Chapter 7 Abstracting an Abstract

Chapter 7 of Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press

Talking about his artwork, PJ said, “You have to get away from the idea of creating work out of your head or out of the objects you see.”

Rogue held one of PJ’s “Impressions,” running his fingers over the braised surface of cloth, paper and matte background. “Purely by chance. These are purely by chance.”

“No, No.” PJ reset his words. “I worked ten years as an art student, painting and so on, and the first exhibition I had was at the Woodstock Art Gallery and Whitney Studio Club in New York. But right away, I didn’t want any more paintings. I didn’t know what I wanted. And it took, well, I was in my forties, when I was working on the PJ Impressions.”

Rogue nodded, his eyes following PJ’s train of thought.

“And finally, I got the basis of abstracting an abstract.” PJ laughed an infectious quick laugh. “I got the abstraction from which any number of new forms could be produced. It was reduced to a sort of a scale, like a musical scale, there were instructions of what I should do to get a form at all and my surprise at what I got. So that applied to the textile design.”

“You did textile designs?” I was surprised that he would be involved in such a commercial enterprise.

“For about five years. When you see any home décor, take time to look at the patterns, the geometrical shapes or the flowing shapes, and colors. Someone designed that.”

I nodded, wondering at an artist spending creative energy on these things. But then again, Andy Warhol showed that commercial art could be far more.

“The point is,” PJ regained momentum, “Leonardo’s influence extends to today when you go into a store and any package that you see has a Leonardo-like rendition of what the contents of the package are, all printed up in beautiful colors and likely forms. Today I was thinking abstract art has no object. It has nothing to sell. It is simply form and depth and movement. And that’s what these are.”

“How did you come up with the idea?”

“I have an idea about how I got these things. But having got them in that way I can’t make up my mind I’ll do it again and get the same sort of results. It was an unintentional organization of color and form. It can’t be imitated.”

“Didn’t the pop artists have a similar method,” I said. “Or were they consciously directing their work before they did it, while they did it?”

“The best let the designs formulate themselves, using certain elements. Warhol had a sense of play in his work. And he developed a method of replicating designs so that each one surprises. It’s always a fresh experience.”

“Capturing the moment,” I said. “Which one is the truth, the original, the flawed one?”

Rogue rested the artwork against others. “Do you think Warhol was mocking us?”

“I think he loved his subjects, but he may have taken advantage of the commercial world and also meant it as a rebuke.”

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Remembering poet Virginia Ruth Scott

This excerpt is from  my memoir, Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen (Part 1 is on Scribd.com). The time is summer of 1981, and the setting St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, 423 West 46th Street, Manhattan, NYC.

I was almost finished with Gore Vidal’s Two Sisters, and I told Virginia Scott about it when we were talking in the downstairs theater for a couple of hours. Virginia was interested in playwriting and getting away from editing and publishing, but her press had recently been given three grants from the NEA, so she had to work on those books.

Discussing our publishing adventures, she said, “You are a poet who has made a commitment to publishing, and it’s quite a commitment.” She went on to say, beside what you have to give up, people abuse you, use you, judge you.

In her year’s sabbatical, she wanted to learn about play production, from the manuscript to the final production. “St. Clement’s is just the place to do it.”

Our “negative space” [a reference to the book about film, Negative Space by Manny Farber] was filled with poetry. The physical space was filled with the pungent aroma of food. While we planned the October 25th benefit for the Poetry Festival, I went to the kitchen to investigate. I had $5 in the bank and spare change in my desk drawer. With a cup of tea in my hand and a muffin left over from Sunday lunch, I came back, telling Virginia, “I couldn’t get Robin Morgan at Ms today. No answer twice and then she’d just left.”

“If you can’t get Gloria Steinem or someone just as big,” said Virginia, “forget it. You’ve got to have the balls to stand up to Robin Morgan.”

“I do.” I wanted Denise Levertov and thought that she would be a good draw. But where is D.L. in August? All the big hitters left the city in August.

Who to ask?

“Ginsberg,” we sighed.

“He could’ve been a force,” she said, recalling the literary world twenty years ago. “I picked up the first issue of Partisan Review the other day and the names were impressive: Sartre, for instance, and even the lesser ones, like Stephen Spender.” She compared it to a recent issue and was appalled. “Aren’t there any great intellects in the 1980s?”

“That’s what Gore Vidal said in his book.” And my friend PJ: “There’s no intellectual leadership in the world today.”

We stopped to watch the crew work on the set for the next play.

“This is what fascinates me,” Virginia told me, “the behind the scenes work, set design, building a set.”

