otto Bentwood.  They are a childless couple, in their early 40s, living in the slowly gentrified neighborhood bordering Brooklyn Heights.  They also have a Mercedes and a house on Long Island with a barn.  They should be happy, right?

Early in the novel, to Otto’s displeasure, Sophie feeds a feral cat who suddenly lashes out at Sophie, sinking its teeth in her hand.  The incident is the undercurrent of the entire novel as the reader is left wondering whether her decision to not immediately seek medical attention will have serious consequences.  In this regard it is a novel of suspense.  Otto advises that she do so, although, interestingly, he is not absolutely insistent. 

Otto is breaking up with his law partner, Charlie Russel, who has his own marriage difficulties. However these partners, friends from college have gone their separate ways professionally.  But the plot is secondary to the lapidary writing, sentences, paragraphs you just find yourself dwelling over.

When the cat first appears, ramming its head against the glass door, Otto explains “’Ugly Bastard!’ The cat looked at him, then its eyes flicked away.  The house felt powerfully solid to him; the sense of that solidity was like a hand placed firmly in the small of his back.  Across the yard, past the cat’s agitated movements, he saw the rear windows of the houses on the slum street.  Some windows had rags tacked across them, other, sheets of transparent plastic.  From the sill of one, a blue blanket dangled.

When Otto is out of sight, Sophie defies him by feeding the cat, even petting the cat as she serves up some milk.  The cat’s back rose convulsively to press against her hand.  She smiled, wondering how often, if ever before, the cat had felt a friendly human touch, and she was still smiling as the cat reared up on its hind legs, even as it struck at her with extended claws, smiling right up to that second when it sank its teeth into the back of her left hand and hung from her flesh so that she nearly fell forward, stunned and horrified, yet conscious enough of Otto’s presence to smother the cry that arose in her throat as she jerked her hand back from that circle of barbed wire.

What struck me was that “friendly human touch” is absent from her marriage and that she suppressed her cry because of Otto being nearby.  Here is a marriage in crisis.

Fox is one of these rare writers who can capture the essence of a person in few words.  Here is her description of one of their friends, a psychiatrist, Myron Holstein who caters to writers and painters:  He didn’t know a thing about her, not even after ten years, but she loved the air of knowingness; the flattery that didn’t obligate her.  And she liked his somewhat battered face, the close-fitting English suits he bought from a London salesman who stopped at a mid-town hotel each year to take orders, the Italian shoes he said were part of his seducer’s costume.  He wasn’t a seducer.  He was remote.  He was like a man preceded into a room by acrobats.

That last sentence reminds me of Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns or George Barker’s poem To My Mother: “She is a procession no one can follow after / But be like a little dog following a brass band.”

It’s a stalemate relationship between Otto and Sophie.  He refuses to answer the telephone.  She asks, why? “Because I never hear anything on it that I want to hear any more.”  They were both standing rigidly, each half-consciously amassing evidence against the other, charges that would counterbalance the exasperation that neither could fathom.  Then he asked her directly why she was angry.  She said she wasn’t angry at all; it was just so tiresome of him to indulge himself about the telephone, to stand there so stupidly while it rang, to force her to do it.  How many of us have played the same tug of war with our spouses?

As a woman in her early 40’s, Sophie’s body is changing.  It comes somewhat as a shock to her:  Her body was not her own any more, but had taken off in some direction of its own.  In this last year she had discovered that its discomforts once interpreted, always meant the curtailment, or end, of some pleasure.  She could not eat and drink the way she once had.  Inexorably, she was being invaded by elements that were both gross and risible.  She had only realized that one was old for a long time.  Old for a long time, how familiar!  Brilliant writing!

