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
WE INTERRUPT THE SOAKING PIT STORY
TO REMIND KID STORY READERS OF
WHAT THESE STORIES ARE ABOUT
TO REPEAT, plus more:
I’ve been posting my transcriptions of Shepherd’s kid stories for quite a while. I wonder how many realize (so long after I posted my manuscript’s introduction to this effect) that the stories are arranged in a chronology of his fictional life, including, in order: kindergarten, early grammar school, kid jobs, ham radio, high school, summer in steel mill–stories to come on dating (and will end with two stories of his college days). Thus, these stories are a logical sequence that will end with his understanding of the wider world beyond the Hammond of his childhood.
From my intro of the book manuscript:
Yet, just as his army stories can be arranged into a rather rough and ready sequence to present an almost continuous form, so his kid stories can be organized into groupings, a rough chronology according to phases of the life, not of “everyman,” but of “everykid.” We find in the stories included here, a portrayal of Shepherd’s fictional alter ego advancing from early childhood toward adulthood, episodes which, through an ordered progression, compose a coming-of-age “novel” of sorts. Jean Shepherd will go forth as an adult into the world beyond Hammond, Indiana after he recognizes his own wider possibilities. Maybe this book is truly a novel? A bildungsroman?
Manuscript Table of Contents Showing 9 of a Total 11 Parts in First 31 Chapters. NOTE THE CHRONOLOGY:
First Day Of Kindergarten
Decayed Tooth, Balsa Wood, and Silly Putty
LEARNING WRIT LARGE
Welcome to the Library
Great Crashing Waves of Words
Erector Set and Tinker Toy
Grab Bag Surprise
Selling Seeds, Door to Door to Door
Dots and Dashes
The Light of My Life
Struck By Lightning
Forty Words Per Minute
Life as a Tuba Player
Worm King of Cleveland Street
Fireworks and Unguentine
Crashing Picnics [KKK]
Fixing the Old Man’s Car
Public Speaking—“Araya Yabaya Arayaa!”
STEEL MILL DAYS
Let Me Tell You About That First Day
Mailboy With Tornado
The Soaking Pit
Rot-gut With Beer Chaser
Champion Rat Catcher
MORE STEEL MILL SOAKING PITS COMING
To begin with, the steel mill is not a simple mill. It is composed of thousands of individual units—cells. A city composed of thousands of neighborhoods, many of them totally different from the one that’s two blocks away. A steel mill—the one I worked in was Inland Steel—covers an area probably the size of Trenton or bigger and it arched along the shore of Lake Michigan.
The way they continued to get more ground to build the steel mill was by filling in the Lake. All the steel mills—Gary, Carnegie, are slowly moving towards Canada. They’re filling up Lake Michigan. There are long fingers sticking out in the Lake. The tin mill is sticking way out there, a mile out in the Lake on a man-made peninsula, and when I was working with the labor gang, on my second night, at two o’clock in the morning, I saw stuff I never had seen from outside the mill. You saw these long lines, like spidery, glowing centipedes moving out into the Lake on rails. These strange little molten slag cars, all moving out to the dark sea. And then they would almost disappear and you would see them stop way out in the Lake where the wind was howling in and the waves were getting higher. Then they would dump these loads of molten slag—actually lava—pour it out and you’d hear the hiss and see the steam rise. They’re building that lakefront out further and further.
It is always fantastically cold or unbelievably hot in the mill. My first week in the mill I’m assigned to a labor gang in the forty-inch soaking pit. Well, the forty-inch soaking pit is my idea of what Hell must be like. It is Dante’s idea of Hell. It is black and dusty and it is a long, high, metal shed that is so high you can’t see the ceiling, and moving through the darkness are moving cranes high above. The scariest sound in the mill, the most dangerous sound is like that of an approaching shell if you’re a frontline combat soldier. The sound of a moving overhead crane. More guys are killed by overhead cranes then by any other thing in heavy industry. Great cranes move along at tremendous speed and you hear the sound of the whistle that goes woop woop woop woop woop woop. Everybody ducks and you see this crane moving along, and attached to the bottom would be this great metal clamp and a huge hook and tremendous, thick, glowing cables, and swinging from side to side like a massive pendulum would be a nine-or ten-ton, red hot pig-iron ingot, moving through the darkness. Everybody’s waiting on the walls, waiting for this thing to go by. And when it moves past you, maybe a hundred yards away, this thing is so hot you feel this blast of searing dry heat on the hairs of your face.
