Friday, November 15, 2013

A Rainbow in Early Winter

I have gotten reflective, and nostalgic, God damn it.  I hate it.  I kind of like it, also.  But I am losing my attitude.  My language slackens even more than usual.  Everything returns to facts.  Or that’s the way it feels as I reject a dozen false starts for this post. The Caravan of Wonder has parked itself in Jersey City. When we open the door, we can see the Statue of Liberty lifting her beacon to the East—though I don’t know if anybody sees her except tourists.  We are waist deep in our week devoted to New York City.  So far we have “done” the Empire State Building, Central Park Skating Rink, Museum of Modern Art, Chinatown, Madison Square Garden, Rockefeller Center, FAO Schwartz, 9-11 Memorial, Trinity Church, Staten Island Ferry, Barclay Center, Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Washington Square Park, and Greenwich Village. We have kids; we have become tourists again.  We buy passes and ticket packages, and we have stuff we have to do.  It’s all wonderful.  It’s hell. 

The City, From the Empire State Building
Yet Monday night, just for a bit, I felt something different, something older, softer in me, returning. Something sentimental. You see, I can never claim to be a fully experienced traveler.  I am not rich, nor have I been that person who scrimps and saves during the year so that I can travel to old familiar haunts.  For instance, I have a friend who for many years has traveled to Montreal during the summer.  He, his wife, and daughter make a second life there.  They have a neighborhood where they live, restaurants and coffee shops they like to visit, routines they establish.  I don’t have that.   Another friend and his wife (they don’t have children) visit New Orleans twice or thrice a year.  I don’t do that.  But if I had a city that called to me it would be New York.  Since age eleven, I have lived within a ninety mile radius of Austin, except for two summers, those when I worked in New York in 1977 and 1982.  Since then, I have visited New York on separate occasions with a girlfriend, a previous wife, a couple of co-writers on a book, and by myself doing research.  Except for the fact that, upon exiting a subway station, I never turn the correct direction, New York feels familiar to me, a little like a second home.  It’s the only place I could say that about, and perhaps I am even stretching it here.
The first time I lived in New York, I worked on Staten Island at Henry Kauffman Campgrounds.  I had completed two years into my Master’s degree from Texas A&M, unsuccessfully, I guess, since after two years I should have had a degree, but didn’t.  I had completed most of my course work, but I had two problems:  I liked teaching, so I spent most of my time focused on that; and I thought I should write a thesis, rather than merely do course work.  I told myself I wanted to be a writer and a scholar, so writing a thesis was a place to start.  Mostly, I just needed to grow up. I was a late reader—I rarely read books in high school and I had a lot of catching up to do.   Looking back, I find it difficult to pinpoint my problem.  I am going to say that I was dreamy, idealistic, and unaware how important some basic skills actually were.  As was typical for me, somehow, as my father would say, I had gotten my tit in the wringer by getting on the bad side of a couple of professors. On the other hand, others found me, at worst, harmless, and, at best, full of raw unformed potential. 
During my first semester, I had angered the semi-well-known rhetorician who had been assigned my teaching advisor—he had co-authored a freshman textbook with his wife, the real famous person—by refusing to take his sage wisdom on how to teach my classes.  Luckily, I was assigned another set of advisors.  It was a set:  one was my nutty officemate, Carlson Yost, a kind of conservative gadfly working on his doctorate, who had more enemies than I did; the other was a newby, Dr. Jeanne Nelson, whom everyone thought had a brilliant career ahead of her.   These two guided me through the next few semesters.  Jeanne surprised everyone and decided to move to New York with her husband, Wayne Gordon, who was hired to supervise the Henry Kauffman Campgrounds on Staten Island.   Then they surprised me and asked if I would like a job for the summer. New York in the summer, making a couple bucks an hour.  Sure, what’s not to like?  

