Home » KID STORIES–THE BOOK
Category Archives: KID STORIES–THE BOOK
I’m all dressed up and it’s been an hour-and-a-half behind these crummy turkeys. I do something that even to this day, I’m sorry for doing. I’m driving right behind this mass of turkeys who are walking along with that funny looks on their faces, their eyeballs spinning, and their bills going, gwaglewaglewagl. Right up behind them I’m going, and I put my hand on the horn and go WHAAAAAAAAAAAA! I’ll tell you, have you ever hollered “FIRE” in the middle of the Saturday night feature down at the Bijou? These turkeys blew their corks! The air is full of turkeys! Flapping their wings and landing on the top of the Ford, they’re landing on my hood, gwaglewaglewagle gwaglewaglewagle! It’s a gigantic rain of turkeys.
This guy’s running around. He’s got his lantern and he’s hollering and if you ever heard a farmer swear—they know languages that stevedores don’t know!
I sit there. Oh, my god, these turkeys! What am I going to do? The turkeys won’t move now. They’re sitting on the fenders, they’re sitting on the running boards, there’s one turkey on the back seat crying.
The guy looks in my car window. “Well, alright, wise guy. Them turkeys, when they gets scared, they just won’t move. We’re gonna sit here all night until them turkeys decide they’ll start movin’ again. Now look what ya done did!”
I say, “I was trying to turn around and my elbow hit the horn.”
“Don’t give me none a that!”
More talking turkey to come.
In Bob Dylan’s Hands
• • • • • • • • •
A HARD RAIN—BOB DYLAN, BRYAN FERRY
I am a Bob Dylan enthusiast—especially of his early work such as “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Tambourine Man,” “Positively 4th Street.” I seldom encounter a cover of his work that I can tolerate. (Yes to some Joan Baez, Jimi Hendrix.) So hearing Brian Ferry do “A Hard Rain,” I’m at war with myself in a knock-down-drag-out-dispute. Ambivalent. Confused. Conflicted.
I acknowledge that Dylan has been a play-actor in his own publicity and performance as the innocent folksy traveler, the vagabond. (Early in his professional career he had Pete Seeger and many others believing in his bogus biography.) But considering the straightforward nature of this situation, I believe his statements regarding his serious creative works as related to his artistic forebears. I do believe he meant what he created at that period in his career in such songs as “Blowin’ in the Wind.” At about that time he was living with Suze Rotolo, who, with her family, were said to be far-leftwing activists, and the country was engaged in a heartfelt folksong revival. He believed it and was preaching to the choir. He also saw which way the wind was blowin.’
In all his public performances I’ve seen in person and in videos, he presents no dancing and prancing and flashy floodlights—no such visual theatrics—he stands there, expresses his beliefs, and performs his creations like an old time folksinger. (The backdrop for the early video of him here is a corny setting that I’d like to blame on the TV production dept.) I find these Dylan songs poetic and filled with his own surrealistic version of truth—kind of like ancient epics.
In Dylan’s book, Chronicles—Volume One, he writes:
“Woody’s songs were having that big an effect on me, [In the late 1950s, early 60s] an influence on every move I made, what I ate and how I dressed, who I wanted to know…. [Lord] Buckley was the hipster bebop preacher who defied all labels. No sulking Beat poet, he was a raging storyteller who did riffs on all kinds of things from supermarkets to bombs to crucifixion…He had a magical way of speaking.
For me, a couple of Dylan’s songs, such as “A Hard Rain,” have the classic purity and rightness of The Lord’s Prayer—you wouldn’t go changing words or doing pop-elaborations on it (except maybe if you were Lord Buckley). It has the straightforward, simple, classic, solemn power, the rightness of a traditional folk song. In Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature acceptance speech he wrote in part:
I wanted to know all about it [traditional folk] and play that kind of music….
I hadn’t left home yet, but I couldn’t wait to. I wanted to learn this music and meet the people who played it. Eventually, I did leave, and I did learn to play those songs. They were different than the radio songs that I’d been listening to all along. They were more vibrant and truthful to life….
I had all the vernacular down. I knew the rhetoric. [America’s traditional folk song content.] None of it went over my head – the devices, the techniques, the secrets, the mysteries – and I knew all the deserted roads that it traveled on, too. I could make it all connect and move with the current of the day. When I started writing my own songs, the folk lingo was the only vocabulary that I knew, and I used it….
Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days….
