Sunday, June 29, 2014

With Powys in New York

From Run Like Blazes:

In ’87 my story “The Old Guard” had appeared in The Literary Review and at 36, at long long last, I was a published author. But from a single story in The Literary Review to shelves groaning under the weight of my collected works was—is—a long way. And I was teaching at a language school for ten hours most days, Saturdays included; so, for many months, at a time when I should have been turning out stories at white heat, I wrote little. I compensated, however, as a writer must, by voracious reading (while envying other writers, many or most of them much younger than I, their success). The best moments of my waning bachelor life in New York were those bright Sunday mornings in spring when, unhungover and with a couple of spare dollars in my pocket, I went for a brisk walk through the nearby neighborhoods of the Village, Soho, Chelsea and environs and ended up in a bookstore (not the Strand) and after a couple of hours’ browsing came home with a book or two, unlocked doors upon unknown lands. Every visit to a bookstore was a potential voyage of discovery; my mind was wide open to all influences, but of course we return to what we love. This was how I first came upon that most eccentric of immortals, John Cowper Powys, “Old Earth Man,” Prester John of the Mountains. 

Ah, Powys: The mere mention of the mad bugger’s name brings peace to my soul. I have a near-religious devotion to the man now, but back then, like most people, I’d never heard of him. He’s an acquired taste, and for a minority at that, but once sampled he makes all pretenders appear second-rate, like (say) Kronenbourg’s 1664 lager, or a Jaguar S-Type. I was led to his work through the back gate of Max Gate,[1] as it were: Hardy’s Wessex, via a brief detour into the odd backwater of Powys’ brother Theodore’s religious and sardonic Mr. Weston’s Good Wine, in which Mr. Weston is God, and God is both a traveling wine salesman and the wine itself, and Dorset is Heaven, a Christian conceit atheistic and/or pagan Hardy would have had none of (except the last part). But it was so artfully told and so evocative in its Dorset village setting, and the characters were so robust and cunning, and it had such a strong flavor of the old master’s Michael Henchards and Jude Fawleys and Bathsheba Everdenes and gnarled Wessex woodsmen and farmers, that the next time I saw the name Powys, on the spine of a chrome-yellow paperback, I snatched it up. It was John Cowper’s Wolf Solent, my gateway into the muddy wonderland of another timeless Wessex. How he captures the essence of England! But Powys isn’t confined to his own country, although he was as weird and thorough an Englishman as any Wodehouse or Waugh. His true homeland temporal and spiritual was Wales, the homeland of his ancestors. And yet he loved France and Italy, too, and his hometown for many years was New York, from where he traveled all over America, giving lectures in a throbbing baritone on his favorite books and writers and (why not?) The Meaning of Life. His job was to help people toward a better life through Literature—yes, that capital L is deliberate. Great books, to Powys, were far more than the soap operas of the masses that TV and mass mod “culture” has turned them into; they were humanity’s highest achievements, as vital to everyone’s life as exercise or sunlight. And to spread this gospel he traveled all over the raw and still-new United States, raising high the banners of Homer, Rabelais, Dostoevsky, Hardy, Shakespeare, Byron, Dante, and other champions of the Western canon, exhorting the forgotten townsfolk of remote hamlets in Colorado and New Hampshire and Nebraska and Oregon to join the legions of the enlightened. Of course, Americans are always ready for a good dose of that old-time evangelism, or just a plain old freak show, whatever the subject, but—Literature? And the messenger of literary wisdom a tall, gangling Englishman with a plummy accent and bizarre facial tics? That was the freak-show part of his audience appeal, no doubt heightened when he fell down onstage, as he did a few times, overcome by emotion and chronic gastritis. The crowd must have roared. 