I thought, she sounds like me when I first came here.

I introduced her to Anita [Anita Khanzadian, Theater at St. Clement’s] and they seemed to connect. I hoped Virginia would hang out at St. C’s, as she said she would.

Traveling to Greenwich Village was a journey into another life. My negative space was filled with good vibrations. Elaine Fenton’s Manhattan Poetry Review publication party at the Speakeasy made me feel like a traveler who has discovered new lands and cannot go home again. Elaine was gracious, smart, funny; for her I made this trip. Friends swam out of the crowd. I smiled and dove in. Kathy Nocerino pointed to my new Hell’s Kitchen tee-shirt. “See, she’s telling us who she is.”

Virginia Scott was reading September 13th. In late August, in the downstairs space, Virginia and I sat at a long table, talking about women writers while she looked through scripts.

“You are the sexton?” Virginia laughed. “You could change your name. Mary Sexton.”

“Anne Sexton had a play done here,” I told her.

“Really?”

“Yes. Wait, I know. My middle name is Ann. Mary Ann Sexton.”

And I rolled my eyes and we both laughed.

Read more about Virginia Scott.

Stream of Consciousness

Chapter 6 Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press

I arrived just as PJ was on his way out, locking his apartment door.

“I just called you at home to find you weren’t there,” PJ said. “It’s a case of intuition prompting us into action.” He pocketed his keys in his bright orange shorts.

We stopped at the drugstore and walked to Washington Square Park. He talked about the changes in sexual mores and the history of marriage, including his own, concluding, “It’s necessary to be emotionally uninvolved with people.”

“Isn’t it possible to control the involvement so that only what is good in the relationship remains?”

“That’s what I mean,” he said. “But then there would be no emotional involvement.”

Wow. What’s that?

After a moment’s reflection, he said, “Except perhaps affection. Amiable affection.”

I smiled, thinking, where did PJ fit into my life? PJ was over the hill, but he was still a handsome man. Walking down the street, we might have seemed a May-September couple. And that was all right with me. Let people think what they will.

PJ chose a bench in Washington Square Park. We were sitting beside one of the long winding paths between hedges, watching children playing on the grass, people sitting beneath trees, talking, holding hands, reading books.

“What was your favorite book?” I asked him.

Ulysses. I read it five times in all and each time it was a different book that I was reading. That was when I learned about inferential writing. It’s possible for the reader to pick up and use what he wishes and make it a different experience each time.”

“That’s not like your style.”

“No, it’s not exactly like my style.”

I could tell he was hurt.

“My style is a more suggestive one. In recent works, I’ve been working on the idea of asking the reader questions. Once in a while, instead of making declarations. In other words, I build up to a statement that has to be proven, and I ask the reader, is this not so?”

“You said it was inferential writing?”

“They said it was stream of consciousness. But it isn’t the same stream of consciousness I write out of. You see Joyce, presumably, according to his critics, was quite conscious of his style and what he selected.” PJ continued, “Now he had a predecessor named Robert Burton. Burton was an 18th Century, or late 17th Century, writer, who simply got all the classics and extracted from them anything that would apply to the idea of melancholy, for his book, The Anatomy of Melancholy. I read that long before I ever read Joyce.”

“Yeah,” I sighed. It was a beautiful day in the park. “It’s about melancholy.” Time to tell him I suffered from time to time from severe depression? No.

“It’s really a very uplifting book. Because it had so many classic quotations and citations and so on. And Burton kept it running with a style of his own. He would leave off longer discussion about one subject and go into another one. But Joyce, I haven’t any idea how he really worked and I don’t compare myself with him because of the fact that for a long time, maybe three years, I was reading what I wrote more than I was writing what I read. And that’s a very thrilling experience, to detach yourself from the writing side of it, and begin reading the words as they come out.”

“What do you mean, your stream of consciousness is not the same as Joyce was writing from?”

“I don’t know Joyce’s well enough. All I know, after Ulysses was written there were a lot of hack critics around New York and London. They started picking it apart and telling where Joyce got his material from and claiming such and such a passage was influenced by a prior writer.”

“Have you read Finnegan’s Wake?”

“I couldn’t quite read Finnegan’s Wake. It was decidedly a different book. I enjoyed Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but when it came to Finnegan’s Wake, he lost me.”

It seemed to me it was stream of consciousness, overflowing with archetypes and images. In a performance by an Irish piper at the Poetry Celebration, Finnegan’s Wake came tumbling out like notes, pure sound, the way thoughts and images meld in dreams or streams of consciousness, an amber world of old and new lit by a passion for words.

