Time’s up.

5cbeb4a9cc178a9454946c0783801454

Paul Mann woke up to find a number on the inside of his forearm.

It hadn’t been there the night before but all the same it was somehow familiar, as if it had always been there, as if it belonged there.

Then he remembered the numbers on the arms of his parents’ friends who had survived the war.

A woman in the neighborhood who worked at Mother’s Bakery had such a number on her forearm which she seemed to wear proudly. She never wore long sleeves. Each time he went to buy a seeded rye sliced the number was there.

“Go wash it off,” his wife commanded. “You look like you just got out of the camps.”

He washed and scrubbed away, but the number would not budge. His arm became raw.

He tried shampoo, dish-washing liquid, and even solvents. Nothing worked. He sprayed it with WD40, but the number remained and his arm smelled like the garage.

His doctor prescribed what his doctor always prescribed. “Leave it alone and it will go away”. It didn’t. Unable to think of what to do, he remembered a tattoo parlor downtown.

He had passed it for years on his way to work. Now he lingered across the street before finally going in. A large man, not young, came out from behind the curtain, wiping his nose with a well-used handkerchief. He was a walking advertisement for, or against, tattoos. His shoulders and arms were immense, but the skin, covered in images of crouching boxers, and triumphant champions with their arms raised, was beginning to sag. Rocky Marciano, “Undefeated Heavyweight Champion of the World (49 wins-0 losses)”, just looked droopy.

The man inspected the number for a long time.  Eventually he said, not unhappily, “This might sting a bit.” He set about the forearm with a vibrating needle. It hurt like hell and bled a little. Then it bled some more. Each time the man paused he wiped it with his handkerchief. The number remained, unmoved. It’s stubbornness only encouraged the man to press harder.

Finally Paul pulled away. “Jesus!”

As time passed it became clear that Paul was not alone. Other people woke up to their own numbers. Each was different. Some were on their forearms, some on their upper arms, some just below the shoulder. A few were on the back of the neck. A young woman discovered hers on the inside of her ankle. It seemed to be an epidemic.

There were always 8 digits.

At first people panicked. They ran to their their doctors, consulted specialists, went back to church, and consumed the views of minor celebrities. The Kardashians claimed the numbers were a lottery from another world, heaven perhaps. The military scanned the skies for extra-terrestrial evidence.

“The Day The Earth Stood Still”, the original 1951 Robert Wise version, was re-released and played to big audiences. Fox news quickly set up a Psychics Hotline. The sale of Ouija boards took off. Right wing politicians called on people to pray and the government to do something. Pundits opined.

Eventually nothing happened. Life went on. People no longer went to the beach and the sale of short sleeved shirts and tops declined radically. But mostly people stopped worrying.  The television stopped mentioning the numbers, even on the local news. Water cooler conversation turned back to football.

Then one day an older man with a number on his left bicep, was crossing a busy street. He looked carefully both ways for cars, saw none, stepped off the curb, and was wiped out by a cyclist powering away with his head down in what passed for a cycle lane.

The cyclist broke his collar bone. The man broke his existence.

The undertaker, taking a break from cleaning the corpse, sat smoking a cigarette and reading the newspaper. Looking up, the number had started to fade. Soon it was gone, but not before he noticed the date in his newspaper.

In the natural course of things other deaths followed.

People died of cancers, heart disease, strokes. Most died at night, some on country roads a few miles from home, their alcohol-inspired brains surprised by the sudden appearance of a tree. Old people slipped on the ice and slipped away in hospital. Soldiers died in what were once called wars but were now called “conflicts”. Babies died in their cots and children died for no good reason.

Each time their 8 digits slowly disappeared.

Their time was up.

 

 

 

Wow.

 

Sometime around 1965 I scored some “special” grass.

The word grass dates me. Today it would be called, disrespectfully, weed. But there was nothing weedy about it.

I remember complaining, holding up the transparent bag with what looked like a thin line of fine, golden pubic hair at the bottom: “Is that all you can sell?”

My source looked at me pityingly.

“You’ve heard of Panama Red and Acapulco gold? This is better. It’s unbelievable.”

Of course everything he ever sold me was “unbelievable”, so I walked away unbelieving.

On Saturday night we all tried it.