I’ve been posting my transcriptions of Shepherd’s kid stories for quite a while. I wonder how many realize (so long after I posted my manuscript’s introduction to this effect) that the stories are arranged in a chronology of his fictional life, including, in order, kindergarten, early grammar school, kid jobs, ham radio, high school, summer in steel mill, to come on dating (and will end with two stories of his college days). Thus, these stories are a logical sequence that will end with his understanding of the wider world beyond the Hammond of his childhood.
The Soaking Pit
The steel mill was like some giant mountain range and I was a kid and lived in a steel mill town. The steel mill surrounded the town. You could see it on the horizon. And, you know, on a night like this, in the fall especially, when the air was clear, especially up in the north, the whole sky would be lit with a glow of purple, red, orange—the steel mill.
The underbody of the clouds would just flicker all the time, so it was never really dark there. It was like the northern lights. At this time of year, above the steel mill’s dark orange glow, you could see the occasional flicker of the real northern lights. They moved and were kind of a ghost-like white, a strange bluish-purple. At first you didn’t think you were seeing it. It just moved. And particularly at two or three o’clock in the morning you could see the northern lights, and anywhere from August through the middle of November was shooting star time. So, with the glow of the steel mill, that dark orange purple glow and above it the flicker of the northern lights and then an occasional pshoooooo—there would be a shooting star. And the eternal airplanes moving over the sky on their way into O’Hare Airport. And the trains roaring past all night. They’re carrying coke, carrying pig iron—and carrying all types of pigs out of Chicago. Constantly.
That was the way it was and no other way. You didn’t think in terms of waving fields of grain, you never thought in terms of moon over the Wabash. This was Indiana, but not the Indiana they sing songs about.
The big ol’ steel mill. And nobody who’s ever been inside the steel mill was ever the same once he’d been inside of it. Almost anything you do, once you’ve actually done it, you can never think of it the way you used to think of it before you did it. Everything changes.
One day, as a kid, I got this call. I had applied at the mill for a job. Like every other kid. Best thing to do. You applied. And one day I came home from school and there was a note: “Call this number.” My mother said, “Somebody called and I think it was the steel mill.”
“The steel mill!” It was fantastic luck, so I gave them a call and the next day I was down taking an examination, one of those long, involved aptitude-type things. I took about fifty of them.
Weeks went by. And then, one historic afternoon, I was given my clock pin, a pin you put on that says, from here on in you’ve got a clock number and you sign in. I was officially hired as a laborer in the steel mill. I had proven that I could carry stuff. And I had a fantastic aptitude for scut and I showed great talent for moving large chunks of metal from one place to the other. And my lungs were made of pure leather so I could breathe in the stygian atmosphere. I got on the bus that day and I went out to the forty-inch soaking pits.
And I’m walking along. The world is mine! I’m pulsing, the ground is thundering because of the machinery, and all of a sudden I am aware of another sound! I look around. It sounds like a train coming! I look around and there’s nothing on the tracks! There is nobody around me, just me, these two buildings, the freight cars. I look behind me. There’s no train, but I could hear it. It goes brrrrrrrrrrr—the sound of a freight train coming. This roar, getting closer and closer and I’m looking around.
By this time, I’m no longer thinking of the chicks in the tin mill. I’m wondering, what the hell is this train coming! Brrrrrrrrrrr when suddenly the train comes roaring over the top of this building which is about seventy feet high to my right! Aughrrrrrrrrr!
And it’s a tornado! One of these gigantic, funnel-shaped things and I’m looking right up the side of it! Have you ever seen one of those things close up! You can’t believe it! The roof is ripping off! Like pieces of paper! Enormous chunks of roof just flying whushhhhhhhhh whushhhhhhhh whushhhhhhhh. I see this great big high-tension tower slowly start to topple! Right in front of my eyes! Great shocks of electricity! I see a transformer about the size of your average living room—enormous—it just falls straight down eeeeeeeeeeeeeubammmm! It lands right on the top of a brand new Ford. Nothing but wheels sticking out the bottom of the transformer. I hold on to the side of the freight car and all my mail just goes whisss—gone!