“I’m conscious of my style now as I’m writing more than ever before,” PJ said, “but it’s still a very free style that I play with as I go and I love it.”

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The Broadway Cat

raulcat

Forrest S. Clark

The Broadway Cat appears in Hell’s Kitchen Slices of Life, edited by Mary Clark, digital edition available on Scribd.com, and paperback on Lulu.com. Watercolor by Raúl Manzano.

Ferocious was an adventurous cat even when a sickly kitten. He loved people and was by nature playful, but living in Hell’s Kitchen, he had to act tough – and it turned out, acting was in his blood. He earned the name Ferocious and then slowly revealed his true nature to those he loved.

Everyone liked Ferocious upon first contact. He was an alley cat and liked to explore. Nevertheless, most of his life he was confined to a West Side apartment where Sally, his owner, did some writing and carried on an in-house business.

On very good days the cat was allowed to go up to the roof of the apartment building overlooking Ninth Avenue.

Then, one day, Fero, as he was now called, disappeared. Everyone in the neighborhood searched for him, but to no avail.

Several days and nights later at a Broadway play quite unexpectedly a cat appeared on the set and ran out of the wings onto the stage at a critical point in the drama. The audience after the initial shock broke into laughter.

After that incident the same cat was observed making entrances and exits at a number of Broadway shows. It seemed to prefer certain theaters more than others and serious drama rather than light comedies.

The play-going public became familiar with the cat. In many cases the audience came to expect the cat to appear about the second or third act at a point where the drama on stage was lagging. The cat had perfect timing.

The cat entered the theater through the stage door with the other actors, and from a central perch, was seen observing the stagehands preparing the sets, the costumers checking their wardrobes, and the ushers gathering their playbills.

Sometimes, at night after the show, he slept in Nicolina’s Boutique on a comfortable couch covered with little brown wool teddy bears.

One night the news reached Sally and she decided to check this stage-struck cat to see if it could indeed be the long lost Fero.

The cat had appeared a number of times at the Martin Beck Theater. Sally decided that if she was ever going to identify the cat she had to attend a play at the theater.

She went to the theater, to wait for that magical moment when the cat appeared on stage. She decided to get a seat in the front rows so she could make a positive identification of the mysterious cat that had become the talk of Broadway by this time.

Some Broadway wit named the cat “Miss Sarah” and devoted several columns to its stage appearances. One columnist suggested that the stage feline be given a Cat Award similar to a Tony Award.

Drama critics always included a bit about the cat in their reviews. They agreed that the cat had a reputation as a scene-stealer and in a few cases even saved a disastrous play from closing.

More than once the cat got a billing on the theater marquee, many times directly following the names of the leading actors.

When the night came for the show, Sally got to the theater early, determined to talk to some of the ushers or theater personnel. She found that the cat was surely a favorite among them.

One stagehand said, “That cat always takes curtain calls, and once or twice we had to raise the curtain for the cat to make one more appearance to the sound of applause.”

The play had gone well enough until the second act when Sally noticed there was some commotion on the set before the curtain. The setting was a typical New York street scene with an alley dominating the stage.

There, before the scene began, Sally saw the cat sitting atop a garbage tank at stage right. The cat appeared to be surveying the audience with a haughty manner as if to say, “What do you expect? Cats and alleys go together.” The cat remained in position on the lid for the entire scene.

As the stage lights came up, Sally got a better look at the cat.

Sure enough, it was Fero.

“Fero, come home,” she was about to whisper from her seat in the second row when she realized the cat had its role to play in the scene.

Unbeknown to her the press had picked up the story and was in the theater that night waiting to see if there would be a reunion of cat and human.

As soon as the final curtain came down, Sally ran to the stage door to coax Fero back to her. She waited with the press photographers. Finally, Fero appeared, ran out the door and leaped into her waiting arms. The photographers had their photo opportunity. It made a great front page story in the tabloids the next day and even got a few paragraphs in the New York Times.

One tabloid carried the headline, “Miss Sarah Comes Home. Concluding A Triumphant Season.”

Another read, “From Alleyways to Broadway.”

Fero’s acting career is over, but on dark nights not long after final curtain calls a cat is often seen prowling Shubert Alley, mixing with the late night theater crowds.

Fragile Thread of Human Involvement

Chapter 5

Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press

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Rogue and I celebrated PJ’s birthday in Washington Square Park. PJ was festive in burnt sienna pants, a white somewhat stained Arrow shirt and a red scarf around his neck. His daughter, who looked like him in a sleeker version, joined us, bringing homemade ratatouille.

