Thursday, June 23, 2011


My twin brother, who keeps his versions of the past in order, would think my credentials for finding out what really happened are as suspect as the credentials of a conspiracy theorist. For when I am looking for proof or citing proof it often now has to do with what I see in art work that I look at in my head or in museums, and that remains forever in my psyche. My past in visual terms, the paintings I see, and then my visual images of the places from my life and what can be known from these places of the people who inhabited them. A full world that is now more real to me in visual than in verbal terms.

Real in much the same way as the paintings in museums that, since this search began, have told me so much about my own story. The deep dark forbidding woods of Hobbema capturing the deep dark woods I knew when very young and tried to believe for so long were comforting. The knife’s edge sexual horror and slasher death in Gorky so much like things buried deep in my memory, maybe too deep to ever coax out of darkness. And then memories entailing hope that come with the colors in a Deibenkorn abstraction, or the sight of a Matisse bronze girl, or light and color in anything by Monet, or the life in the Hellenic era statuary of the ancients when sculpture could for a time get beyond the merely ideal, or in everything in life, hopeful and horrible, seen in the eyes of Bellini Madonnas. These images in museums in some ways on a footing with the strong visual pictures I retain of actual people and places. I am not big on allegory or myth, nor on the archetypal, and yet I know as much as I know anything that where visual images lead me has taken me as far as, or farther than, any other versions I have known or concocted.

Partly as an insomniac and partly out of fascination I would when young retrace in my head patterns of life. As in looking close at every girl of every stripe that I had ever slept with, and then every one that I had wanted, the way right now I look at each of these new people in this unexpected time of change. And then I would, and still do, run through the rooms of museums where I am moved, knowing exactly what painting is where, knowing when to look right or left, knowing what is ahead.

Lying awake I am standing before the not quite finished Andrea del Sarto holy family painting in the Met, and then his small Madonna which is apparently the pretty young wife who deserted him when he caught the plague. Looking at the images and knowing that Andrea del Sarto knew more than anyone in his time what was there – knew the world and its possibilities and pitfalls. I know this just in the Met without hunting him down in the Louvre or in frescos in Florence. Know it even if the critics and art historians run from it the way people with doctorates in literature run when they encounter life in writing. The way I know the location of every Hobbema in the Met and the Frick, and know that the critics, the art historians, got this wrong too, for they fled from Hobbema for the correctness, even niceness, of van Ruisdale. I still know, still can see, where Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, artists and models picnicking, was hung. Know the exact placement still as I could see them ahead of me, high up there on a wall while I was in an adjoining room of the Jeu de Paum when I was 16, and also still know precisely where I shall see his glorious young Olympia. And I see Hopper’s Night Hawks exactly where they were placed in the Chicago Art Institute when I was 21. I also know precisely where in New York museums the Picassos are, even though I hate them, know what I hate almost as well as I know the exact placement of the Matisse’s and the Courbets and Pissaros and a lone Sisley, and then Daubigny in Brooklyn and in rural Massachusetts.

And in the same way I walk through, while not sleeping yet, the rooms of the places I write about. Old and new. And I know not just where every chair and clock was in every one of the many rooms in White Pines but also what was on the Steinway what was in every drawer of every desk and end table. I almost always know these sights. Usually confident that I will know what I will see when I travel in my head this way. Usually starting out confident I will know what I will see when I write about these places from memory. Maybe.

And here I pause… And wait… And look…

Thursday, June 2, 2011


The reason I was in Colorado in the summer after sophomore year was that Itchy van Dornick and I had this plan to hiltchike around the country. To get started, we had gotten a ride with a friend of his named Frank, who had just finisehd his fianal year at Princeton and was ;driving out to San Antonio to make good on his ROTC commitment to the Air Force. Frank represented the worst of many worlds. He had grown up in the town of Princeton with Itchy before he was in the university, where he joined Tiger Inn, which was one of the five most exclusive eating clubs, this one mainly for ignorant athletes, the kind who abused all non-athletes in their path on their way through Princeton as if they were still high riding bullies in high school or prep school.

The background noise to this leg of our trip was Frank shouting fuck or piss or shit at other drivers or to punctuate his vocalized memories of dealing with weak people. Scoffing at beauty, chortling at perceived weakness until we got to New Orleans, and for one evening went our separate ways, which led us each separately to a spic and span whorehouse where a lovely girl who called me “Sugar” gave me a blow job before I could tell her I really wanted, well, you know, couldn’t she do it the regular way? The blow job took a nanosecond. I was 19, an age at which it was not unusual to be a virgin in America in 1954.

Frank left us in San Antonio before driving off to his base. I had only been the driver for an hour before Frank deemed me too unskilled to trust at the wheel. At one point in Louisiana an incredible girl in the shortest of shorts and skimpiest of tee shirts, sweating prettily, had been the gas station attendant who filled up Frank’s car. I said something I thought either my brother or someone at college might say about having seen an Erskine Caldwell girl, referring to a Southern author who had initiated much of our generation into masturbation. It led to Frank talking on and on about helpless little intellectuals who avoided real life.

Itchy and I walked through the picturesque waterway part of San Antonio, then headed north. Our first ride was with a Mexican man in a broken down car who announced he was just out of prison and was drunk. This seemed like adventure far superior to traveling with the foul Princeton athlete.