My sister Marcia and her boyfriend George Minervini, George’s brother Dennis, Dennis’ girlfriend, and Neil Berg, who that morning was supposed to have started his first job but decided to take the day off.

We all shared a single thin joint. Everyone thought I was holding back. When had I gotten so stingy?

Then Marcia and George went out.

Sometime later, and suddenly it was impossible to say how long later was–10 minutes? Two hours?—the phone rang. It was Marcia.

“George is on the floor of the Chinese restaurant and he thinks he’s dying.”

The rest of us somehow made our way down Johnson Avenue to the restaurant just south of 235th Street. We found the dying George, now in a booth, un-dead, and starry-eyed.

“Wow.” He said.

And then a little later, “Wow”.

George did not have a large vocabulary at the best of times. He suspected words, and thought the fewer the better. Strong and silent, he was sort of the Hemingway of Yonkers. Not that he could write.

But now “Wow” was the full extent of his vocabulary. And at that moment it felt surprisingly adequate, articulate even.  “Wow” seemed to cover all possible sensations, insights and emotions, even if it made for a rather repetitive conversation, interrupted by the occasional, wistful, “Can you get any more?”

For years afterwards people referred to “that stuff that Gerry scored”.
It was my fame in the neighborhood: my unique, small light at the center of the dark universe. All subsequent stuff didn’t measure up. The grass had become legend.

What everyone meant by “wow” was this: as you inhaled for the first time your body physically rose, 6 to 8 feet into the air. Whoosh. And there it stayed, floating. You were at peace with the world below as you would never be again.

The great globe and the golden future it promised was at your feet.

Wow is right.

Mr Berra.

So you get passed Mantle and Maris and you walk Skowron, only to get to Yogi.

He stands at the plate smaller than the others, a fire plug of a guy, no relation to the bulging gym-made specimens of today. But there’s gym strong and there’s the son-of-Italian-immigrants strong. The kind of strong that sits on its haunches for nine innings day after day and year after year, and still rises to get the clutch hit.

And bats the better part of .300 his entire career.

Now, pitch after pitch, nothing reaches the catcher. Strike after strike, ball after ball is fouled off. In the stands people fidgit. The pitcher gets frustrated. He whacks the ball into his glove, kicks the dirt turns to the bleachers, and looks up at the sky for relief, but there isn’t any. He’s thrown all his best stuff. He’s thrown all his stuff.Mr Berra is still there, waiting.

The umpire calls for more balls.

The pitcher tries to waste one away. Maybe Berra will chase it. He does. The greatest bad ball hitter the world has ever seen, a man who always left his nerves at home before coming to the ball park, uncoils and reaches out for a ball a mile high and half a mile outside and punches it into the right field stands.

When I was a kid on 167th Street and the Grand Concourse (which was 6 blocks from 161st Street where you take a right at Joyce Kilmer Park, go passed the Bronx County Court House and walk down two blocks to River Avenue and Yankee Stadium) we would play stickball on McClellan Avenue while listening to the games and dodging cars (radio is the only way to “watch” baseball if you are not in the Stadium).

When the Yankees were 6 runs down in the 7th we’d idly wonder how they were going to pull this one out, never doubting they would. And they usually did.

You can love the man, laugh at his malapropisms,  but never, never forget the ballplayer.

No more Yogi? It’s official: the 50s are over.

1966.

The cabin is dark. My reading light is the only one on. It’s been on all night, all the way across the Atlantic. I have been trying to keep my voice down in deference to the uncomfortable sleepers around me. But the laughter escapes.

It is early in the morning of September 18th 1966. I will be 22 in two days and I I am reading Catch-22 for the first.

All too soon the BOAC 707 prepares to land at Heathrow.   I am flying to Britain to do an MA at the University of Sussex and avoid Viet Nam. Yossarian, Dunbar, Nately, Major Major and the Soldier in White are my companions. They would have done the same.

I am also emigrating, and in my father’s foot steps.

In 1939 my father left Poland a few months ahead of the Blitzkrieg. His family and friends, except the few who got out before him, would soon be, in the words of Dunbar, “disappeared”. London was a stopping off before he boarded the Queen Mary, the one with three  smoke stacks, left for New York. It was the last trip west the ship would make before being turned into a troop carrier for the duration of the war. Stepping out into the afternoon sunlight from Brighton station after the coach into London and the train from Victoria, I was predisposed to like what I found. And I did. The boisterous paranoia of Heller’s men in the caught in middle of the Med melted into the extraordinary surface ordinariness domestic life in Brighton. Neat terraced houses marched in formation down the to the sea. Smoke curled from ceramic chimney pots as if choreographed. It was a movie set, on the surface at least without dissonance, and strangely familiar.

