It often happens that, like any number of people, I wonder what it’s like to be insane, to see and be conscious of the world as someone who is undeniably unmoored intellectually. Even retaining the power of intelligible speech is not a validation of rational thought going on. Nor that perceptions are accurate. The “reality” of the insane is what is in question.
It takes a village to make an idiot
It occurred to me the other day, as a thought experiment more than as a test, surely the seemingly held beliefs of our president, his version of the world we inhabit that we have categorized and organized and attempted to manage as a societal and political construct of significant complexity, is reducible to a limited set of conditions, controllable and manipulable. By the right management practice, our complex world can be regulated – though ironically, one condition of his stated universe is that the unregulated freedom to act, for individuals, but especially for organizations, and especially those that have, through some kind of evolutionary inevitability, aggregated vast amounts of wealth and power is a fundamental condition to sustain not just permanence, but healthy growth with no calculable end point.
The upshot of this baseline set of conditions, the result of it, is allegedly to be prosperity for all, invulnerability for our nation in a world that vastly outnumbers us and encompasses a far greater share of the planet’s land mass, and preeminence as a leader by example for our collective moral and ethical universe. I stand ready to be corrected in this encapsulated summary.
Now my thought experiment consists of this: imagine believing not only the premise, as I’ve summarized it, and interpreted through your own understanding of our president’s utterances on a range of topics, but the many manifestations of how the premise applies to the great variety of human endeavor, affecting our daily lives, our ability to govern ourselves, our ability to live with and work with our fellow citizens productively, and our ability to exist on the same planet with upwards of 190 other nations and over seven billion other human beings, never mind the vast natural habitat, the fauna and flora that exist on earth. How we conduct ourselves, and how we relate to our fellow citizens and the citizens of all other places on earth where they reside, can be deduced, though sometimes through tortured syntax, seeming internal contradictions, through the provable lack of logic, through the defiance of generally accepted scientific fact, through tautology, and through a form of perseveration.
Imagine you believe all that in the same way and to the same degree of certainty you believe in certain basic ineluctable verities, let’s say the daily cycle of 24 hours, the 365 day annual passage of the planet in a more or less regular orbit around the sun—or any other small set of verities of similar ilk you’d rather as a point of reference—and imagine thinking that, and all of it true, without cease, and despite arguments to the contrary that might break through some threshold of awareness of the world and other people, and channels of communication, you maintain to sustain your sense of well-being. Does it feel normal? Putting your everyday fears, anxieties, uncertainties, pent-up feelings of anger and resentment – things we all feel, likely – and concentrating on this core of belief, do you feel it’s sane to feel what you believe to be so. Do you think it would be safe for everyone to believe it? Can you live with that going on in your head?
There are certain words whose meanings have always eluded me, and I need to refresh my comprehension, long since, or so I thought, hard won. Nonplus is one of those words… Is it a good quality, a bad quality. All I usually am sure of is that it is a condition of uncertain benefit imposed by outside events or actions on one’s sensibility.
Jacobin Magazine [disclosure: I am a subscriber] has always elicited from me a sense of ambivalence, the prevailing response I give their endless outpouring of screeds. Sometimes the balance tips to positivity on my part, as I am mainly in concurrence with some sweeping, often categorical, pronouncement they have made about an occurrence or a presence on the world stage. I am, for sure, never left with a doubt that the magazine is turned out by a stalwart, that is, an unwavering staff of ideologues, or at least adherents to a prevailing principle, or, at worst, wage slaves who, to earn their weekly stipend, must show allegiance to the messages defined by the editorial mission.
It is with a strange sense of stupefied admiration that I have to read – yes, have to, as I subscribe, for the time being, to their email newsletter and to the newsfeed one sees on Facebook (and other social media for sure, but apparently the effect of my Facebook “like” has been to auto-vaccinate me against the urge to follow them on Tumblr, let’s say, which is about the only other place I might see their torrent of propaganda regularly, hour to hour, day to day).
In today’s email was the following link (below). You’ll have to click on it to see the degree of brazen chutzpah (no, I don’t believe that constitutes an unnecessary rhetorical redundancy: there’s chutzpah, there’s a higher degree of chutzpah, and then there’s our current president) they can effect when moved to comment, in three-part harmony, so to speak.
In this instance, the body is not even in a state of detectable decay turning into some form of inevitable compost, and yet they hasten to shit on it, or at least on the memory of the individual that once inhabited it.
Understand that I bear no love, and bore none while he was alive, and least of all while he served as President, for George Herbert Walker Bush. The worst thing I could bring myself to say was, at the time, he was the most cynical man who ever held the office. But, in my defense, because I see the weakness of this characterization (and no, not because of the degree of the comparative, or because it was the worst thing that I thought), but I can only see its inadequacy and shortsightedness because of the two individuals who held the office after him.
I have always been wary of the accusation of “war criminal,” certainly during the tenure of the usual suspects, going back, at least, to FDR (to name the first of a series of presidents within my ken; I was born only within two years of his demise, and his memory was a living thing itself within my family, because my father, a Jacobin in his own right, and a union organizer, worshipped the departed president). For one thing, it tests the notion of war as a crime. I’ll concede, even declare openly, that war is a great evil, but as for being a crime, that requires the intervention of a defining framework, including a body of laws that elucidate formally what constitutes a crime. Then you must have a suitable court to adjudicate the indictment during, presumably, the course of a trial in which evidence, hopefully of the unimpeachable sort, is presented to the court before judgment is pronounced.
With someone like George H.W. Bush, never mind Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, well, you get the idea… most such accusations, usually broadcast publicly and purely by self-sanctioning prosecutors, with no official role or appointment by a sovereign body of government, become especially forceful and louder at their demise, because, well, because that’s the last shot we plebes have got, isn’t it? I mean before the slow, quiet engines of historical judgment gather evidence, vet it, verify it, and present it in the appropriate venue for any follow-on implementation of fitting redress, whether punishment of a living perpetrator or vilification of a dead one. And that can take years, sometimes more than some of us reasonably have to look forward to.
But for some, often those of an ideological disposition, this is not a constraint, and freedom of speech being still a right in even these oppressive times, they feel free to pre-empt whatever order might impose the foregoing sequence of an act of justice. Usually there is no such order prevailing—the complainants would probably say it is not even apparent. But my point here is not to argue that condition.
My point is merely to marvel at the heedless and often terminally earnest sense of outrage and violated justice demands that card-carrying hotheads should make pronouncements, completely out of phase with even the mildest public notion of a qualified grief at the parting of a fallen former leader. My point is to say, Jacobin, once again, and what is becoming all too often, is leaving me nonplussed.
I’ve had reason to advert in this space to the blog of my friend Dom Capossela. He’s one of my oldest friends, as in one of the most long-lived friendships I’ve come to treasure. We go back to the late 60s, when I met him and his former wife, on the cusp of beginning a new phase of their lives, opening a new restaurant.
Of late, that is, as of about nine months in a serious way, he has discovered the wonders of the internet and plunged in with all limbs. It’s something of a high wire act, given that he has persisted with a daily posting on his blog, every day since. He’s now up to over 233 days and counting. He has quite a following – a testament to his persistence and tenacity. He has admittedly very few skills, especially in a practical way, in the area of computer science and despite the challenge hangs in there, taking assistance where he can find it. I’ve been known to volunteer.
In any event, aside from providing an alternative outlet for my own writing – there have been a number of entries on this blog, and in other places where I publish, when I have cross-posted as well to Dom’s blog. He expresses great, heart-felt, and sincere appreciation for these contributions, many of which start out as spontaneous email messages from me to him privately, most often in response to some trigger in the content of his blog. I read it first because he’s my friend, and I find I have an unquestioning interest (that is, I don’t doubt my own interests, and therefore I don’t question them; I question him plenty, as in, “do you know what you did there…?”). I continue to read because out of some kind of synergy, or perhaps it’s some kind of geriatric symbiosis (he’s older than me by about four years, and, as I like to joke, he keeps gaining on me) much of what he chooses to write about is stimulating of thoughts about my own life and experiences, and somehow, equally spontaneously, they pour out of me. That’s how Dom puts it, and I’ll paraphrase, “it’s amazing; it just pours out of you, just like that.” I do clean it up a bit before I post it, but it’s pretty much true, that what you see here is what came out of me.
I always accept the proposition that maybe that’s evident enough and I shouldn’t be so proud of myself.
I don’t know about pride. But I do know that my next urge is always to share it, And so here it is.
Most recently, that is, in the last few days, maybe three, maybe four, Dom had occasion to comment on several subjects that were inadvertent prompts for me.
Somehow the subject of games and puzzles came up and he had occasion to opine, as he characteristically does, so enthusiastically, “who doesn’t like puzzles and games?” So, first you’ll see my answer.
Second, and in a continuing suite of reminiscences about his childhood which seems to vary in tone from recollections of the “mean streets” of the North End of Boston in the 50s, to quite touching, almost, but not quite sentimental memories about that same boyhood and his bumptious family life. It’s with a significant pride that he recalls running and playing on the streets of that ghetto (not meant as anything but descriptive; read no negative connotations in the usage, as the word still has a perfectly good denotation), and in the most recent portrayal he speaks of ceding the streets to no one. Generally bereft of automobiles, which were a luxury in that neighborhood, those streets and alleys constituted the perpetual playground for any number of games and sports (there’s that theme again) and the only interruption which was unquestioned was for the unchallenged passage of certain vehicles, usually a “Cadillac with Rhode Island plates,” to which obeisance was given silently and observantly.
And that’s the second subject I’ll address in my own terms as it called up details of my own life at about the same time.
Puzzles and Games
There’s not much inherently interesting, I don’t think, in imparting the knowledge, regarding “puzzles and games,” that I hate puzzles and games, and always did. Even as a kid. Smacked too much of competition for no other reason than to compete. I somehow knew prematurely that life was a rat race and, as Fran Lebowitz long since pointed out (I think it was she, it may have been Lily Tomlin – certain authorities, according to the internet, aver the origin of the statement was actually William Sloan Coffin, the chaplain of Yale University), even if you win, you’re still a rat. Why look for ways to get anxious about existential proxies for survival.
Whatever my predilections, I do remember playing Scrabble with my two grown cousins, daughters of my Cousin Fannie, who lived near us in the Bronx and the relative we were most likely to visit when that cyclic urge to break bread with blood ties came over us. Anyway, both Beverly and Harriet were school teachers. I had a crush on both of them, but especially Harriet, the darker one. She was maybe 22 or 23 back then. Beverly was a couple of years older. I think Beverly had already gotten married. I was, at best, nine. I was also the current really precocious one in the family. At least to the extent that we all need an identity, and that was mine. The little saturnine genius.
Anyway, somehow or other, we seemed always to end up playing Scrabble. I think my animus about games went into suspension with these games as, miraculously, I always seemed to win. They were very convincing. And maybe I did beat them, and at worst they simply didn’t try very hard. It honestly never occurred to me until I was in my late 20s or maybe even my 30s, and had had some harrowing experiences already with women. Two failed marriages by the time I was 35 will do that to you, and each of my errant wives were young – you guessed it – maybe about 22 or 23, as the critical age. One of them was that age when she decided to have an affair. The other was barely that age when I met her. Anyway, it wasn’t until I was only a bit older, and as for wiser, I’ll be generous and call it a bit, that it occurred to me that the fabulous Menn sisters (that was the family name; Fannie was a widow, and my cousin’s late husband – Fannie was a Dinin, like me – was named Hyman Menn) had allowed me to win, because they were teachers of young children, and they knew, preternaturally, that’s what you do. Now I think, who knows? We moved to Providence soon after that, and Harriet got married to Herb, and that was the end of the occasional Scrabble games.
