In the Days Before Digitalization

In the days before digitalization, people looked straight ahead when they walked, sometimes making eye contact. In the summers, it was hot at night (earth air temperature has risen only .5 degrees since Eisenhower), so people without air-conditioners sat on stoops or porches and conversed with passersby and neighbors.

If a disagreement arose, say, over how many strikeouts Lefty Gomez amassed in his career, precise information was difficult to come by. Unless someone could produce an almanac or up-to-date encyclopedia, the disagreement couldn’t be settled until later. Sometimes people called librarians to look up the answers to their questions, though, of course, libraries weren’t open at night. On some nights you might hear people raising their voices in disagreement over Gomez’s strikeouts or the name of the last Triple Crown winner.

However, in the daytime, most librarians would cheerfully agree to research your questions. In those days, most white workingwomen wore flesh-colored hose, which they attached to undergarments called garter belts, elastic contraptions worn around the waist that had metal clasps dangling around the garter belts’ circumferences. Women (and a few men known as transvestites) attached the top of their hose (also called stockings) to the clasps of the garter belts.

Most librarians were female in the days before digitalization. To find the answer to the riddle of the number of strikeouts, they left their stations behind a desk and walked to retrieve the information from a reference volume classified by the Dewey Decimal System. If the librarian were plump, the chafing of her hose would produce a swish-swish sound.

When she called to inform the questioner that Lefty Gomez had struck out 1,468 in his major league career, she had to dial the questioner’s number, each digit clicking clockwise downward to engage. Depending on the size of the community, telephone numbers might consist of as few as four digits. However, it took longer to dial four digits then than it does to punch in ten digits today. Before the 1960’s, all telephones were black.

In the days before digitalization, people were thinner (average female waist circumference 1950: 71.2 cm; circumference today: 91.44 cm). Rather than dieting or joining a gym, a librarian might wear a girdle, a constricting undergarment creating the illusion of a flat abdomen. These armor-like undergarments restricted movement. When a girdled librarian approached a talker with her forefinger pressed to her lips to issue a shushing sibilant, she could appear militaristic in her carriage.  Libraries were as quiet as mausoleums. They housed only books, magazines, and phonographic records.

In those days, dairies delivered milk to people’s porches on weekdays. Virtually all milk delivers were male.  Milkmen worked early hours and drove UPS-like trucks with open doors. They had daily routes, like paperboys, who rode bicycles.  Because of their recurrent journeys around the grids of city streets, milkmen got the reputation of producing children out-of-wedlock. In the days before digitalization, condoms were about the only mechanical means of birth control.

While he was at work using company time to call a librarian regarding Gomez’s strikeouts, a man’s wife could be going through the time-consuming activity of undressing in preparation for a tryst with a milkman. For each digit her husband dialed, she could unclasp on average two garter connections, completely disengaging the hose before the first grating sound simulating the distant phone’s ringing.

In movies, women called this process “slipping into something more comfortable.” Because of the conspicuousness of a milk truck parked on the curb outside a house, these sexual unions were completed rapidly. They took place in less time than it took the librarian to receive the call, research the question, and return the cuckold’s call.

If someone’s child had red hair in an otherwise dark-haired family, the jovial answer to the question “where did you get that red-hair” was “from the milkman.”

In fact, people still us this phrase even though milkmen have gone the way of hardbound encyclopedias, ink stamps, and ox ploughs.

 

Grief Counseling Noir

Five weeks ago my wife Ellie died of pancreatic cancer. We did the hospice thing, and the dying went fairly smoothly, thanks to the morphine. There were no eyes popping open and arms reaching upwards to invisible loved ones hovering around the bed, just a slow diminishing of breathing in the midst of a coma-like unconsciousness. She, unlike Dylan Thomas, went gently into that good night, which suited the both of us.

Our two girls are grown, 25 and 26, both in med school, so they were there with us, but now they’re back doing their residencies, one in DC, the other in Chicago. They both insisted I get some grief counseling, but I was resistant, that is, until about a week ago.

I had my reasons for not wanting to go to grief counseling. For one thing, I hate group activities. I’d rather watch 96 hours of consecutive Brady Bunch reruns than experience again that Lamaze class we went to when Ellie was pregnant with Lillian.

The girls informed me that you didn’t have to go group; you could go one-on-one.

I told them I didn’t want to go one-on-one either. “Look”, I said, “I’m a literature professor. My master’s thesis was Death and Dying in Yoknapatawpha County: Faulkner and that Undiscovered Country. I know all about death and dying. I was right there with Emma Bovary when she passed, right there with Lear as he carried dead Cordelia in his arms.”

“Plus, your mother was a psychologist,” I added. “Believe me, I know the drill. I’ve read pro Kubler-Ross and anti-Kubler-Ross. “

I did, though, promise that if I thought I needed help, I’d seek it.

Once the girls left and I was all-alone in the house with Ellie’s tops and skirts hanging in our walk-in closet, her jewelry in a jumble on her dresser, I started feeling more down than I had. Waves of sorrow would sometimes wash over me, and I would occasionally weep out loud with sobs that sounded like sardonic laughing. Right after one of those episodes when I was washing my face and lamenting the revival that my long-gone adolescent acne was restaging on the ruined contours of my already pocked-marked face, the phone rang.

It was a woman from the hospice following up to see how I was doing. Talking to her, my voice went wobbly, like a retiring coach’s voice as he blinks back tears in an interview after his final game. She mentioned that they offered grief counseling, but I resisted offering a less arrogant and pretentious reprise I had given my daughters.

I told her I had a lot of support from friends, colleagues, and former students, which was true.

She said, “Okay, bye sweetie.”

That sealed the deal. I wasn’t going with anyone who called me sweetie, anyone who was going to infantilize my suffering. So I went on google to check out counselors in the area and frankly didn’t like what I saw, mostly younger, attractive women with bleached teeth who “empower” and “help resolve” a laundry list of personal issues like anxiety, self-esteem, family issues, and grief.