“The fragile thread of human involvement,” PJ observed, “is actually very strong. It’s impossible to break it, consciously. No one human being can break it.”

In his garret later, while Rogue was running an errand, PJ asked why I never came to see him alone. He wanted me to come see him, “Not because you’re Rogue’s friend, and only if I am of value to you.”

I sensed the ultimatum in his words. How could I say what value he was to me? I enjoyed his company and was willing to help him with his work, his writing, and compiling his papers for the New York Public Library. I told Rogue about this.

“PJ told me he feels paranoid about you,” he said.

“What do you mean? Does he think I’m going to use him in some way?”

“No,” Rogue, said, “he’s paranoid about using you. He felt guilty about asking you to help him and taking away time from your own work. If you do it because you underrate yourself and overrate him, you may start to feel hostile toward him in the future. He’s afraid he’ll become dependent on you and the resentment you might have.”

I was alarmed by PJ’s insistence that he and I forge our own relationship. I worried that I would come between Rogue and PJ. Perhaps it was my own form of paranoia, but it seemed to me PJ was bending the thread with Rogue, trying to break our threesome apart. I was hoping he could not.

PJ asked me to help him organize his writing and publish booklets of his work. It would be a challenge to unravel his mysterious typo-filled pages and recreate them to make sense. At times, the ribbon was so light I could barely discern the letters; I used a pencil to bring them up. Other times his hand settled on the wrong row on the keyboard and I sat by my typewriter comparing the letters on his manuscript to the corresponding keys on the row above. After making corrections, assembling sentences and finding the general drift of the piece I re-typed it for him and brought it back to read to him.

“You’re the old man’s eyes and ears,” he said. “You give him a future; you give him a reason to live.”

When Rogue joined us, PJ proposed that he, Rogue and I form a group to turn his “million dollars worth of work into capital.” We would be his agents and split the money three ways. “Let’s form a company,” he said. “Publish The Writer before he croaks.”

Although I had only a few ideas how to promote his writing and his art, I said I would do what I could to help.

PJ wanted to call the company, Words.

Rogue gave us both a sardonic smile. I knew he had a bleak view of the world and an ideal vision of it. It made sense that he, a young artist, would keep a dying artist company.

PJ saw the smile. After Rogue left, he remarked, “Rogue likes to show off his association with me. It’s like knowing one of the street people.”

It was obvious to me that Rogue saw PJ as a father figure and needed his approval for his risky, bohemian way of life. What is, and has been going on between them before I came into their lives?

PJ insisted on feeding me when he realized that I had very little money. Going through his writings with him after dinner, I felt that we had accomplished a great deal.

“Erin, you take such small satisfactions from life,” PJ said. “Every day as you go through life. I couldn’t do that.”

Would he ever have that big satisfaction? As I walked back up Eighth Avenue I began to worry that it was all futile. He was almost 80. He did not have a chance of being published. What happened to all those years?

***
Rogue, PJ and I padded around the streets, especially in the early evening. In one square, a tall man with a few white hairs on his head, stood on the curb, a hat beside him, staring at the ground, his head bowed. When we passed by, I heard him singing. He sang the whole song sweetly, and so softly people did not hear him until they reached him. His voice was undistinguished but haunting and happy.

“Fleetwood,” PJ said. “He told me he was in Germany during the war and in a hospital for a long time afterward.”

Rogue said the only time Fleetwood was happy was when he sang.

As if he was supposed to be happy when he sang, was how he sounded to me.

One evening, a Spanish woman street singer appeared in the square. Fleetwood was standing in a trance nearby, listening to her playing the guitar and singing vivaciously in Spanish.

PJ, as we passed, said, “Fleetwood’s in love.”

I looked back at him. He looked the same, no discernible expression on his face. But I noticed after that wherever she was, Fleetwood was near, until finally he was standing next to her. Then one day they both disappeared.

As we walked by the ground floor restaurant, its windows reflected Village tourists and starving artists. I glanced at our three slim fluid images in the frame with established faces behind looking back at us.

PJ labored up the stairs, one large sandaled foot at a time. His building’s brick walls were pockmarked with windows, each one with small glass squares in weathered wood frames. These frames afforded snapshots of the Village: squalls of tourists on a crowded street, free-wheeling lives across the way, rooftops crenellated with water-towers and Speedo-clad sunbathers, an Art Deco bar, and the Jefferson Market Library.

PJ encouraged me to talk about myself. “You’re an enigma,” he said.

It was true I could not talk about myself. I had no identity with others, or I refused those identities. How do you identify yourself?

