From Here to There in Search of Identity
Dedicated to anyone who ever wanted to explain – or cry out: It’s not what you think!
This journey in search of identity begins in New York City’s Washington Square.
A cloudy, damp Sunday—it’s noon, but no one’s around. My lunch, wrapped in rumpled foil, is the remains of last night’s Indian meal—a scrap of flatbread and a half-eaten hunk of tandoori chicken.
Two neatly dressed people, on their church’s mission to feed the homeless, see me—
in my old jeans and windbreaker, with food that looks as though retrieved from the trash can—and offer me a sandwich, water, an orange.
Instead of telling them, It’s not what you think, I accept an orange, and they are happy.
That was not too long ago. This next happened quite some time ago, and you’ll need to use your imagination:
When I was a student and sort of good-looking, every Wednesday evening I went to an elegant apartment hotel on Central Park South, to read to a nearly blind businessman—
legal contracts, novels, a book about finance.
Once he paid me at the elevator, just as its doors opened. I’ll see you next week, he said as I stepped inside, pocketing the bills.
The elevator man gave me a knowing smirk and a nod. I could have said, It’s not what you think, but that would have meant admitting I understood what it was that it wasn’t.
And what if he saw that my pay for the session was only four dollars? (Two dollars an hour for reading aloud was not a bad rate of pay in 1962.)
He didn’t offer to find me more clients.
Recently, we’re in an office building, filming a satanic ritual for a music video—it’s dark, there are lit candles in a circle on the floor, monks in hooded robes, and me rising from my knees in a posture of inspired power.
The Chinese-restaurant delivery guy is reluctant to enter the space. We should tell him it isn’t what he thinks.
Someone who has my name goes to the same dentist, who luckily realized this before drilling.
Someone with my name acts in movies. We’re confused with each other on the Internet.
Excuse me, a woman says, after stopping me, I thought you were someone else. I inform her, I am!
We’re about to shoot a true-crime re-creation for cable TV—the other actor will fake a savage attack. The director jokes: Do you really want to beat up this nice old man?
I say to myself: Wait a minute. I never thought I was either old or nice!
A photo you’d swear is me appeared in last week’s newspaper, but in fact it’s someone else. There’s a video on YouTube called “Do You Know Who I Am?” and that is me, although I’m acting and not being me.
I think I have it straight now, who or what I may be. It could be it’s not what you think.
Though what you think, or I do, maybe isn’t.
At a certain point, doesn’t everyone want their own one-person show?
Hal Holbrook spent decades being Mark Twain. My psychologist brother used to portray Sigmund Freud.
I have a friend who’s a Louisa May Alcott impersonator in Concord, Massachusetts (Where else?). Another friend can frequently be seen as Bill W, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. (I wish I could think of something funny to say about that which wouldn’t be in really bad taste.)
You have to find someone you somewhat resemble, whom you feel comfortable portraying. That’s why I decided I would pretend to be . . . myself.
Which isn’t easy. Not as easy as you think.
Someone guessing my occupation said: accountant.
Camouflage and a low profile are the rule for safety, which I learned early in life. As a young child, I didn’t speak so I could be understood. There was too much misunderstanding and even violence if you spoke up.
I heard a radio program in which people were planning to murder someone, and I decided my father was about to carry out his constant threats to kill me. (His accomplice was my mother.)
So a took a large knife from the kitchen and slept with it under my pillow. I was 3 ½ years old.
At the time, I said only vowels. Without consonants, it was hard for anyone to figure out what I was saying. Doctors assured my parents I wasn’t deaf, or retarded, that I would grow out of it. When I started first grade, in fact, I began to speak intelligibly.
But something happened when I was four.
My Uncle and Aunt, and cousin Judy, lived in the apartment downstairs. Uncle Martin may have married Beatrice because she came from a prosperous family in the next town.
