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I always looked forward to coming to that office, only one trip a day. Just going through that field of fantastic women, my safety glasses would cloud up with passion. I’d lay the mail down and say, “Hiya, Chuck.”
He’d say, “What ya got today?” At work they sort of develop a whole routine. “What ya got today?”
“Oh, just a couple of things, Chester.” I’d turn and go out and always adjust my safety glasses and I’d run through that crowd of women.
Here I am, with an unbelievable stroke of fate and fortune. Fantastic stroke. I am being assigned to the tin mill assorting office. Me! I say, “When do I go out there, Mr. Moss?”
“You report tomorrow morning at eight.”
“What am I going to do out there?” There were only three guys in that office. There was Chester, there was Mr. Kennedy, and a guy named Herman who would sit in the back with a punch stamp and pound on cards all day. “What am I going to do?”
“I don’t know. You report to Mr. Gotch.”
“Report to Mr. Gotch.”
“I know Mr. Gotch, that’s Chester.”
“Well, report to Mr. Gotch. You’re working for Mr. Gotch.” At that point he pulls his hat down and he goes back to work. That means he is dismissing me.
I’m all excited. I go into the mailroom and say, “Hey, Freddy.” Freddy is my friend. We work the routes together. “Hey, Freddy, I’m getting assigned.
He says, “Where you goin’?”
“Tin mill assorting.”
“Oh my god, no kidding! Permanent?”
“I don’t know. I’m going to work in the tin mill assorting office.”
“With all those chicks?”
It is the double jackpot. Like getting assigned to heaven. You’re in charge of harp strings or something. I say, “Last day here, Freddy. I’ll see you tomorrow. I’ll drop by at lunchtime. They only work eight to five there, you know.” Of course in the mailroom we worked—oh god, what hours!
BARCELONA, GAUDI’S ARCHITECTURE,
AND THE MARQUESA.
Don’t know much about Catalonia except that Barcelona is there, and Barcelona–to me, as an innocent, ignorant foreigner who cherishes it as one of the glories of Spain and the location of most of Antonio Gaudi’s major architectural works–is as important in my imagination as New England is to the United States.
I’d discovered Gaudi’s architecture in photographs and books many year before I first visited Spain. So Barcelona had to be one of my goals when I toured Western Europe for five months in 1966. I parked my VW Beetle in front of Barcelona’s Casa Mila and was thrilled to find a sign saying “Pension Saxea” out front.
Note Seaweed-like Balcony Railings.
Street Seen Through Perforated Gate.
I climbed the stairs and entered the vestibule—there was an older Spanish woman, who noticed that I was staring at the interior architecture. We began talking and I found out that she was a marquesa and a relative of the Guell family who promoted and supported Gaudi in the early years of the 20th century. She lived in the pension. She told me that I needed to say that I wanted to stay in the pension a full week, and should I decide to leave earlier than that, just tell them then and leave. I got a room.
I spent many hours talking with the Marquesa of Gaudi, Picasso, Hemingway and others—she had known them all and many other cultural figures. For my European trip, I was, for the first time, growing a beard and I showed her my beardless passport photo. She responded, “Oh, don’t ever shave it off—you’d look just like ten million other Americans. I told Hemingway the same thing—don’t shave it off I told him. You’d look just like ten million other Americans!”
I wanted to see the roof of the Casa Mila. The Marquesa said it wasn’t open to the public (now it is), but she could get me access. She called her relative, a formally dressed senior who arrived in a new, black Dodge limousine (in Spain, the height of class in those days). He browbeat the pension’s manager, who finally gave in and I got to the roof.
A Bit of the Casa Mila Roof, Showing Some
of the Tiled Smoke Stacks.
Gaudi did a lot with rooftops. Down the avenue from the Casa Mila is the Casa Batllo, the façade of which is aglow with multicolored spangles, and the roof of which, in addition to Gaudi’s sculptural chimneys, is dedicated to Saint George and the Dragon, the major feature of which is the tiled, multi-colored representation of the dragon’s scaled back. For the usual gratuity, the building’s custodian allowed me to spend time on the roof and photograph it. Downtown, what was then the city’s theater museum housed in a conventional-looking building, also had a special Gaudi roof, which, for the always necessary gratuity, I was allowed to stroll upon. The curved opening on the right side of the dragon’s back gives a view of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia.
Casa Batllo Façade.
Note Bone-like Lower Columns and Dragon Scales of Roof.
I took a bus to the park overlooking the city. This had been the first portion of the planned-but-never-built neighborhood of several dozen houses. Gaudi lived for some time in the only house built (later used as a museum to his life). The Guell Park entrance is elaborately designed, with the roof of the proposed market-place (yes, another roof) decorated with a winding series of benches covered with broken tile segments–that’s the front edge of the bench area seen in the top middle above.
Walkway Under a Park Roadway
Another major Gaudi site is the unfinished church in the Barcelona suburb that his patron, Guell, had built for people who were to live and work in the factory-based town. To get there I approached a taxi driver who was relaxing in his parked car on a Barcelona street. I told him I wanted to go the Colonia Guell to see the Gaudi chapel, stay for half an hour, and then be driven back to Barcelona. We worked out a fee and he drove me there.
Colonia Guell and more to come.
The Eagle is a one-story store that has been totally cleared out, and running from front to back, right down the middle of it, is a plank bar made out of wooden planks laid on sawhorses and hammered down. Down at the far end there is a big Coke cooler filled with ice and about eighteen-thousand bottles of beer all sticking out. And next to it is another great big Coke cooler all filled with ice and it’s got bottles of whisky. Just bottles of whisky with no labels on them. Right next to that is a table that, as they know that the current shift is making a change, they have loaded with about fourteen-thousand shot glasses filled with giant, triple shots of this nameless poison. All lined up like at a party.
The bartenders, named Steve and Bollock, are down there with these glasses, and as each guy comes in and hollers, “Gimme two,” boom—one of the bartenders pushes two out and the guy slaps a buck down. You get two of these monsters for a buck. If you want to throw in another fifteen cents, you get a beer to chase them with—“Gimme two wit a chaser.”