What is it that Bryan Ferry has done, and why? In the video, one sees an elegant stage performance, a short, punchy entertainment, that hasn’t, for me, a shred of appreciation/homage for the original. It demeans the genre in which the song was created–a simple, poetic folk-telling of universal truths–reinterpreted as an entertaining, glitzy stage production, getting maximum effect from a powerful surface without any social/philosophical base. The performance seems a put-down. It’s taken the raw moral and poetic meaning, the 1960s associations and contentions, stripped them bare to fleshless, soulless bones, and reformed the skeleton with newly energized, living flesh and flash. Should we expect some respect from a cover version of a song, a poem, a prayer, an anthem?
See upcoming ARTSY for my continuing conflicts regarding Ferry’s “Hard Rain.”
They’re going under the car. They’re very dumb—they think it’s the sky. One turkey gets caught under my differential in the back. I can hear him under the floorboard, gwaglewaglewagle, and I have to get out and pull him loose.
One thing you are probably not aware of regarding turkeys. Turkeys en mass are extremely gamey. That’s all I gotta say. And furthermore, they’re very uninhibited—their personal habits are not exactly the kind you want in your living room.
I’m driving forward and it’s like some surrealistic nightmare. The farmer ahead is waving the lantern, the guy behind me has his lantern, and the entire entourage moves across the landscape like a scene out of an Ingmar Bergman movie, The Turkeys.
It must have been an hour-and-a-half. We finally get to the end of this road and they’ll either have to take the crossroad left or right. I’m going to wait. Which way are the turkeys going? When they go one way, I’m going the other. Well, the guy in front turns right, the guy in the back turns left. And I’m stuck. Two flocks of turkeys. I’ve got my choice. It’s either that or drive straight over the pumpkin field ahead of me.
IMAGINARY NEW YORK TIMES INTERVIEW
These days, the Sunday New York Times book review section has a page where, one author per issue, they ask each interviewee similar questions about their reading and writing habits. I’ve frequently thought about this regarding my own work, so it occurred to me to ask myself and respond as though I’d been questioned by the Times.
What books have you recently read and are about to read?
I recently read Susan Cheever’s biography of E. E. Cummings. Years ago I’d read two previous bios of Cummings, but Cheever’s especially impressed me with how her insightful and sympathetic approach gave me a significant sense of his whole conflicted being. I look forward to reading the revised edition of E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany.
What “great books” have most impressed you and why?
Tristram Shandy, Moby Dick, The Ambassadors, Leaves of Grass, Ulysses, U. S. A. Trilogy: They each gave me an unexpected and strong intellectual/emotional/esthetic sense of the author’s created world.
Which writers most inspire you?
Ernest Hemingway. When I was an impressionable teenager, my cousin, Raymond B. Anderson introduced me to Hemingway’s controlled and forceful writing when he loaned me Death in the Afternoon. I eventually read virtually all of Hemingway, and am especially impressed and influenced by how Carlos Baker’s Hemingway: The Writer as Artist, explored what Hemingway did and how he created some of his fiction out of his actual experiences.
In recent decades, I’ve been very inspired and impressed with the entertaining mental agility with which Norman Mailer made every subject he handled a worthwhile intellectual reading experience.
What kind of books must attract you these days?
In recent years, I mostly read books and articles that focus on various aspects of the subjects I’m writing about: humorist Jean Shepherd and my totally true, authentic experiences in art expressed in short, illustrated blog essays titled ARTSY FARTSY.
These ARTSYS include info/commentary on: “The Garden of Earthly Delights”; artists’ books such as Mexican Codexes and Blake’s “Jerusalem–The Emanation of the Giant Albion”; discovering a secret in Cezanne’s “great slash” atop his Mont Sainte Victoire; constructing a classical guitar and Japanese shakuhachi; correcting MOMA’s Picasso mistake, and my vending of “The Guernica Colorization Kit”; Abstract Visual Relationships; Suzanne Farrell’s ballet slippers, John Curry, Torvill and Dean; Machu Picchu, Vietnam Memorial, and New York’s High Line; fondling in awe the 24,000-year-old Venus of Lespugue, and the world’s greatest netsuke; my 34-year unique design adventures at New York’s museum of natural history (including the sex of grasses in the Komodo Dragon exhibit); my 50-year-old love affair with the New York Times; my encounters with Brother Theodore, Moondog, Seinfeld, three hours with Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider, and having tea with the Vampire Lady; and much more stuff.
What kind of books do you avoid?
What would you like to discuss with one of your favorite authors?
I’d like to ask Walt Whitman, whose writings up to the early 1850s were the most maudlin tear-jerkers, what altered his being—what inspired him into making the extraordinary creations in his 1855 and subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass.