“Cadillac with Rhode Island plates”
Cadillac with Massachusetts plates (photo credit: Fotolia/Hemmings 1949 Cadillac Club Coupe)
The address we moved to in Providence, on the East Side, essentially a Jewish enclave that covered about one and-a-half square miles, was 44 Sargent Avenue. A very modest one-family dwelling that sat on a very odd-shaped, tiny lot that itself was situated at the point where the street took an odd jog, very slightly, to the right as you proceeded uphill, which meant it was nearly impossible to park straight and parallel with the curb right in front of our house. It made other aspects of living there – because we were on the serious part of the rise of the hill all the houses sat on, the elevation of the left side of our house was probably about two feet higher than the right side. The house was built square and level, of course, but it made our basement and the single car garage on the right-hand side of the house truly subterranean. They could only exist as a result of being on that rise, as the lot wasn’t wide enough, and if they scooped out a driveway on an incline, which they did, and built the house into the hillside, which they did, they could tuck a garage in, barely wider than a car and which a nervous, not too skilled driver, like my father, always found a challenge – a challenge he would lose about twice a year – to avoid scraping one side, usually the right side, of our automobile on the frame of the overhead door. It also meant having to back out of the driveway blind almost directly into the street. Being situated on that jog in the street, there usually wasn’t anyone else interested in trying to park there. This meant that the free and clear part of what was otherwise a fairly narrow street to begin with suddenly seemed to widen, so that cars proceeding up the hill would speed up just a tiny bit, and this meant having to be that much extra cautious tentatively backing out of our blind driveway. My father did it for nearly 30 years, into his 80s, until he suddenly got sage and gave up driving altogether.
But this, in retrospect, was only a metaphorical representation, real enough for sure, but only a metaphor, for what I experienced as a displaced child of the Bronx as the precariousness of my otherwise mild-seeming, innocuous ‘hood. It turned out, we learned quickly as we acquainted ourselves with our community, our new neighbors immediately across our narrow street were the Gotz family. They were a couple who lived on the ground floor dwelling of their duplex. On the second floor, with its own entrance and street address, lived Mrs. Gotz’s mother, hardly ever seen as she was a semi-invalid. The other part of her bifurcated life appeared from her behavior when she did present herself in public to be that of a demented person. Or maybe her half-chronic condition was dementia, and she and her dear ones were merely spending their time waiting for the other shoe, or whatever article it was, to drop. She would occasionally appear on the second-floor porch of her apartment and yell at whoever was in the street. If you were a child you learned what the sensation associated with the word “chilling” was, as she would suddenly, breaking the diurnal calm that usually prevailed on Sargent Avenue, start shrieking and yelling. At other times, she was docile and sweet and even attentive, seemingly focused. She took a genuine interest in our lives as little kids, and we, or at least I, enjoyed these peaceful hiatuses into sanity.
The Gotzes somehow persevered with this generational impediment. Usually we saw them if we saw them at all – aside from appearances, not a little like a kind of modest royalty making an audience with their public, on patriotic occasions when everyone was home from work and school and they would stand around idly, in clement weather, on their front porch – on bundling themselves and their son, Manny, into the family sedan in their driveway (a long straight shot, nice and wide, and on level ground, into a spacious two car garage that sat at the rear of their sizable lot, with a generous view of the street and oncoming traffic). And they would putter off to god knows what destinations. They kept to themselves.
Manny was adopted. This was one of those bits of common knowledge that you seemed to assimilate out of the very atmosphere bounded by the street. I don’t remember anyone telling me, or making a big deal of it.
It was a fortuitous match, parents to child, as Manny had the same dark, one might call it swarthy, complexion as his compactly built brooding father – and later in his development it grew to incorporate the quality of being unusually hirsute, with very dark hair growing thickly on his head and his face, and, as was revealed in summer, on his trunk-like arms and legs. Manny was short. Perhaps squat was a better descriptor, as he was always fairly powerfully built. This was one factor in my sense of precariousness, also part of that atmosphere. I was, it almost goes without saying, of a more ectomorphic configuration, tall and skinny. One could say slight. I thought of myself as slight. Except I was so tall for my age, until adolescence when, seemingly, all of my friends caught up with me. Except Manny.
Not that Manny was exactly a friend, or a playmate. He was about three years older than me. I don’t know who he “played” with. He was, as I suggested, quiet, and kept to himself. I can remember thinking quite clearly that I was ill disposed to invite him, however I might have done that, to join the wholly imaginary exercises, a kind of precursor to cosplay, as we did it in our street clothes with only a few props, though the scenarios in our minds were clear enough, of combat (essentially re-enactments of the Korean War, rumbling rapidly into the past, though it had ended only three years prior to our move to Providence). Or they might be the stock tableaux, part of our repertoire, fed by a diet of Hollywood features that were prominent through the 40s and 50s, of belligerent cowboy and Indian encounters. Most of these games involved toy pistols and make-shift bows without arrows. They mainly consisted of a lot of running around, hiding poorly behind physical obstacles, and making gun fire noises with our mouths. Manny simply wasn’t the type. You developed your own style of dying: arrow to the neck, gut shot… usually very dramatically and drawn out.
A transformative incident occurred, after not too many years had passed. I was barely into my scholarly career in junior high school, a couple of years or three into our New England sojourn, that somehow or other, again through that peculiar osmotic acquisition of certain everyday facts about the existence of other residents, even as you assiduously avoided having much contact with them, that Manny had a fairly constant companion. Were they not well into their adolescence, I might be tempted to describe them as playmates, though there was only the most sinister quality, one way or another – yet another, a different form of intuition – about their hanging out. Their most noticeable singular feature, say if a policeman making routine inquiries were to ask if you noticed any distinguishing physical characteristics, was a propensity to present themselves in public with heavy, and unusually well-advanced for their ages, five o’clock shadow. Manny’s buddy, who was a little older, and already had a driver’s license – because Manny had by then stopped traveling with his parents in the sedan, and was now in the company of his constant friend; they would go off together, Manny exiting his house with a furtive air, sometimes bull-like, sometimes with a gentle if gruff grunt of farewell that he projected back through the open glass-windowed wood frame door into the perpetual darkness within. His friend was called, as transmitted by the local wireless telegraph, Ray.
Well, one day, the news came back to us, and seemed to have spread fairly quickly, and not surprisingly, as it constituted notoriety of such magnitude that it was worth reporting in the city’s newspaper of record, the Providence Journal-Bulletin. It seemed that Ray and Manny were “playing” (that was the word that sticks in my mind; I will swear it was reported to me deploying such a word choice). Ray had a weapon, a handgun, apparently a revolver, that he had borrowed from his father. He was proudly showing it to his friend when somehow or other it discharged, firing a bullet, which entered and then exited the fleshy part of Manny’s already ample mid-section. A flesh wound. As the crime shows of the 90s, about 35 years later, would teach us, a “through-and-through.” Manny was patched up and recovered quickly and life went back to the strange normal we had learned, previous to this incident, not to think too much about.
The one note to this story that was at once macabre and highly humorous, especially to the precocious posse of bar mitzvah boys of which I was one, was that, on seeing what he had done, and using what knowledge he had somehow only thus far poorly assimilated from his tutors in these matters, Ray decided that he’d better ditch the evidence, and he threw away the pistol he had “borrowed” from his father. He dropped it into “the sewer,” which is to say, he dropped it into a convenient storm drain cut into the gutter of the street. I have always imagined this bizarre and clownish scenario had come to pass in the dark recesses of 43/45 Sargent Avenue, which did have a storm drain cut into the gutter in front of it, and which I never looked at in the same way every again; but it’s not clear to me, after all this time, where the incident did, in fact, occur… it would have been just as stupid whatever the setting.
The most chilling aspect of this anecdote was what was also general knowledge, kind of part of the legend of that crazy town, belying its vaguely Wild West ancestry, Providence RI. Bluntly stated, Ray was, to give his full name, Raymond Patriarca Jr., son of the mob boss of Federal Hill, the Italian-American enclave in downtown Providence. I have never to my knowledge laid eyes on Mr. Patriarca, though his power and influence always preceded him. My tenure in Providence was brief, only seven years, taking me from childhood to my teen years, when I abruptly left to take up my precocious academic career in Boston, the Athens of America. I say all this with a somewhat sardonic tone, because neither city had yet abandoned, not in 1963, its still decrepit conditions of municipal decay and metropolitan inanition. It took ethnic politicians, Italians and Irishmen, to revive them and bring them to a true state of renaissance.
In the meantime, certainly in the early 60s and into the 70s, it seemed to me, as little as I paid attention to these matters, that what real power there was, was in Boston, which seemed to be ascendant in terms of mob rule of any other part of New England. It wasn’t until the time I lived briefly in the North End, the Federal Hill of the larger city, in the 80s that I learned that it may have been a fact that the local mob boss in that part of town (as opposed to the Irish syndicate that ruled Southie) was a man named Jerry Angiulo, but even he, back in the day, reported to the big boss of New England, Raymond Patriarca, who would appear from time to time, on expeditions, probably something like a papal visit, to the teeming streets of the North End, so the locals could pay their respects.
It made me think of my childhood, of course, and in my feverish and anxiety-laden imagination, my childhood near-misses.
[Disclosure: Some facts and proper names have been changed for purposes of fictionalization]
First let me state, categorically, that I am not one of those people who is crazy about artist’s statements. Not from others, above all, but these are easy to avoid. And not from myself, so there are very few such verbal excrescences in my history. But accepting the current premise that it should be short, and in my own words, with every effort made to avoid jargon and pretense, and honest and forthright.
Second, let me offer, as caveat, the second part, below, though honest, is not necessarily true in all its parts. It is closer to art itself, however, I think, to leave the reader to decide for him or her or itself which parts are which.
Any number of people do wonder, especially of late, given my long history as a photographer, just what I am up to, and just how my current work departs, or let’s say progresses, beyond what may be the natural drift of the Dinin canon of images, collected now for over 50 years. There are those who believe they reveal a style that is identifiable. I would hope so. And unique. Even more so.
I am never sure myself that I am moving into areas of what I am very reluctant to call explorations, because it sounds poncey and like the kind of thing I was encouraged to do when I was 10 and betraying “creative” tendencies. I resisted, as it turns out in the full course of my life I have resisted everything, and I merely contented myself with taking photographs of things that struck me as photographable and worth recording (that is, using up costly resources and time).
It was possible after the passage of a number of years, at least the ones between the age of ten (if not, in actuality, earlier) and the age at which I learned with the full impact of its meaning a word that those who know me really really well knows is one of my favorite words of all time, that is, “quotidian.” It qualifies my favorite subject. The mundane, ordinary, largely unsung and, let’s face it, unnoticeable, details of existence as we plod through our all too brief lives continuously, albeit aware of its passage only from moment to moment.
The virtue of photography, the medium of the moment.
photographs I am working on now | a gloss on two images
Lately, I’ve taken to recording real quotidian moments. And as my quotidian, like that of so many people, especially in first world countries, consists of a certain amount of time spent in front of an illuminated screen, watching whatever I like to watch (an irrelevant facet of this subject as far as I’m concerned, so forget about it). I am interested in the image. I’m interested in the randomness of what we take in in our field of vision. I’m also interested in getting a well exposed photograph when I choose to press the shutter release.
So I have a small body of images of late, say the least six years, which is about the span of our household acquisition of a large screen monitor for watching video content – a 55 inch plasma screen. Most of my images were recorded from this device. But others were recorded from the screens of smaller devices, including a phone, a tablet, and a 27” color corrected monitor on my production desktop (I call it that, because that’s where I do serious manipulation of images).
Some of these images have leaked into the stream of images I deign to share in various forms on internet media.
Today, I am posting an image that was recorded deliberately with some sense of it constituting a genre, perhaps peculiar to me, but I doubt that. It is truly peculiar only when considered in the context of all other images I’ve taken, lately, and always. So a particular understanding can be gotten only by those people throughly familiar with images I have been making, as I said, for several decades. There’s, I figure, oh about three or four of you. Talk about small audiences. But I don’t mind.
The first image here is a screen capture of a thoroughly obscure attempt by a British production company to make a successful video series of a very idiosyncratic, if not wholly baroque sequence of detective novels by a Brit (and not the first one with a jones for ginning up Italian crime novels) named Michael Dibdin. It lasted for three episodes before being cancelled. His hero is named Aurelio Zen (an odd name, even to Italians, and explained as being because he’s from Venice—I have no idea what this means, and I don’t care). They didn’t stint on the production, and even got some eye candy performers, it happens with acting ability, to play the major parts. Rufus Sewell (who did a particularly splendid job of distinguishing himself as more than a pretty boy by playing the role of Queen Victoria’s mentor and first prime minister, Lord Melbourne, for PBS Masterpiece. Though Sewell is, today, a somewhat youthful 51, he took the role about two years ago, and played it as written, as a sickly, vaguely decrepit, but clearly still attractive, middle-aged man on the brink of death. It was only six years before that he played the much more youthful role of Zen – for all the good it did his career; though I’m not sure what was expected by those Brits who played the series seriously, shooting on location in Rome, with all roles assumed by Brits, playing native Italians, except for the love interest, who, it happened, was Italian, Caterina Murino, and whose claim to fame then was that she was the first Bond Woman in the first of the rebooted series of James Bond epics, starring Daniel Craig. Murino played a beauty, entangled with the villain, and suffers a horrible fate at his hands. In the role, as these things often go, she played a Greek. Must have been money determining nationality of characters; it made no sense otherwise.