A guy grabs a glass of this stuff—“Gluuuup, ahhhhh!” He grabs the next one, “Gluuuup, ahhhhh!” And then he takes the bottle of beer and goes glug glug, glug, glug, glug. Holy smokes! He is now unwinding. “Gluuuup, ahhhhh!” They start yelling and hollering and without even thinking twice, they slap the next buck down and they get two more of these babies! They are beginning to unwind.
Well, here I am with this guy from the bull gang and he says, “Come on, kid, I’m buying.” Boom, down goes his buck and the next thing I know I have a glass about the size of my Little Orphan Annie shake-up mug. This glass is steaming, there’s a little snake crawling around in it, I can see little claws sticking out over the edge, once in a while something with a forked tongue sticks its head out and goes whooooo!
Alex, the guy I’m with says, “Come on, kid, drink up. Let’s get goin’ here!” He takes his and goes, “Gluuuup, ahhhhh! Ohhh! Ahahaha! Gimme another one, come on. Let’s go!”
STILL MORE ROT GUT TO COME!
“I celebrate myself, and what I assume you shall assume,”
Among the books I have by and about Whitman is a two-volume set of his “complete” prose and poems published around 1900 by the last publisher during his lifetime, David McKay. The poetry volume includes a several-page facsimile of Whitman’s hand-written “autobiography” folded and bound in the front pages. The first section:
• • •
Discarded Tissue Paper and Broken Glass
The American Museum of Natural History, where I worked for 34 years, has special connections to naturalist John Burroughs. So the Museum has a small permanent exhibit about Burroughs, who was not only a good friend of Whitman’s, but had written a book, Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and Person. (It’s said that, as a promotion piece, Whitman himself had mostly written the book himself.)
Later Version of the Museum Exhibit.
The earlier exhibit included a signed photo of Whitman, and a signed and inscribed-to-Burroughs copy of Leaves of Grass, one with a leather cover that folded over to protect the book from damage, presumably while traveling.
The Museum Exhibit Manager had the job of redesigning the exhibit, and I saw the inscribed copy of Leaves of Grass he had lying on a work table. I’d looked at it many times when passing the old exhibit. When I told him that I was a special Whitman admirer, he gave me the book to borrow over the weekend. (It occurred to neither of us then, that this was not a proper thing to do.) Glorying in my luck, I kept the book that Saturday and Sunday and returned it to him on Monday.
I saw an exhibit preparator working on the book for installation. Between the inscribed title page on the right and a photo of Whitman on the left, bound into the book was a thin tissue paper used to protect the photo and title page from marring each other. The preparator, wanting both pages to be seen well in the exhibit, rolled up the tissue. I stepped away for a bit and when I returned, because he hadn’t found a way to hold the rolled tissue in place, the preparator had cut it out of the book and tossed it away! He had just destroyed the purity and integrity of the otherwise complete publication! But there was no remedy.
The exhibit manager installed into the new exhibit the signed book, the signed photo, and the other materials. Months later,we were told that the exhibit glass had been broken the night before and the inscribed Leaves of Grass stolen. No one realized that the signed Whitman photo was also gone, so I, Whitman enthusiast, informed the Museum authorities of this. Only those items–the two Whitman ones–were missing. I haven’t heard anything about the photo or the book ever being recovered.
Leaves of Grass in a Folded Leather Cover.
(Copied From the Internet, Not the Museum’s Stolen Copy.)
Very likely, the thief sold the literary treasure for filthy lucre. Somewhere a Whitman enthusiast has in hand the signed photo and the special leather-protected and enfolded edition signed and inscribed to Burroughs. I envy whoever has the book now, this collector who must be daily enthralled by this Walt Whitman treasure I know I never could have had except for those two unique weekend days. I also mourn that visitors can no longer see a Whitman connection to the Museum that will be missing for years or even generations. Neither I nor other Museum visitors can gaze at that very special copy of Leaves of Grass I once held in my hands–feeling the heft of it and feeling its life.
“If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.”
The guys are yelling, “Hey Stasha, stick your head out the window. Maybe it’ll blow the stink off ya!” That’s typical steel mill humor. That is not in bad taste, that is the way life is being lived now, at this instant. In fact, in about forty-five minutes the swing shift will be coming off duty in the forty-inch soaking pits out in Inland Steel. Right now they’re knocking down the salt tablets and they’re looking at the clock and they’re thinking about the gin joint they’re about to cram into. Somebody up front yells, “Hey, Stacha, ya goin’ to The Eagle?” You hear Stasha holler, “The Eagle? Ya wanna go to The Eagle again?” “Yeah, The Eagle.” “Okay.”
The Eagle? I’m sitting there on my first day with the bull gang. The Eagle? What is the Eagle? I want to be so much a part of this crowd. Boy, I want to be part of it. Because they all knew each other, they’d been working together for years, the whole gang, and here I was. We are at the clock house. There’s even a kind of pecking order in who gets the cards first. Big, tough guys are right in the front and all the little guys trail off behind. Doing doing doing doing doing punching the card. Doing doing doing doing doing.
I noticed that as each guy would get to the clock, he’d ring the card and boom!—he’d shoot out like a rocket. I figured they were all going out to catch the bus. The guy behind me said, “Come on, kid, let’s go! We’re going to The Eagle!” I hit the bell and boom!—we go shooting out of the door, all of us, like out of a gun and right across this rotten, crummy, steel mill road, crisscrossed overhead by eighteen million high-tension wires, telephone wires and streetcar wires, and lit by the flickering smoke and steam and bright flame of the blast furnace and the open hearth.
Right directly across this street is a store. And it has on the front of it, painted in gold, a half-baked-looking eagle. This eagle has one wing that looked like a pigeon wing and another wing that looks like a robin wing, and a big beak that looks like it belongs on a vulture. Underneath its two claws are hanging out and one claw’s got ahold of an American flag in red, white, and blue calcimine, and the other claw’s got ahold of a flag that says “C10 Steel Workers Union Local 1010.” The Eagle.
