Sunday, October 5, 2008

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Ghosts of Times Square

It’s 1955. We’re at 45th and Broadway, in the heart of the old Times Square. It’s a chilly Spring evening; women are still bundled up in their furs, men still wearing their overcoats. We’re standing under the great marquee of the venerable old Astor Theater (long gone now), watching a tall skinny young usher, all dressed up like an admiral, marching back and forth under the bright neon lights, spouting off his repetitive spiel to the endless throngs of cold, disinterested passersby:
“Step right this way, folks! Immediate seating in the balcony! Tonight we have ‘East of Eden’, with James Dean, Julie Harris and Raymond Massey! Next show begins in fifteen minutes!”

That’s me. The eighteen-year old version. Living the big life in the Big Apple, and doing my best to live up to those stringent requirements for becoming a full-fledged, legitimate Bohemian (that “free-thinking, anti-establishment” movement that came onto the scene a generation before those infinitely more numerous and infamous Hippies). I was already breaking one of the cardinal rules by working. But you have to eat and pay the rent so you compromise a little. With the exception of those evenings at the Astor, however, the rest of my life was pure unadulterated Bohemian. I was a struggling young art student, living in Greenwich Village in the 1950s. My girlfriend, also an art student, although somewhat less struggling, was the pretty, blond eighteen-year old daughter of a Brazilian embassy official. On those nights when I didn’t have to work at the Astor, we’d visit one of the local coffeehouses or bars, and spend the night engaged in long, passionate discussions with our friends about -- art, or religion, or something like that.

I shared a cramped second floor “studio” on Grove Street with my best buddy, a fellow artist and boxer who earned his money sparring at Stillman’s Gym. All of my friends were (to one degree or another) artists, writers, poets, musicians, or just plain Bohemians. During all this, I was, although I certainly didn’t appreciate it at the time, involved in the subliminal process of constructing a persona, a persona that would, barring a few adjustments, and sometimes lengthy, inadvertent interruptions, last almost a lifetime. Almost.

On those rare occasions when I actually voted, I of course voted Democratic. If you had asked me why I considered myself a Democrat I would have probably answered something to the effect that the Democrats were the “party of the people”, that they were caring and tolerant and “had concern for the little guy”. And most importantly, though I probably wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, that they were the polar opposite of the Republicans who were, to me, the corporate embodiment of my stern, materialistic Main Line stockbroker father -- against whom I would spend the greater part of a lifetime in unnecessary and self-destructive rebellion.

It's 2001. I'm sleeping late, the phone ringing wakes me up. It's my son Geoff, from North Carolina. Geoff is a former Army Ranger, fought in Desert Storm, he seldom gets rattled. He sounded rattled. “Dad!” He said. “Turn on the TV. Some crazy bastard just crashed into the World Trade Center!” I turned on CNN. We watched CNN together, he in North Carolina, me in Massachusetts. We hardly spoke. We just listened to the TV. Then, “Jesus Christ!” He said.
Jesus Christ!
Both towers! All those people! Who did it? And why? Are we at war? Who are we at war with? Who the hell is Osama bin Laden? And who are these fanatical Muslims? What the hell does Islam have to do with the World Trade Center? And, most frightening of all, what’s going to happen next?
What happened next was the Pentagon.

Immediately following the attacks on New York City, the Peace Protesters were out in force, filing into Manhattan’s parks and squares with their obligatory candles and guitars, singing for Peace, and intimating, through their homemade signs and baleful comments that somehow we, the United States, through our purported self-interested imperialist aggressions, had brought all this on ourselves. These inflammatory pronouncements of course generated loud, angry counter-protests from some offended citizens among the surrounding crowd. The painful debate had begun. Like some catastrophic earthquake, the horrific events of that awful day generated a gigantic fault line that stretched across the entire continent, dividing one half of our nation from the other by a seemingly unbridgeable gulf.