It’s all over in probably twenty seconds and I’m hanging to the side of the freight car. I see the flames coming out from where the Ford is now on fire. Chunks of the building have disappeared into the sky. That great big funnel-shaped cloud moved on toward god-knows-where. Nothing but devastation for miles around.
I rush into one of the offices. Here are these guys sitting in these offices—drinking coffee! I say, “The tornado! The tornado! It almost got me!”
These three guys look up and say, “What are you talking about?” They didn’t even know that a tornado had passed within fifty yards of them, devastating the world!
I pick up a phone, I call my office, which is about two hundred yards from where this actually happened. I say, “I lost all my mail! The tornado hit!”
They say, “What are you talking about? You nut! What do you mean? Did you loose your…? What?”
I say, “My mail’s gone! It almost got me!”
Nobody believes it was a tornado! I was the only one who saw! And out there the Ford burned, the transformer hissed, the building lay at a crooked angle, and I could hear the sound of a retreating cosmic freight train. Going off into the distance.
I’ve never been the same since. Never been the same! Why do you think at moments of stress I suddenly whip up my jew’s harp and start playing some totally meaningless music? Why? A guy’s gotta keep the evil spirits away some way. That sounds to me as good as any way. It’s never been the same!
Some nights I lay in the sack and I can hear the sound of that approaching freight train. I hang onto the edge of the building. Imagine an enormous, uncontrolled tornado hitting the Pan Am Building. Wipe out the whole top forty-five floors. Carry the whole top of the building over to Trenton. Yes, who knows what evil lurks in the heart of god-knows-what? I’ve never been the same. Now you know!
End of Steel Mill Tornado
And Have a Happy Halloween!
So, I am walking along between these two buildings, the sun is shining, it was kind of a muggy, hot day—spring. Summer’s coming on in a week or two. It’s June and the juices are flowing. Because the last stop on my mail route, which was just coming up—the last stop! I had about fifteen different stops I would make on this run—it was the Tin Mill Assorting.
Sounds dull, doesn’t it? Oh, no. The Tin Mill Assorting was a big building that had about a thousand unbelievably sexy-looking chicks working in it. And they worked under these blue lights, inspecting tin, and I don’t know what these blue lights did to them, but, I’ll tell you—a fantastic mammary effect. It is like you were looking into some gigantic orgy right out of Hieronymus Bosch with all the lights and the thousand chicks flapping this tin around and the tin is flashing and I could hardly wait every day to get to the tin mill, just to walk around and look at those incredible chicks.
I figure that one day I would cut one out of the herd. Maybe cut four or five of them out of the herd when I get my car. Drinking the beer, going bowling, all that stuff, taking this chick named Josephine out—something like that. I’m thinking about this. And I’m filled with the ecstasy of existence. The ecstasy of life. Like a human, walking, cake of yeast. Pulsating. The glands all open, my pores all open, I could feel everything happening around me, my feelers moving out ready to grasp and devour life as though it is an enormous blueberry pie! In fact, I’m devouring, I’m picking my teeth!
I’m walking along with my sack of mail. I’m walking between two big buildings made out of corrugated iron. This is a mill. And the one off to the right is boomboomboomboom, the fourteen-inch Merchant Mill. Tremendous mill about a mile long. And off to my left is the Number 4 Rail Mill bomb bomb bomb bomb, machinery going, they’re making rails! I’m walking between these two buildings separated by no more than about forty feet, with nothing but gravel, railroad tracks, and these tremendous freight cars. I’m walking along the freight cars.
Directly ahead of me, I can see the scene now, is an opening at the end of these buildings where the shipping docks were and there were two tremendous high-tension towers. Enormous ones about a hundred feet high. Great big steel structures with great wires hanging off of them and there were tanks all around there. Some trucks parked. And I’m walking toward this—bomb bomb bomb bomb to my left boom boom boom boom boom off to my right. And I’m thinking of these girls under the blue light that I’m going to see any minute now. The excitement. Nothing like sexual excitement to get you going in your job.