Then I ran across this ad.

 

I did some snooping on my own with Marlowe.  His degree was legit, but he had been fired from MUSC after only two years for insubordination.  He had lost his wife Linda Loring early in his marriage (steeple chase, broken neck) so he’s been around grief’s mournful block of consignment shops, hole-in-the-wall bars, pawnshops, and laundromats. His office/apartment is located on Folly Beach over an outdoor bar called Chico Feo on the corner of Second Street and Ashley, you know, right across from that mural of the pirate painted on the side of Berts.  I went ahead and made the appointment.  A secretary with one of those irritating interrogative lilting voices hit me up for Friday at 11:30.

You go up some rickety outdoor stairs to get up to his office. Two beautifully hand-painted signs hang next to the door. The top one reads: “Philip Marlowe, Psy.D.” The one below: “Yes, smoking, a lot of smoking in here, unfiltered Pell Mells. If you don’t like cigarette smoke, turn around. I wish you the best of luck. Otherwise, come on in.”

The door has a small set of wind chimes attached that tinkle/jingle. Inside there’s an old oak desk in desperate need of refinishing with a neat stack of forms on top, a jar with a variety of pens and pencils, and an ashtray in bad need of emptying.  Behind the desk a wooden slatted office chair on rollers.

On the other side of the room a green corduroy sofa and two chairs around a coffee table.  On that table a neat stack of New Yorkers diagonally situated in its center. No framed diplomas on the wall, only a strange, amateurishish painting (pictured below). A black curtain whose rod runs along the length of the room separates this office space from the living quarters. In a word, this joint is seedy and reeks of stale smoke.[1]

 

When I entered, there was no sign of Marlowe. I went back to the door, opened it, and waggled it back and forth creating a tintinnabulation. Marlowe’s head appeared between the curtains. An ocean breeze billowing them in and out. “McNully, right? I’ll be right with you. Grab one of the forms on the desk, a pencil, and have a seat. My girl called in sick with a hangover.”

The head disappeared but reappeared. “By the way, nice fedora.”

I sat down in one of the chairs, picked up a New Yorker to to support the form.  What you would expect.  Date of birth.  Date and cause of death.  Occupations.  Your medical history.

In three or four minutes, Marlowe returned dressed in a retro double-breasted coat and tie. The picture on the ad wasn’t current.  He’d aged since then. Here’s what he looks like today:

He grabbed the ashtray, emptied it in the metal trashcan next to his desk, and placed it on the coffee table next to me. After shaking my hand, he plopped down on the sofa, offered me a Pell Mell from his pack. “No thanks,” I said.

He placed a cigarette directly from the pack to his lips, retrieved a box of matches, and lit one from the bottom of his shoe.  He ignited the cig, took a deep drag, tilted his head back, and then expelled the smoke through his nostrils as he dropped the match into the ashtray..

“How about a drink?” he said. “A shot of rye? I could make a new pot of coffee.”

“No thanks, a little early for whiskey and a little late for coffee.”

A tic messed with his mouth. “Mind if I do?”

“Help yourself,” I said.

He produced a pint bottle from his side coat pocket, unscrewed the cap, and took a long slug. Then a short one. Then another long one.

He screwed the top back on and placed the bottle on the table. The label read “Templeton Rye, aged 4 years.”  He then picked up the form I filled out and gave it a cursory once over.

“Mr. McNully, sorry about your loss. I read your wife’s obituary. Remarkable woman. Even though now you feel like shit, you’re a lucky man, if you know what I mean.“

“Yeah, I think I know what you mean. I feel the same way, sort of.”

“Some days you feel okay; some days you feel like, Niobe, all tears, right?

He paused to cough, a dry hoarse smoker’s cough.

“Not so much the latter,”  I said when he had finished,  “But feeling ‘like shit is fairly accurate.’”

“You’re an English teacher, right.”

‘A professor,”  I said.

“Then you know different people are going to react differently to grief. Faulkner’s Caroline Compson isn’t Hemingway’s Frederick Henry. On one extreme, you got your Niobes, your Caroline Compsons, your basketcases, weeping unceasingly or taking to bed, doping up with camphor, and on the other extreme you got your tough cookies like Frederick Henry in A Farewell to Arms. You’ve read that, right.”

“Coincidentally, I did my thesis on Faulkner, on death and dying in Faulkner,”  I threw in, rather awkwardly, which seemed to throw his rhythm off a tad.

“A hopeless rummy.  Anyway, you know Hemingway?”

“Better than most,”  I said, almost wishing I had opted for the hospice counselor.

Remember the ending of A Farewell to Arms?”

“Yeah, the nurse dies in childbirth.”

“Here’s the last paragraph. I’ve memorized it:

But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying goodbye to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.

“Yipes. I’d forgotten that.”

“I’m guessing you fall somewhere in between Niobe and ol’ Frederick. Am I right?”

“Happy to say, closer to Fred than Ny.”

“Okay, Prof, I want you to study that painting over there on that wall. It’s an allegory of grieving.”

I thought but managed not to say, “You gotta to be kidding me,” but instead “Okay?” in that tone my students use when trying to express incredulity.

I stood up, walked over, and looked at the painting, which I only had glanced coming in. I stared at it for about a minute. “You say it’s an allegory on grieving?”

“Look, Prof, I’m going to save you some money, cut to the chase and explain the symbolism rather than pulling it out of you with Socratic questions.”

“Suits me.” We hadn’t discussed remuneration, but I assumed it charged by the half-hour.

Now he was standing next to me, pointing with his cigarette. “Okay, the Lighthouse represents the earth’s axis; it’s centered, phallic, pointing upwards. The ocean represents the female, suffering, the unconscious, you name it.”

I inwardly rolled my eyes.  This was simplistic, sophomoric analysis.