In a fifteen page booklet I combined fact and fantasy and printed it on plain white paper with a typed title, Mona Lisa’s Secret, on the cover. I made less than 20 copies and gave some to friends; the others were for the Small Press Book Fair.

The afternoon I went to Jake’s bookstore to give him one, he was out and the door locked. I slipped a copy through the mail slot. A week later I went back. He was huddled like a bear behind a stack of manuscripts and new books. He said he read it and liked it very much and wanted to publish it as a special issue of his little magazine. He hoped to have it out in time for the Book Fair.

PJ asked me to read it to him, but I said it was too personal. It was an erotic prose poem, after all. I suggested he ask Rogue to read it to him, and he did one evening when I was not there.

The next time Rogue and I visited him, PJ said, “How did we have this intellectual among us and not know it for so long?”

And he had written a blurb I could send to publishers, which I decoded this way:

Now you have read the words and semantics of a brilliant female writer. Erin Yes emerged into a (word indecipherable). She is, in earth years, mature, with an exceptional perception of the world she grew to, yet sensibly, a baby, a girl child, a young woman who has adjusted herself to living in a time of madness and existence in death of the women of the world. She accepts herself as neither male nor female, and knows what no person can admit to herself/himself, the forbidden sensibility to incestuous fantasy. She is the first female writer to tap the universal stream of consciousness and contemplate the wonder of living alive. She has discovered and discloses to readers in the world the experiences of the new world beginning. Here is the opening, the first piece of her work in progress.

“This is all very good,” Jake said. “But there’s not a word of truth to it.”

PJ gave me monogrammed letterhead. He had cut out the letters “EYES” and pasted them up. The letters were neat, elegant.

“Like you,” PJ said.

Rogue smiled, saying PJ had worked hard on it and taken it to the copy shop himself. There were 1000 sheets. It was an extravagant gift from someone as poor as PJ.

“It’s for The Company,” Rogue said. He called PJ’s proposal “The Company.”

We were going to work together to promote the work of all three of us.

I took the paper home, with a strong aversion to being known as “EYES.”

PJ was trying to change my identity. I recognized that Rogue’s using the letters of his first, middle and last name as almost another name had come from PJ’s influence. PJ, meanwhile, had started calling his corporate self, Words.

“The old man,” PJ said, “hopes to relieve his poverty and Rogue the prospect of poverty for the rest of his life.”

***
The next weekend, Rogue and PJ flew to Boston to see a nutrition expert, a doctor, to try to find a way to restore PJ’s sight or halt its degeneration. The day after they returned, PJ stocked up on bottles of minerals, herbs and vitamin pills he could not afford to buy more than once.

Rogue left to visit a relative and PJ and I were completely alone for the first time. I was not sure if PJ had asked Rogue to engineer this or if Rogue had his own reasons.

PJ and I walked to Washington Square Park. I was nervous. What was I going to say to him?

PJ was obviously pleased and said that Rogue’s “intuition” in leaving us alone was “very strong.” In the park he said his first impression of me was that I had been able to remain innocent, not an easy thing to do in this world, and that fascinated him.

“You know when you meet someone, you make an instantaneous decision. It may be a pleasant experience, but if you don’t get anything of value out of it, and that’s an unconscious evaluation for most people, you never find the time to meet with them again.” He spoke more softly, “Those offers and promises of lunch, coffee, a movie, somehow never happen.”

I nodded, yes. I had experienced this. I had always thought warmly of the person, but in fact, the connection never developed. Consciously, I would not admit that I had determined there was not enough worth knowing in the other person to incorporate them into my life, and vice versa. I recognized the truth in what he was saying. What was my value to PJ? To be seen with a young woman? To bolster his ego, or to assuage his loneliness?

Over dinner in his cramped kitchen, he confided, “In losing my wife, I lost the female half of myself. After the hospital, I existed completely male in the body of a skeleton.” With a bohemian leer, he added, “And no place to hide my embarrassment.”

“But don’t you have a female side as well?”

He shook his head, no, he did not have that. He needed a woman in his life or he was only half alive. “And of course, I had no recourse to the intellectual collaboration which two perspectives make possible.”

And so, over the years, when there was no woman in PJ’s life, he created female personalities, wrote under their names, wrote twenty page letters to them each day, created life stories for them and carried on the collaboration.

“Pearl Joying and Justine Paris. What a pair of gals they were.” He began to hum a “little ditty” from his childhood.

The women he knew in fact and in theory were essential to his ideas.

