For John Lennon
The first girl I ever loved was in the fourth grade and her name was Dorothy Ewing. Unlike her friends she roller-skated to school, took dancing lessons in the late afternoons, and never said silly things about boys. She was considered ridiculous by her friends. I was in love with her to the extent that I had given up all my other friends. She kissed me goodbye the day before I saw her for the last time, and ten minutes later I fell down. On that last day I saw her sitting in the auditorium at the school’s final assembly, wearing a brown dress with yellow polka-dots. Love was still a secret then, something like a social disease, so all we could do was glance furtively at each other across the aisle. Nothing in my life has seemed as lovely and as full of life as that ten-year-old girl who peeked at me while everybody else sang “She’s a Grand Old Flag.” At the end of assembly I ran away from the school, making sure I said goodbye to no one, particularly Dorothy, and I never saw her again. She was the nicest little person in the school, delicate, independent, graceful, and no boy was ever blessed as I was in his first passion. Goodbye, everything else.
As the years went by, love became my secret, and, I guess, everybody else’s. It was the secret you kept if you were smart or gave away if you were dumb. Giving it away meant you could be teased back into a crowd of buddies who would then protect you from that particular assault. Keeping it meant no one could have it to hurt you with. You just continued to love until your grades were shot. I never really could describe it to anybody, not even my best girlfriends, though I talked to them on the phone for hours when my parents were out. To talk to other boys was impossible since a suspicion of girls outlasts childhood, and as a boy you feel you ought to be talking to other boys about some game or other rather than, as Keats described it, “that sudden load of immortality about the heart.” Talking to girls about other girls was good for me and bad for them, but certainly the only substitute for the sort of lunatic act of which I became capable only in my thirties — that is, a direct confrontation of beauty with the words of love.
Deep down, the rest of life has always seemed pretty boring to me. If I ever read a book it was for the eventuality of love, nothing else. Do you know what I mean? My friend, Jean Morrison, a wonderful poet, once said to me, “Can you imagine reading a book when you could be making love?” He also said we don’t make books unless life fails us, but that’s for another essay. What he said about making love, however, was big news for me since I had gotten into the habit of giving my secrets away and for awhile it looked like I was going to be an intellectual first and a lover of women (or men) second. But when he said it I thought: that’s one of those truths which tells you who you are. It told me who I was anyway, or at least reminded me. For years I had jumped around like everyone else, getting started in careers, learning how to be smart, perfecting despair for my own private use, getting and spending, running down the universe as if it was an argument (a problem it is, I still believe) — and yet nothing could make me drop the issues of a bright young man’s world faster than the look on a face which carried the promise of love. Heartbreak? Of course, but at least I knew I was alive, which is more than I could say if I was in a training program. Anyway, as lines add history to a face, cracks only improve the value of a heart — take it from me, I’ve got a heart cracked like crystal, and when you hold it up to the light it’s not without class.
There were always two worlds and not knowing it was always my problem. Perhaps I should say that not knowing the uncertainty of the world I was born into was my problem — but who was to offer me a clue, the little undermining fact which would indicate, beneath the pallid reality of the 1950’s, the anarchic possibilities of life? A suburban kid, the world of private fantasy was my real world, a world in which, for the sake of a beloved (and she might only be in my home-room class) I acted a certain way. For her, as it turned out, I would act mostly like Jimmy Dean or Elvis Presley, those gargantuan figures who accidentally slipped into my scene with the message that not everything out there was tame. Nevertheless, even by myself I could manage a manic brilliance, unknown to either of my heroes, along the shady lanes of split-leveldom. Dreaming of girls, hungering for a measure of their subtle ways, wanting to talk to them, of their miraculous survival in my world of big talk and punching, I asked myself — who were they, these creatures, realer than real, disorienting me so radically from twelve years of little boy bullshit?
Early fools like myself don’t go to law school later on, nor do we become good citizens even if we try, and we hardly ever get rich, and I guess we rarely end up inside a family in which an eventual peace is granted to us, the sweetest gift we can have in this impermanent place. The fact is we spend too much of our lives being foolish for a lover, one who may even be dead, but who nevertheless inspired in us an early sense of unlikely perfection — and, yes, there we go, a legion of the ridiculous, searching for the right note or word or image, the specific bit of magic which will turn the down-slanting eye of the blond girl in our best-friend’s biology class our way. Anyway, for all the losses, it’s nice being enchanted. And isn’t that the secret (of the secret) of love: that everything became dedicated to the blond girl, everything — my breakfast, my boredom, my going to sleep, my waking up, my math block, my shoes, my current events, my Everly Brothers records, even my parakeet? Being in thrall to her and others like her, the world became a holy place. Not such a bad thing for an American boy who before dreaming of the blond girl or the girl in the polka-dot dress had dreamed of Joe DiMaggio and motorcycle jackets.