Who would you most like to write a biography of yourself?
What few written words seem among the most memorable and powerful to you?
Lyrics co-written by Barry Mann in 1961 with Gerry Goffin:
I’d like to thank the guy who wrote the song
That made my baby fall in love with me….
Who put the bomp
In the bomp bah bomp bah bomp
Who put the ram
In the rama lama ding dong….
Darling, bomp bah bah bomp, bah bomp bah bomp bomp
And my honey, rama lama ding dong forever.
And when I say, dip da dip da dip da dip
You know I mean it from the bottom of my boogity boogity boogity shoop.
Well, one thing about turkeys. If you don’t know anything about turkeys, you’re going to learn something about turkeys. The turkey has a mind of its own—what there is of it, it’s his own. If he doesn’t want to move, he doesn’t move. If he wants to do anything, he does it. So these turkeys are walking ahead of me very leisurely, messing around. One stops, and that gives the idea to four-hundred-twenty-eight turkeys that it’s stopping time. They all stop. Then the guy comes back and hollers at them in turkey-talk, gwaglewaglewagle gwaglewaglewagle! They start moving sideways. Back and forth go these turkeys. Once in a while a big tom-turkey opens his big, fantastic tail like an enormous fan when he’d see a lady-type turkey showing up that looks kind of good to him. He opens up his tail and starts showing off. That tail is all part of the big act. There’s yelling and hollering and all the other turkeys run over there and then they go back again and then he lowers his fan.
This chick is waiting for me in the next town and surrounding me is this mob of four-thousand angry, bugged, walking-around turkeys, and they loiter. There’s nothing like a turkey for loitering. They just don’t seem to have any purpose in life.
I start to edge forward, following the turkeys ahead of me. I’m not going to stay here all night. The turkeys from behind go around the car like a great river and I’m in the middle of a gigantic turkey-block, moving down this country road at, I would say, roughly, at about six or seven feet an hour.
More turkeys to come.
I see this light. It’s a cold, rainy, miserable, crummy night. I slow up, and I see ahead of me a great, dark mass on the road, stretching endlessly. In the middle of this great dark mass is a man carrying a lantern. One of these Coleman lanterns. You can see a circle of light about ten or fifteen feet around him. This apparition all around him is a writhing, moiling crowd of turkeys. It’s insane, weird-looking, like a monster movie—and the man is walking along the road with this herd of turkeys, and he’s taking them somewhere.
The bright light from the Coleman lamp is playing on these turkey heads. Now, a turkey is not a beautiful bird. From the head up it looks bad. He’s got these red wattles, the comb, and the eyes! There’s a certain strange, maniacal quality to a turkey’s eyes. With the light hitting the turkey eyes you can see them glowing. If you’ve ever looked a turkey in the eye in the dark, it’s enough to have you swear off anything.
I pull up. Here’s these turkeys. They’re all sort of moving like a great mob of ants or something and they all stay together, very close, tight-knit. They go gwaglewaglewagle gwaglewaglewagle, calling back and forth in the darkness. I stop. Here’s this farmer walking along with these turkeys. He must have had seven trillion of these babies. The turkeys are spread out on the shoulders of the road. I can’t get around them. I’m not driving over the fields with the Ford, busting axels. It is just like getting behind some herd of warthogs or something. I decide, holy smokes, I’ll never get through here. What I’m going to do is back up.
I look in my rearview mirror and I see another light! I start backing up and I hear somebody hollering, “Hey! Hey!” I open the door and look out, and behind me is the avant garde of another herd of turkeys! The guy back there is yelling, “Don’t back up, mac! What do you think you’re doin?” The two guys are driving them all down in two big herds. I am stuck. I am stuck between two merging herds of turkeys.
Ron Offen, the publisher/editor of Free Lunch, had the policy of, when rejecting poems, including some useful literary comment on one’s work when returning it. After submitting poems over a period of many months, Offen, gifted me with a free subscription to Free Lunch—and they say there is no free lunch!
For years, the New York Transit Authority placed car-cards on their trains in a series titled “Poetry in Motion.” These consist of a short poem surrounded by a decorated boarder. As a daily rider, I appreciated this and used the card’s title and decoration for promoting my own little ditties by making small versions of the cards with my poems and distributing them scattered on empty seats. I got no fame or fortune, but it was fun:
I gather my poems into chronological groupings and hold each group together with an inexpensive binding: First Poems. More First Poems, Even More First Poems, Second Poems. Third Poems, Fourth Poems.