“You see those whitecaps; the ocean is rough. Did you notice those legs sticking out of the water?”

“What legs? Where?”

He pointed. “Those are Icarus’s legs from the Breughel painting.”

“You mean Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, the painting Auden alludes to in his poem,”  I said as if I were a character in a B movie.

He was supposed to say “precisely,” but instead,  replied, “You got it, prof.”

 

 

Cupping the cigarette in his hand, he took one last drag, leaned over, and crushed it into the ashtray.

”Okay, follow the diagonal line from Icarus’s legs, to the man battling the rabid weasel, up to the dame running towards shore, to the mermaid sitting on the rocks.

“Yes?”

“That’s grief’s progression, simplified.  It immerses you; eventually you stick your head out of the water, only to be attacked by whatever you want those weasels to stand for, guilt, depression, numbness.  But note he’s battling those weasels.  Has one by the tail.  Soon as he dispatches that one, he’ll reach for the one gnawing on his neck.  He’s gonna have scars, for sure, but scars heal and eventually fade, even though, they never really go away.”

He reached for another cig and offered the pack almost reflexively.

“No thanks.  But I have a question.  I’m assuming the woman on shore is part of the progression.”

“Right.”

“Why not make her a man and the mermaid a merman?

“I’ve got female clients, too. It doesn’t mean that grief makes you change genders, though it might make you take on some of the traits of the other gender.  Of course, you got grief going with sons and dads, moms and daughters, queer couples.  As it turns out, most of my clients are queer.”

He rubbed his hand across his chin.

“So, you probably realize that it’s not linear like this, but it’s eventually the progression.  What you’ll become with time is the mermaid on the rock – or, in your case, a merman on the rocks — a creature of both worlds.  Note her expression of detached interest.”

“I see,”  I said.

“Good, That’s it. I could waste your time and money by going on about this shit, but this is really all you need to know.”  Once again his tic jerked the corner of his mouth.

“That’s it?

“That’s it.

“How much do I owe you?”

“Fifty bucks.”

“Do you take credit cards?”

“No but Charlie or Hank can accept on my behalf at the bar below. Seems like nobody carries cash or checks nowadays.”

“I could write a check.”

“Perfect.”

As I descended the steps, I looked over my shoulder at the ocean across the street. It was gray with a nasty riptide. It occurred to me that Marlowe wasn’t exactly the perfect role model for recovery.

It was noon, so I went over to the bar and sat down on a stool and grabbed a menu, ordered a Pabst on draft and a Mahi taco. The lager and taco were good, as Hemingway might say. I asked the bartender, a thirty-something sporting a lumberjack’s beard and a shaved head, the scoop on Marlowe. He rolled his eyes. “He’s okay when he’s sober but a pain in the ass when he’s drunk. He can be a mean drunk.”

“Does he get drunk a lot?

“The bartender grinned. “Is the pope a commie from Argentina?”

“Yes, I reckon he is,” I said.

“Hey,”  he said.  “Sorry about your loss.  I lost my brother in Afghanistan.  I’m still not over it. ”

As I left, I glanced up at the porch, and there sat Marlowe with his coat off, his pants supported by suspenders, his retro 40’s tie loosened at the collar. Smoking one of his Pell Mells, he was staring out at the ocean, his eyes hidden by wrap around shades.


[1] Marlowe would probably point out that’s six words.

 

 

The End of Irony

 

canopy-bed

Old habits die hard. On the morning Irony plans to commit suicide, he puts a ridiculously upbeat polka record on the crank-up gramophone that shares a bedside table with bottle of multi-vitamins and a half-liter of Jameson’s. As always, he rattles two of the tablets into his palm, pops them in his mouth, uncorks the adjacent bottle of Jameson’s, takes a slug, and washes the vitamins down  – all to the oom-pah of manic tubas, trombones, trumpets, and accordions.

The décor of his windowless room: an eclectic mixture of elegance and shabbiness. Maxwell Parrish’s Daybreak hangs on the one wall not lined with bookshelves. Hanging next to the Parish poster a black-and-white photograph of a pyramid of human skulls courtesy of Pol Pot. Both clash with the overly florid Victorian wallpaper. A chandelier hangs from the vaulted ceiling; a lava lamp pulsates atop one of the bookshelves.

parrish

Day Break by Maxwell Parrish

Irony remembers an old New Yorker cartoon featuring a firing squad posed to shoot a prisoner who refuses the offer of one last cigarette. The caption: “No thanks, I’m trying to quit.”

The needle of the gramophone slides across the 78 record’s end.

Thump thump, thump thump.

He carefully lifts the tone arm of the gramophone, gently replaces it in its cradle, removes the record, using two hands, careful not to smear the shellac resin with his finger prints. He slides the disc into its plastic sleeve and then into the cardboard cover. He removes a lighter from the pocket of his bathrobe and tries to light the corner of the album cover. It doesn’t ignite, so he places the record back into its rightful place in the rack.

weiners-001

He shuffles out onto the hall to retrieve the paper, its headline announcing the President’s bestowing Medals of Freedom to David Allan Coe, David Duke, Steve Bannon, Ann Coulter, Steven Segal, and Vladimir Putin.

In dressing for his suicide, Irony’s as meticulous as Quentin Compson, though, of course, Irony is no gentleman, far from it. He prepares his own shaving lather, applies it with a brush, and whips out his straight razor.

Why not just end it right here with one deft swipe across the jugular? No, too melodramatic. Plus, he’s already bought the rope. That would be a waste.  Instead, he applies his pancake makeup and then riffles through his costumes.

Irony lives in the Tower of Song, and although he’s been around for a long time (he can count Aristophanes and Voltaire as fans), nothing lasts forever. Nowadays, when he goes out on the boulevard, even in his polka-dotted shirt and checkered pants, virtually no one recognizes him.   He’s a has been. When General Petraeus is confirmed as Secretary of State via unanimous Republican support, including Representative Trey Gowdy and the rest of the Benghazi committee, it’s time to call it a career.