Boom! They run like mad right across the street and cars are screeching to a halt. Boom! Into The Eagle.
More Rot Gut to Come!
A child said, what is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?….I do not know what it is any more than he.
Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,
Disorderly fleshy and sensual….eating drinking and breeding,
No sentimentalist….no stander above men and women or apart from them….no
more modest than immodest.
Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
I too am not a bit tamed….I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadowed wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.
I depart as air….I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop some where waiting for you.
Whitman, a great self-promoter, sent a copy of the first edition of Leaves of Grass to Ralph Waldo Emerson, then the most highly regarded literary man in the country. Emerson had written “The Poet,” an essay published 1844, about 11 years before Whitman’s response in Leaves of Grass. It describes his hopes for an American poet to come with the power and art to express the United States. In it Emerson wrote: “Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say, `It is in me, and shall out.’ Stand there, baulked and dumb, stuttering and stammering, hissed and hooted, stand and strive, until, at last, rage draw out of thee that _dream_-power which every night shows thee is thine own; a power transcending all limit and privacy,…” Emerson responded to Whitman’s gift of Leaves of Grass–click on the image to read the entire text of this, the most significant American literary letter ever written:
The varied editions of Leaves of Grass published in Whitman’s lifetime consisted of his many additions and editing of nearly every poem he’d written–thus, Leaves of Grass became many times larger than that first edition. I found that the New York Public Library had a unique copy of the 1860-1861 edition, with Whitman’s original, written-in changes and pasted-in notes. The Library had published an analysis and a facsimile which included pasted-in paper as per Whitman’s original—naturally I had to have the two-volume boxed set.
An Opening Spread of My Facsimile from the So-called
“Blue Book” Unique Copy of Leaves of Grass.
I visited Whitman’s final home, a house in Camden, NJ, bought for him by admirers. From there I drove to the cemetery containing Whitman’s gravesite, where he and his family are interred in a mausoleum he designed. In the dirt in front of it, as tribute, I buried a Lincoln penny (in remembrance of Whitman’s elegy to Lincoln).
Whitman House on Mickle Street, Camden.
End Part 2 of 3
You’re sweating—oh boy, you’re sweating. You smell to high heaven after eight hours a day in the soaking pits. But nobody wants to take the time out even to take a shower. You want to catch the first bus to get out of this Hell hole. All you do is wipe your face off. You wipe your hands off, you put your shirt on, you put on your chinos, you put on your tennis shoes, and you run out like mad and stand and wait for the bus to take you out to the clock house and the gate.
We’re all standing. The bull gang. About sixty-five in the bull gang, a whole crowd of us. Mexicans, there were Peruvians, there were Polish and there were Slovacs and there was me, there were Swedes and there were Italians and there were Germans. There were all kinds of guys. All waiting. The bull gang. We work on tonnage so the more we work, the more that the forty inch mill turns out in a day and the more we earn. We have really turned it out this day. Se we’re all standing there like the Chicago Bears football team after mopping up the floor with the Giants! Guys were chewing their tobacco—ptooie! Pt, pt. And you hear about forty-five languages.
Finally the bus comes and away we go. We’re all sitting in that big, long bus taking us to the clock house. We go for a mile. A couple of guys have salami sandwiches left and they’re eating them. You could smell the sweat of honest labor. Boy, does it stink.
The so-called “Christ Portrait” of 1855,
the Year Before First Publication of Leaves Grass.
Whitman is best known for the early poem, “Song of Myself,” and his profound elegy upon the death of Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.” (His “Captain, My Captain,” which we memorized in grammar school, is well-known and it is a travesty, which Whitman undoubtedly, shamefacedly wrote as a popular ditty.)
I’ve been an enthusiast of Walt Whitman since I first seriously encountered his poetry, probably in the 1960s. In 1969 I drove the short distance to his birthplace, now a museum, just south of Huntington, Long Island, NY, to participate in the celebration of the 150th anniversary of his birth.
Birthplace in Short Hills, NY, with Lilacs
I soon encountered that his self-proclaimed description of “the good, gray poet,” was a way for him to achieve a prestigious image that probably was meant to overcome the prejudice against his sexually explicit expressions, and the evident homoerotic, small group of his poems. Many of the poems for which he is most justly acclaimed were written, not when he was good and gray, but when he was a vigorous 36 years old, and had presented himself in the front of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, not as the typical, formally attired, prim poet, but as the new man of vigor, with casual stance and hard-working-man’s attire.
Based on a Photo, the Frontispiece of the 1855 Edition.
I have consistently been confronted with the “good gray” image of Whitman, used on the cover of the Walt Whitman Review, a university’s scholarly quarterly that I subscribed to for years. For my own pleasure I redesigned that cover showing the young Whitman in prominence and sent two variations to the editor with a polite letter elucidating my point of view. I received no response.
My Cover Design Incorporating the Lettering Style
Whitman Designed for his First Edition.
Cover of First Edition, a Large-format, Slim Volume, 1855.
Whitman Designed and also Typeset Some of the Pages.
The first edition of 1855 is a wonder to see and feel, as flat-out elegant as anything I’ve ever seen, raw and strong and free and powerful as anything I’ve ever read. It begins with Whitman’s own, long, 15-page introduction, that includes, “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” and ends with:
“The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him
as affectionately as he has absorbed it.”
The book includes such matters as the first poem beginning below (eventually titled “Song of Myself”) and, with just my excerpts here, ends with “I stop some where waiting for you.” (Whitman does not name himself on the title page as the book’s author, but proclaims himself in the poem’s line: “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,”) —
I CELEBRATE myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease….observing a spear of summer grass.
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun….there are millions of suns left,
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand….nor look through the eyes of the dead….
nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.
Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, bends an arm on an impalpable, certain rest,
Looks with its sidecurved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.
End part 1 of 3
Rot Gut With Beer Chaser
I’m about sixteen years old. I’m eating Tasty Yeast to keep my complexion in line. I’m deep in that period and I have a summer job working in the steel mill. This is my first experience outside of the family where the idea of a big drinking night is my father and Uncle Carl having a clandestine “shot.” That was their idea of a fantastically bad night.