I discovered pubs and pints and that I could speak a version of the language. I learned to pay in pounds, shillings and pence. And how to make £5 almost last a weekend. People were friendly. Being American barely 20 years after the war still had some (declining) caché. 1966 was like 1789, as Wordsworth noted, a good time to be alive. Revolution was in the air. Spirits and hemlines were rising. Grey, wet afternoons were leavened by psychedelic visions walking up East Street. Basil Spence’s university, red bricks rising cold and muddy from the Sussex clay midway between Brighton and Lewes, was new and exciting. (A place of “hectic heterosexuality” reported Time Magazine.) It felt more like an experiment in the future than a place to swot through the night. Predictably, I did not.

Brighton cast a spell. An old madam with too much rouge and lipstick that wandered passed her lips, tarted up many times and crumbling around the edges. It put on a gay front. Beneath the seaside architecture’s hardened arteries it was lively, raunchy. Still a place of pleasure, with the genes of Prinny’s Regency and its underground passages to a mistress’ door. Older executives in large motor cars ferried young secretaries passed the Royal Pavillion to weekend “conferences” at the Metropole or Grand. Brighton’s English language schools attracted young women from all over, especially Scandinavia. And the young women attracted young men. You could learn Swedish riding the buses. The new university added thousands of young people to lower the average age and raise the temperature of the town. The university itself was a building site. There were not nearly enough dorm rooms for the students, so most, like me, lived in bedsits or guest houses in town.

One such was Bon Accord in Dorset Gardens, which led down to St James’s Street, the main thoroughfare of Kemp Town. Bon Accord was all-girls, including one young woman I was attracted to and she, unlikely as it seemed, to me. Bill and Doris, its two older, unsmiling landlords, were padding their retirement by renting out accommodation to young people they did not approve of. It had a proper kitchen as opposed to the tiny Baby Bellings—single burners with a small “oven” underneath– supplied to most bedsits, including mine. One evening I decided to cook a meal for us, but after the evening’s wine I somehow left for bed without washing up. I came back early the next morning before people were up to make amends. The door opened a crack. “That American with the blue Mini? He’s not allowed,” Doris’s high, thin witchy voice declared somewhere inside.

Occasionally I called my parents in New York. I went to the post office on North Street and booked one of the cubicles and pre-paid for the first three minutes. You could hear the signal traveling across the Atlantic, a high, static whoosh: Brighton to London to the Bronx.

Many seconds later a small, familiar voice from a great distance said “Hello…?” and the anxious interrogation began. My mother (shouting so as to be heard 3000 miles away): “Are you all right?” “I’m fine.” “Are you eating?”

“Yes, Mom.”

“Are you sure you’re eating enough?”

“Yes, Mom, I’m sure.” “Are you warm enough?”

“Yes,” I lied.”

“Should we send you anything?”

“No, I don’t need anything. I’m fine.”

And finally. “When are you coming home?”

If they had known how long it would be they would have disowned me. (If I had known how long it would be I would have disowned me.)

In the following weeks a box would appear with Crest toothpaste, Oreos, Hershey’s chocolate and other mainstays of American life.

Once a whole cheesecake from Lindy’s on 51st Street arrived. It must have weighed 8 pounds. I wondered what kind of cheese did Lindy’s put in that cake? Because, like “the salami you sent to your boy in the army”, it lasted a remarkably long time. Even divvied up amongst my “starving” English friends and a few homesick Americans some remained. And remained.

I spent the first year of my one-year MA course majoring in life in Brighton. I was an excellent student. I studied the rasaam soup at the Madras on Prince Albert Street in The Lanes, and pints of bitter at Dr Brighton’s by the Royal Albion. (“When you’re tired of Brighton you’re tired of life” read the sign above the bar, appropriated from both Dr Johnson and London.) Weekly I studied the menu at the Kebab House on Trafalgar Street where the portions were huge. I made careful inspections of the gardens at Lewes Crescent, especially on weekends when my friend Edward, who was in the import business dealing in products from Afghanistan, came down from London to for a quiet smoke. A fox lived there. To see that long, loping form, floating across the grass in the late afternoon crepuscular light as the water became the sky and as the sun lowered itself west over the Channel, seemed pretty magical. (This was before foxes learned what day people’s rubbish was put out for collection. Now there is anything but romance seeing them lurk around dark city streets.)

