Monday, January 24, 2011
A Lucky Shirt
Edwin Forrest Ward
and this time
for Tonys: Doyle and Scibella
and for Emmet Grogan
I, Bobby Boyle, observe their routine. Twenty minutes before scheduled departure, into Union Station they trumble. (For the record: Trumble, a shape shifting love waddle of Denver cartoon lore, is a Barney of a figure, a character of Alfred Dietrich Kleyhauer III’s creation, Alfred being the only Denver bohemian Bob Dylan ever asked to meet way back when). Now, as I was saying, across the wide expanse of the marble floor of Union Station, Solo and Handler - as I call them - they trumble, two drill sergeants of the masculine gender, not so subtle in their overtly blue suit coats atop their more obvious personal body armor; blue: an indicator, for sure, of the undercover nature of their careers. My first day of study and observation, I realize that Handler and Solo are law even before I take into account the nose of the large German Shepard aside Handler. The canine’s toe nails clacking on the station floor conjure an auditory fever of hob-nailed foot soldier boots on flagstone (but that’s another era’s nightmare). This dog with his well-trained, discriminating sniff-er with nostrils flaring - collared on the end of the short leash in the grip of Handler - is a potent weapon in America’s War on Drugs.
Usually, the two agents part ways as they approach the waiting Amtrak train. Solo heads to the left and enters the last car on the south end of the Zephyr as the dog and Handler board at the other. Handler leads the dog down the stairwell into the lower baggage area as his partner, opposite end of the car, stands sentry at aisle’s end: a watcher, scrutinizing the passengers, looking for anxiety, fear, sweat, nervous ticks, and other profiled tells. After nine days of homework I have concluded that these two DEA operatives might come on any given day, but, so far without fail, they always arrive twenty minutes before departure.
Handler and Solo sometimes bring different dogs, and I get the impression that some of the dogs are in training, as evidenced by the observation that on a few occasions Solo arrives before Handler and dog. Solo descends the stairs into the baggage area of one of the cars with a backpack, suitcase or duffel bag. After reappearing empty-handed, he exits the terminal before returning with Handler and dog, predictably and precisely twenty minutes prior to scheduled departure. My plan becomes to wait until at least ten till departure before boarding the train, a nod to my calculated hope that Solo and Handler only work five days a week, figuring they have the day off if they are not in the station twenty minutes prior to departure. Note to self: it’s odd how those watching out, the guardians, the watchers, rarely suspect that they are being watched.
Hm, . . ., I remember another time and place (some forty years and two thousand miles different) where the watchers were watched.
I am working with a neighborhood community group, fighting the extinction of a neighborhood and standing up to the overtures of two major Philadelphia institutions (Drexel Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania) who are looking to expand. Read “expand” as tear down the homes in the hood and replace them with buildings devoted to scientific research, a consortium of buildings to be know as The University City Science Center. You see, the cold war, as well as the one in Vietnam, is going full tilt, and the military-industrial complex is flush with war money (hot and cold) and looking to fund major science centers. Physics has given us the A and the H and the neutron bombs and chemistry has given birth to the secrets of napalm and agent orange and new creative weaponry might be right around the academic corner if only there is more room to experiment. The neighborhood to be excised is mostly poor and black, and the loss of housing is considered to be just a way of doing business. The politics of eminent domain are not yet in the arsenal of urban development; otherwise, Mantua-Powelton, the hood in the way, would simply be wiped out. Blight for military might is a political equation hard to invalidate.
I have been assigned a three month stint as a liaison between Drexel University and the Mantua Powelton Community Planners Association. A federal agency is paying my salary as a student advisor. I am to facilitate the creation of a community newspaper, a task I actually know nothing about. The newspaper never happens but a lot of other revolutionary things do. For instance, a few of the neighborhood men I meet during my tenure become the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panthers. During the summer I work there, the MPCPA lays the foundation for the first “community school” in Philadelphia, a school that parents can opt to send their children to, if they are in the market for a little more blackness and civil rights in their children’s curriculum. The problems encountered are many, but in the autumn of Sixty-seven, the Mantua Powelton Community School does open, staffed by a consortium of Vista Volunteers, college students, community organizers, Black Panthers, and forward thinking educators from around the city and, indeed, the country. Naturally, a project such as this catches the eye of the FBI and half-way through my summer assignment as newspaper facilitator, it becomes apparent that those coming and going to our storefront office are being followed and observed, even photographed. Again, it’s not hard to spot the blue suit of a tail, especially when it is being worn by a white guy in a West Philadelphia slum. One night as I’m watching the eleven o’clock news with John Facenda, wouldn’t you know it, the front of the MPCPA office goes national as the FBI lines a half a dozen young black men up against the glass and adjacent wall and strips all six down to their birthday suits under the klieg lights of a planned photo op, all under the guise of looking for weapons, claiming the men are criminals: militant Black Panthers. To my knowledge the six neighborhood men subjected to this televised public humiliation are organizers and teachers, not armed revolutionaries. The next day the MPCPA decides to counter the bad press with a little prankster publicity of its own.