[1] Hardy’s house in Dorchester, Dorset. I visited it in ’76. I remember a stolid, unremarkable red-brick house, a high yew hedge, and a gravel drive from which T.E. Lawrence, or Mr. Shaw, departed on his last, fatal motorbike ride. I also remember a poisonous fart of the silent-but-deadly variety hanging in the air like mustard gas on the Somme and, ultimately, driving me away. Sorry, but it’s of such things that memories are made.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Fateful Ham Sandwich

One hundred years ago today in Sarajevo, a young Serb nationalist named Gavril Princip, having spent the day on the sidelines of a failed attempt to assassinate the visiting Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, decided to call it quits, and headed for home, stopping at his favorite deli on the way to have a ham sandwich. He left the deli, sandwich in hand, to find the Archduke's car, containing Archduke and wife, stopped directly in front of him. The chauffeur had taken a wrong turn en route from Sarajevo City Hall to the railway station, and was frantically consulting a street map. It was, of course, the most momentous wrong turn in history. It permitted Princip--dropping his ham sandwich, taking out his revolver--to fulfill his mission and thereby to plunge the world into World War One and everything else we can thank the twentieth century for. What wouldn't I give to have been waiting for Princip behind the counter of the deli, that June day a century ago....

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Fourteenth Street

Among other things, during my fifteen years in the navel of the universe I learned the following:
      1) That it is impossible to succeed in New York without beauty, money, and/or connections, and that reports to the contrary are lies; 
      2) That the long hazy summer sunsets on cross-town streets are of a rare beauty and possessed of an ancient melancholy reminiscent of the Adriatic coast of the Habsburg Empire;
      3) That no New Yorker really cares about the outside world;
      4) That I both loved and hated the place.
    Yet I went on putting up with it, as millions do. Where could I move to?
    Well, for a start, away from the bleak and blasted slums of Alphabet City. A drinking chum was getting married and moving to Brooklyn. He let me in on a sweet deal on a rent-controlled apartment he’d lived in for years on Fourteenth Street, hardly the Champs-Elysées but more congenial than East Third. Accordingly, in early’80 I moved from the boulevards of chop-shops and broken dreams eleven blocks uptown to East Fourteenth, squeezed into a moving van alongside two burly East German brothers who’d started a moving company called 2 Krauts 4U—one of the numberless New York stories of striving and desperate ambition, if not of actual success. One was a would-be actor, the other a former Trabant mechanic from Leipzig. They were good movers: hefty, silent, diligent, and soon gone. Left alone, I looked around my new postage-stamp empire and felt happier than I’d been in almost exactly two and a half years, since my return, or migration, Stateside.    

     The new flat, although it was really just another little top-floor walkup, was safer and better-lit and in better repair than the one in the Lower East Side, and it was in a slightly more salubrious neighborhood, near Union Square of working-class legend. Rich were the ambient memories of New York’s dense and compacted history: the site of Tony Pastor’s theatre, featured in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, was a block away; Leon Trotsky had lived on the same block as I, possibly in the same building, brewing strong tea and muttering over his émigré journals and crossword puzzles; Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall had sat just down the street, toward Union Square, on the site of the massive neo-Babylonian Con Ed building that filled the night sky in that direction. From the living-room windows, over on Third Avenue I could see the Metropole Theater, the oldest extant movie house in America, where D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation had had its premiere in 1916, now, or at the time, showing such masterpieces of the seventh art as Anal Intruder II and Rx for Sex. Looking past the Metropole, across the old tenement buildings of Greenwich Village with their wooden water tanks and scrubby roof gardens, I had a clear view of the mighty Twin Towers anchoring the city’s uttermost end, their jeweled scaffolding of illuminated office windows and winking red warning light atop the North Tower radio mast clearly visible at night: a visible symbol of the city I was condemned to live in.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Early Years in New York

Moving into the City was a step up in terms of personal freedom and the ability to light up a cigarette or have a drink at will, but a long step down in ease of life generally. I signed into the Vanderbilt YMCA on East 47th Street as a transient resident, expecting to stay a week or so and then rent an apartment, but inertia and poverty dominated and I stayed for two of the loneliest and most ego-rattling years of my life, years of empty sleepless nights and hopelessness and hypochondria; of low scrabbling jobs and brief friendships—and the deepening appeal of losing oneself in fantasy, for I at least started to write. At the Y, in the long evenings, with the glittering towers of the Upper East Side martially deployed for inspection from my window, on a second-hand Olivetti portable I served my true apprenticeship as a writer, writing stories that were mostly of Irish extraction, heavily derivative of O Faolain and Frank O’Connor, and they were quite awful, even those that were eventually published. But practice is practice, and more and better practice is what I needed, and isolation is a boon to the reluctant writer, because it soon empties his arsenal of excuses and forces him to write one word, then another, etc., until the world has, once again, an unwanted book on its hands….