But neither here nor there. I provide all these details deliberately and also fairly sure they in some way inform, except it’s too late now to tell, the viewer’s perception and appreciation, if any, of my first image, It’s entitled “Now Watching Zen, Zen.”
Now Watching Zen, Zen
The other photo seems more characteristic of a lot of other work of mine, but I will insist that, in fact, it’s informed by this latest impulsive strain of mine to capture what I’ll call, I hope intriguingly, packaged quotidian. Like most video concepts these days.
It’s a moment caught in the wild, while I was out in one of my rare public forays for any purpose other than to go shopping for food at Whole Foods Market, or for prescriptions at CVS. It records a phenomenon that I have taken note of for some time, and is a real thing, I am positive, though little noted by others, and certainly not by the world at large.
It is the little studied phenomenon of what, for lack of any formal term I have encountered, has to be called “womansplaining,” which is also the title of the second image. There is no need to belabor the phenomenon, duly noted long since by many, and having passed into the common vocabulary, of mansplaining, which is reprehensible and comical at once, and doesn’t deserve any attention from me, I don’t think. But decide for yourself and write to me; we’ll discuss it, as long as I don’t have to explain anything. Whatever other, possibly more sober and serious analysis of the phenomenon is, I will speculate, not only likely, but if it is or it isn’t, it’s not compelling enough to explore in a scholarly fashion. Someone will help me out I am positive, whether I invite the assistance or not.
Womansplaining, as I have fashioned it, and as I have observed it, is the manner in which one woman explains to another woman the immediate subject or topic in a series of these during what is often a wide-ranging verbal engagement. It is rarely a conversation, except for stock, usually terse rejoinders by the woman in the de facto role of listener, to keep the pace of social intercourse at a rate most likely to dispel detectable boredom or ennui in either participant. In short, the woman engaged in womansplaining is also usual the participant who commandeers the conversation, setting its agenda, and delving into the narrative with a level of detail that is sometimes astonishing to witness for its breadth somehow combined with specificity. Many items I would assume, but I am the wrong gender, so I’m probably wildly off here, were of the type that fall under the rubric of speaking for themselves, if not altogether self-evident. But I have long since discovered that, all matters of gender aside, I am a poor judge of what is of due importance to others. They will decide for themselves. I know they will. They always do. I’ve observed it many times.
The explanations in these exchanges can get quite complex, not merely in terms of verbal content, but combined with a concomitant (apparently standard) repertoire of manual gestures and gesticulations. You can tell what’s being said is important because of all the hand jive. That’s not fair, I know. But I’ll leave it.
The exchange recorded here was captured in a suburban restaurant that serves excellent ethnic food. It was only sparsely attended by patrons at lunchtime, but I happen to know most of its business occurs in the evening hours. During the course of the exchange I witnessed, and admittedly I did not observe every moment, never mind closely, as we were sitting three tables away. and mainly concerned with actually eating, interspersed with an actual conversation, I can honestly say now I did not observe either participant in the distant exchange consume one bite of food.
I wasn’t sure I should craft the following coda to this statement, but I can see it presents a little opportunity for doing something else that’s not so characteristic for me: a little merchandising… you know, marketing and promotion.
I wish only to observe about these images, which are suggestive of the totality of the impact I think they embody, like so many of my images, if not all of them, they would best be appreciated as actual objets d’art, that is, physical prints on photographic materials, rendered as I wish them to be seen as closely as I can, with all my skill, manage the process. Anyone wishing to see either of these images as prints should contact me directly and privately.
It is only in my lifetime to my knowledge, and largely restricted to the Anglo northern semi-continent of North America that individuals with Jewish forebears have relaxed a vigilance that most Jews of the modern era have instilled in them from birth. Having been born only within about a year after the ovens of the camps in Germany and Eastern Europe were extinguished, and as the first generation son of a couple of immigrants from that same enclave — whose families were tormented, if not outright killed, by their gentile neighbors in Russia, and whose immediate relatives sought refuge with them to the West – I was regularly, if passively and, so to speak, tenderly made mindful of the threat, however covert, “out there.” Whatever the outcome in terms of my faith, and in time I repudiated the religion of my fathers, I was never allowed to forget I was a Jew. Someone intent on making me suffer, if not worse, for that sole reason, would not care how devout or heretical I might be.
Blacks, I always understood, would have it worse throughout their lives, as they each wear their identity on their skin, and I have never encountered anyone of African descent, however remotely it could be traced, who, in some part of their conscious minds, was not aware of being the subject of a potential hostile gaze. At the very least.
Periodically, and it is happening again now, at this moment, because of the massacre of Squirrel Hill, Jews remind themselves of what too many are lulled into forgetting—a state of mind few African-Americans seem to allow themselves to indulge in. So vast is our country, and so large is our still growing population, that it has happened for virtually every identifiable ethnicity or sect or nationality that has found shelter in it that seemingly for them, if not ever for all, and never all at once, there is no longer a cause for alarm. No longer a need to fear bigotry, oppression, bodily injury or mortal danger.
However, it seems necessary every time there is an unexpected upheaval (and doesn’t a lack of vigilance, or a mere lack of staying alert, a lack of mindfulness, necessarily determine the condition of shocked surprise when it happens?) suddenly that group under attack, in however focused and localized a way, is reminded of the difference between true neutrality and dormant hate. With sufficient empathy, anyone among us, especially those who can discern some substantive and differentiable marker in their biological being that, under the malevolent scrutiny of an authority would define them as some alien “other,” will, like those once again active targets, realize their status as prospective prey – simply for being who they are. Of course, if the bigotry is overt, there is no mistaking it for disinterest.
But even in America, the friendliest of nations, how often is prejudice left wholly unmasked? How often is what at bottom can only be called hatred made naked, actively so, for anyone to see?
I’m not saying that the alarm and dismay, the sadness and grief, the unremitting emotional anguish of hearing of and seeing the victims of violence borne out of hate is inappropriate or serves no purpose. I am simply reminding all of us of the virtues of being mindful, if not consciously in a state of vigilance. I mean, whatever the level and degree of guardedness we exercise – and it should always be within the bounds of reason – complacency that is the yield of a false sense of security is likely not a rational way of carrying oneself through a world, and everywhere within it, that every day provides savage testament to the still untamed facets of human nature. There simply is no utterly safe enclave anywhere.
The current ordeal of the nominee for the seat on the U.S. Supreme Judicial Court vacated on the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy highlights, among other things, two contradictory tendencies among the public. We tend to accept fully, or utterly reject, and purely at face value allegations of extreme behavior. What gets our juices flowing are cases of murder or even significant bodily harm, kidnapping, and, of course, sexual misconduct. At the same time, we have a spot in our hearts, perhaps softened and predisposed by all those juices, for seeing justice done however long it takes in the special instance of what are called in police jargon “cold cases.” The only matters that compare for compelling sympathy are cases that later prove to have indicted, and usually punished, the wrong person. But these latter instances, both unsolved crimes and crimes erroneously attributed to an innocent, are related if merely by the power they have to excite our emotional involvement even after protracted periods of time. We even can work up a compulsion for cases involving offenses so ancient they are history, and all the parties involved long dead, if not almost altogether forgotten. Nothing stirs certain of us like the words, “disinter,” or “exhume.” You’d think we had a scholarly love both for Latin and rotting flesh.
Among the genre programming that claims sufficient following there is always current a choice of shows, both on network television and cable or streaming. We have the fictions of the very popular series, which ran for a respectable seven years, called, simply, “Cold Case.” What underscores the avidity for that series is that all the cases featured were fictional. On the other hand, there is equivalent enthusiasm for a series which features what are purported to be real cases, in which we are to suppose there is the satisfaction of seeing in the end the meting out of “Cold Justice.” In the latter a real-life former prosecutor and a crime scene investigator team up to crack such cases across the country.
There have also been myriad mini-series and podcasts devoted to examining afresh baffling or vexing seeming (or actual) crimes in which, originally at the time of occurrence, there was either a successful conviction, or the mystery of a total lack of an indictable offender. The more popular of these “reality-based” extended inquiries resulted in concluded cases being overturned and retried, or in the case of utter failure a latter-day confession by the perpetrator. Receiving equal acclaim have been a certain number of shows that incorporated fictionalized or speculative aspects of exposition of a real case. The most engaging of these kinds of programming, in my personal experience, have included the documentary mini-series “The Jinx” (the case of admitted murderer Robert Durst), the documentary podcast (that spawned a powerful genre of such shows, and the establishment of a production company devoted to producing them), “Serial” (involving the case of an accused and convicted Adnan Syed, who had his case re-opened 16 years later, in part because of this inquiry, after being sentenced for the crime in 2000—as recently as five days ago, incidentally, the State of Maryland, which is running out of appeals of the decision to retry Syed, appealed, probably as a last resort, to the highest court in that state… as they say, stay tuned, and back to my regular programming).
Suffice it to say there is an ongoing hunger for stories of injustice, of justice forestalled or upended or perverted. Generally, we find these compelling and engaging, and a test of our willingness to keep an open mind, or at least to examine more closely how we arrive at the conclusions and convictions we arrive at in the light of what is sometimes conclusive evidence—when sometimes other factors we can’t quite identify compel us to arrive at a contradictory “verdict” in our minds despite that evidence. When the evidence is inconclusive or fragmentary or, seemingly, non-existent, we are thrown back on our entire internal system of beliefs, biases, and what we persist in calling logic, no matter what part of the brain is involved, acquired over a lifetime of childhood development and all of our experience.
We long for evidence of the successful pursuit of justice. We plunge into the fascination of cases involving the extremities of behavior, especially when there seems to be no satisfaction of that longing. We put aside our repugnance, if not outright horror, of certain acts, in the interests, we say, of truth. And we endorse, at least as passive witnesses, if not outright bystanders with no other skin in a game but our shared skin as human beings, the additional energies, if not the material expense of time and cash in pursuing what we insist on calling the truth. We do. Unless some other order of value, some objective conforming to that order and that value, is at stake. Then, it would seem not only are bets off, we don’t care to venture into the casino altogether to watch other players confront the stakes. It can be a complex and complicated business, this business of who did what to whom, and what’s it worth, if anything, to find out.
And so now, let us consider the even more convoluted contradictions of the matter before the Senate that is hogging the headlines, concerning Judge Kavanaugh.
Stating the obvious, apparently unsubstantiated allegations about sexual misconduct by alpha individuals – mostly men, but let’s not introduce the specter of gender bias – in our society have been enough to bring down politicians, both in office and seeking them. Enough to bring down very powerful media executives and on-air talent. Enough to bring down star athletes, as well as athletic management of professional teams and the de facto equivalent, major college sport organizations.
What they are not sufficient to derail, never mind to oust from any current office, are the ambitions of men who are nominated for one of nine seats as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Other misdeeds, or so they were positioned, have been sufficient to scotch a nomination. Even Abe Fortas, a sitting Associate Justice nominated to replace the retiring Chief Justice (and the first sitting Supreme Court justice to be called in to testify at his own confirmation hearing) failed in his attempt to be seated, largely because of unpaid political debts by President Johnson owed to Republican senators who elected to find that the stipend Justice Fortas received from a university to teach a course at American University during the summer recess of the Court was sufficient sign of moral unfitness that they filibustered the confirmation process into extinction. The upshot was that Justice Fortas chose to resign from the Supreme Court altogether.
And now, of course, it should be mentioned as an aside, as well as ironic counterpoint to latter day machinations, the filibuster is dead as a political weapon. The Democrats in the Senate as it is currently constituted are sufficient in number and temperament to have put an end to the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh long since, and without an ounce of painful personal discomfiture for anyone.