He pulls out a suitcase from underneath his four-poster canopied bed, heaves it up on the mattress, and snaps it open. The rope he retrieves from the wardrobe, the noose already fashioned. Even though it’s not uncommon now to see pedestrians with assault rifles slung over their shoulders or with holstered six-shooters dangling from their hips, Irony doesn’t want to be seen on the sidewalk carrying a rope.  After placing it in the suitcase, he gently closes the lid, snaps it shut.

The elevator man in the Tower of Song is Eddie Rochester Anderson.

Eddie "Rochester" Anderson

Eddie “Rochester” Anderson

“How you doin’ today, Mr. Irony,” he says as Irony steps into the elevator.

“Fine and dandy — except I’ve lost the will to live.”

Rochester cackles. “You sure are a card. Yes sir-ree. Looks like you headed on a trip. Where you goin’?

Staring up at the descending lighted numbers of floors, Irony says, “I’m headed to that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns.”

“Sounds like a real vacation.”

The elevator clunks to a stop, and Rochester slides open the cage before the big door opens up into the lobby.

“Catch you on the flip side,” he says. “Bon voyage.”

Irony is displeased to discover that the day is not bright and sunny; rather, it looks as if Ingmar Bergman might have had a hand in casting the weather – a dark, miasmic day beneath leaden skies guaranteeing rain.

He hails a cab, gives the driver the address of Big Dick’s Halfway Inn, Home of the Original Minnow Shot. Looking out of the window, he sees a bus of about-to-be deported immigrants thundering past.

Irony removes his IOS device, inserts his ear buds, scans iTunes for the “Up With People” theme song, and hits play.

 

 

 

The Journal of a Sojourn in the Realm of Hyperliteracy

Introduction

My girlfriend and I have recently booked an all-inclusive vacation package to the Realm of Hyperliteracy.

She’s 47 – hardly a girl – but she is not, strictly speaking, my partner because we do not cohabitate, and certainly the descriptor paramour stresses too much the sexual component, which though important, is not the central focus of our relationship.

I wish I could call her my fiancée, but the truth of the matter is that she is a widow twelve years my senior, and remarrying would not be financially prudent because of certain stipulations in her insanely possessive late husband’s will.

Perhaps, in the Realm of Hyperliteracy, I shall discover the perfect word to describe an exclusive sexual partner with whom one does not reside. In this case, one envies the German language’s facility to create multiple compounds. In German, one can have a steadysexmatewhodwellsapart, but in contemporary American English, one is stuck with inaccuracies like “girlfriend,” or worse, vulgarities like “main squeeze.”

As you may know, the Realm of Hyperliteracy is the brainchild of Sir Oglethorpe FitzSybil, who in the foothills of the Austrian Alps has established the perfect vacation spot for extroverted bibliophiles who crave conversational partners who express themselves precisely, men and women who recognize that singular antecedents demand singular pronouns, men and women with whom one can communicate without fear of their not knowing the definition of agitprop or schadenfreude, men and women who have read Flaubert’s Salammbô as well as his Madame Bovary.

In short, men and women who find the splitting of infinitives infinitely irritating.

The brochures have made it exceedingly clear that each visitor has been carefully screened – and endured a comprehensive exam – to insure that he (forgive the colloquialism) passes muster.

Felicity (not her real name) is taking me to Realm of Hyperliteracy to celebrate my thirty-fifth birthday. As you remember, it was exactly at three-score-and-five that Dante Alighieri awakened in that dark wood and began his journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise. Although rarely celebrated as a significant birthday in the States — one never hears “Sakes, sakes alive/ Reginald is turning thirty-five” — one could argue that since it’s half of the biblical allotment of seventy years, the thirty-fifth anniversary of one’s nativity is truly a momentous milestone.

I’ve decided in the tradition of Boswell and Johnson to keep a journal of my travels so that in my later years I can recall accurately the events. Photographic equipment of all types, even cellular telephones, is strictly forbidden. Visitors are limited to one carry-on sized bag. When one books, he provides his measurements, and the wardrobes of rooms are stocked with clothing that patrons are required to wear during their stay. Need I mention that computers are verboten as well?

Day 1

airport-security-9ebce93935a10c96I wish I could say that our grand launch is going smoothly, but alas, that would be a prevarication. The passage through security was especially vexing because I had not been informed that the TSA had relaxed their security guidelines; therefore, I had unnecessarily segregated my liquids into plastic bags, and when I began removing my belt and shoes, a very unpleasant man in a uniform who was a dead ringer for Oskar Dirlewanger growled menacingly at me. He projected a heightened sense of expediency, which turned out to be completely unnecessary because we ended up sitting in the plane for a seeming eternity before our taking off.

More vexing is– I use the appellation loosely – the gentleman sitting to my left (I have ceded the window seat to Felicity). Before I feigned a nap, this contemporary Kowalski jabbered non-stop for hours detailing his numerous trips abroad, a monologue rife with indelicacies of phraseology. No, I have never visited a “tittie bar” in Amsterdam nor “had me a wheat beer in Dusseldorf.” If I had a Euro for every time he has punctuated his sentences with “you know,” I could have flown first class instead.

Even more vexing still, I’ve made the mistake of sharing with Felicity the introduction reproduced above, and she erroneously argues that the verb in the second sentence of the last paragraph should be are instead of is, i.e., the sentence should read, according to her, “Photographic equipment of all types, even cellular telephones, are strictly forbidden.” Despite that “equipment” is obviously the subject — no one says the “the equipment are in working order“– she argues that the aggregate of plurals after the subject, “types” and “telephones,” supersedes the singular subject and poetic license demands the less sonically jarring plural “are.”

“But I am not a poet,” I said somewhat hotly.

Unfortunately, she kept on, and I regrettably ejaculated in frustration the interjection “balderdash” at which she turned her head to the window and cried herself to sleep.

