THE PRINCESS FROM TESSERAE

In the summer of ’69 I was driving a cab in Manhattan, from about 6 pm to about 4 in the morning. I averaged about 200 miles in a shift, about the distance from Queens to Woodstock. Often my right knee would ache from the stop and go traffic of the city. Few new Yorkers knew that there was continual “warfare” between the city busses and the cabbies, blocking one another, cutting across. The origin of that I did not know until I became enmeshed in the crossfire. It was a “secret” like bus drivers hitting their air brakes, snort snort, if a big assed or big titted woman walked in front of them. It took me some time to realize what that was about. The women, I believe, for the most part, were oblivious to the mechanical leering.

At night the city is blasted by glaring neon and the air is congested with soot, boiled over, like dry espresso, bitter to the smell. When early dawn hit during the summer and I went back to Queens over the Williamsburg Bridge, I felt refreshed in my Humvee, for driving a cab in the city is like driving in Iraq during hostilities. I was dressed simply every night, jeans, a t-shirt, sneakers and next to my side upfront was a cigar box to hold change and my coin changer as well. I relied on a map book which gave all the avenues and exits on and ramps off the Eastside and Westside highways; I counted on my little blue Baedecker to get across the transverses in Central Park, west side to east side, visa versa. If you missed a transverse, you headed uptown and that meant Harlem – and fear to the passengers. In London I’ve been informed that a cab driver is a lifelong occupation and one must pass rigorous tests to be given a license. In New York, after studying a while, I took a very simple test/quiz mostly about major avenues and streets and stations, such as Grand Central and Pennsylvania Station. Some cabbies went in on a mortgage and bought a medallion which was affixed to the hood. A medallion might guarantee you a business, although you always ran the risk of being held up, which I was, gun pointed to the back of my head. I recall in the Fifties it was a relatively safe business to own a cab, but that had changed by the time I began driving.

Once my cab was hit from behind and the woman passenger had her face and especially chin thrown against the passenger side. I called, quite upset, to relate the details to the dispatcher (a lower form of Danny DeVito in “Taxi”) and a possible injury to the woman, and the dispatcher’s first words to me were, “Is the cab all right?” After that, I knew my place in the pecking order. I was in a post-apocalyptic world.

I drove a pattern like most cabbies. I chose a safe one, the upper east or west side. I’d go down five or ten blocks, turn right or left, and go uptown, so that I was doing a rectangular or square grid. At times I’d pick up a fare that wanted to go to LaGuardia or Kennedy which was a break from the routine. The cabbie is always looking for a return fare back to the city and sometimes I would get that. No one wanted to be pulled into Brooklyn. I didn’t mind Queens because it was my hunting ground. If I had to piss that could be handled well, but if a cabbie had to shit, that was another story as New York had scarce facilities – still does! — for that and if you found one, it was much like the men’s room in a one pump Texaco station on Route 66. Often I would just scoot over the Williamsburg Bridge to my apartment and relieve myself in familiar and hygienic surroundings.

As a cab driver there is much freedom. If you drove five hours instead of ten, if you took off time to see a movie, some did, or ate out for an hour or two, this was fine with the dispatcher as long as you brought in what was considered a night’s “take” in the cab. Serendipitously I learned how to master the streets and avenues of New York, such stuff as Broadway being an “S” shaped street and one you simply had to master and the other being, for example, Fifth Avenue. All streets East of Fifth Avenue were counted in one way, all streets west of Fifth ran another way. With that in mind and on foot or in a cab, any address given you by a fare could be figured out, long before the GPS. Until this day when I visit the city I get a kick out of my mastery of the streets, Minetta Lane, being the smallest street in all of Manhattan, in case you like such trivia. As to the subway system, that is much too arcane for me.

One muggy night, all windows opened, I don’t think I had air conditioning at that time, in August, I was cruising my grid, which at that time began at Central Park South with the famed Plaza Hotel at a corner. On 59th Street the famed Ruebens restaurant was situated and the creator of the Reuben sandwich, which is to die for. Uptown avenues had several Greek restaurants of renown. It was here that I picked up the “Princess.” I didn’t realize it at the time but she had been drinking and was somewhat tipsy. I believe I opened the door for her, given her condition, and she fell into the back seat, and the back seat in the old Checker cabs was really big, often with two additional seats that had to be pulled down to occupy. Like all cabbies, we wanted to get the fare in and the fare out as soon as possible; time was crucial to make a night’s living.

When I asked her to tell me where she wanted to be dropped off, she replied, ”Milch. I vant milch.” I knew then it was not going to be an easy fare – or night. And what was more disturbing was that the “princess” wanted “milch” from a Greek restaurant. And so I began to cruise for Greek restaurants; I would double park and go in and often they didn’t have milk. Whatever I recall from this adventure was that three restaurants in a row were out of cow juice. And when I reported this to her she became slightly surly and expressed her European annoyance at my failure to find her milk. I was dealing with resistance, she just wouldn’t get out of the cab.

So with my Greek princess in the back I just drove around until she made up her mind as what she wanted to do next. I was fit to be tied. Clearly she didn’t want to get out of the cab, and she reminded me of a Gatsby-esque floozy on a tear. At last, probably out of some sense and sensibility, she asked me to drive over to Reubens, a few blocks off.  As I came to the restaurant and parked, she leaned over to talk to me. “I am sorry for all this. Let me treat you to a meal.” For some reason which was later justified, I felt her to be a sad woman.

“You don’t have to do that, just pay the fare.”

“But I insist. I took you away from your job.”

I relented. I double-parked the car and was wearing by now a sweat-ridden t-shirt and jeans that felt like humid clouds about my legs. When she stepped out of the cab, I had my first real look at her, and it was striking. She was blond and bore an uncanny resemblance to Melina Mercouri. Even standing still, she had a flamboyance to her, a flair. Dressed in a lovely silken dress, a kind of European sari if you will, in the early light of city’s dawn it glistened, and I thought of Gustav Klimt’s women.

So slob with coin changer on his belt and a Greek Princess went into Reuben’s. Two waiters with cloths draped over their arms stood there and I quickly observed how they thought they had sized us up, cab driver gigolo with naïve European woman. When we were seated they asked me what I wanted and since I was not eating well because of a lack of funds, I ordered a steak with a side. And it is here that the princess made a dramatic faux pas. Raising her hand and then the other she clapped both her hands as if a flamenco dancer and said very loudly, “Vaiter, I vant milch.”

I knew that was a majestic error in a Jewish restaurant and with these two Jewish waiters. Before my steak arrived, her milk arrived. It took everything not to break out laughing. Her milk was delivered in a small carton with a straw on a saucer. She did not know what was going on, but the fuck you was sublimely delivered by my kinsman.

Recalling our conversation it was mostly about her life with her husband who was some kind of aristocrat in Greece; that she was her on a trip by herself; that not everything was honky dory in their relationship; and above all, I could feel she was pained by being so alone and that I had served as her reluctant comrade for a crazy hour or so, about the amount of time it would take to get to the Tappan Bridge on the way to Woodstock. I do recall she wore on her finger a very large gemstone, opalescent, perhaps a moonstone set in rose gold. It bespoke of money and I have not seen its kind since. So I felt I was in the presence of considerable wealth. Returning to the cab I brought her back to the Plaza as the sun was coming up. She paid the fare, smiled at me and left the cab and walked through the brass doors of the side entrance to the Plaza.

Then she turned about, her dress in a swirl and walked back out again. I was watching all this and looked in the back seat in case she left her purse. She put her head to the window and softly said to me, “756.7856.”And she walked back.

When I have told this story to others, the follow up question is always asked: “Did you call her, the princess?”
I have no reply to give.

 

 

Existence Is a Vast Blunder

 

                       

                                               EXISTENCE IS A VAST BLUNDER. I’M OK WITH THAT.           

 I remember the fallen giant hulk of a tree from a hurricane and how we scampered and crawled across that druidic, earth-smelling thing before chainsaws were common. It was cut down by hand, and we had days to be with it. I recall how time was less hurried, how before TV I went to the library or busied myself with all kinds of things to do, like playing with a cap gun. I had no idea I was in a troubled family or that we were poor or lower (very lower) middle class. I lived an existence as a child, as I look back, that had no intentionality to it. What I am feeling is that what I knew of my limited world was fed to me in pieces, tesserae, haphazardly at that, and I had no inner apparatus to make feeling or sense of it. The Era of Benign Neglect was forming. Moreover, I feel I was left to my own devices and not engaged – all model making I did alone. And so years later, as I see it, self-sufficiency became a defense I devised to defend against my feeling of being bereft – as well as empty.

Even the cold moon is given the dignity of being bombarded by meteors. I cannot recall any craters made by mother and father. I grew up in a postwar period in which the shock of the death camps was not yet metabolized, nor the term “Holocaust” common to all. Similarly, I grew up stunned, without knowledge of this, that is, who I was. I was not acted upon. The lowly pebble in a stream experiences abrasions. I associate to those awful suburban homes of yore that have a fiberglass doe on their lawns or a few ducks, cut-out figures trying to give the illusion of forest creatures. I imagine myself cut-out from a child’s play book with a tab at the bottom of my feet. Press tab back and set on table. I was a “model” son. When you are numb, you create no fuss…much ado about nothing.

The thread that runs through all these shards is that essentially I was a kind of puppet essentially manipulated by older puppets, but puppets themselves. I cannot attribute malice to them, for they were so deadly conditioned as souls.

As a child I liked Al Jolson. Once I had “performed” in front of my grandmother, uncles and aunts, lip synching from the blue phonograph as Jolson warbled “April Showers.” I remember – at, 7, 8, or 9 – having my father blacken cork by burning it, then coloring my face so I’d sing in blackface – my relatives, on my father’s side had been grade C performers in Vaudeville.  I was given a top hat and other paraphernalia and I went into the living room and did 15 minutes of Charlie McCarthy. I cringe at what I was subjected to. At the time it was very normal and I probably liked it. You should have seen my Gene Kelly. Whew!