As a student I once spent a long time in the emergency room waiting area of the Brooklyn Hospital.  Note how Fox’s sense of realism conjures up such a room in the late 1960s.  Her writing brings alive an experience I had more than 50 years ago: It was like a bus station, an abandoned lot, the aisles in the coaches of the old B & O trains, subway platforms, police stations. It combined the transient quality, the disheveled atmosphere of a public terminal with the immediately apprehended terror of a way station to disaster.  It was a dead hole, smelling of synthetic leather and disinfectant, both of which odors seemed to emanate from the torn scratched material of the seats that lined three walls.  It smelled of the tobacco ashes which had flooded the two standing metal ashtrays.  On the chromium lip of one, a cigar butt gleamed wetly like a chewed piece of beef.  There was the smell of peanut shells and of the waxy candy wrappers that littered the floor, the smell of old newspapers, dry inky, smothering and faintly like a urinal, the smell of sweat from armpits and groins and backs and faces, pouring out and drying up in the lifeless air, the smell of clothes – cleaning fluids embedded in fabric and blooming horridly in the warm sweetish air, picking at the nostrils like thorns – all the exudations of human flesh, a bouquet of animal being, flowing out, drying up, but leaving a peculiar and ineradicable odor of despair in the room as though chemistry was transformed into spirit, an ascension of a kind.

Yet the heart of the novel is a philosophical question as “desperate characters” seek meaning in a hostile universe, a snapshot of New York City when it reached its nadir in the late 1960s.  As Franzen asks in his introduction: “What is the point of meaning – especially literary meaning – in a rabid modern world?  Why bother creating and preserving order if civilization is every bit as killing as the anarchy to which it’s opposed?”  Striving for the answer, Franzen has read and taught the novel many times.

John Williams’ Stoner has been called “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of. Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters is in the same league. 

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Visiting the Past to See the Future

I just finished reading Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters which is set in Brooklyn in the late 1960s.  More on that in another entry whenever I can get to it, but the novel  unfolds not only in the Borough of my past, Brooklyn, but mostly bordering the downtown section which is my old home and haunt, beginning with my student days at Long Island University.  For years my friend Bruce and I have talked about revisiting the university together as Alumni, but we’ve never been able to coordinate the days.  He’s not around the corner, living in Massachusetts so I forgive him.  But as I closed the Fox book last Monday the urge was strong to revisit and I was compelled to act on the urge as planning never seems to go right so I turned to Ann and asked her whether she wants to go with me the next day.  Why not give me a little advance notice (she had an appointment) she asked, but she promptly cancelled that appointment, agreeing to join me on my impromptu adventure.  I emailed my son Jonathan to ask whether he might want to meet us at Juniors in downtown Brooklyn that day for lunch (revisiting would not be complete without sitting in that landmark once again).

He was surprised by our plans and asked whether we’d be driving in.  No, I said, Metro North to Grand Central and then the IRT #5 train to Nevins Street – needed to experience it all (after all I commuted to the school by subway from Queens for the first semester in 1960).  We’re crazy he said, too much to negotiate, too many stairs, the jostling crowds, etc.  Crazy I am I guess but the trip to and from was as meaningful as the visit itself, and less stress than driving and quicker too.  All part of the “fun.”

So we emerged from the Nevins Street station and were greeted by a Brooklyn I hardly recognized.  Looking east and west on Flatbush Avenue revealed a skyline of a different place although some of the same tired buildings were standing.  I seem to remember a Bickford’s (or was it a Horn & Hardart?) there, long gone.  Walking west towards the Manhattan Bridge there was the LIU I remembered, the old Brooklyn Paramount building and adjacent Metcalf Hall where all of our classrooms were.

The door to the Paramount was open, a guard manning the desk, so we went in and showed him my “student ID card” – the last one I carried during the 1963-64 semester year. 

He looked at it in disbelief as If I was a Martian but good naturedly directed us to the Admissions Office.  As I student I worked there part-time, processing applications and I worked in the library as well.  The Admissions office is essentially in the same place, but the entrance is no longer on Flatbush, but inside the campus gates so we entered there and I presented my ID card to the receptionist. “Oh my God,” was her response.  “I have to show this to the Associate Director,” which she did. 