Yes, two worlds. And yet, my brain teeming with love, I thought there was only one, an unenchanted world from which I kept my secrets. I guess what I mean is that smug place which Sartre calls “the good citizen’s world.” This is the world we take for granted, even though it grants us nothing. Good grades are found here, and pals, and obedience, and you can fragment it just like I’m doing because it’s a dull and yet terrifying world, all abstract and unsexy and mass-defined. HELP! Who are we here, stuffing all these burgers into our mouths, these dead milkshakes, our eyes flattened out by the systematic mendacity of tube-land, our hearts a bubble of dollars? Sad to say, when I wasn’t imitating some impolite bastard or dreaming of girls or clowning with my folks or holding conversations with my dog I was learning how to die into the republic’s arms. Who wasn’t? Who wasn’t sitting in classrooms devoted to doltdom or the lie that we in America are better than the sweet souls of the Orient, certainly better than those tyrannizing Russians whose atomic bombs had me forever crouching in the basements of elementary schools, wondering how I would get home to my mom after America was blown up. There was no fighting it — even the breathtaking pressure of breasts against oxford cloth couldn’t slow down my slide into the fast-talking, over-educated American wise-guy I was bound to become.
But look what the classroom did to my friends, those little-boy buddies who would stand on their heads at any time. I mean, Allen, Eddie, Bobby, Vincent, Andre, have you no memory? In your little suits with your cute brief cases, your bankable lives being chewed up by time and humorlessness, pressures on you (from whom?) as if life is just one of those mediocre dreams where you jog away from something — what happened to the wild-eyed insolent tender boys who filibustered profanity in my ears like a code to which only we knew the keys? Oh you modest-living professional little bastards, giving in to all that mortgaged decency, all those inner rules of silence, as if the spirit of youth was an aberration to be got over and not the event itself, the event of your life, the adventure you ended up betraying for a house in Twit Acres and 2.3 kids you won’t ever understand.
What does courage mean to us, to me, lost as I am, even as I curse, between two worlds? In one world, the world most available to us, the world of the endlessly obedient good citizen — spontaneity zilch, cut off in one’s bones from the chance to change; revering sunlight and the stretching of limbs only in one’s spare time — courage is obvious and well-known: it’s always buying into the world on its own terms, whether that means flying bombing missions in computerized aircraft or winning fights (losing, does one ever lose?). And yet in a world which has grown so comprehensively numb to the sources of joy and sorrow, to any sort of purchase on real life as opposed to this everyday version which has our laughter, like steak bones, caught in our throats, I feel that courage must be connected to iconoclasm, that is, to the breaking down of those death-dealing illusions which are, quite simply, doing us in. In other words, one can no longer separate courage from the attempt to re-establish a world in which the meaning of courage has some place. Of what use is courage, anyway, in a world where so few insist on truth or enchantment?
To live well takes courage, but living well cannot be taken for granted anymore. As a nation, for example, doesn’t television have us hopping like rabbits in an experiment? What is Ronald Reagan, anyway, or Tang, or aspirin, Exxon, Chevrolets, Geritol, hamburgers, light beer, Coca-Cola, sweetened cereals, good-guy news teams, margarine — all the same, bad deals lying in the center of slick packages. Is there not a new breed of person, usually called a “media” person, who has spent years figuring out how to touch our deepest fears, how to lie in front of regulatory agencies and not get caught, how to arrange sounds so they will affect our memory, how to defocus our eyesight, and, most frighteningly, how to play upon our deepest feelings of love and friendship in order to transform us into a nation of consumers, lava-heads burning through products of our sole earth? How are we to resist? What training have we to protect ourselves against this organized assault on our will and intelligence? How can we not believe those reports delivered in trained voices by ministerial men which tell us that our health depends upon the use of a particular drug? Are we ready for these people? How are we to know that the man is not a doctor, the report is false, and the advertising agency in charge of the commercial has employed hidden techniques of persuasion which were developed by scientists? Watch the oil companies make the mountainside prettier. See the guys from the office sharing successful moments together as they drink beer. Look at grampa’s face light up when his grandson in a marching-band uniform calls him long-distance at special week-end rates, or watch gramps in his checkered woodsman’s shirt eat whole-grain cereal, or even watch him be kindly behind the counter as he sells the housewife an addictive laxative. No, these people are not kidding around anymore, and we are cowards insofar as we permit them to pillage our lives with their mind-finagling.