“When I look back on it and appreciate my wife was one person and I another, I realize she and I were so intuitively together that six years after the split, we got together again for a year and everybody knew, just seeing us together, that we were a man and a woman in love. That was the intuitive thing that sometimes a couple goes on for maybe a year or a year and a half before they begin to get suspicious and start quarreling, start raising issues.”

PJ pulled a box from a shelf beneath a street window and pointed to nine or ten others along the long outer wall. All had the name “Document” hand-printed on them.

“It’s not like any other diary ever written before,” he suggested in an explanatory way as though to persuade me. “This is a study, a documentation, of one’s man’s stream of consciousness, written daily for over thirty years.”

“Every day?”

He nodded yes. “But not compulsively. If it had been compulsive, I’d suspect that it was written as a substitute for being with a woman in love.”

“After your divorce.”

“After the hospital. The Document begins with an account of the paranoia in the hospital. It’s about papa’s death and rebirth in a wasted body at forty years of age. Then he was deserted by his wife.”

“What do you mean? I thought you left her, or it was mutual.”

“I became conscious and saw her blood flowing to me. Then I passed out. When I woke again, she was not there. She never came to see me again. I was lost until the writer identified the emaciated remains as the ghost of his wife’s husband.”

“It’s stream of consciousness?” All of it? It seemed exhausting, overwhelming.

“It didn’t start out that way.” He opened a box and showed me onion-skin pages inside, thousands of them. “The first two or three years, it was garbled and confused. Because I was writing to justify myself. I was rationalizing all my actions and my motivations.”

At the time he was working as a book designer at a press in Greenwich Village. In the mornings, he would do his work and leave the information for his assistant, then spend the afternoons at the Museum of Modern Art. Besides the art and relaxing ambience, it was a good place to meet intelligent and interesting women.

One afternoon he met a woman in the penthouse restaurant.

“I was telling her about everything that was wrong with my life, about my illness and recovery, about my divorce and my low salary as a book designer.”

She listened quietly until the end and then she said, “You seem to have things pretty much as you want them.”

He shook his head. “And I thought, my God, maybe I do have everything as I want it. I thought, maybe I’m not right about this. I began to investigate my thoughts, as they occurred before, during and after situations.”

I sat in MOMA and let the flow of my consciousness go by. I could feel,” he said, his fingers responding to tactile memory, “its ripple. Do you know what Walt Whitman said about idleness? ‘I loaf and let the world in.’ This is what I did.”

Ladders of Flame

Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen
Copyright 2014 by Mary Clark
All rights reserved. For permission to use any portion or all of this document or photographs, please contact me at my Facebook Author page:
https://www.facebook.com/maryclarkbooks

Excerpt from
Chapter 2 Ladders of Flame

Upstairs in St. Clement’s sanctuary’s vast open space, rows of tall arched windows resembled trees, and their stained glass mosaics formed branches, flowers and leaves. The peaked roof with hewn beams two stories high was Noah’s Ark come to rest upside down on Manhattan Island, filled with seminal winds and sounds of the flood.

A red carpet on the stairs and in the offices was worn but still warmed to the glow from the windows’ mosaics. These mosaics were not primary colors and depictions of saints or scenes from the Bible, but Longfellow’s forest primeval—lichen green on fallen trees, earthy orange, and clouds streaking into blue.

Watty Strouss, a member of the church’s Board of Managers, said, “Oh, they’re actually not stained glass. They’re leaded glass.”

“There’s beauty under the grime.”

Watty Strouss 1981

“We’d like to restore them, but it’s very expensive. Each piece needs to be cleaned and re-set with new binding.”

A heavy wire mesh covered all the street-front windows, crisscrossing the muted mosaics. The protective mesh made the church look almost medieval.

“Oh,” Watty said, the word “oh” a major part of his vocabulary and depending on the inflection, having different meanings like the Chinese language. “Someone didn’t like our being an anti-war church and threw a Molotov cocktail through an upstairs window.”

In the 1960s, he told me, Joan Baez was married in the church. Later she referred to it as “that funky little peace church on the West Side.” Watty sighed. “She couldn’t remember our name.”

The upstairs space was both the Sanctuary where services were held and a theater. In the 1960s it had been remodeled to accommodate the American Place Theater. After American Place left for new digs in the basement of a high-rise on West 46th between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, another Theater at St. Clement’s was born. That incarnation had a good run, but collapsed amid questions of missing funds. The current Theater at St. Clement’s started in the early 1970s and operated in the downstairs space, which was also called the downstairs theater.

The church’s main income came from renting the Upstairs Space to outside theater groups. Every Sunday church services were held onstage, making use of the current play’s set to match the sermon’s theme. Vestry members with corduroy jeans beneath their robes rolled out altar and pulpit and lowered a large crystal cross from its station in the light grid high in the beams.