Eventually I decided my true interest was not the History of Ideas but what was then contemporary fiction: those authors whose picaresque heroes, manipulation of time, mocking absurdity and black sense of humour made sense of the horrors of the latter part of the 20th century. Writers like Vonnegut, Pynchon, Grass and, of course, Joseph Heller. Today no spoof, parody or satire by even those giants could keep up with current craziness. Catch-22 is no longer a dystopian fantasy. It’s the daily news. It’s here we are, back in Iraq. A one-year MA eventually took me three years to complete. Had I been smarter it would have taken even longer. Brighton was a great place to spend Viet Nam. Like Yossarian, I had made it to “Sweden”.

Tyrannosaurus Rex.

In 1968 I was having the time of my life driving around London in an old Mini.

BXP 322 was not of Issigonis’ original 1958 production, but it had issues.

The transmission had no synchromesh, which meant you had to get the engine at the same speed as the gears before shifting. There was a lot of grinding of teeth, the transmission’s and mine, until I learned to rev the engine and slip the clutch at the right moment as the rpms reduced.

There were small holes in the floor through which you could see daylight and the road, useful for gauging your speed. Moss grew in green circles around the holes.

The body’s original bright blue paint had been washed out to something Turner or Cotman might have chosen to represent shallow water.

There were no door handles; you pulled a cable inside the door instead.

The windows did not go down or up but slid back and forth. The wiper blades, never in synch, often fell off, usually on the A23 on the way to Brighton. Always in the rain.

The engine didn’t start on cold mornings. Parking on a hill was mandatory.

The car was a death trap, especially to pedestrians. The sheet metal was joined together with pressed seams. In a collision they would unfold, exposing their sharp edges.

God, I loved that car.

It was so low to the ground that at 30MPH you felt you were zooming around corners like Dan Gurney or Jackie Stewart. It was impossible to turn over. The Mini’s front wheel drive and transverse engine put the weight directly over the driving wheels, giving it great road-holding.

It had the turning circle of a politician.

There was no over-steer or under-steer. It went where you pointed it.

It nipped in and out of traffic jams and into parking spaces. The parsimonious 850cc engine sipped gas.

Front wheel drive meant no drive shaft, no hump down the middle of the passenger compartment. The car was the template for Dr Who’s police box: bigger inside than out.

The Mini and I delivered psychedelic posters around London. Ours were a more superior type than the usual San Francisco, drug inspired designs. We were more spiritual. We had Indian mandalas which glowed in the presence of a “black” light.

Stare at it under the right stimulus and eternity soon beckoned.

We were entrepreneurs. We had a business. It was called California Imported Arts: CIA Ltd. We even had an office: 18 Soho Square.

My two partners were from the West Coast. Edward  knew every Beach Boys lyric. And sang them.

Usually, around noon, we would rouse ourselves, climb into the Mini and try to sell the posters. In addition to building a graphic empire, we did anything anyone hired us to do.

Edward, a man of many talents, built a perspex desk for John Lennon’s office at Apple.

Tony Cox asked us to help promote an Ornette Coleman concert at the Albert Hall. At the time Tony was married to Yoko Ono. We’d having meetings in their flat across the street from Regents Park usually sitting on the floor. These were occasionally interrupted by Kyoko, Yoko’s daughter, racing in and out of the room.

Across the hall lived Daniel Richter and his wife Gill. Richter was a mime artist. After much searching Kubrick cast him as the principal ape in the opening sequence of 2001 A Space Odyssey. He is the one who throws the thigh bone into space and the future in one of the great scene transitions. He was also in “The Revolutionary”, Paul Williams’ first feature (and maybe Jon Voight’s too).

Paul impressed us greatly. When asked how he was getting home one night after dinner at our house in deepest Wandsworth, he said “I have a car outside”. We looked out the window. He did, an Austin Princess, with driver.

We sold and delivered posters to any shop that would take them. In Ornette’s case, many did. The concert was a sell out. I am still surprised.