So I am assigned one afternoon to what they call a “bull gang.” A bull gang is a group of roving laborers, a team. Whenever they have to load seventeen thousand pounds of sheet metal now, they call for bull gang number one or bull gang number two or bull gang number three.
It is now three o’clock in the afternoon on my first day in the bull gang and we are working in the forty inch soaking pits. The forty inch soaking pits are really an off-shoot of Hell, where Dante got his original ideas. The heat is incredible. Dirty, heat, crud, and that smoke is rising constantly, and they lower these ingots down on a platform that’s covered with oil. The oil burns as it’s lowered down. Shushoooooo, cooooo, boooooauggh chingaaaaaah chuuumb cahunnnnng! Blablablablablablabla chucchu chuchuchuchuchuchuchuchu owoooooooo! Kabooooom! They’re loading these things in and out.
I’m in a bull gang that is assigned to cleaning out the scale and the crud out of the bottom of a soaking pit. They don’t allow the soaking pits to cool off—they keep the heat on while you work because it takes so much money to reheat them so they leave them on all the time.
So they lower us down there and we’re wearing asbestos suits. We’ve got big long metal bars with big scoops on the end and you run around real fast and you chip away at the scale that forms on the metal.
You have thick wooden shoes. The minute you touch the ground the shoes start burning. You are allowed two and a half minutes in the soaking pit and then you jump back up on this little lift, up you go. And they’re lowering the other guys down and you run over and sit down on the bench Ahhhhhaaaaaaaaaaoh boy, oh, Charlie, what am I doing here? We work all day at this and it is now ten minutes to four. The shift is out at four o’clock.
They take all of us out, they put all of us in our little bus and they’re taking us back to the dressing room. A dressing room way at the end of the forty-inch mill where all our clothes are hanging in wicker baskets from the ceiling. They hang them from the ceiling so the rats won’t get ‘em.
MORE ROT GUT TO COME
Regarding a happy, Cummings-related matter, even I wrote a poem. My father’s uncle had given him a small pistol from the 1920s that might have still worked if one could have still found bullets for it. My father gave it to me. It was unregistered and thus illegal in New York, when the police offered $50 for turning in any firearm, no questions asked. (I’d tried to sell it to an antique dealer, but he said it was illegal for him even to look at it.) I took it to the local police precinct and got my $50. I knew just how to spend it and made a poem/one-of-a-kind artists’ book about the experience:
In addition to his original signature on his handwritten postcard, my Cummings collection includes: 1 bibliography of his works; 3 biographies of him; 2 books of critiques of his work; 1 book describing and illustrating his numerous paintings; 1 book lauding his innovative typographic layouts (edited by author, critic, and visual poet, Richard Kostelanetz); 1 book of selected letters; 2 non-fiction books he wrote—The Enormous Room, a description of his life in a French prison during World War I, and Eimi, about his negative experience during a trip to the Soviet Union in 1931; 1 exhibit catalog of his memorabilia (NYC Public Library); 2 books with his introductions (one is of an early compilation of “Krazy Kat” comics); 3 videos about him and 6 audio cassettes of his reading of his works; 2 books of a play each by him; 1 book of his lectures (i: six nonlectures); various periodical essays about his work; 3 books of typewriter facsimiles of his poems; 10 first editions of his poetry books; 1 U.S. Forever postage stamp.
Also: 2 eb poems about him I made into artists’ books. (One shown above.) The other artists’ book is based on the text of a delightful and easily understood Cummings poem, “In Just–.” (As he did not title his poems, they are usually referenced by the poems’ first lines. I gave my book its own unconventional title) I especially like Cummings’ line: “when the world is puddle-wonderful.” My book, held together by two brass, round paper fasteners, consists of a front and a back cover, three translucent sheets each with parts of the poem, then the complete poem:
Cummings, in 1938, wrote a smug introduction to his Collected Poems (now superseded). He frequentlycombined withoutspaces, wordsandpunctuation. The intro begins:
The poems to come are for you and for me and are not for mostpeople.
-it’s no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. Mostpeople have less in common with ourselves than the squarerootofminusone. You and I are human beings:mostpeople are snobs.
Take the matter of being born. What does being born mean to mostpeople? Catastrophe unmitigated. Social revolution. The cultured aristocrat yanked out of his hyperexclusively ultra voluptuous superpalazzo,and dumped into an incredibly vulgar detentioncamp swarming with every conceivable species of undesirable organism. Mostpeople fancy a guaranteed birthproof safetysuit of nondestructible selflessness. If mostpeople were to be born twice they’d improbably call it dying-
you and I are not snobs. We can never be born enough. We are human beings;for whom birth is a supremely welcome mystery,the mystery of growing:the mystery which happens only and whenever we are faithful to ourselves. You and I wear the dangerous looseness of doom and find it becoming. Life,for eternal us,is now;and now is much too busy being a little more than everything to seem anything,catastrophic included.
(Gravemarker photo: Tony Fischer. Forever portrait photo: Edward Weston.)
E. E. CummingsForever(stamp).
And it was never stopped. Three shifts a day, six guys would come into this office on each shift, six guys would leave. The same six all the time. Each one was well over a hundred years old, these men. You could smell the coffee. Everything permeated. It was permeated— the air with coffee and the smell of old salami sandwiches. And old files full of ancient shipping slips. And the smell of ink. And corduroy jackets, and these three guys were just sitting there at their desks. The other three were out checking, which is something they always do in these offices.
You could see the freight cars moving by and then I noticed something. They weren’t saying a word. The minute I opened the door, one of them went “Shush shush shush!”
I said, “What?”
“Are you the new…?”
You could hear the mill booming all around.
“Shush shush shush!”
I noticed that, sitting next to one of the desks was a pail full of water, and these three men were watching this pail with fantastic intensity, looking at the pail. And on the edge of the desk was a one-foot ruler. It was balanced half off the desk and half on the desk and on the end of the ruler, hanging out in space, was a piece of cheese. And the three of them were watching the ruler. Directly under the piece of cheese on the floor was the pail of water.