Cousin Judy was six months older than me, so we always played together—until one day I came upstairs crying because she couldn’t play with me anymore. Aunt Beatrice told my mother something astounding: Judy’s elocution teacher said she shouldn’t spend time with me—because of my speech problem.
Elocution was one of those refinements, like tap-dancing and piano lessons, that parents forced on their little girls in those days. As I grew older and went around the neighborhood, I saw a sign in a window that said: “Olivia Merlof, Elocution Lessons.”
I knew elocution meant some kind of fancy recitations and that it spoiled a portion of my early years. Since Cousin Judy was a bossy child—I could spend time with her now that my speech was okay—I didn’t know why the loss of her companionship ever bothered me.
Fast-forward 60 years. Beatrice and Martin had died years before. Judy had a successful career, managing many people.
My mother had just died, and people were coming by to pay their respects. A woman came in who said she was Mrs. Merlof from the old neighborhood.
“I was a dear friend of your Aunt Beatrice,” she said.
“Oh, my God,” I said. “Did you used to teach elocution?”
“Yes, I did,” she said. “Ages ago.”
“And you told my aunt that my cousin shouldn’t play with me because of my speech?”
The 90-year-old former elocution teacher claimed not to remember the incident. I could see I’d made her really uncomfortable.
It’s possible that Aunt Beatrice made it all up, fearing downward mobility if Judy picked up speech habits from someone who spoke like an imbecile.
It is said that the desire to avenge past wrongs can spoil one’s present life. Since I hadn’t thought about the Elocution incident over the years, this simply felt good, especially on that somber occasion.
Besides, Mrs. Merlof had to have noticed how nicely I spoke.
I don’t have a theory about the effect of early life on what we become, but I seem to remember a lot.
There’s a film, transferred now to a DVD—my older brother’s bar mitzvah reception—and we’re all in tuxedos, us Gardner men, even 4-year-old me, and I’m really cute with my curly hair and a black bow tie.
My father isn’t judging me, or anyone else, for once. He smiles, maybe from drinking Seagram’s, and dances with me. Which means he holds my hands as we stomp around and around.
The film is silent but I remember the band playing that year’s hit, Papa, Won’t You Dance With Me? In the musical it’s from, Papa is what the leading lady calls her husband. We didn’t know that, hearing the peppy polka we danced to, as we moved around the social hall.
There’s a famous poem by Theodore Roethke about his drunk papa clutching him in a waltz around the kitchen.
And a novelist wrote of his boozing dad, as a tape played Patsy Cline’s Crazy: “I let him take my hands and guide me across the cracked and yellowed linoleum.”
Who would imagine so many fathers dancing with their little sons! I remember, or think I remember, holding my young son and moving, rhythmic and happy, to something on the stereo. Maybe I’d been drinking.
Like Hasids, like Greeks in tavernas—fathers and sons, dancing—dancing—till time stops the music and spins us apart.
Someone heard an earlier version of this itinerary of a journey, and pointed out that I I kept mentioning violence.
I hadn’t noticed it! It was there, an undertone, like background music behind my attempts to imagine a bland, quiet life.
This is about the first summer after I was born, the summer of 1943:
Boston is surrounded by drumlins, hills the Great Glacier forced from the earth. The grandfather I was named for bought a house on one of these hills, large enough for all to live and squabble in, even after his death—his widow, one daughter, three sons, their wives, and their children, including me.
The War was meanwhile raging, but the sons weren’t in it – one was insane, and my father’s heart was bad (he died of it 20 years later). As I was born that winter, during a blizzard, my cousins in Europe were being killed.
The citizens around Boston, responsive to European notions, listened to Father Feeney and Father Coughlin and one of them, one sunny nap-time, threw a rock through a window of that big house on the hill. It landed in my crib, but next to me. And so I survived.