It's 2008. Where are we now? Still divided, still conflicted, a nation torn asunder, struggling to find its identity. And where am I now? Who am I now? This old deconstructed Greenwich Village liberal? What's happened? How did I change so much? How did I become this angry old right-winger? this indefatigable alarmist? this anti-Islamist warmonger? Was it those buildings coming down? Was it all of those people jumping out of those windows? Was it reading the Koran? Am I getting wiser with old age, or am I just getting harder? Did America change? Or was it just me?

That old Times Square is long gone now. All of those things are gone now. All gone. Sometimes late at night when I'm lying alone in the darkness they come back, those ghosts of Times Square. That great glowing neon marquee, the venerable old Astor, our doomed hero James Dean and my pretty blond girlfriend, and all of those good friends and all of those long, passionate discussions, and that tall skinny young usher, all dressed up like an admiral, marching back and forth under the bright neon lights, spouting off his repetitive spiel to the endless throngs of cold, disinterested passersby:
“Step right this way, folks! Immediate seating in the balcony! Tonight we have -- "

What do we have tonight, folks? What will we have tomorrow? What, I wonder, would James Dean have to say about all this?

Here's another great pic:

Maggie M. Thornton said...
I'm not sure what James Dean would have said, but I've read many of your writings now, and you are still having those long, impassioned conversations - it's just that the friends and the subjects have changed.May I ask when you became more conservative than more liberal? Was it at 9/11 or long before?This is a beautiful read, as is all of your work. Now that I know you were an art student, I understand why (and how) you have so many incredible photos and works of art on your blogs.MaggieMaggie's Notebook
August 22, 2008 8:17 PM
Roger W. Gardner said...
Thank you Maggie.I am glad you enjoyed my Ghosts.I became a conservative after 9/11 because the Republicans were the only party willing to face the truth about our enemies and actually do something about it. But the more I got involved with the conservative viewpoint, the more I found myself agreeing with it on many other issues as well. I might also say that by calling my previous liberalism 'knee-jerk', I merely meant that they weren't particularly deeply held convictions. Whereas my present views are the result of a lot of the research I've done since that awful day. So, I suppose I could be described as a late but passionate convert.
August 22, 2008 8:32 PM

My Talent

My Talent

My talent, he said, is the little red flower I wear in my lapel on the way to the gallows.
And of course what he meant by this was, that at this particular time, in this particular state of mind, his talent seemed irrelevant and inconsequential: an innocuous little thing which in itself had no power, and therefore could not in any way alter the factual conditions of his life or forestall its inevitable conclusion.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Philadelphia Public Library

The Philadelphia Public Library

Early that Fall I enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

I had brought with me to the Academy an adequate supply of artistic talent, an enormous capacity for loneliness, and an almost total ignorance of everything my fellow students deemed worthy of discussion. They were discussing Freud and Adler, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Stravinsky and Bach. They were holding long involved debates on the relative merits of Romanticism versus Neo-Classicism, and having passionate arguments about Botticelli and the Bauhaus. I didn't have the slightest idea what they were talking about.

But I loved them and I wanted to fit in. I wanted to know what they were all talking about and I was determined to find out. So I spent the next two years at the Philadelphia Public Library.

I went there every day. I read everything I could find on Freud. I read Kant and Adler and Jung. I read books on art and mythology and religion and philosophy. I sat at one of those long wooden tables in the music room with earphones on my head in impregnable isolation listening to all of the music that they were talking about at school (the only music I had ever heard was my own -- the sad formless stuff I made up and played on the big baby grand in our living room, or my collection of Rhythm and Blues records, or my Doris Day albums -- my parents listened to Mantovani, Percy Faith and Guy Lombardo). Now, suddenly, here was Prokoviev, Tschaikovsky, Stravinsky. I had never dreamt there could be such sounds. Powerful, frightening, heart-rending sounds: Romeo and Juliet, The Rites of Spring.

Everything my high school teachers had tried so unsuccessfully to interest me in, that I had refused to even consider, I was now devouring like a starving man. I read Shakespeare with the dictionary right next to the book, taking copious notes, making long lists of characters, sometimes having to look up almost every other word. But I wouldn't stop until I had gone back and repeated the phrase over and over in my head, until I had understood every word, every sentence, every paragraph. I read all of Shakespeare's plays this way, and all of the sonnets, memorizing long stanzas --"Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt..."
Then I started Goethe.

