Tales of Times Square 2

I woke up, smelling smoke and went to the window of my fourth floor room to let in some fresh air. A cloud of smoke came billowing in from a fire below on the lobby roof. Across the way, in the tower opposite me, the old black man was pouring glasses of water on the fire.

I ran into the hall, shaking from head to foot and called the desk on the hall phone.

The old man came into the hall. “Goddamn! That’s a fire!” he said in a huge voice.

The woman at the switchboard answered that they knew about the fire, but it was on the other side of the building from me. I hung up. Back in my room, I looked down and saw firemen breaking windows on a lower floor and attacking a small wooden structure on the roof.

The next fire I woke at three a.m., smelling something cooking. Calmly, I got dressed. I opened my door to see a fireman walk by in hard hat and knee high boots and carrying an ax.

People were coming out of their rooms. A young man in the hallway greeted people as they came out of their rooms, some in pajamas and robes. He nodded at me. I stared: he was the most handsome man I had ever seen. Black hair, great body, beautiful eyes and face. He must have seen the way I looked at him.

He said there had been a fire that afternoon. “You missed it.”

As walked down the four flights of surprisingly elegant stairs, another neighbor started joking with him about the fires and trips to the lobby, many in the wee hours of the night, in all sorts of dress and undress.

We waited in the lobby for the all clear, which was signaled by the firemen tramping out the lobby doors. The street was quiet, deserted; even the prostitutes had retired for the night. Upstairs the young man said goodnight, opened the door to his room, and I saw a plant hanging in his window facing 43rd Street. We spoke occasionally after that. He had been a model (maybe still was).

A few weeks later, on Eighth Avenue crossing 42nd Street, dust and trash swirling, cars braking and honking, the Port Authority Bus Terminal looming on one side, the air thick with car exhaust and hot dogs and stale pretzels, I saw him near the corner with some other young men. He was wearing white hot pants and not much more. We exchanged glances and I saw in his expression: this is the way it is, but you know me, you know who I am.

I looked ahead and went on my way.

Tales of Times Square

Times Square Motor Hotel 1976

Times Square Motor Hotel, West 43rd Street, New York City, 1975 Photo by Mary Clark

Diary of A Mad New Yorker

On August 20, 1975, I carry one suitcase into the Times Square Motor Hotel, 255 W. 43rd Street, to a room on the fourth floor. The hotel is on the corner of West 43rd Street and Eighth Avenue, next to the New York Times building.  My room has one window, from which I can see an adult bookstore.

That night I hear bottles crash on the roof below, prostitutes shout to one another, cops on bullhorns, police and fire sirens. A din of iniquity, so to speak.

At 4 a.m., the New York Times trucks screech and snort in the street as the morning paper rolls out.

“Don’t they know,” a neighbor complains to me, “that there are people trying to sleep here at night? Honest, hard-working people? And elderly people?”

A few days after I move in I overhear a man say, “I wouldn’t live in a place like this. Not if they paid me.”

I decide it’s a challenge. ”It’s not a bad place, “I tell a friend visiting me. “At least it’s clean.” Just then outside the window, leaves of toilet paper flutter down. A few tissues come to rest on my plants, which are inside the room on my air-conditioner.

Across the airway from me lives a huge old black man. He has no air conditioning. He keeps his window and curtains open night and day. It’s summer now and if he could climb out on the ledge and live there, I think he would.

Downstairs in the lobby, the same group congregates every day. A lot of elderly people live here and most of them are on social security. There’s a lot for them to see. One hot summer afternoon an old bum wandered in, completely naked, drunk and fully erect. He walked to the front desk and asked for a pair of pants, saying he couldn’t remember where he had put his clothes. Another time, a woman asked to have her shower fixed and ten minutes later when the engineer hadn’t come yet, she came down on the elevator, walked through the lobby stark naked to complain about it. The night manager hurried her into the office and threw a raincoat over her.

There’s romance in this group too. One day coming down in the elevator an old woman was crying, rejected, hurt. Later that day I saw her back with her boyfriend, sitting in the lobby looking a little resigned and grim, but much calmer.

One man, confined to a wheelchair because he has no legs, sits in front of the couches closest to the entrance and watches the people come and go all day. Then there is Mr. C, a neighbor of mine, who doesn’t like to go up on the elevator with anyone else. For an hour or more every afternoon after work, he waits for one that is empty or only has one passenger. Another elderly man walks around with his hands behind his back, observing everyone and taking notes in a small notebook. He always wears the same clothes, summer and winter, and won’t take the elevator either. He walks up the five flights to his room.

