Persistence of memory: What the hidden, magic life of the New Jersey suburbs taught me about culture
There was an afternoon in a small Vermont town near the southern border of the state. I was maybe 19. I crossed the street with a package of chocolate doughnuts in one hand, a quart of orange juice in the other, getting into a truck with my friends. But it was crossing the street where a hot shot of straight sun burned down the center, even though there was snow and ice everywhere that was a sensory cocktail: not that I just tasted or smelled the day, but that I sucked it in, so fresh and cleansed by the snow. I knew I'd always remember crossing that street.
Used to be I could just stop and take in the day that way suck in its freshness, every sense indulged but unfortunately I can't do that anymore. The tone and texture of the world, once violently eruptive and bizarrely shifting, are now relatively consistent.
Some years prior to that street-crossing, I was sitting with Sharon, my girlfriend, at a table in the reading room of the Teaneck, N.J., public library. I should have been irrepressibly giddy; she was my first real girlfriend, beautiful and brilliant.
Somehow the dork squad, a famous front-four of stunning social incompetence (and of which I was a founding member), had hooked up with some of the wild girls of our school. Now "wild," set in a middle-class suburb of New York City, should not be conceived of as Teenage Doll or Switchblade Sisters. Still, Sharon's previous boyfriend had been a hoodlum, as had been my friend Steven's girlfriend Henri's ex. They seemed quite deadly, boasting greased-back hair, fast cars, and a first-name acquaintanceship with the police. In contrast, my friends and I were the walking dead from The Night of the Socially Retarded.
Henri loved cars and working on motors the faster the car, the better; I collected comic books. One of their friends, one of those sweet silly people who have no mooring, had been busted in a motel with her boyfriend and 40 decks of heroin. Len Maltin and I were taking buses into New York City after class whenever they changed the bill at the complete Laurel and Hardy Retrospective screening at the Huntington Hartford Museum on 59th Street.
I should note that I don't think I ever knew one of these marginal characters about whom, at one point or another, I wasn't told, "You know, he/she doesn't seem to be, but he/she is really smart, with an amazing IQ." This was never said of me.
Before attention deficit disorder and mundane learning disabilities were recognized as medical and psychological problems, students such as myself were labeled "underachievers" which meant one was lazy, didn't apply oneself, and/or was stupid.
Now, what I should have seen in Sharon was obvious, but what she saw in me will always remain a mystery. I say "I should have seen" because I have never been one to count my blessings. Invariably, I've given up two birds in the hand for one in the bush. Always wrapped up in "what isn't and where is it," I've always missed what was right in front of me.
I had become friends with Len Maltin at the exact same library table a few years before. We had known each other, but that was the first day we got to really talking. Sharon and I were studying.
I was already getting the kinds of looks I've gotten my whole life when I'm with women. It isn't just that I know the situation is exactly as Max Beerbohm observed in Zuleika Dobson, not one person is thinking, as some are convinced they are, "What kind of guy must he be to have a woman like that?" Nor is it simply, as Beerbohm observes, that what they are really thinking is "What is wrong with her to be with him?" But it is something even worse, something more, as though I weren't just invisible, but a subtraction actively sucking in even more space than I occupy.
I had already discovered that Sharon's family was among the most eccentric imaginable; boasting none of the contrived fictions of The Royal Tenenbaums, they trumped them when it came to idiosyncrasies.
A fellow student stopped by our table. I can't remember who, except that he was overly obsequious, with a rich, deep vein of contempt running right beneath the surface, nowhere nearly as successfully disguised as he thought. Eyeing Sharon only, he offered up that he had read a book by her uncle and very much loved it. Choking back the kind of attitude that floods John Hughes' teen epics, she thanked him and shooed him away in such a nonchalant and socially friendly way as to be an almost imperceptible dismissal. She turned to me and said, "He's talking about my great-uncle, not my uncle, and I hate him!"
Now, this anecdote is really just background to illustrate my wide-eyed wonderment at Sharon's family, who to me were like J.D. Salinger's Glasses and Wes Anderson's Tenenbaums, as though their lives were being filmed, acted out, and not just mundanely lived.
The point here, coming soon, will be how all culture is one culture. Whereas distinctions can and must be made, those championing high art over popular culture are for the most part looking for tools of social and class discrimination. Those silly books about how contemporary culture is aesthetically bankrupt or that claim we've traveled from civilization to decadence are just ridiculous, having much more to do with reinforcing lazy stereotypes than with actually understanding culture. "Ignorance of one's own culture is not considered cool," the Residents admonished us. More than that, culture is one of the ways humanity tries to make sense of itself. Past culture not only doesn't change but comes anointed, approved by the academy. Suggesting there is a qualitative difference between past and modern culture is the last refuge of aesthetically bankrupt scoundrels.