As I record these words in my journal, the gentleman to my left is snoring like a draft horse.

Day 2

realm of hyperliteracyPerhaps, it is the jet lag or a hangover from the malodorous mood of the flight over, but I find the gated grounds and cluster of buildings of the Realm of Hyperliteracy to be less grand than the photographs of the brochures suggested. “Potemkin village” is perhaps hyperbolic in its censure; however, there is something, let us say, Disneyesque about the ersatz bricks that form the manor’s façade.

Furthermore, even though the hotel boasts fifty rooms, very few people – a mere nine, including yours truly and his companion – are staying here. Except for a young bohemian, whose profusion of tattoos would be the envy of Flannery O’Connor’s O.E. Parker and the bohemian’s paramour, a gum-smacker who looks as if she selected the shade of blue of her dyed hair from a Sherwin-Williams paint palette, the rest of the hotel patrons have reached, at the very least, their eighth decade.

It’s as if they’ve been bused in from that depressing poem of Philip Larkin’s.

Furthermore, we’re not allowed to leave the grounds, meaning that all meals must be taken at the hotel.

However, there is something about which to look forward. During the evening cocktail party – attendance mandatory – they’re going to stock our closets with clothes, now that the one or two outfits we packed in our carry-ons have been, shall we say, exhausted.

Well, we’re off to the cocktail party. I shan’t go into the so-called “make-up sex” Felicity and I facilitated, but let us merely convey that it was very satisfactory.

Day 3

What hours, O what black hoürs we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!

I fear that anyone reading my depiction in this journal of the events of last night will dismiss them as the ravings of a madman or consider them the product of some gothic fiction writer’s over-stimulated imagination, some imitator of Poe’s lurid attempt to out-Monk-Lewis Monk Lewis.

It began with the cocktail party, hosted by none other than Oglethorpe himself. He looks as if he’s stepped right out of, as they say, central casting, a pudgier cross between Christopher Lee and Basil Rathbone; in other words, he’s tall with slicked-back hair, a patrician English accent, and a hawkish nose.

One of the lamentable aspects of extreme old age is that the process seems to efface the individuality of its victim.   I could hardly distinguish the two women and the two men from each another. They, to-a-thing, each had white hair, or some white hair and age-spotted scalps, wrinkled faces, necks, hands. Even more vexing, they all were as deaf as cinder blocks. Indeed, I couldn’t believe they had passed the perquisite exam that lies at the heart of Realm of Hyperliteracy’s application process. The multiple-choice section was exhaustive and the free response essay questions ridiculously esoteric.

So Felicity and I found ourselves forced to chat with the Bohemian and his consort who claim their names are Ataturk and Absinthe, obvious noms-de-guerre.

Both also claim to be on a tenure track at NYU. In their speech, they attempt to approximate the patois of the so-called Beat Poets, whom they revere. In other words, they consider themselves “hep cats” who find “strict grammatical formalism a mere product of class bias,” and when I admitted that I could not share his and her enthusiasm for Ginsberg and his ilk, Absinthe traced in the air with her fingers the geometric outline of a square.

After a couple of watery scotches, Oglethorpe instructed that we return to our rooms and dress for dinner.

Indeed, the closets had been stocked, and indeed the garments fit well – my tuxedo was Orlon but sufficiently tailored – but whoever provided our attire had failed to provide undergarments, and when Felicity went to retrieve a brassiere and the lower undergarment from the bag she had packed, we discovered a note on the dresser informing our clothes have been removed to the laundry.

Every single gown was diaphanous, as sheer as a provocative negligee, and I prayed to that non-presence that Emily Dickinson described in her first letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson as “a vacancy” that the two crones with whom we must dine that evening had been provided with less revealing attire.

Of course, not attending dinner was not an option. As soon as the bell chimed to come downstairs, the listening devices I had not noticed turned into speakers blasting Barry Manilow at ear-piercing decibels.

But, no, the crones, they too! They too were dressed diaphanously!

croneWhen we gathered at the table, I glanced at the female octogenarians the way one feels impelled to glance at highway carnage but quickly glanced away. Suddenly, for the first time I could truly appreciate the “Wife of Bath’s Tale.” On the other hand, there were Felicity and Absinthe, leaving not nearly enough to the imagination. It occurred to me that younger women did enjoy certain advantages that age had robbed their older sisters of. [Note to self, recast sentence without offending ending preposition].

I was seated next to Ataturk, who winked at me and said, “Oglethorpe” with the initial O vowel shortened to an “ah”

“Yes? Oglethorpe.”

“Ogle – Thorpe. O-g-l-e-thorpe.”

I felt like a fool for not thinking of it myself.

I’ve always preferred Henry James to Hemingway, but I’m finding that the latter’s stripped down style might be preferable here for the sake of journalistic expediency. I have clandestinely composed these notes in the wee hours. I must manage to get to sleep. After breakfast there’s a reading . . .

Day 4

An all day reading in German of Kafka’s The Kastle with surtitles projected in English on a sheet hung from the ceiling.

Day 5

I’m at the end of my rope. Rope! A rope, my kingdom for a rope! Certainly, Solzhenitsyn could not have endured this! That hook-nosed son-of-a-bitch! I’m gonna kills his ass. None of the maids speak English. There’s gotta be a way out. Tunneling? Maybe Ataturk will join my cabal, a cabal of two, tea for two, and two for tea.

Day 6

Ata sez the gates are electrificated. Saw a bird fly into it and get fried. Felicity has abandoned me and sleeps now with Oglethorpe. Same deal with Abby and Ata. The old folks have died off, one a day. Ata sez we be good as dead. No way we getting outta here to write reviews of this horrorshow holiday.

Day 7

A carrier pigeon has landed on the sill of my barred window. Is it a vision or a waking dream?