Now one of the other student liaisons enlisted to help produce the community paper is a photographer, who adopted the nickname of Grogan, after his hero, Emmet Grogan, who wrote Ringolevio, one of the bibles of Sixties’ underground political hipness. Emmet Grogan, for one thing, invented the peace sign of index and middle finger – a story in itself. My collegiate companion Grogan, at the suggestion of a Vista volunteer named Cassady, takes to surreptitiously tracking and photographing the followers; he shadows the FBI agents who are keeping tabs on the comings and goings of major MPCPA players. I remember a guy following me almost gets whacked by a bus as I dart across Market Street on my way to the subway.
In early August a street fair is held to introduce the idea of a community-run school to the neighborhood. The backdrop for the street fair is a plywood fence that has been erected around a house that has been condemned and is about to be razed. And on the eight foot high fence are hung blow-ups of the photographs of a dozen undercover federal agents who are currently working the hood. Spray-painted on the fence is the advise/slash warning: “Get to know your FBI.” As I said, the watchers rarely consider that they are being watched.
But back to Union Station forty years later. The Zephyr leaves at seven-ten and I’ve been here since dawn. As I spy no sign of Solo arriving early to plant a satchel for a training session and because at 7 AM Solo and Handler’s twenty til departure window of arrival has closed, I purchase a ticket for Chicago’s Union Station, one way, for if everything works out as planned I’ll be flying back to Denver a few grand to the good tomorrow night.
After stowing my small twin suitcases in the lower luggage compartment (mis-matched luggage is a smuggler’s tell) I get comfortable in the next to last passenger car. I sit midway by the window happy in my assumption that all is well. The valium I took when I left my Lodo loft is working and the usual anxiety that accompanies interstate trafficking in Mischoacan has been replaced with muscles relaxed, eyes a bit heavy-lidded, and a tension-breaking yawn of cool contentment. I could fall asleep and probably will, but not before this train leaves the station. It ain’t a done deal yet. Not till Grogan meets me in Chicago.
At seven ten, on schedule, I feel the Zephyr’s breaks release and close my eyes. But when I don’t feel the expected attendant locomotion of the train, I open them. I am startled and alarmed at two developments: one, the sight of Handler, a dog (that looks like a cross breed of a Coon Hound and Weimaraner), and Solo approaching the train from the ticket counter; and, two, the jolt of the Zephyr’s breaks being re-engaged. I laugh to myself at the irony of my silent lamentation, “fuck!”( – believing as I do that “fuck” is a Celtic verb of a word, meaning to turn the soil carefully, perhaps while looking for eggs.) It’s a mixed metaphor, but I can’t help but think that this nightmare of a DEA mixed breed will be turning the luggage carefully in search of the scent of contraband. I second guess myself and think I should have driven one more time the gauntlet of the interstate after all, instead of changing up to chancing things with Amtrak.
So I consider my options. I can exit the train, return to my home, minus my investment. That’s the easy way out as nothing about the luggage is traceable to me. Or I can retrieve my suitcases and stow them under my seat as I’ve never known Handler and his dog to ascend the stairs and enter the passenger compartment. The G-man and dog only search below and in the nine days I have observed them they only ever find the bags that Solo has planted. But as I’m wrestling with my problem, time runs out. Handler and the dog pick up the pace and before I count nine they are below in the luggage compartment, just inside the entrance to which sits my twin pot stuffed Samsonites. I have no alternative really but to see what happens.
I get up from my seat with prescription drug induced nonchalance and go to the stairway of the train. The loudspeaker asserts there will be a twenty minute delay and other passengers also arise from their seats and head likewise to the platform stairway, I suppose, to stretch their legs or maybe exit the terminal for another last smoke. I get off the train and muddle around the platform, followed by a half dozen other passengers. People alight from the cars adjacent to mine as well. Solo is nowhere to be seen and I can only assume he’s already on the train although from where I stand on the platform his location is a mystery. He could be in my car or the last car. My plan has proved flawed but I’m angling for an impromptu correction as I do believe in luck. After all, I’m wearing my lucky shamrock green and white striped waiter’s jersey with the solid navy back from my Boston Half Shell days when I made way too much easy money after getting off work late night in Denver playing backgammon sober with drunken gamblers in the bars of Glendale. For years, luck has been my religion, one of the few things besides love that I believe in. And as luck would have it, when I peer into the area where my suitcases are, Handler is disciplining the dog with his commands. “No” he’s telling the dog as the dog lies by my suitcases, “Follow me!” Obedient the dog gets up and follows Handler into the interior of the luggage compartment. With no time to evaluate the likelihood of my impromptu Plan B, I take a chance and grab my suitcases and head back up into the passenger compartment of the train, hoping my actions are unobserved, and sit where I’d been sitting before, stowing my suitcases under my seat. It’s then I hear the voice of Handler spilling out of the earpiece of Solo’s headset, alerting Solo to what Handler considers a situation that Solo should check-out. I calculate Solo must be sitting pretty close behind me given how well I overhear Handler’s remarks. “A guy in a dark navy shirt just boarded the train and he may have taken something from the luggage compartment. Something’s amiss although Coondog found the briefcase of coke they put on the train in Salt Lake. I just caught sight of a back. Probably a male, wearing a navy blue shirt and jeans. Could be nothing, could be something. Check him out if you make him. Navy blue shirt is all I really saw.”