But let’s run with the notion of courage for awhile. It’s a concept big enough to make fools out of us, or, in the process, to prompt one or two good thoughts. I would suggest right off that owning up to one’s fears may be the highest kind of courage, and yet how many of us are willing to do that? But what a moment of liberation it is when I say I am afraid! Because once I can say I am afraid, of anything, then I can drop all those strategies I employ to avoid having to face my fears, and more magically, I can create that true democracy in which everybody else is willing to admit what they take such pains to hide — those secret flaws which are their distinction, their self, that lonely, lovely foible which is them and has always been them. And then the additional joy of discovering that no one is going to laugh, that no one cares, or that only the worst care, that is, those for whom another’s fear has become a weapon they use to get their silly way. Well, screw them, those jerk-off marines with bodies so tense with fear of self-betrayal that they move like fists against the face of their first memories. No, we are free the moment we admit our fears, for who can bother anybody who is willing to walk? Goodbye, man, I don’t like the way you drive or talk or push or write or fuck or yell or boss or con or lie or drink or smoke or cheat or disapprove of me or categorize me or penalize me. I mean, the worst thing about me is also the best because it is our exact difference and that means we are both of us stunning little strange flowers in the meadow of this souring world. My fears stated, I can hold that half-strangled part of me out into the sunlight, and you hold yours too, all right? We can forget about making deals designed to keep us concealed from the loving eyes of each other. Ah, who can resist such champions who deign not to win?
Perhaps a small gesture in the way of mutual respect could be gained if we asked each other the uses to which we put our courage (and our fears). While visiting Agamemnon’s tomb in Mycenae, Henry Miller grew faint-hearted at the thought of descending an old stairway which led into pure darkness. Other tourists would plunge right by him, whimsical and brave in that darkness, chin up, whistling. And yet if I had to choose a bravery for myself, I’d choose Miller’s — for he was brave in the face of that other darkness which goes by the name of boredom, that vague and unspecific nihilism of the twentieth century which condemns our laughter and dries our loins faster than anything else. Miller, our greatest iconoclast, called what we do to ourselves by its name, amazing man, instead of using the chicken-hearted words of our loveless realm, the old ones like progress, politics, America, or the new ones like personalize, input, communicate.
The courage for what? Yes, that’s a question that should be asked, particularly if giving someone credit for what they can do seems important to you. What a precious fact to know about someone else. (And, simple to say, we all have courage because we all have fear. Miller was afraid of boredom precisely because he knew that it was an undiagnosed disease which ravens on your impulse to be strikingly yourself, and it was this fear which turned him into a warrior of lust. I am sure in the face of boredom Miller’s first response was to shake like a leaf.) And yet how easily we tend to belittle the courageous acts of others.
Not long ago a woman friend of mine spoke disparagingly of a mutual acquaintance, a younger woman, saying, “What dues has she paid?” The implication was, of course, that she, unlike my interlocutor, had not paid enough. Oh, the tyranny of dues, that imaginary fee we are supposed to pay to get into someone else’s club! And to what end are we paying them? To obtain wisdom, I suppose, the rather primary insight that you don’t end up deep unless you’ve been deepened along the way. Well, it’s undoubtedly true, but who gets to look in on our confidential hearts when the losses occur, those hurts we all suffer and which we either conceal to become one kind of fool or accept to become another? My woman friend had been married to an alcoholic at nineteen, given birth to a child at twenty-two, and now wanted to establish a connection between what she had become and what she had paid out. This was valid, of course, but at that moment she wanted to do it at the expense of the younger woman’s experience, an experience she did not know about or care about, but which she meagerly assumed to be less courageous than her own. For the sake of her own personal narrative which included such chapter headings as “Being Married to an Alcoholic” and “Having a Baby at Twenty-two,” my friend was going to dismiss as bad literature the narrative of someone else whose chapter headings were entirely different. The irony is of course that in an unflattering light my older friend’s experience could be made to seem like non-experience, that is, a series of actions undertaken in order to escape the difficulties of a true independence — which they were not. As it turns out, however, both women are not only going to be special gifts to us all, they already are. And the lesson in this is not very complicated: to escape this deadening and unlikable alienation from each other, this estrangement which leaves us feeling alone and smug and unhilarious, we must ask to what end others have put the courage we know them to possess. Did they have enough to escape from a domineering parent, a cool act of self-kindness, but very heroic? Is their courage of the sort which creates art and/or children? Does one have the courage to be honest, hardly something we can take for granted in anybody? To be less self-absorbed? To actually care (an amazing event) about another person not one’s own? Did one have enough courage to escape from the humanoid magnetism of television, from liquor, drugs, bad religion, money-dreams, racism? What about lonely nights? Relationships where we neither aided nor injured each other? Do we have the courage to insist on love or enchantment? To be an American without being a bully? Forget about the irretrievably numbed hearts — have we respected the experience of others, those we know, on brief reflection, not to be enemies?