It was as if a monstrous hand reached beneath my shirt and installed itself into my back and broke through the musculature until it grabbed my heart and associated organs and manipulated my being, as I moved arms, legs, mouth and torso at the behest of a violent intruder.

I am convinced that I was invaded before 5 or 6 so that before the end of the first decade of life I had been soul murdered.

I lived a marionette’s existence. Any time I felt, questioned or moved toward less numbness, my nose grew and my penis shortened.

I am well aware of how I was shut down and I am still working on moving out like a turtle, away from that horror to what Hemingway called, “A clean, well-lighted place.”

I ransack my past, especially my two summers in Woodstock, for each morsel of freedom attained. Woodstock, for me, is time. There is a compelling gravity to the past and it holds us in trance largely because it is known. I could return right now to the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn, get off at Coney Island Avenue, go up to Brighton Beach Avenue, now Little Odessa, hang a left and then turn into Brighton 2nd Street. I’d walk this rectangular block 62 years ago that had an open lot cut into it, like the gap between two front teeth, now congested with solid brick and ill-humored homes. There were varied walkways, byways and lanes that I still vividly recall. I remember a fascinating pussy willow tree that heralded the beginning of a short lane. Decades ago I returned to browse through its memorabilia only to return home in a confused stated, as if I had not gone home again. I look back now and I am not sure if I actually made that journey, a kind of fugue state. I am feeling I would like to go home again, although the attraction is really to touch home base, secure the run.

All my past is like LePage’s glue, the rubber-nippled bottle of my childhood that I figuratively nursed on. The past is not necessarily good or safe, select an adjective, but it has familiarity, security and most of all, constancy. A rare quality of “thereness” suffuses the past, which is probably much more intense than the life we live now in the present. To secure constancy in the present is to be free, as Krishnamurti said, from the known.

Surprise Lake Camp

In 1952 I went to Surprise Lake Camp for two weeks. It was in Cold Springs, New York. It would prove a memorable moment in my life. No clocks were allowed, and the time was never given to the campers, for some camp wizard knew the wisdom of durational time. You rose and went to mess for breakfast – I had the best tasting hot chocolate served in metal carafes I have ever had before or since. It was brewed to perfection. One event after another kept us busy but not in a mechanical way. The sunset and the sky gradually darkened and this was the sweet part of the day, dusk – my favorite time when our earth calls for silence, pause and reflection for the day granted to us and for our living it well. This is all earth asks of us – and to pick up the wrappers from McDonald’s.

I lived a rich life in those endless two weeks. Time was duration. The 14 days seemed so expansive in living and so crammed with incident that I have always felt that they went on for months. I handled first separation from home well, for I had apparently mastered unwittingly separation at home. To be away at camp, I surmise, was no different than being away inwardly from my parents at home. However, my parents gave me a wonderful gift and I owe them a large measure of gratitude. They did their best. I give them that. I wonder what my children will say about me when the time comes, a daughter who is estranged from me and I have not seen her for 12 years and a son who plays Cheshire cat with me, fades in, fades out.

Two sharp recollections are indicative of who I was. We lived in summer bungalows with screens and cots, primitive things. During a free moment, I sat down with a piece of onionskin paper and a pencil and I drew the bungalow. In a rare moment of awareness I knew I wanted to have tangible evidence of what I was experiencing, a new memory. T sketched in the soggy magazine perched on the shingled roof, its pages exposed. I still have the drawing, now 62 years old. Is this my “Rosebud”?

I always liked to draw. I liked art. But I was not good at it. I was a copier (so apt), not original. I was obsessive so I was neat, but I copied well. As I see the 12-year-old boy I was then, I ache for him – oh, not from pity! I ache, rather, I mourn the lost potential. You see I was – even then, the recorder, not yet the observer and least of all the actor. I wanted to keep that bungalow in memory for the rest of my life – and I have. Here, 62 years later, I honor my intent. I do justice to who I was, dimly aware and sentimental boy. Again I took in and swallowed, in a happier moment for me, a joy I lived. I like that boy. You see I was a good boy. I have to explain that. Good in that I was without malice; good in that I meant well, oh how I innocently meant well; good in that I just wanted to be shown, to learn, to be taught; good in that I could act with encouragement, rarely given; good in that I could do remarkable things if I was held, and ennobled. I am still good, but a prickly personality, a consequence, I imagine, for not having had my goodness recognized.

The second recollection involved Carl Yuni, my counselor. He was 25 then, long since gone by now. I have never written down his name. I don’t have to. It is a hidden tattoo in my good memory bank.

Surprise Lake is not unlike Kane’s sled. Did I ever really go there and walk its woodsy paths and go down lakeside and look for crayfish? Did I ever love Carl Yuni who represented what a brother or a loving adult might be like? Did I ever have a fight and make my own bed so tight that I could bounce a quarter off it, and hear my very first dirty joke and learn about sex, which to my ears was an abomination? I feel, as I write about Surprise Lake, that it never happened (but it did, I tell myself). So long ago and I was so unknowing. I was not alive, but living. Cognizance lay ahead. Much pain and agony lay ahead as well. My mother would die 8 years later in 1960, the day the earth stood still.

One day Carl and the group went down the paths leading to the lake, the umbilicus of camp activity. I could not swim but Carl, sensing my fears, encouraged me. Not exactly. He removed the pressure that I had to swim with the others. He let me be. I liked him for that – the stallion taking an apple from a gentle, stroking hand. As we almost reached the shoreline, Carl said something to me which I can only approximate here — I wasn’t sure if he was serious or not (trust, again!). I now believe he was. In effect, as we all scrambled over the pine needles and logs embedded in the dank earth to serve as steps, he said: “You’re really a great kid, Matty.”

I had never heard that in my life. In twelve years I had heard compliments, mostly about my hazel eyes and long eyelashes – narcissistic trash and not good for a young child to hear. Carl’s offhand, unsolicited comment, as I look back, made me feel good – that word again. I cannot recall ever hearing anything like that at home, Carl gave me his blessing, and I am indebted. It would be many, many years before I would be rewarded like this with words. And it would be Rochelle, who also gave me her blessing. In between, I nursed on barbed wire.

Maybe I write because it is in the word that we find our worth, we become. And with his few words, Carl Yuni gave me a lifelong truth that only now I can take in whole without fear of spitting up. I was a good person. I only needed time, love and trust and my hand would have reached out and touched the face of God.

When I allow myself to feel it, to bunk next to it, I sense an unremitting sadness, a pining. For the boy who couldn’t ask and who didn’t know, that all he needed was to be seeded and his fallowness would come to an end. I was a good boy then, and I wouldn’t mind hearing that today.

 

 

 

Characters and Places — Tesserae

During my summers at Woodstock I met some interesting characters, went to some interesting places. What made them characters was that they were different from the usual people I had met and often they were artists. Someone wrote that the neurotic is a failed artist, that is, this very day, he wishes to accomplish in the moment everything he wishes or dreams to attain but because of his neurosis he fails at attainment or achievement. So the neurotic fails. The neurotic could very well be an artist if he chose to, but he cannot. I have also observed that people envy artists, as if they have their days off, futzing with paints and canvases, sculpting clay, chiseling and taking inordinate amounts of time off.  A dislike of a man or woman at play.

What is envied is the durational time the artists lives in, for him there is no night and day, for him it is whether or not his creation is moving along to completion, 24/7.I taught myself to write over the requisite 10,000 hours it takes to reach a level beyond competency. While I taught high school, I always wished to have the time to write all day. Well, it did come. It is called retirement. However, the authentic artist chooses early on and enters early his artistic path without waiting for retirement. Of course, if you are alive there is no such thing as retirement. You can’t retire from life unless you are mass man, conditioned  by a six-pack, sports, 401 Ks, Fuks News and all the other dreck of this materialistic society.

When I came across and indeed, experienced artistic characters during my twin summers, I learned how they lived their lives, how they might experience something of the world, and especially their freedom, or so it seemed, from the clockwork of American industry. They had fled the workplace. One painter once told me that he would rather starve than hold a part time job that would take him away from his art and I have no doubt that he came close to that at moments. It wasn’t until decades later that I uncomfortably but happily took on the title of author, artist, and wearing that hat has given one of the few great pleasures – and distinctions – of my life.

Clarence Schmidt was such a character.  He had become a pop icon in Woodstock, and so did the priest who lived in his wooden house made up of timbers with its chapel within and tapestries given to him by Marshal Field of Chicago. Or so he had told me. Schmidt was a sculptor and if you Google him all kinds of trivia comes up and basic facts. When I Google Schmidt or Zaidenburg I am simply filling in blank spaces, but at the time my experiences with them were conquistadorial, invading private spaces and undiscovered territories for the sheer self-serving needs I had, to experience the world and its inhabitants.

Schmidt “lived” on Ohayo Mountain somewhere in Woodstock and what I have found out is that from 1940 to 1972 he worked on erecting his home, “Miracle on the Mountain,” he named it. The house itself burned down in the winter of 1968 to 1969. I was told that it had covered an entire side of the mountain, that it had many levels and glass windows, and mirrors as well, for in the sunlight the total house flashed. When I first came upon it the house was in shambles, fit for Miss Havisham. He is now labeled by the art community as part of the found-art movement, and here we can think of the Watts Tower built by Sam Rodia, and parts of the buildings built by that Barcelonan genius, Antonin Gaudi. In the Sixties Schmidt was in a documentary about him which I have never seen, nor choose to, for he stands out beyond celluloid.

I was told about him by Hal and I decided to take a look. I was also told that the price of admission to his property was a six-pack of beer, so Woodstock. Unfortunately I was slow on the uptake and thought that a bottle of beer was sufficient; it proved not to be. Walking through the brush and spring time flowering saplings and scrub, I came upon a circular place that had been cleared. In this space was a “nest,” a kind of interlocking contraption that a child’s brilliant mind might devise. As I dimly think back I recall that beer bottles and beer cans elaborated themselves upon every surface of this house in orderly fashion. Indeed, I learned later that Schmidt slept in a casket-like part of his “nest.” So he had made another piece of found art to substitute for his destroyed masterpiece on Ohayo Mountain.