I said, “What are you guys doing?”
One of them whispered, “We’re catching mice.”
“You’re catching mice?”
“Yeah. Shush. He’ll be out any minute now.”
All that night we stood in the darkness and watched mice creep up out of the file cabinets, sneak along the ruler, and make a fatal grab for that piece of cheese. Suddenly the ruler would tilt—in he goes into the water. It was a good night. They got seven that night. All the while the mill is roaring around us. And right at this very moment, tonight, there are three men checking and three men sitting in the office of the forty inch soaking pit shipping end. And probably catching mice. Out there in the darkness.
END OF SOAKING PIT AND MICE
Cummings was (and still is) a highly regarded American poet best known for using all lower case letters and for sometimes playing with the layouts of words on the page. Sometimes he makes readers work, re-constructing his innovative layouts and word-usages:
In Harper’s Magazine of March, 2014, Ruth Franklin, in a laudatory essay, writes: ”…the perfect age to discover E. E. Cummings. With his refusal to play by grammatical rules, his shameless sentimentality, his sexual frankness, and his easy quotability, he is the ideal poet of youth.”
He wrote not only outright sexual poems, but some of the most conventional and lovely love poems, and his marriage to beautiful fashion model and photographer, Marion Morehouse (the love of his life), lasted 28 years—until his death in 1962.
He complained that publishers’ typesetting for printing in books could not properly produce the layouts he required for some of his typewritten poems, so in recent years, a publisher began publishing typewriter-set books of his poems:
Typewriter poems: standard sonnet form; layout manipulation poem.
(Two of his most admired poems.)
One writer stated that Cummings had copyrighted the lower case writing of his name, and it’s frequently seen in lower case in books and magazine articles about him. But I believe that’s a misunderstanding–I’ve always encountered his actual signature in caps exactly as per the original postcard to the 8th Street Bookshop I have preserved in a clear plastic envelope for use as a book mark for reading books by and about him:
Cummings lived a good part of his productive life in a small apartment on Patchin Place, a short, gated mews in Greenwich Village, on the north side of 10th Street, west of 6th Avenue. He was a dedicated New Yorker from after his ambulance service and unjust incarceration in WW I until he died.
He refused to make money out of anything but his writing, so, until the last few years of his life when he’d gained some notoriety/sales and speaking fees, he lived in basic poverty. After having several of his books published, he dedicated his No Thanks poetry book to the major publishers who had given a “no thanks” to its manuscript:
Cummings also wrote standard-seeming poems like that below.
Clues: “anyone” = the average person protagonist of the poem;
“noone” = anyone’s loving wife:
More than 50 years after his death, Cummings is still highly regarded by many:
Susan Cheever, from her Cummings bio: Modernism as Cummings and his mid-twentieth century colleagues embraced it had three parts. The first was the exploration of using sounds instead of meanings to connect words to the reader’s feelings. The second was the idea of stripping away all unnecessary things to bring attention to form and structure: the formerly hidden skeleton of a work would now be exuberantly visible. The third facet of modernism was an embrace of adversity. In a world seduced by easy understanding, the modernist believed that difficulty enhanced the pleasures of reading. In a Cummings poem the reader must often pick his way toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition.
Brad Leithauer, The New Yorker: Whether Cummings was pursuing the ugly or the beautiful, his prime strength lay in his unexpected concisions—Those passage in which his weird locutions enable him to speak with greater briskness and distillation than ordinary discourse allows….For this reader, Cummings will forever remain a poet who energetically explored a number of cul—de-sacs: the limits of intelligibility, of punctuational eccentricity, of fragmentation, of—literally—unreadability.
Billy Collins, U.S. Poet Laureate: By erasing the sacred left margin, breaking down words into syllables and letters, employing eccentric punctuation, and indulging in all kinds of print-based shenanigans, Cummings brought into question some of our basic assumptions about poetry, grammar, sign, and language itself, and he also succeeded in giving many a typesetter a headache. Like Pound, who never wrote an obedient line, Cummings reveled in breaking the rules of grammar, punctuation, orthography, and lineation. Measured by sheer boldness of experiment, no American poet compares to him, for he slipped Houdini-like out of the locked box of the stanza, then leaped from the platform of the poetic line into an unheard-of way of writing poetry…. No list of major 20th-century poets can do without him….
Susan Cheever: He cared about playfulness, he cared about sexuality, he cared about whether you’d have a drink with him, he cared about could you string a line together….I still wonder: he so magnificently rejected everything we care about today: money, status, prestige, Harvard. And I’m just in awe of how he managed to do that. I think it was easier to do that then than it is now. He lived a really 19th-century life in the 20th century—I mean that in a good way.
EDWARD ESTLIN CUMMINGS AND THE DOG HE LOVED
At sixteen, at the family’s New Hampshire summer home, Estlin had an experience I’m sure he never forgot—as I can’t forget having read about it in Suzan Cheever’s biography, E. E. Cummings: A Life. (My wife loves dogs so much that I will never relate this story to her.)
Estlin and his young sister were in the family’s new canoe on a lake. Their dog, Rex, lunged at a hornet flying around their heads, capsizing and sinking the new, supposedly unsinkable, folding canoe. Rex, eventually out of energy, tried to save himself by climbing up on Estlin’s sister. She submerged, came up, submerged and came up again, Rex still on her, refusing to let go. Estlin now feared she would surely drown. To save his sister, he grabbed the panicking dog and held him underwater until he stopped struggling.
Their father happened along in another boat and saved the two children, but Rex was dead. They found Rex’s body and brought it home for burial. As Cheever writes:
“The family put up a marker, and Estlin did what he so often did
when his feelings threatened to overwhelm him
—he wrote a poem.”
How horrific this act of necessary killing must have been and how this must have haunted him the rest of his life. I wish I had never encountered the story. I can understand his impulse to write about all true sad and happy matters in his life.