My two women friends have courage for different things. One will become an artist who won’t look back, and perhaps she’ll learn that art gives you what others end up getting somewhere else. The other will find in her unsurprised heart a genuineness of being which, in this silly, greedy, flaky world, will look like water on the desert, and men and women will be able to drink from it.
Let’s face it, a little humility is in order from all of us. I mean, aren’t we slightly too ridiculous for anything else? We pursue our selves across the stage of our desultory careers, crying bitter tears at the loss of love, at the loss of life, take your choice. We run from truth, doubt happiness, make excuses for ourselves, criticize others. When I look back over the history of my heart, my punk lover’s heart, over the small hills of my intellectual gambolling, I wonder at the sweet audacity of this clown who would claim the right to say anything to anybody. I suppose I am convinced that one day I will turn around and look in a mirror and John L. Schmuck will be gone. And he will be, until a new enchantment brings him back, a new brightness in the air, a farmer’s daughter on his shoulder. I mean, do any of us get where we are going because we know where to go?
Well, to be honest, I am afraid of success. For deep down I can’t figure out what it means. The successful people I know, with few exceptions, are a drag, and I mean that literally.
We are all of us all the time coming together and falling apart. The point is, we are not rocks. Who wants to be one, anyway, impermeable, unchanging, our history already played out, our act too known to be interesting? As Lord Olivier said recently, when people come back to see you “do a moment,” change it. I, for one, do not mind falling apart every once in awhile, as long as I can profit from the split seams. Despair is another matter, the empty center, or just the opposite, being too full, too full of emptiness, of lovelessness, it’s all the same — if we’re lucky we only have to live with despair a few times in our lives and no more.
But now looking about me, what do I see? One friend curses his wife half the day and talks to me of beating up her lover. Another languishes in a job behind a telephone all day, dreaming of inheritance and housewives. A woman I love cries occasionally in a tub of hot water because she is sometimes lonely and uncertain of choice. A friend of hers grows snappish in her thirties because love doesn’t enter her open arms. One could go on. In our lives we are falling apart — we work too hard, drink too much, smoke endlessly, love too cautiously, laugh too little, think too modestly, dream too forgetfully. And yet my women friends, when their time comes, dance like beings nonchalant in a dream of forests. Their movement is, simply, pure inspiration. And my wife-cursing friend too has his time, long moments when like a god the world lies clear before him and he flies on words, as when he wrote to me of Eliot’s Prufrock: “And how would this cynic know to care/Whether he’s a noble prince or not/Unless in his soul he hides a Hamlet/To marvel at his modesty and mourn the tragedy/He yet hopes to avoid by playing possum.” We are falling apart indeed, but we are coming back together. A part of us is in Utah and another in Mars, and then suddenly there is a clarity, a cohesion, and we dance because dancing is what we have to do even if it means saying goodbye to love, or in a momentary opening of dark space we write a poem and it ends up telling the truth. No, I do not mind this falling apart. I mind not falling apart. Let us breakable people join hands as we reach courageously toward the truth that will fall apart in these same hands.
(In this spinning darkness, passionate friend, your hand in mine is nice.)