And with that I press the navy blue backside of my shirt so far into the leather of the Zephyr seat, my impression’s probably there today. When Solo walks the aisle looking for a guy in navy blue and scans me, he only sees the Irish and white stripes of my waiter’s acrylic soccer jersey. My lucky, two-faced shirt indeed!
Twenty minutes later the Zephyr heads east out of Union Station and I sleep all the way to Chicago and business with my old friend Grogan.
as always for Marcia
What’s in a Name?
My first and middle names are the same as the great Nineteenth Century American actor, America’s first superstar of theater, Edwin Forrest. His fame far eclipsed his contemporaries – including Edwin Booth, John Wilkes’ uncle – and similarly, all who came before. Forrest so loved America that the chauvinist within – chauvinist as in one who demonstrates excessive love of country – prompted him to sponsor a playwriting competition that fostered the first major wave of truly “American” playwriting, out of which came Edwin’s signature production of John Augustus Stone’s 1829 drama Metamora, an audience pleaser of a tale that depicts both the genocide by British forces and the native nobility of the Wampanoag Indians of Massachusetts. Edwin’s portrayal of Metamora, the Wampanoag Chief, in terms of its dramatic intensity and audience appeal, rivaled his portrayals of his renowned Shakespearean leads, Lear and Macbeth. Edwin is credited with inventing the notion of Method acting, a technique Forrest came up with after out-swimming a shark in the Caribbean. Forrest often recounted how he would summon the emotion of those moments when called upon to express fear while acting on stage.
Imagine an audience of theatergoers in 1830 in a culture and time where theater is the only game in town. Picture the gangs of New York in Forrest’s pit, as Metamora faces off against the British Empire. Everyman born to poverty, every outsider, every immigrant takes heart in Metamora’s noble defiance of authority. We’ve always had class warfare but some two hundred years ago, even more so. In the final scene of the tragedy Metamora and Nahmeokee, his wife, are on a promontory. English ships are afire in the bay below. His tribesman and his own son are dead. Metamora had tried to co-exist with the “civilized” invaders but to no avail. The British are inching up the surrounding landscape, their weaponry aimed. Rather than let the British kill his wife, he slits Nahmeokee’s throat with his knife as they have their final kiss. He’d rather she died at his hands than theirs. And then the British open fire. Dig the gas lamp lighting and the rifle smoke through which Forrest as Metamora somersaults to unseen depths below the stage as if into coastal waters. Imagine Forrest as he triumphantly reappears and takes his bow in full Metamora regalia to the thunder of applause. It is no wonder that Forrest was photographed, etched, sculpted and painted by his contemporaries more than was Abraham Lincoln. Hell, the classic cigar store Indian of Nineteenth Century tobacconists was a folk, wood carved take on Edwin as Metamora. His fans, many amongst the poorest of Americans, absolutely adored Edwin Forrest. In 1849 they even rioted in his name and, for the first time in American history, American militia, in this case New Yorkers, fired upon its protesting citizenry leaving, thirty-seven theater dissidents dead on the streets of Manhattan in front of Astor Place where Forrest’s British acting rival for the title of Greatest Shakespearean Actor of the Era, William Charles Macready, was doing Macbeth. Macready had slandered and slighted Forrest some years before in London, and the Bowery Boys – as fans of Edwin’s were called – would not politely abide the presence of Macready on an American stage. The Englishman was performing for the New York elite at John Astor’s upper-class theater while Forrest across town at The Bowery Theater was doing the same play for his poor and admiring fans.
But enough about Edwin Forrest. I want to talk about my odd connection to the tragedian.
First time I hear of Edwin is when I learn to read. Across from the Catholic elementary school I attended, there was a public school whose name was Edwin Forrest Public Elementary School. Walking past the school, my six-year-old eyes could not help but notice my first and middle names carved into the stone facing of the building. When I asked my mother about this coincidence she told me that that Edwin Forrest had nothing to do with me as I was named after my father’s father, Edwin Forrest Ward, as he was named after his grandfather. Our world was staunchly Catholic and she dismissed Edwin as a “public,” imbuing the word with a distinct parochial disdain. I put the coincidence out of my mind until I was eighteen and in college.
I was taking an English literature class with a Drexel University professor by the name of Lawrence Stern. Professor Stern had arranged for us, his students, a viewing of some incredibly monumental and rare manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania’s Rare Book Room: an illuminated Boccaccio, a fire charred fragment of the oldest extant Shakespeare folio, a William Blake manuscript and other such literary delights. At the conclusion of the tour for which we were accompanied by security - I mean the manuscripts we purview-ed were priceless – the librarian in charge, an elderly former professor herself, asked Professor Stern if he would like to see something by his namesake, Lawrence Stern, the author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman that was published in nine volumes over a decade’s time beginning in 1759, a series that in toto is considered to be the first novel in the English language. After we got to spy Stern’s hand written masterpiece, I jokingly asked if our esteemed archivist had anything by my namesake.
