Sunday, April 3, 2016


I once knew a girl who lived in
New York City. Whenever we'd
visit with each other, we'd talk
about various things. She had
a grandfather who'd written  -
many years before  -  a book
entitled 'Lincoln, Master of English.'
It was about, yes, Abraham Lincoln,
but not about his Presidency or his
politics or the issues of the Civil War,
or any of that. Curiously, and
interestingly too, it was about, as
the title suggested, Lincoln's command
of oratory and biblical cadence and
the enrapturing forms of language
and voice he used. He lived in Nutley,
as an old fellow, with his wife, in a
very nice stone house. Probably
quite expensive too. We visited once,
and I found them each to be very
pleasant, and grand conversationalists
too. Years later, as I'd re-tell of this to
friends, and others, we'd usually always
end up remarking on the basic incongruity
of that title and subject, and then it would
dissemble into jokes, usually instigated,
of course, by me. The sorts of parody
things that went like : 'Stalin, Great
Badminton Player.' Or, 'Hitler, Very
Skilled Bowler.' I won't go on, you
get the gist. The idea was to take the
concept and the person out of their
usual context. Not mass murderer,
just a person renowned for something
else. 'Idi Amin, Wonderful Gardener';
'Pol Pot, Practiced Gourmet; Saddam
Hussein, Great Checker Player.'
Anyway, this girl, the author's
granddaughter here, used to always
amuse me  -  with her views of urban
life versus the sort of lives lived here
in these 'hinterlands', hereabouts, I
mean : New Jersey. She'd once remarked
to me that she couldn't understand how
we could live in situations where the
door opens right to the outside, (being
used to hallways and apartment levels
and stairways and all herself). She
remarked that she didn't think she'd
be able to do that, it would be too
scary and seemingly so dangerous.
I'd say 'Well, it's not exactly like we
have lions and tigers, fierce, running
about. And anyway, they'd have to
get across the lawn and driveway first.'
(Leave them laughing, I always say).
When I was in the Studio School, I
hung out a lot with a girl named
Judy Tenenbaum, now a big-time
artist under another name. Whenever
I'd be hopping a bus or train, to run
home a bit, a day or two here or there,
to Avenel, she'd always refer to it as
my 'going out to visit the provinces.'
She too was a life-long New York City
person, (in addition to her travels to
France and Maine and Germany, and
all those other far-flung places she'd
hit) and she referred to anything not
NYC as 'the provinces.' I always
thought that was odd too. She wasn't
much the kind of person you could
joke around with, so I never really
played around with the concept or
responded with any sort of biting
anti-humor or anything. I'd rather
have thought she'd then just snap
my neck than laugh. When you're
a strange kid, as I was, in different
places, you develop (or I did anyway)
a skill right off of 'reading' people.
So you know what's up and who can
take what from you. It's a way of just
being careful and sensing things  -
the way a dog sniffs the air again
each morning, sometimes in almost
the same spot (no 'Spot' pun there),
just to again be sure of the place
and the situation.  I developed that
skill quickly and early on. New York,
I found, was not the sort of place
you want to be caught crossing people.
You need to learn how to intuit, and
read, situations right off. (That's a
lot of nothing over a 'provinces'
reference, but I'm a cautious guy).
When you ain't got nothing, you
got nothing to lose?' No, that's not
exactly right, you still have plenty.
When I first got to New York City, 
in this same vein, I entered very
quickly the underside of what is to
be called 'urban life', I guess, by a
stretch. Essentially homeless, 
walking the streets, sleeping in 
Tompkins Square Park for a time,
all that stuff. The first time I did
actually 'work', to get some money
and get something started, I hoped,
I found myself working with a few
marginal at best characters. This I 
did very gingerly, with some 
trepidation for sure. The one guy
who befriended me, right off, was
a hulking Native-American-Mexican
guy, named Jose or something. He
was big, tall, fierce and brooding.
I sensed trouble. The story that did
eventually percolate up to me about 
him  -  from him, in fact, since on 
one else would much talk for him  -  
was that he was there from Colorado,
hiding out, where he'd pushed his 
wife out of a speeding car as they 
were going around a steep curve
on a rugged hill. Quite a story, yes,
but all the usual questions and doubts
that would arise normally were just
left unsaid  -  because of this guy's
demeanor and ways of being. No, I 
would not be the one to say, or to
scoff, 'Yeah, right, while you were
driving, at speed, one hand on the 
wheel, I suppose? And she went
willingly? Right out the car, at your
request, no clutching, no clinging,
no struggle?' It would follow, if so,
that I'd probably be the next on his
list of victims. At that point, such a
person rules his own domain, no 
questions. I harbored my suspicions,
but kept quite about everything. The
raft-load of jokes I could have hit
him with was endless. 'Oh, really,
did she bounce when she hit the 
rocks? Have you ever heard of 
Tempura House? It's a home for
lightly battered women.' After 
this they just start turning what's
called  -  or used to be called  -  
'off color'. So I'll stop, even 
though I don't think that 
concept exists any longer.
One thing that strikes me, as I drive
around now  -  this is New Jersey stuff,
no longer in New York City here  -  is
that, when I was a kid, everything I used 
to see was wood  -  houses, garages, 
workshops, all that. All was made
of wood  -  if a little old, it leaned or
sagged; if the paint was a little old, it
had faded, or peeled or shipped away. I
remember distinctly the way old colors 
would change over time  -  beaten by the
sunlight, faded by endless days and as the
porous, thirsty wood again absorbed or
engulfed the color and paint, almost as 
if back into itself. Wood was a real and 
a solid thing. My doghouses were always 
of wood; my father had built sheds and 
things, always of wood. It would dry-rot,
break away, fall off in pieces, give you clues
to itself and have all those stories of the
times and adventures it had gone through.
Wood was like the people it represented :
all those old, serious folk, plodding along,
intent on task and quiet in their ways.
That's all gone now. I look around, and
everything is plastic or vinyl sided, not
even metal anymore  -  all the shades of
color or plastic tans or light blues. The
plastic ages badly. Even fences are
plastic now. That's some serious
difference  -  the entire tenor or place
and atmosphere changes by that. The 
roadways and the rows of houses, 
everything is different now. The world is, 
or seems to want to be, lighter, more 
colorful; playful, less serious by far  -  
nothing long-lasting, everything fleeting 
and ephemeral. Even the jokes, and the
music and the 'literature.' It's all different.
People getting thrown out of cars? There's
probably a reality show about that 
somewhere out in the provinces.

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