We have been taught so badly in America that our most courageous act lies, belatedly, in defying that teaching and making sure that our children are not hurt by it. We are taught the need to succeed, but who teaches us the valor of waiting? Artist friends of mine are beginning to drive themselves into mediocrity as they spend their days hustling their names around town. To what avail? Their line is always out, eyes glued to the cork. Can they get a bite? The original meditation which brought them into the world of art, that clarity of protest against the limits of dull thinking, feeling, seeing, has dissipated into the tedious effort of converting it all (all that passionate adolescent astonishment) into a sellable commodity which can get the nod of businessmen. A man I know, a director of plays who was originally inspired by the early work of Elia Kazan, now spends a good deal of his life dialing telephones in a never-ending effort to keep his name current. His work, always skilled and well-crafted, is beginning to suffer; instead of a sense of private anger or joy, that sense of an idiosyncratic method which distinguishes one serious artist from another, his work contains that generalized unbelievingness which is the contemporary replacement for precise thinking and feeling. In talking to him one finds him filled with disgust for everybody else’s work. His criticism of plays, once passionate and generous, is now reduced to calling them “intellectual” or “talky.” He won’t see a certain play, he told me recently, because he can’t bear to look at the legs of the leading actress. When I tell him to relax, he answers that I am afraid of success. After all, it takes courage to play the game in New York.
Well, to be honest, I am afraid of success. For deep down I can’t figure out what it means. The successful people I know, with few exceptions, are a drag, and I mean that literally. Success to them has not meant a coming together of all that which they are. They have become solid objects standing in front of themselves on the long road of their life. They block their own vistas. They can’t see into themselves anymore because the self, that fluid, changing, spontaneous sense of life, that sense of having been and having become something else at the same time, has taken on the solid substance of everybody else’s expectations. They dwell in other people’s eyes and have no sight in their own. They are pompous, predictable, and profoundly incurious. The unsuccessful are rendered invisible to them by a species of magic related to the freezing of the heart. For them life has lost its palpitance, that luxury of pending, laughing selves. They believe in their own importance while, secretly, no one else does. They give people jobs but not life, a gift we actually have to offer. And they always believe in progress. What a lesson for all of us when Sartre refused the Nobel prize because, as he said, it would make him an object to other people, an award-winner, forever a “former Nobel prize winner,” instead of that most difficult of all perceived phenomena, a person. For on the deepest and most personal levels, we must be fresh for each other.
Yes, we are taught the need to succeed in the classrooms of America; nothing is more fervently drilled into our minds and hearts: success. If you don’t succeed, you’re a loser; hated word. Out of the ambling and guesswork of early childhood we enter schools and churches and little leagues and cotillions and we are supposed to get our act together. For boys at least there is suddenly a gang and outside that gang is the “other,” the fatties and sissies who conspire, so it seems, to become an image for the successful child of what he should not be. For the first time in one’s history, contempt develops, that sad human way we have of being afraid and not admitting it.
From then on, for most of us, life becomes a matter of running toward law schools or the business professions or anywhere else from which an eventually “successful” person will emerge, safe from that contempt which turns one into a zero at the age of six. Instead of being contemptible, we end up as good citizens, our minds unminded, our bodies unbodied of crazy jubilation, our vision, once a quest for the surprising and yet unsurprised unity of all things, now just a paltry and unthrobbing self-consideration in the shark and gobble waters of American adulthood.
To be honest, I’d rather be a fat guy, lost in rancor, than jog with these self-actualizers.
Not long ago I walked out of a movie theatre on the upper west side of New York and started to cry. Undoubtedly the movie I had just seen was the cause of it. A German film misleadingly called Knife in the Head, it was about the reconstitution of a man’s identity, the putting back together of memory and logic, after a cop had fired a bullet into his head during an assault on a radical youth-center. The movie was about many different things, but what thrilled me was the sense it gave of a man coming back into this world lacking a memory to tell him which side he should be on. What a question! What side should we be on, and do we have to take sides? For in this movie various sides were contending for him — was he a radical who had been shot in the head because he attacked a cop, or was he in the building because his ex-wife was there, and consequently, a victim of police brutality? We don’t know, and he certainly doesn’t remember. In the newspapers both the Right and the Left claim him for their own purposes completely unrelated to his innocence, an innocence which turns out to be what the movie is secretly about. Like a child who cannot comprehend the turmoil of politics, he searches the newspapers for pictures of himself, saying, “I want to see Hoffman,” meaning himself, this funny puzzle of a person who can’t even feed himself and yet is a hero to the Left and a criminal to the Right. Once he asks a nurse to show him that part of her flesh concealed beneath her blouse. When she bares a breast for him, he cries out, “No, you lie, there are two of them!”