One day Edward and I took bunch of posters up to an office in northwest London, Kilburn or Willesden, which turned out to belong to the Pink Floyd. As I turned to leave a short, good looking, intense young guy with a halo of frazzled hair and what seemed like eye shadow introduced himself and asked if he could hitch a ride back to central London. On the way he asked if we had ever heard of Tyrannosaurus Rex?

Of course I said. I had seen the movies on Channel 9 in New York. Biggest and most ferocious meat-eating dinosaur, I said.

Good, he said. Why, I asked.

He said he was thinking of starting a band and calling it that.

And he did.

Years later Marc Bolan, a passenger in another Mini, died after it crashed into a steel chain link fence post in Barnes, southwest London. He was not wearing a seat belt.

One day when we were driving in the west end, the Mini just stopped. It was as if it had reached the end of its road.  In the dark of night my wife and I pushed it to the front of Holbein Motors, just off Lower Sloane Street. I gave BXP 322 a last pat on the bonnet and we took off. I assuaged my guilt: it was the garage I had brought it to often. If anyone can resurrect it they can. If not, they can junk it and get paid for their trouble.

Months later, coming out of a theater one night, I made eye contact with a familiar face. And he with me. We nodded, both unable to make the connection.

It was only after I was safely away that I realized it was Mr Holbein Garage.

 

 

The Me Boys.

 

Shortly after they got together, Clark and Tim decided to dedicate their lives to pleasure.

Fully embracing the lazy dictum that perception is reality, they began to see the world through rose-colored eyes. Everything good became great. Every meeting was phenomenal . Every new cocktail sensational, every bar heavenly, every workout mind-blowing, every friend the most precious, every party the most fun ever, every barbecue was blessed with the most perfect sunset. In fact, every day gave evidence they were the specific beneficiaries of a beneficent nature.

But there was a little planning too.

The charities they supported were all good causes but also had good fund-raisers. Doing good did not preclude a good time. Nothing enhanced the flavor of barbecued shrimp with cilantro sauce like helping Honduran immigrants find living accommodation.

An iPhone, quickly snapped, sent their experiences to Facebook.

They became Facebook Boswells, effusive chroniclers of themselves, one wonderful time after another. Bars, restaurants, cities, parties, now weddings, football games merged in one smiling photo op.

All this, of course, was dependent on income. These were not Ira Gershwin’s “Plenty of Nothin’” pleasures. You needed plenty of somethin’.

Those unbelievable watering holes, those fabulous restaurants, that stunningly thin veal scallopine, the theater weekends in New York tracking Stephen Sondheim productions and Neil Patrick Harris: cost-a-packet.

But Clark and Timmy were not alone. Their friends seemed to fly at the same altitude of fun and fundedness. No kids to support, and everyone had successful careers. But there was never mention of their jobs.

It was impossible to know what anyone actually did.

Work was a second, less important life. Being continually on the move (JFK to ORD 9:15, fabulous stewardess, great omelette) entertained and reporting it was their real vocation. They were Type Es, not Type As. And they didn’t need GQ or Vogue to feature them.  They had the internet and could bear witness to each other’s internet celebrity.

Andy Warhol may have promised that all Americans would be famous for 15 minutes. But the internet took that promise and extended it.

Clark and Tim and friends shared more than the same notion of the good life. They shared similar gym-trained bodies. No longer exactly young, but toned and tanned enough for pictures by the various pools they appeared in or around together. Men and women shared the same big smiles, as if a key light was trained on their camera-turned faces.

This was the good life without the dark bits. AIDS no longer casted a shadow. Drugs were not a big presence. Being and looking healthy, working out and being buff, wearing nice clothes and smiling for the camera—narcissism—that was their drug. The thing is, you could never rest. You always have to be on the lookout for the next event, the next unadulterated pleasure, the next photo op.

Living for pleasure, in public, is a life’s work.

 

Sonny Burns.

 

“I need ten thousand dollars.”

“How are you, Sonny?”

“In a week you will have $30,000, I swear on my mother’s tits”, said Sonny Burns. This was meant to express sincerity.

“Where are you, Sonny?” Bob asked. The phone answered. Crackle. Hiss. Bob shouted down it.

“Sonny, WHERETHEFUCKAREYOU!?”