Though I don’t mean to turn this into a discussion about the range of historical precedents for finding reasons to disqualify candidates on what, after all, were strictly political grounds, there have not been many instances, as I started off by saying, where an alleged act of sexual impropriety lost a nominee a seat on the highest court in the land. A quick review online reveals none. There has been at least one instance of a state District Court justice losing his seat (and not a lifetime appointment at that) because of sexual improprieties, but not without his stepping down while also denying the allegations against him. Not to mention U.S. Appeals Court justices (the most recent one being the infamous Alex Kozinski, who sat very close to his colleague on that bench in the Ninth Circuit, that is to say the aforementioned Brett Kavanaugh—but Justice Kozinski got away clean by the expedient of retiring, though at the youngish age for senior judges of 67).
To be fair, Judge Kavanaugh is in the process of being prepped for being pilloried in the court of public opinion, not to mention the Senate Judiciary Committee if the Democrats in the minority can somehow get their way, for activities in which he is accused of participating when he was still a teen-ager. He was in prep school as a senior of 17 in one instance, and in a newly revealed alleged incident, it was a year later, his freshman year at Yale College.
By any definition, these incidents, accepting the premise they may have occurred, are cold cases, especially in view that the warm bodies involved are still among us, still vital, still relatively young, though the occurrence of these alleged incidents was at a time that the bodies were not just warm, but in the full flower of youth—which seems to have a fluid meaning and pertinence depending on whose opinion you ask about the allegations. Yet, given our penchant for deep interest in such cases – whence the course of justice, indeed? – there is a divide as to whether there should be any intensive effort to examine either case, but especially that of the first allegation involving the sexual assault of Dr. Ford at a prep school party, for further evidence or corroboration beyond that of the principals in this drama. Indeed, it’s clear that for the Republicans in the hearing room, and in Greater Washington DC, and in suburban Connecticut, and around the country, there has already been too much allowance, and the chance being given to Dr. Ford to submit herself to examination and inquiry (let us not call it interrogation, even though the Republican majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee insists that lawyers appointed by them be permitted to pose the questions to those testifying) is sufficient effort, energy and expense. And not because of the nature of the offense, but because of, well, that’s the question isn’t it?
If it were a Hollywood mogul, it’s easy. Guilty as charged. And if not guilty, though Mr. Harvey Weinstein, in fact, will have to face the court, so let’s consider, ahem, another example. Well, if it were a U.S. Senator or a member of the House of Representatives, either of whom will be up for re-election in short enough order, and either of whom could be made the focus of an ethics inquiry by the body on which they sit as a member (but why bother with such a nasty and un-collegial business, when a man’s honor can be invoked and he can be called upon, in private, to do the right thing?), he would do the honorable thing and simply step down, by way of tacit admission no matter what discrepant verbiage actually issues from his lips, which it inevitably will. But this is a sitting judge, who will have to suffer the bitter deprivations of continuing in his seat on the bench of one of the second highest courts of the entire nation, continuing to wield power and influence on the laws of the land, rather than assume an even higher agency holding a judicial position for life.
Is this a matter or justice? Is this a matter of life and limb? Nah. Apparently not, at worst it seems to be a matter of teenage hanky panky and indiscretion. It’s merely a matter of the reputation and word of a woman. How many times must we be taught what that’s worth, at least in certain arenas?
And a little more red…
Blue blue blue blue
Blue blue blue blue
Bumbum bum bumbumbum
Color and light
There’s only color and light
Yellow and white
Just blue and yellow and white
Look at the air, miss
See what I mean?
No, look over there, miss
That’s done with green…
Conjoined with orange…
—Stephen Sondheim, “Color and Light”
In that great mythology of the self with which we burden our subconscious, we are like the heroes of an ancient Greek epic. Adorning ourselves with self-appointed epithets of valor, during the course of our lives we accrue certain attributes like the swift-footed Achilles, or the brave Ulysses of Homeric tales. Not to suggest that these qualities dog us top-of-mind – or in any way consciously – during the flow of our quotidian.
In moments of stress, perhaps in moments, now so rare, of quiet contemplation, we may comfort ourselves with thoughts of the more sterling of our virtues. Or, depending on the nature of the moment, we may suddenly find ourselves confronting our baser degraded nature: the less noble of what we shamefully confess as our faults to ourselves, if no one else: those things we insist we shall correct before we die. For sure we all mean to reconfigure our selves in the course of time into better and better creatures.
In the meantime, as best we can, we joust with our enemies, and wrestle our demons. And maybe we, in those moments of the secret contortions of doubt and that rare sense of worthlessness that threatens to topple our sense of balance we falter. When the equilibrium that permits us always to move forward on the currents of existence wobbles, we feel that somehow our fate has been mysteriously, but above all incomprehensibly, cast into the depths.
In now ancient habits of perception we speak of fortune “not smiling upon us” at those times. And the chief challenge is somehow to find the way, a method, or a strategy, a tactic, some deft set of moves, that will resurrect our spirits and set us once again confidently on our usual path forward. If not, strictly speaking, upward as well. Of course it is.
To the ancients in fact, as part of the cosmology, fortune was not an abstraction, formless and indistinct. They imagined a god or, often in the case of Fortune, as a goddess – and not some inchoate force or tendency of the universe, but a being purely existential, and embodied, like many other incomprehensible forces with no corporeality or substance in our world of solids and flesh, of reality. Perhaps it was because of the very fickle nature of the ways and acts of Fortune, raising some up even as she cast down others, that ascribed this indubitably unfair gendered identity on this capricious deity. But whatever the reason, and however unreasonable its ascription, there was no doubting the actions she imposed on humans.
The trope was powerful and basic and universal. Fortune puts us on a great wheel, and turns it. The ferris of Fortune. So, with each revolution, some were raised up, to view the landscapes of life, if not of the firmament as well, from the highest vantage, even as others were lowered, down and down, perhaps to tumble off the wheel on the hard surface of a too too solid earth. With such a view of human prospects at the hands of such a mercurial deity, philosophy evolved with a predictable tone or cast.
How often do we believe we will not merely tempt the fates, but overcome or outsmart them – if not, more humbly, somehow merely even out the odds? Some regimen, or regular habits of being, any actions other than the unwavering and unresisting submission to the vagaries of existence seemed likelier to be redemptive. And, indeed, it seemed to work for some. Except when it didn’t.
An old saying, in one form or another, has persisted since those days of antiquity. The Greeks and Romans embraced the notion of defiance. “Fortune favors the bold,” is how it goes, or the “brave” or the “strong.” You get the gist. Words to that effect are what Pliny the Elder is recorded to have said to his nephew, also Pliny – Pliny the Younger – as the older gent set sail in his fleet to inquire into this Vesuvius business; eruptions, destruction. He was helping a friend. He lost his life in the undertaking.
We call that irony. However even if we do not call it that, there is an inescapable fact, not ineluctable for each of us with regard to ups and downs, except that we are all doomed eventually to prove our mortality. The fact is, irrespective of how we choose to conduct ourselves, fortune will reign as it will. And the virtues of boldness or resolution, or strength or courage may have value, but not by way of altering the unpredictability of the specific course of our lives.
In 2002 my wife Linda and I managed to realize a dream we shared over the course of the first ten years of the life we had agreed to have together. We bought a medieval maison de village in a tiny hilltop hamlet deep in rural Provence. In February of that year we accepted title in the office of a French official, a special kind of lawyer, called a notaire. We proceeded from the legalities immediately to begin to furnish our new second abode. We visited again in the warmer months, for a longer stay, and commissioned some needed repairs and remodeling to be done, and returned home to spend an uneventful fall and a chilly winter in Boston.
In January of the new year, she was diagnosed with a relatively rare form of breast cancer, hard to identify and almost indistinguishable from other common ailments that are eminently treatable. It can only be diagnosed by biopsy, and by the time taking such measures seems prudent it is usually well advanced, and requires radical treatment. Inflammatory Breast Cancer, so-called because it masquerades as an infection, it turns out is one of the most aggressive forms of the disease, and is indiscriminate as to age of the victim.
Nine months later, after chemotherapy, radical surgery, a recuperative holiday in our beloved French village, and then a course of radiation, Linda was well enough to return to work, which she did. Then, in October, during a routine colonoscopy another cancer was discovered, completely unrelated and requiring the initiation of a separate course of treatment. Because the cancer had already metastasized to her liver, she was scheduled for two more major surgeries – the first, highly successful, prior to the start of chemotherapy, and the second, seemingly successful at first. Its complications persisted through the remainder of her life. Why did she get two cancers, unrelated? According to her oncologist (well, one of them, and he a world-famous clinician and researcher of breast cancer), “bad luck.” No more. No less.
We endured together, for five and a half years. I cooked our meals. I cleaned her constantly draining wound from the liver surgery (which cost her ⅔ of that organ, but prolonged her life). I injected. I swabbed. I bandaged. I took voluminous notes of every consultation. I kept the world of her numerous friends and relatives abreast of her condition. I arranged our travel. And did all the driving, across town, or across Provence, as we made numerous trips. And, to our surprise only once, the first time we asked, her doctors always assented to the idea of another visit to our serene paradise.
Linda worked until she couldn’t. Her employers, IBM, were magnanimous and accommodating. Money was never a problem. Insurance was never a problem. There was never a problem, except for what stared us in the face every morning when we woke up, and it was the same world with the same prospects. And there was no sense there was anything bold, or brave, or strong, or noble, least of all, about how we conducted our lives.
Early on, she had said, I am still me (and she was, minus some parts in time, and a couple of times, minus her luxuriant hair, which always grew back, though greyer each time, and curly or straight as the whims of the hair gods willed it). I am not going to be defined by a disease. And she wasn’t. Two weeks before she died, she was out until one in the morning, because a friend, the widow of a colleague, a subordinate of hers who had died of cancer a year before, had scored tickets to the playoffs for the Celtics. And would she like to go? Are you kidding? She tried not to wake me up when she got home. Almost made it.
We went to France right afterward. And yes, these latter trips required the hire of a wheel chair (fauteuil roulant) on the other side, but she eschewed its use unless absolutely necessary. Usually walking up the stubborn hills on which the whole province is built.
On the day we were packing to leave for Nice, to take the first leg of our usual route back to Boston, her legs wouldn’t support her, and she collapsed to the floor, very slowly. Twice. “That’s funny,” she said, “that’s never happened before.” I helped her into our bed, freshly made, in anticipation of some future return, and I called the EMTs.
In France, ambulances under such circumstances arrive with a doctor on the team, and they made short work of determining she had to be transported to the local hospital. I followed them in our rental car. She was admitted. And I drove on to Nice to drop off a friend who had been visiting with us, to assist somehow, though never clearly how, and who was nervous about making her connection to Italy. I drove back to Draguignan, and saw Linda, now admitted to a private room in the ICU connected to the emergency service. She was sitting up and eating apple sauce, and very tired. I said I’d go home and change and eat something, and return to spend some more time with her. But she demurred and said there wasn’t much point, as she was going to crash for sure, and she’d see me in the morning. I kissed her and said good night, and that was the last time I saw her conscious.
The hospital woke me the next morning at 6am and informed me her organs were failing and to come back to the hospital as soon as it was convenient. I spent that day, contending with my halting French, trying to help resolve the question as to whether she was sufficiently stable to be medivaced back to Boston. Suffice it to say she wasn’t. The physicians speaking for the insurance company wouldn’t have it.
I slept in her room that night, trying fitfully actually to sleep in two chairs pulled together seat cushion to seat cushion, with my ears stoppered with ear pods and the Beatles faintly playing, mainly drowned out by her struggle to breathe. She died with me alone in the room with her at 5:45 the next morning.
I wasn’t able to return until a week later, her cremated remains installed in a place of honor in our little house, and utter uncertainty about anything leaving my mind blank, and my path forward equally uncertain. All I knew about Linda, after speaking long distance to her oncologist at Dana-Farber was that it was amazing she kept going on her own steam for all but the last two days of her life. “Her body was totally full of cancer for the last two years,” he said. All they could do, which they did, was keep it at bay, and keep her out of pain. For those last few weeks, she walked around with a crack in her pelvis, because the bones had been so weakened by radiation they couldn’t stand up to the cancer in them.
When I got back home, my life and attention were completely filled with the administrative demands of tending to her affairs and her estate, and my own meager business matters.
Tending to myself was easy enough. I had long since learned, during her long decline, that unless she was at home, I never saw the need to prepare and cook meals for myself. And I lost the habit of doing so. It was simply less demanding either not to eat, or to satisfy the rare pangs of hunger by going out. I was a ten minute walk from some superb places to eat in our neighborhood of Harvard Square. And there were bars, which sometimes held a greater allure for the usual reasons.
