1904

The Year Everything Important Happened

Author: 1904Blog (page 1 of 20)

Time Fall. Excerpt. Dick.

Farmhouse outside Fremont, Ohio, circa 1966 (now demolished). Where I first met Dick.

I have not told Rose about Dick.

I am falling all the time now.  All I have to do is turn my head and the present collapses like a punctured balloon, shrivels up and whistles away to a corner of my mind, like an application collapsing to its icon on the task bar at the bottom of the screen; suddenly the past beneath reveals itself.  Or not the past but some other place, not in Time and not even a place in the ordinary sense. Eventually I call it Time Out, the corner of the classroom where you send the unruly child.  I think this and on my next visit a shelf of toys has appeared and I am sitting in the center of a braided rug on confetti-speckled linoleum.  The Interrogator appears, a faceless female in a housedress covered in pink cabbage roses against a black background. I stare at the pale green Bakelite buttons going up the front until they disappear in clouds at her waist.  “The Lilies of the Valley is a nice touch,” I remark, referencing the eau de toilette.  “I want to speak to my Case Manager,” I say.  “Let me talk to Dick.”  Which is not his name because I don’t know his name but it’s the name I’ve given him. He is always someone familiar just as in a dream the people I meet are friends or family members even if they look like strangers. This time Dick is the high school assistant principal who was also basketball coach, the one who spent our senior year fucking one of the cheerleaders. He never liked me and arrives with the look of a big swinging dick on a mission, hence the name.  He enjoyed his authority.  He enjoyed being the one who came to take me out of French Class the day my mother called the school to tell me my father had died and to come home.  He smiled when he told me, then clapped me on the shoulder hard enough to hurt and marched me down the hall.

“Did you ever tell your wife you were fucking the cheerleading squad?” I ask cheerfully and double over in the pain that stabs knitting needles in my ears.

“Did you ever really think you could get away with this?” he asks, mimicking my tone. I can’t breathe.  Sometimes I black out and come to in the real world and gasp for breath before going back under, back in.  I know this doesn’t happen because I’m possessed.  He knows I know.

“Do you have any idea how much pain we can cause you?” he asks without expecting a reply.

The mind is a marvelous manipulator; almost against my will I find myself trying to accommodate the unacceptable; I try to adapt to the absurd. A chair appears and I sit facing him, motionless, unable to move but also racing, dancing in my mind to keep up with my heart and manage my terror and fix what’s happening. I know Dick shouldn’t be here but he looks familiar, not just the coach in high school but like people I know and not resembling anyone physically as much as he seems to be inhabiting them, wearing a psychic costume, a dress of convenience.  He reminds me of recent acquaintances: the albino Canadian Mounty, the check-out clerk at Rite-Aid from the day before, the one with the extraordinary painted-on eyebrows and Monica on her name tag who looks at me across the conveyor belt as she hands me my receipt and says

“You’re not special.”

Then why is he in my head, I think.  Why am I dreaming him up, dredging him up, a bad dream, not even falling into it.

“Why am I here?” he repeats the question with baffled wonder, as if he can’t believe I need to ask. “Because your government that pays too much for toilet seats and boondoggle bridges to nowhere and anti-ballistic missile systems that don’t work is also the government that pays for traffic control between worlds, and sure, call it wasteful, go ahead and call your representative and demand an end to a gross misuse of taxpayer dollars but there’s an actual line item buried so deep in paperwork no one ever sees that allocates funds to monitor time travel, yes indeed, don’t scoff, the United States Government employs an entire office of dedicated psychic patriots like me to oversee the comings and goings of walk-ins, shifters, travelers, border-crossing violators, illegal tourists in the space-time continuum, dimensional displaced persons and folks like you.”

“Nonsense,” I say.

“I agree,” says Dick. “With the current regime eliminating regulatory agencies and oversight committees, shutting down investigations and slashing budgets right and left you’d think I’d be out of job and yet here I am. Personally I like flying under the radar, don’t get me started on that old ‘Hiding in Plain Sight’ charade; still, there’s nothing like a few charlatans to discredit an entire discipline, right? I’ve worked with a few of the Reality TV mediums and ghost hunters, the legitimate ones that is, and gotta give it to them, I don’t know how they keep up. That little feisty blonde on Long Island? The British one with the wacky hair? I like ’em. You need sassy gals like them out there. You don’t discredit the truth by suppressing it.  But you need to manage it.  The truth doesn’t set you free, my friend; most people, it just makes them crazy. Look at you: how happy are you? So you need to control access, right? How much folks know, what they believe, what they require to know and believe to get through the day, and seriously, who’s going to do it if we don’t? The Church? Used to be their job. Now they’re too busy bailing out pedophile priests. Then it was Science’s turn and they’re all running around rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, arguing over climate change, tipping points, sea level and temperature rise, extinction of the species. Meanwhile the tech crowd are totally throwing in the towel, they’re focused on AI and robots and off-world colonies, there’s no one in Silicon Valley under 30 who doesn’t expect to be living on another planet sooner than later and to hell with the doomed ignorant masses left behind, shocking but trust me, these kids today truly do not give a fuck, they want out and I can’t say I blame them. There’s modern morality for you.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

He sighs. “Why bother, you mean? That’s what you mean. Why am I here with you? It’s a good question.  I mean, it’s not like it’s the first time.”

He says these words and it is as if scenes from my life have been waiting queued up to suddenly fly past my eyes, YouTube videos made of scraps of home movies, one right after the other, so fast, like upcoming attractions but on high speed except nobody took any super 8 or 16mm films or videos of my childhood, nothing more than a few snap shots and those obligatory school pictures, that’s all you got in the world I came from, these are not my memories, they are not from my eyes but somebody else’s. I am seeing memories of me outside of me.

“You won’t remember,” I hear Dick say.  “Nobody does.  Nobody ever remembers.”

I suffered black outs as a child, mostly in early adolescence; chunks of my life in junior high are blank to me, I see the outside of the school but not the inside, I am waiting for the school bus but have no memory of riding it, I remember a gym bag but not the gym class, not the locker room. I have always attributed these lacunae, these missing pieces to the trauma of puberty.  But these are films of those times, those places, those missing pieces of the past.

“I will,” I say.  ‘I will remember.”

He pretends not to hear me.  “I shouldn’t be telling you this,” he continues. “but you were one of the ones we thought showed promise.” With that he melts into my 6th grade teacher who tried to help me, who morphs into my high school French teacher who gave me books on medieval French art and encouraged me in directions I never went, or only half-heartedly pursued, and then it is as if I’m flipping through a book of mug shot memories, which becomes a shoebox of photos, Polaroids, candid Kodachromes and Instamatic snaps of instructors and employers and friends and would-be lovers who each look back at me sadly. We thought you had promise. We thought you had potential. The words bubble over with the foam of disappointment.

“I don’t believe you,” I say.

“It doesn’t matter,” he replies with a dismissive wave at the air. “You’ve already forgotten the times before – what? You think this all just started happening now? In your old age?”  He tips his head quizzically, as if assessing the answer to his own question, amused.

“I have not forgotten.”

“You’re a terrible liar. And to think you had such promise.” He sighs.

Time Fall, an Excerpt. Lily Dale. Criminals

[In which I meet “Sarah” the medium]

On our road trip Rose and I talked in ways we hadn’t always been able to over the years; the driving expanded the space around us, made us expansive as we moved along, eyes mostly on the road ahead, as if we spoke to the future about the past. And, since Rose was never one to pass up an antique shop, we found plenty of opportunities along the way to feel nostalgic. Rose had a house to fill, after all, and an eye for bargains; consequently we included a few detours to sift through vintage debris and conjure the past in the process. On the road our soundtrack was an impromptu mix tape of public radio stations as they rose and fell away out of range and CDs of off-Broadway musicals from a time when Rose was still working on her stage career, back in New York, back when we first met, back when we were so much younger and hopeful and life had not yet spun out of control. “Just when it seemed as if we were getting somewhere,” Rose mused. “Changing the world, creating a better place, somewhere you’d be able to love the people you loved without it being a crime.  Without being a criminal.”

“You were never a criminal, Rose.”

“Don’t be so sure. And technically speaking you still are, in certain states.”

“You make it sound like we were out robbing banks or – okay Patty Hearst robbed a bank but that doesn’t count, it wasn’t her idea.”

We were only gently, lightly touching the past in a shop crowded with stuff, a mix of junk and forgotten treasures, dark and musty on a bright day, the two of us side by side inspecting a jewelry case jumbled full of odds and ends, a red flannel ball shaped like a tomato bristling with fancy faux jewel-headed hatpins next to a handful of cloudy cherry and lime green colored dice of various sizes, tobacco and bubble gum trading cards of long dead baseball and basketball players, cufflinks, china thimbles, charms for bracelets, political buttons, watch fobs, tiny Made in Occupied Japan figurines.

“I admit,” I continued, “I might have dated a felon once or twice but – what?”

Rose is pointing  and I lean in for a better look.  A tarnished brass Roosevelt – Fairbanks 1904 watch fob tag. Next to it, a scuffed metal button, black with a pink triangle emblazoned on it and the words Silence = Death.  Rose was one of the first people I knew to join ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), one of the first to demonstrate, to get arrested. Actress to Activist, activist to lawyer.

There is this part of our lives, in the 1980s in New York, symbolized in a button, when death was everywhere, in the noise and in the silence, in visits to friends dying in St. Vincent’s, and at funerals at St. Luke’s, St. John the Divine, Holy Rest, in the anecdotes we’d share of surreal engagements with the relatives of the dead and dying, in cocktail party conversation of half-serious hypotheticals about what we’d do when they did round us up and put us in quarantine camps as William F. Buckley had suggested, and where we’d go, and what to tell our families if/when it happened to us, and whether we would really want balloons released at our memorials (And get stuck in the tree branches and power lines? Please, no), and where the next demonstration was going to be, and at the end of the decade and the beginning of a new one did ACT UP really put a giant condom on Jesse Helms’ house (They did, yes).

For me and Rose, the occasional silence between us now may equal death, but only ironically, on this journey to a town where everyone who lives there talks to the dead and the dead are everywhere even if the word is never used, (the dead have “passed over”) but for us it is death remembered, death seen and lived through and survived, and only referenced obliquely as in, “after Skip got tested, before Bill got sick, after Eddie’s memorial, the summer before Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the year after Tomas met Elizabeth Taylor, before Rock Hudson, after Larry Kramer, before Queer Nation…”

“Is William here?” Rose asks in the antique shop, looking about us as if she could see him if he were.  I don’t answer.  “Well, he has a sense of humor, doesn’t he,” she observes. “You should get that Roosevelt 1904 thing for your collection.”

I do.

“You know, William could tell you a thing or two about criminals,” Rose says in the car as we resume our drive.

“Meaning?”

“My dear,” Rose explains in her Stella Adler voice, “he was a young man when Oscar Wilde went to prison. And he still chose to be an actor. Back when sodomy laws really meant something.”

“Back when life was really dangerous.”

“Oh, Life is always dangerous. Not what meant.  I worked in the theater, darling. It’s not a reputable business.”

“Maybe he felt safer there.”

“Oh yes,” Rose replies, “I imagine he did.”

“I’m aware,” says Sarah (not her real name), a medium in Lily Dale, “of someone – I’m getting a connection with someone coming forward who was, well, he was a criminal, I’m sorry, but that’s – what was the name?  May I hear the name? William? Yes, but he went by another as well, a nickname, another – or something about his name, a middle name, he used a middle name sometimes…”

I don’t know what she means about the name but it doesn’t matter.  Our paths are crossing.

“He says you will understand – he has the character of a criminal – he is showing himself in a bar – he liked to drink, he had personal power, he wasn’t controlled – self-will run riot, and he could care less about other people, he has a reddish tint to his hair, worn longish, sometimes a mustache – he had the most beautiful eyes – he had a lot of charisma, he’s showing me – in fact the crimes he committed – people voluntarily gave him what he wanted.  He didn’t even have to ask, do you understand that? It’s like someone else goes and robs the bank for him, he didn’t even have to ask…. I’m feeling like – he’s whistling, doing a what, a sort of Charlie Chaplin walk?”

A pause.

We are speaking in code, I tihnk.  Or, William is, and Sarah doesn’t know it. She’s just the channel, after all. The conduit.

“… train tracks, I’m seeing a train track, but you and the friend who’s helping you, neither of you is on the right track… New York is important… but there’s another town, also important. A town with an ancient name. Not Rome, not Athens. Cairo? No…

“Bazooka bubble gum, he’s showing me – you know how they used to collect bazooka bubble gum cards?  He’s showing me that…he’s throwing the wrapper down by the train tracks. He says you’re looking for all kinds of evidence but the people who would actually know he’s showing me in and around these train tracks, he’s showing me trash, things you throw away, you’re giving him too much credit: many of the important things in life happen in places you fear to go – would be afraid to go, everyday things, you’re looking in the wrong places. Where the people who really know are, they’re the common folk, the ‘uncommon common folk’ he’s saying, they’re the ones who know the truth, is what he’s saying, and again what I’m seeing, this would be back in the day when there’d be hobos, or what today we’d call homeless people down on the tracks, you know, the people you’d talk to, they’re the people who aren’t going to judge you. These people are going to let you be yourself.

“He’s also showing me a gravestone, as being significant to you – you found his mother’s gravestone? But you can’t find the others, the family wasn’t buried together… Olive, Mount Olive, there was another cemetery.  … He’s showing me a card, a notebook, a journal? – you’re taking notes? Item 3 is no.  It’s a redirect …

“Bank robbery is what he keeps telling me.” She shrugs. Her eyes have been focused to the left, to the right, up and down, not in my direction.  Now in a rare instance Sarah looks at me.

What must it be like, speaking through someone like Sarah? I try to imagine.  Being translated, having to use images she will understand to let me know what he’s trying to tell me. Speaking through an interpreter.  Bank robbery indeed.  Criminals, talking to each other through a go-between who has no idea. She is recording our session; later, when I am home again, I will listen to the CD, and I will think, I am listening to a translator interpreting someone speaking a language I can’t hear. The silence when she pauses.  The silence equals…

Does he know I met his family? I ask.

“He’s showing me a woman in the living. He’s saying you met his mom and his sister but they have passed so -”

“I found their graves,” I explain.

“Yes, and then you met a woman in the living, related to them? Yes, it was good for them to think about him.  And likewise for him.  The family can be in peace now.  They were worried about him in a number of ways.  And now he’s lighting a cigarette or a – oh, maybe it’s a joint? One for him and one for you.  Come visit him any time, he’s saying.”

Another pause as she listens.

“He’s saying say hello to his dad.  Did you trace him? My sense is – he seems to think you have more knowledge of his father than he does, although he’s saying in the spirit world he’s there as well, and there’s still distance between them.”

I wonder if I understand what he’s saying. I think I do. I think we had the same father, is what he’s saying. The same kind of man and the same kind of relationship. Except his father did end up with more sons, sons who worked with him in the mills, sons who saw the world the way their father did, who understood the world the way their father did.

“Thank you.  He says he’ll light a candle for you.  Reformation is always available to us, here and in the hereafter, those we pray for, he’s saying let the healing begin, he wasn’t someone who would champion himself, he’s thanking you for that, he’s showing me, ‘call me,’ indicating spirit communication.”

I leave Sarah and go to find Rose, at the Healing Temple, a nondescript  cinder block edifice like a small town VFW Hall.  It is a short walk.  The service is already in progress.  The congregation is standing and they are singing a hymn. I find my place next to Rose, I look at the page of the open book she is holding, that she is offering to share.  “GOD WILL TAKE CARE OF YOU,” is the title, words by Civilla Martin, music by W. Stillman Martin, 1904. They are on the second verse.

Oh, I wonder.  I wonder who is taking care of you.

It takes two of us, I realize. The thought comes like that: simple and clear in the silence. That I am not doing this on my own. I am here with Rose, I am here to listen, to speak to someone else, to be present for someone else.  I am not alone.  It takes two.

An interviewer and subject, a transmitter and receiver, a healer and patient; a connection established, believed in, an exchange of energy. The believing is critical, of course, and probably why studies of this sort of thing don’t work, a proper scientific investigation would uncover contamination, prejudice, a cross-over effect, the observer influencing the subject.  Which is exactly the point.  If you don’t believe, it won’t work.

What is art if not communication, the beholder and the work, the reader and the story teller, the musician and the listener.  Why am I surprised by that? Because I don’t want to believe? No, I believe, but I want to believe I will be better off on my own. I don’t want to connect. Because I don’t want to be reminded. Leave me alone, I think. Leave me alone, let me go.

But the Healing Temple service doesn’t leave me alone or let me go.  Members of the congregation are called and come to the front of the chapel to demonstrate the power of Spirit. “May I come to you?” they ask, each of them, to various members of the seated audience. Please let it not be me each time I think, not me, please.

And then it is. “A woman not your mother, to the side of your mother,” says a short one, a Ruth Gordon type shaking from side to side as if practicing a half-hearted epileptic fit for a stage production, not really having one but practicing, trying it out.  “A woman, older, an aunt?” she asks me, wringing her hands, wagging her head in rhythm. “She is coming down a staircase, she’s descending, she’s – de-boarding a plane, she’s waving, she’s wearing a hat and a fur coat and she says buy new luggage, you are going on a trip, you are free now, you can travel, I see a lot of books, shelves and shelves of books.”

Rose chuckles.

“Do you understand?” the medium asks, turning her attention to Rose, wringing her hands hopefully.

“I sure do,” says Rose with a tip of her head in my direction. “He’s got a lot of books.”

“Your friend understands,” says the medium to me, swaying from foot to foot.

I admit that I have a large library.

“You will be traveling soon,” says the medium.

“I’m traveling now,” I say.

“There’s more.  She’s telling me there’s more. I see a suitcase. She’s holding – it’s what we used to call a train case.” The medium holds up an invisible piece of luggage.  “She says, get ready. You’re free now.”

Free of what? I wonder.  I’m a criminal.

How do I get free of  that?

Lily Dale

Collection of the author

We arrive in Lily Dale in the afternoon, a week before Memorial Day which marks the beginning of the season, so we are early.  Having seen the films Rose sent me links to, of the crowds at the height of the season, I am glad.  We would have had a very different experience had we visited even a week later.  We would have been caught up in the midst of the tourists and what happened would have been muddied and muddled.  More muddled and less – how shall I say it? Less convincing.  In the off-season the rows of cottages, most dating from the turn of the last century or earlier, are empty, few residents have returned for the summer; the day is overcast, the air still heavy with spring, with lilacs, with a quiet damp greenness, the gravel and dirt streets with patches of asphalt settled and still, not about to rise up in summer dust underfoot. Lily Dale is a stage set before the show, before the audience arrives; it is a place undiscovered. Lily Dale, when Rose and I finally get there, out of season, reminds me of the stories I read as a child about a lakeside community that went away and was found again by children, a real but almost magical place that was lost and forgotten and rediscovered. Gone-Away Lake (1957) and Return to Gone-Away Lake (1961), a Victorian summer resort lost and forgotten when the lake receded and turned to swamp, and nature grew up and hid the gingerbread cottages from the outside world.

Lily Dale has a lake, not overtaken by cattails, empty of boats but gently agitated by the breeze. A duck family cruises the grassy shoreline; a gazebo sits poised for the view of a not so distant shoreline under an overcast sky. A couple clapboard hotels with broad porches (closed at the moment) wait for the season to begin.

Today the air in Los Angeles, gray from the morning marine layer, carries the same expectation, the same waiting.

Have I been here before? I wonder as we pull through the gate.  We are not far from another 19th century town on another lake – Chatauqua – where Mother and I did visit a number of times when I was young.  A religious community that gave its name to traveling religious revival gatherings in the early days of the last century.  Did she ever say, we’re so close, let’s go to Lily Dale? The memory grows slowly.  To go to Chatauqua means going to Mayville and Mayville is to Chatauqua as Cassadaga is to Lily Dale – they are the towns before the communities, the places you go to in order to reach the place you are going.  The Venn Diagrams of Village, Town and Township within the larger jurisdictions of counties in upstate New York are complicated. Change obscures original intent.  Cassadaga – the Seneca Indian word for “water under rocks” was founded at the headwaters of the Cassadaga Creek, originally navigable but no longer, thanks to beavers.  That said, a place becomes a place out of proximity.  Here we will settle at the headwaters, or, here we will be with our fine view of the water beyond, the vista below.  And then – perhaps long enough after for everyone to settle and unpack – some errant outlier, some adventurous member of the party says, let’s get closer, and moves to the water’s edge.  It is always this way with people when it comes to water: one group goes for distance, for view, and one group goes close.  Going close, of course, comes with risks: the water rises and you are gone beneath; the water recedes and you are forgotten. The lake is gone-away and so are you.

The village of Mayville, founded in 1804, is more impressive than Cassadaga, truth be told, and commands a picturesque view of the lake beyond. The broad avenue descends majestically to the lake below and was laid out with ambition, the older homes set back dramatically in anticipation of some imagined grand boulevard that never materialized, the rolling lawns now embracing spindly sidewalks and a street that seems to have been allotted much more room than it needs.  The effect suggests a distortion in Time: are we looking at Before or After? Is this open space a sign to archaeologists, like a change in vegetation in a satellite photograph, of all that remains of a once-thriving, ancient metropolis, the thoroughfare an enticing shadow in the landscape, a path cut by Man and reclaimed by Nature, a long-ago piece of Roman road built by soldiers and slaves and crowded with chariots and carts and horses and wagons and thieves and armies and a Lost Tribe? Or the reverse: a bold vision of city planners of a future that never happened?

Everywhere we go on this trip, we are confronted with the matter of scale. The reverse of Hollywood, where everyone is so much shorter and smaller than you imagine, here everything seems bigger than the pictures, bigger than necessary.  Signs for town limits appear in open countryside, miles before any evidence of civilization or a crossroads with a gas station even.  Broad streets for no reason.  Massive Masonic temples (for sale, cheap). Imposing mansions behind the gas station when you do find one.  Scale too big for today, for us, partly because we are traveling by Subaru instead of horse or train or on foot.  Mode of transportation changes everything.  Technology and Time alter the relationship between us and the world, between man and landscape: we are moving faster and riding lower to the ground than anyone did in 1804. Or in 1879 when Lily Dale was incorporated as Cassadaga Lake Free Association, a camp and meeting place for Spiritualists and Freethinkers. Or in 1903 when the name was changed to The City of Light and finally to Lily Dale Assembly in 1906.

Or in 1904.

Happy Anniversary

Treasures from my recent travels

Ten years since 1904: The Year Everything Important Happened began and here we are, over a thousand posts later, and 3 household moves, and 3 trips abroad (several more if you count Canada and Mexico), 3 books privately printed, a play written and performed, a couple screenplays, a decade worth of birthdays, a few weddings (none my own), a few funerals (ditto), several other milestones thrown in, and 113 years since 1904 itself.

It’s been an interesting ride.

Lately I’ve taken to archiving the old posts.  I’m afraid they have not all stood the test of time nor the transfer from one platform to another: pictures lost, text corrupted, formatting spoilt. They’re gone now, although not entirely forgotten. They say nothing truly disappears from the Web, and there are time machines; still, not everything is worth saving.  With the nudge of a pressing deadline, however, and a certain amount of fatigue (read: laziness), I have decided to renew the current hosting site for one more year.  It takes time to dismantle anything, even a blog.

I have continued to write, of course.  It’s a bad habit and almost certainly not good for me but as I’ve given up most of the other bad habits I’ve spent my life acquiring, at this point writing is pretty much all I’ve got left.

The current project in which I’m deeply engaged is one I care about a great deal, consequently I’m putting real effort into it. I know there are people who do their very best all the time; I’m not one of them and don’t.  Not here at any rate, and not elsewhere, and certainly not all the time.

Sometimes, though, I’m willing to make the effort.  Or more truthfully, sometimes I  wake up and find myself already in the fray, battling my demons, throwing down with doubt, punching out reluctance, thrashing through the dark unphased by whip of thorny branch or scratch of clutching claw, exulting when I reach a clearing and stumble upon the next right word like a bright shiny glint of truth in the trampled underbrush.  In such moments, thus encouraged, I pause to wipe at the sweat and the mud and admire my find, and I wonder what I could ever have worried about, and I chide myself for thinking I should stop or give up, and I go on my way, rejoicing.

Bloomsday

Jerry

PAUL CADMUS (1904 – 1988) Jerry.  Oil on canvas, 1931, 20 x 24 in. Toledo Museum of Art

Throw-Back Thursday

In ancient times, in another life, at work on an IBM Selectric with its trademarked changeable balls of font, the infernal machine and bottle of Makers Mark cropped from the photograph, circa 1984.

It has been said that in my heyday I was an enticing letter writer, and they were almost never typed.  Scouting about for some analogy to this blogging phenomenon (Is it epistolatory in nature?  Will it catch on?) I found myself trying to explain to a friend who never does social media why people do (blog).  “I suppose there’s a charm to it,” he wrote back, “but it is hard for me [an academic – Ed. note] since I am used to historical and cultural and textual specificity, to figure out what is at stake in the generalized literacy of these exchanges.”

“It’s like cocktail conversation,” I replied somewhat unhelpfully, “except you don’t have to dress up and it’s typed instead of uttered with a drink in hand.”  Come to think of it, I reflected, there could well BE a drink in hand in some cases.  One-handed typing, that is, which would suggest another kind of on-line entertainment altogether and about which I ardently hoped my academic friend was unaware.

“So this explains the curiously hip and worldly-wise tone you seem to adopt?” he inquired.

“I admit,” I wrote back only slightly defensively,  “there might be an element of flirtation.”  I could have expanded on the subject but restrained myself.  One’s audience is so unpredictable and unknowable, I explained.  “We work in the dark,” I wrote, fond of the phrase.

“You don’t know who you’re corresponding with?” he asked.

Yes and No, I confessed, half-lying.

“You feel isolated,” he remarked.

“It’s not quite like that,” I countered, as if I were caught out writing to Miss Lonelyhearts.  I thought of my father and men like him with their ham radio set-ups in basement rooms across the Midwest, excited about making contact with some stranger in another state on a clear night.  Or truckers talking to each other on CB radios as they roared along some endless anonymous stretch of interstate.

“What interests me,” my friend continued, “is the relation between the isolation and the self-presentation.  Are people obsessed with self-presentation because they’re so isolated?  Or is isolation an effect of the emphasis on self-presentation?  I tend to think the latter.  It’s hard to sustain a controlled play of surfaces in a social milieu.  Just like real bodies don’t stay put the way pornographic images do.”

I agreed, for the sake of the argument.

But really, it’s ham radio, I wanted to reply.  With pictures. For strangers.  Not like letters (if you have any of mine, please burn them).

Or maybe my friend is right.  It’s a game of self-presentation.  Dear Reader, I could be an elderly Dutch woman on my grandson’s MAC for all you know.  I could be working for “To Catch a Predator.” I could be anyone.

I could be someone you know.

[Originally posted 11/13/2007]

Stone Canyon. First Draft. Chapter One

Valley of the Dolls, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1967

You’ve got to climb to the top of Mount Everest to get to Stone Canyon.  It’s a brutal climb and.

When did I get, where did I
How was I caught in this game

By the pool at the house in Stone Canyon, in the California sun, the endless relentless California sun, the pool, the water spanking the tiles in lazy little slaps of…

No

No?

There was no pool.

No pool.

And no drama.  Not like your lady novelists would have you believe.

I see. And what should I believe?

Silence.  Then

Eddie showed up at the theater one night, if you must know, backstage, looking for a “friend.”

How did he know to do that?

You need to ask? Hanging around Pershing Square is generally where you’d find boys like him in those days, looking for work or pretending to work “delivering telegrams” – Run an errand for you, sir? Somepun you’d like I could do fer you, sir? they’d say, no chance of a decent life and what could I say to that, doing well after all, all those years, always kept working as you know, as you’ve found, buying my first home and think of it at my age – not my first actually, there was that property on Long Island but that had been another time, sold to pay for, well, another world ago… in any case, give the boy a chance and why not, what did he have, what did any of them have, could have easily been me or how many of the rest of us, cast off by family, thrown away, riding the rails, sneaking their way onto trains that had once upon a time brought theater to godforsaken towns and now what, brought the godforsaken too, orphans, lost boys and aimless men shaken by the war, by banks closing and fortunes failing, hope runs deep as any desire, you cross an ocean or a continent in the end it’s the same, lured by stories of endless sunshine and oranges free for the picking – hunger the great motivation, hungry enough and you’ll do anything, say anything, trust me, whatever it takes.  Try the cinnamon buns, they used to be divine.

Deed of Trust

Manory’s, Troy, NY

I needed Rose.  She kept me focused, although she’d probably argue that focus had nothing to do with it and that what I needed, as Mame once advised Miss Gooch, was to Live.  Or something else; since she’d become a lawyer after being an actress she’d argue about anything.  I liked Rose’s version of me, however; in Rose’s world I was a better person than I gave myself credit for being. To Rose, I was going to write a new chapter in the history of American Theater and if I worked hard and took her advice I would wind up with a best-seller as good as anything by the two Jackie’s (Susann and Collins). Move over, Valley of the Dolls.  Look out, Hollywood Husbands.

She even had the title.  Stone Canyon.  She’d found it in the 1940 census, the name of the street William had lived on in Sherman Oaks from 1935 until after the War when he’d gone back to Troy to live with his sister.  Rose had insisted I do a title-search, confirm all the details.  It wouldn’t be easy, she warned.  “You’ll have to go to the County Records office,” she explained. “You’ll have to do a little leg work, some digging, real research, but it makes a difference whether William owned or was just renting in which case renting from whom? It goes to his financial situation at the time, you see, his state of mind, and don’t forget you need to find out more about that young lodger of his, not sure how you’ll find him.”

A friend of mine with a realtor’s license did all the work.

“It’s interesting,” I told Rose, “because now I know that both William and I owned property in Los Angeles, not at the same time obviously but still, and we both had people live with us, maybe not in quite the same way, I mean, I don’t know what the relationship could have been, Edward Rogers was 18 years old in 1935 and William was 65 when he bought the house from the Title Insurance and Trust Company, so that’s quite an age gap, and then William sold the house to Ruth Rickaby at the end of 1944, Ruth was an actress – I looked her up on IMDB, she was in ‘Smilin’ Through’ with Jeanette MacDonald – ”

“He transferred the Deed of Trust to Ruth,” Rose interrupted, scanning the paperwork, “a deed of trust is a type of secured real-estate transaction used in some states like California (trace of disparaging tone) instead of a mortgage, it involves three parties, a lender, a borrower and a trustee whereas with a mortgage it’s just you and the bank so two parties and thus the mortgage you had on that condo in West Hollywood which I never saw made you more of a home owner than William was with his deed of trust, strictly speaking, less parties involved but let’s not quibble, and yes you need to find out more about young Eddie -”

“I invited you to visit, Rose, I’m certain I did, but -”

“- it’s very Don Bachardy and Christopher Isherwood, isn’t it,” Rose mused without hearing me, “I wonder if they socialized with William and Eddie, look that up too, and of course James Whale was out there and he had a young man and good grief what is it with old Englishmen and teenaged boys – ”

“William was Irish, so technically -”

“- I suppose it was the only time in their lives they were happy,” Rose continued, “spanked by the Headmaster with a cricket bat, or maybe it was all that California sun went to their heads, or being too far away from home, in any case it’s still a great name for a novel, and you should put a scene like that in your book.”

“Not with a cricket bat surely, ” I asked.

“By the pool.”

“I don’t believe the house had a pool.”

“Add one.  Literary license.”

“But really, Rose, I don’t know – maybe it wasn’t just the two of them. There could have been someone else, a third party,” I suggested. “You know, more like a deed of trust than a mortgage, right?”

Rose hesitated for a moment as if trying to grasp what I had in mind, then shook off the attempt and continued.  “Stone Canyon,” she recited slowly, savoring the words. “I must say it has a nice ring,  winding canyon roads and cannabis, hello, ‘Stoned in Stone Canyon,’ who do you have in mind for playing William in the film version – oh wait, you know what, never mind.” Rose leapt up abruptly, cutting herself off and commencing a ritual flurry of activities – searching for keys, closing windows – which signaled an imminent departure.  “Let’s go find him.”

“Find who?”

“William.  You said he’s not here, let’s go find him.  I say we try Manory’s.”

“Where?”

“The oldest restaurant in Troy.  Well, one of the oldest at any rate.  In continuous operation since 1913, I bet the place is simply teaming with ghosts and I’m sure William knows it and they have the best breakfast special this side of the Catskills.”

Ghosts

Laura La Plante (1904-1996), still from the silent film “The Cat and the Canary” 1927.  William Macauley was a member of the cast of the stage production which ran for 36 weeks at the Princess Theatre, Chicago, 1923.

“You’re possessed,” Rose announced.

“I am no such thing,” I replied, more than a little defensively.

“Well I just had the carpets shampooed so if you’re going to do Linda Blair, I need to put down some towels, I  don’t want Campbell’s split pea soup vomited all over the – ”

“I am not possessed.”

“Fine, I don’t know where I’d find a priest anyway, at least one that hasn’t been defrocked and I doubt any of the ones I do know would be of much help… unless you talk dirty to them, then you might – I have to admit, I would rather enjoy seeing your head spin around – ”

“Rose, really.”

“I’m not helping, am I? Oh I should never have given you that little theater diary, I feel I’m responsible for all of this, no wonder you blame me.”

“No, that’s not true, and I don’t blame you at all, it was quite helpful actually.  It’s not William – I can handle William, lots of writers hear voices – look at Taylor Caldwell, Ruth Montgomery.”

“I don’t know them.  You don’t blame me?”

“They were writers, they channeled people from – the deceased, look it doesn’t matter, I don’t blame you.”

“Then I don’t see what the problem is.  Unless of course it’s that demon Mountie from Hell who did the strip search and frankly in my book it would be worth the trip just to – ”

“It wasn’t like that, and he’s not from Hell, or, I don’t think he is, I think he works for the government.”

“Not the Canadian government surely.”

“I don’t know, some government, or some black op, some dark money group that hunts down time travelers.”

“Oh dear, please tell me you’re not trying to go back and save JFK or kill Hitler, are you? Because even I know that never works out.”

“No, Rose,” I answered wearily.  “I’m not trying to do that.”

“Completely pointless.”

“I agree.”

“Good.”

I had no intention of changing the world. Not on that scale, at any rate, and I felt it prudent not at this point to elaborate.

“Can you go to the future?” she asked.

“Rose, I don’t know, I told you, I’m not very good at this, I may have once, I’m not sure.”

“I’m only asking because if you could and, just a suggestion you know, but if you could and you went and picked us up some winning lottery ticket numbers I feel certain it would help make whatever you’re going through a little easier to – what?”

“That’s not how it works.”

“How do you know? You just said you didn’t know how it works.”

I knew one thing: I had to end the discussion before it really got out of hand.  I stood up.

“Wait,” said Rose.  “Let me talk to William. Is he here? Let me talk to him.”  She scanned the empty room expectantly.

“He’s not here,” I lied.

Oh Canada

Montréal 1904. Marché Bonsecours >Ouest.

I’d forgotten to turn on international usage, so my phone stopped working when I entered Canada, as I discovered after I’d left the border patrol office and the mapping app went blank, the US highway ending in a little stump, nothing but barren wasteland on the screen.  Oh well, I thought, it’s a straight shot and how hard could it be to navigate my way through Montreal?  Quite hard, I realized too late, in a city where nearly all the streets and roads were under reconstruction and repair, the countless detours and closures and gridlock at every turn exacerbated by the death-defying antics of the Quebecois driver whose license plate’s motto je me souviens (“I remember”) clearly applied to nothing ever learned in driving school. Worse, like so many cities with major geographical features, the mountain and river had become, with urban expansion and sprawl, major obstacles.  How to get around, over, across, on the other side. Raison d’etre now raison détour. Physical barriers turn into mental ones. The means of crossing over, of overcoming, are transformed into terms of disparagement (Bridge and Tunnel Crowd) for those on the wrong side of the tracks, the wrong side of town, Outremont (outré le mont, beyond Mont Royal, beyond the mountain).  Beyond the Pale (the River Pale). Valley Girl.

My Canadian friends, once I’d finally arrived, apologized, then theorized.  A month before the US presidential election, they offered, surely I could appreciate the need for caution and concern; already reliable news sources reported a significant rise in the numbers of Americans seeking political asylum. If the wrong candidate won, the country would soon be overwhelmed with would-be expats. And in the meantime did I know how many people tried crossing the border for cheap drugs and free health care?  “I’m not sick,” I countered.  “Do I look sick? Do I look like a political refugee? A fugitive?” I changed the subject. My Canadian friends were far too polite to tell me even if I did, and I didn’t want to consider, much less disclose, a darker meaning to my detention.

Later in the evening, after dinner and conversation and retiring for the night to their son’s room – made up for my visit as guest room while the young man was away at college – I turned out the light and wondered if William had ever been to Montreal.  The instant the question formed in my mind, a gleeful head-spinning curiosity, not my own, took over with an impetuous urge to explore. “Don’t you dare,” I warned the empty room, but I could feel the giggling delight in examining the detritus of youth around me, the model ships and planes and athletic gear to be touched and toyed with, drawers mentally opened and closed while my displeasure only heightened my ghostly companion’s guilty pleasure.  “Boy, oh boy, a boy, a boy, oh boy,” he murmured in awe of the retro down comforter covered with cowboys and horses.

“Stop it at once,” I commanded. I focused my mind on more serious images of earlier in the day. In turn I fought competing visions of earlier times, of the boyhood of the absent occupant of the darkened room in which I lay, and then other scenes, memories of this city, this place, my own youth followed by William’s youth, his earliest memories of Ireland, of Troy, until our memories merged, overlapped, skinny awkward boys in hand-me-down clothes and bad haircuts, scared and aware of the adult world fast approaching like a speeding train, a bad dream for which we were so woefully unprepared, defenseless.

“Stop it please,” I begged.

“Go back,” he replied.  “Go back.”  And I knew he did not mean a return to where I’d physically come, not in a geographical way but back in time. I couldn’t.

“I’ll go back,” I said, a false promise in order to buy time, to placate.  “But not now. I can’t. I can’t do this now.”

The disappointment registered like a heaviness in the air, a fullness followed by a rise and dropping of a weight in the pit of my stomach as you might expect with a change in cabin pressure on a plane, or as if lying in a narrow berth on a ship and riding the deep gully of a wave. A sinking of the heart. The room grew still.  Eventually I slept.

In the middle of the night I woke and wrote blindly, seeing the pen form words not my own in my mind more than in the unreadable darkness.  In the morning it began to rain.  A heavy rain that kept pace with my drive south where I’d come from, across the border, without incident this time.  Back to Troy.  Back to William’s boyhood town.

What I found written that morning:

There are times when the world sorts itself out and you are part of that, part of the process of resolving, correcting, recalibrating, realigning.  Stop resisting.  Stop saying “shouldn’t” or “can’t” or “that’s not for me.”  How do you know?  A single drop of rain doesn’t say, “I can’t fall here, I am supposed to be somewhere else.” It does what it knows to do; it falls, it adds to, it increases the flow precisely where it was created, and the consciousness of that single raindrop – for consciousness exists in everything, every cell, molecule, atom – the consciousness of even a drop of rain rejoices, in its being, in its existence, in its place in the world.

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