So, the Upstairs Space had several names as well, depending on its current use and who was using it: the Upstairs Space, the Sanctuary, and the Upstairs Theater.

Alone at the massive gray metal desk in the front office I heard sounds in the church: voices, stories, pieces of song, wind in the sanctuary, birds in the oak tree, the organist practicing hymns, tales of the flower fund and the trust for burying the poor.

From where I stood on the church steps, I could see lines of tenements come riding out of the setting sun, full-tilt railroad flats roaring toward midtown Manhattan. Skyscrapers rose in Pyrrhic tower after tower, the Hudson River sang through the streets of its power; scarlet mist filled the air, diffusing over playgrounds and bars, vacant lots, delis, schools and cars.

Fire escapes flared the red of steel mill fires, and flames slashed across tenement faces.

I walked into the street: This is the fire, this is the glow as flames rise in the core, heat rises ethereal, takes on new forms, almost human, they flow along fire escapes: angels, angels walking on ladders of flame.

Death and Renascence

Chapter 4

Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press

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PJ described the hours and days that followed. “There was a terrible clacking noise beating on his eardrums. Loud. Sharp. Penetrating, like metal against metal, woke him. When it moved away it came back again, stronger, louder, more tortuous than before. How could he bear it? He cried out, ‘What is that noise? I can’t stand it. Can’t someone stop it?’”

A nurse answered, “It’s only a power mower. Someone outside is mowing the lawn.”

“Make them stop it,” he pleaded. “I can’t take it.” But already he could begin to take it. After all, it was only a power mower, a man mowing the grass. The sound became normal.

“What is this?” he cried out. “Where am I? What am I doing here? Who are you?”

With her calm and matter-of-fact voice, the nurse answered, “You were out yesterday for a long time, out cold. Now you’ve had three blood transfusions and you are alive again. Take it easy. Don’t worry, just rest.”

He thought, “How awful. Yesterday I was dead. My God, what a silly sentimental speech I made.” When he woke up and saw that he was alive, it repulsed him. “Why couldn’t they have left him alone? Why couldn’t they have let him remain dead?”

He wrote:

There was really no place in the world for him now. He was not a newborn baby. He had a man’s body, a man’s consciousness, a man’s load of experience, memory. How could he accept life?

He had died and those damned doctors were probably patting themselves on the back, bragging about how they had saved him.

Damn them. Why didn’t they let him die?

He hated with all his strength the life he would now have to begin to live. He turned his face to the wall. He was horribly shattered that he had to live again. His family could have taken more easily the consequences of his death. Now, he, himself, would have to live with them, while they lived with a man who was no longer a husband and a father, but a specter returned to harass them. He buried his face in the pillow. He did not weep, or mourn for himself, dead or alive.

“The Father and Husband died on the operating table forty years ago. I could not continue my former life, could not be the man I was before my death.”

“You said you’d lived past your destiny.”

“Yes. But I had to accept that I could not regain my death any more than deny myself alive.” He was a skeleton, but he was alive. “I had to learn to live again, and find new reasons to live.”

In “Tender Branch,” he quoted the Book of Job:

“For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down,
that it will sprout again,
and that the tender branch thereof will not cease.”

“So when I physically died on the operating table, I was reborn, innocent as a newborn baby, but with the memory of a grown man. But death had taken away all my guilt and replaced it with innocence.”

After that, I began helping him write out his paranoia. He poured it into his letters. It helped me connect with the passionate crisis of “Tender Branch.”

But what was this admixture of feeling and intellect?

When I asked PJ about the intense affection he had for Rogue, and for his wife in “Tender Branch,” he said these experiences differed from emotion. He acted as though emotion did not exist and I was deluded to think so.

PJ wrote to me:

The old man is scheduled to go into the hospital, clean sheets, careless nurses. Indifferent doctors, and Rogue worries that he will lose a relationship. The Old Man wants the writer’s book, “Tender Branch,” printed, bound and mailed before the hospital visit. The first few copies were mailed; the next day Rogue was upset at the prospect of the old man’s death in the hospital. Not much more than that (but not emotionally) was the old man.

Yet he was encouraged that the book had been completed, and when Rogue intimated that he would miss the old man, if he didn’t come back, the old man said: I’d miss you too. They laughed at this.