     There were other writers at the Vanderbilt Y, and playwrights, and artists, and actors, including at least one midlevel soap opera star who came in on the weekends to use the gym, as he said, although I thought his purpose was probably more homoerotic. Except for the co-ed third floor, all the Y’s residents were male, many no doubt lifelong seekers of such all-male enclaves. Happily, my encounters with such were few, even in the places where one had to publicly disrobe, such as public toilets and communal showers. I showered hastily, early in the mornings or in the mid-afternoons, and I was still young enough for my Gargantuan consumption of beer not to have me running to the WC every ten minutes. I was therefore spared excessive exposure to those plazas of priapism. Indeed, I ignored, and was ignored by, everybody. I came; I went; I festered alone. 

I ate my meals in the cafeteria behind The New York Times, eyes darting. Frequently, when I had a little money to spend, I dined on hamburgers in one of those pseudo-Irish pseudo-pubs along Third Avenue, or on Chinese chicken and cashews, or on curries at an Indian restaurant in the East Village. I often stopped at a garishly overlit Greek delicatessen on the corner of Forty-Seventh and Third Avenue and, in a sad echo of my distant salad days in Greece, came away with packaged dolmas, Greek mushrooms, and moussaka and gobbled them in my cell-sized room in front of the gigantic TV that took up fully a third of the available space in my room, and washed everything down with mighty draughts of Schlitz or Budweiser which, although barely palatable, had the virtue of costing next to nothing and coming in 16-ounce cans called “tall boys” that contained sufficient alcohol to mildly inebriate. I backed up the beer with Kent III cigarettes to the tune of about a pack and half a day. My health turned good to excellent, but I was in mortal fear of dropping dead at any moment and merely smoked more, out of anxiety. Oh, those anxious days. And oh the days were long, and the nights longer yet. But there were compensations, as there always are in the life of a romantic dreamer, in the mere living of life itself; in the slant of New York’s rubescent Egyptian light athwart the great monoliths on a late afternoon; in the throbbing race of humanity along manic boulevards; in the near-palpable hope and sense of destiny that flings itself at you as you walk the streets alone with your fears and the near-certain knowledge that a chance encounter that will change your life awaits around the next corner, or the next…or the next….and it could be the love of your life, or a mugger intent on mayhem. 

Once, for me, it was John Updike. I was walking along Third Avenue unwrapping a meatball sandwich, he was striding along, gazing dreamily upward, possibly at the penthouse apartments and wondering how many of their residents were playing at Couples and Rabbits; then, bar a neat sidestep on his part, we’d have collided. “Excuse me,” he said, leaving me gaping, wordless, no, no, wait, wasn’t that…that actor…? Damn! Five minutes later, eating my meatball sandwich on a park bench, I remembered it was Updike; I’d seen him on the Dick Cavett Show only a month or so before. 