Household activity at Sharon's displayed all the demented energy and Isadora Duncan excesses of Katharine Hepburn's young sister in The Philadelphia Story, when she is trying to convince visiting reporter Jimmy Stewart that her family is quite mad. Sharon's dad was a painter and a translator; her mom, a decade or so later, would become a successful author of "women's sagas." At the time, they supported the family by kiting checks until the occasional commission or royalty check showed up. They would start the first day, cashing checks close by. The next day, they'd go a little farther out and to a few more places to cash enough checks to cover the ones they'd cashed the day before, with a little extra for survival. After a month or two, they'd be ranging far out of state.
Sharon was a passionate and gifted poet, my dating her the first indication of what proved to be a lifelong habit of going out with writers whose work left mine in the elementary school temporary classroom where it seemed to come from (this is definitely the present situation, as my wife's writing makes mine read as though translated from tablets). Her sister, Brett, was if anything even more a presence than Sharon; though both were addicted to passion, Sharon had at least a passing interest in decorum.
I asked Sharon who her uncle, I mean her great-uncle, was. She told me, as though being forced to reveal an ancestral past rich in Nazi Party loyalists and Ku Klux Klan grand dragons, "Isaac Bashevis Singer."
I had no idea who he was but pretended otherwise. I said I had never read him. She told me not to start. She then filled me in on a few other family members, ranging from geniuses to those currently institutionalized.
"Otherworldly" is the term to be used here; this was the hidden, magic life bursting out in the middle of the suburbs, with the same grace as the Wizard of Oz when it transforms from black-and-white into magnificent Technicolor.
Brett, as I mentioned, was especially translucent. Her longtime boyfriend was named Charlie Parker, and he was one of those galvanizing individuals who, by doing almost nothing, changed the atmosphere of every room he entered. He seemed in possession of some great life secret. His best friend and constant companion was Michael Baser, who was tall and very hairy, while Charlie was shorter and just as hairy. They were into jug band music, great American comedy, the maxim of absolute absurdity, and the blues.
Charlie and Brett were always a couple, but they could be a nearly scientific atmospheric disruption when things went that way. Charlie didn't just march to the beat of a different drummer; he set the beat and got the drummer to march to his. Charlie also had a long-term relationship with our friend Phoebe Laub. Later, after taking the stage last name of Snow, she had a huge national hit with "Poetry Man." Over time, she did a duet with Paul Simon on his hit "Gone at Last," sang with Donald Fagen's New York Rock & Soul Revue, and was a member of the Sisters of Glory (Thelma Houston, CeCe Peniston, Lois Walden, and Albertina Walker).
Brett Singer's novel Footstool in Heaven and Phoebe Snow's first album were both dedicated to Charlie, with the song "Harpo's Blues" on the latter specifically about him. I never understood the nature or dimension of either of these relationships, but though Charlie's reality often ran concurrent with ours, they were never really one and the same.
One afternoon, we were sitting around in the high school newspaper office. Charlie walked in, looking all dreamy and extra aura-defined. He leaned against a wall, saying, "I'm in love, and now all those top 40 songs make sense. They are all so perfect!"
This might seem like a long build-up to no point, except I got it, as though a blinding light kicked open a few of the boarded-up windows in my too-serious suburban head. I understood that art was transcendent but was also relative. A work could make great meaning and celebrate the multidimensional without, on its own, being in any way great.
Abandon hope all ye who enter here: Not only does the atheist abandon moral relativism, but classical aesthetic standards as well. But I'm not an atheist, and "moral relativism" is one of those terms, like "judicial activism," that has little meaning but is often used by the new right as a weapon as if they are morally consistent, showing the love, compassion, and brotherhood demanded by the Bible rather than using the fealty of their beliefs not to actually live the life or spread the message but to prove how much better they are than someone else.
That afternoon, Charlie helped explode my eyes, shut my mouth, and open my heart.
A few years later, Charlie committed suicide, while Baser, his inseparable companion and dearest friend, ended up writing for television (among other things, he was a producer and writer on the short-lived What's Happening Now!). Lest anyone think that is written with even a whiff of condescension or contempt, know that I truly believe there are few credits that would have pleased Charlie more.