Jigsaw puzzles are a kind of mental thumb twiddling. I remember when I used to do them. Probably as a pre-teenager. One adult day I wondered what one might do to play with the basic form. I did several jigsaw variations I no longer have. Then I discovered some five-by-seven plain white ones on which one was to draw or paint one’s own picture, then separate it into its pieces. I didn’t do that, but, being obsessed with radio raconteur Jean Shepherd and the so-far undiscovered stash of overnight broadcasts of his that would reveal his earliest New York long-form improvisations–that would also include those during which he created the hoax regarding a non-existent book, I, Libertine, by the non-existent novelist, Frederick R. Ewing–I realized that using the jigsaw format, I could create covers for the audios that I hoped would one day surface.
These mysteriously, not-yet-emerged recordings, somehow had the aura of an enigma. (The original title of my book on Shepherd had been Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art of Jean Shepherd, but before publication, I’d realized that parts of his multi-faceted genius and sometimes strangely antisocial personality (despite his mentoring and encouraging many thousands of listeners) deserved the more intriguing subtitle, The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd. Somehow, the jigsaw puzzle format—working to put the parts of the puzzle of Shepherd together–seemed appropriate for the yet-to-be-discovered audios.
Proposed Boxed Sets for
Maybe Lost-Forever Audios.
Puzzling and infuriating, ain’t it?
• • •
Even before my use of jigsaws for the Shepherd audios, one day in my early artsy fartsy phase, somehow I got interested in what one might do with the form of the puzzle. I don’t remember how I discovered this, but, looking at a display of them for sale, I found that jigsaw manufacturers, instead of making a new cutting-die to stamp out the pieces for every puzzle they produced, sometimes, for what I assume is a good cost-cutting (note pun) device, use the same die for more than one image of the same dimensions.
I began looking for two images that used the same cutting die, and that, in their combined picture, would have some amusing result if they were intermixed to create a surrealistic effect. I discovered two that worked for me. (What’s not very clear as reproduced here, is that this early morning hunting scene shows to the right of the surfer, a man in a boat, (with duck decoys floating nearby–one between the surfer and the hunter), serenely awaiting live ducks to fly unsuspectingly overhead.) I don’t know if I ever came up with a title for this piece. Or maybe something much better than the one I’m using here.
“STILL WATERS INTERRUPTED”
OR MAYBE JUST
THE STEEL MILL and its Dangers
This was all out in the open, this was not running around in big office buildings like carrying the mail over at the Lever Building or Seagram Building. This was in the big steel mill. The steel mill covers about five miles. Tremendous thing. Sticks out in the Lake.
One day, a nice day, I’ve been working now for about two or three weeks, and I feel that I’ve got the world right there where I want it. I’ve got this money coming in and I’m going to own this Ford one day very shortly and then Schwartz and Flick are gonna be sorry for what they said to me about it. I’ll have this car, I’m going to do this whole thing. You know this feeling of exhilaration in your head, sometimes? You know that feeling like everything’s working groovy? It’s an exciting feeling! Your head starts to blow with all this great feeling!
I’m running down between two big buildings and it’s at that moment—this is when you’re most vulnerable. It’s at that moment, when you think that everything is working great—that the great, giant, enormous, fantastic iron fist is clenched in the sky. And it’s getting ready to squash you like the smallest cockroach that ever walked around under the sink.
That’s the time of extreme danger. Anyone will tell you, if you ever live in a jungle, when you think everything’s working great, that’s the time you’re being stalked by a saber-toothed tiger. It’s only when you’re worried that you have a comparative chance of surviving. So stay in there and stick with that worrying, friend. That’s the best thing that could happen to you. It’ll keep you alive. Any guy who’s worried never dies. A worried man does not have time to die. You notice that guys, as soon as they retire, kick off? Well, that’s because Mr. Bullard has stopped biting him in the vital regions—which has kept him alive.