My poems vary in style, from the loose (free-form) to attempts at two of the more traditional, organized forms: the sonnet and the villanelle. For a couple of my favorite sonnets, I recommend Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur” and “Pied Beauty,” which use such strange word and organizational combinations (Hopkins called the use “sprung rhythm.”) that they sound as though they must be modern. For a villanelle, I like Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”
In my Fourth Poems, I encounter a villanelle of mine I still like. The villanelle’s organized form takes a line and repeats it in a specific way. The effect is a kind of obsessiveness that has a strong, emotional effect for me. I’ve written poems on a variety of themes. Here’s one of mine—as one might guess, its a meditation on artsy-ness, based on topiary and associated crafts. The other is also on art, in a loose form:
Devoted to Art and Ice
We seek transcendent craft with mind and heart,
though choosing nature’s text exacts a price:
the nature of the natural—or the artifice of art.
(But a bush that’s shorn like sheep will stand apart
as should a swan contrived and carved in ice.
See: weakened craft devoid of mind and heart;
their makers rake in bucks, but without Art.)
We have our purity, our pride, our mundane sacrifice.
It’s the nature of the natural and the artifice of art.
Could we then, concoct and cast some chart
and condemn those dolts to hell for all their vice,
while we seek transcendent craft with mind and heart?
Where would we live, uplifted, while the crass depart
when purged? We’d weekend in our artful paradise
if we nurtured all the natural and the artifice of art.
It’s we, with our damned sensibilities, who pray apart;
convinced, in faith, that “beauty” does suffice
when we seek transcendent craft with mind and heart
and the nature of the natural and the artifice of art.
Walt Whitman, John Marin
Universe in a leaf of grass and mountain in a wet-brush swath.
We live, say Walt and John, between sensation and act,
or should, but our minds intrude, denying life’s immediacy:
Power bound in the brain, constrained from free release,
Confounded by inflexible alphabets in books, broken on the rigid rack of prose.
What we feel must thrust through muscle surge
As pigment strokes unmindful of the mind’s devices—
Urge, urge, long lines must burn the page
From here below where every body knows: barbaric yawps of words and paint.
Yes. Yet what thin and thoughtful lines: with each page and new edition
Pentimento commas, brushed word shifts,
Palimsests of crafted washes, charcoal indirections—
Careful (not random) inflections go and come, settle down and glow,
Underlie the flush and sweep preceding sweet, controlled abandon.
I love turkeys—as a food. It’s one of the great foods. I’m literally a turkey-nut. And anyone who’s ever been in the great Midwest—outside the New York area—knows a lot about turkeys. You know, the turkey is one of the world’s dumbest birds. The turkey has a brain about the size of a pinhead. A real dumb bird. If you have a flock of turkeys and one turkey panics for one reason or another, all the turkeys go totally ape and go over a cliff or something worse than lemmings, and kill about five-thousand of them in about five minutes.
One time I really got bugged with turkeys. They grow a lot of them in Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan, where turkeys are particularly suited to that climate. Now turkey is not grown the way you grow chickens. Most people think of a turkey as a kind of a big chicken. Oh no. A very different breed, I’ll tell you! This is a side of turkeys you never see.
I remember one cold, dark night, I’m in a hurry. I’m driving. I say to myself, “I know this road, I’m going to take a shortcut and go over there, and go down that road. I’ll cut out a half an hour. So I’m driving like mad. I’ve really got to get to this place. To be honest, it involved a girl. When you get mad over a chick, that’s bad mad!
So I’m hurrying and it’s dark and cold and I’m in my Ford and I’m about eighteen years old and really got to see this girl and I’m driving through this road, when all of a sudden, I see a light ahead of me. Right in the middle of the road. So I start slowing up. I figure there’s a car stopped there. It’s a narrow road, about a lane-and-a-half. One of these asphalt roads you see in the country.
POETS—Manque and Pro. 1 of 2
What’s it like to be a poet manqué or even a real pro-poet, in a country that doesn’t read poetry? Well, decades ago I wrote over 150 poems, tried a few times to get some published. Ogden Nash, probably our most funny and Beloved American Poet, once complained on a TV show on which he was a panelist, that poets such as himself had to be on such panel shows just to make a living.
A bit of Ogden Nashery:
Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker.