The Lady
Working on the campgrounds that summer did what I think Wayne and Jeanne hoped it would do for me.  It opened up worlds that I had never seen before.  The campgrounds were a Jewish philanthropy, and sponsored kids from Brooklyn who travelled to the island every day.  Some were Hasidic, others not.  In May, my job consisted of helping Wayne and his maintenance man prepare the camp for summer.  I have one memory of driving a tractor, mowing a meadow, singing “Ain’t No More Cane on the Brazos” loudly, to myself.    During the season, my job consisted of being the go-fer.  People would ask me to go get stuff, and I would go and get.  It was a large camp near the highest region of Staten Island.  There were plenty of roads roaming around a varied landscape.  I also delivered food and picked-up trash, while I listened to a reggae radio station.  For a while I lived in somebody’s basement apartment and read Hemingway’s novels and stories at night.  Mid-summer, I moved on the campgrounds and lived in the infirmary.  I walked, took buses, ate bagels and Dannon yogurt, swam in the campground pool after hours, dated the pretty lifeguard for a while and bought a hideous suit so I could escort her to an Italian wedding.  At the end of the summer, I weighed a waifish 153 pounds.
But mostly I indulged in the fantasy that I was a young genius from the South who had come North.  My mind was full of such figures.  From Texas, I knew of the three East Texas Williams:  William Owens, William Humphreys, and William Goyen.  I included Katherine Anne Porter.  Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Carson McCullars, Harper Lee.  And of course, Willie Morris, whose book North Toward Home, was every ambitious Texas writer’s model for success:  enjoy your glorious Southern youth, attend a big college and edit the school paper, become a Rhodes Scholar, edit the state liberal rag, land a job at great magazine in New York, drink a lot, and cavort with Robert Penn Warren and James Jones.  It sounded so easy.  In my dreamier moments, I mused that had become John Boy Walton, tearfully leaving Walton’s Mountain because destiny could not be denied. 

Financial Good Luck?
1977 was the summer when Elvis died and The Son of Sam was apprehended.  In their own way, both events signaled the end of something, a kind of innocence and freedom.  In my mind, they paired Southern rural vulnerability with Northern urban violence, but that was obviously a simplification.  Mostly, my summer was more insular, more personal.  I had discovered a system in which I could work for two weeks and save enough for a weekend in the city.  Every other Saturday and sometimes Sunday, I hopped on the Staten Island Ferry, wandered through the Met and Guggenheim, enjoyed the steel drums in Central Park, listened to Judy Collins do a sound check, attended a concert in Trinity Church, stepped inside the Algonquin, saw a game in Yankee Stadium, watched a production of Joyce’s The Exiles at Circle in the Square, refused the overtures of several gay men, observed the madness of Washington Square Park, ate clams and drank beer in the Village.  That was what I did most, wander around the Village, drink coffee or beer, visit bookstores, and think of the romantic and tragic lives of famous writers.  John Dos Passos, Katherine Porter, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edmund Wilson, e e cummings, William Carlos Williams.  You will notice that I have not mentioned the Beats or New York School, nor have I mentioned early days of punk or new wave music.  This explains something, doesn’t it?  Some innocent ignorance of the new and the avant garde.  Looking back, I wish I had found a way then to discover the poetry of John O’Hara and the music of Patti Smith.  That happened later.
So Waller Grant is mid-way through our week in New York City.  We have our PATH transit card loaded up; we each have a metro-card for subways.  We celebrated Captain Crunch’s birthday by standing in the interminable lines for Homeland Security at the Empire State Building—a very important location for us lovers the Percy Jackson books— and by moseying down to Chinatown for a Vietnamese lunch. Because my hip hurts from so much walking, I use a golf umbrella as a walking cane and pop aspirin and ibuprofen, so I sat in an Asian bakery tending a cup of black tea with milk while Knightsmama and the boys wandered the shops.  On the other days, we have done all those things that families that visit New  York City do—except stand in front of the Today Show or go to Letterman or Saturday Night Live or whatever the latest version of Cats or Phantom is. 
On Monday, Veterans Day, we stood in the lines for Homeland Security at the 9-11 Memorial, and fought the tears as we emotionally descended into the abysmal waterfalls—the grief of a city, of a nation, falling in waves, over and over, and always, into two bottomless pits.  I once wrote a poem with the line “The earth cannot hold all their tears,” but I could not imagine this—the continued sadness this city feels for the people who died there twelve years ago. Later that day, we wandered toward Wall Street, where we witnessed young ladies caressing the dangling testicles of The Bull (one of the more politically disturbing things I have seen), and then on to Battery Park.  The days in the city had grown cold, so at a street fair I finally purchased a hat befitting the Major Dude, a knitted rainbow noggin complete with ear flaps and tassels.  I donned my sartorial splendor, thinking myself as much a hippie throwback as a Gay Ally.   After a quick trip on the Staten Island Ferry, we boarded the R train, exited at Prince Street, then zigzagged our way through Washington Square Park and across Greenwich Village toward the Christopher Street PATH station.  My goal: 51-53 Christopher Street, Stonewall.