“CORRIDA DEL SIGLO”
Anti-bullfight diatribes I’ve seen (by Cleveland Amory, etc.) inevitably have crucial errors. For example, the anonymous writer of the description on the back of the above flyer says, “…bulls, all especially bred and trained for fighting….” Actually, no fighting bull has ever been trained–not for a second.
A fair dialog for and against bullfighting would be worth having, but I’ve never heard any. Bulls are killed after being injured and goaded for a maximum of twenty minutes, under strictly limited and ritually controlled circumstances. But, for me, that is far from the end of the discussion. It is not a sport or a contest—we don’t go to see “Oedipus Rex” or “Hamlet” to find out who wins—we go to have a cathartic experience (which, admittedly, happens about as frequently at a bullfight as it does for a knowledgeable opera lover at the Met.) A few well-known people who have been aficionados are Hemingway, Orson Welles, James Michener, and English/American theater critic Kenneth Tynan. When performed by a good matador on a good day, it is a dance of life and death, with courage, esthetic ability, and skill, faced with potential defeat of the matador’s honor and his life.
On Sunday, 6/13/1971, flyers shown above and anti-bullfighting signs on sticks greeted me and others approaching Madison Square Garden for what was exaggeratedly advertised as the “Bullfight of the Century.” No words or gestures passed between the protestors and me that day, but, years later on a kind of blind date (preceded by a telephone conversation I describe as “having fallen in love at first phone call”)–neither of us being aware of the earlier possible encounter–I meet Allison, who had been one of those sign-carrying protesters fifteen-years-earlier. A decade-and-a-half after that possible encounter in 1971, (and a year after our first date), we married–happily now, for over thirty years.
(I haven’t seen a bullfight in over 35 years.
I keep my books on Spain and the bulls in a dark,
low corner of my study. We never talk about bullfighting.)
So I go out and it looks like I’m hired! It says Personnel. I walk down the corridor to Personnel, and I give the man this form. He starts writing stuff down. He looks up and he says, “Didn’t you make a fumble against the Whiting?”
I say, “Yes I did. I certainly did. And I’ll tell you another thing I did one time. I play on the baseball team. I’ll tell you about the one that hit me in the teeth one time. We were playing Laporte, I was playing third base, this guy hit a slow roller down the line, I come charging in at it, it took a bad hop, hit me right in the mouth. Three runs scored. They gave me an error on the throw, too—I picked up the ball and threw it into the stands. Another time I came up with the bases loaded, okay? What do you think I done?”
He says, “What you do?”
“Hit into the only triple play we hit into all year.”
He says, “You hit into a triple play? I never hear much about guys hitting into a triple play. Hear about guys making a triple play, but you hit into one?”
I say, “I did.”
He says, “Okay.” He stamps my paper and I move further down. Well, to make a long story even longer, I got the job.
The job consisted of carrying mail around the plant. I liked that job because, first of all, it put a man on his mettle. You had to stick in there. Had to hang in there. They had this big leather bag, a mailman’s bag. And it would be filled with all this plant mail. Had all these brown envelopes with things like Hot Plate Melting Scale Works on it. Exciting places like that. Cold Strip Shipping, Tin Mill Kreuger Labs. You never heard of any of these things. Well, I did. How about this one—Flat Plate Double Scales. I knew where all those officers were. Things like Bessemer Converter Oiler. That’s different from the Bessemer Converter Number 2AC. Which was another set of guys—they got a lot of porn literature in that office.
Nevertheless, I would carry the mail, see. I would carry it from eight o’clock in the morning till maybe five o’clock at night. And I’d run like hell all the time. Just run with that mail, sorting it as I’m running, and throwing it into the box and I’d run out onto the gravel between the buildings.
TRANSLATIONS AS INTERPRETATIONS
“At Five in the Afternoon”
When I decided to do an artists’ book of “Llanto por Ignacio Sanches Mejias,” Lorca’s elegy to the death of his good friend, a bullfighter, I realized that the four or more translations I had were all, in various ways, unsatisfactory for me—in their inappropriate choice of words and ways of translating his sometimes surreal and obstinate wording. I decided to do my own translation based on various alternate translations I had in front of me, a good Spanish/English dictionary, and my own imperfect Spanish. The finished book has five double-page, black, stiff, fold-out cardboard spreads, and is held together with hefty brass hinges. I made it purposely weighty to hold.