I gave him one bottle of beer (schmuck!) and he commented about my niggardliness which was apt. Schmidt had a long and scruffy beard and he was clothed in carpenter’s overalls. I asked if I could look around and he agreed. By this time everyone from down under flocked through Woodstock and perhaps he had tired of the notoriety. I had no idea what I was looking for, but I found it. As I browsed through many yards of trees and shrubbery, it hit me: Schmidt had broken off legs, arms, torsos, and faces of every imaginable kind of children’s doll and had painted them in a dull silver paint. I wouldn’t call it eerie; it was like a bad night in The Shining. I’d walk a foot or so and another grotesquerie popped into view, silvered and weathered. Schmidt apparently was a kind of Johnny Appleseed, seeding his woods with “art.” All was random and happenstance; it was a “happening,” to use the term coming into the American lexicon. It was not a Dantesque hell, but more of an outer expression of an inner artistic “disturbance.” I will not label it. I will not place it into some movement. It was Clarence Schmidt tip-toeing through the tulips with a sculptor’s palette. Certainly different, outré, I took it in without interpreting it, which was a better response than any other I could think of.

After my look-see I encountered Schmidt once again.

“Mr.Schmidt,” I said, “why did you paint everything silver in the woods?”
The question was as stupid as I could conceive at the time.

Gloweringly, he replied, “Why are you wearing that colored shirt? Why those pants?”

I slinked away as I should have. At that time, as I look back, I had no inner compass from which to determine direction.  I had no inner map from which to draw on with other human beings; I was bereft of a functioning inner directedness, ergo, my general stupidity for most of the Sixties.

 

Another character I had met was a catholic priest. His name escapes me after 46 years. Again someone suggested that I go meet the father on a nearby mountain. Woodstock was alive with connections, and hints of possible experiences. His home was on the left of the dirt road mid way up the hill. In the front was a wobbly wooden footbridge with hand rails that led slightly down to the front door. It was not a hovel, but nondescript in its functionality. I introduced myself to this old man, hair white, not gray, and we talked. I have no memories of what pleasantries we might have exchanged. Inside the house was a chapel with stained glass to the rear and roughly hewn  pews. The father made a point to say that several of the tapestries within were a gift from Marshal Field of Chicago. I did not ask nor do I now know if they were friends, but he was exceedingly proud of that gift, perhaps feeling that the tapestries gave an uniqueness to his Thoreauvian home.

For some reason young people came to see him, those on a quest, Joseph Campbell folk on a journey, the seekers, New Age Aquarians craving purpose if not intention, perhaps Iris if she knew of him. People visited the father for the wisdom or advice he gave them. I asked for neither. Both Schmidt and the good father must have relished the attention before it paled so that they became pop icons in the village. During the two summers I was there I brought up my lover and a summer girl friend to meet the priest. It reminds me of an old soldier bringing his family to see his valued battleground. I never did learn much from the priest but he was a kind soul and perhaps that was his appeal, for he made no deep impression upon me although I remember him as inoffensive with a soupcon of sweetness to him. In short, he was non-threatening to young people. I associate to the young people at that time needing a place to lay their heads down; the priest was the group lap.

About a decade later I went back to Woodstock with two psychotherapists who were partners in a counseling center way out in Hauppauge, Long Island. I worked there as a part time therapist from 1979 to 1982. For me the move into the 70s seemed an uninterrupted extension of the Sixties, at least for the first few years. I was readjusting to a different time and climate of opinion, Kent State was to follow. In a different way the times were changin’. The mood, as I experienced it, had dampened as if we as a nation took a very deep breath because we went through what John Updike labeled, “a slum of a decade.” Yes, it was a schizoid period, filled with ferment, but not Updike’s sour assessment

David, Steve and I camped out near Woodstock. I wanted to see if the good father was there, but I knew he was most likely dead. In my sturdy Nova we managed to get up the hill once more, although boulders smacked the undercarriage and transmission box, spitting out stone shrapnel. We made it. When we all crossed the now rickety and very old wood bridge all seemed to be in order, the home of a priestly recluse. It was February or a wintry month, I don’t recall, because there was more than a dusting of snow on the eaves, window ledges and the roof. The snow that passes “packing” is frozen hard, and had a slight bluish light to it from the refraction of sunlight.

Inside told me everything. The church had been abandoned. Windows were left open and the wind was strong. As we wandered about I reached the rear of the church and came into what must have been the father’s study. Books and bibles were strewn about in the rigid air. The back door had been blown back. The snow had blown in over time so that not a few of his books and errant papers became framed by the now itself, like a white hi-liter pointing out apt biblical passages. No one had seen to his personal effects. Oh, they buried the frail man but for some peculiar reason no care was expended, apparently, to his personal things. I thought that was grossly unkind and insensitive – still do. As to his prized tapestries I don’t know if they were there or had been retrieved. Like all of us, he had come and he had gone. Perhaps his most prized possessions remained in the minds of individuals he had encountered.

The abandoned church saddened me then, as it does now, for it was a metaphorical reminder of how my twin summers had come and gone. I felt somewhat sad but I was still inarticulate. I see it better now through the passage of time. The passing of anything or any person, the passing of such an intensely compacted, concentrated and passionate decade is cause for lamentation. The electrifying Sixties had waxed and waned. And although it had lost its electricity and had loosened its grip on me, its glow remained unrequited like a northern sky aurora. After this visit, I was no longer a “groupie.” I had changed. What had passed left an indelible and burnished array of associations in mind, memories and remembrances that have endured a life time, romantic that I am.

As romantic as my sensibilities are, I draw nurturance from the Sixties, my two summers especially. The Sixties lactated and I sucked. By the end of the 70s I had been thoroughly weaned. The adjustment, as with a young child, is difficult and necessary but, of course, we all get through it. I moved away from my transistional object and reached out to human beings, not things. However, mother’s milk stays with us for always, latently. We are immunized.

 

Now and then a place became a character, not realizing at the time that memory would cherish it in reflection.  As I drove outside of Woodstock, past Hal’s summer house, the woods thickened, and I left behind the scrub and flatness of the town and its outlying areas. So many streets, such as Tinker Street, fed into the main avenue; Woodstock reminds me of Greenwich Village, schizoid streets fractured here and there, dissociative strands of blocks. In Woodstock per se one backed into pleasures. So, I drove north but what did I know of directions, urban man?  What I discovered off the road was a large building of much substance. I drove up the hardscrabble road. No one was about and in those days I felt free, many of us did, to just go about, to scout and if confronted to explain our mission as non-threatening to the inhabitants. Like the words of the Fifties: “I come in peace.” But this time I meant it.

I must add that this was part and parcel to my experience at Woodstock; that to engage people in a different way, to be consciously,  not inadvertently, friendly, to engage, attach and endeavor to create a new space for more than one to exist in.

Later on I discovered that I had come upon a Catholic religious retreat built in the early 20s. Decades later it has been transmogrified into a Buddhist retreat, spa, tatami mats, and all the rot of another religious organization. I’ve seen pictures of it on Google. I don’t recognize it at all. When it was built that part of upstate New York was the boonies. I walked about the building and peeked inside and everything was massive, from the eaves to the doors to the window frames. As I approached a door and grabbed the handle I was taken aback by the surface materials. The working men of the time apparently found a measure of artistic joy as they fashioned in metal representations newts, turtles, crickets, frogs, dining needles and lizards and had affixed them in random order. I felt I was before a Romanesque church door with the stories of the Bible and its religious denizens in varying poses, stories in stone.

At the front of the building which sat kitty-cornered to the main road, the rafters came to an apex out of which was a carved  native American chief, a joyous gargoyle if you will,  its colors vivid at the time but dimmed by age and weathering by the time of my visit. It was as if it were the prow of a whaling ship, jutting out, in advance of the ship itself. Circulating about this immense and stolid building, I did not come across any other features that I remember, but the overall presence of it was substantial. Off to the side of the retreat was a large expanse, one could play a good game of softball on it. Here and there were small bungalows that probably served for guests or travelers. About six years later I brought a group of high school students to sleep over at the retreat. I wanted to share with them my own personal experiences in Woodstock.

Between 1974 and 1979 I was the director of an alternative high school in Half Hollow Hills in Suffolk County, Long Island. The school came late to this affluent suburban community. The alternative school movement had its roots in the Sixties and Summerhill, A.E. Neil’s school in England was a significant influence and forerunner. Dewey had laid out his progressive ideas, especially in Experience and Education  in the early decades of the 20th century. In short, all education was student centered rather than imposed. Orson Welles went to such a school run by the Hill family (    ). And Paul Goodman wrote a damning indictment in his Growing Up Absurd about public education.  When the Sixties arrived all these influences came somewhat together into a loosely held federation and it was with this “spiritual” background that I landed a job as the director an alternative school. I was asked to create one, and I feel the Superintendent wanted to be au courant, rather than have any real commitment to this kind of education.

Essentially the school was for the emotionally and intellectually disaffected and discontented. I rarely had discipline problems. I dealt mostly with clever acting out. I handled that as best I could at 34. We had mini courses, and I offered one of Freud’s less “difficult” books. I had no staff so I did a little social work and acquired a student intern from Stony Brook’s School of Social Welfare as an assistant. I made outreach to the school psychologist and he became a significant member of the school. Other than that I placed students in outside internships – dentists, lawyers, and the like. I made individualized reading programs with students, and one student read at least 30 books in one semester. I would discuss the books he read with him, one on one. I could not teach physics, mathematics and other courses beyond my ken, so students spent time meeting school course requirements outside the alternative school while I offered something else. I issued no grades and in 1974 that was nirvana for both students and me. Pressure off!  I recall that the major hurdle for the students as well as myself was to structure our time, to manage our freedom, which to me is a reasonable definition of life.

