Fragile Thread of Human Involvement

Excerpt from Chapter 5 of Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press

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Paul Johnston (PJ)

Rogue and I celebrated PJ’s 79th 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.”

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.”

***

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.”

***
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.”

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