• • • • •
My cousin Ray chose captions based on Don Quixote and took photos–abstract, elegantly, meticulously composed, subtle and witty metaphors of bottles representing scenes from an English translation. Here’s part of it.
I designed the artists’ book.
The entire work is Ray’s intellectual and esthetic homage to Quixote.
• • • • •
As I hope I’ve sufficiently described, I’m captivated by Spain. And I’ve experienced Granada from several vantage points: I’ve seen it from an airplane window approaching the city from Madrid; walking its streets and staying in the apartment of my in laws; at the marriage altar of the city’s patron saint, Nuestra Senora de las Angustias (“Sorrows,” or, more accurately, “Anguishes”); at the faux-moorish bazaar near Granada’s cathedral as I chose the best made set of coasters made with marquetry–the archetypical craft of the city; from the open windows of the Alhambra; from the roof of my daughter’s student residence in the Albaicin across the little valley from the Alhambra; from a house far out on the vega as Granada’s distant lights glowed in the dusk; as I looked back from the roadside spot where the last moorish ruler stopped, turned in his retreat, and, gazing at his lost paradise of a city, he sighed–or, as it’s usually described–he wept.
Below: one of my near-perfect marquetry coasters;
the final page of my Granada manuscript;
a roadside marker–to all who were enraptured by Granada
and then were shut out.
Ever sit with about a thousand guys waiting to be interviewed at an employment office? It’s a very interesting experience. I’m sitting there with all these other guys, some of them are nine feet tall, other guys with muscles bulging out behind their ears, other guys have gray suits with pencils sticking out of their pockets. Everybody looks very official. All I have is my letter. I figure if I wear my sweater with the big H on the front they’ll be impressed. It’s my letter. So I sit there with my H, and they call me in. “Mr. Bullard wants to talk to you.”
So I walk in, Mr. Bullard’s sitting back there and he’s got these chromium teeth, and he’s looking at me. “Is this your application here? Your name?”
He gives me a good long look and he says, “You play football? What position do you play?”
I say, “Yes.” I have these little footballs that they give you sewn all over my sweater.
He says, “What do ya play?”
“I’m offensive guard, actually. I play linebacker quite a bit.”
“I remember you!”
“You remember me?”
“Yeah, didn’t you make that fumble against Whiting one night?” He did remember me.
I did make the fumble against Whiting one night. I say, “I did indeed.”
He says, “What was the matter with you, anyway?”
I say, “I don’t know. I didn’t come here to talk about football. I want a job here.”
“We can’t have guys who fumble like that at crucial moments working for us!”
I say, “Are you forming a football team here? I’ve got my letter—I did something right!”
He says, “That’s true.” He starts stamping my application. Be careful of guys who have rubber stamps on their desks. Them guys can be mean.
He starts stamping, writing little things, more stamps on my application. He says, “Here, take this down to Personnel, son.” He gives me the paper and he turns away. I can see immediately that the interview is over. He pushes a little button, it goes ding dong, and they bring in the next victim.
My half-Spanish/half-American daughter and I finally met in Granada when she was about 17. We would sit each evening on the roof of her student residence and watch, across the valley, the floodlights illuminate the Alhambra. We talked of many things and got to know each other a bit. She stayed in Forest Hills, Queens with us for some months, acing her freshman year at Hunter, until her story and mine took a sad, tragic turn. She had lived through too much Spanish culture— its backward culture, its either-or/black-or-white mentality of not conceiving any alternatives between herself and the rest of the world. Out of fear for our safety and inability to alter her, we had to ask her to leave.
Back in Spain, she would not correspond with us, so the inexplicable sadness remains now for over two decades. It’s too difficult, too personal for me to detail–Lorca, your Granada ways remain in my world–and, Federico, maybe you could have written a true tragedy about it, but I could not do it. Though to get some pain out of myself, with some time recollected in tranquility, I composed several poems and artists’ books. Parts of each: