Sunday, November 24, 2013

Something I Have Been Turning Over in My Mind, Part 1

I’m going to talk about five books and two cities we have visited.  I have recently reread two books that were extremely important to me as I matured.  The first book is The Great Gatsby, a book that just about almost everyone admits to admiring.  During the week we stayed at Croton on Hudson, we bought a paperback copy at Bruised Apple Books in Peekskill.  If you are ever in Peekskill, you must visit this bookstore, and while you are at it mosey around the corner to The Peekskill Coffee House.  The bookstore is large, tall shelves requiring a ladder to reach the heights, with a wonderful literature section.  One evening, Knightsmama and I stepped in just as the store was about to close, but the proprietor welcomed us, said he had some work to catch up on, and let us browse while the jazz LP played one more time.  To give you an idea of the selection in the store, another book I bought there was Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Note.  Not only did Bruised Apple carry that book, but Exley’s other two.  I would have purchased all three, but, as you know, I am a slow reader, and we really don’t have a great deal of time for reading, so who knows if I would ever find the time to tackle all three—and more important, the Caravan cannot handle our book buying addiction if we let it get out of hand.  The coffee shop, by the way, is also a creperie, enough said.

Bruised Apple Books
I first read The Great Gatsby at UT in Professor Wood’s class on the Modern American Novel:  a dozen or so novels from Winesburg, Ohio to Mr. Sammler’s Planet.  I wish I could remember Professor Wood’s first name.  I liked him so much I signed up for his contemporary short fiction class.  He wrote one of the recommendation letters that got me into A&M.  To make an A in the novels class, students had to write a report on one of the writers and present it to the class.  I selected Fitzgerald and began an intense love affair with dear old Scott, then and there.  For about two years I read everything I could find—letters, notebooks, The Pat Hobby Stories of all things, and then ventured to his college friends, Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop.  One problem I had in school and still have is that college classes in English are mostly skimming classes, and I like to dig in.  I mean, one is allotted only a week or at most two for a book and then one moves on.  That approach leaves very little room for obsessions.  I became obsessed with Fitzgerald.   For my class report, I read The Far Side of Paradise, the first great biography, and soon enough found myself in The Crack-Up, and Sheilah Graham’s Beloved Infidel.  My fifteen-minute report took the entire class hour.  I think everyone was aghast when I began listing the classes that Fitzgerald failed at Princeton, and I was only a fourth of the way through my stack of note cards.    Sometimes, I get excited by the details.
If I remember correctly, I have read Gatsby a couple of time since college, and the book had begun to simmer on the back burner of memory with other half-forgotten and once admired classics.  So this time around I didn’t have many expectations.   I don’t need to summarize the book here; everyone knows the story.  Nor does anyone need this geezer community college teacher to weigh in, but I must say that this odd little book—and in many ways it is very odd—is an astounding moment of literary insight and compassion, captured with mesmerizing grace.   Insight into the corrupting effects of outrageous wealth, especially inherited wealth.  Compassion for the broken lives of those caught in the wake of such wealth.   Grace in its heart-broken point of view and the melody of its prose.   Once again, I was pulled into the wonder of this book, the fragility of its simple plot aiming a ferocious anger at the moneyed class. 
When I first read the book, I was adjusting myself to being the son of a prosperous man who did not share his wealth generously.  My simple problem was, of course, that it was very difficult to date the beautiful, wealthy girls to whom I was attracted.  While Daisy Buchanan is, to me now, an incompletely drawn character, and one wonders what Gatsby ever saw in her.  I can tell you exactly what I saw in a girl I occasionally dated in Temple and who also went to the University, but who had joined a sorority and quickly moved “out of my league.”   Poor boys, rich girls.  Fitzgerald’s line about the rich made sense to me, then, and Hemingway’s wit never diminished that sense.
Another of my all time favorite novels is Thornton Wilder’s Theophilus North.  If my memories of Gatsby had dimmed the book’s greatness, mine of Theophilus North had increased the wattage of my expectations.  In graduate school, as other students dug into Faulkner or Joyce, I quietly admired The Cabala, The Bridge Over San Luis Rey, and The Ides of March.   I should have been beyond this point in my education, but when I read Theophilus North, I placed myself smack dab in the middle of the adventure and lived as if I were the young miracle worker.    Theophilus North is a late novel for Wilder, basically his rose-hued good-bye to a long life and honored career.   Setting the novel in Newport, Rhode Island, after the First World War, Wilder lets his narrator loose in what he calls the nine cities of Newport.  Admittedly, it is almost a silly book, a young narrator, working his way into confused households of various economic situations, and through a sort of charismatic slight of hand he makes everything right.   This is a gentle book.  Where Gatsby is lyrical and savage, North is unaffected and charming.   However, the book ends, also, with a kind of disgust.  In just one summer, North has had enough of the fantastically rich, their hangers-on, and those forced to serve them.  He doesn’t light out for the territory, but he does get the hell out of Newport.

