Tuesday, March 1, 2011
Do not listen to anybody who says the contrary, the world was once an achingly simpler place. I recall, with the clarity of a vision, when every action I took seemed to be invested with honey rich meaning.
Today, when every human step seems decidedly ad-hoc, it is a leap of imagination to fancy a world drenched in signification. But it was so. I know I existed in a web of meaning. I understood my little corner of Fifth Avenue and 123rd Street as if nature’s god had bequeath to me, instead of eyes, some piece of scientific equipment which placed the world in hyper focus.
I could view the cracks in bricks of the sidewalk as if they were canyons. I could see the individual granules of city dust peppered on maple leaves. And if things grew dim over time it was less my doing, and more the swirl of the outside world, with its creeping gray tones and its looming smothering sands, invading a space that was once a private, settled, and cozy nook where meaning was not exhaustively searched for, but simply grasped and pocketed like a prized marble.
If you believe that all of this is not possible perhaps it is because it is like all difficult conceptual problems, the real devil is not in the details but in the arrangement of the details. The real problem is not how Chance throws down our cards, but how we take them and arrange them to suit our designs. For what good is a world if it is not fit for us to live in? Why would anyone live among a heap of broken objects? Transformation rules the day.
I clearly recall, with a gauzy haze similar to the ring of smoke used at the margins of cinema cameras when depicting the nostalgic past, being taken by my Uncle to the piers on the East River several blocks from our house. Uncle Albert Vandemark, one of the Hudson River Valley Vandemarks, looked upon our city habits with disdain. He felt, and it may very well be true, that city life led to degeneracy and effeminacy in men. He believed it was his duty to stave the flow of passivity that was rendering the Vandemark limbs useless, dull, atrophied.
So Uncle and Nephew would proudly tramp down to the docks, towels in hand, to where the East River forms a small nick in the island of Manhattan, and where, according to local legend, a shanty of freed Slaves once had settled north of muddy Old New Amsterdam.
Once there, Uncle Albert would disrobe to his bright bumble bee yellow and black swimming trunks. They fit his massive bulk snugly; his rounded loins protruded from his crotch. The bumblebee black rings that circled his arms and waist gave him the appearance of a man that was about to burst from his seams. I slinked out of my youthful shorts and shirt and stood passively watching my gargantuan Uncle.
All around us various urchins who worked the streets as petty vendors, newsboys, and hawkers of rags, were plunging into the river, cannon balling and diving into the placid, warm green waters. Uncle and I would swim beyond the confusion and I would receive the rudimentary instructions in long-term survival swimming. He taught me how to inflate my clothes by tying the ends of shirt and pant legs into knots, creating buoyant floatation devices that looked like puffed, bloated corpses; how to alternate swimming strokes to prevent fatigue; how to discern, from wind and cloud patterns, the direction of land.
All the while Uncle Albert’s voice would boom instructions, correcting mistakes, making reproofs, admonishments, all above the din of ships in the not so distant channel, and the splashing and screams of innumerable little boys that had never heard the word adolescence, let alone lived it. We would swim back, my paternalistic Uncle doing the backstroke, his yellow face puffing and spewing water --- what did he know about our family? What did he think would become of me?
We strolled back from the docks in the summer Harlem twilight. Somewhere in New York Harbor a German U-Boat periscope was peeking above the calm August water and focusing, even so briefly, on our retreating figures, before concentrating on American shipping efforts during the mid-days of the Great War.
An Italian with a busy haywire mustache was hawking ice cream from a pushcart near our corner. I could smell the soft aroma of polluted water on my quickly drying tight skin and hear overhead the clatter of pans and pots shifting about in kitchens in the rows of abutting brownstones.
We stopped at our brownstone. Uncle Albert sat on the stoop and watched some of the colored people that were moving into the neighborhood strolling down the street. They were well-dressed men and women, boys and girls, in summer suits and bright floral dresses, outside to enjoy the evening breeze. Albert looked on with evident scorn. Behind us a shade rustled. My uncle looked at the movement out of the corner of his eye and again twisted his face in scorn, but this time with a touch of anguish.
My brother Homer was looking out the window of his room. Homer’s eyes were growing sensitive by this time, so he spent most of his days indoors, only furtively glancing out the window. We were so close in age and appearance that many people mistook us for twins. Except while I grew robust and broad, Homer stayed narrow and slim. He was such a perfect inversion of my character that we dovetailed at key junctures ---- we both pursued our own ends with such a singular purpose and catastrophic intensity that in the end we were destined to meet alone, on a silent plain, where the distended parts of our psyches fit into snug ball and socket joints.
But first there were days of blissful differentiation, of Uncle Albert and me, of Mother and Father, or me bobbing up and down in a slick green ribbon of water, and of Homer. The dissolution of the Union, for better or worse, came much later.