“And who might that be?” she asked. And then, she about passed out when I tell her “Edwin Forrest.”
“Class dismissed, Professor Stern,” she announces before telling me, with a voice that brooked no dissent, to “Come with me!” Well as it turned out, the librarian some sixty years prior had written her doctoral thesis on Edwin Forrest fifty years after his death, and she probably knew more about the actor than anyone alive; furthermore, the collection of Forrest artifacts at the University of Pennsylvania was extensive as his will had named the library heir to his personal possessions: original playbills, his personal correspondence, photographs of him in his greatest roles, assorted costumes and props, his will, his scripts, his entire paper trail was stored beyond the locked door we stood in front of. And then she unlocked it and shared with me the Forrest collection, all of it, allowing me to rummage amongst the papers of my namesake. First thing I notice that sets the hair on the back of my neck to standing is the similarity of Forrest and my father’s handwriting. I’m no handwriting analyst, but both penmanships expressed the same face to the world, the same slant and stance, the same demeanor, the same precision. And the second startling observation is how similar they are, my and Forrest’s visage: the eyes, the hairline, the brood, the frown, the smile, the stare, the curly hair of youth. Even the librarian commented on our likeness as some hours later she locked up the Rare Book Room and sent me on my way. It’s been some forty years since then and I’m still on the trail of Edwin Forrest.
A decade after catching that first real glimpse into the nature and importance of Edwin Forrest I move to Denver whose Main Branch Library, I discover, housed on its basement shelves all the contemporary works written about Forrest, the works of William Alger, Lawrence Barrett, Gabriel Harrison, and those written well after his death by Montrose Moses, James Rees, and Richard Moody. For years I check them out to read then check them out to read again. All of them maintain Forrest died childless, one reason besides his charitable nature, that the bulk of his estate went into founding The Edwin Forrest Home (for Decayed Actors) in what is now Mayfair and which later moved to West Philadelphia across from Fairmount Park, an institution which housed in their final years – those lucky enough to be selected to live there - the crème de le crème of the American stage. In fact, the trust, which Forrest started to fund the home that functioned for almost a century, was so substantial and important that to be Mayor of Philadelphia one had to serve on the Board of the Edwin Forrest Trust, an official obligation mentioned in the duties of the Mayor. I also read between the lines of the staid biographies and would give credence to the innuendo that uber masculine Forrest must have had many mistresses. I mean, by today’s standards, he is Marlon Brando and John Elway rolled into one, great actor and athlete. Yes, Edwin was childless, as his wife the actress Katherine Sinclair could not bear children, although she certainly did conceive them. She just never was able to bring the unborn to term. And behind closed doors in the 1890s, many a claim to his fortune was settled, leaving me to wonder about the nature of those claims. Paternity? Likely. Debts-owed? Unlikely. Thus, that Forrest might have had illegitimate children is not beyond the realm of possibility. He was the most famous practitioner of dramatic arts America had ever seen - its first idol, if you will - and the nights on the road might easily have involved some hanky panky, no matter the Victorian practices associated with his lifetime. My grandfather’s grandfather would have been a contemporary of Edwin in his middle years. As would his wife. That someone might have named their child after the great actor is not unlikely, and that might be all there is to the coincidence of our names. But then again, I cannot help but wonder.
And there’s more. One day in 1988 when I was living in what is now called Lodo I’m reading the last Forrest book available at the Library, one written in 1960, some eighty-eight years after Edwin’s death by Richard Moody, Edwin Forrest, First Star of the American Stage, and I come to realize that the Edwin Forrest Home might still exist. I call telephone information in Philadelphia and dial the number they give me. I speak with a woman and tell her my name is Edwin Forrest, that I was born and raised within walking distance of Edwin Forrest School, that I am an actor, and that I am researching my possible connection to Edwin Forrest. These revelations incite a silence on the other end that I can hear, before being broken with a question and pronouncement, “What is your phone number? I’ll have someone call you back.”
An hour later I’m on the phone with a lawyer who just years before brokered the deal to dissolve the Edwin Forrest Trust which had done nothing but grow to the tune of millions since Edwin’s death in 1872. Right off, he’s pushy and to the point, a trait associated with being a Philadelphia lawyer. “Edwin,” he asks, “are you trying to throw a last minute monkey wrench into the workings of the deal that has already been done? Are you now making some sort of claim?” before asserting “You must know the dissolution of the Edwin Forrest Trust is already a fete accompli, that the funds the were sent to Actor’s Equity and The Edwin Forrest Wing of Actor’s Equity Hospital in Englewood New Jersey has already been built.” I realize he thinks I’m some sort of gold digger, and I assure him that I am just curious about the coincidences of Edwin’s life and my own. And there are many, little and large, besides our names.