When even the presence of other people – because after all, I was not particularly disposed to be much of a social animal – I simply stayed home and slowly enough depleted our well-provisioned stock of liquor. Not wanting to neglect my needs altogether, I would make a quick run to that paradise of hipster victuals – a super-size Whole Foods. The greatest treasure among its indulgences for those who they were more than happy literally to cater to? The sushi bar, manned, it seemed, from the moment the store opened to the time they shut off the lights, by diminutive chefs always bowed over their bamboo mats. Roll after roll.
I preferred sushi, or, even better, sashimi. It was light. It was minimal. It was the most direct intake of the food I preferred, and seemed to need. Protein. In a form that provided one step or two away from live flesh. From life itself, or so it seemed in my philosophical purview, stripped away as it was to the barest existential facts.
But more than anything else, what appealed to me, what was compelling, was the Tao of it. What was stripped away more than anything else, as in so much of the Japanese esthetic entailing food, its preparation, and its presentation, were all nonessentials. The food was raw and edible with the fingers. Utensils? None, though if you wanted to be that fastidious, nothing is more fundamental than chopsticks. And the food appeared before you, declaring some innate order, and yet bespeaking the most sophisticated if minimalistic of intentionality by way of the design of it. Everything squared up. Everything on a single plane. Spatial relations all orthogonal.
It forces order on the patterns of your mind as it scrambles to think, and escape the sheer desire to emote. All animal, you are reminded you are also human. Brutish, you are reminded that social custom and basic austere order are the the foundation of an organizing principle. That where death imposes decay and chaos, life will prevail if only through the imposition of order and balance, of symmetry, of design, and composition.
And in all of these reside the only hope for an ultimate and prevailing sense of peace.
And I discovered, that indeed, with all of that, and a shot of 90 proof whiskey, and a Tsing Tao beer to wash down the fish, I had the first inkling of a sense that rebirth is possible. And though I wasn’t quite up, I no longer despaired of being down.
Jerusalem – The Mosaic Of Our Lady Of Guadalupe In Dormition Abbey Stock Image
What I always checked on arrival was my money. I had left Providence that morning, after the briefest of overnights. It was my parents after all, and I had burned any number of those bridges. I simply didn’t spend any more time under their roof than I had to.
I was 23, a newly minted Master (of the Arts of English Language and Literature, after all), and my own man. I didn’t spend a summer hoarding every penny I could from my earnings as a waiter in the hottest dive on the newest trendy neighborhood on Boston’s waterfront, sleeping nights on the sofa in my buddy’s seedy living room in Allston, to lose it all to a moment of lapsed vigilance.
I stood there in the baggage area of the Austin airport with the cluster of four bags that held all my pathetic possessions worth shlepping. Two hard and two soft, the bags that is. I had cajoled the use of two ancient Samsonites, long out of service, from my father’s museum of such things that he kept in the garage—relics of his sales career. And the two soft bags were of that indeterminate provenance of most households even in the late 60s, households that could boast at least one, never mind two, veterans of the war of diminishing and fading glory and honor, the big one, the just one, W.W. Two. My uncle had served in Europe, and my father kept the home fires in the National Guard, so we had an ample inventory of duffels.
The soft bags were for my clothes, mainly jeans, or “dungarees” in the lingering argot of my childhood, and a lot of tee shirts, and socks, and undergarments of the Jockey briefs variety, and a sweater or two, dubiously included by me, ruefully expecting the worst in the kind of weather I particularly abominated. I long since came to understand it wasn’t the eyes of Texas that were upon you all the live-long day. It was the oppressive heat, which, the cows and the oil rigs aside, was the cultural markers that impressed themselves with a kind of minimalist authority as being emblematic of that enigma known as our second-biggest state. I was old enough to remember the admission of Alaska into the Union, and I still bore the smug superiority only a ten-year old resident of Rhode Island could instill within himself towards the now hapless citizens of what was now an also-ran. What would I need sweaters for?
The capacious unyielding scuffed armor of the hard cases I had reserved for the other, to my mind more precious personal cargo, essentials of far greater utility than scratchy woolen pullovers I would never wear. In one, a cache of books, ponderous tomes that I came to think of as the foundation of any civilized student of literature’s personal library – portable or permanent. There was the monumental History of the English Language of Albert C. Baugh, of course, a cornerstone, if the slimmest of the volumes at a little fewer than 500 pages. There were also multi-volume sets ofanthologies of the literature of England and America, probably published by Norton, which regularly turns them out like economy-sized doorstops for mansions from a brick factory.
Whatever may have been my rationale for packing your fundamental 20 pounds of books in four or five volumes has disappeared in the residue of a haze of pot smoke and alcohol fumes. Likely I wanted to be prepared in case the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas Library happened to burn down, or was lost in a takeover by rebel forces from, I don’t know, somewhere in Central America. All I know is, the damn bag was heavy.
The other suitcase, arguably, was more precious. I had given up my lovingly gathered matched components of a stereo system, and had packed away my sizable collection, begun at the age of 12 of LP records, all for the sake of portability. After weeks of agonizing research and soul-searching, I bought a very compact Sony mini-stereo system, with cassette deck and electronics in one unit, and two matching speakers, all covered in an adamantine faux wood-patterned synthetic with prodigious shock-absorbent qualities, and inspired allegedly by the grain of some exotic rare African species of timber. I regretted giving up the purity of vinyl, especially with the hit of compromise in fidelity of tape cassettes. Which, it’s true, took up perhaps one-tenth the storage space for the equivalent amount of music, but which, to be honest and let’s admit it, sounded like shit. The selection of the recorded material available from any label’s vaults was also quite limited, from the perspective of an emerging connoisseur like myself, but what’s a man to do?
I could have spent more, but I needed my hoarded funds for grim necessities: travel, lodging, tuition. And I did figure on eating occasionally. Though it was hard to tell from looking at me that I paid much attention to such a requirement. I was just shy of six feet (though close enough that that was what I claimed) and I weighed, on a well-fed day, and probably while wet, about 128 pounds. Don’t ask how I managed those four bags through the corridors of the Theodore Francis Green Airport in Warwick, because I don’t recall, but I made it. And so there I stood, pondering how to get to the Holiday Inn, the cheapest temporary quarters I could find on a map, yet still near enough to the campus that I could walk – my preferred mode of conveyance. It was either the luxury of a cab, or the vagaries of overcoming my medieval ignorance of Austin public transportation.
Still flush with my savings, even after shelling out the one-way fare on American Airlines to take me to the loathsome Love Field (perversely named with that infernal brand forever to easterners with ever-fresh memories of the tragedy that occurred in Dallas just six years before my mad dash to get my connecting flight to Austin) and on to my final destination. I had no idea what the coming year would bring, or how or when I would desire retracing my steps, so I figured why piss away the dough?
The cab ride was mercifully brief. I tipped the driver, and waved off the bellhop eager to help me tackle my bags to the front desk. Tips? A working man and a student should tip one of the proletariat when he can barely put a decent copy of Baugh in his suitcase, or flesh on his bones?
The room was thirteen dollars a night, plus miscellaneous charges, and what was I to do? I silently gave myself five nights maximum at this embodiment of chain luxury dens, Kemmons Wilson’s brainchild of accommodations for the common man (already with over 500 locations across the country) to find permanent digs for at least my first semester, and scope out the best places to eat decently and cheap. Not to mention laying out my first semester’s tuition.
The easiest piece of business was enrolling as a doctoral student, the only severe challenge being to prove I was who I said, since at that tender period of my life, I had no driver’s license. As I said, I preferred to walk. But as I recall, my draft card and my birth certificate sufficed. They didn’t even seem particularly interested in my having a local address, since I had a permanent address in Rhode Island, even though it was 48 positions less in the cavalcade of states by size. This stipulation merely meant I was to pay the out-of-state resident’s graduate school tuition, which was a munificent $270 for the semester – an even 200 bucks more than the airfare had been to fly halfway across the country.
It took an additional day to find digs. First I sniffed out the hangout of the graduate students, and given the size of the English department, there was a separate such gathering place, a lounge, just for us. I figured there would be postings pinned up somewhere with all manner of resources. Sure enough, I found what sounded ideal. Just three blocks from where I stood on the campus, on a secondary neighborhood street, was a converted courtyard-style motel. On the second floor overlooking the interior of the court – away from the traffic and street noise – was what was described as a suite, though the complement of furniture listed only one bed. There were two rooms and a separate bathroom.
The rooms stand as a shrine within the galleries of my mind. Basically it was a nice enough layout. The entry gave way to a spacious room that could serve as an area for entertainment and for study, complete with a narrow desk and an even more narrow bookcase. With a partition of the minimal magnitude to qualify as a wall separating two areas of a very large space altogether – it was maybe 300 square feet. Impressive, but I admit, in and of itself the dimensions are hardly the stuff of deep memory. Rather it was the decor that set this domicile apart. My suite remains an everlasting altar of bizarre interior design and decor, never since duplicated or displaced for its negative capability for the invidious. Let me just say, before I describe it, that I loved it in an instant, and immediately decided to take it and seek no possible alternative selections.
The living quarters, from baseboards to ceilings, including the ceilings in fact, were covered, as in over every visible surface except for wall outlets and switches, and the very small number of windows, all on one wall of each room, and all facing the inside court, itself adorned with a dry fountain, clearly long out of service. The covering was foot-square tiles of a thick open-pored cork, dyed a very dark brown, not quite the color of ebony, but darker than walnut. All in all, a den or cave, and clearly always suffused with a kind of sombre Stygian aura, a permanent dusk. The floor, to complete the vision, was covered uniformly with, of course, shag carpeting in an appropriate unobtrusive, essentially unnecessary to clean, shade of a color I will call dun.
In marked, almost blinding, contrast, was the bathroom, of a complementary vastness of space, perhaps ⅔ the volume of the main suite of rooms. Notable was the lack of a door, though the portal was an indented doorway, so not even an oblique view from the bedroom allowed one to see very deeply into what must be designated the bathing and toilet chamber. In here too all surfaces flowed together, every square inch, with no differentiation of surfaces, except for the juncture of orthogonal planes, which is to say, you could detect the corners and seams where floor met walls and, looking higher, walls met ceilings. And every square inch was covered in white ceramic tile, square, of about a two-inch dimension. A waterproof fixture in the ceiling provided all the light needed, as when it was switched on as you entered the effect was instantaneously dazzling. A perfect enclosure for clinical examinations to whatever purpose: dermatologic in nature, lesions, one’s hairline or scalp condition. In one corner was a toilet, with appropriate appurtenances set into the wall. In the other corner along the same wall, a huge industrial shower fixture jutted out with controls beneath it on the wall. Along one perpendicular wall, a sink, with a mirror above it. There was also a ceramic shelf set into the tiles.
Further examination showed a slight incline of the floor from every wall to a significant drain, perhaps six-inches in diameter set into the exact center of the floor. Clearly the room had been designed for optimal modes of efficient cleaning, if not regular sterilization, of all surfaces. More or less at once, and with the mere expedient of a high-pressure hose.
And this temple to my rapidly emerging sense of the pure monastic life I would assume as a scholar, somewhere short of ascetic – there was no facility at all for cooking, though I was told that purchase and installation of an electric cooker of some sort, which is to say, a hot plate, was entirely permissible – would cost me the ascetic sum of 94 dollars a month, payable in advance, with an additional month’s rent as security, though refundable on a satisfactory inspection at departure. I had to sign a six-month agreement to stay, not a lease, and on the terms of the apparently equally bizarre statutes regarding transient lodgings, revokable by either party with sufficient notice.
Short of knowing absolutely no one, though I had the phone number of a friend’s cousin, a resident of Austin and whose name, I swear, was Billy Bob, and who was, to boot, a lawyer, pretty much assuring that I would wait until later in this, my first week, to contact him. In the meantime, I had to pull up stakes, though it was too late to check out that night, my second in Austin, from the Holiday Inn, and somehow transport what were effectively all my worldly goods to my new cell-qua-grotto.
However, before I did, I decided I had done so well in such a short time, far more quickly than my profound state of ignorance on my arrival had allowed me to anticipate, I deserved to treat myself to a celebration. I returned to the grad student lounge to see who I might seek as counsel with such an objective. The lounge, spacious and comfortably furnished, was not exactly bustling, but there were two people conferring in a corner, disposed in such a way, and showing other signs of a kind of familiarity that I inferred at least close friendship. It was man and a woman, neither of them, it seemed, very much older in appearance than I. Both were comely specimens, and as I approached they looked up from their confab, and spontaneously smiled. Which I took for a good sign.