This astonishingly dislocated man, Hoffman, was portrayed by the superb German actor, Bruno Gans, an actor whose depth of countenance reminds me of the early Brando (almost enough to make you cry). Perhaps it’s something common in their expression — suggesting that they embody experience not accessible to other men, some knowledge of darkness . . . in fact Gans is the only actor I can think of right now whose mere presence suggests an experience without banality. Perhaps this is why the movie worked, since the loss of memory and identity to such a man is, in fact, a loss. How different Gans is from the normal leading man whose countenance belies no long acquaintance with the wilderness of sorrow, but instead records such minor facts as good health, handsomeness, and the ongoing tale of an easy popularity.
So, leaving the theatre deeply touched and burning with the sort of clarity which comes after a good long plunge into a serious work of art, I began to remind myself for the first time in months that the only kind of art that means anything to me always scrutinizes the obvious world of power and then offers us a glimpse of that blessed innocence which is our lost birthright. And then I asked myself — for the movie was about this — how do you keep the innocent alive in a world which pays high fees to the corrupt? And, after all, what do I mean (oh, the themes of our life which precede our tears) by innocent?
My definition of innocence has changed over the years. Years ago innocence meant to me that which preceded corruption, that’s all, or what went before the general state of adulthood; a simple event whose inevitable passing could always be regretted, like childhood. But then I was like everybody else, under the influence of a world-view which assumed those categories upon which the world of power is based. Who, in my first orbit of life, believed then that politicians were not impressive people or that our so-called American sanity was life-distorting? Like everybody else I believed what I was taught: that America was the best country (it’s probably not even fourteenth), and that cancer was a disease our doctors would cure. You grew up, had children, gave to the United Fund, voted in elections (no matter the clown), and believed all that shit handed down to you from the heights of power. Who was I to question or doubt the value of progress, living longer, space exploration, standard-of-living? Not for a moment did I consider that the desire for power might represent some form of lunacy, or wonder why men of consciousness studiously avoided its realm. Me, Johnny, Shrimpy, Rosie, Mouse, doubt those American heroes who scrambled after power like monkeys going for bananas on the topmost branch? Was there ever a voice, a clear laughing voice (and suddenly sadness is beside me on the upper west side, or is it self-pity?) which said to me that power deprives you of your real body humor and leaves you high and dry among other mortals, your only friends this one time around? I mean, who wished on me solitude so I could hear the still small voices which are always mourning the failure of our American enterprise, the fall from woodsman to advertising executive, from a holy landscape of many moods to this junkyard of highways and restaurants? Saddest of all is just the fact that innocence is considered a stage we have to get through before we accept this accumulating nightmare of life which is America. And nobody to help you out, no, unless one is blessed as I was, finally, by knowing one lucid person, the only one I ever truly met in all my years of being educated, who asked me one day in the kindest and wisest voice if I really wanted to be a part of the rat-race, and did I know how consummately stupid rats could be when perverted by man?
But then I saw the real children and I sucked my breath in quickly, for they were still there, inside their own bones and not travelling around inside someone else’s dream of them. . . .
(But, upset, I admit also to being happy, even very happy — for this movie in its odd way of putting the pieces of our splintered life back together again was precisely the kind of art I cared about and was always willing to argue for. So there was the resonance of an old meditation here, too, a meditation which began by insisting that even though modern art must reflect the fragmentation of modern life, it must not merely go over and over the same territory, for not only to repeat what we so easily know, but to further insist that the basic condition of existence was boredom and impotence amounted to no more than a failure of imagination. After all, who is there to take our joy away if we only demand it back? And, yes, it is a matter of demanding it since the world is there with its many complaints and past disgraces to filch from us in any way it can. Who comes to us in the night like a succubus to leach our joy as we lie dreaming, leaving us soft and contemporary? Who teaches us not to kiss our fathers, to be endlessly cooperative, to listen with such complacency to the diminishing footsteps of the thief who clipped our heart, I mean our real heart, the heart of the child who was afraid of very little and open to the suggestions of each day? Who was he, anyway, and who let him in? But why be dramatic — we know he didn’t come to us in the night, but rather robbed us in broad daylight as we sat in one boring class after another throughout our youth, listening wide-eyed and open to tales of power about demented Horatio Algers who sought the presidency of this or that corporation or country but who never considered tenderness as a way of life, or tried to listen to the sounds of children or women, the crying of their own frightened flesh. Anger, rage, despair, sorrow, tears, yes, but this mediocre alienation, this continuous abstraction which turns our best artists into nihilists is not worthy of the time it takes us to turn away.)
