Page Two: New Jersey Reverie

Autumn rain, returning memories

Page Two
"The banality of evil," as Hannah Arendt described it, is both terrifying and depressing, but the mundanity of the poetic can be exhilarating.

It's all about what you do with whatever comes your way.

1) New Jersey

My mother ran out of the gas in the middle of the Holland Tunnel, driving from New Jersey to New York City, twice. The second time, though it was some years after the first, the police seemed almost happy to see her, despite the fact that she had run out well into the tunnel, stalling traffic in both directions. Evidently, not many people have run out of gas in the middle of the Holland Tunnel, and I'm not sure anyone else has ever done it twice.

It turned out she was well-remembered and not nearly as badly thought of as one might assume. At least one of the times I was with her in the car. Memory blurs naturally, but storytelling blurs memory more.

The Holland Tunnel has two tubes that run from New York City to New Jersey. Usually, to get there, we'd drive down the New Jersey turnpike to the exit for the tunnel, which was then a short drive through Jersey City. As memory serves (not always ably), one would come down around a curve to see the Hudson River ahead. The road followed the curve, sweeping down and around to feed into the tunnel below. If traffic was stop-and-go when one hit the curve or beforehand, you knew it was going to be a long, hideous journey.

Traveling on the New Jersey turnpike, which famously topped the list of worst highways in America time and time again some decades back, was the worst way to begin any trip. (A list of most dangerous highways might seem a bit macabre, but plaintiffs' attorneys collect them with the same enthusiasm others bring to baseball cards and Golden Age comics.) The rest of the journey did not improve.

Not long after the car ran out of gas, waiting for the police, my mother pointed out to me that the situation could be much, much worse. Embarrassed, but not nearly as much as I should have been, I was sinking into my seat, as was my habit on all occasions, especially when it was likely or certain that shortly we would be talking to other people. Still, I went for the bait. "How?" I asked.

"Your father could be in the car behind us," she answered.

The police were absolutely festive the second time, as though Mom had won a long-distance desert race or managed to win a Guinness World Record. There were any number of police and other Holland Tunnel officials who remembered her well. Evidently, at least at the time, there was very little turnover in those working at the tunnel.

The family treated the incident in many ways, though far more with nonchalance than anything else. We were a family that expected, created, perceived, and experienced the absurd. Not the spiritually holy and cosmically comedic absurdity of J.D. Salinger's Glass family, nor that of Wes Anderson's more troubled but also overly wealthy Tenenbaums: Ours had a far more mundane tenor. Still, we did not walk through this world lightly, living our lives quietly, nor did we show much restraint.

Therefore, though abstractly, this image of a car stuck in a tunnel could represent my family coat of arms (my parents being first-generation Americans, there is precious little family history and certainly no formal coat of arms). We were not wealthy, overly artistic, unusually brilliant, inherently charismatic, or any of the more attractive forms of idiosyncrasy. The family motto to accompany this coat of arms could be something like "Never Just Once" – in Latin, of course.

More appropriately, my personal motto could easily be the title of one of Dan O'Neill's collections of the Odd Bodkins comic strip: Hear the Sound of My Feet Walking.. Drown the Sound of My Voice Talking...

This is neither privileging failure nor celebrating annoyance. It is the story of idiosyncratic people determined to travel the trails that they've chosen at their own speeds and in their own ways. Fear, even though often expected, was to be avoided, while success was to be relished. But most important was always being open to experience, contributing to the community, and living with integrity.

For the record, I have two sisters. One is a vice president in the legal department of a major film studio, and the other is a well-known educator and administrator.

2) Autumn Rains

Time passes; things are remembered and others forgotten, which has nothing to do with my family but with a more gentle, mimetic absurdity.

It was raining. They were sitting on the back porch; she smoked one cigarette after another. She was talking. He was listening. There was not nor ever would be anything romantic between them.

She was off on a marvelous jag, speed rapping, Lenny Bruce-style word scatting, offering observations, swinging from topic to topic: her past, love, what she did and didn't believe. Sitting there, he couldn't help smiling, but still he wondered whether this was madness or poetry.

Almost but not exactly at the same time, in a different city, a friend of his is in bed in his hotel suite, reading. Outside, it is raining. In the room, without really listening, he hears her in the next bed gently breathing. She is just and only a friend.

3) The Banality of Evil

It is the time of vampires. Ideologically blind, drenched in blood, they insist on their pureness. They live to suck the life out of dreams, of people, of this great country, and especially of ideas they don't like. Feigning concern, they issue warnings.

They can be seen in mirrors, eat garlic at will, fear neither crosses nor silver. They lie without believing what they say is a lie. They serve the Constitution; they serve the Bible; they serve the truth (which they know exactly). Just ask them.

Regardless of whom they say they serve, their language is designed to create division and incite distrust, not to get one back to any holy spirit but to reawaken the most primitive malevolent fears. Suspect anyone who warns you against other Americans, anyone who says all liberals are evil or all conservatives selfish and uncaring. Be alert to those who tell you all mistakes are made on purpose, all of the government is corrupt, and that those who disagree with their ideas are evil. They are encouraging hate. They are encouraging you to kill.

To be a foolish hero in the emptiest of all revolutions, the one against us, is not to be heroic or even decent at all.

4) The Mundane and the Poetic

Now, mostly, I sit quietly, watching TV. It wasn't better then, but it was different. I try to sleep, without much success. Tonight, when I couldn't, I found myself remembering a night in New Jersey. Not one involving the Holland Tunnel or my mother, but a good night nevertheless.

30 Things: The Highs, The Lows, The lists

Our 29th anniversary was Sept. 4, and after its passing, we decided to start celebrating our 30th year right away. It’s all still evolving, but here’s what we have going so far: We’re republishing the first year’s issues online every two weeks (that’s how often we published for the first seven years), running vintage ads from some of our original advertisers in the paper and challenging readers to spot the old ad, and compiling lists of 30 notable (or laughable or lamentable) takes on the Chronicle’s coverage, culture, and commentary from the past three decades. You can find it all on our website: austinchronicle.com/year30.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

morality, memoir, New Jersey, family, Louis Black, Hannah Arendt, banality of evil, J.D. Salinger, Wes Anderson, Glass family, Tenenbaums, Dan O'Neill, Odd Bodkins, reactionary, radical

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