As I have mentioned before about the envy of the artist, what freedom I had was immense.  I had no periods to mind, I ate lunch when I wanted to and I had no study hall to go to. I was an emancipated teacher within the factory schedule of a public school – free of bells, periods and the like. I think this was annoying to some of the staff, as if I was being paid to do nothing in that mysterious room that had students and an outré personality and had the temerity to call itself a school within a school. In fact, as I was opening the bottom drawer of my desk, lined with manila folders setting out the activities of the day, month and the philosophies of the school’s structure, Mr. Roth popped in to say hello and looked down at the opened drawer. His response was priceless: “Gee, I thought you were so unstructured.” And here was proof that within freedom there is order, within freedom there is an innate genetic code to follow. Roth would bring up his new awareness about me and the school from time to time. Put it another way, he now respected me.

Give me Dali, Pollack, Gaudi, Wright, Klimt and Man Ray and I give you creative order. The very fractals of our physical order are order of an amazing kind.

In the years at the school which had a short run, in the spring and the fall I would take a small group of students up to Woodstock, very much for myself as I have said, but also to introduce them to a fading world that I had I known and found creative, stimulating and vibrant. It had changed my life. I feel certain that some of the events in Woodstock are sweet memories for them. I took them to my old haunts, the bakery for that miraculous bread with raisins and cream cheese; I took them to a local lake and we munched our food in the cold of winter in our cars and in the sweet breezes off the lake during spring. At that time there was a store that specialized in butterflies, typical of Woodstock: here were bookmarks, T-shorts, pencils and erasers, kites, paper napkins, butterfly themed books, mobiles having the butterfly as its escutcheon. Shopping in the village was really fun and an eye opener for some.

I hoped one of the delights I could offer them was to visit a woman art dealer somewhere secreted in the woods of Woodstock.

In the summer of ’68 I had visited her, again serendipitously, which was always much more eventful and exciting. She was in her early sixties and her residence was a sight to behold. It was a museum in that she sold what she had collected from her house and what she could not sell she used to adorn her home. Imported wooden doorways, wooden scrims and screens, urns, wooden arches, stone statuary and rondos and oils populated the walls of her home, in which she had established her bedroom in the center of it all. I recall she pointed out to me with pride a painting of Fairchild Porter who I did not know of. As I wandered her intensely furnished home, as if an expanded reliquary of a pharaoh, she shared her thoughts.

“You know, Matt, when I was a young woman I used to visit the galleries on Fifth Avenue. I had no money to buy anything but I wanted to see and maybe someday buy what I had admired. On occasion a feeling gallery dealer would give me access to other parts not shown to the public. I imagine he saw something in my eyes .And it came to past that I became an art dealer and just you look at all the things I have here; they are worth more to me in the evening when I take my nap, and in the dying light of day I can survey all my cherished art works.”

I said nothing. There was nothing to contribute to that heartfelt sentiment. Only now do I associate to Bernstein who tells the inquiring reporter the poignant tale of a young woman with a parasol who he saw only once but who he cannot expunge from memory given all his years in Citizen Kane. We are all haunted by the past.

“And I made a promise to myself, I swear to you I did. I said that if I ever amounted to anything, if I had my own gallery or became an art dealer, I would always welcome young and old to my home free, without any pressure to purchase. And so here you are. Please see if it were for the first time.”

I still see in mind’s eye her rooms. And when I brought these young people to visit her and she graciously once again allowed them to browse and to have their minds, perhaps hearts, open up a bit to the riches herein, I kvelled – Yiddish says it best.

 

 

TESSERAE — A Memoir of Two Summers

 

. . .We cling to the past, sometimes in pride, more often in guilt and confusion, but cling all the same. And increasingly as we age we turn to memory to our particular past as to a world in reserve for rest and reassurance. Novelists know this especially well. What they seek through their work is a reclamation of the past which will proclaim the reality of human selfhood to its deepest foundations.

Terrence Des Pres, The Survivor

I miss the Sixties. I miss them because they are still within me, so missing them is akin to loss. It was the only time in my life, at ages 28 and 29, that I spent two indelible summers in Woodstock. So powerful was the impact that deep into the seventies, with a wife and child, I would take off on Saturday and go up alone on the New York Thruway to Woodstock to spend the day. It was like visiting a cemetery, all the lost and lonely people. I’d go into a bakery and buy a rich and luscious brown pumpernickel bread chocked full of raisins and ask for a shmear, a container of coffee, dark, with sugar (I didn’t know better; who did?) and would park my carcass on a stone bench at the town bus stop and watch the human flora and fauna pass me by. Before I drove back I’d buy a little something for my daughter. I see all this as an attempt to recapture the past, the rich past I had experienced in this upstate country town with no real defining real estate characteristics except for the people who inhabited it. [I could not let go.]

During the Sumer of Love, Iris came off the bus, and she appeared frazzled. The bus stop was in the middle of the town and I was sitting here with my friend Hal, observing all the people about and those coming off the bus. Iris was dressed in white and she was in her forties , and she was very well built, zoftig, is the better word; it turned out later that I learned from her on a pseudo-date that she was an editor. I believe it was Hal who went over to her and in engaging Iris discovered that she was, in essence, looking to see “where all the action was.” In short, she felt she was missing something, like many of her age felt they were. Honestly, they were missing something! Hal introduced me to her with the idea I suppose that we might get together. I had silly qualms about the age difference, perhaps 14 years or so, and he tried to disabuse me of that rigid thinking process by sharing with me that women of that age did not have to worry about getting pregnant and that I didn’t have to worry either. In other words, for him, she was prime meat. Hal was a predator. I’d set up a date with her at her home in Greenwich Village and was introduced to her somewhat hulking son who appeared to be in his twenties. I was neither aggressive nor assertive with her nor did we go to bed. It became one of those Sixty casual experiences that became part of my past. It was a lost opportunity because of my immaturities.]

By pure chance I had stepped into where the action was, a cliché of the time. It was a year before the Woodstock festival. Among many others coming off the bus, I intuited an anxiety as if they were left out of something larger than themselves. And here I was, lucky and serendipitous self, sitting across the bus depot watching the stragglers from the urban jungle in search of a personal clearing. And with a slight smugness and a cat’s bewhiskered grin, I felt contented. I, too, had experienced that particular anxiety.

In Woodstock time was an evolving movement for me, more of a metamorphosis than an incremental stage. Everything I am writing now, will continue to write until I end bespeaks durational time, the dwelling within the moment, like Bedouins setting out with goats, wives, children, carpets and rolled up tents, and camels to reach another oasis in time, without rush, without chronology.

This kind of time was shown me in several places and in several ways. The best example was at the Elephant. It could be the Gray, Pink or the Blue Elephant, I don’t recall, but it was a restaurant a little way out of town and generally the place to go for a hamburger. Years later after 1969 when the turmoil had abated it was turned into a jeans and T-shirt store and after that it went through other incarnations. Almost 50 years have gone by and it probably is completely gone. It did not grab my heart, but I remember it much like we know where the local movie theater was in the Fifties.

As usual I was alone and the married woman I having an affair with was spending the summer of 1968 downstate on the Island in an uncomfortable truce with her unaware husband. We would pick it up in the fall. So I was mournful, hurting, and lonely. I asked the waitress if I could have a hamburger and coffee and began to look about me at all the young faces, the scent of youth in heat and lust, with desire and craving experiences. I waited for about 25 minutes, waiting in the sense of urban man carrying city time within his body. I became impatient. I called over the waitress, I think back now, and I may very well have had annoyance in my tone and said, “Where’s the burger?”

I recall her slightly looming over me and with a languorous indifference, she said: “Cookin’.”

I didn’t realize at the time because I was into all fuss and feathers about my meal that she had shared an essential axiom about Woodstock time. If I were to adjust to all this, I would have to experience what is durational as opposed to chronological time. It was a significant learning, one which I have with me now as we are all expedited and rushed into the future not realizing Faulkner’s comment that the past is the present.]

Whenever I think of “Cookin” I feel the earth mother wisdom in that, the beauty of delay, for delay has much that is beauteous to it. It is embedded in the fullness of time.

With learning about not to use time nor to saddle it, but to walk beside it, I was experiencing an inward feeling, newly created, so that for a few minutes during the day I felt that I was going to sweetly burst – or molt . These were private moments alone in which I felt I was swelling from within in a very pleasing way which really defies description. It was more profound than a sappy happiness.

It was a time in which, I believe, I was evolving unknown to myself, more of a slow-awakening of a metamorphosis than an incremental stage by stage experience. I felt at the time,when I had dim cognizance of who I was, that I was feeling I might sweetly fracture, a transforming elation. I felt; I could not explain it, and it was happenchance as well. After all, unknown to me, I had rented my body for much of my life. There were moments alone and those moments I felt I was swelling in an extraordinary way that defies description. It is so dim now after decades. Once I experienced a Joycean epiphany of a kind out in a field with a young man and his 18 year old girlfriend, Mary, who I was beginning to be attracted to, not knowing until sometime later that she had prepared himself to leave him and turn her attention toward me. She was 18, nubile, and I was 28. He was playing his guitar and she was draped over a stone outcropping and at the apex of this triangle I sat feeling at one with everything. I felt peaceful. Congruent might be the better word.

The bucolic and pastoral setting stirred within me an ineffable moment and no more than that, of feeling at one with my disparate selves. I had been living a schizoid experience for the last five years or so. It is the condition of being in America, divided and divided once more. And once more to make sure.