For instance, one of Edwin’s dearest friends was an actor by the name of John McCullough. At the time of my aforementioned phone call, my best friend and godfather to my second son, Zenith Star, was one JW McCullough, and yes, the J was short for John. But ah, what’s in a name? Well, both John’s, as well as John Stone who wrote Metamora, committed suicide, the latter John’s untimely end the result of his jealousy of Forrest who made a fortune off his play, which Forrest had purchased outright from him in 1828. The Mayfair neighborhood where I lived growing up was once part of Edwin’s country estate, the lands of which were donated to the City of Philadelphia by Forrest – hence the school where Forrest’s country house once stood. You might say Edwin and I shared the same geography, albeit with a century and a half in between. Oh, and did I mention that I now live on Forest Street in the Mayfair neighborhood of Denver?
And just last week, the week after my January birthday, I am corresponding with a classmate of mine from prep school, one Albert Brancato. Albert has read some of my Philadelphia stories and had written to ask me about my affinity for all things Delaware River. I write him that yes I loved the Delaware and that many of the rituals of my youth - smoking, drinking, making out with girls, etc. - occurred along its banks. And in the course of explaining my fascination with the Delaware, I mention Edwin Forrest and my curious knowledge of him, writing to Albert that sometimes while acting on stage I feel that Edwin Forrest “informs my technique.” I also close my post to Albert with a mention of my latest story, What I Always Knew, which is a story of reconnecting via a novel I wrote with a lovely girl who I once adored, and about how writing makes present in the here and now the ghosts of our lives. What I Always Knew practically wrote itself in one Sunday afternoon’s sitting, and, in an intimate moment, I mention to Albert that I felt so inspired during the writing of What I Always Knew, that “the muse was palpable, watching over my shoulder as I wrote,” a statement wherein I used the word “palpable” for the first time in my writer’s life, inferring that my muse for the story was the young woman l I had traveled with almost forty years ago.
Five minutes after emailing Albert I leave the house for my weekly game of pinochle with my good friends Tom and Clare Cavanaugh. When I arrive Tom gives me a belated birthday gift, a scanned reprint of a book now in the public domain that he had found online, Gabriel Harrison’s 1889 biography, Edwin Forrest, The Actor and The Man, Critical and Reminiscent. Now keep in mind, not five minutes earlier I had written a brief biopic summary of Edwin’s life for Albert and had mentioned the influence of one’s muse in our lives. To bring home the notion, as I told Albert, that Edwin Forrest “informs my technique,” here is the fifth sentence in Harrison’s bio of Edwin Forrest: “It is in the night time, when the noises of the day are hushed, and all around seems wrapped in the arms of sleep, that an incident of the past, or some dear dead friend, or a lovely girl that we once adored, will stand so boldly before us in form and color that they seem palpable.”
Hmmm, maybe I was entitled to a share of Edwin’s millions after all. If nothing else, I know in my subconscious Edwin’s story as well as I know my own, and, it would seem, he informs my writing as well as my acting.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
as always for Marcia
In keeping with the notion
WE ARE NOT GHOSTS
a tale to tell, entitled
WHAT I ALWAYS KNEW
Thirty-seven years ago I went on a wild and come-what-may adventure. My former lifestyle of being married to my childhood sweetheart and teaching high school English in a quintessential small town Jersey suburb of Philadelphia, well, that life was over. Although I would teach for another year after my sojourn westward, I knew at its start that I needed to and soon would be reinventing myself, as up until then my life had seemed swayed more by chance than choice. I had married young in pursuit of love and sexual fulfillment, as my Catholic upbringing required me to do so if I wanted to remain in God’s good graces. And then I went and destroyed a damn good marriage by having an affair. I felt such guilt I gave my ex everything: the house, the car, the dog, the bank account. I might have orchestrated a reconciliation, most likely could have pulled it off, but I put the nail in the coffin of my love for my wife with my going, going, gone on my ramblings: south, then west, and south again then back.
The hand in life I’d been dealt was a mixed one.
There was poverty - I mean there were times growing up that my mother wouldn’t give me a dime, and I’m speaking literally: not ten cents; and the answer to “why not” is because she didn’t have ten cents!
There were my looks, a mixed signal as ever, my face to the world: color changing eyes, some days blue, some days green, some days hazel or some color in between, curly haired and fit, but with teeth considered odd, and so the somber smile.
My mind was keen but I disliked study. I figured Einstein just always knew that e=mc squared and that Bob Dylan just always knew how to write songs. With naiveté, yet how right I was, I supposed I would eventually just figure out what I always knew and go from there. I hoped it something noble, that I would someday know God or be touched by Mary his mother, you know, witness a miracle, or have eureka! moments of insight into the nature of what this world is all about.
There was my education: a top notch Jesuit prep school and private university in Philly, but I must say that my four years at Saint Joe’s Prep and my four years at Drexel were years wherein every day my time at school was a dream I awoke from every afternoon on the bus, subway and trolley rides home to my life of family, friends, and neighborhood. At least my education and subsequent stint as a teacher kept me out of the Viet Nam War, even if those times shed not enough light on how to learn what I already knew. Every man is wired to know something; it’s just that every man is not conscious of his knowledge.