She was Alma, and her sharp, precise features, accented but not overtaken with expertly applied makeup, mainly around her eyes, seemed to accentuate what I took to be a Latina heritage, and in fact, she was an Austin native, the third generation born in the United States, of Mexican immigrants who had arrived around the turn of the century and become citizens. Alma was studying 20th century literature, and was a burgeoning Woolf scholar, as in Virginia Woolf. And she gave every appearance, reinforced by an easy sunny demeanor, that there was little she was afraid of, and least of all Mrs. Woolf. Her friend, and that was all he turned out to be, another second year doctoral candidate, was Peter, who had arrived at UT in part because of the holdings of the Ransom Center at the library, where he had begun to dig into the extensive manuscript collection, mining for a worthy topic for his dissertation. He was leaning to Faulkner, but he wasn’t sure.
They were eager to know what I was doing there – though my east coast roots and ways had somehow announced themselves before I even declared them by speaking. I suggested we discuss it over drinks somewhere. It was about two in the afternoon, and they suggested perhaps re-grouping in the early evening would be more prudent, if not propitious. It was early September and still very hot in the daylight, and by six, the weather would have noticeably begun to moderate. “Have you been to the beer gardens?”
“No Alma. I’ve been almost nowhere. If a beer garden here is what I think it is… sounds perfect.” One of them said, “tell you what, why don’t we meet downstairs at the door to the building and then we’ll walk over to Guadalupe to see what looks good?” And that’s what we agreed to do.
At this juncture it would help I’m sure to point out that for some time in Austin, Guadalupe had been the main thoroughfare of the city, running up and down starting from its northern precincts, and ending to the south, very near the historic old city. Guadalupe is Austin’s Champs Élysées. Its Broadway. Its Market or Broad or High Street. All geographic orientation of any merit starts with Guadalupe.
For a healthy stretch of its length it is bounded by the main campus of the University of Texas, which, it must be pointed out, was (and remains) a very very big school. When I arrived it had upwards of 40,000 students, and its endowment, though it never has rivaled Harvard’s, was the largest of a public institution. Appropriate enough for a state with as much wealth among its constituents as Texas has. And on the side of Guadalupe facing the campus, was every establishment imaginable for all that wealth to be spent in any conceivable indulgence. Whatever you might conjure up as a personal need, it seemed like there was some store that would have it.
The street bustled with activity, and was the constant expression of incredible abundance and easy wealth. A marked contrast to my own condition, mindful of preparing myself to begin squeezing every dollar before relinquishing it. But time enough for that, and cockeyed optimist that I was, I was already in a sense banking on all the funds I had spared myself expending by being so efficient taking care of my needs. I had a roof over my head, cork-lined at that. I had my tuition all paid up, and I hadn’t even entered a classroom. The bubble of a sense of prosperity I could almost swear was, in fact palpable, would expand a bit, as it turned out after I met my new found friends, my colleagues, once I returned from refreshing myself at the Holiday Inn before going out for what Texans considered a hot night out.
At six o’clock Guadalupe turned out to be even more of a mad rush of humanity, on foot, in cars, on bicycles than it had been earlier in the day. The sidewalks on the commercial side were packed with crowds, still in the throes of shopping, and beginning to gather at each of a succession of different places to eat or drink.
It being such a college town, of such immense proportions of an institution, and further the UT Longhorns (“Hook ‘em Horns!”) always a formidable contender in the Big 12 for football supremacy, the natural lubricant of choice was, of course, beer. And the preferred venue for consumption the, as it turns out, but how would I know, being a city boy from Bean-town, was the beer garden. There seemed to be one or two to every block on the long stretch of Guadalupe. Like Munich, only with a drawl.
Each of them, as it turned out, pretty much was laid out according to the same design: a largely nondescript room, capacious enough, but hardly of any significance, just off the street, with a conventional bar along its length, which led one naturally to the multiple doors at the rear of the hall to an extensive, elongated back yard. The first time I entered the beer garden Alma and Peter had chosen I was sure it must be the length of a football field, an illusion propagated by its dimensions, which were much longer than they were wide. There was room for two rows of communal tables that ran parallel the whole length of the garden. There were seats on both sides of all tables, and it appeared at first that all of them were filled, and every other hand held a beer, or a pitcher pouring a glass.
The servers, unremittingly female, carried tray of heroic proportions with a number of pitchers of even more beer, and some number of empty glasses. As it turned out there were menus, but the food, which was edible and abundant, was the least of the attractions, the top two even a fool could quickly conclude were the suds and the gemütlichkeit – the camaraderie, which seemed spontaneous and natural enough, but then heightened and fueled by the endless flow of brewed hops and malt and spring water.
I had a good time, and a lot of beer, but I also learned some things as Alma and Peter and I conversed, sometimes, but not always – as waves of noise seemed to ebb and flow, like the rivers of beer – being forced to bellow in one another’s ear. I learned that after a semester in residence, I would be considered, legally, a state resident, and my tuition would drop to the very meager sum of $75. Not that it mattered, because I was sure to be awarded an assistance-ship once I entered my second year, and this meant not only a stipend for my duties, either teaching composition or a lit survey, but full tuition remission. Life promised to be good.
We ended our evening on a convivial note and promised to look one another up in the next day or two. I decided to walk back to the hotel through the dark night, following the route of the limited access Interstate 35, Austin’s main expressway, eight lanes wide. I learned almost on arriving, that the hotel I had chosen from afar, was only a block from the highway, and therefore easy to find. In many ways, aside from the unforgettable appearance of my temporary home in that gruesome motel, my main recollection is of the vantage I had of the superhighway, just several hundred feet away from me, when I looked out the window of my room at the Holiday Inn.
Starting the next day, in what was left of that seemingly momentous first week, I concentrated on tying things up administratively, and shopping for what few basics I had somehow forgotten to pack, and also to amuse myself by beginning to learn my new home, doing so the best way, on foot. I also expected to have another beer or two before classes started in a week and a half.
With the weekend approaching, I called my former roommate Andy, who was serving his first year of residency as a newly minted doctor at a huge hospital in Houston – not his first choice, but in that lottery you do win, you just don’t always get to choose which prize. He did have the consolation of having gotten newly married, and he and his new bride had easily been able to move to Houston, because she was a nurse specializing in a highly desirable category and had landed a job immediately at Houston General, an even bigger hospital than his.
I was merely touching base, but he was eager to see me, if possible, and I got the impression he was even more lost than I was, absent any immediate friends here in alien territory. He asked if I was free that weekend – which I took as being asked with no irony whatsoever, and we quickly arranged for me to arrive on Friday evening by bus, to spend two nights with them, while I found some way to amuse myself all day Saturday as it turned out that each of them was on a rotation that required a shift during that day.
The ride was uneventful, almost transcending boredom to some new subterranean level of insensibility. The bus was a bus. Houston, I had the impression was a hellhole, but a damp one. I had never been in a place so unrelentingly hot and so unrelentingly humid all at once. I understood, as he had told me over the phone, that everything, but every place that a human could enter for shelter in any form, was air conditioned. This included their high rise apartment, which, I concluded, once they showed me their well-stocked refrigerator, offered every reason for me not to step a foot outside while I waited for them to return from work so we could cook our dinner together and relax.
The question was, what to do with myself. And the answer lay in a fact I have not as yet mentioned.
When I left Providence, I also left behind a girlfriend. A very serious girlfriend. I don’t mean the girl. I mean the friendship, So sick was she at the prospect of my leaving with our future unresolved and indeterminate had made her sick all night, and my father had to minister to her discomfort with various nostrums to settler her stomach while she lay in bed in the den of my parents’ house the night before our departure. It was a tearful parting, and indeed, she told me much later that she was sure as she watched me board my plane that she would never see me again.
She was leaving for her own educational sojourn. Diane was a painter, and her grandmother had given her a commencement present of the cost of a year in Paris, sailing on the SS France from New York, studying with a painter who had a studio and was renowned for his tutorship.
What I remembered while I lay around on the furniture in Andy’s living room not sweating was that she was to leave on the France-America line and she would leave from their dock on such and such a date, and that her whole family, her parents and her brothers and sister, were staying together with her in New York that weekend of departure at the Roosevelt Hotel – and what a fine thing it was, I thought, how suitable, that a hotel named for those with such a redoubtable progressive reputation in the grand liberal tradition of American politics would be accommodating the scion, and his progeny, of a dyed-in-the-wool blue blood family of stubbornly conservative Republicans.
And I needed no recollection at all that that weekend was this weekend, and the inescapable vastness of the distance between me on Guadalupe in Austin TX and the Steamship France at the West Side piers of New York City, not to mention the unremitting vastness of the difference in size between my skinny wallet growing thinner by the day and the bulky billfold of Diane’s dad, always flush as I came to know him.
Suddenly a sense of mission overcame my indolence and burgeoning self-pity. We had had our tearful goodbyes at the Rhode Island airport, it’s true, but I was no overcome by the need to speak to her one more time. Though I didn’t or couldn’t think beyond the urgency of the need to speak in order to formulate whatever it was, precisely or vaguely, I intended to say.
It was early enough in the day on Saturday – she was not scheduled to depart until late in the afternoon – that I figured I could call the Roosevelt and leave a message with my number at Andy’s, and she could call me back if I didn’t reach her directly. I called the operator, as in those daysbefore wireless links to information banks around the world, the phone company still afforded one of the first lines of contact to virtually anyone, as long as you had a name and an address. I got the number of the Roosevelt and called them. Yes, they had a party booked by that name, but the gentlemen had cancelled the reservation on their arrival, and taken his family by taxi to some other indeterminate destination. Sorry, no forwarding address or contact. Casting imprecations on what I already knew to be the capricious habit of indulging his change of whims that initiated what was sometimes a chain of variations in what had been rock solid intentions, I knew the futility of giving in to my anguish. Instead, as cooly as I could, listening to the compressors churning away with a quiet rumble at the base of each window in their sub-let, I plotted my next tactics.
I checked my address book and there amid a jumble of erasures, blots, scratch-outs and random blebs of dried ink, I found my college friend Sheldon’s number, rather his mother’s number, in Brooklyn, and chancing that he would be awake this early, that is 11am on a Saturday, I dialled and he answered. “Shel,” I said, “I’ve gotta’ ask a big favor, but no big deal all in all, and pretty easy.” I explained what I needed him to do, which, essentially, was to travel downtown, after finding out the exact berth at which the France was docked, and find the purser and have Diane paged, and ask her to call me at the number I gave him.
“I’ll take care of it,” he said, his voice husky from the chain smoking he did, affecting the habits of a British don, to match the bizarre accent he had long since adopted, largely, as the rest of us imagined, to mask his native Brooklynese, which nevertheless seeped through in the form of an odd diphthong or a broadly accented vowel. Indeed he smoked a brand, hard to come by, and about three times as expensive as American cigarettes, as much as a buck and a quarter a pack, called English Ovals, because they were indeed, fabricated to form an oval shape in cross-section ofvery tightly packed Virginia tobacco. I had been reduced to putting faith in his air of indolent world-weariness and sham Anglican stony indifference. As Gus, our guru of a year ahead of us at school and who had magically and marvelously talked himself into a fellowship to study poetics for his doctorate at Columbia, as well poetry with one of our avant garde gods, Kenneth Koch, once said about Ron: “Not to worry. Behind that mask of cold insouciance and imperturbability, beats the heart of a man who basically doesn’t give a shit about anybody but himself.”
I would have called Gus, but I already knew he was out of town.
I had nothing to do but wait.
I have no precise recollection of how I spent the day, though I knew I couldn’t concentrate to read. I was too wide awake to sleep, and television was out of the question, except to provide the noise and visual stimulation of the mock company it amounted to. Hours passed and by four I had heard nothing. Andy and his wife were due to arrive at about six. At five, I called Sheldon again to see how he had fared in his quest. I imagined he might still be working his way back home by subway to his lair. He picked up the phone on the second ring, and began explaining even before I could ask a direct question. In that etiolated tone of defeat of his, he virtually whined his rationale for changing the strategy I had mapped out. Well you know how crazy it is dockside when these liners are getting ready to depart. It’s wall-to-wall people. You can’t really get hold of anyone, let alone the purser or anyone else that high up. So he had decided it would be more efficient to call the dock and leave a message to be forwarded to Diane when she boarded and got to her stateroom. He reeled off these terms, “dockside,” and “purser,” and “stateroom” like the seasoned world traveler I knew he was not.