END PART 1 OF 2
And these people live out their lives hardly able to talk to each other except by sign language. The movement of the ground up and down. The sound is so all-inclusive and the smell is so all-inclusive that the entire world of the steel mill is a self-contained world. Almost like a great globe of bubble-gum containing everybody within it. Sound. Smell. And work and sweat and dirt, safety goggles, danger all the time. Danger. Always the little feeling way down deep in the pit of your brain that any minute now, something’s going to run over you, something’s going to pour or something’s going to explode or something’s going to blow a fuse or one of the wires is going to break, or one of the cables is going to fray, and always that fantastic salad of enormous machinery boom boom boom. Wow!
I’m walking on down, I’ve had my ice cream and now I’m in the office. And now—whenever I think of the word office, there’s a warm quality to the word office. An office is kind of a home. But this is a different kind of office, an industrial office, an office in a steel mill. And it was my first night working in that office.
I walked down to the far end and here is this steel door on the wall of the building. I open it up and I am now in the office where I am going to spend the next week working with these men. And all three of them look up at me. It’s three o’clock in the morning. They’re wearing corduroy hats. Hunting caps. Red, green, brown. They’ve got these grimy desks and you could smell this coffee. The coffee pot that had been on since they probably first began to make steel in America. This coffee pot had been started roughly five years after the first Pilgrims had landed.
Brief New York Encounters
Sometime in the early 1960s I found Brother Theodore.
It may have been through an ad or review.
I was captivated by the intensity of his eyes.
I attended his monolog once in a small Village performance space. The unnumbered chairs were loose, on the same level as he, and the front row was about four feet back of his small table–I believe I grabbed the seat front row center. The theater was without light, he wore all black and there was a round spotlight on his upper body. There are a few color photos of him, but the black ones do him more justice. (He might have preferred to have it said, “More injustice.”) I just remember one thing he said that night—words to the effect that: “People don’t know what’s behind the beyond. Most people don’t even know what’s beyond the behind.” He has been quoted as having said many other things of some import:
♠ It is fatal to be right when the rest of the world is wrong. ♠
♠ The only thing that keeps me alive is the hope of dying young. ♠ (He died at 94]
♠ As long as there is death there is hope. ♠
♠ Only what we have lost forever do we possess forever. ♠
♠ Only when we have drunk from the river of darkness can we truly see. ♠
♠ Only when our legs have rotted off can we truly dance. ♠
♠ The best thing is not to be born. But who is as lucky as that?
To whom does it happen?
Not to one among millions and millions of people. ♠
Theodore Gottlieb, Dark Comedian, Dies at 94
By DOUGLAS MARTIN NYT APRIL 6, 2001
Theodore Gottlieb, who as Brother Theodore performed apocalyptic one-man shows about life, death and broccoli in Greenwich Village nightclubs to dazzling and disturbing effect, died yesterday at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. He was 94.
Mr. Gottlieb, with his wild white hair shining under the lights and with a demonic glint in his eye, was in his element at the 13th Street Theater, where he performed for nearly two decades, until a few years ago.
His only prop was a table, behind which he would sit when he wasn’t stalking around it or plopping on top of it. In his sonorous, German-accented voice he flirted with the meaning of life ….
He called his act stand-up tragedy.
Brother Theodore, who flaunted a sophistication learned in the Berlin of the 1920’s, told audiences, ”I’ve gazed into the abyss and the abyss gazed into me, and neither of us liked what we saw.”
According to his biography, his wealthy Jewish family had been taken to a concentration camp by the Nazis. He was told that if he signed a paper giving over all of his family’s wealth, he’d be given one mark and his freedom. He did this and was freed, understanding that his family might also go free. But they were all killed in the camp.
No wonder that his humor was so mordant.
It is even more of a wonder that it was also so very funny.
Sometime in the early 1960s I found Moondog.
I was walking toward New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and there,
standing on the southeast corner of 6th Avenue and 54th Street,
was a tall man in what I remember was a red cape
and what appeared to be a Viking helmet.
I stopped and talked to him. I found out that he was blind and that he stood there for hours every day for years. He would talk to whoever spoke to him. He had a leather pouch hung from his neck that held papers with poems that he’d written. I bought several. I think I asked him if he considered himself some sort of symbol or metaphor standing there, but I don’t remember his response.
I found out that he gave performances in a small indoor space downtown. I took two friends to see him read his poems. We found that he also performed music he had composed on instruments he designed.
Later I learned that he was referred to as “The Viking of 6th Avenue,” and that his given name was Louis Hardin, Jr. and that he could be found on that or adjacent street corners daily for decades. Recently I discovered that there are recordings of his music and that he was a highly regarded composer, numbering among his admirers Philip Glass, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, and others.
He was born in Kansas in 1916 and died in Germany in 1999.
He is quoted as having said:
“I am an observer of life, a non-participant who takes no sides.
I am in the regimented society, but not of it.”
JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories & (137c) BRIEF ENCOUNTERS: Happenings. Warhol. Velvet Underground. Fluxus. Films.
You’d smell fish and smell the water and smell the north woods. You’d also smell diesel oil, you’d smell electricity-charged ions that were floating around from the exploding relays and you could smell the heat from over-heated coppering. You could smell the smell of heating asbestos, you’d see once in a while the great exploding flash in the air when somebody off in the distance at an open hearth had tapped another heat.
I’m walking way out into the water. This was the first time I was really on my own in the mill. No longer am I connected with this labor gang, I’ve been sent down on my own to the far end, the shipping end of the forty-inch soaking mill. I’ve been through this particular mill before but this is the first time now I’m going to do a job.