So, off I go on my great adventure: a summer of hitchhiking with no destination going, no destination home. Wherever my thumb took me I would go, and I, indeed, had a grand time. A week into my soloing I hooked up with one Lucia Cilento. She was hitchhiking back to New York from Georgia with three other woman (to save bus fare) and we crossed paths at a campground on Cape Hatteras. We flirted, we got high, Lucia and her friends slept in my tent. In the morning Lucia and I swam naked in the rough surf of the Atlantic. We kissed and we fucked, all within twenty-four hours of meeting. I asked Lucia to join me on my great adventure and a week later, and after she hitchhiked home to tend to some affairs, we rendezvoused in Jersey and spent a William Blake and Jack Kerouac-esque summer on the road. Our time together and the particulars of our adventures was the stuff of novels, complete with mystical discovery of what it is one knows. Lucia and I were both were very interested in understanding what the other knew. I discovered what I always knew via my involvement with Lucia; namely, that life is how you write it. That life is of one’s own invention. Nonetheless, our summer romance turned out to be just that: a summer romance, after which she went her way and I went mine, and we lost contact with each other. From what she told me of her dreams and hopes during our time together, I figured she was probably living somewhere in Europe or Africa, for Lucia was always interested in what was beyond the horizon.
And so, a quarter century after our summer fling and great adventure, I write and publish my novel, Lucy and Eddie, wherein I use my time with Lucia from beginning to end as the framework for a sometimes true, sometimes fictional retelling of our adventures. The narrative’s a hoot, if I do say so myself, and many readers tell me they couldn’t put it down. Oddly more than one former student of mine from my years of teaching long ago has Facebooked me that he or she, to quote, “always knew” what my novel reveals.
A year or so after publication of my novel, I gain access to the Internet with the purchase of a Millennium computer. One day early in my exploration of the uses of the internet I typed the name Lucia Cilento into the search engine of my browser, and up popped the question: Do You Mean Lucy Cilento? I clicked on YES and soon an image of the Lucia I had shared a summer with filled the screen of my monitor. She was twenty-five years older but instantly recognizable: the thick black hair, the sparkling eyes, the tilt of her head, and confident stance. She appeared as an advocate for nursing, testifying about how and why she came to be and loved being a nurse. Midwives had attended the birth of her first child when she lived in Norway and they so impressed her with their skills and womanly powers that upon her return to America some years later she had attended nursing school. About her chosen career she was ecstatic. There was no personal contact information given for Lucia on the Nurse Advocacy Webpage, but for a couple of dollars on another webpage I was able to find out her address.
And then I was faced with the question: Do I send Lucia a copy of the novel? I mean the past can trespass on the present. Stir up ghostly what ifs. Arouse emotions best left undisturbed. Trump the serenity of the present, as it’s always complicated reconnecting with ex-lovers. Lucia obviously had at least one child, probably more, judging by her reference to the birth of her “first child.” I certainly did not want her to think I was attempting to rekindle anything by sending her my novel. I mean, a happily married man I am. And most likely she would be as well, a happily married woman. She certainly looked assured and bright and very much what I would call Lucia-spirited in her photograph. In my eyes, looking at her image, she was exactly who I knew that summer, only older. Had I’d been able to find her telephone number online I would have called her, to tell her first about the novel before sending it, with an explanation that it is creative Irish fiction. Exaggeration and bravado add a certain cachet to life and I had certainly punched things up in my recapitulation of events. That yes, much of the story of Lucy and Eddie is true, but that just as much of the story is pure fiction. And one never knows how someone living will react to what a storytelling novelist says about them. Still, I knew that Lucy should certainly have an opportunity to read it, no matter how un-autobiographical it be. I wrapped a signed first edition in plain brown paper and mailed it along with a note wherein I let her know I hoped she would not take offense at my portrayal of her. As I’ve said you never know how someone’s going to take a writer’s slant on them. In my experience I have found that most journalists, no matter how pro me, no matter how hard they tried, did not get my story right.
About ten days after sending east my novel I get an e-mail from someone I had never met and whose name I did not recognize in the SENT FROM line. The text of the email read something like this: I don’t know who you are, Mr. Edwin Forrest Ward in Denver, we’ve never met or even knew of each other’s existence, but I am writing to thank you so much for helping to remind my mother just how wonderful she is. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I loved the book. My mother, likewise. Even my grandmother loved it. Ciao! Pia, Lucy’s older daughter.
And then after a week or so, Lucy, as she now prefers to call herself, is on my office phone. After an exchange of greetings, it is 1974 all over again. In that moment of the new millennium, I am twenty-five not fifty-two and our comments to each other are as intimate as ever. We are still very much interested in what the other knows. She is very much the woman who could hitch a ride to anywhere and I am very much the man who made of her a muse. Indeed, we are not ghosts. Lucy’s major comment on my novel was that she had read it more than once from start to finish and now she no longer knew what was fact and what was fiction. She asked me, “Did I really see a bear?” and stated that she could not believe she’d followed my suggestion and thrown away her diaphragm. The story of my novel had replaced her memory of events.
