Thursday, January 21, 2010

`A Floor of Flounders'

In an anthology with a silly premise – Beach: Stories by the Sand and Sea (2000), edited by Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker – I happened upon a beautiful piece of nonfiction by Whitney Balliett, the late jazz writer for The New Yorker. A note says this is the first publication of “A Floor of Flounders.” In 12 pages, Balliett describes how he rented a summer house on Smithtown Bay, on Long Island’s North Shore, and met an old man who had lived alone in a beach house for decades – Joe Molers, Edward Louis Dagostino. Balliett’s hallmarks – precise, pellucid prose, and lengthy, monologue-like quotes from his subject – are much in evidence. A sampler:

“The sky was clean and the light startling. A rug of dew covered the ground, and it was chilly.”

“I found myself on a narrow path still wet from the tide. Hundreds of tiny, perfect holes dotted it, and as I thundered along, fiddler crabs, their claws cocked, poured out of the holes, hesitated, and slid into the grass.”

“A stocky, short man, with bowed legs and a barrel chest, he was dressed in a tight wool shirt, a brown cardigan, bathing trunks, and ankle boots with no socks. A knitted caps was pulled low on his head. He looked like Pablo Picasso – leathery and gnomish and solid.”

And these lines from Molers:

“`You can’t be lonely when you see the things I’ve seen here. I was sitting out late one October night, just looking, and suddenly the northern lights started up. Well, I’d never seen them before, and I thought what in the name of heaven is happening. Lights dancing and waving – red, blue, green white. I was shivering with what was happening in that sky.’”

Balliett’s profile of Molers reads like an oblique homage to Joseph Mitchell, his fellow nonfiction master at The New Yorker. It shares with Old Mr. Flood and The Bottom of the Harbor the seaside setting and the same fond, respectful attention paid to human eccentricity. There’s no patronizing of Molers and no awkward reaching after significance. There’s the quietly suggestive deployment of images –lightning, thunder, sand, hermit crabs – we find in Balliett’s jazz profiles. Clearly, he was drawn to such odd, private personalities as Lester Young and Pee Wee Russell.

In the Molers’ piece there’s no mention of jazz or any sort of music though the title may serve as a muted reference to Thelonious Monk. Ostensibly, the phrase comes from one of Molers’ monologues, the one on fishing:

“One night, oh, maybe forty years ago, I was out with a light in my boat. The water was shallow and I came upon a sandy place completely covered with flounders. A floor of flounders about two city blocks square. Just lying there in my light on the bottom.”

Balliett must have liked the alliteration because an almost identical phrase appears in the 1982 obituary for Thelonious Monk he published in The New Yorker:

“A tall, dark, bearish, inward-shining man, he wore odd hats and dark glasses with bamboo frames when he played. His body moved continuously. At the keyboard, he swayed back and forth and from side to side, his feet flapping like flounders on the floor.”

1 comment:

Tyler Hathaway said...

Hey, I wanted to say thanks for mentioning this piece. My grandmother, who was born in 1907, grew up at Sunken Meadow knowing Joe Molers and when I was a boy in the late 60s/early 70s Joe would often invite my grandparents, parents, me and my sister (and various others) over for his spaghetti dinners in his one-room shack. Best meatballs ever! I remember it and him very well... it was great to find that story... it reads exactly true to life and brings back a lot of fond memories.
Tyler Hathaway