But the old man wrote a letter to his daughter. That was the sole last letter and it was not sentimental, not emotional, with not a word of apprehension. Then the writer began typing. Pages and pages of work. The old man was reminded of Hemingway’s Snows of Kilminjaro, for he would miss Rogue very much if he didn’t survive. He’d miss the young man’s presence, interest and attention. He’d miss the young man’s separation from him, to work elsewhere, seeing him develop into an artist (already distinguished) and the future they had to live for.

***

Rogue and I were repelled by the ruins of PJ’s garret and arranged to have our dinners outside by his downstairs door. The corner restaurant had tables on the sidewalk. We set up ours as the last in the row. The restaurant owner saw us, then PJ, and smiled and nodded, so we proceeded to load the table with chicken and potato salad, vegetables, avocado, lettuce, tomatoes, coffee or soda, and dessert. PJ had either made the main dish or bought it at the Jefferson Market. We were an odd triumvirate, talking of morality and mortality with the flaking paint of generations creating an Escher wall behind us.

Even so, at times, PJ’s wistful smile suggested he felt left out. One day, he wrote to me, “Rogue had mentioned marriage to Erin and she had responded with a little warmth that she had thought of it.”

Marriage? What? I tried to recall the conversation. We had talked about marriage, but not marriage to each other. At least, that was the way I remembered it.

Late that night on a Village street, Rogue asked me to stay with him, as if it were a matter of course. There was a passion burning just beneath the surface that I could glimpse, but I could not be sure, sure enough.

I said, no, I’d better go home. In my veiled consciousness, I knew or thought I would be just another of his conquests.

***

PJ, in yellow cut off shorts and ravaged wicker sandals, was sitting on the corner by the restaurant with his Fair Weather Gallery. People passed by and I heard one of them say, “Look, the Old Man of the Village.”

He would not put a price on the drawings and designs.

“Art is priceless,” he said. People failed to understand that when they took or received a piece of art they were supposed to offer a contribution to the artist, so the artist could keep on working. PJ continued to be mystified by people who took a piece of work and simply walked away.

I sat down on a folding chair next to him, picking up one of his paintings and resting it against my legs. Across Greenwich Avenue, where the Women’s House of Detention once stood, a garden was in full throttle. “I didn’t know if you’d be here,” I said. “I took a chance.”

“The fragile thread is woven from these intuitive acts,” PJ commented.

People sat at the sidewalk café. Again, the owner waved to PJ, who smiled back.

“Intuition is the motivating force behind our actions. It’s natural to respond and act intuitively, and unnatural to think about acting.”

PJ evoked many different responses on the street. Some people thought he was a bum, some thought he was crazy. But others, artists, printers and writers, Village residents, would stop to chat, recognizing him.

“I wanted to talk to you about The Document.”

“Do you want to ask me questions about The Document?”

“Is it a journal? What kind of thing is it, exactly?”

“The Document was begun one year and two months after he split with his wife. The purpose was to identify the ghost of Vivian’s husband because he had been reborn and didn’t have an identity. So the documentary writer decided to take this new born, fully grown baby and ‘make a man out of him.’”

“How do you identify yourself?”

“The first thing was that Vivi’s husband had an idea of one man and one woman. He didn’t know how he was going to get out of love with Vivi and he had just had a hot love affair with JJ and she had rejected him. The whole thing was a terrible mess.”

“You had an affair?”

“It was a big whoop-dee-doo affair that was supposed to take the place of losing Vivian. What it led to was a big deception on my part and on JJ’s part, too. She deceived herself that it was love and that I would marry her and things like that. The affair lasted a year and she decided she would reject me and give it up, it was a sudden thing. This was a tremendous blow to my ego. So that was when the document writer picked up and began trying to get me ordered in a line. He wrote for the ghost to read, that after all, a man could love as many women as he wanted to, as would let him and it didn’t have to mean sex in every case. That was the birth of the great lover.”

Over the years, he had created new identities, new reasons to live. He recorded all his “deaths and renascences.” Some identities were sequential and others simultaneous. Several of these identities were female. The most constant, perhaps continually renewed, were The Writer, The Artist, and the Professor of Love.

“You can die of an overload of guilt and hostility,” he summarized. “I died of an overload of guilt many times and was reborn with the innocence of a baby.”

“Didn’t N.O. Brown say something like that? About a new man, reborn into a second innocence?”

Yes, he nodded. “As one identity succumbs, a new one has to be created.”

In The Document he sought his motivations and evaluated the use of his time and the consequences of his behavior. “And in those early years I lived my life intuitively,” he said, “although I did not know it then, making choices which were completely unconscious, but which all together moved my life in a certain direction. We may not know it, but we make decisions based on what is valuable to us, and these small unconscious decisions cause us to go in one direction or another.”