Right in the middle of the forty-inch soaking pit building they had a steel mill commissary. Picture this scene. It’s all night work, and steel workers at three o’clock in the morning are in this little room that’s painted battleship gray metal. They’re all sitting close together. Maybe a hundred-and-fifty of them all jammed in this tiny overheated room eating ice cream out of big soup bowls. Tremendous soup bowls of strawberry ice cream, and drinking black coffee. And they are covered with dirt and crud and grease, and half of them you can hardly see their eyes because they’re looking out of this thick coating of dust and grime and crud. And they’re sitting there shoveling in this strawberry ice cream and wearing their blue safety goggles up on the top of their head, and all around them you can just feel the ground moving up and down. It’s the first thing that hits you about a steel mill—once you’ve felt it all around you, you’ll never forget it. There’s the tremendous vibration of moving cranes, this almost subterranean earthquake, the sound of the rolling mill which is right next to you turning out the one hundred inch plate.
In early 1964 I’d just begun to write short film reviews for a small newsletter at which a friend of mine worked. I wrote about a variety of intelligent films such as: Genet’s Un Chant D’amour; Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb; Bergman’s The Silence; and Louis Malle’s Zazie Dans le Metro, about which I commented that this frantic and delightful work, dealing in reality vs. illusion, for its comic effects used techniques of the film medium itself such as slow motion, fast motion, quick cutting.
Many of the “intellectual” and experimental films of the 1960s that I was aware of were just artistic creations and were not sexual in nature. As I put it:
Exciting (erotically, visually, aesthetically) things are being done on film these days….The films include experiments with abstract shapes, comments on contemporary life, and an occasional venture into pure poetry.
But, unexpectedly, one film I saw was outrageously weird and sexual (partly played in by hermaphrodites)—Flaming Creatures (1963) by Jack Smith. I’d had no idea what I was walking into when I sat down and it appeared on the screen. Seeing it in an early screening of it in March, 1964, I exited the small theater on St. Marks Place shocked, disturbed, and unbelieving. As I continued west toward Astor Place I noted police cars pulling up to the theater and I realized that it was a pornography raid—then I saw, hurrying toward the theater, the film’s promoter, Village Voice’s experimental-film critic, Jonas Mekas. I warned him that the cops were raiding the place and he said something to the effect that he might as well go there now rather than being accosted later. I wrote about the film twice in the little newsletter, saying in part:
It is a parody of romantic love in the movies….It is a love song to the world of romantic fantasy that Hollywood once created, and that it and the public have now rejected in favor of less romantic illusions. Note that Smith recognizes and attacks the fantasy, yet mourns its loss….The beautifully photographed under and over exposure, the fuzzy shots and unsteady camera, serve the film’s purpose perfectly and should have been described [by me] as anti-Hollywood-slickness rather than as anti-artistic.
“Our Infamous Surprise Program” = Flaming Creatures.
I found out about the obscenity trial and thought it would be interesting to see. (At the time, I was spending a couple of months without a job–working on the first draft of my first unpublished novel.) From the audience, I saw among others there to testify/defend the work, poet Allen Ginsberg and critic Susan Sontag (The New York Times–“In Miss Sontag’s best essays she is doing something really new, attempting to decipher and describe her own sensibility in relation to new cultural phenomena….”). Sontag, in her book of reprinted essays, Against Interpretation, published her extensive, enthusiastic review of the film:
…in defending as well as talking about the film, I don’t want to make it seem less outrageous, less shocking than it is.
…amateurishness of technique is not frustrating, as it is in so many other recent “underground” films. For Smith is visually very generous; at practically every moment there is simply a tremendous amount to see on the screen….,there are no ideas, no symbols, no commentary on or critique of anything in Flaming Creatures.
Flaming Creatures is a triumphant example of an aesthetic vision of the world and such a vision is always, at its core, epicene.
Among witnesses for the defense, because only Sontag’s words were in published form, only she was allowed to speak. It took the three judges about fifteen minutes to find Jonas Mekas and the other defendants guilty.
JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories & (137b) ARTSY BRIEF ENCOUNTERS: Happenings. Warhol. Velvet Underground. Fluxus. Films.
They’d ring a bell. You were allowed three minutes in the pit and they’d pull you back up on the rack and you’d sit there for five minutes. Five minutes up and three minutes down all day long. Sounds like a great job, doesn’t it?
I’m a cool seventeen-year-old, I’m a grizzled, hardened worker in the forty-inch soaking pits when, as I’m about to go to work one day, my foreman calls me into the office and says, “Listen, I’m going to send you down to the shipping end. Don’t suit up today. I want you to wear safety shoes, a hard hat, asbestos gloves, and a pair of blue safety goggles.”
I take my lunch bucket while the other guys are getting their asbestos suits on and their oxygen inhalants, and I go clunking down toward the shipping end, that was a good two miles away.
And I’m walking along through the great racks of roaring relays that are exploding and booming. Because all of this mill is electronically operated by some monster, some King Kong somewhere, and every five minutes you’d see this whole bank of relays go tuummm! Booom booom! And the sparks would fly out and more ingots would come moving down on the overhead cranes through the darkness, and I’m moving out into the Lake. This forty-inch soaking pit mill stuck out into the Lake on a long peninsula that had been built out of slag, and because it was way out in the Lake you could smell the fish. This strange combination of total machinery and complete nature.
I was not all that sure of what “pop art” meant as far as art was concerned, but Warhol’s quirky mind fascinated me, and I liked the way he seemed to focus on getting observers to pay more attention to the everyday world that is their environment. It seems somewhat related to Happenings and Fluxus. I would include in a descriptive name for his work, “Conceptual.”
I went to an early show of his at the Leo Castelli Gallery. I remember it as consisting of an almost empty room—on the wall there were large images of cows plastered like wallpaper. In the middle of the room there were about a dozen pillow-sized-and-shaped, floating metallic silver objects referred to as “Silver Clouds.” Nobody went anywhere near the floating balloons. They must have been intimidated by the “art.” I decided that the floaters were meant to be interacted with, so I went up and began flicking some of them to get some more action. Decades later I found out that one was expected to do this.