Billy Collins is a former U. S. Poet Laureate. He tends to write amusing stuff. I read a profile of him in a major magazine which noted that he had a photo of Jean Shepherd pinned over his desk. I contacted him and interviewed him for my book on Shepherd and he expressed how important he’d been to his growing up: “I had to get my Shepherd fix. He actually made you feel that you weren’t alone….I think he had the best influence on my sensibility. And I think it helped me kind of pursue that sense of being different, being an individual.”
A poem by Billy Collins:
Introduction to Poetry
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Bill Knott was a funny, quirky kind of poet, hard to determine if he was for real or not—but poems of his appeared in the New Yorker–WOW! He also achieved a Guggenheim Fellowship. He was highly regarded by some (a comment that he might well have found funny—or annoying). Jeff Alessandrelli, in the LIT HUB website wrote: “He was an odd person, determinedly so. Attentively discombobulated; idiosyncratically calibrated. Most poets are sheep. He wasn’t most.” A New York Times book reviewer described him as “…the brilliant poet and morbid eccentric…” He died in 2014.
I can’t remember the circumstance under which I’d contacted him, but in response he sent me, five autographed batches (books) of his self-published poems. I responded by sending him a copy of my Excelsior, You Fathead! Here’s some Knott:
New Yorker poem, Plaza de Loco poems
Charles Wright is, indeed, highly regarded, and his Black Zodiac poetry book won the Pulitzer Prize. I bought it and several of his subsequent books, but find Black Zodiac by far the best for my taste and understanding. A sample from it and, when I went to a reading of his, his autograph for me:
Eugene B. Bergmann
I only occasionally submitted my poems for possible publication, and only twice was accepted. A Canadian poetry journal, Undertow published two of my poems! (“Arcadian Commute,” and “Nature Morte.”)
When I encountered a contest using magnetic words that one adheres to one’s refrigerator to create poems, I submitted and am now the proudly (?) published author of two poems in The Magnetic Poetry Book of Poetry. In bookstores I still encounter that book, amused to think that my two poems are probably read more than those of Robert Frost or any other American poet! (That little piece of irony is maybe not funny, but just true.)
End Part one of two.
From that night on, when Pearl and I stood next to each other in biology class, it was an entirely different thing. She always said, “Please,” now. She didn’t have the little spangles, the tassels on her “Yes.” She’d say, “Would you pass the green dye, please.” Her nostrils would flair a bit. “Pass the dye, please.” I’d say “Yes,” and I’d give her the dye. She’d say, “Excuse me. Do you have yesterday’s assignment in your notebook?” That cool, beautiful, rich smile. I’d say, “Yeah. Yeah, yeah.”
From that time on I had trouble eating red cabbage, I could no longer mix it with the mashed potatoes, and ketchup was dead. My father’s hair was a kind of dirty gray and I wanted to say, “Dad, why isn’t your hair white?” My mother was always there in that big old bathrobe saying, “How about some red cabbage, gang?” I’d say, “I’ll have another helping, please.” And that was the day that changed my life.
That’s all Shep says about Pearl.
Her story’s over. We can understand how his date
with her changed his way of thinking about his family and the differences money
makes to status. Is it what made him a liberal in some aspects of his thinking?
We don’t quite know in what ways it changed how he differed in his life.
Next story we go from Pearl to turkeys.
Degas Pastel–Getting My Hackles Up
The recently encountered Degas picture found in a bus is not a “painting” as widely described. When I first saw it shown for a moment on TV, I said to my wife, “Oh, look, a Degas pastel.” Then I saw it reproduced in the New York Times (2/24/2018) described as a “painting,” and I thought I’d mis-interpreted it on the TV screen. After all, the Times title to the news story used the word “painting,” and the article referred to it as a “painting” nine times, but once as: “The painting, a colorful pastel.” That phrase is a self-contradiction. Googling the picture, all the first page hits (NYT, AP, Reuters, The Guardian, etc.) refer to it as a “painting.”
I opened a large photo of the piece on my computer screen and confirmed that the technique and nature of the work shows it to be, without doubt, not a painting, but a pastel. (I’m also aware that Degas did many pastel works.) Pastel is an art medium in the form of sticks consisting of pure powdered pigments and a binder–similar to chalks used on a blackboard. The picture is not a “painting” any more than a pencil drawing, etching, lithograph, wood-block print, or a tapestry, is a “painting.” The mass media, following “painting,” blindly galloped lemming-like over the cliff of ignorance.
My large catalog of the 1988 Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Degas exhibit shows it in color with a detailed description of the work, starting with: “The Chorus. Pastel over monotype on laid paper.” Looking up “monotype” in my Art Terms book, I found that it’s a form of printing in which wet paint on glass is pressed onto paper in a technique similar to etchings and lithographs—thus, over that basic, printed, under-layer, Degas created his predominately pastel picture.