I tell her “No, you never saw a bear. That scene in the novel is of something that happened to me and my wife years later. You and I did not see a mother bear and her cub on Rabbit Ears Pass. And it was my wife who threw away her birth control.”
“But, Eddie,” she tells me, “I can see her, the sow, right now, even though my eyes are closed.”
I guess I’ve always known that what is written down is our collective memory, that words make real the ghosts of our lives and return them to the here and now.
Sunday, January 9, 2011
Brenda Starr, Facebook, Lee Harvey Oswald, The American Legion, The Pulitzer Prize, and Coincidence
In 1969 I was teaching English in Woodbury, New Jersey, which at the time was considered to be – statistically speaking – a perfect reflection of America. Its profile matched the national average in terms of census materials.
One day, on a whim, I announced to my seventh and eight grade classes that I would sponsor a Junior High Student Literary Magazine. This, despite the fact that I had absolutely no experience in publishing. None, nada. I suppose my youthful dream to be a famous (and hopefully wealthy) writer prompted my spur of the moment announcement. A half dozen kids volunteered to be editors and I asked of some four hundred students that any materials created outside of school assignments - writings and drawings and such – be submitted to be considered for publication. I had access to a manual typewriter, a mimeograph machine, a saddle-stitch stapler and reams of paper. Thirteen students turned in materials, all of which was published in Woodbury’s first Junior High School Student Literary Magazine.
Within a week of publication and distribution to the students and staff, I was called into the office of one, Russ Hawk, my principal, who tells me, quite bluntly, that people want me fired. Some school board members, the Elks Club, the American Legion, the VFW. And others. He tells me, “Powerful people here in Woodbury are saying that you are ‘un-American.”
He continues with questions and pronouncements. “What were you thinking when you published Charlotte Lucas’ writings? Many believe you wrote her journal entries. That the writing is just too good to be that of a fourteen-year-old eighth grader. Did you write under her name? Ultimately, the decision to fire or not fire is mine. So, Ed, what do you have to say for yourself? Did you think you could get away with publishing all that anti-war crap?”
Now keep in mind: this is a time of things like people burning draft cards, my huge Afro (maybe the largest in the state of New Jersey!), and AMERICA: LOVE IT or LEAVE IT! bumper stickers, the era of drafting eighteen year olds – who could not vote - for a war, that, in hindsight, proved to be a disastrous disgrace. The first massive national anti-war demonstration had occurred in the fall in Washington DC, but, for the most part, what would come to be called The Silent Majority was staunchly hawkish, supporting the war and the politicians, our leaders, who choose to make war not love. What Russ Hawk is telling me is that The Silent Majority wants me fired because of what fourteen-year-old Charlotte Lucas had written about in her diary and I had published in our Student Literary Magazine.
At the aforementioned anti-war rally in Washington DC – the largest anti-government policy protest in the history of the United States, Charlotte was present as her father was an anti-war activist and organizer. On her birthday, Charlotte, her dad, and other pacifists had traveled to Washington, D.C. by car and through a series of quirky, yet pragmatic, events Charlotte wound up being chosen to light the flame that would kick off the largest protest rally in the history of our nation’s Capitol. And Charlotte journal-ed her experiences as only young impressionable (and gifted) writers do: with complete honesty. Her journal was rife with anti-war sentiment and peppered with jokes about Agnew and Nixon, a perfect parroting of the rhetoric of America’s anti-establishment movement. Now, I must admit, I “edited” Charlotte’s writing: a semi-colon here, a misspelled word there, but, if truth be told, Charlotte at age fourteen was a better writer than I was at twenty-one. Rating all the materials we published in the little zine on a scale of one to ten, Charlotte’s diary entries were a ninety-nine in comparison to the others. None, myself included, were in Charlotte’s league.
So, I tell Hawk, “First off, I did not write Charlotte’s diary entries, and you know that. She’s got talent and you, Woodbury, and the world will just have to deal with being subject to her scrutiny. She writes what she sees and she’s got a gift that should be encouraged, not censored.”
And I continue, “Mr. Hawk, I understand that Charlotte’s slant on things is certainly “anti-war.” But, know this: had a student turned in writing that was “pro-war” it, too, would have been published as we, the student editors and I, we published everything submitted. We turned down no one. The Student Literary Magazine is about nurturing creativity and providing the opportunity for kids to experience the honor and thrill of seeing their writing and names in print. In a magazine of their own creation. Of being part of something that wasn’t there before. Still, I understand your dilemma. Those supporting the draft and the Viet Nam War, the hawks in town, want me fired for publishing a child’s take on war and its protest because it’s a minority position, to be anti-war. That’s plain wrong. So I ask, who are you gonna stand with, Russ? Your drinking buddies at The American Legion or with me, your fellow professional educator? Do we uphold the notion of free speech in our school or do we let people like those who want me fired dictate the terms of our freedoms?” And to add weight to my stance I remind my ex-military principal - with all the innuendo that comes with it – that I am the current president and contract negotiator for the Woodbury Public School Teachers Association, some two hundred strong, reminding him further that I know the workings and subtleties of our contract, given the fact, that I just finished negotiating next year’s. “And Russ,” I submit, “there is simply no good contractual reason to fire me. Please, stand by your teachers, not your ex-army drinking buddies at The American Legion.”