We were told there is a tour at 2 PM so before lunch we had some time on our own to visit my old dormitory.  Again, my card was greeted by disbelief but that allowed me to look around at the cafeteria and the student lounge there, all changed of course.  I told the guard at reception – pointing at the three elevators – that when I lived there they were segregated.  “Segregated?” he was obviously surprised by the implication.  Yes, I replied, two of the elevators went to the men’s floors and one was for the women.  “Huh” he said, “there were separate floors for men and women?”  Yes, in the early 60s, that is how it was.  Times have changed.

Then I couldn’t resist getting a photo of myself in front of 175 Willoughby Street, that old apartment house being my second residence after graduating and the one I lived in with our young son, Chris, until I was divorced.  The building has been refurbished and looks better than when I lived there some 50 years ago.  Our apartment had a clear view of the New York City skyline, but that is now blocked by a new apartment house.

So after these two nostalgic visits, off to Juniors.  Same as I remember it, and the same late 50s early 60s music playing, displays of Brooklyn landmarks, in particular the Brooklyn Dodgers, or “dem bums.”  There we met Jonathan who was born long after I left Brooklyn.  As in the past, Juniors serves way too much food but even so we couldn’t resist capping off our lunch with a shared piece of their famous cheesecake.  Yum!

So, Jonathan went back to work and we walked back across the street, way too early for the 2pm tour, hoping for a brief private tour.  They were waiting for me. “Here he is!”   

They had already planned a private tour for an “old” alumnus, so were lucky enough that Tiarra, a student admissions assistant, the same position I had, was available to take us around.  The change and additions to the school were striking.

What impressed me most about the LIU of today is its forward-looking, and application-results-oriented strategy, intended to give its students the best opportunities for employment after graduation.  It’s the hands on direction the school has taken, with its life-sciences and entrepreneurship focus as well as the facilities that students now have to maintain their health (what a gym facility!) and their social lives (i.e. social media and the numerous caf├ęs), that really overwhelmed me, facilities which were unimaginable in my time. 

Nonetheless it was nice to see the humanities thriving there as well, including its own theatre (in my day the theatre department produced plays at the Brooklyn Academy of Music).  It was quite a trip down memory lane seeing the old Metcalf building, the Paramount, and my dormitory, but so impressive to see the new campus and its flourishing multicultural student population getting ready for the real world.  I think LIU is really in sync with the times and Brooklyn itself. It’s reinvented itself many times during its nearly 100 years in the Borough, a resilient survivor and innovator in the competitive world of higher education.   

The facilities as I noted are phenomenal.  A new gym, Olympic size swimming pool and endless exercise machines beckon.   

I was wondering about the need for a second gym but Tiarra said the old Paramount (above) was going to be restored to its former splendor in conjunction with the Barclay’s Center as a theatre for events, the students getting discounts.  Smart strategy for income methinks, sort of functioning as an endowment for the university.

Still the past has not been forgotten as the gym pays tribute to athletes of years gone by.  I liked the billboard sized poster of some of the basketball stars I saw play, including Ed “Cornflakes” Johnson, Luther Green, and Albie Grant.  Albie was a small center / power forward who I grew close to in my senior year.  A wonderful person  -- a great optimistic personality – who died way too early in life.  To watch him play was among the more significant moments in LIU athletic history.

After a couple hours of touring, we were beat, but happy, and headed back to the IRT just as the #5 train pulled in, nearly full but we managed a seat until Grand Central, and then back “home” to our boat.  I’m proud to be a LIU graduate, a school which has managed to adapt to and change with the times, giving its students an opportunity to succeed in the 21st century world, as I like to think I did in the 20th.

I’ve written several pieces about my Brooklyn years in this blog, but the one which is most relevant to LIU is this link.  Included there is a piece I wrote for Confrontation Magazine about 10 years after graduating.  It still says it all about my experience then, and for convenience sake I repeat it below.