My Random House Dictionary of the English Language Second Edition, copyright 1987, defines painting as “A picture or design executed in paint.” I had to confirm this because dictionaries can be outrageously confusing and downright wrong, as was Webster’s Unabridged, 3rd Edition (1961) in its defining “hoi polli” as both the lower class and the upper class. (Sure to confuse unknowing readers for generations to come, as will Webster’s 3rd defining “uninterested” and “disinterred” as the same—would you want to come before a judge who is uninterested in judging your case, or who is disinterested while judging it?) Wrong word-usage matters—it pollutes and confuses accurate understanding of our major means of communicating.
In this close-up, note overall pastel work,
especially in the oranges and the gray hair.
will the media give you no rest?
He says, “Follow me.” He turns and we go into a room, we go into the next room, we go into the next room, we turn right, we go into this next room, we turn left and we’re in the room, with about twenty people all sitting there drinking from glasses that have leaves and things sticking out of them. Over in the corner with three other girls is Pearl.
She says, “Oh, come in. Everybody, here, I’d like you to meet Jean Shepherd. Jean, this is Mr. so-and-so, etc.” Men with white hair. Poor people don’t have white hair. It just sort of gets cruddy. A man says, “Are you one of the Shepherds from Cleveland?”
I’m thinking of Cleveland Street where we live. I say, “Yes, I am.”
“I know your uncle.” I’m thinking of my drunken Uncle Carl.
Five minutes later we are out on the driveway and “the car” is picking us up. Ten minutes later we are in the Orpheum. I am sitting next to Pearl. We sit for one hour and seventy minutes while Fred Astaire dances on top of pianos while Ginger Rogers looks out at us and the music plays.
And I’m sitting. When a kid takes another kid to the movies he grabs her hand. I sit as far away as I can. And Pearl is sitting there. About two-thirds of the way through the picture, she takes my hand. Pearl takes my hand! My hand is sweating, of course. It feels like it’s covered with chocolate and I haven’t blown my nose neatly. I’m sitting there and she’s holding my hand. The movie ends and she squeezes it.
We get up, we wade through the Baby Ruth wrappers, we get out, all the other kids are getting out—and I am walking with Pearl. I am hypnotized. And sitting in front of the movie house is the Buick. We get in the back seat. We drive home on Beacon Street, up the driveway, and she says, “Charles will take you home. I had a wonderful time.”
“Yeah, so did I.”
I sit back in the darkness and the chauffer says, “Where do you live?”
I say, “Do you know where Cleveland Street is?” This guy lives on Cleveland Street—I can tell by the way his neck sits in the collar.
He says, “Yeah.” He turns around and we go down over Kennedy and finally we get to Cleveland Street. He says, “Where do you live?”
I say, “2907.”
“Oh yeah, I know where it is.”
We get there and he stops. He sits there. I have to open the door for myself. He says, “Okay, kid, ‘night,” and he’s off. That big Buick with the big rear end and the snotty red lights heads back for Beacon Street.
I stand there. It’s now ten-forty-five. I am at least an hour late. I go up the steps and into the house, my old man’s shirt sweated through, hanging like a rag, the tie is hanging down. I walk in and they’re sitting there, all dressed up. My dad has his new sports shirt on, my mother has a dress on. The radio is playing. My mother has dusted the day bed and everything is clean and neat. My fielder’s mitt has been picked up.
My mother says, “Did you have a good time, Jean?”
Now I am “Jean.” I say, “Yes.”
The old man says, “Did you meet Mr. Johnson?”
I say, “Yes. Yes. I met Mr. Philips from Cleveland, too.”
My father says, “You mean Mr. Philips from Youngstown Sheet and Tube?” These are legendary names, like meeting Mickey Mantle to my father. Names that appear in the financial pages.
“Yes, I met Mr. Philips, too.”
“Did you enjoy yourself?”
I say, “Yes.” I head into the bathroom and I’m tearing off the sweaty shirt and all of a sudden the old man opens the door. He says, “Did ya?”
I say, “Did I what?”
He says, “I guess you didn’t.”
One more Pearl to come.
Note that, uncharacteristically,
Shepherd uses here the real first names of his parents.
There is a pause in the conversation. He says, “Anne, you know where you can find my black tie?” He’s getting ready to dress me and he doesn’t want that silver and red tie.
I say, “Dad, what is it?”