06-06 Racing pigeon

Our Own Little Worlds

Although Daddy had nothing but contempt for ”bluebloods,” Mama was ambitious for me, a shy and anxious only child, so she immediately accepted Mrs. Tillyard’s invitation to come and play with Lawson at their home.

Situated on a hill, it was an impressive two-story clapboard house with white square columns, high ceilings, faded oriental rugs, and a strange odor – musty, sweet, sad. Pathologically shy, I hadn’t wanted to come, and this strange boy was so pale that you could see blue veins running like rivers underneath his skin. He had long, curly red hair, big blue eyes, and a tiny girlish mouth. He spoke formally, like a character in a book or in an old movie. After shaking my hand, he said, “Shall we go upstairs so I can show you my toys?”

mural     I followed him, glancing back down at Mama and Mrs. Tillyard, who stood stiff-backed and whose hair was already white. I wanted to kiss Mama goodbye, but now she was out-of-sight as I followed Lawson to the end of the hall. Walking on tiptoes, leaning forward at an awkward angle, he opened the door to a room like I’d never seen before. Someone – a skilled artist – had painted on its walls a vista looking out from the battlements of a castle. Silver armored knights on horseback jousted in the distance. Across rolling green hills were dragons, fairies, faraway castles, and a forest. Puffy white clouds floated in the blue sky of the ceiling,

Lawson said matter-of-factly, “Welcome to my own little world.” Then he added, “Close the door. Quickly.”

I obeyed.

“I know they call you Trey,” he said, “but what is your Christian name?”

“Christian name?”

“Your real first name.”

“It’s John.”

“I shall call you John then. I detest nicknames. By the way, I play with dolls.”

This admission didn’t shock me. He wasn’t the first boy I’d met who played with dolls. He opened one of the hatches of a built-in cabinet that ran the length of the wall and beckoned me to look. His dolls weren’t baby dolls but miniature people, male and female, dressed in costumes from various countries – a Japanese woman, a Scotsman with kilts and a bagpipe, a dark skinned boy with a turban. They were standing in a row, about ten of them, facing sideways in the same direction as if they were waiting in line.

He reached in and retrieved a blonde pigtailed girl in a alpine outfit who had been unprofessionally painted brown. “This is my lady in waiting. Her name is Octavia.”

“Who painted her/”

“I did.”

“Why?”

“Because the real Octavia is brown.”

Just then the door opened, and Mrs. Tillyard and Mama stepped in. I was afraid that they would see the doll and frown, but they didn’t seem to notice. “My word,” Mama said, “this room is like a wonderland!”

“Lawson’s idea,” Mrs. Tillyard said proudly. “He’s very much the bookworm, very enamored of the Middle Ages.”

Mama smiled weakly, said goodbye and that she’d pick me up at four. I sat there, next to the longest toy chest in the world, and waved goodbye.   I felt more at ease, as if I might have fun playing with Lawson. This was a new world, a lavish world.

He asked what I liked to do, and I said to play checkers, but he suggested Parcheesi instead. He went over to a different compartment of the cabinet and brought out the game, carefully unpacking it. He plinked a pair of dice into one of the four cardboard canisters and handed it to me.

“Pick whatever color you like and go first.”

“Don’t you want to roll for it?”

“No, you’re my guest. You go first.”

So we played Parcheesi, emphatically counting out the steps of the men, tapping them in the spaces: one-two-three; one-two-three-four.

“I’m afraid I’ve gotten myself into a tragic love affair,” Lawson suddenly said. I glanced up from the board. He was sitting with his legs crossed in front of him while leaning on his right arm.

“I met her at Spells Grocery Store. Have you been to Spells? It’s a dusty, dark, old country store loaded with Mary Janes, Squirrel Nut Zippers, and Tootsie Rolls. It’s there I met Octavia. Love at first sight,but I can tell you right now it’s doomed.”

Although I secretly liked girls, you were supposed to pretend you hated them.

“Octavia is a funny name,” I said.

She’s colored. That’s not an unusual colored name. They seem to especially like old Roman names.”

“Colored?”

“Colored as in Alston Elementary School.”

Though I didn’t look up, I could tell he was staring at me. “You shouldn’t kid like that,” I finally said.

“I’m not kidding. She’s the most beautiful girl in the entire world.”

“That’s impossible,” I said.

“Why do you say that?”

I could see that he wasn’t kidding

“Colored people aren’t allowed to be beautiful.”

“Who says?”

“Everybody.”

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” he said.

I rattled the dice and cast them.   My stomach was tightening, beginning to cramp. Although you were supposed to be nice to colored people, loving them was unthinkable, far worse than playing with dolls. I wanted to call Mama, but I was scared to because she wouldn’t believe that my stomach really hurt. “I’m tired of playing this,” Lawton said. “Do you want to see my very favorite toy? What’s the matter with you? Are you crying?”

“I got a stomach ache,” I said. “It really, really hurts.”

“Perhaps, it is something that you ate,” he suggested. “It’ll go away.”

“I need to call my mama to come get me,” I said.

“He suddenly looked terribly concerned. “Very well, stay here. I’ll inform Mother if you make me a solemn promise.”

“What’s that?”

“That you promise to come see me again when you’re better. You’re not stupid like the boys Mother calls and brings around here. And I haven’t shown you my model castle or toy knights and damsels and dragons and ogres. Do you promise? I mean to come again? Give me your word of honor.”

“I promise,’ I said.

“Word of honor.”

“Word of honor.”

 

I never did go visit Lawton again. On the way home in the car, I told Mama when she started fussing how Lawson liked to play with dolls and that he was in love with a colored girl. When Mrs. Tillyard later called to invite me over, I heard Mama whisper a lie into the telephone receiver. I hadn’t known my mother was capable of lying. Eventually, Mrs. Tillyard quit calling, and after Lawson left for boarding school up north, my memory of him and his own little world faded.