Ave atque vale, anyway.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

An American Immigrant to America

My first weeks in America were an immigrant’s confection of awe and expectation; for in spite of my native tongue and U.S. citizenship I felt very nearly as much of an immigrant as the Greeks and Russians and Koreans I saw behind the lunch counters in New York’s delis and diners, and the Israeli who, in exchange for two quarters, handed me an enormous pretzel from his hot-dog-and-pretzel cart outside the Empire State Building one bright cold day in February 1978. I gaped at the size of the pretzel, as I’d been gaping, with wide eyes (and gorged on memories of Melville, Whitman, Fitzgerald et al), at all of magical Manhattan. It was exotic in its differences from Europe. The buildings were obelisks of blunt wealth, without humanizing bakeries or pubs or cafes on the street floor. People exchanged no glances. Great clouds of steam rose spookily into the air from the grates that capped the netherworld beneath Fifth Avenue. Beeping yellow taxis, driven by Sikh or Filipino madmen, jolted down the arrow-straight thoroughfares. The city was full of foreigners, foreign languages, and shops selling foreign products. And yet it was all entirely, utterly American: as evidence, the national flag of the US was on display everywhere, like a tribal fetish, in greater profusion than I’d ever seen the flags of my other countries, even on their national holidays. (Except Switzerland, another semi-fractious federation not entirely confident of its identity.)
     “You from Ireland?” inquired the pretzel man, on no conceivable basis of judgment except my face.
     “Absolutely,” I said. I was so pleased that I bought another gigantic pretzel and lathered it in utterly anodyne mustard that had never seen Dijon.
     “I come from Israel,” he said. “You know Israel? No? It’s a great place. But I think I stay here. Hey! It’s America.”
     Hey! It was, indeed. And the differences from Europe continued to fascinate and perplex me, as if I’d been expecting a larger Dublin with skyscrapers. First off there were no establishments recognizable to a Franco-Irishman as pubs or cafes, only “bars” or “saloons,” frigidly air-conditioned, with table service; although on the East Side I found a smattering of places that called themselves “pub,” as no self-respecting pub would. These establishments were on plumbline-straight streets that bore the names of numbers rather than people or things: how unimaginative, I thought, until I got used to the idea and relished its practicality. And I realized that the names Fifth Avenue, say, or Fourteenth Street, could be as evocative, and even as poetic, as the names Via del Corso or Morehampton Road, depending on associations, when they grew old enough.
   And of course old in New York in those waning years of the twentieth century meant, with one or two eighteenth-century exceptions, the nineteenth century, but anything that old was a rarity in most places in America anyway (except Boston and Philadelphia and oddities like Williamsburg and Santa Fe). Buildings went up, fulfilled their function, and were torn down, to make way for newer, bigger buildings destined to be even shorter-lived. It was a barren place for one who grew up amid the whispering of past millennia. But in New York history has been concentrated in such a way as to render the place more ancient than its years. In its early days it was no more than a way station of the Dutch and British empires; then virtually overnight it became the commercial hub of the New World, then Babylon-on- the-Subway, then the world’s capital, and all in a span scarcely longer than the age of my mother’s house.
On my first day there I walked from the Empire State Building at Thirty-Fourth Street down Fifth Avenue to Washington Square and from there to the island’s end, where the sad harborfront gives way to Lady Liberty—oddly insignificant in reality, I found, dwarfed by the scale of the skyline behind her—and the salty Atlantic tide, washing in Old World boots and condoms from over there. In that district of alleys in the permanent shadow of lofty cold skyscrapers, only the Woolworth Building and Trinity and St. Paul’s churches survived from the distant past, and a half-dozen or so renovated shops and warehouses at the South Street Seaport, and a few forgotten side-street emporia; and of course, at that time they were all beneath the great protective twin silhouette of the Twin Towers that, ultimately, failed to protect, or be protected. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

RIP, Dad

My father (second from the Pope's left) died at the end of 1980, shortly after delightedly learning that the hated President Carter had been defeated in the general election. Such excess of good news may have done him in. Three weeks earlier I’d helped him move from his chaotic old Delaware Avenue lair into a modern, airy apartment that overlooked a narrow ribbon of the Delaware River. The new place was too sterile for him, despite the heavy tobacco odor and grime-sheened possessions we imported from his old flat. It was no good. He hated his new digs, but then he hated everything at first; no doubt he’d have adjusted to it in time. But he had no time left. His wan brother, my uncle George, called me one night at my New York flat and told me Dad had had a stroke and was in the Veterans’ Hospital in Wilmington and wasn’t expected to live through the night. Not unaware of the inherent drama of the situation, I took a night train from Penn Station (fortunately, I had just enough for the fare) and spent the next three days at the bedside of my dying father, who was only just capable of recognizing me, being otherwise twisted and distorted like an old tree root by the stroke. He stared at the ceiling most of the time, but in a final moment of lucidity just before he died, he hoisted himself up on one elbow and cleared his throat as I’d heard him do so many times and said casually, as if making conversation over pre-dinner beers: “You know, I always meant to tell you, son, we Boylans are descended from an Irish princess.”

     I didn’t know what to say, not being aware of any princesses in our Monaghan hog-farmer bloodlines. He stared for a moment, and then fell sideways, as if shot. He was dead within hours. He was 72. Not a great age, but not too bad, considering.