He says, “Well, that’s Mr. Johnson’s daughter.”
I say, “Well, yeah, I guess she must be.”
He says, “You be very good. Be very good and don’t… . You be very good!”
I say, “Yeah, I’ll be good. I gotta pick her up at eight-thirty.”
He says, “Well, you be very good.”
And my mother then says to my father, “Jean, maybe tonight before he goes you better tell him.”
I kind of shrink down a bit. “What?!” What is it he better tell me?
The old man looks at me and he says, “Don’t worry, I think he knows.”
Finally I’m ready and I go out, wearing my father’s white canvas shirt with the concrete collars up under my ears and already my neck is red. I’m wearing his black tie that it took him over a half hour to get right. And for the first time he has shown me how to shave, so my face feels like a tomato with the skin off. My mother has ironed my pants and they are still hot. The steel mill is cooking and the shirt is sweating through and I’ve got my father’s jacket on, the one with the red checks.
I walk all the way across town and over Kennedy, and I’m getting into this neighborhood that’s dark. Rich neighborhoods are dark, the trees get higher, and there’s a stronger smell of lilacs and the snowball bushes. And the scarier you get. Down past Twelfth Street, I get down past Twyman Street where the Superintendent of Schools lives. I’m moving past that—upwards—on that sidewalk.
I’m walking along and finally, there it is, Mr. Johnson’s house. Pearl’s home. Just a big, dark, sprawling blob up there with those trees around it. You could see little lights. I go up and knock on the door. This big man wearing a dark suit opens it. I figure it’s Mr. Johnson. He says, “Oh, Mr. Shepherd. You’re here for Pearl.”
I say, “Yes.”
More still to come
I’m looking around. It’s terrible when a kid begins to reject his home. I love it here! Coming up the back steps yelling, “What’s for supper, ma? Oh wow, red cabbage!” Up to this moment, nothing is greater than mixing five big gobs of red cabbage with mashed potatoes, pouring ketchup on it and gulfing it down. And now, I’m sitting there with my fork. My father is reading the sports page, my kid brother is whining that he wants to get up, my mother is yelling at him to shut up and finish his supper.
This night something has changed. It’s Friday night. I don’t know how to say to my mother, “Mother, I’m going out tonight and I won’t be back till maybe nine-thirty.” Ours is strictly a nine-thirty house. My kid brother eight-thirty. He’s a year-and-a-half younger and rank has its privileges. Nine-thirty I’d come reeling in from a tough game of kick the can, sweating, mosquitoes all over me. I’d smoked something back of the garage and I’m hiding the odor with gum. I’d get in and my mother would say, “It’s nine-forty. Your father doesn’t like it!”
Okay, fateful Friday night and I’m sitting there. I say, “Ma, I’ve got a date tonight.”
She says, “Esther Jane is a nice girl.” She likes girls who would come in and talk about baking cakes and stuff.
I say, “No, I’m going out with Pearl.”
She says, “Pearl?” Pearl? Every kid in the neighborhood is known and cataloged. There is Dawn, there is Esther Jane, there is Christine, etc. Every last kid.
I say, “Yeah, she lives in the next neighborhood, on the next block.”
“Where does she live?”
The old man puts down his paper. He’s interested—his kid’s got a chick.
I say, “She lives over across Kennedy.”
My mother says, “Where? Where does she live?”
And I say, “Oh,…I don’t know. I don’t remember.”
The old man says, “Where does she live?”
“Beacon Street.” It’s as though eight floodlights have gone on in the room.
My father says, “Beacon Street?”
My mother puts the pan down and she says, “Where?”
I say, “Beacon Street, mom.”
“Where does she live on Beacon Street?” On Beacon Street, like all rich streets, there is a kind of rich end and then there is the rich-rich end.
I say, “Well, she lives down by Morton Street.”
Morton Street and Beacon Street go right to Olympus and meet there, and my mother knows there are only three houses at that corner.
She says, “Pearl who?” Kids don’t know these special subtleties.
I say, “Pearl Johnson.”
My old man turns and looks at me, and I think I’ve done something terrible. It is that funny thing in the air. His eyes bug open. He says, “Johnson?”
“Yeah, Pearl Johnson. I met her in Biology 3.”
He says, “You mean the Johnsons from Morton Street and Beacon?”
I say, “Yeah.”
More to come
I say, “You would?!”
She says, “Yes.”
I say, “What time?”
She says, “After dinner.”
Dinner! We have “supper” at our house. They have “dinner.” Oh, what a world of difference.