Woodstock can’t be reclaimed from memory. Memory can only afford a map of the place, a chain of associations, personal and bittersweet and tender. Woodstock is a feeling in me. I recall in the crazed state I was in an expression of freedom, however minute, that had never been mine. I reveled in the drinking in of what was all about me, for I was much the observer and knew to keep my mouth shut when events were new or anxiety-provoking. I recall well the costumery of the time: the beaded and intricate handmade necklaces men wore and their extended sideburns and on very rare occasions a Nehru jacket; hair was very long and celebrated in that great musical which summed up the Zeitgeist of the period; women let hair  grow on their legs and underarms, often cleansed with soap and water rather than deodorant – pick your choice; middle-aged married women in Woodstock were infected, for the laissez-faire atmosphere and attitudes of younger women gave them dispensation to have affairs and ultimately unload their spouses.

You have to imagine Woodstock, for a moment it was a temporary Shangri-La in upstate New York across the way from the historic town of Kingston. Essentially something was happening and changing and it riotously infected all those open to the “disease” — freedom and open expression always is. It was a time in which I remade myself. It was a time of remaking. I have never experienced it again in this culture.

Woodstock was the French Revolution, the first free efflorescence before it turned dark. It was a romantic period.

The songs of the Beatles saturated the culture and were the symphonic score of the time. Inherent in the lyrics and jaunty music (Maxwell’s Silver Hammer) was the esprit de corps of the young and the young minded. Driving up the New York Thruway, crossing over the Tappan Zee Bridge, with my convertible top down on my 1964 Mustang – Woodstock on wheels, lucky me! – I often would hear the six minute “Hey Jude” on the radio, the Beatles  “Bolero.” Djs often took a whiz during the play time, for it was the longest song in recent vintage. That song became my musical “tapeworm,” difficult to rid myself of it, like a stubborn case of athlete’s foot. We all recall Dustin Hoffman, “Ben,” in his convertible speeding through highways to get to his girl, the sophisticated  and syncopated melody of “Mrs. Robinson” as accompaniment. So it was for me.

The summers of ’68 and ’69 created memorable songs that were the latent underside of my life. As they blared over the radio or played on my old phonograph, memories, reminiscences of my delayed affair as well as the depressive state of mind I was in made them connect up to the states of my mind and they have remained memorable. At the time I would tear up, wallow in my sorrow. I remember these tenderly now: Crystal Blue Persuasion, Tommy James and the Shondells; People Got to Be Free, Rascals; One – Three Dog Night; In the Years 2525, Zager and Evans; Spinning Wheel, Blood, Sweat and Tears; My Cherie Amour, Stevie Wonder; Good Morning Starshine, Oliver; Sweet Caroline, Neil Diamond; Put a Little Love in Your Heart, Jackie DeShannon; These Eyes, The Guess Who; More Today Than Yesterday, The Spiral Staircase; Up Up and Away and Aquarius, The Fifth dimension; This Guy, Herb Alpert; Both Sides Now, Judy Collins, every song on Wildflowers; Lay Lady Lay, Dylan; One is the Loneliest Number, Three Dog Night; Mrs. Robinson, Simon and Gar; The Look of Love; Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’61;  Sunshine of your Love, Cream; Everyday With You Girl, The Classics IV; Sugar, Sugar, The Archies.You can choose to gag on these songs with  unending nostalgia, but at the time they were not nostalgia but something quite new to experience. I venture to say that the songs in these two years were the most memorable of the century much as 1939 has been considered the greatest year in cinema history.

I was marinaded in all that, polyurethaned so many times with this music that I glowed in the dark. For me, a product, and I mean product, of the repressed Fifties, the expectorate of the Eisenhower years, it was the clearest expression, in hindsight, of how events, the times, can change an individual’s life. I began to question authority, indeed, it was a bumper sticker on my car and I became subversive which had lain quiescently in me for years. I was becoming self aware while I was very unaware of myself. Curious to write, but that was true. Krishnamurti described this state as the “awakening of intelligence.” If you’ve experienced psychotherapy, very much the same process occurs. At the time I was in the soup of treatment as well, dog-paddling to stay afloat, no attainable shore in sight. And the siren song of change was all about, the music of my sphere.

I can’t express exactly what was occurring to me internally, for it is unknown even to me decades, so many decades later. It is in the telling of it that I catch now and then, here and there, like trying to shag a fly, a glimpse of what I was experiencing and what I was feeling then. Feeling is the critical word, at least for me. I needed to be felt, always have, still do, and I don’t mind because I am very aware of it. It is under mild control and it is definitely not being needy. In the shabbiest cliché of clichés, the Sixties were about feelings, at least to me, a repressed and inhibited young man in his late twenties who had not lived his life nor had experienced his body or had inhabited his own soul. Without knowing or understanding I was giving up my visceral body to Woodstock – all change begins in the body, more than the mind. When we learn to dance it is often hard because we are into steps rather than flow; when you danced in the Sixties you were successful if you surrendered your body – look at all the old films of Hippies cavorting in fields, not a step visible, everything within bodily movements. My generation was stiff (1,2 3, Cha, Cha, Cha).

Sexually frustrated, unconsciously in search of an interim relationship, to be cared for, perhaps mothered, and to care about, I stumbled about in Woodstock for two summers, often staying at my friend’s house which he had purchased with another couple, whose wife Hal had an affair with. I was caught in this imbroglio and naïve about what was swirling about me. I stayed there on week-ends or longer during the summer and became a moocher. I didn’t see what was before my eyes and why should I. I was blind since I could walk. I was a very unsettled human being, frenetic and frantic, uncomfortable with myself, I was lost, an ill-defined man child. I lived within a cloud of unknowing. To be gracious toward myself, I can say that I was finding out, or discovering other ways to be.

Images return from people I met in Woodstock. They are often more compelling than what words can describe. I recall driving the back roads of town, the ragtop down, humming on a harmonica I had purchased and not making music, but as I look back to some way soothe my body, lower the stress I produced like sweat; the sun came through the trees so fiercely that the long hood of the Mustang was dappled like an Indian paint. It is a mixed memory, part running away from myself and part reveling in the nature of it all. I’d walk by the head shops with their paraphernalia, bong pipes and the like, reeking of essences, potpourri and such. They held no appeal to me, for I still had that anti-drug attitude in me, and I also didn’t smoke, so what did appeal of the counter-culture was its art and that I absorbed whenever I could. At the moment apparently an artistic fad was to make light boxes, colored lights behind plexiglass that glowed and flashed, on and off, and sold as such. At the moment they were novelties. I once sat in on an auction with Hal at a local gallery. What was offered was an artist with his putty knife affixing layers and gobs on canvas in varying strokes and swathes across the canvas. At the end it was put up for auction and Hal purchased it. What I was enjoying and slightly marveling at was the work of an artist at play. I found that much to my liking. I was becoming open to all this without judgment or opinion.

As I walked the town with its hamburger joints and cafes, the Elephant restaurant, surely long since extinct, the mild mannered bridge that arched ever so slightly over a scurvy Catskill stream, the local haunts, the T-shirt shop operated by a gay and his woman friend, left a casual residue in me, reminiscences. I remember some unseen and unnamed band that played rock in the backrooms of a house that faced the main street and whose music wafted for some distance. Of all the denizens of town, one young man stood out. Perhaps in his late twenties, he wore an all black outfit, with a short cape no less, while holding his dog on a leash, like Bogie going for a walk. We never spoke to one another. I also remember that 10 years later on this same street I saw this man once more. Everything had changed. I had changed. But he was still in his Zorro black attire and walking his dog. He had chosen to become fossilized. I was evolving. I had moved on.

Woodstock was a country town which constantly reinvented itself. I don’t think the locals ever made their peace with it, or the recent influx of hippies and urban seekers, although it had a century or more of artists coming there .In my wanderings about town I came across an artist in his fifties or sixties at the time who had a charming home outside of town. His name was Arthur Zaidenburg  and he made a living creating a series of instructional art manuals to teach drawing to young people. His “Anyone Can Draw” is a classic art-instruction book. I also discovered in a leisurely summer talk with he and his wife that he also painted murals on the cruise ship, Rotterdam, murals for the St. Moritz in Manhattan, and 100 motels in Miami Beach. What was happening to me was that I was engaging interesting people for the first time in my life, people outside the limited scope of my experience. And I remember most of all was a lovely floor to ceiling stone fireplace that another artist friend of his had constructed. Apparently it was a trade or swap between both artists; I don’t know what the artist received. It was this artistic, sharing attitude, that a kinship existed between artists that I took in and cherished. “An artist is never poor,’ Izak Dinesen’s line from “Babbette’s Feast, comes to mind.

The concept that this artist employed was new to me; to surround yourself with all kinds of artifacts that reflect your interests, your loves, what tickles your fancy so that you home is your nest. I do that all the time in my present world.

Since I spent time exploring the countryside I came into contact with Edgar Pangborn, author of the cult fantasy classic, “Davy.” When I met him he was in recovery from a heart attack and he had moved all his filing cabinets downstairs into the living room because he could not navigate the staircase. My talks with him, as I look back, were superficial because I was superficial. His niece, Mary, and I almost had a fling but I fucked that up as well. Pangborn died in the mid seventies and Zaidenburg lived to 88, leaving Woodstock after 30 years for an artist community in Taos,  New Mexico

Summer ’68 and summer ’69 were a tumultuous time for me. In the state of mind I was experiencing what little inner-directedness I had and that was minimal. I was still mostly an external, outer-directed human being, a living decal imitating a mature man. It is distressing – and horrifying – to realize how much I was a child. What had happened to my rearing to produce such a child? I had little or no rearing. I can be safely horrified now; at the time I had not enough insight to be self-horrified. So much hard-earned learning lay ahead. I had tasted  of misery but nothing compared to the future death of a daughter by suicide; the death of a wife in a car accident – but that was decades later. Whatever bile I secreted, it was infused with discontent and a vast feeling of being unknown to my very self. Oh, the years we “live” unwittingly, unknowingly of our own very selves. Discontent and depression poured from me.