No question about it, this vivid representation of the continuous warfare between innocence and cynicism in the movie I had just seen had upset an equilibrium I had managed to achieve over the past few weeks. For they had been difficult weeks: lost love and hot weather, being on my own for the first time in many years (what a strangely possible world it is when you look at it alone after being in partnerships or marriage for many years . . . all those many silenced voices of your own, speaking for the first time in so long). And yet that equilibrium wasn’t really much, frankly; it had put sorrow under restraints, but it had nothing to do with the fires that burn in us when we are right. Surcease was all it was; fine.
So it was all of this — the movie, the weather, lost love, innocence, the themes of my own private trials touched in a moment of art, the sense of loss, of something regained, lost again. I began to cry, to cry for myself, to cry for Hoffman, to cry for all of us. It was a simple cry, generous and full of love, one I’ve had a few times in my life but not for many years. With the mind of experience and yet with the eyes of innocence, I saw clearly what life in this American city had done to the faces of my fellow-man. (Oh, it was so beautiful in New York at that moment, the late afternoon sun was setting over the Palisades and shades of gold were all over Broadway.) I saw the faces as in a vision, men’s faces caved-in, sucked-up, forced-out, hollowed, scared, white as snow, lustreless, eyes like fish startled by everything, mouths askew with fear and disgust. I thought to myself, look at us, we have become advertisements of ourselves, we are either dead or slick or icy or frightened. And I looked at the women, fettered to vanity, choked by their appearance into goggle-eyed self-assurance, breakable like ice, and I thought, it’s true, we are the hollow people, we are now completely isolated from each other. Gay men walked by too briskly, too tensely, dressed up in standardized outfits, a girl’s sashay imposed on their hips, a thousand psychic miles from the splendid children they must have been and who they still, in only a sad way, resembled. Others strutted by like demented roosters, muscles constantly flexed against imaginary foes, mean, unimaginative faces, all suddenness gone from their mouths; and other women, too, so full of caution, anger, and false aplomb, the lines of their beautiful faces screwed into a resistance only a magician could ease. It was all love and loss on the street, and quietly I wept for us cripples, for my own life with its own small losses, for my own tears behind my sunglasses, for my little vanities and my handsome pleated trousers, and for all those who had no hope anymore and so little clear-eyed assurance, for all the frightened and ugly and suicidal people who were out beneath this soft setting New Jersey sun. Why, we had become like monster-children, those who you let in your house until, the mark on the neck seen, it is too late.
But then I saw the real children and I sucked my breath in quickly, for they were still there, inside their own bones and not traveling around inside someone else’s dream of them, not slicked-up or over-pretty or stuffed with fear. They were just themselves so far. They ran and skipped and fell down, laughed and yelled and pushed, and hid no promises from each other, while beside them their parents or other adults plodded or stood around, nothing funny in their day. And the old people, I suddenly saw, or anyway some of them, were themselves too — not the American old people, but the ones who had come from other countries, the refugees, the west side emigres. A girl trilled a song next to me and I touched her arm and smiled. She was for a moment every girl I ever loved, for her song was, in this Breughelian city of crushed spirits and bleared faces, all it should be.
You make vows after you cry for a streetful of people. I vowed merely not to forget what I had seen. Of course an hour later I had forgotten half of it, and the next morning I’d forgotten most of the rest. What had I seen anyway? Three weeks later I fell in love, wrote a terrible poem, took three good photographs, and had a dream in which my father, the leader of an underwater enclave, had a great idea: we could all achieve waterless life, beach consciousness, if we all pushed each other very hard up the underwater slope that led to the beach. My father decided I would be first. The trick was, it turned out, to wait for the proper ocean surge, and when you had that behind you, to shove with all your might. And so everybody gathered behind my father, all the underwater people, and shoved me when the right surge came along. Then I was going up the underwater hill very quickly, and there was an explosion as I broke through the water into waterless existence, into the beach world breathing sunlight consciousness. The sun was indeed out — it was Long Island’s Jones Beach — and people were everywhere, all colors of people with their umbrellas and radios and various languages, and the sky was very blue, the ocean a blue murmur, and I said to myself, “Everything’s going to be all right. Just a little more time.” And then high tide rolled out and my father was coming out of the ocean, jubilant, leading the underwater people after him.