At an experimental film showing, I saw Warhol’s film, “Eat,” featuring artist Robert Indiana and a cat. It lasted about 40 minutes. About 15 minutes into it, people began leaving—obviously bored and annoyed. What I saw was visually interesting—close up of artist Robert Indiana, seated; with large-brimmed hat; eating something (later I encountered it described as a mushroom). Texture of sweater; tall thin potted plant in background (nature) echoed by carved floral motif in wooden chair back (manmade); curious cat jumps on him and stays for a short period, seems bored, jumps off. The whole thing, apparently, a means to get one to concentrate—to focus one’s vision– on a simple human occurrence–like a Zen experience. I appreciated it.
I’d not heard of “The Velvet Underground” when I went to a small theater in the basement of an office building on 42nd Street just west of 6th Avenue, expecting to see some experimental films. I sat in the center, about the eighth row, and was surprised to see Salvador Dali and his wife, Gala, come in and sit about three rows in front of me. The lights went down, the show began–on came a rock band, in an early presentation of Warhol’s “The Velvet Underground” with Nico and Lou Reed. (Never heard of them either.) They intrigued me enough so that the next day I rushed to a record store and bought their album for the list price of about $4.00. The cover, white with a removable yellow banana peel, under which was an obscenely pink, naked banana. Decades later, no longer having the means to play LP records, I took it to a used-record dealer, who gave me $150.00 for it.
END PART 2 of 3
JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories & (137a) ARTSY BRIEF ENCOUNTERS: Happenings. Warhol. Velvet Underground. Fluxus. Films.
More Soaking Pit
They would lower it down into the pit, which was a big hole in the ground about fifteen feet deep, and the white-hot ingot was maybe ten or fifteen feet long and about four or five feet square. Solid, white hot metal that would clank when it hit the bottom kaboooom. They’d release it and you’d see steam rising and a tremendous shimmer of heat coming out of the pit. It would be lying at the bottom of the pit with maybe eight or nine other red-hot ingots. They were down there so they would slowly cool because if they cooled too fast there would be millions of tiny crack and the whole composition and strength would change. Nearby were maybe fifteen or twenty other pits with ingots in other stages of cooling.
My job, with about ten other guys, was to be lowered into these pits wearing asbestos suits, an oxygen inhaler in my helmet, and wooden shoes. With a special scraper we had to scrape the slag off the red hot ingots. We would be lowered on a rack down into this dark, swirling heat with nothing but rising steam and smoke and dust. Like a deep sea diver, you’re breathing heated oxygen and you’d step off onto this concrete, heated floor and immediately your wooden shoes would start burning, and you’d start chipping away at the slag. It was dark but you could see your shoes burning and the smoke rising from your shoes.
The 1960s were a great time to be alive and conscious of the world of art, music, and related goings on. Underground films, the art scene including “Pop Art,” “Fluxus,” and “Happenings” grabbed some of my interest, although I remained wary of just how and in what way they all related to the art I love.
Fluxus has been described: “…remains the most complex – and therefore widely underestimated – artistic movement (or ‘non-movement,’ as it called itself) of the early to mid-sixties . . .Fluxus saw no distinction between art and life, and believed that routine, banal, and everyday actions could be regarded as artistic events, declaring that ‘everything is art and everyone can do it.’ The preface to New York’s MOMA catalog of its exhibition: “Fluxus has been described as ‘the most radical and experimental art movement of the sixties’ and at the same time as ‘a wild goose chase into the zone of everything ephemeral.’ Such wildly different assessments testify to Fluxus’s resistance to pigeon holing and to its multifariousness.” George Maciunas is best known as the founder and central coordinator of Fluxus.
Maybe the most popularly-known artist in the field of “Happenings” and “Fluxus” was conceptual and performance artist, Yoko Ono. John Lennon once described how he and Yoko met at a 1961 gallery opening of her work:
Then I went up to this thing that said, ‘Hammer a nail in.’ I said, ‘Can I hammer a nail in?’ and she said no, because the gallery was actually opening the next day. So the owner, Dunbar, says, ‘Let him hammer a nail in.’ It was, ‘He’s a millionaire. He might buy it,’ you know.”
So there was this little conference and she finally said, “OK, you can hammer a nail in for five shillings.” So smart-ass here says, “Well, I’ll give you an imaginary five shillings and hammer an imaginary nail in.” And that’s when we really met. That’s when we locked eyes and she got it and I got it and that was it.
Yoko Ono was connected to this strange, dada-ist art movement called “Fluxus.” I went to an event on Long Island, at what I remember at an estate that the audience was bussed to–all I remember is that there was an empty swimming pool. I went to an event in Manhattan’s SoHo, in which the “artists” strung string to the walls around the audience until they were as though enmeshed in a spider’s web. At the end, each audience member was given a small cardboard box full of broken sheetrock—presumably to have one closely observe the shapes into which the pieces were arbitrarily broken—object that were not worthy of thought and which were normally to trashed–yet every piece was different and thus, maybe worth a second look (!)
I’m not sure if this was a Fluxus event, a Happening, or a Fluxus Happening. Critic Susan Sontag in 1962, published her essay “Happenings: An Art of Radical Juxtaposition”: “There has appeared in New York recently a new, and still esoteric, genre of spectacle. At first sight apparently a cross between art exhibit and theatrical performance, these events have been given the modest and somewhat teasing name of ‘Happenings.’ They have taken place in lofts, small art galleries, backyards and small theaters before audiences averaging between thirty and one hundred persons….They do not take place on a stage conveniently understood, but in a dense object-clogged setting which may be made, assembled, or found, or all three. In this setting a number of participants, not actors perform movements and handle objects….The ‘Happening’ has no plot, though it is an action, or rather a series of actions and events.”
I believe it was here that I bought (for about $2.00 apiece), two “finger boxes,” paper-covered cardboard cubes about 4” X 4” X 4” with a slit on top and instructions to insert one’s finger—having no idea of what was inside. Mine each contains a piece of soft rubber foam. Penetrating the slotted opening and encountering the foam would seem like a man performing a digital sex act. I kept one box “virgin” for many years, then encountered that someone had surreptitiously violated it.
My two finger boxes are on the right (both signed).
(I quote from one of my favorite “rock” songs, a delightful put-on:
Who put the bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp,
Who put the ram in the rama lama ding dong?)
END PART I of 3