Cocky, sure. Confident, no. And believe you me: a lot was riding on my job, not the least of which was the draft deferment that came with my position. I know that if I were to lose my job, I’d be drafted in a heartbeat. My next stop would most assuredly be Viet Nam.
Taken back a bit by my unapologetic resolve, Hawk tells me: he’ll think about it, a stay of execution of sorts, as at the beginning of our conference, it seemed I’d been summoned to his office to be summarily and unceremoniously fired. And, in fact, to Russ Hawk’s credit, I am not fired. And, furthermore, I get to orchestrate some delightful payback, one of the favorite pastimes of my kind of Irish.
At the end of every school year at the graduation assembly, awards are given to various students. Highest GPA, Best Athlete, Most Academically Improved, etc. And, my nemesis, The American Legion - the principal organization that had lobbied for my firing – gives an award and a two hundred dollar prize to the Student Citizen of the Year, someone chosen by the Student Council, a student organization to which I was the faculty adviser. Believe me, I made sure, behind closed doors, that the student council choose Charlotte as the recipient as she was easily the only student who actively participated in citizenry, and (hee, hee) knowing as adviser to the student council, that I would be the one who would present the award to Charlotte. Well, as you might imagine, the assembly hall got downright foggy, what with the steam roiling out of the ears of the American Legion members who were present, front row center, when I declared Charlotte “Citizen of the Year” and handed her the American Legion’s check.
So, now I’ve covered the American Legion angle to this story, and here’s the connection with Brenda Starr, Facebook, Lee Harvey Oswald, The Pulitzer Prize and coincidence.
A year or so ago, through FACEBOOK, a former student from my days in Woodbury contacted and befriended me on FACEBOOK, a contact that resulted with my reconnection with literally dozens of former students from the late Sixties and early Seventies, people now in their fifties. I asked some who wrote if they had any news of Charlotte, as she was the star writer of my first foray into publishing. After all these years - over forty – some remembered her name but no one seemed to now what became of her. And then one day while connecting via FACEBOOK with yet another student of mine from sixty-nine I see on my wall that my latest acquaintance had just been befriended by one Charlotte Anne Lucas. Within the hour Charlotte and I were FACEBOOK friends, Charlotte’s Facebook profile photo being that of the comic book investigative reporter and heroine, Brenda Starr. And here is the text of Charlotte’s first message to me:
Finally! Thank goodness for Facebook. You don't know how many times I put my investigative reporting skills to work trying to find you so I could thank you! Thanks to the encouragement you gave me to write about the anti-war rally on my 14th birthday in 1969, I went on to become a journalist. I've worked all over the U.S., written thousands of news articles, and won a ton of awards, including being named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service Journalism back in 1985. I went to the Web in '99, and have run some pretty large news sites. For a couple of years, I "commuted" from San Antonio to UNLV to teach online journalism, Web publishing and design and had a blast. It never occurred to me how much I would love being a teacher. For the past 18 months, I've been standing up a community journalism website that is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to try and explore new ways to gather and deliver news and information. The site is www.nowcastsa.com Here's my somewhat stale blog, some parts of which you might enjoy: http://charlotteanne.wordpress.com/about/ I spend a lot of time on Twitter and wrote a "Twitter 101" for my students eons ago (OK, 2007). I describe myself now as an Online Instigator and Rapporteur. I would write more, but I am trying to finish an annual report for my board of directors, and I'll probably blog that later. I am soooooo glad you found me! We have much to catch up on over the Web and, hopefully, over cocktails one of these days!”
In subsequent messages she thanked me for inspiring her to do crazy things as an investigative and instigating reporter, telling me she once scaled a fence in disguise to be present at the exhumation of Lee Harvey Oswald’s body when it was transferred to a better casket as his original was made of wood. I guess she needed to see for herself that there indeed was a body in the casket. When I mentioned this Oswald tidbit to a know-it-all friend of mine - a know-it-all because she reads the New York Times every day of her life – my friend with great emphasisl declared that Lee Harvey’s Oswald’s body had never been exhumed, casting a minor shadow of doubt on my belief in what Charlotte had told me.
And the funny thing is this: within in days of reconnecting with Charlotte I came across two articles in The Denver Post. First, it was reported that Brenda Starr, the syndicated comic heroine of the strip by the same name, was retiring and that the last installment would be in the Chicago Tribune in late December. And then this: the wooden casket of Lee Harvey Oswald had sold on e-bay for some eighty-seven thousand dollars.
I just love coincidence although I have no idea what it means. What I do know is this: every action has consequences beyond our wildest imaginings.