The elderly woman across the hall says when she can’t sleep she sits by her window and watches the fights on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 43rd Street.

One night, as I close the window, I hear from the street below, “All right, let’s break it up. Move along. This is the vice squad.” Let them stay on the streets, I think. I don’t want them inside where I am.

Good night, New York!

The Times Square Hotel is now run by a non-profit agency and provides affordable housing. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

 

The Diary of a Mad New Yorker – Broadway 1975

“Equus” was on Broadway at the Plymouth Theater on West 45th Street, starring Peter Firth and Anthony Hopkins, Frances Sternhagen and Marian Seldes

Broadway 1974

March 29 (circa the 29th)

Anthony Hopkins bowed with the others, one foot on end, and turned and bowed to the stage-seat audience. He seemed embarrassed or mad as he went off-stage, from the angle of his head with his hair flopping over his forehead. After the applause ended, I went in the stage entrance. There was another young woman there waiting for another of the actors and a security guard wearing a Scottish-clan type hat. He asked who we were waiting for. After a while, the woman sat down on the bench and I leaned against the wall with one shoulder against the radiator. The man said that you could always tell a Shubert theater because they turned the heat off before noon even on the coldest days.

Hopkins came downstairs alone, pulling on his coat, took the step from the landing heavily and too fast.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hi.”

He turned by the door to sign an autograph for a man who had come in, and faced me. He signed his name silently; he looked pale, almost grey, and his clothes were disheveled, but not good-naturedly and charmingly as usual. He had on tan slacks, a yellow shirt and a brown knit tie that was spread suggestively over his shirt, and a coat and winter coat. The public display of unhappiness was mesmerizing and I stared at him unabashedly, which annoyed him more.

He did not want to talk and ran off, and I followed him past the Booth Theatre and through Shubert Alley, he on one side near the theaters, cutting through a crowd outside the Shubert Theatre, and I on the other side.

On Monday, I read the Tony Awards nominations. He was not nominated for best actor for his role in “Equus.” I think he knew last Saturday. [He should have been nominated.]

May 31

I waited outside the theater. I was wearing my black velvet jacket and blue bells. I met him just inside the stage entrance. He came up to me as I stood by the door so fast that I was startled, but there was no place to step back. His eyes were light grey-blue, so was his voice, but forceful, when he said hello. He wore a blue denim jean suit and a pink shirt. There was a little bit of shaving cream or cold cream at one corner of his mouth and by the opposite ear.

I followed him outside. A woman had photos of herself taken standing with him and some young woman joked that they would meet him at Sardi’s. He came toward me and put out his arm to sweep me along with him as he went down the street.

“I have nothing to say to you today. I’m just hanging around.”

He smiled at me, indicating that it was all right. Two other people, a young man and woman started walking and talking with him and by the Booth Theatre, he stopped momentarily to talk to someone else and we three went ahead slowly.

Rejoining us, I walked beside him. They asked about a letter and he said he wasn’t sure, then reached into his coat pocket, “Oh, I’ve been carrying this around all day.”

The young couple left us. He asked me to have a drink with him.

I said no. “I can’t drink.”

He said that he was going to have a Coke.

“Oh? Can I have a Coke too?”

“Yes. I’m meeting some people. I don’t know what they’re up to.”

“I’ll just have one drink and leave,” I said, thinking he was meeting business people.

“No –”

At the curb of 44th Street, I said, “Maybe they won’t let me in.” I looked down at my blue bells, pull-over shirt and sneakers. “I got my sneakers on.”

“Now you’re just being paranoid.” He stood, looking over and down at me, putting his weight on his right foot.

Outside Sardi’s he mentioned the girls again. I still didn’t know who he was talking about, and then he said he didn’t know if they were going to show up but they’d said they were meeting him at Sardi’s. I suddenly realized who he meant.

“Oh, do you think they’ll show up,” I asked, as we walked into them. I didn’t know we were already in front of Sardi’s door. He rushed forward and gathered them in and we went inside.

He told Sardi he was going upstairs to have a drink.

“Just one?” said Sardi.

He turned as he started up the stairs and put up one finger. The five of us followed, with me last in line.

“Oh, I see,” said Sardi (or whoever he was).

I glanced back to see everyone in the restaurant looking up at us. Upstairs we went past the bar and he looked for places in a small area on the other side, but there weren’t enough. After hesitating, he went into the dining area and we sat at a table in the back.

I sat next to him. They ordered drinks, he ordered a Tab and I a Coke. When the drinks came, I stared at mine. He poured it for me. One of the women, sitting on his left, was talking about “Equus” and psychology. I couldn’t hear him well, but at one point, he said, “Oh, but he does help the boy.”