“I’m out of town,” said Sonny Burns, which meant he was out of touch: in Los Angeles, London, New York, Mexico, on Mars or around the corner. He was a ghost. He could be dead. You never knew where he was or when he would, suddenly, come back to life. It was always when he wanted something: in this case, investors.

As usual he was high on of his latest discovery.

“Forget Panama Red, Acapulco Gold—this stuff is better. It’s unbelievable, man. With your first toke you’ll be You’ll be three feet off the ground. I can get POUNDS. I’ve got a buyer for every oz I can get. It’s a no brainer. But I have to move fast or it’s gone.  I need the money yesterday.”

Two weeks and several empty bank accounts later we sat watching the silent phone.  And sat. Could our pal have forgotten? Was he having a party without us? Or was he really dead this time? Had someone found his sincerity insincere?

The days passed. We felt aggrieved, then worried and, finally, murderous.  If by any chance Mr Burns was living up to his name, old friend or not we wanted to kill him. Or at least frighten him into picking up the phone.

Bob was from a small town in Massachusettes. He was a tough boy but sounded like the Stage Manger from Our Town. I’m from the Bronx. I sound like it. It had to be me.

I practiced my De Niro, John Garfield and Paul Muni, I tried a little Broderick Crawford from Highway Patrol. I even tried Brando, the Brando from One-Eyed Jacks, but nobody can really do Brando without sounding like a parody of Brando except Marlon.

In the end I went for Muni. Muni was a short guy but had big intensity.

Muni’s voice could be a sneer: low and threatening, with a nicely foreign mittel-european edge to it. His whispers were like paper cuts. You didn’t know you were bleeding to death until you saw the blood. None of the histrionics of Pacino, no volume, but a more latent insanity. Or so I hoped.

And dialed the number.

I talked slowly, formally, deliberately, almost solicitously, with pauses to give him time to worry. “Is this Mr Sonny Burns?”

“Who’s this?”

“Mr Burns (PAUSE) a mutual friend has asked me to call you and suggest (PAUSE) suggest you get in touch with him soon. Very soon. (PAUSE) You understand what I am saying? You know to whom I refer? Of course you do. You are a very smart man, Mr Burns, and will undoubtedly do the (PAUSE) smart thing, won’t you? Then you won’t hear from me again. And that will be good. (PAUSE) You have a nice life, Mr Burns.”

A few hours later the silent phone rang.  Sonny’s voice wasn’t on edge, it was over it.

“What the fuck is going on? I was just about to call you. I got the money, just like I said. Everything was fine. Just a little hold up. Everything’s cool. You’ll have the cash tomorrow. There’s no problem. There is no problem, right?”

“How are you, Sonny? No, Sonny, there is no problem, now.”

 

 

Camp Eden.

The Catskills are full of ghosts. These speak Yiddish.

Middle-aged men in white shorts, dark socks and spindly legs materialize in the steep, densely forested granite hills that hug the Hudson; hills which the Dutch, newly arrived from their flat land home, called mountains.

The men walk and talk, they stroll, in pairs. Some have young children on their shoulders. The fathers bend low under branches that reach out, like good Jewish trees, to stroke the the kids. While they walk they argue— about life, socialism, history (of which they had seen plenty).

From hill-top to hill-top the ball bounces between them. Generations ago they might have been young scholars arguing over every point in the Talmud. Here in the Hudson Valley the dialectic instinct still drives them on.

Point, counterpoint. Statement, rebuttal.

“Yes, you see?” “Not so fast.” “It was proven.” “It was not.”

“Walter Benjamin said…”

“Pfff, Walter Benjamin. Now Gershom Scholem maintains…”

“You are forgetting Hegel.”

“Hegel schmegel….”

They seek edge and clarity in the dark hills. Or just the pleasure of interrogation and argument. The dialectic is how society moves ahead step by step, even in the Catskills.

Occasionally the sun breaches the phalanx of trees that reach straight up to the sky, throwing spangles of light and revealing the forest floor. Now it picks out a clump of poison ivy. There was none in the old country. They pause to discuss. Everything is up for discussion

“If it be three, let it be” one intones, in English, counting the leaves.

“Pah. An old wives tale,” says his companion, bending down, reaching out. Then changes his mind.

Secular socialists, these ghosts practice words, not religion. Words are real because they don’t just carry ideas, they create the world.