L.I.U.-My World in the Early'60s

Downtown Brooklyn sandwiched between the placid decade of the 50s and the Vietnam War was not unlike other communities in having a sense of optimism about its future. A thriving commercial center for small merchants, it had major islands in the same sea: the New York Telephone Company headquarters, the Brooklyn Hospital, Abraham and Straus department store, the Fox and Paramount movie theatres, the Board of Education, Fort Greene Park, and Long Island University.

It was September 1960 when I emerged from the DeKalb Avenue subway stop and made my way for the first time to L.I.U. Standing at the comer of Flatbush Avenue Extension and DeKalb Avenue, waiting for the light to change, Junior's and the Dime Savings Bank behind me, I faced a drab office building rising above the ornate but faded Brooklyn Paramount movie palace.

Farther behind me was a middle-class Queens community, my universe until this moment: a community of hard-working people imbued with the conviction that all things were possible in this society if one tried hard enough; it was with this sense I was going to college to learn business. But this seeming past eternity of punch ball; the Bungalow Bar man; picture-card trading; piano and guitar lessons; grammar school report cards that included grades for penmanship, neatness and posture; the Bunny Hop, Elvis ("a-wop-bom-a-lu-bop ... "); Ike; and high school (" ... if you don't take Latin, you won't be able to get into college .. ") was possibly fading, for I stood on the border between two lives, two cultures: was my background going to be my future, could I emerge out of this bland and benign landscape into myself? Brooklyn would have much to do with the answer.

Sitting in my first class on the 8th floor, becoming a regular occupant of that same seat, I could see the digital clock on top of the Dime Savings Bank blinking at me. This and another clock on top of the Williamsburg Savings Bank farther up Flatbush Avenue became lighthouses in my Brooklyn experience. When, the following year, I lived in the dormitory, returning late in the evening from a night in Manhattan in a blinding snowstorm, I sensed these silent timepieces watching me scurrying home.

In later years I lived in downtown Brooklyn, worked in Manhattan for a publishing firm, and regularly flew to the mid-west. Coming into LaGuardia Airport, we would sweep over Brooklyn and see the downtown area reaching out to Prospect Park while the fingers of the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges bound Brooklyn to Manhattan. Below was the beacon of the Williamsburg Savings Bank clock. Then, as now, I am drawn to that unique community I once called home.

I remember the student union on the ground floor of the small building adjacent to the Paramount building. Smoke hung in the stagnant air, bodies slumped on worn lounge chairs and elbows rested on Formica tables. Nixon versus Kennedy was the subject of heated discussion. These students, mostly from Brooklyn, seemed confident in their belief that politics could remake society. Eventually I found myself caught up in political causes as my apathy of the past waned.

With John F. Kennedy our new President-elect, the campus had a new vibrancy. A professor, delayed by listening to Beethoven's Eighth Symphony in his office, entered the classroom gesticulating those glorious rhythms. One professor challenged us to an exam: think of a question and answer it, the grade being as dependent on the nature of the question as on the answer. Another accepted a twisted pretzel from a student on the school quadrangle and published a poem on the experience.

Meanwhile I moved into the dormitory, severing remaining ties with a prior somnambulistic life. My room faced the front of the campus, with the monolithic slab of a factory that would become the shell of the architecturally renowned Humanities Building to be constructed a short time later. Behind the factory stood downtown Brooklyn, my microcosm of the real world.

The lack of classroom space mandated that the university rent space at Brooklyn Polytechnic, a neighboring institution where some of my classes were held. We made our way there along Myrtle Avenue, the elevator line rumbling over our heads, past furniture stores and shells of buildings. Decay was evident, but it was defiant decay: people stubbornly made their homes and pursued their lives here.

The return trip was frequently along Fulton Street, connecting the City Hall area with Flatbush Avenue and downtown Brooklyn. There, the cacophony of tiny record stores blurted out" ... baby, baby, baby, baby don't you leave me ... " merging with" ... be-bop-a-lu-la, she's my baby ... " The Chinese restaurant on the second floor beckoned, but I moved on toward the Dime Savings Bank, past shoe, appliance, fabric and other stores.