The Major Dude and Captain Crunch buy new hats
  Maybe it happens every day.  There we are, one version of The Great American Family on its New York Pilgrimage.  We had done many of the things we were supposed to do, and now the father is taking a photograph of The Stonewall Inn, his wife and sons standing behind him on the sidewalk.  The father is thinking of the Boston Tea Party, of Thoreau going to jail, of Seneca Falls, of the Haymarket Riots, Selma and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.  Stonewall: the beginning of the movement that is bringing equal rights to gay and lesbian Americans.  Stonewall:  one in the long series of actions and statements made by brave Americans that extend the definition of freedom and liberty that this nation represents to the world.
Just as the father touches the little red button on his iphone, two men, most likely in their late twenties, step into the frame.  “We want to be in the picture,” one yells.  At first, the father is confused.  All he wants is a photograph for the record, for his memories, and maybe for his blog, something personal and insular, if he decides to write about Stonewall.  “I was here” is all he wants to say: “I thought about the importance of this place.”  

A new friend announces himself
“Here, take our picture.  By the way, I love your hat.”   And then the father realizes, yes, of course, this is the perfect picture. Two young men he does not know, happy, joyful, celebrating their partnership, their love, their friendship, perhaps on their way to dinner, just living their life, sharing a moment with, within, The Great American Family. The camera winks. The two men and the family talk for a while.  The men learn the family is traveling the US in a RV taking in New York for a week.  The father wants to begin a lecture explaining why they are standing there in front of this monument, but knows he doesn’t need to.  The young men understand.  They understand much better than he does.  The men tell the two sons that they are lucky to have these two people as parents.   The father thinks he knows what they mean.  Then they all say good-bye and never exchange names.  They don’t need to.
         I write that experience in third person because that is how I experienced it.  It was all a bit too perfect.  Stonewall was about a great many things, but this is one of them—the family of man, no barriers, just people letting people be themselves together.  We strolled out to Seventh Avenue.  For a while I stood there.  Here the buildings are not giants, the traffic is lighter, the pedestrian movement is less frantic. People hold hands, people smile.  I know the Village is not the same as it was in 1977, but it isn’t that different.  For a moment, it all came back.  My joy in New York City is located in the smaller, less crowded pockets.  A great deal of the city is too affluent for me, too busy, and where it is not affluent, it is too crowded, too loud.  But Monday night, Veterans Day, walking to the train through the Village, I was nostalgic for a moment in my youth when the world held more possibilities than limitations or failures.  I did not become what I had dreamed I would be.  But there I was with my wife and two of my sons, a chubby old man, with long hair, scruffy beard, an umbrella for a cane, and my crazy gay pride hat, leaning my way into the chilly night.  It is its own small story, maybe worth the telling.

Soundtrack.  Simon and Garfunkel: "A Hazy Shade of Winter"

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