In the last days of October, we parked the caravan at Fishermen’s Memorial State Park in Narragansett, Rhode Island.  Our four days there, we were one of maybe half dozen trailers closing out the season.  By now Knightsmama was chugging along in her final classes for her degree, so we found a cute library and another in our long series of sweet coffee shops, this one called Cool Beans, for her to conduct her business in.   One day Captain Crunch and I played catch on the beach while his mom completed some assignment.  Then she joined us, and strolled along the shore.  Another afternoon we drifted over to Galilee, walked the piers and ate a lovely late lunch at George’s.  I ordered a half dozen clams, and broiled scallops and asparagus.  A memorable meal. 

Cherry Stones
One afternoon we loaded ourselves into the Big Ass Truck and made our way to Newport.  Along the way, we paused to get a photograph at a pizza joint, where our friends Patty and Stephen Brown first met, many years ago.  Then we followed the coast and found ourselves rising on the Claiborne Pell Bridge, another of the beautiful bridges we have marveled at.  After a quick visit to the Visitor’s Center where we were shunned by the most disinterested Tourist Information Public Servant we have spoken with on the trip, we headed off on the drive around the island. 
The most memorable parts of the day were three events.  First, before we could get out of Newport, the town proper, for our drive around to gawk at rich people’s houses, the animals in the back seat of the Big Ass Truck were grumbling for snacks, so I stopped in gasoline/convenience store that sat uneasily and conspicuously in the middle of the cute tourist part of the town.  As I stepped out of the store with a bag of sodas and chips, a guy filling up his red expensive sports car called to me and said, “When I saw that big truck with Texas plates, I didn’t expect to see a guy like you driving it.”  I laughed and said something profoundly innocuous, I’m sure. “Where’s your gun rack?” I told him Governor Perry made me leave it when we left the state.  He didn’t want it falling into Yankee hands.  This guy looked like someone that I would like to know or even to be—a little like Sting if Sting had led a harder life and didn’t have the ego that Sting has.  If someone played this guy in a movie it would be Greg Kinnear or maybe David Duchovny, dressed down, someone who could play seedy with a indestructible innocence and goodwill still shining through.  We talked a while in the parking lot.  I assured him we were intelligent and enlightened and safe for civilized folk.  I told the fellow what we were doing, seeing America and all that, all of which he appreciated.  He had travelled a great deal.  When I asked what he did, he said, “I am the son of inherited wealth and waved his hand toward the hills above us where the mansions were.”  My response:  “Good for you.”  Who knows where that came from?  Anyway, I wished him well and he wished me well.  Then he ran to his car and retrieved a pen with the web address: Check it out. 
Second strong memory.  We had driven ourselves around the island to the ocean side, parked the B.A.T. so we could walk below the sea wall on the rocks.  As we have often observed on our journeys along shorelines, there was a couple, old people—you know, about five years older than I—sitting in lawn chairs and wrapped in windbreakers, their laps covered in blankets.  The man and woman were both wearing sun glasses, so they appeared solid and internal and impenetrable there on the sea wall staring at God knows what, thinking about God knows what.  They both had books in their hands, but only the woman was reading. 
As we climbed about on the rocks, we were invaded by a group of children younger than Captain Crunch.  The woman accompanying them yelled out the usual orders to be careful and to stay together, which they did periodically and unpredictably.  I was more in the old-codger-staring-at-the-ocean mood, so I wandered away, but Knightsmama had a great conversation with the woman who was one of a few home school moms in the area and, I guess, it was her day to bundle up kids in the SUV for a little adventure. 