On weeknights, Daddy would come home from the Shipyard, turn on the Walter Cronkite, and we would watch in black and white the belligerent Mississippi sheriffs, the policemen with fire hoses, the snarling German shepherds. Then one day, I found myself in Spells Grocery, and I remembered Lawson and Octavia, and I think I might have seen her counting out pennies on the counter, a tall, graceful, barefooted girl with cornrows and a calico dress.

Half a Sin

Bells toll inside my head as I reach for my Alfred Lord Tennyson outfit. It’s Victorian black with matching cravat, mourning cape, matching hat. There’s even a beard, luxuriant and curling, that came with the costume, but I can’t find the whiskers anywhere. Been three years since I’ve donned this get-up, a Halloween present from sweet deceased Adelaide, who passed away in a Hampton’s Inn all alone in the not-so-new millennium.  Actually, she made the costume and bought the beard from Hocus Pocus.

I’m getting into character, reading “In Memoriam”:

I sometimes hold it half a sin

To put in words the grief I feel;

For words, like Nature, half reveal

And half conceal the Soul within.

I’ve taken to panhandling.

No, it’s not a lifestyle choice, but part of my thesis, a paper I’m writing on selling-and-psychology, a study in which I report on my experimentation with different modes of panhandling, comparing the hourly wage of me playing a wheel-chair bound Iraqi war veteran ($12.34) with the hourly wage of me playing a shyster hipster holding a sign that reads “Haven’t been high in two days ($4.56).[1]  I’m hoping to shed some light on what makes people part with their money in situations of charity, combining my love of acting, my interest in marketing, and my curiosity about how the human mind works.  So today I’m going out begging in the guise of Alfred Lord Tennyson.  It’s a dreary, leaden day, very Tennysonian.

I consider brain chemistry to be sort of like weather – sunny, rainy, partly cloudy, partly sunny.  Part of it, of course, is genetics — look at the Hemingways — but life events can affect brain weather, too.  Maybe if Tennyson’s best friend Arthur Henry Hallam hadn’t dropped dead Tennyson might have been a cheerier poet, like EE Cummings or Maya Angelou.  Who knows?

happyperson copy wilburlowell1 copy

 

 

 

I’ve decided to set up shop, so to speak, North of Calhoun in the bar district, which you might think is unsafe, but I’ve never had a problem, and anyway, I’m packing a Smith & Wesson. 22 LR Rimfire, not gun enough to kill someone but big enough to chase off a knife wielder or unarmed thug.

alfred-tennyson

The one thing that’s bothering me, though, is the lack of a beard. I’m only 26 years old, and a beard would help. Of course, I wear make-up. Thanks to the College’s Theater Department’s make-up department, I’ll be sporting a gray complexion and those woeful looking, sympathy-spawning bags under my eyes that made Tennyson look like the saddest creature that ever crawled across the face of the earth:

The sparrow’s chirrup on the roof,
The slow clock ticking, and the sound
Which to the wooing wind aloof
The poplar made, did all confound
Her sense; but most she loathed the hour
When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
Athwart the chambers, and the day
Was sloping toward his western bower.
Then said she, “I am very dreary,
He will not come,” she said;
She wept, “I am aweary, aweary,
Oh God, that I were dead!”


[1] The minimum wage in South Carolina is $7.25


It was through theater I first met Adelaide, a student production of Chekov’s Three Sisters.  She played Irina, I Vassily Vasilyevich Solyony.  It wasn’t bad as student productions go.  The only problem, though, is I had this thing for Adelaide/Irina, but she had a boyfriend, a spoiled preppy entitled piece of shit, so I didn’t make it verbally known to Adelaide that I had this thing for her, though from what others tell

Chuck Norris

Chuck Norris

me it was as obvious as Cyrano’s nose or Chuck Norris’s toupee. I kept waiting for her to make the first move, but she never did.  It goes without saying neither did I.

Kristopher my make-up man has done his magic, including providing me with a real enough looking beard, so I’m walking rather self-consciously from the parking garage to King with a folding lawn chair strapped to my back, a bucket for the proceeds, a book of Tennyson’s poems, and a sign that simply says “alms.”

I find a spot on the corner of King and Morris, put my sign out and start to read Tennyson, finding snatches of verse ripe for memorization, little ditties like

Me rather all that bowery loneliness,
The brooks of Eden mazily murmuring,

and try to ignore the occasional rude comment about beggars and street performers.  Of course, I could whip out the Rimfire and cap one of them, taking my performance art to a new level, but that’s not, as Adelaide used to say, the Buddha way.

Finally, after 4 minutes and 32 seconds, I get my first score, two single dollar bills dropped.  I say,

And if ever I should forget

That I owe this debt to you

And I for your sweet sake to yours,

O, then, what shall I say? —

If ever I should forget,

May God make me more wretched

Than ever I have been yet!

At the one hour mark, I start reciting Tennyson as I see people approaching, though I avoid eye contact.

Doors, where my heart was used to beat

So quickly, not as one that weeps

I come once more: the city sleeps;

I smell the meadow in the street.

At the two hour mark, I start making eye contact before chanting the quote, straining to counterfeit that stare dogs give when they think you might have a treat for them.

Since we deserved the name of friends

And thine effect so lives in me,

A part of mine may live in thee

And move thee on the noble ends.

So here I sit in this Halloween costume, chanting Tennyson in the name of soft science.  My thoughts return to that Halloween party three years ago.  Adelaide dressed up like Emily Dickinson, hair parted in the middle, a white dress, for she was the Empress of Calvary.  No one got the joke, two depressive poets on a date.  Perhaps she should have worn black because that’s what people picture when they imagine Emily Dickinson.

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –

Ring out the old and all that jazz.  Adelaide OD-ed in a Hampton Inn in Conyers, Georgia, and that’s about as unromantic as it gets.

It’s time for me to move on, I guess.

Good, God, now I’m even starting to think in slant rhymes.  I get up, abandoning the role, take off the itchy beard, and look for some ragged someone I can pass the cash off to.