Across from the Dime Savings Bank was McCrory's, which embodied most of the merchant's downtown Brooklyn expectations. Here I was greeted at the door by the aroma of newly manufactured goods mixed with those of different foods cooking in various sections of the store. In the basement was a grocery where we bought food to supplement the fare in the dormitory. Shoppers would scrutinize the merchandise with almost-total seriousness as the IND subway loudspeaker announced, through corridors connecting to McCrory's, a train's arrival.

Opposite Junior's restaurant, then as now the neighborhood's most famous food emporium, was another restaurant, Soloway's, a luncheonette run by a Greek family. Hamburgers sizzled in grease while french fries were bathing in deep fat. Students gathered around most of the tables and at the counter while strains of "Run Around Sue" thumped from the jukebox.

Junior's itself was reserved for special occasions when only the most obscene dessert would suffice. Also, late at night, when we could study no more, some of us went across to Junior's bar to chat with Pete, the bartender, who offered a different education: would Maris hit 60 home runs? Mickey Mantle was the better ballplayer, Pete opined. Pete had a thick neck with a trim gray crew cut. He was a kindly father to us, probably not realizing the important role he played in our student lives.

Manhattan was a short shuttle over the Manhattan Bridge via the BMT, and occasionally we went there. Perhaps on a date, sitting at the back of St. Patrick's Cathedral until dawn to beat the curfew for female residents of the dorm; or to Greenwich Village for a Black Russian or to see a production at Cafe LaMama or on the second floor of Max's Kansas City restaurant, where the Theatre of the Absurd played; but Brooklyn seemed to be all the world we generally needed and that was where we usually stayed. We sat on the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights, and took in the vista of the Brooklyn Bridge, downtown Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, and further up, the spire of the Empire State.

During club hours we crowded into the auditorium to hear Malcolm X speak. Or we listened to local political candidates, heated debate overflowing the classroom after the speaker left.

The Cuban Missile crisis brought us back to days when, as schoolchildren, shades were lowered, lights turned out, and we were instructed to get down on our knees below our desks and cover our heads. Our mortality, and civilization's could be ended by design or by caprice. We frantically darted about the dormitory, discussing whether we might soon be drafted.

I remember other areas I did not know until those days in Brooklyn. Working as a receptionist at the Brooklyn Tuberculosis Center several evenings a week, I participated in a too-common side of Brooklyn life: poverty. Sick, helpless people came, seeking assistance. I processed forms and offered reassurance, but felt ineffectual.

As a dormitory counselor I sometime had to accompany students to the emergency room at the Brooklyn Hospital behind the university. I spent a week there myself, with pleurisy, in a ward. The squalor and the human tragedy I witnessed are echoed in the works of Theodore Dreiser which I read in the hospital for a term paper, seeing Frank Cowperwood's lobster and squid locked in deadly combat as symbolic of our struggle with life in this land of Brooklyn.

Next to the hospital was a prison. There, from the upper floors of the dormitory, the prisoners could be seen endlessly marching in circles. The prison was later destroyed to make room for a bigger hospital, the demolition ball pounding the 19th-century slabs into rubble, crushing the infinitely trodden steps in the courtyard.

Walking past the Admissions Office one Friday afternoon, a friend came running toward me. "Did you hear, Kennedy was shot?" Incredulous, I rushed to my dorm to listen to the radio. It was true.

I had tickets for a concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that night, one of the few cultural events in New York City that was not cancelled. An unrehearsed version of Beethoven's Egmont Overture was performed rather than the regular program. We filed out, silent, stunned, weeping openly. In quick succession Oswald was apprehended, and while we watched it on TV, Jack Ruby assassinated him.

With the advent of these acts, in particular as the Vietnam War encroached on all our lives, I knew the life I had known in Brooklyn could not remain the same. What changed, some years later, was often for the better for me. But whatever the benefits and the sad moments, I shall remember Brooklyn most as the place that allowed me to change into myself.