I lived on Ash Avenue in dull Flushing. The aged super could not attend to the building properly. I had separated from my wife and she returned home to her mother’s house with our daughter. It was here that I had a surprise visit from Hal. Within a short amount of time, his motive became clear. “I am wondering if I could use your apartment one afternoon.” Dense as I was, conflicted, I didn’t realize he wanted to fuck his latest conquest. Of course, I knew his wife, Estelle, and his two sons for I had often stayed at their country house. In short he was asking me to pimp out my home. The quiet between us was stifling, for I really didn’t know how to respond. I knew I surely didn’t like the idea of someone fuckin’ on my bed. I also knew that during WWII Hal had given his wife syphilis after one of his flings.

Hal finally sensed my internal conflict and said a few words about my being uncomfortable with his request. I thought later on that it was not something to ask a friend. And we left it at that. Indeed, in the years ahead I began to sense more and more of conditions being laid down to stay  his friend. As long as I knew him he cheated on Estelle, much the enabler, and she would eventually become suspicious and confront him. He could not change.  As I look back I see the dependency in our relationship which was skewed: father me; teach me; show me the way; instruct me in the ways of the world. I never had a father, I had a sham body pretending to be my father, and Hal served as a substitute, until I learned better and began to self-parent myself.

At the time I was frozen. I couldn’t say what I was feeling so I would fall back into silence which is always ineffective. The other person had to decipher my code, if so inclined, and make assumptions. To access me you had to be a mind reader and who wants that as part of a friendship or relationship. As I look back at Hal’s chutzpah and imposition upon me, I feel creeped out, and his assessment of me, negative at that, encouraged him to make such a request.

As I merged into the late Sixties, this inability to know what I was feeling and then to articulate it to my satisfaction, had “improved. I can say unequivocally that I did not come to awareness as a human being until the age of 32.

All these years, all the decades of underutilized, unfulfilled and wasted time, I was profligate with my undetected, purposeless life. Even now I ask myself if I am not wasting time. As you know the use(s) of time are essential to living with intention. The unlived and unexamined life is frightening to me. I remember very well being empty. It is something I think about most of the time. In 1968 and 1969 I had no idea that I was a putz.

I had been “reared” in the Fifties, that most uptight, inhibited and repressive decade. When I met up with the late Sixties it was all so new, this openness, the willingness to try new ways, to experiment with relationships. I had choices to make. I associate to Achilles as a child as his mother immersed him in waters but omitted his heel for which he paid dearly years later. I realize now that I had a second chance in a new immersion. Essentially, as I look back, it was a sloughing off of recalcitrant and old selves. I was slowly molting, I was changing ever so incrementally. I was not letting go of my need to observe, but I was endeavoring so very hard to act on my world, to take risks, to venture, to query and ultimately to garner all these experiences into a kind of repository which I could draw sustenance.

At Last, the Lament is off to the Publisher

The last week or so has been devoted to reworking the manuscript of I Truly Lament   Working Through the Holocaust. The editor forwarded the text with a slew of deletions, revisions, and even rephrasing of the content, all listed on the right side of the pages. Jane who is much more conversant with computer tech and much more savvy than I, deciphered the edits and incorporated them into the manuscript. It was my task then to read all 229 pages and spot typos, awkward sentences and the like. Here and there I deleted a sentence or two and replaced them with clearer sentences. (I had written “legated” which escaped the word check. I had meant the surgical term “ligated.”) I compare this kind of fine tune editing as removing “lint” from the manuscript.

Even now, Jane is rereading the text for a final go through with her critical eyes and she has informed me there are some things I have to attend to. We will confer on changes she thinks to be made or lack of clarity in some of my prose. The saving grace of all this is that the stories seem to hold up; they may or may not be good but at least their defects will be observed in clear-cut and error free prose. That is all I can ask.

What was really gratifying was to be informed by the editor: “I hope all this  is helpful. Again, with the exception above, there was very little to change.” [Double WOW]

When I had This Mobius Strip of Ifs edited by David Herrle, he educated me as to sequencing, the subtle editor’s craft of placing stories in such a way that they play off one another, or are grouped together in terms of similar themes, or situated in terms of balance. Since the present book consists of 27 stories dealing with varying aspects of the Holocaust, the ordering of the stories was significant. The editor sent suggestions such as this: “Consider moving ‘The Indifferent Golem’ up so it’s not right next to ‘Golem, I need Your Help.’”  And I did so. Advice was helpful. And she wrote, “Keep ‘The Disenchanted Golem’ as the final story. The question it raises sums up a great deal of the book, and it’s difficult and hopeful at the same time. It’s also possibly my favorite.” Of course I am a needy writer and to hear that made me very pleased, however, I really didn’t mean to do that, proving that the writer is the last to know. Consequently, I suppose, the rationale for having editors.

As to sequencing, she notes: “If you decide to reorder anything, or if you decide to include your additional stories, emotional variation is key. You don’t want the darkest stories side by side. Too much misery all at once and readers may either stop reading or become calloused as a means of self-defense. Give them a little respite, and they may be more open to the worst experiences your characters go through.”

Thus, sequencing! But will this happen to another book on the Holocaust, mine. Has the collective unconscious become “calloused” to Shoah?

While all this was moving forward, I received a foreword from novelist Duff Brenna who had published two of the book’s stories in his online Serving House Journal. It is a stellar endorsement and at the end he writes:

“In its totality Freese’s haunting lament might best be explained (at least to me) by something Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about Herman Melville’s endless search for answers to questions that perplexed him all his adult life. Melville was incessantly obsessed with what one might call the why of it all—life, death, metaphysical mysteries. Similar to Freese, Melville was repeatedly afflicted with a dark and depressive state of mind.”

I can’t ask for better, one hell of an assessment. I am also waiting for another endorsement from poet and editor David Herrle which I should have in a few weeks. These two endorsements will make up the back cover. And Brenna informed me that he will publish the foreword itself in the fall issue of Serving House Journal — that might create a ripple in time.

Meanwhile Jane will finish her final reading of the book this week and by week’s end I hope to send the production manager a PDF of our corrections. When she has them in hand she will format the text and send back a copy for me to do a final edit. It is this edit that I will sign off on. Hopefully the summer will be spent on choosing a cover and dealing with annoying details that always crop up. At the same time I will be searching out bloggers, reviewers, Jewish studies programs, Jewish reference librarians, and Jewish museums that I can query for adoption or purchase. I will devote a year to the book, promoting it, pushing it, whatever I can do for I believe it is special.

Jane has spent at least two days rereading 227 pages and has informed me that some of the stories need to have sections deleted for they are too long , windy or repetitious. That I need to cut out and delete makes for anxiety in me, for no doubt when I have reread some of the stories I felt they were much too long but I went into denial. I have to remind myself over and over again to draw the line not on a single sentence or even a paragraph or two. I have to consider the total work as a whole and whether or not deletions might support the axiom that less is more. In revision less is always better.

So this Saturday I will sit next to Jane at the computer and we will diligently go over her notes and cut when we can. That is not as simple as it seems, but we will try our best, although I get my writer temper up when Jane and I disagree, for her mind obviously sees things differently than mine. Hopefully on Sunday we will forward the revised PDF to my publisher. The grace note is that I will get a proof back that I can go over once more, and more, and more, before I sign off on it.

I believe all good books are made in revision.

Cantor Matyas Balogh

I don’t have much to work with. There is a torn photograph and a business card, both over a hundred years old. The card has faded and is foxed much like an old book or print. In the photograph my great grandfather is wearing his cantorial hat and has strong eyes, quite possibly hazel. He was a hazan, Hebrew for cantor. The card is written in Hungarian such as Boldog Ujevet Kivan (in boldface), fokantor beneath his name, Hebrew letters at the bottom left and what I believe is the town of Monor, which is in Hungary, at bottom right. (Anyone who can translate these words?)

I was named after him, Mathias Balogh Freese, which has been my bane for much of my life. Often mispronounced, I grew up detesting it. Bob or Dick would have been better. My mother caved to my Grandma Flora who always extolled her father and most likely pressured her to name me after him. The name looks good in print but I wasn’t in print for all my childhood and young adulthood. Who calls a kid “Mathias”? Even today if a nurse calls me in to see the doctor she often mispronounces the name, often in a Spanish lilt, or struggles through the three phonemes. So it is MAYtheeuss, MUHthias, or Monotonous. (Try to mispronounce Steve.) In Hebrew school I became Mordecai, not too bad. In Spanish class I was called Mateo. Mathias and Mathew are closely related linguistically, for they mean “gift of god” in Hebrew. That I can handle. For years I was called Matty, much a girl’s name and one classmate was called Mathew which made me jealous. Odd to think that Matty kept me immature in my own self. When I was teaching in my mid twenties an older teacher and friend told me he couldn’t call me Matty any longer. I should go by Matt, which I did. I liked that. I renamed myself, how sweetly unusual, as I look back.

So Shakespeare’s line about what’s in a name is poetically clever, but not psychologically true, not for me. We are defined by our names. Naming is a critical issue, for it is also labeling. So in 2014 Sidney, Sylvester and Beatrice don’t make it; they are punitive to children who are dubbed in such a tone deaf manner. Kirk Douglas is much more mellifluous than Isadore Demsky Danielovich, and Tony Curtis wears better than Bernie Schwartz. We named our daughter Brett after a character in The Sun Also Rises only to discover years later that the Navy wanted to recruit her as a seaman.

About a year ago I wrote, “Cantor Matyas Balogh,” a love story from my new collection of stories about the Holocaust,  “I Truly Lament,” soon to be published in the fall of 2014. I cannot explain why this love story of a cantor with the backdrop of the Holocaust for context arose in my mind. I have been forever curious about my great grandfather. I know that he supposedly spoke many languages, as grandma bragged, some fourteen it was said (really? I don’t think so, but maybe). I heard as a child that he flirted or “fooled” around with some of the women in the congregation. Why not? Hungarian woman are scrumptious — think Ilona Massey. And the Hungarians are renown for being superior mathematicians and physicists.