After all, in the beginning was The Word.

Having survived the world war they now pursue the millennium, or at least a better and more just world. How to get there?

Onward they amble, like History, like the old 20th Century idea of Progress, which to them is the same thing. Puffing cigars, stopping to expound, make a point, refuting the point, enlightening the other; their hands, eyes, expressions and mouth all talk at once.

The sound of Yiddish, a 10th Century concoction of ancient languages infused with Middle High German, rises amidst chatter of native birds and untouched trees. But the heavy spell of the forest and the ever-winding Hudson below go unnoticed. These men see with their heads, not their eyes. They see ideas. They see the future. They see utopia. They see an America full of wonderful things—like Calamine lotion.

One day, and it will be soon, they will start to see themselves as Americans. And argue about the Yankees. What they do not see now is the storm rolling in across the Catskills, announced for the last 10 minutes by approaching thunder. When the rain hits them in great waves, they are surprised.

Meanwhile, looking down on our mid-century spirits are even older ones: hundreds of years older. And these ghosts speak Dutch. This is Rip Van Winkle country.

Here is Fishkill and Peekskill and any kill you like. Before this land was American it was British and before that it belonged to Hollanders. (And before that it was the Iroquois’ land: the Mahicans, who called the great river Mahicanituck, the Mohawks to the north and west and and the Lenni Lenapes, also called the Delaware, to the south.)

But if names are anything to go by, it is still pretty much Dutch. The bridge across the river a few miles south is The Tappan Zee, positioned by meshuganah New York politics (money of course) at the Hudson’s widest point. Rhinebeck is up the river as are the Roosevelts of Hyde Park. Hamilton Fish IV (Hamilton Fish I was named for Alexander Hamilton, a family friend), from a long line of New York governors and congressmen, is actually Hamilton Stuyvesant Fish, to also honor the last Dutch governor of Nieuw Amsterdam (and the only one anyone can remember).

The rolling beauty of the Hudson Highlands is deceptive. Thunderous storms spring up and in moments darken the brilliant sky a nightmare blue. The already dark woods darken the mind. Things come alive. Eden can never be taken for granted.

Near Tarrytown Washington Irving saw a headless horseman ride out into the wind.

The thunder of Catskill storms is unlike anywhere else. It rocks and rolls from river bank to river bank, as if the storm is making up its mind which way to go. This isn’t normal thunder, the shockwave produced by the sudden increase in pressure and temperature and expansion of air in and around a bolt of lightning.  This is thunder made by old Dutchmen, clay pipes clenched in their teeth enjoying a game of bowls in the Hudson heavens.

Sometimes you can see the ball roll across the sky on top of the clouds, leaving a path of fire, the growing growl of a celestial sub-woofer. And when a Dutchman bowls down all the pins the mountains rattle and shake from West Point to Beacon. The wind comes up, trees kiss the ground in prayer. For a moment the entire sky lights up, a pinball machine hitting the jackpot. God has turned on the lights. Storm King Mountain, across from West Point, did not get its name for nothing.

This is not the schmaltzy Borscht Belt Catskills where comedians like Milton Berle, Alan King and Woody Allen practiced their art. This the Hudson Highlands where Routes 9 and 9A snake around huge and austere granite escarpments. High up and dream-like 19th century railroad barons built stone castles out of Sir Walter Scott, all turrets and battlements, to both broadcast their success and ensure their privacy.

The Jewish ghosts, like those robber barons of the Gilded Age, also seek a haven along the Hudson. Only 50 miles from New York City but far enough from the Europe they had recently escaped and the lower east side from which they had not. Not yet anyway.

In this place which bewitched the first American landscape painters is the old river town of Cold Spring. It sits at the deepest point of the Hudson. New York Central Railroad trains from Grand Central Station, having switched diesel engines for steam at Croton, stop by the band box at the bottom of a Main Street lined with Federal-style houses. Up the hill and seven miles miles east of here the ghosts found their Eden.

Camp Eden.

Ever since the end of the war, they gathered: for a week, two weeks in the summer; some of the children even for the 8-week summer camp. Some came alone. Some were reunited with friends and relatives as one by one and two by two, people left the war behind.

On luminescent Friday summer evenings the adults watched in wonder as the children—the kinder—marched into the dining hall dressed in whites, whites which would soon bear the marks of roast chicken-smeared fingers. Then concerts in the big hall or lectures in the garden by the statue of Eugene Debs.