I say, “Yes, after dinner.” That means six-thirty to me.
She says, “About eight-thirty.”
Eight-thirty! I have to be home at nine-thirty. “Where will I meet you?”
She says, “Well, come to the house.”
Come to the house. I wanted to meet at the popcorn machine. At eight-thirty I’m going to have a big bag of popcorn in my hand, ready to go and now I gotta go to the house.
Do you know what this means? When you live in a world where two years ago you got a new sport coat, and it is electric blue. It’s the best thing you’ve got. You’ve got one pair of slacks and you hope to god they’re clean. You’ve got one necktie—the one my Aunt Min gave me for eighth-grade graduation. I am totally a non-necktie type. This necktie is silver, it looks like it’s made out of tinfoil, and has a red painted snail on it.
I go home and I start to sweat. I’m sitting at supper. My kid brother is over here, my old man is there talking about the White Sox, my mother is giving us more red cabbage. There’s the hamburgers and the ketchup, and all of a sudden my house is rotten! My old man in his underwear, my kid brother eating the hamburger and slobbering all over. My mother says, “Anyone for more red cabbage?” She’s standing there in her bathrobe with curlers in her hair.
Welcome to the “Cabaret”
Some historical periods seem to engender their own metaphors in the arts. Without suggesting that I’m an expert or that I recognize all the significant symbols, a few of them sometimes come to mind as “great American novels,” or books, or films of worldwide significance, or whatever one wants to call them:
Leaves of Grass: America’s democracy and fortitude prevail.
Moby Dick: A maniacal commander takes his charges to destruction.
Gone With the Wind: The “glory” of the South might survive disaster.
The Sun Also Rises: We can be shocked into a debilitating euphoria.
U. S. A. Trilogy Capitalism can run amuck.
Dr. Strangelove: Destruction is just a madman away.
Cabaret (the film): We might not be able to “control them.”
One of my favorite films is “Cabaret,” (1972) staring Liza Minnelli, in the only performance by hers that I admire. She plays Sally Bowles, an American singer in a Berlin cabaret. Her innocence is captivated and polluted by the thrill of degradation all around her. The cabaret’s emcee is a symbol of the evil beginning to occur out in the real world of Germany in the early 1930s (As the lyrics describe it, “Life is a cabaret, old friend, come to the cabaret.”) The cabaret portrays corrupted sex and a psychotic obsession with money—the lyric goes, “Money makes the world go around.” The cabaret’s performances are the obvious metaphor for Germany at that time.
In another song of the emcee—who is a metaphor-for-Mephistopheles–we may be lulled into thinking that he has a drop of human love and tolerance, even for a female primate, and we laugh at him and even may laugh when he terminates the song regarding the gorilla as: “She doesn’t look Jewish at all!” We are ashamed of ourselves for laughing here, for in this performance, we have been tricked by this personification of evil.
Sally is attracted to the civilized and sexually innocent Brian Roberts and they begin an affair. They meet the wealthy German, Maximilian von Heune, and are led into some of the sinful life around them—Sally and Brian betray their affection for each other by both having an affair with Max. Sally recognizes that they have been seduced by Max’s money, and have thus prostituted themselves. She becomes pregnant, but she’s not sure by which of them. Brian wants the child and a serene life and love with Sally, while she wants to continue life in the sick ambiance of Berlin. She chooses to have an abortion, thus killing the symbol of life and love and her potential for a good life with Brian.
Max comments regarding the rising Nazi influence around them that he and his fellow Germans will be able to “control” them—we know from subsequent history that this was not so.
“Tomorrow belongs to me.”
Fritz, a German Jew passing as Christian for his financial well-being, falls for a wealthy German Jew, Natalia, but is rejected for not being Jewish. Because his love for her is stronger than his desire for his safety, he reveals that he is a Jew, thus putting himself in mortal danger from the Nazis. Their marriage ceremony is the strong symbol of humanity and love that in this film, seems the only positive thing that will persevere.
Brian returns to England alone and Sally, her soul unrepentant, remains corrupted in Berlin’s cabaret: as she puts it, “Does it really matter as long as you’re having fun?”
Are We Living in Some Twisted Metaphor?
We wake each morning to the sun–with some hope still alive, but with the final line in The Sun Also Rises disturbing our resolve: “Isn’t it pretty to think so.” One of the novel’s two epigraphs is: “You are all a lost generation.”
To survive, we’ve got to hold fast to our faith in the heritage of
Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and all that steadfast crew.
Whitman beckons us:
“Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop some where waiting for you.”