He died before the Nazis and was not part of the Holocaust, but I wonder if his tombstone was turned over by the Hun. I believe he is interred in Hungary which does not explain why Grandma Flora came over and he remained. All not known to me. The few scarce details I have about him could  fill a thimble, yet he remains in my mind. I would like to go to Monor, only if I research his ancestry and have more to go on before I leave this world. I wonder how many, many decades have passed without a stone being placed on his coldly unfriended marker. I would do that and in some peculiar way I would make peace with myself. And I would be moved and I would weep a little, for I am of his line. It does give me satisfaction that I had an ancestor of some brilliance.

I stop here to tell the unvarnished truth. I pay homage to him because it confirms that I, too, am intelligent and smart; that I had a relative who thought intellectually; that my father was a dunce and I have struggled all my life, in a way, to become Matyas Balogh;  his intelligence, his gifts sustain me so metaphorically it hurts. As a retired therapist, so much is latent and manifest here, like a juicy pomegranate, so much to tease out and to reconcile with and to draw much sustenance from.

I am, I am so very much– Mathias Balogh Freese

When Grandma assimilated here, she went into vaudeville and was known as Flo Balogh (pronouncing it Barlow). I once asked a Hungarian woman if she could tell me something about the name. Chuckling, she said it was very common in Hungary and was the equivalent of Joe Smith. So much for exceptionalism.

Americanized, assimilated, Flo always urged me to become a rabbi! And she would give me lunch to encourage that. Often it was a Swiss cheese and ham sandwich with a strawberry milk drink shot with seltzer, which I loved.  Ham, milk and cheese, leads to becoming a rabbi — or a goy.  Meschuge! And at Christmas time I once discovered a small Christmas tree on top of the television set, probably a show business residue when she was in vaudeville and everybody was everybody else. I was offended at that, for my conditioning as a Jew had been set in place and the old battleax was a violator. Feed her bulbous ass to Moloch. I wonder if she was a handful for my great grandfather, for as a young woman she was a real beauty. I have a few pictures of her which are like portraits from the hand of Mucha, insistently Art Nouveau.

Grandma had the gauche panache of Zsa Zsa Gabor and one memorable father.

What’s in your brainpan?

Apparently the aquifer has run dry, for I have not been able to compose any thoughts about what I want to say in these pages. A slurry of events these past eighteen days has kept me away from writing. Sometimes words just flow from my unconscious on to the screen, at other times I am literarily constipated. I recall a recent session with my therapist in which in passing I said I had nothing to say. She came back with the rejoinder that she felt I was “limitless.” A lovely compliment for my needy ego.

And then there is that mild neuroticism in which I feel guilty for not writing my weekly blog. I have to keep telling myself it is all a cosmic blowin’ in the wind, a solitary voice somewhere in the nowhere of universe or universes, as I see outer space, belching forth the pipsqueak mewling of one individual. This writer’s compulsion is ridiculous if I think about it, a need to express myself in some shape or form. And to write is much like human secretion, front and back, a necessity giving form, I say darkly, of nothing of much worth. Allow me to clarify.

In the past two weeks I decided to go with Wheatmark, a publisher in Arizona that I have had good dealings with. I hired an editor who worked on two of my previous books for about a thousand dollars (ouch squared!)But she is very good at what she does. I contacted a Holocaust survivor who has reviewed my books if he would write a foreword only to discover that at age 86 he is recovering from a cataract operation and a terrifying stroke that laid him low. I decided to dedicate my book to him, for he is a kind and loving man. I then reached out to novelist Duff Brenna (see Amazon) to write a foreword and he quickly assented which was a lucky stroke for me.I began to log in a separate composition book all the personal contacts I would follow up on when the book was published; additionally, I began to scour the websites for magazines, journals, newspapers and individuals I could send the book to for review. A very tedious but necessary job for marketing my book. Since the manuscript is Holocaust fiction, I face a plethora of sources which can be exhausting to my psyche.  Given all this, I have stayed away from writing and entered midstream into life as it presents itself.

[This morning I heard from Ben Rapoport's wife, Gloria, that he had died and was in failing health for about six months. What was touching and serendipitous is that the rabbi had Googled Ben's name and came up with something I had written about Ben and "fear." The rabbi used it in his homily so, in effect, I was there as well. I never know what I have written can be used by another, and in this case, I am so pleased, for Ben was a close friend and my mentor in all things psychological. But more about him in another blog. Gloria and the family were pleased with what I had said about him as a man. He was 84, escaped the Nazis, but death got him at last. He once told me he never thought he'd reach the age of 80, given his diabetes, heart condition and Parkinson's disease. Dead at 84, but forever lithographed in my mind.]

I’m still thinking about Ben this next morning. Yesterday I took Jane to dinner, gambling at the local casino and I bought her new sandals for spring. I did all this because I remember well a rubric Ben had shared — Make Merry. So in honor of him I chose life yesterday and made merry. When I worked at his counseling center in the early 90s, I was informed that there would be a party for all the staff at the center. I asked why, wondering if it was someone’s birthday party, whatever. I was told it was just time to have a party. I asked Ben and he told me that in the Bible the Israelites made merry, just like that. No special reason, I imagine, except to revel in life, in existence. So next Wednesday, reader, do something pleasurable with your family or by yourself in order to make merry.

Jane now understands full well Ben’s gift to me, one of many over the years. You lift the cup of wine and toast le chaim, to life, any goddam time and day you choose to — how freeing!

TV as I Remember it and Other Associations

Through  a convoluted series of events Kevin Fahey, who teaches Classic Television at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UNLV, asked me to speak about early TV and movies, leaving it open as to what theme(s) I might select. It got me to reminiscing and thinking about what that “clothesline”might be. And as I meander in this essay it may be that the meanderings might serve some common theme. In psychology we call it secondary gain, deriving some psychic pleasure from a primary effort. So a secondary gain from reading a great deal is to enrich your vocabulary, although this is not primary to your reading. It is an unconscious result, you are unaware.

Imagine me as a little boy, perhaps 7 or 8, sitting on steps, as I remember it, playing with a cap gun. It was a short 45mm made of composite metal and  within  its grip,as I moved the cover away, there was a spool to insert a roll of caps. I remember well what caps were. A roll of papered “explosives,” each cap had a black bulls-eye to it, on red paper. When the cap roll was inserted and the paper lead moved through flanges to the trigger, one could fire it. They always gave off a slightly acrid smell of sulfur, not unpleasantly to my child’s mind. The same caps could be used in an arrowed dart in which you placed a singular cap and threw it high into the air hoping that it would land directly to the sidewalk with its minimalist blast. I will label this. It is called play.

What I am sharing here is the personal solitude I experienced at that time, although I was unaware of it, did not register it; largely, because it was a body sense, thinking had nothing to do with it.  It was an aspect of personal daily play free from TV, the first visual  assault upon young minds, much like smartphones. At that time radio existed but I was not absorbed by it. I recall  the radio openings of the Canadian Sgt. Preston and Yukon King, his dog. I recall Up, Up and Away of Superman, the rescue fantasy of two Jewish cartoonists; there was Mr.Keene, Tracer of Lost Persons; Sanctuary which opened up with a creaking door; Gangbusters and Rossini’s William Tell Overture which introduced the Lone Ranger, and a few  fragments of a Tom Mix  serial. Obviously  radio did not grip me. It just licked my outside self, no more. The outside world of play was my world, for in it I was the master of the world — I roamed lanes, alleys, streets; I played with a penknife, a game called “Land”; I turned shoeboxes into a game of marbles, cutting out holes in one side; I clambered up a tree felled by a hurricane; I crawled with a childhood chum into the basement of his home, unknown to his parents.

When TV entered my life it was tangential. I remember as a child sitting in with a group of other children with a lucky family that had a small TV set on Brighton Second Street, where my Grandma  Flo lived in her basement apartment with her spinster daughter, Gussie. The first show I saw was a desert foreign legion movie starring Larry “Buster” Crabbe, who later I would discover also played Flash Gordon, that peerless Art Deco serial. Only one slivered image exists in my mind, of a group of legionnaires riding down a steep sand slope — a granular Rosebud.

Note verb here – I was never “glued” to the TV set; some of that came later as I grew older, the infection and disease settling in. In the late forties and early fifties I had already, gratefully, been conditioned to act in some way on life and not to be conditioned indirectly by anonymous TV programmers. As I grew older, TV shows became more cognizant to my adolescent mind; earlier TV shows permeated myself, consequently subliminal but nevertheless meaningful.

Christopher Walken, at my age, does a very telling and wicked impression of the Continental from very early TV. (You Tube probably has one of his riffs.) At that time shows were fifteen minutes, I don’t know why.  Perry Como did a fifteen minute musical show. I believe they needed to fill in air time and this was just the beginning. Two stations were it. NBC and CBS in New York; Channel 7 was mocked, humored. Channel 5, Dumont,was in its infancy.The Continental was a handsome Italian man with dark  curly hair, who sat before a piano and candelabra speaking directly to the audience, directly appealing to the American housewife and providing through a heavily inflected Italian accent the fantasy of what it might be to have sex with this Lothario.  ( Think of Hepburn in Summertime as experienced through  dementia.) All so apparently latent. Often the Continental would suavely offer her a glass of wine and raise it to the camera. And all this was live and Walken and Freese remembered it. He in Jackson Heights, Queens, and me in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Oh, Ron, his real name is Ronald, what fun we could have with this — What larks, Pip! What larks.

I cannot give chronology, why order it? for it all is simultaneous in my mind and it saturates my memory. Before the genius of Sid Caesar appeared on TV in the mid-fifties, I was affected by Westerns on Saturday mornings  as TV filled the stations with films from the thirties and forties, most often B flics, since programming was in its infancy and air time had to be filled. I saw early oaters with a wide variety of cowboy stars. Ken and Kermit Maynard, one thin and one becoming fat. Ken Maynard, stunt rider, one of the earliest singing cowboys and a member of Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West Show,  had a tragic life ending up in a trailer and suffering from malnutrition; however he was vigorous and handsome in a quirky way, with his white horse, Tarzan, in early Westerns. He had the charisma his brother did not have, for Kermit played later on  in his life as an extra in westerns, Bonanza, and so on. Still thin.