For all his tweeds and silk ties and pocket squares and bespoke shoes, and Navy Cut cigarettes, he was as phony as a slug shoved into the slot of a New York Subway turnstile. Beside myself, I could barely muster a thank you for his efforts, and that I’d be in touch. It’s at this juncture that I’ll mention that in the fullness of time Diane came to know Shel, and of course some time or other I had regaled her with this story about our fateful weekend. She also referred to him as Sheldon the Paperweight, though more usually just using the epithet, or more economically, “the Weight.” Have you heard from the weight?
Still anticipating the arrival of my hosts, I finally had a brainstorm, and called the long distance operator, and asked about calling the ship, maybe even ship-to-shore. And as if she handled queries like this all the time, she proceeded to inform me quite efficiently, clearly, and precisely that what I needed to do was wait until the ship had cleared the three-mile limit, which might take awhile as with all departing ocean liners, and have the Transatlantic operator connect with the ship’s operator and arrange to have my party paged to the phone once there was a secure connection. If I could hold she would connect me with the Transatlantic operator to begin to arrange the call. Could I hold? I’ll hold it as long as you’d like ma’am.
The upshot was, I gave the Transatlantic operator all the particulars, and she told me I would then have to wait, as much as two hours after the scheduled departure time, and then she would call me so the connection could be completed and I could converse with my party. I’d get a call after we rang off with the charges.
Andy arrived. We made dinner. We sat and ate it up to dessert, and at about 8:15 the phone rang. Sue answered it, and almost immediately handed it to me. Within thirty seconds I was talking to Diane, with no more sense of why I was calling or what I wanted to say. She answered the phone and I heard the operator ask her if she was who she was, and she said yes, and we talked, with Diane alternately shrieking happily and shouting because it was quite evident they were having a party at her end, and there was some audible continuous mayhem. It was a very happy ship having a very happy launch.
She asked why I was calling and I told her first, almost tentatively, that I wasn’t sure, though I knew I had to speak to her, had to hear her voice, and as I spoke more words came to me and I kept talking, for perhaps five minutes. Then six, and then the next thing I knew I was asking her to marry me, and she shrieked some more, and said yes. And then we exchanged what I supposed were some token endearments. I mean, who knows or is prepared to know what to say in such a moment. And there were one or two actual practical questions from her, simple things among the plague of questions that congested my thinking for the next few days thereafter, but simply hadn’t occurred to me before the phone rang, so to speak. What she asked was, what about your school? What about Paris? Where will we go? And all I could do was assure her there was time to work it out.
And then we did, for sure, ring off. I got up and walked into the living room from the bedroom where I had retreated for privacy. Andy and Sue were sitting quietly having an after dinner drink when I came in. Andy remarked that I had the most amazing look on my face, and asked what was up. So I told them, and they insisted on opening a bottle of champagne they happened always to have in the fridge. And we toasted me, and caroused and made some jokes.
Somewhere along in there the Transatlantic operator called with the phone charges. And then there was not much else to say, so we all went to bed.
It was while I was lying there that I finally remembered a conversation I had had with Diane about our upcoming plans and the variations on excitement entailed with such different destinations as Paris and Texas, I had been to neither, and wasn’t sure what to expect. Diane had been to Paris before and was very excited about the prospect of her return. She also allowed as she hated the idea of Texas. I asked if she had ever been, and she said, no. “Why would I ever want to go?”
The last time I was in Chicago was May 2002. I was with my late wife on what I want to say was a business trip, but I don’t recall the details. And besides, no matter. It turned out to be a lovely time of the year to be in the Second City, for sure for the weather. However what made the trip memorable was my primary reason for being there.
Linda may have been there for business. She was manager of a global program that was one of a broad range of corporate services offered by a company called IBM. However, I was on a rare excursion to accompany her, because the fates and the many interconnecting gears of business had fortuitously aligned so that, after years of enticement, we could fulfill a long held out invitation from one of my closest friends. A former colleague, which was how we originally met, Philip had come to be a regular at gatherings all over the country. He was an account supervisor at an industrial ad agency based in Boston that represented, aside from a full roster of industrial, commercial and technology clients, a number of trade organizations.
One of Phil’s more interesting accounts entailed some wing of the turkey growers of the United States. It was his job to oversee the formulation and execution of communications strategies to ensure Americans ate a growing share of their diets in the form of the flesh of the bird that Ben Franklin preferred as his choice for national bird of the country he was instrumental in founding. No doubt part of the reason for more and more year-round meals including turkey was a product of the intentionality of a sustained marketing campaign. A large part of the major objective of the advertising and pr effort was to ensure that people understood that turkey was, in effect, not just for Thanksgiving.
Among his duties, Phil was expected to accompany food service industry bigwigs – people like the national food and beverage managers of major restaurant and hotel chains – when they assembled for the larger trade shows. There was no bigger show than the one for the National Restaurant Association, or, as it’s known, “the other NRA.” The gustatory version is impressive in its own right. At present, it serves over 380,000 member eating establishments. It was of comparable size in 2002, and attendance at their annual convention, always held in Chicago and usually in May, was a necessity for exploiting the leverage of having so many important target customers accessible for schmoozing.
After years of wining and dining the executive managers and chefs of the restaurants among the most recognized, prestigious, highest volume, or distinguished for gustatory excellence in the country, Phil had acquired a cadre of restaurateurs, maîtres d’, hosts, bookers and the like at the most desired tables in Chicago. He was recognized on sight, and a last minute reservation was usually no problem.
For the course of our friendship of over 20 years at that time, Phil and I shared a love of food savory to the palate and lovingly prepared. This meant we mainly enjoyed the fruits and the comforts of entertaining one another at home. Or, once we no longer worked under the same roof, gathering for lunch, which was easiest, or dinner at a restaurant, usually a hidden gem or little-known local masterpiece of a dive that happened to serve incredible dishes. More often than not it was ethnic.
Indeed, it was our great fortune that what is still the best Turkish restaurant I’ve ever dined at—idiosyncratically open only for lunch, mainly because of the location, which was the only spot the immigrant chef/owner could afford at the time—was two blocks from the office we both worked at mid-way in our careers as ad men. “Sultan’s Kitchen” has opened, and quickly found itself serving lines out the door, on Broad Street in the financial district. That’s because that’s where the greatest concentration of an audience jaded on fast food and sandwich machines congregated every busy day, on account of they had to for work, and they appreciated inexpensive, healthy, incredibly delicious meals prepared to order, and could be done either dining communally on the spot, or taking an entire meal back to the desk, and all for about ten bucks.
That’s the kind of fare Phil and I especially appreciated, but mainly for the care in the preparation and cooking, the quality of the ingredients, and the infectiously friendly attitude of chef Özcan Ozan. But I have gotten ahead of myself, and diverted you from my tale of a visit to a meal at the signature restaurant of another master of the kitchen, an American named Charlie Trotter. So, let’s back to Chicago from our detour to Boston. By the time, Linda and I showed up there, Phil had become as conversant with the bill of fare and the wine list of Chicago’s finest. As conversant as he and I had become with the variety of kebabs that Ozan had on offer every weekday.
In 2002, Charlie Trotter was at the pinnacle of the culinary food chain in the United States. Always named as one of the top three chefs on virtually any list at the time, Trotter was a known genius for inventiveness, for being an unrelenting perfectionist in every aspect of fine dining, and, at time, it was said, a ferocious boss, who earned the respect of his staff, but was inflexible in demanding as much from each of them as he clearly did from himself. There was a softer side to Charlie, which he wasn’t afraid to hide. A human side. Evident enough in the daily presence of his mother, who served as a kind of auxiliary host and ambassador of the mission of the Trotter eponymous restaurant on Armitage in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, not too far from the lake.
Charlie Trotter’s was considered a kind of mecca—a clichéd designation for a place that, in fact, was substantiated and reinforced by invariably being named the best restaurant in a city full of great places to eat. On the one hand, it was the kind of place that could still require “gentlemen will wear jackets in the dining room,” but, on the other hand, this kind of requirement seemed not too fussy when it was well-known that you couldn’t get away without spending well over a hundred dollars a person for dinner, and far more with wine. And yet, tables were impossible for dinner except well over a month or two in advance.
When I had first-hand experience of how my friend Phil was excluded from such obstacles, not only at Trotter’s, but virtually any other table in the city, I was very proud of him for having acquired the skills necessary to thread that particular needle. He had given me a standing invitation, any time we could manage to be in Chicago to join him for dinner—even if, and I didn’t understand the import of this provision at the time, it was a last minute rendezvous. He said I simply, if possible, someday had to eat at Charlie Trotter’s.
Which is how we ended up at the front door of what I otherwise thought looked like not much more than a stately urban brownstone building of an owner who was enjoying a solid, if modest, round of success. Phil met us at the door, and we entered, and immediately Phil was greeted by everyone on staff within eyesight, including the maître d’, by name, with a broad smile. We knew instantly we were in for a memorable evening.
Seeing my friend enter, restaurant staff faces brightened. They said his name and greeted him hands outstretched. There is little that compares to being known as one in the party of greatness, however parochially it may be defined. And there is nothing strictly parochial about the most fundamental of affinities: true friendship. Not only were we glad to be in a literally world-famous restaurant, about to be seated to dine. We were glad to be in the select company of those recognized as “one of us.” Moreover, I was glad, petty as it was at bottom, that all this greatness was not for a single centavo to be at my expense. We were invited as Phil’s guests.
He was paid semi-handsomely for his exertions on the part of the turkey growers, as well as other clients. A significant part of his emolument was a personal expense account, on the one hand potentially taxable as income, on the other, amounting to such a munificent sum annually that strategically his bosses put him in the position of using it up, according to that poetic bit of doggerel philosophy, “use it or lose it.” So that night, he was showing an important IBM executive and her husband his appreciation in the form of a very nice dinner. And he simply refused my participation.
There was another remarkable occurrence, long before food began appearing systematically and with a certain arcane periodicity at the table; clearly not as a dish was ready, and clearly not some rigid mechanical interval. Linda had ordered the vegetarian “Degustation,” which is what fancy places such as this called what has become the prosaic “tasting menu” (and more on that phrase later), while I had the default omnivore’s portions. Not at all alike, each course was, nevertheless, perfectly in sync with all components. But that memorable presence I alluded to was not substantive and plated, so much as maternal. No other than Charlie Trotter’s mother appeared at our table, warm, congenial, welcoming, with an aura that softened the somewhat austere ambiance of the decor.
Not tall. Not short. Not thin. Not heavy. Neither overtly stylish, and by no means haute couture, but appealing and modest, understated while at the same time very present. Her smile was genuine. Her hair, grey, was genuine. Her loving praise of her son’s cooking was genuine.
She seemed genuinely pleased we were there to partake of her son’s handiwork – more than that, of course, it was universally accorded to be overall the artisanship of food as attained by genius, with or without a mother’s validation. We were promised an evening of superlative wining and dining, but what became memorable in larger part, at least for me, was this note of grace and warmth. And all afforded by the simple gesture of having the chef’s mother glide around the room putting every guest at ease and in a positive frame of mind. It was singular, and in my experience, it has remained as much. Nothing speaks of being welcoming than to make people sincerely welcome.
By this point in my life I have eaten in thousands of establishments in North America and Europe. And surely the mother of more than one restaurateur or cook was somewhere in the vicinity, though not, to my perception, in strong evidence. None, other than Mrs. Trotter, ever introduced herself or otherwise made her presence known. I remember the meal that night most generally as overall a classic display of haute cuisine, brilliantly prepared and plated and presented with a level of service to match. But no one dish was so singular as to distinguish itself or the evening – to make it memorable as only a unique detail can render one’s clear recollection – as much as the presence of that pleasant woman of, shall I say, advanced middle age, gracefully introducing herself, announcing her preparedness to answer any question about the menu, or her son, and offering her assistance with meeting any reasonable need.
In case you haven’t picked up my gist, and an appalling lack of testimony about the menu, or the food it proffered, or the wine, or any of the no doubt fine details of smoothly functioning service, let me be clear. I frankly remember almost none of it.