$14. 75.

Alfred_Tennyson,_1st_Baron_Tennyson_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_17768

Chico Feo, TS Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Lost Souls, & I-and-I

For whatever perverse reason, I prefer dives to tony bars and restaurants. The same goes for neighborhoods. You couldn’t pay me to live on Kiawah or Daniel Island. The manicured bicycle paths, the antiseptic standards of what is allowed architecturally, the non-diversity of income and outlook, and the bland, vowel-less intonations of their residents and tourists would produce in me fogbanks of despair.

Nor would I want to live in an upstate mill village where all the small clapboard houses have the same floor plan and everyone twangs vocally the verbal equivalent of out-of-tune banjo strings.

No, what I like is diversity, the mixed neighborhoods of the Upper Peninsula and the non-gated barrier islands. So I’m very happy here on Folly where a million dollar house might stand next to quaint cottage or a ramshackle two-story paint-peeling survivor of Hurricane Hugo, happy to live in a community where trick-or-treating is forbidden because the poorly lighted streets have no sidewalks and vehicular traffic can be, well, unsteady.

Like the various options in housing on Folly, the island also offers a variety of drinking and eating establishments, and since the closing of the Brew Pub on Center Street, my favorite hangout is Chico Feo, an outdoor Caribbean “restaurant” whose limited menu consists of curried goat, Dominican beans, or shark or pork tacos. In the unlikely case you’re an old-time Charlestonian, think Captain Harry’s without walls or a roof. Like Captain Harry’s, beers are sold out of coolers and the seats are not very comfortable.

Click the arrow in the frame above for a panoramic pan of Chico Feo

Counting the left turn onto Second Street, Chico Feo lies a mere six blocks from my house, so I ride my bike there, weaving my way through the clogged cars of day trippers to enjoy a brew or two beneath the overarching trees – and maybe, just, maybe, to knock off six or so essays.

Yesterday, however, I left my stack of essays at home [‘”Argue that Conrad’s Heart of Darkness can be read as the debunking of stereotypes found in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The White Man’s Burden”‘] and carried with me instead Hugh Kenner’s 1964 book TS Eliot: The Invisible Poet, my journal, and a trusty pen.

Chico Feo attracts locals – a homeless man named Greg, surfers in their late twenties and beyond, musicians, C of C alums/dropouts who never left (damn them), and Folly residents like me – and, yes, many of us are indeed “ugly boys” in keeping with the English translation of the bar’s Spanish name.

After the bartender Charlie provided me with my Bell’s IPA, I found an empty table with a view of Second Street where I could watch locomotive skateboarders with backpacks glide past the mural of Bert the Pirate that graces his iconic market, or I could cast my critical eyes on the never ending parade of pedestrians headed either to or from the beach.

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Yesterday, inside the friendly confines – and Chico Feo is incredibly friendly – the bar was occupied with an eclectic group of imbibers: a limping, bearded 50-something sporting a straw cowboy hat, a slender long haired surfer dude, and a group of already-over-the-hill 20-somethings with expanding hips and incipient beer bellies.

On the large picnic table a tableaux of young, middle class hedonists bowed down looking at their cell phones in the attitude of prayer. The temperature was perfect, and the onshore breeze provided a bit of respite from the gnats.

So I opened Kenner’s book and began a chapter devoted to the philosopher Francis Herbert Bradley’s influence on Eliot’s thought and came upon this passage:

My external sensations are no less private to myself than are my thoughts and feelings. In either case my experience falls within my own circle, a circle closed on the outside, and, with all its elements alike, every sphere is opaque to the others which surround it [. . .] In brief, regarded as an existence which appears in a soul, the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul.

I looked up from that passage and caught sight of one of the most grotesque human beings I’ve ever encountered.

Where to begin?

The words “obese” and “corpulent” don’t begin to do justice to this shambling Rabelaisian, Falstaffian 400-pound 25-year-old. All he wore was a pair of board shorts that clung precariously an inch or two below the broad expanse of the Brobdingnagian belly that sagged and quivered with every painful, bare-footed step he took on sun-blistered feet and legs. I’ll forego a description of his breasts – let it suffice to say they drooped the way you might imagine Mae West’s drooping in her Myra Breckinridge era. I could see from where I was sitting that he was stoned or tripping or worse.

I returned to Kenner ‘s take on TS when I heard, “Hey, man, how’s it going?”

My deafness has gotten so bad that I didn’t even notice that the giant had pulled up at my table.

I looked up, and there he was sitting, his blue eyes as vacant as a Detroit warehouse, glazed, abnormal.

He commenced a monologue of his surreal misadventures of the previous 24 hours, which I’ll summarize as briefly as possible.

Someone had offered him an LSD-laced drink because they wanted to kill him because he had come here from Kentucky to make and sell art, i.e., sun hats made out of palmetto fronds. They had drugged him, and he had passed out on the beach. He was supposed right now to be with some “sweet honey” from Summerville [I’m ashamed to admit I tried to imagine what contortions must take place to achieve heterosexual intercourse with this man], but now he’s lost her forever, and he remembers the night before gaining consciousness in a restroom downtown washing his hands and screaming, “The water is scalding my hands!”

I patiently listened as I sipped my beer, nodded my head sympathetically, muttered an occasional, “wow-that-sucks.” Finally, when the beer was done, I bid him good-bye and wished him better luck.

Alienation – the great theme of 20th century literature – “every sphere is opaque to the others which surround it” – or as Marlow puts it in Heart of Darkness, “No it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation in any given epoch of one’s existence – that which makes the truth, its meaning – its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream – alone.”

Or as Eliot himself puts it in “The Waste Land” :

I have heard the key

Turn in the door once and turn once only

We think of the key, each in his prison

Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison . .

The image that stays with me is that of those friends around the picnic table together but apart, prayerfully bowing their heads as they stared into their cell phones – an image of our times.

 

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