Monday, March 31, 2008


Sunday afternoon I spent digging through cardboard boxes of miscellaneous – what? Detritus of a lifetime: Photographs, greeting cards, letters, clippings from newspapers and magazines, drawings and poems from my oldest son when he was little, a commemorative pack of matches from the world premiere of Ironweed in Albany, N.Y., in December 1987. Each box is a jumbled midden of memories, meaningful only to me. My intent was to weed out what I no longer care about rather than lug it to Seattle, but I ended up discarding little. Here’s some of what I found:

A Wall Street Journal story about jazz trumpeter Roy Eldridge written by Nat Hentoff, who concludes the piece like this: “I saw him at a party a few months ago playing exultant stride piano, and he still seemed to me larger than life.” The clip is dated Aug. 31, 1988. Eldridge, known as “Little Jazz,” died Feb. 26, 1989.

A drawing of a marijuana leaf on green paper, with a bar drawn across it, signifying “banned,” and the word “WHY?” beneath it. The poster is signed “To Patrick, Timothy Leary, 4-22-93.” I spent several hours with Leary that day. He was at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y., to debate drug policy with a former Congressman whose name I’ve forgotten. Leary wore pressed blue jeans, chain-smoked unfiltered Camels and smelled terrible. He died Memorial Day 1996.

The Spring 1994 newsletter of the New York State Writers Institute, with a story headlined “New York’s Bluebirds: Novelist William Gaddis” on the cover, by yours truly. I met Gaddis three times and spoke with him often by telephone. I finished the piece by quoting Gaddis: “The work is very much between the reader and the printed page. That’s everything the reader’s going to get once William Gaddis is gone.” He died Dec. 16, 1998.

A gift from a former girlfriend: The issues of Life magazine dated Nov. 3 and 17, 1952 – those closest to my birth date, Oct. 26, 1952, she was able to find. On the cover of the first is a photo of “The U.N.’s New Assembly Building.” On the second, a smiling Ike flashing the “V-for-victory” sign with his left hand. Mamie, in pearls, stands beside him. He died March 28, 1969; she, Nov. 1, 1979.

A memorial flyer for my former colleague Marty Moynihan, who died of renal cancer on June, 2, 1993, at the age of 47. For years Marty was film critic for the Albany Times Union. Our tastes were utterly different and we always argued over movies. The last one we saw together, we agreed, was memorably awful: Candyman.

The New York Times obituary for William Maxwell, dated Aug. 1, 2000 (Melville’s 181st birthday). He had died one day earlier. The writer, Wilborn Hampton, quotes a piece Maxwell had written for the Times Magazine in 1997: “What spoils this pleasant fancy is the recollection that when people are dead, they don’t read books. This I find unbearable. No Tolstoy, no Chekhov, no Elizabeth Bowen, no Keats, no Rilke.”

A piece from The New York Times Book Review by Alfred Kazin, remembering his friend Murray Kempton, who died May 5, 1997. He writes: “Murray had a quiet, even humorous tolerance for people whose self-satisfied looks actually horrified him. So humor as well as religion – religion in the form of humor – was his mainstay.” Kazin died June 5, 1998.

I didn’t start writing this post with a theme in mind but one emerged naturally, confirming that if you live long enough you will accumulate much second-hand experience of death.


Anonymous said...

In the midst of life we are in death.
Either doing it or watching it.

Art Durkee said...

A bit of parallel lives going on here. I am moving to my own home in about two weeks, after a couple of years of living in my parent's home and being their live-in caregiver. They've both died now, both within the past year, and I have been living here and sorting through their basement storerooms, which contain not only 27 years of their living in this house, but also the storage of my own earlier lives. So I am going through the midden and it calls up continuous memories, which can make the work harder. Nonetheless, I am disposing of about 90 percent of everything old. On the other hand, since I am buying my own first home out of my inheritance, I am keeping some of the furniture, including those blue living room couches that I used to nap on when I was a teenager.

Past death is the new life, and we go on making new lives as if death didn't matter, which it doesn't.