Fishermen's Memorial Park
I had noticed a stone marker on a hill, so I made my way up to discover a monument and memorial to those lost at sea.  One group included the passengers of Egypt Air Flight 990, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on October 31, 1999.  217 victims including the crew.   In one of those coincidences that have occurred several times on this trip, I was standing on this ground at the end of October contemplating an event whose anniversary was just a day or two away.   The grounds had been dedicated, originally to a Jay O’Brien, a local businessman and fishermen, who had died at sea, but through efforts of a compassionate citizenry, it has become a site to honor all who have died off the shores of Rhode Island and Narragansett Bay.  It is a sobering experience to read all the names engraved there in stones, from Revolutionary War sailors to working fishermen and women to passengers on tragic pleasure cruises.   One gazes at the ocean with a different sense of wonder from this hilltop.
Third strong memory.  If in reading these posts you have not realized that Captain Crunch has a way of forcefully and, often, successfully imposing his will upon the rest of us, you have not been paying attention.  These last days of October were also the final days of the 2013 World Series.  Captain Crunch and Dr. J. had, to my disappointment, become avid fans of the Boston Red Sox.  The Sox are a fantastic team, I must admit, and one would think with my beard extending to my chest that I should be a fan.  But my loyalty to the Cards is deep and lasting.  Still, if someone besides the Cards must be champs, I am glad it is the Sox.  Captain Crunch, simply and purely, had caught baseball fever.  Everywhere we went, any time we paused, he began advocating for a game of catch.  His greatest desire was to find a ball field, stand on a pitcher’s mound, and fire a few fast ones into my glove.  In Newport, in the middle of town, right along the docks almost, we discovered a perfectly manicured little league field.  God, I love a ball field, the diamond of grass, the arc of smoothly raked dirt, the expanse of the outfield . . . even if it is locked up and decorated with “No Trespassing” signs.  Nothing was not going to stop us that day, so we left Knightsmama in the B.A.T. to study, and climbed the fence by the third base dug out.  Dr. J. with his long legs just about stepped over it, from bleachers to fence to foul line.  Captain Crunch is a monkey, so he was up and over.  I, on the other hand, provided one of my periodic lessons to the boys, and to anyone peering from their yachts, on why they should not get fat and old.  But I got over.
Captain Crunch had been wondering lately what position he could play.  I had been pushing for second or third.  So we started off with Captain Crunch at second base and Dr. J. at first.  Actually, I was a little worried what the Captain would do with a grounder, but after skimming a few at him and his making the throw to first cleanly, I began burning a few unpredictably to the right and to the left, and he handled them all with aplomb.  Soon, we had to try him out at third, and Lord, if he didn’t make that throw with force and accuracy.  Will Middlebrook watch out!  After a while we switched things up, timed our base running, stole bases, including home with faked squeeze plays, tested our arms from the outfield fence.  And we pitched.  Captain Crunch reminds me of Tim Robbins in Bull Durham.  He’s better when he is not thinking about it.  But he has some stuff, I’m telling you.  Dr. J., on the other hand, might have the makings of a strong pitcher.  On a little league field his arm scares me.  I have to brace myself and say a little prayer that I see his fastball coming in before it hits me.  What can I say?  It was a great afternoon, feeding our passion for baseball and father-son time. 

Before we trespassed on to the little league field, the family had done the requisite trip down Bellevue Avenue to gawk at the Rich People’s Houses.  These buildings and their owners (or previous owners) are famous and infamous.  And the houses are a sight to see.  I guided the B.A.T. up and down Bellevue and adjacent streets:  the Berwind’s “The Elms,” Vanderbilt’s “The Breakers,” the other Vanderbilt’s “Marble House,” the Oelrichs’ “Rosecliff,” and the Whetmore’s “Chateau-sur-Mer.”  We even got out a couple of times to wander the streets, just to see how close we could get without forking over money.
             Now, I know that these particular houses are no longer owned by their testy and insufferable owners, but I’ll be damned if I am going to hand over my hard earned money to look that the possessions of rich people.  It seems to me that my doing so would be just one more way that the rich have tricked the middle and working classes into congratulating them for their avarice.  “Thanks for exploiting me as you accumulated your wealth, and while I am at it, here, take a little more of the money you begrudgingly left me.”  Nope, I am not going to play that game.  Nowadays, we even have a name for this robbery:  “Lifestyle Tourism.”  Well, I have an idea:  how about every millionaire family member of a Fortune 500 company drop by the next state park where I will be parking the Caravan of Wonder and hand over, say, 20 bucks a person, for a personal tour!  There’s a little “Lifestyle Tourism” for you. 

As close as I will get to Rosecliff
            Look, don’t get me wrong.  These houses are beautiful from the outside.  I suppose I am happy that the architects found someone with deep pockets to support them and their developing arts.  I assume the houses are gorgeous inside.  But I am not an Antique Road Show kind of guy, and, sue me, but I move pretty quickly through the portions of museums devoted to furniture and finery.   What is more, I have never been entangled in television exploits of the dirty lives of the rich and famous, whether it be the real wives in some wealthy suburb or the fictional a-holes of Dallas, Denver, or Knots Landing.  I should point out that there is a pretty decent book about Newport that Knightsmama and I read after we escaped the city.  While I admire the research and clarity of writing of Gilded, a history of Newport, by Deborah Davis, I didn’t finish it.  By the time I got to Doris Duke, I was done.  But I found the early portions—the how and why Newport became the haven for the super-rich—to be fascinating.  Sorry to say, as many things in this country—it begins with the unholy alliance of wealth and Southern slavery.  Then it continues with inherited wealth and stupid ostentation. 
            [Well, this post has certainly gone on long enough.  Next time, let’s move back to New York City and a few ruminations about Henry James’s Washington Square and the Lower East Side.]

Soundtrack.  Hall and Oats:  "Rich Girl."

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