Afterwards everyone would rise and sing the Internationale, the Socialist anthem.

On long lazy afternoons full of dragon flies and buzzing yellow jackets, you could play shuffleboard or fish for sunnies in the cold mountain lake. All you needed was a pole and some string and a piece of bread for the hook. These were not smart fish.

You could walk around without the need to cover up the purple number on your forearm.

Healing was in the air, and transformation.

Not far from this spot Rip Van Winkle woke from his 20-year sleep and found a new world. The colony of New York had become the republic of America. The picture of King George III on the local hostelry had changed. With a few strokes of the brush of a local sign painter King George had become President Washington.

So no big surprise that people who here came as refugees left as soon-to-be Americans.

If Eden is where the world began, Camp Eden is where, for these ghosts, it began again.

Dr Clark

 

 

IMG_0607[1]

 

 

 

 

Don Keller conquers London.

In the late 70s Don Keller was packed off to London for a couple of months of R&R after his wife died. At the  time it was rumored that a rival agency had Don at the top of their wish list. So getting him out of town and out of sight may have been doubly appealing to Leo Burnett’s creative head Carl Hixon.

At first everyone in the London office thought he was some kind of charming mid-western naif, an aw-shucks-just-shook-the-hay-from-his-hair innocent.  He was hip to critters like Tony The Tiger and Snap, Crackle and Pop. In London critters were not hip.

But then he’d wander the creative department and slip into offices unnoticed. Ideas were being battered around but progress remained elusive. Knotty problems would not untie. Frustration and voices rose. Then he would quietly say something.

“You could always try…”

Suddenly people stopped talking, looked at each other, then looked at him. Maybe this was no hayseed. Dan Parfitt, my art director and I looked at each other, looked at Don, and thought the same thing: “That’s…good!” The word got out. Suddenly Don the midwesterner couldn’t walk down the hall without being invited into every office with an open door and a creative team trying to get out of jail.

Everyone wanted a piece of him. It became a competitive game: Capture Don. Get him in the morning before anyone else does, put him to work, then take him down the pub. Then take him to dinner. Kidnap him.

Think Lawrence of Arabia in the scene where Lawrence, having survived the terrible Nephood desert, “God’s Anvil”, goes back into it to rescue a bedouin warrior the other tribesmen had given up for dead. On his return one by one each man offers Lawrence their blanket and saddle, their hospitality. So in London: “Come into my office, Don.” “Don, in here—-got a minute?” Everyone wanted his ear, his eye and nod of approval. I was no different.

At one point he turned to me in surprise and a little exasperation, “Gerry, remember, I voted for Nixon twice, and you want MY opinion?!!!”

Of course that became the cover of his leaving card.

Unlike Lawrence, and any creative director you could name, Don was self-effacing. His talent was actually bigger than his ego. In advertising this was unheard of.

Then we discovered he could draw.

That was something not many art directors in London would admit to, because it meant they would have to do their own storyboards and miss time at the pub, instead of sending them to a studio artist for the equivalent of £200+ a frame (client pays). Don did his own. And they were not just an outline of the story. Looking at Don’s boards you could see the movie.

He drew the frames with points-of-view and camera angles and movement indications he had already thought about, as if he had pre-screened the spot in his mind. Because he had. (The only other person I ever knew who did boards completely realized like that that was Tony Scott.)

Drawing and painting, of course, was what he really wanted to do, what he trained to do at the Art Institute of Chicago with classmates like Leroy Neiman and Claes Oldenburg. His house was filled with his art: paintings and drawings. But like many artists, he either had trouble letting them go—-as gifts or sales—-or he got too much joy teasing me and Jim Jenness and a few others with the promise of one. On the other hand, he gave Florence, our youngest daughter, a painting and a bunch of drawings. This was the same daughter he had carried sleeping and exhausted out of a hamburger restaurant on Oak Street 30+ years ago when we first moved to Chicago. Rebecca, our older daughter, still has her drawing of Tony the Tiger inscribed with Don’s art director spelling, “Rebbeca, You’re Grrreat!”

With talent, charm and unstinting generosity, he nurtured the talent and, more importantly, the spirit in all of us.

An innocent abroad? Ha!