We went first to Denver where Itchy had an uncle, a mining engineer whom Itchy warned me was a born again Christian. Denver was mostly ugly rows of little one-story houses with little suburban lawns that needed constant watering since this was not a place where grass would grow naturally. This area of sad lawns was surrounded by high and wild mountains. The uncle drove us out to the edge of town to see the mountains better. He wanted us to see them because of the minerals they contained. He kept cataloging minerals that he knew were up there. No sign he saw beauty or majesty or anything like it. And he rambled on about his religion. He was a student of religion, he said. He did not take anything at face value, he said, such as that the Catholic church was evil. He had gone through a Knights of Columbus correspondence course which had had the unintentional effect of showing him the reasons why Catholics were not Christians.

Our next destination was a place we had heard of called Boulder. It was late at night when we were left at the start of a mountain pass that was suppodedly not far from Boulder. We unrolled our sleeping bags by the side of the road. In the morning two heavily bearded men came barreling out of the pass in a rusty pickup packed with large wooly dogs. They were shouting words like “hey-haw” and “whoo-pee” that I knew only from Western movies. One of them said it was their first time out of the mountains since the late spring thaw. Where were we going? they asked.

Our next ride was with a man so non-descript he could have been a Rotarian from central casting or from one of those dull businesses in the real America that were in an out of novels I read. Maybe a branch bank manager. Maybe a bookkeeper. Maybe a seed salesman, I thought, with no idea why I thought it. Anyway, certainly a fussy little man who was losing his hair. But when we got into the car his demeanor changed. He reached down and picked up a, heavy monkey wrench, raised it as if to strike something, said, “Look at this, boys, remember this if you’re thinking of trying anything.” Then he put it down and was just a fussy little man again, actually a pleasant little man who asked us about ourselves as if he were really interested, and gave no indication he thought either that we would kill him or that he would have to kill us.

In one town that was only a gas station we got a ride in the evening with a man who said he had to turn off to another town in 40 miles but we were welcome to come with him. We decided to leave him at the turnoff and stay on the main highway. Which seemed not so good when we had been walking for more than an hour and no vehicles had appeared going either way. We kept on walking, and after hour or two with still no vehicles we decided we better stop for the night. We hadn’t slept much for days and now it was nearly midnight and we were out of the desert and into the middle of some sort of endless flat farm country. I hadn’t realized Colorado had farms. Everything was extremely interesting.

We stepped off the side of the road, which meant going down a short but steep bank, and we rolled out our sleeping bags right where we were. The next thing I knew I heard men talking. Happens this way too much, way too much, one man was saying. Another said you can tell what happened by the way these boys are lying. They wouldn’t have seen it coming. Probably felt almost nothing. Struck from behind by a truck or something, and down the bank and that was all. I opened my eyes. Daylight! I sat up. Oh, a man said, we were sure you were dead. And I could see how it would have looked like two people had been propelled like rag dolls off the highway.

It wasn’t just a couple of men talking. When I stood up I saw a caravan. I didn’t know what the huge machine with the horizontal blades was, but I quickly learned it was something called a combine that was used to cut great quantities of wheat, and separate the grains from the stalks, creating great mounds of grain that rode up a sort of climbing treadmill into some wagon or truck. In addition to wagons and trucks for the wheat, there were trucks and trailers for all the people it took to man the combine and keep track of, and shovel, the wheat. And there were trailers for them to sleep in as the caravan made it way tacross America, harvesting wheat that really was out there as far as the eye could see – just like in books and movies. They said they needed a couple more hands for a big job they were starting. They could give us work for a few days if that’s what we wanted.

This was amazing for we had no money at all. Itchy kept pushing to take our last dollar and get a place to sleep. I argued that we use it for any food it would buy us. I had won the last round, picking up multiple candy bars at the last gas station, which was why we slept down there in that wheat field looking like corpses, and why we had run into this amazing opportunity.

It was a full world, this caravan. The man who led it was a vigorous, loud high school principal in the winter, something new to my experience since I had gone to a New England boarding school where instead of a principal we had a headmaster, and ours was a kindly absent minded clergyman. This principal was clearly an efficient man of action, running this operation with all this equipment and all these people crossing what I guessed must be the elusive real America. The athletic looking young men along were as full of energy as their boss, and like their boss tall and hearty. Neither Itchy nor I had the athletic look, which didn’t seem to bother anyone. Unlike Itchy, who stopped frequently, I had endurance. Itchy had to rest a lot but I kept going shoveling as long as they wanted me to do it. Shoveling grain from one truck to another. From a wagon behind the combine into a truck. From a truck into a basket on another truck. I had no idea of why the wheat was being moved around.

But I felt things I had never felt before, here using muscles or at least growing them, here under the hot sun in these never ending wheat fields. We ate big hearty meals at a long table in one of the trailers. Always thick steaks. We were joined there by a tall and fit pretty girl who was along as a sort of secretary to the high school principal, helping keep records on the wheat. And she let it be known that she was spending the trip in a trailer sleeping with her boyfriend, who was one of the athletic looking members of the crew. This wheat caravan, seen from my corner of 1954, was far wilder than that place in New Orleans.