They discussed Nazi concentration camps and “QBVII.” He said he’d told his agent he didn’t want to do “QBVII” – Dr. Kelno, his part, was hateful. They had tried to make him a more sympathetic character.

They mentioned “War and Peace” and their favorite scenes. One woman told us how many times she saw it. But the book is unreadable, she said.

“I’ve read it five times,” he said.

He had another Tab and asked what I wanted. “I’ll have what you’re having.”

He said that he wanted to stop smoking, but that one could always find an excuse for everything. He lit up a cigarette after just finishing one and everyone commented.

“I have an excuse,” he said.

I asked one of the women if she was going to finish her drink and she said no, so I took it. “If he’s not going to have any control,” I said, “then neither will I.” Later, when we left, my legs shook and I had to hold onto the bannister.

Then he talked about “absolute truth,” a subject which clearly defeated us all.

I heard two of the people giggling self-consciously. I realized we would have to leave soon.

When he got up, he kissed several of them rather abruptly. I hung by my chair, having some trouble standing up. The woman next to me knocked her chair over and I helped pick it up. Just before they got up, they thanked him, said they hoped they hadn’t imposed on him. He said it was nice to have an audience. The most talkative woman said his talking to them was a “mitzvah” – a nice thing, a good deed.

June 18

I stood by the Tonight 8 P.M. sign just inside the door. Most of the people were gone when he came down.

“Just a minute. I have to make a phone call. I have to confirm an appointment.”

With one foot on the step where I’d been sitting, he talked to someone. “Hello, this is Tony Hopkins.”

I stopped listening to imitate him, putting my opposite foot on the same step. I felt like a mirror reflection.

One of the horses asked him something about the phone [or the phone call?] and Hopkins boxed at his shoulder.

I followed him outside. While he signed autographs, I turned in circles, and waited in front of the lobby. A few minutes later, he came by with a middle-aged woman who was wearing an overcoat in the 86 degree heat. I thought he would put out his arm to bring me in, but his gesture was minimal. I walked along, just a little behind him, wondering what to do. He glanced at me while he talked to the woman.

She thought the show last Thursday night was “uneven,” that it started out rough and never came together. What did he think?

Yes, yes, you’re right, he said. I remember it seemed to be out of rhythm. It was “jarred.” I realized that a few minutes into the play and “it’s my responsibility to establish the rhythm” of the play. I think we got it together by the end.

She went on when he stopped, “It started off slow” and didn’t seem to get going or come together.

“Oh?” he responded. “Did you think so? I didn’t think so.” Thursday, he asked himself, last Thursday? Oh, I know what it was. I had a blood test that day and didn’t feel well.

“It was much better today,” she said.

“Thank you.”

He dusted some talcum powder off one of his pants’ legs. “It wasn’t as bad as that woman said,” he muttered when he straightened up again.

Good night, New York!

The Diary of a Mad New Yorker

I’ve decided to share some stories of my life in New York City on this blog. 

Broadway 1974

Broadway 1974 Photograph by Mary Clark
Are love and rage the same passion?
They are the same in me
- William Blake

Why a diary of this place, at this time? Why my story?

Because the people of New York City are going through a tragic time. While I don’t live there now, I have friends who do. One of them told me the city is a “very sad place.” I want people to remember what a vibrant and inspiring place it was. And will be again. I know New York will come back, and its people will create an even more luminous city.

So, at the age of 71 and in the time of COVID-19, I want to tell my story of how I became a mad New Yorker.

Tally: Lucid 90 Proof Vodka

Tally: An Intuitive Life by Mary Clark

PJ_1979

Amazon UK Review by Philippa Rees

I think a reviewer owes a reader some declaration of his or her intersection with a book, why they read it and why review it, so any opinion is given a clear lens.

I bought this book for its title, knowing little about its subject, except that it was bound to be philosophical. I am interested in any reflections on the meaning of our seemingly haphazard existence and any wisdom pulled like threads from a personal tapestry and rewoven.

The discovery that it was about the near heyday of Greenwich Village, and characters living like rats in neglected garrets or churches momentarily vacant and underused, and the noble small presses pushing out chapbooks or poetry readings was a definite plus. This is a world I had heard about, but never directly sampled. The shadow of Alan Ginsberg and his ilk loomed large.

My only connection with this world was through a long and wonderful correspondence with an editor at Alfred Knopf, Sophie Wilkins who had mentored John Updike, George Braziller, Thomas Bernhard, William F. Buckley and many others now renowned, but who also found time for me. I did not deserve the attention she gave me but that was a reflection of the world of letters in that period, and this book, and the character of PJ evoked that distant generosity in which writers and writing were the only things that mattered. So my inclination was to absorb it as it came; sympathetic to the exhilaration of a world open to youth, even jejune youth avid for acceptance. That I did understand.

What makes reviewing it problematical is the autobiographical celebration of the main character PJ (Paul Johnston) who was clearly the seminal influence of the author’s life. His almost total (and vividly recreated – seemingly verbatim) philosophical reflections are almost all interesting, many provocative, never dull. Yet he is in unwinking focus throughout. I seldom abandon a book once I have committed to it, and I was never tempted to abandon this, for its lucid re-creation compelled, and it is cleanly written. That ‘cleanly’ is not meant to be derogatory, on the contrary, it served to keep the tungsten light firmly on the stature of its single character PJ whose shadow deepened increasingly, although his actual daily presence diminished. He was like a thread of elastic, the more stretched the greater his pull.

In a way the influence of PJ was to effect a growth of the author, incrementally strong enough to escape him. Yet the narrator Erin is in such thrall to PJ, so bent upon her tribute to his ideas, and his tragically diminishing physical powers she hardly seems to exist. Her peripheral relationships founder one after another, as perhaps they did, but this self-abnegation extends even to the absence of smell, or colour or atmosphere. It is a work about ideas, mostly the ideas of PJ, and nobody has a greater appetite for ideas than I do – a wonderful section on art being invisible but authoritative when it takes the creative reins – yet the author gave herself little liberty to live outside the mind. Or not on the pages of this seeming memoir.

What seems to happen is the repeated distillation of ideas repeated and refined until they have the clarity of 90 proof vodka, sharp, invigorating but with scant taste. I would love to meet this author and exchange vodka for single malt whisky with peat and autumn and the scent of heather, and woodsmoke and ask her to tell me about why PJ had such power, and whether having delivered her tribute she could now live a little lighter for it?

I urge you to read it nevertheless, if only to enjoy a quarrel with PJ, or to give thought to his uncompromising belief in intuition as the basis of relationship, a better index of love, a more autonomous source of creativity. In this he did master an understanding; and this work does certainly illuminate his originality, recognised by his (over) modest scribe, Erin.

Tally: An Intuitive Life by Mary Clark, published by All Things That Matter Press, is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble

Favorite Books of 2019

Eggshells, by Caitriona Lally

Eggshells

Viv is a special needs person who is functioning in her unique way. As she says, “my life soundtrack is more of a nursery rhyme with three repeated notes.” But what a symphony she composes from these notes. Viv (or VIV or Vivian) is a great character who totally inhabits her skin and we see everything through her eyes. The humor occurs at piquant moments, elevating the narrative into a mythical realm. And she is at home in Dublin. “I like living in a city where I am mostly unknown, and going into small places where I am known.” She writes in a notebook of her daily journeys and makes lists of things she notices or likes. Her tour of Dublin is more than a spoof of James Joyce’s Ulysses. While radically different, it is just as revelatory about humanity and myth-making.

Go, Went, Gone, by Jenny Erpenbeck

Go, Went, Gone

This New York Times Notable Book 2018 and bestseller in Germany takes on one of the most controversial issues of our time. Go, Went, Gone tells the story of Richard, a widowed man and retired linguistics professor in Berlin who at first does not notice the refugees in a nearby square, but when he does, he is drawn in to learn about them. Shy and uncertain, he comes to know them and understand how they are caught in the barbed wire of laws and policies designed to reject refugees. Slowly, as Richard is enlightened, he is also emancipated from the falsehoods of politicians and populist rhetoric. You’ll have to read the book to know what he does.

Happiness, by Aminatta Forna

Happiness

Attila, an expert on PTSD, and Jean, a wildlife biologist, meet in London where Attila is speaking at a conference and Jean is conducting a study of urban foxes. Both could be discouraged by their experiences, but they draw strength from their contemplation and action. The theme of damage and resilience is introduced by the Nietzsche quote, “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.” Attila comes to realize his profession of psychiatry has emphasized damage almost to the exclusion of recognizing that people can and often do overcome adversity. That people are changed by trauma is a more helpful view. The other main theme is love and the healing power of caring. Attila and Jean and several other people in the story engage in quiet acts of kindness. Through these acts, and their accompanying thoughts and emotions, people find the strength to overcome trauma. A book worth reading.

Uncertain Light, by Marion Molteno

Uncertain Light

The story begins with the kidnapping and presumed death of a U.N. Refugee worker, Rahul Khan, in the inhospitable yet alluring landscape of Central Asia. Rahul is a seasoned worker in war-torn areas, with refugees and rogue groups, a dangerous job, but his inter-personal ability has seen him through many tense situations. His loss shocks his friends and co-workers. They reflect on their relationships to him and their loved ones and begin to re-assess their lives. Meanwhile, the uncertain situation in the borderlands near Tajikistan continues. Work goes on. Two of Rahul’s co-workers, Hugo and Lance, who became his friends, struggle to continue this work. Another, Tessa, is moved into transforming her life and taking bold action. In time, the different individuals whose only connection is a man whose death has shaken them, are drawn to one another and discover the depths of their bonds. 

An Honest House: A Memoir Continued, by Cynthia Reyes

An Honest House

This sequel to A Good Home continues the intimate journey of its author and her husband as they deal with her illness and major changes in their lives. The home stands strong and almost has an eternal quality as the human beings in it struggle and strive toward health, hope, faith and joy. I admire and enjoy Reyes’ writing and highly recommend her books.

Adriatic Poems

Recently I’ve been making videos to go with my father’s writings about his trip to what was then called Yugoslavia in October 1980. This was an interesting time in the history of that area. Tito died in 1980 and the region fell into war. While my father was there, however, all was peaceful. Tourists came to the seaside and many made the boat trip across the sea to Venice, Italy.  This is one of his audiotapes combined with his photos of that trip. My father died in January 2009.

Blue Bowl, by Forrest Clark

Woodstock Memories 2

Part 2

Woodstock Site 50 Anniversary

The Woodstock Music Festival site today is on the National Register for Historic Sites and part of the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.

We arrived on Saturday mid-day, August 16, 1969. (See the previous post, Woodstock Memories).

People were moving around, in front of the stage and up the hill, standing and chanting. Country Joe was leading the chant about fixin’ to die in Vietnam.

The hillside was densely packed in front of the stage and on our right, so we decided to try to cross to the other side. First, we took a path in front of the stage, only to have our shoes sink into the mud. Turning back, we followed a clear corridor in the crowd up the hill, and then another path, single file, across to the far side.

We were riding the high of anticipation. We heard people talking, learned the band playing was Santana. The place was rocking. What a great soundtrack for what I was feeling. What I felt others were feeling too. For what the experience was like on many levels.

We reached the other side of the hill, and there, on what was like the arm of an easy chair, we found a good spot. We could see the side of the stage. My brother spread the little blanket and with relief and a feeling of accomplishment we sat down. Not far away another corridor ran to the top of the hill.

People were in small groups, some couples, sitting in their own spaces, sleeping or dozing, talking, or getting up and moving around. When Santana finished their set, I told my brother, “I’m going to look for food. I heard there were food vendors at the top of the hill.”

As I walked uphill I stopped several times to look at the crowd. I got to the top and headed for some wooden structures. They were empty. A couple of people said the food ran out yesterday.

A row of port-o-sans stood nearby with people waiting in line. A woman coming away said, “It’s disgusting.”

Some people, I later heard, were using the woods lining the hillside.

I turned around and walked back downhill. I told my brother the news: there’s no food or water.

A man and woman sitting near us must have heard me.

“Would you like a coke?” the woman asked.

I was embarrassed to answer. I hated to take something they might need.

But we said, yes, and they handed us the coke. That sustained us for hours. My brother and I talked about what bands might have played already, and which were yet to play. We didn’t know. Announcements were being made from the stage. We were ready for a concert, and at the same time, with so much to absorb, with all that was before us, time and space and what was important took on a different quality.

This was more than a music festival. This was something else. 

An army helicopter came over and looped around.

“They’re going to suck us up and take us directly to Vietnam,” someone said.

“I think they’re dropping flowers,” another person said.

Canned Heat played their bluesy rock, and the witty “Going Up The Country, “perfect for the journey we’d just made – and were now making in a different way. 

From time to time I walked about twenty feet toward the center of the hill to where two vans were parked, and looked down at the stage. Creedence Clearwater rocked.

woodstock6

Walking toward a spot where I could see the full stage. Note the people without shoes and socks on. The ground was wet and muddy. We were sitting in a less muddy spot.

I was staring at the hospital tent across the road, white with vertical pink stripes, and a smaller tent not far away. A helicopter lifted off near the tents and flew low over us. The noise shredded the music. I was annoyed, distracted. Another one took off, and then another, and after a while the sound melded into the music, into the murmuring and cheering from the hillside, part of the soundtrack of the experience.

A man staggered toward the fence. I heard people say, “He’s tripping. He needs help.” Two men appeared and helped him, half-carrying him away. Later, a woman came down the hill and freaked out along the fence. Someone following her told us, “She’s freaked out by the crowd. It’s got to her. We’ve been here since yesterday.” He helped her along the fence and down to the road.

I wondered at that. Could it become too much for a person? And taking drugs in such a situation. Things could go awry. This was not helped by the lack of food, water and shelter. I wasn’t into drugs, and no one tried to get me or my brother to take any.

Suddenly I thought, I should take a picture of the crowd. Walking uphill, some people smiled at me, others were sleeping, but most were sitting as if they were in the best place in the world. Not in the mud, on wet grass, in summer heat and humidity, but in a place of the heart and appreciation of living, as if beyond space and time, in a collective imagination.

woodstock8

Woodstock Music & Art Fair, Saturday, August 16, 1969. Photo: Mary Clark

The crowd became part of my mental experience. More than just sensory experience.  Watching the helicopters come in and lift off at the hospital across the road, I was looking at the lake behind it, and for a moment I experienced “seeing” into the future. I saw a world where people related to one another in a new way, not with social pressure or any kind of violent force. It was a completely different atmosphere. 

What was happening here was one of the possibilities for human beings. For how we could live together without an overload of rules, with behaviors decided by those involved in quiet negotiation, respecting one another’s space.

When evening was coming on, people lit the way with flashlights for those walking up and down the path near us.

Night fell and the music played on, punctuated by silences and announcements. For me, the highlight of the evening in terms of music was Janis Joplin’s performance. Her voice was filled with many notes and frequencies besides the dominant one. It came down over us, expansive, resonant, and made an immediate connection. (Later I heard she was stoned and her performance was shrill and fragmented. That’s not what I heard. Maybe it was the difference between being directly in front of the stage and getting the dominant notes versus hearing her through the large amps placed partway up the hill. That technology may have caught all the notes and nuances.)

After Janis, Sly and The Family Stone came on. Many in the crowd rose to their feet, higher and higher. I rose but quickly sat back down. I put on my jacket and zipped it tight, but the damp chill of the ground made its way through. I tried to hold on because I knew my brother wanted to hear The Who. I thought it was about 1 or 2 a.m. and did not want to leave so early. So I lay down and shivered. Finally, I said, “I have to leave.”

He wanted to stay, so I said, “You stay, and I’ll walk back to the car. You can come later.” (Obviously, I wasn’t thinking too clearly. I may have breathed in quite a lot of pot in the time we were there.)

“No, I’ll go with you,” he said.

We made our way to the fence, along it and down a short slope to the road, a way we’d seen others do it during the day. We began walking and must have taken a turn too soon. It was very dark on the road. Only a few people were walking near us.

“I don’t think this is the way we came,” I said. “We might be lost.”

He asked if we should turn back, and I said no, let’s keep going. I think this is the right direction. In truth, I was happy, floating along.

I heard the other people having a similar conversation.

A sound came rolling over the hills. The Who. The unmistakable chords of Pete Townsend.

“You’re hearing The Who,” I said.

“It’s not the same thing,” he groused.

I’ll never forget the sound of The Who rolling over the hills.

We saw a lake through a line of trees, glimmering with lights here and there. A couple or small group of people approached, headed the other way.  We told them we didn’t know where we were and where we wanted to go.

“Just keep going and when you get to the end, turn left, and you’ll find the road you’re looking for.”

They were right. Soon we were walking away from the town of Bethel. Time grooved by and I began to wonder, but with only a slight thrill of panic, whether we would ever get back to our car. 

Dawn came, and a familiar shape appeared in the near distance.

“There it is.”

The little white Corvair. What a welcome sight. 

The sound of the doors opening gave me a sense of comfort. I drank from the thermos. We were on our way home.

(Later I would learn that Janis sang at 2 a.m., and Sly and The Family Stone about 3 a.m. The Who started at 5 a.m. We must have left about 4 a.m. or later.)

I realized a number of things afterward. I realized that I liked people, that I liked being with people. And that they could organize themselves, just coming together to do something because they wanted to do it and make it work and then go away. They could express themselves, whatever they thought and felt was fulfilling. Woodstock was a social and emotional, an intellectual and artistic experience. People made up their own things to do, games to play, an art gallery out in the trees.

For me it was also very personal. I didn’t feel judged as I did in high school and college. The people at the festival were interested in things other than themselves, than in appearances and status.

We wanted to be free and we were saying, we can do it. It was a glimpse of the potential for people, for what we can do if we want to. 

Woodstock was a phenomenon, those performances and the coming together. It won’t happen again for a long time. I hope, someday, such large peaceful gatherings will be commonplace.

Woodstock Memories

Part 1

woodstock8 (2)

Photo: Mary Clark, August 16, 1969

In 1969, I was living in South Plainfield, New Jersey, and after two years at a community college, I had been offered a scholarship to Rutgers University. Without the inexpensive community college and this scholarship I would not have been able to attend college. My town was primarily blue and white collar middle class, and my family on the lower end of middle class. For many years both of my parents worked. We had to scrape by at times but never went without food or medical care.

In my adolescence I listened to rock’n’roll on a transistor radio. I was fourteen when the Beatles came to America. But I was a Rolling Stones fan and during my teens listened to as much rock as I could – usually by myself. Some of my friends talked about the bands they liked, but we didn’t share much or spend time together listening to records. In high school the bands played Light My Fire and a few other hits. I was listening though to something else. Creedence Clearwater, Janis Joplin, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, and Jimi Hendrix.

One day I went into a head shop in downtown Plainfield, New Jersey, where several times before I had bought a madras shirt or a pair of bell bottoms. A sign was tacked up by the sales counter about the “Woodstock Music Festival,” saying the store had tickets for sale. I’d heard rumbles on the local rock stations about this festival, and now, here, was a tangible sign that it might actually happen. The price made me think twice, high but perhaps not too high. I would have to borrow my parents’ car, which would not be available until Saturday, the second day of the festival. I went home without buying tickets. I heard more about it on the radio and a vision began to form in my mind. Days later I headed back to the store and bought two tickets, one for me, the other for my brother, Gordon.

My parents agreed to let me take the family car, a white Corvair, going up Saturday and coming home Sunday. I was 20, Gordon was 17, too young to drive. On the news that Friday night, we heard a big crowd had showed up at the festival. Great, I thought, it’s really happening. In the morning, we packed up a thermos of tea and one of water and a couple of blankets. We always had a flashlight in the glove compartment. Soon we were on the highway heading north to the New York state border. Gordon looked at the map as we traveled on the New York Thruway. Turning off the Thruway I drove down Route 17. When we turned onto a two-lane road to Bethel, we joined a caravan of cars making its way toward the festival. A short while later we crawled along, passing cars parked by the side of the road. We could keep going like this or find a place to park and walk the rest of the way.

Ahead of us the cars were bumper to bumper and a crowd of people walked alongside them. There were fewer and fewer open spaces to park. The shoulder was narrow and sloped into a ditch. I saw a good spot and dived in, hoping the small car wouldn’t get stuck.

Woodstock 1 Taken Where we Parked on 17B

Photo: Mary Clark

My brother and I got out of the car and saw people walking in our direction. They were on their way out. I asked, “How far is it?”

“Eight miles.”

Eight miles? Gordon and I looked at each other.

“We’ve come this far,” he said.

We decided to leave the stuff behind and take only one small blanket. I had a windbreaker and my purse, and my little Brownie camera.

“We’ll be able to get food and drink in Bethel,” I assured him.

We started to walk. People were walking in both directions but most of us were going toward Bethel and the festival. Trees shaded us and we observed and listened to people around us, not shoving or jostling, walking in a relaxed manner, but with purpose. We wanted to get there and worried about the bands we might be missing.

Someone told us we could take a shortcut over the hills. We didn’t know the territory and didn’t want to get lost, and we didn’t want to walk over people’s farms. So we stayed on the road.

After two hours or more we came to a crossroads and a smattering of small buildings. The town of Bethel. People were walking in all directions. Cars moved slowly, laden with people. We found out where the store was and walked inside. The shelves were bare. Two or three non-edible items were left. An old farmer guy was sitting by the counter.

“Do you have anything?” I asked him, staring at the empty counter. “Lifesavers?”

“We’ve been cleaned out,” he said.

The little store had a bathroom which he let people use. Outside again, we reflected: no food, no water. Should we go on? I wanted to, but didn’t know how he felt.

“How far is the festival?” I asked a passerby.

“A mile,” he said, pointing, “down that road.”

“I’m going,” Gordon said and strode off down the road. I pulled out my camera and got a shot of him walking off carrying the blanket.

Woodstock 2 Gordon On The Road August 16, 1969 (2)

Gordon Clark in white shirt with rolled-up sleeves

There will be food and water at the festival, I thought.

We passed homes where the residents sat on lawn chairs watching us and others were by the side of the road handing out water.   

Farther along, a single line of cars moving at snail’s pace filled the road. We followed the people ahead of us onto a dirt path that paralleled the road. In some places it went up several feet. Looking down I saw a police car, maybe a sheriff, and he must have heard us talking about food.

“Are you hungry?”

“Yes.”

“Here,” he said, handing us a sandwich.

I ate a bite and my brother finished the rest as we walked. I saw people coming over the hills. I guessed they had taken the shortcut.

We passed a lake where people were swimming and bathing. A few of them were naked. I looked and looked away. Then I decided not to be shy and took a photo.

Woodstock 4 by a lake btwn Bethel & the Festival 1969

A group of tents came into view on the other side of the road. People were walking around and sitting in the doorways.

Soon a sound rose from the other side of a wooded knoll, like a kind of rhythmic humming, and the beating of bongo drums. We walked behind a huge stage. A low makeshift bridge with some kind of artwork crossed the road.

Packed into a crowd on the narrow road, Gordon and I wound our way with other new arrivals, looking for a gate. We went under the bridge and came to the other side of the stage.

I got out my ticket, held it in my right hand. Walking forward, before I could stop, I saw a fence down in the mud. I glanced at my brother and we walked over it together.

I put my ticket back in my jeans’ pocket. Then I looked up and saw the crowd.

“Holy ….”

On the hillside, people as far as the eye could see. Wrapped in blanket of sky. Rapt in a beating of drums and funky guitars.

Will there be any space for us?

I was confident there would be. I felt drawn by the people to join them, secure in myself and in connecting to this crowd.

The Sophisticated Cat, Book Review

the sophisticated cat

The Sophisticated Cat, A Gathering of Stories, Poems, and Miscellaneous Writings About Cats, chosen by Joyce Carol Oates and Daniel Halpern. Available in paperback and hardcover.

The cat is the supreme creation of a benign and wonderful god, someone like Santa Claus in a GQ suit. Obviously, sophistication becomes the cat, and any person who reads about cats becomes sophisticated. This large collection of stories, fables and poems spanning ancient to modern times describes the innate ability of cats to transcend the sad attempt at cleverness practiced by humans.

The Sophisticated Cat is a sometimes farcical, sometimes wise, often poignant and passionate collection of writings by an impressive array of great authors from many countries and cultures. Humorous stories include “The Cat That Walked By Himself” by Rudyard Kipling, “The Story of Webster” by P. G. Wodehouse, and “Lillian” by Damon Runyon (the latter takes place in the vicinity of Eighth Avenue and 49th Street). Colette’s “Saha” and Joyce Carol Oates’ “The White Cat” deal with human cruelty toward cats and the frailty and folly behind this cruelty.

Alice Adams’ exceptional story, “The Islands,” begins with the question, “What does it mean to love an animal, a pet, in my case, a cat, in the fierce, entire and unambivalent way that some of us do?” The story of her life with the silver grey tailless cat “Pink” rings true in every phrase.

Soseki Natsume’s “I Am A Cat” is told from the cat’s point of view. It is beautiful, precise, and haunting. There are stories by Aesop, the Brothers Grimm, Emile Zola, Balzac, Mark Twain, Hemingway, Saki, Italo Calvino, and Ursula K. LeGuin. Chekhov’s “Who’s To Blame?” is one of the finest, Orwellian-style allegories ever written.

The poetry is presented in five sections, from the romantic to the whimsical. In Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Cat,” he describes the complete catness of cats; a cat intends or impersonates nothing else: “His is that peerless / integrity, / neither moonlight nor petal / repeats his contexture: / he is all things in all, / like the sun or a topaz.”

Paul Valery describes them as “indifferent to everything but Light itself.” W. B. Yeats’ well known poem about Minnaloushe the cat is included: “And lifts to the changing moon / His changing eyes,” and fine poems by Hart Crane, Robert Graves, and Marianne Moore. “My Cat Jeoffrey” by Christopher Smart is the most fun to read and William Wordsworth’s “The Kitten and Falling Leaves” is the loveliest.

I did wonder why May Sarton’s work was not included. She has written a beautiful book, “The Fur Person.” To a purrfectionist, sophisticated cat reader, this was a glaring omission. The Sophisticated Cat receives ten purrs, five meows, and only one tail flick.


This review was first published in February 1993 in the Clinton Chronicle, a monthly community newspaper for the Clinton, Hell’s Kitchen and Times Square area of Manhattan, New York City, which I published from January 1993 to April 1998.