All this, just because I loved them and I wanted to fit in; and because I wanted to know what they were all talking about; and because -- and maybe this was the biggest thing -- I wanted to be able to say something too, something that they wouldn't all laugh at, something that would dazzle them and make me an interesting person, someone to be reckoned with. And I must have wanted this pretty badly, because I worked awfully hard to get it.

Then I read A Tale of Two Cities. I didn't know anything about the French Revolution, and even less about English literature; but I knew a lot about loneliness, and I recognized Sydney Carton immediately. I suppose I had thought that I was the only person in the whole world who had ever suffered loneliness. I was surprised, and thrilled, and hooked. What had started out to be just a means of fitting in had now become a compulsion. I read Crime and Punishment and I became Raskolnikov, a bitter, brilliant, anti-social recluse, hell-bent on self-destruction. I became almost anyone I read. I became, successively, Hamlet, Kafka, and Winston Smith. All the great insane and rational loners struggling against a sane and irrational world.

It wasn't that I hated this world. I didn't; I loved it. But I also loved my fantasies. I was a romantic and a loner, and I guess that's just the way I wanted it, because at least I was becoming something. Maybe not something to be reckoned with yet, but something. And something is better than nothing. So I was Raskolnikov or Winston Smith, and it was all right, nobody minded. Nobody even knew but me. And after a while I even forgot, I forgot who I was being. And eventually they all became me.

No tengo mas que dar te --

In 1968, a Belgian diver discovered the site of the wreck of the Spanish galleon, Girosa, where it had sunk off Duncase Castle, Ireland, in 1588. Among the jewelry and artifacts brought up from the deep was a golden lover's ring, embossed with a hand and a heart with the inscription: No tengo mas que dar te -- 'I have no more to give thee'.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Liberty Street

Liberty Street

Newburgh, New York, 1959

I remember… my landlords, Mr. and Mrs. Kravitz who lived downstairs, who’d been in a concentration camp and yelled at each other all the time, and fat Bertha who woke me up every morning on her way to work at the hotel, and one-legged Biggy who never left his room, and quiet Rose the librarian, with whom I had a quiet affair, the Newburgh-Beacon Ferry that I took just for the ride, the Old City where I walked at night, those lonesome railroad tracks that I followed aimlessly into lost November days, the Yesterday Inn where I drank all night long till I forgot where I was, and sleeping with Jean the dancer and the taut coolness of her skin, and the portrait commissions, and painting Linda, my patron’s unhappily married daughter, and falling in love with her to the sounds of Rachmaninov’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”, and crying over Steinbeck‘s “Cannery Row”, and the first time I heard Scriabin, and my buddy Phil, the Irish carpenter who lived in the room next to mine, and his obnoxious record player, and his drunken telephone calls to his old mother in Ireland, and his crying on my shoulder over his girlfriend Marge, and his crazy Irish friends, and the night we tried to watch dirty movies up in my room but they were upside down and backwards because Kravitz couldn’t work the projector, and that night in the lounge of the Lafayette Hotel when we got the whole place singing, and the time we stole that city bus and drove it through the suburbs, waving at fat men in shorts who were out mowing their lawns, laughing, drinking whiskey, singing wild Irish songs, feeling supremely young, and supremely old.

And I remember reading Faust, and reciting Hamlet to myself out loud in that old Quaker cemetery that overlooked the Hudson River where they had fireworks displays from floating barges on the Fourth of July, and the drunkenness, and the love, and the poetry of those lonely nights, so dark, so wonderful, so long ago.


The Interview

The Interview

I'd been pounding the pavement all day. My feet hurt and I was hot and tired and sick of filling our endless forms and now this little man across the desk was asking me what my other qualifications were. So I told him I could float. And by the time he'd figured out what it was I said I was about three inches off the chair and rising. I leveled off at about five feet and drifted out the open window. I sailed out over the empty parking lot and over the trees and landed in that little park down by the river.
I had just blown another interview.