Buster Crabbe had a way about him, an Olympic gold medalist swimmer,  he had a lithe muscular body , but a swimmer’s body. And  he had a graceful lope to how he moved, which was charming to my sensibilities. He became a better actor as the years went on and spent his later years as an athletic director in the Catskills. Crabbe had his own show on TV for a while, often bringing on his old cowboy sidekicks, Gabby Hayes and Al “Fuzzy” St. John. And he was indelible in Flash Gordon, but more of that later on. I still hear him calling out in moments of high expectancy or peril, “Dale.”

Nostalgically, I find that a decline in the personal life of a western hero has something to it that evokes pathos. The image has taken on its own life, an indirect aspect of TV itself, for good or bad, but there it is. I feel that film bespeaks death, think on that for a moment, as I catch my own breath.

And stalwart Col. Tim McCoy would walk down a western street, snazzy in that black hat and outfit, taking out a stick of gum and unwrapping it, chewing it, signaling to the villain that he was now transforming into something lethal. He had an interesting life in the military, expert in Indian sign language and decorated as a solder.  An intimate account of these western stars is in They Went Thataway by James Horwitz, who went out to find these heroes of his own childhood before they passed on. Some gave him a hard time, or were reticent or not forthcoming; some like McCoy divulged openly and it all makes for rich and fascinating reading. Eat a Jujy Fruit as you read it.

Others come to mind –Tex Ritter, Al “Fuzzy” St. John who defined the comical sidekick in Westerns, and there was grizzled and garrulous Gabby Hayes who had his own TV show in the fifties. Reruns brought him back to the collective mind. The classy and smooth silent motion picture actor, William Boyd, reran all his Hopalong Cassidy movies from the thirties and forties. (Robert Mitchum had a part in one of his movies.) And they were well-plotted. And in the early fifties I got to meet with him with other young children as he was mobbed by us, shoving out grasping and needy  hands in front of him as he dispensed some trinkets. It was as if he was covered with the moss of live children. Boyd was one smart marketer. He hit a second popularity with TV and he used it well. I do remember observing his long black and chauffeured Cadillac waiting for him

Chubby Tex Ritter and the very lean Bob Steele, small-statured and  fast fighting, whose father was a good director (Robert North Bradbury) as well come to mind. Years later Steele played Curley in Of Mice and Men and as a gunsel [Yiddish derivation] in The Big Sleep in which he was a heavy (Lash Canino) and he was terrific in both. He had a memorable line spoken as if in steely syllables — “What do you want me to do , count three like they do in the movies?” Steele was much underused by Hollywood, much like Jack Palance who was superlative, given the right roles.

So what is fragmented personal memorabilia in this essay had its origin in this early exposure, how TV appropriate, to these oaters who had interesting personalities populating them. But there is another movie that deserves special attention and it was not a Western.

I will pass on discussing Caesar, a comic genius, or  Strike it Rich and Queen for a Day or Bud Collyer, who played Superman on radio, and later on a TV game host. It is trivia that clings to me. Quite delightfully useless, like the tie saved from your prom decades ago.

The indelible Flash Gordon left an imprint, a good one. It was art deco in design and the cheesy sets and rocket ships were irrelevant to my eye. There were winged men, don’t ask, who could fly and their leader had a burly look to him. There was Dr. Zharkov, the good scientist, as opposed to the creep-outs in the thirty horror movies, Lugosi and Karloff. And the women, Dale, (Jean Rogers), blond, and the evil  Emperor Ming the Merciless’ daughter , Princess Aura ( Priscilla Lawson), dark haired and experiencing  hots for Flash. Good and evil, black and white, Ming (Charles Middleton) portrayed the  evil eastern emperor in a stilted fashion but he got across; if he was only honest with himself, he would have incested his own daughter, but he liked Dale. But that is an evil only known to us today. I liked the dark-haired “damsel.” Dale was too wimpy as I look back, spending most of her film time as a clinger to Flash. I don’t think they ever kissed.

And when Flash got into a struggle or fight with heavies, his body was graceful and athletic, as if he was  a male Esther Williams performing underwater.

The sets had forerunners of television to them, and the rocket ships a delight to behold, as if designed by Erte. And the sound they made, a kind of whoosh when they started I found very appealing to my young ear, especially as they slowed down for a planetary landing. But most of all — The Clay People. What was fascinating to these muddy creatures and their clayey looks — terrific costumery — especially the leader who spoke English as if filtered through clay,  is that they emerged out of cavern walls and returned to them so as to conceal their presence. Fascinating to my eye! What I still remember was the entrancing and fascinating music played as they walked into the walls and walked out of them. What one remembers? A box of Nonpareils to the person who can help me find that music!

[Kevin Fahey wins the prize. Franz  Waxman  (Sunset Boulevard, The Bride of Frankenstein, Rebecca and Rear Window)  composed  the music, taking that syncopated and lilting theme from The Bride of Frankenstein.] 

Do we need a conclusion? TV had a hand in destroying play, and play is now pretty much destroyed unless you think working a tablet or smartphone contributes in any way to an inner-directed self. See any kids in the street playing lately? Do you hear a mother calling out her kid’s name to come home for dinner? I think not. Are there answers? No. Only questions.

 

 

Jack Palance

I saw recently the 1970 movie, Monte Walsh, starring Lee Marvin, Jack Palance and the sensuously comely Jeanne Moreau, who is still with us. It tells in its melancholy way the passing of the Old West; Monte’s prostitute girlfriend dies, his closest friend, Chet (Palance), is killed in an ugly robbery murder. His life as a cowboy is evanescing right before his eyes. Similar to Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch in that relationships between men become more significant than the usual oater plots, it is a different take on the western, the plaintive, mourning ending of a time. It got me thinking about Palance whose voice I always found entrancing, regardless of a face that was like a moon crater.

Dimly recalling the 1952 western Shane in which Palance played Jack Wilson, a vicious, menacing gunfighter, he was only in the movie for perhaps five minutes and was nominated as best supporting actor, as his tall and lethal malice lithographed itself into the screen. He was shot from below which only added to his 6’4″ height.  (The only other famous cameo was Welles in The Third Man (1950.) It was one of Palance’s early performances and he made his mark. But this was not the role I would come to remember.

In 1956 Bela Lugosi died, I recall, the newspapers reporting that he was buried in his cloak from Dracula — creepy. It was Eisenhower time, and Sputnik a year away. And as I was a casual moviegoer, two or three pictures perhaps in a month, over the years that added up. Saturday was the day. I recall seeing Palance in Attack and it was a powerful, searing and agonizing performance. It went far beyond acting. In those days someone my age just went to see what was playing; there was no reading up on reviews. You paid and could stay all day, cartoons, newsreels, come in at the middle of the movie and stay to the end and watch it begin all over. That ended with Psycho (1960), when Hitchcock insisted on one showing of his film with  no interruptions.

Old ladies with flashlights guided you to your row. And candy was very reasonable, not $3 or $6 a pop.The assumption was that whatever movie theaters were in your neighborhood offered something to satisfy your palate. There were no mind filters or reviewers to come between you and the movie. And that freed one, as I look back, to be accepting of what was before you in that dark space. And the impact of each movie rested upon your willingness not to carp, review or criticize but be willing to be temporarily transformed or not by the movie itself.

Aldrich’s Attack was a small, black and white film as charged as its sciatic title. A severe assault on the insanity of war, it featured Palance and Eddie Albert, who played a craven, cowardly Southern officer. Lee Marvin was in it as well, all three leads having served in War World II. Like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. it played out the theme of us, the enemy and the officers, often combining virulently against the GI on the front lines. Palance played a GI dogface. a reflective soldier as I recall. His voice was susurrus, always was, murmuring and rustling, often language sweetly nuanced to my ear. If he had the looks of a Barrymore, he would have made a great romantic lead. Instead he was a great character actor, following in the line of Edward Arnold, Peter Lorre, and Sidney Greenstreet. Palance was good, more than good in this part — he was magnificent.(He played Dracula for a TV film and it was pathetically, often poignantly drawn; quite different. Rent it if you can. Imagine his voice as Dracula).

I sense after a while Palance realized movies were a joke and he went along for the ride. Attack was on his list of personal favorites. Many recall him memorably doing one-armed push-ups at 73 at the Oscars with Billy Crystal emceeing, his co-star, in City Slickers. And this stunt revitalized his career. Palance imprinted himself on me much earlier. When I tried to look up a good biography of him, none has apparently been written. Well-educated, he wrote poetry and painted for forty years, this actor with chiseled hard features. Palance is a vastly underrated actor. He stunned TV audiences in a live production of Playhouse 90 in the fifties with his tender and lost portrayal of Mountain McClintock in Rod Serling’s  Requiem for a Heavyweight, a downtrodden boxer sold-out by his manager. And he played Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire.  Range was never an issue for him.

In Attack Palance is hunted down by a sole tank, cornering him  and finally riding over his left arm with its powerful tracks, almost shearing his arm off; it is horrific and blood pours through his uniform as he manages to pull away and scrambles back to the CP bunker, and in his dying dramatic soliloquy expresses his rage at a cowardly Albert, fate itself, and then dies. I have always thought of him as the Hamlet of the battlefield. At 16 I had never experienced such a wretched, existential and riveting expression of pain and dismay by an actor of this greatness.  The betrayal was immense. I left the theater, on some level, stunned.

When you watch the deceit and corruption of the officer class and poor dogface, following appalling bad marching orders, the estrangement is beyond severe. Watch Palance’s performance as he does a modern Shakespearean role in plain English. It was not acting, it was being. He did not win an academy award that year. I could not get over it. Still can’t.

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