I know we had, as I mentioned, the two menus on offer, one for omnivores and an alternative for vegetarians. I know there were eight courses – or was it ten – including the desserts, which I remember least of all. Not to suggest that the food we were given was not superb. I’ll stake my unsupported belief in it to say that it was. I just remember none of it.
The fault is no doubt mine. It takes quite a bit for me to remember specific dishes I’ve had, especially in venues I’d never been to before and to which I have never returned. And returning by now, for sure, would be impossible, because Chef Charlie died in 2013, of somewhat indeterminate causes given the vagueness of the reporting about the autopsy performed on him, aside from drugs or alcohol or foul play being ruled out, as well as the dismissal of any chance of a notorious rumored burst aneurysm on his brain.
His brilliance lives after him by lingering reputation, and more substantially in the form of several enduring cookery books. The one I prefer is the one he wrote about cooking at home, called straightforwardly enough, Charlie Trotter Cooks at Home. Though the more defensible landmarks of his are a series of genre cookery books: one devoted to Seafood, one to Vegetables, one to Meat and Game, and, of course, one to Desserts. The more compendious general subject of his innovative way with classic dishes and the freshest ingredients, and titled simple, like the restaurant was, Charlie Trotter’s is still in print, in hardcover, after 24 years on the market, and five years after his death.
They all are enlivened with a quiet authority and assuredness about the food. Trotter was, as I have noted, known to be a perfectionist. He had a sure hand with the cooking, and a sure hand about how things should look on the plate, and how to taste once they arrived at ground zero, the diner’s palate. But getting there, for him, required the utmost care and preparedness.
Nowhere was this more evident at his restaurant than in the place that became the tableau and focus of what clear memories I had of that memorable dining experience. Not, as I have confessed, for the food, an evanescent collection of evidence in any event. And not even for that, I’ll admit, second-most memorable aspect of that evening, the engaging and warm presence of his mom – another deft touch on his part, accepting and also requiring her presence. A softening perhaps of the hard edge of his perfectionism and precisionism.
No, the most memorable part of the night came about with an invitation to tour the scene of the sorcery practiced every night in the fulfillment of ten measured courses of food. We were asked if we’d like to see the kitchen, and before anyone could say anything, I responded with an emphatic yes.
Entering was what I would have imagined it to have been like to enter the control room of a submarine in silent running, or given the amount of light and the sleekness of the overall design, it brought another kind of ship to mind. Something from the future, a starship’s bridge, with fewer seats and fewer dials and many hands on deck in immaculate whites.
What was most striking though was the silent operation. Sotto voce conversations; brief ones at that. No shouting. No scurrying. No wasted motion, though with all deliberate speed.
There was spotless stainless steel everywhere. Every station was well-lit. Every station was immaculate, even as they prepared meals for a dining room still full of patrons. Overall, the room was so quiet, I could hear the small printer that spit out short snippets quickly shorn from the lip of the machine and perused by a man, also in white, standing alone at the center of all the activity at the stations surrounding his post. The chef de cuisine.
He occasionally issued terse low-voiced commands to one cook here, or the garde manger there. It was more like he was coordinating a precise intensive operation, meant to save lives and not merely plate courses for some very indulged guests.
The air of calm and the steady intense intuitive sense I had of complete control under severe pressure never broke. As studiously as we observed the staff, no one changed stride, looked up or appeared interrupted. Discipline and order ruled, and as I say, proved far more impressive than the food. The fare had been exemplary, but the production of it – in a sense even more evanescent, because it existed only in time, possessed no mass or volume, but simply happened and was done. Altogether it was as much an unintended performance as a display of ingrained professionalism – yet repeated reliably and flawlessly six days a week.
I’ve had many great meals, and yet so few stand out. Usually the memorable dishes were individual; over a lifetime a scattered constellation of a great main course here, an unforgettable starter there. But only one kitchen operation stands out, akin to a great concert performance by a renowned orchestra start to finish, every movement perfection.
It’s possible, I suppose, for a particular dish to be so good it defies capture in the mind of anyone but the most practiced and refined connoisseur. I would never claim to be that, and I am prepared to be judged as one not capable of appreciating what appeared on the plates of a Charlie Trotter meal. And that’s the reason I suffer the anomaly of remembering a great meal, but being incapable of describing none of it from “amuse bouche” to the final sweet nothing of a mignardise.
But I have also seen many kitchens in full array during a meal, and there is still only the one I will never forget.
Well I’m tryin’ to get some sleep but these motel walls are cheap
Lincoln Duncan is my name
and here’s my song
here’s my song.
My father was a fisherman,
My mama was a fisherman’s friend,
And I was born in the boredom and the chowder;
So when I reached my prime
I left my home in the Maritimes
And headed down the turnpike for New England,
Sweet New England. —Paul Simon
Some children are prodigies. I like to think every child has some prodigious talent. Some parents think their children are prodigies in every way. Those parents should look a little closer.
My father always looked closely at me, and he wasn’t shy about suggesting there were ways in his eyes that I came up short. But from early on, there was one way he made clear that to him I had a precocity he admired. It made him laugh, which was a rare thing.
It concerned food. And even if not a demonstration of some gift, my obvious obsession with what I considered, at the age of seven, great food presaged my later life. I mean the one long after I left hearth and home.
How I developed a taste for beef, medium rare at that, I have no recollection, but some inner radar always alerted me to the opportunity to chow down. In retrospect it was probably not all that deep an intuition, so I don’t credit myself for that particular perspicacity. We mainly would go out to eat on weekends, because my father worked, of course, and excursions during the week were out of the question. In any event, weekends in and of themselves were only in the best sense triggering for little me. Saturday arrived and my taste buds tingled.
Portrait of the artist as a young restaurant critic
Probably our first, or at most our second, excursion on a brief road trip were primer enough for me to be alert to the potentiality for having meat. I know we went out often enough, and to a variety of destinations, that I quickly learned to indulge what has proven in the fullness of time to be a natural penchant for criticism. I thought I knew the difference between good and bad. Further, I was not shy to declare a particular meal to be prime or to have been a disappointing sub-par performance. As the case might be. The first time I declared my share of a bloody bit of steak to be “excellent,” I know my father burst out laughing, and not because I was being funny.
He immediately dubbed me “Duncan Howard.” It’s probably a designation that, as a review of a biography of my putative moniker states, needs explaining for most people under the age of 55. I’d make it even older, but that’s neither here nor there. With the age of the short memory of almost everyone, it’s best to explain it altogether.
Duncan Hines, Road Warrior and Cake Mixer
Duncan Hines was the name of a real person. A traveling salesman in his young manhood, and later. Hines loved driving the open road, and open it was in the 1920s and 1930s, when he did his major drumming (as the profession was called). In those days, not only were there no Interstates, there were few maps for the roadways that did exist. What he came to realize was there simply were no guides for travelers—whether itinerant and regular like him and all his sales brotherhood (I assume it was largely mostly a male profession), or occasional, for leisure weekends or the odd vacation excursion.
There simply was none of the apparatus for guidance we take for granted. Especially now in the age of the internet, when all we need do is reach in our pockets, and pull out a hand-sized device and instantaneously have access to, say, 4500 recommendations as to the best places to eat from here to Rangoon. There was no Tripadvisor.com. And to reach further back, to the ancient days of print, already nearly totally forgotten, there was no Fodor’s, not MobilGuides, and in this country there was certainly no Michelin guide (which has its own distinguished history, it’s true, and it dates back to 1900, but it helped *French* motorists, all 3000 of them back then, but only with information about the location of mechanics, gas stations, tire repair outlets, and the like; they didn’t begin listing restaurants until 1922, and ratings didn’t appear until four years after that).
Duncan Hines eventually took it into his head to let his fellow road warriors know, after his myriad experiences in hundreds of establishments had informed him, which were the best places for lodging or dining, and with the rarest of luck for both in a single venue. He turned it into a business, with the help of his wife. He was, at that point, it should be noted, 55 years old.
Duncan Hines, in an unattributed photo, designated Fair Use image in Wikipedia, the source.
In 1935 they prepared a book of listings for the benefit of friends, for a start, of hundreds of good restaurants – mainly local establishments, as there were but very few chains in those days. Hines was middle-aged, well into it, when he began his great work, and he had been on the road since at least the ’20s, plying his trade selling press time for a Chicago printer. That book about where to eat sold so well, he added another volume that recommended lodging. By the late 1940s he had a national newspaper column that appeared three times a week on a syndicated basis, called “Adventures in Good Eating at Home.” He had spread out his franchise by then, associating his name with the growing institution of home cooking. The column mainly featured recipes that the home cook could replicate from the restaurants he had come to know and recommend.
By 1953, which was the year my own burgeoning career as a junior version of the irrepressible Hines began, he had sold the use of his name to a partner who created a company to package products under that name to be sold in supermarkets and groceries. The “Duncan Hines” brand, which made its mark in particular with cake mixes, is still a familiar one. If anyone recognizes it, it’s as a cardboard box filled with flour, baking powder, and not much else.
The point is, so powerful was the brand that its other manifestation: recommendations to dine at a particular restaurant, were a guarantee to the consumer of a pleasing experience. And so people came to look for theelegantly lettered signs in black and white, as I remember them, hanging outside the door of a restaurant (or hotel), as near the main signage as possible. They declared simply that this establishment was “recommended by Duncan Hines.” And it became enough said.
In our family, my father insisted that we could not declare a meal dining out a success unless it received the imprimatur of myself. And he dubbed me, “Duncan Howard.” He’d ask as we finished, and around the time the check arrived, if this restaurant was “approved by Duncan Howard?” My sole criterion was the experience of eating that bloody bit of steer, and I was not generous in offering a recommendation. I have no memory, I’m sorry to say, as to whether I took into account the ambiance, what has come to be called in the Millennial shorthand, the “vibe” of the place.
My predilection for beef hasn’t subsided, though it’s sporadic, and I am not all that indulgent. Somewhere along the line from the seven year-old me to the present I learned about other cuts than sirloin, which was about the only one I knew back then, and it was I always ordered – again a source of mirth for my dad, who I think got a kick out of being able to afford to indulge his junior league restaurant critic of a son. These days, I order hanger steak when I see it on the bill of fare. This is a rare occurrence, so I don’t worry about compromising my smug self-assurance that I am not unduly endangering my health by consuming too much animal flesh.
Much more recently, I had occasion one spring about seven years ago to make regular visits to Philadelphia – what turned out to be prelude to my moving here permanently. Part of the routine that quickly ensued, and again, as a kind of reverberation of my youthful triggering associations, these excursions (at most a couple of hours portal to portal, from Boston to Philly) occurred on weekends. And I looked forward to them with an anticipation far transcendent of my childish fondness for red meat. We’ll just leave it at noting that these latter-day satisfactions had a much more powerful component of emotional fondness than they did any atavistic hunger for blood.
Downtown Philadelphia, showing City Hall, at 6am April 2011 from my room in Loews Hotel. (photo: Howard Dinin)
Nevertheless, not every moment was stocked to the brim with the fulfillments of deep amatory bliss – largely because the object of my hebdominal visits was not always free to get away. Yet, a man has to eat. And not knowing the city after a forty year absence – my last extended sojourn in Philly was as a graduate student – I was ignorant of its culinary riches, if any. And, ironically enough, given the theme of my writing today, I placed little stock in the recommendations of any self-appointed Anacharsis Cloots* on the internet, “citizens of humanity,” who seek to universalize and broaden the culinary interests of all by removing false criteria of old values and any mention of “the full dining experience.” I simply trusted no critic I could find readily who could point me to a decent meal.
What I needed was a revival of the Hines ethos. But what I gave myself was a slow tour, weekend by weekend, of the usual suspects to be found in any large cosmopolitan city. That’s right, one after another I knocked off the local installations of the finest chain steak houses in America: Ruth’s Chris, Morton’s, Capital Grille, and so forth. No place really stood out, but I can’t say either that I was ever disappointed. Not a bad piece of meat among them, though no hanger steak alas. All in all, for a few brief weeks of spring, Duncan Howard rose again.
*Anarcharsis Cloots was the pseudonymous identity of a Prussian nobleman who emerged as a singularly important figure of the French Revolution. Jean-Baptiste du Val-de-Grâce, baron de Cloots, argued strenulously (and donated a small fortune for fighters to do battle against tyranny) for the cause of world rule according to the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” He preferred the title, by which he was known, as the orator of the human race.
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