If you’re not satisfied with your life, you can try living a different one. How about Herb Philbrick, who led three? It’s a fine way to never be what people think. Here’s the context:
In my generation we had nightmares about atom bombs. I remember one summer
night—a close flash of lightning and a huge clap of thunder woke me, and I ran through the house yelling, “Air raid! Air raid!”
The physical education lady, who usually came by to make us play dodge ball—
taught us how to save our lives in a nuclear attack: “Duck and Cover” meant lying under our desks with our arms around our heads.
In a TV show, a young girl in Russia reported her parents for saying un-Soviet things about their government. After the parents were dragged away by the police, the girl hanged herself.
No wonder they wanted to kill us—what if their own people wanted the freedoms
that we could take for granted!
A series I always watched—according to the Internet, so did the young Lee Harvey Oswald—was I Led 3 Lives, based on a book by Herb Philbrick. It described his years
as a Communist Party member and an FBI informant in Boston. The party cell he belonged to met in the town where I grew up.
They were always planning terrible things, like killing members who defected or poisoning a reservoir. How dangerous—and exciting—to lead more than one life at a time—especially if you were defeating Commie plots every week!
There’s a debate online – would the shows be laughable today? But I’ve also found a statement that Philbrick’s book can illuminate for us how Barack Obama has become a captive of today’s Communist Party. (I’m not making that up.)
I met someone whose father was mentioned in the book. He was a quiet, genial man whose small house was filled with books—one room had the kind of stacks you find in a public library.
So I read I Led 3 Lives. I discovered that this man and Philbrick had worked together on Party activities, mostly concerned with labor and civil rights. And do you know what actions those underminers of Americanism carried out? I bet it’s not what you think.
They handed out leaflets.
When I was 18, I learned a lesson about the world at the Middlesex Dairy, which was a dairy only because ice cream was made on the premises. The owner and his wife traveled around the U.S. in a Winnebago. The business was run by Brad, the manager,
who lived with his wife and five kids in another town. All we knew about his past
was—one—he’d been in Korea and—two—we kidded him about his previous job as a Mister Softee, driving a truck to sell cones to little kids.
I reported every afternoon to empty the garbage cans, mop the floors, and fill the coolers with ice cream from the freezer in the back. By the time people finished their suppers at home, Mary, Cliff, Alice, and I would be working non-stop.
Home air-conditioning was rare then, so on hot nights 10 people could line up at each of the windows. They ordered sundaes, frappes—the Massachusetts term for a milkshake made with two scoops of ice cream—and banana splits.
You got three scoops and two toppings in a banana split. For banana splits to go, we used the big frappe containers—everything was plopped vertically into the cup: split banana, three scoops, two toppings, whipped cream or marshmallow, and nuts or a cherry if requested.
One day I came to work with a Band-aid on my finger. As I got water on it, and fried-clam batter, it started looking frayed and dirty. I tried to keep it out of sight, handing out cones and change with my other hand.
Late in the evening, I had a free minute to lean against the freezer in the back. At the end of a hectic hour, I had just put up five banana splits to go. I wiped the sweat from my forehead with my right hand, and I noticed that the Band-aid was gone.
(Did you see that coming?)
It became busy again, but every spare moment I scanned the floors, the sinks, the storage room, hoping to find that revolting chunk of plastic and gauze.
After 15 minutes, I asked the kids if they’d seen it. They took my desperation lightly:
“Hey, there’s a toe in my hot fudge!”
“I asked for chopped nuts, not fingernails!”
“It’s all right—no extra charge!”
I could no longer avoid the next step. I went into the kitchen. “Brad, I came in with a Band-Aid on my finger. It’s missing since I put up five banana splits to go.”
The miracles I’ve witnessed have all been due to people’s unanticipated actions. This was one of those miracles. Brad didn’t fire me. He didn’t yell. He said: “Well, if somebody comes in, send them to me. I’ll say, ‘What do you mean saying we put that in your order?’ ”
I stared at him, as he calmly went on filtering the fat from the deep fryer—he took on the dirtiest jobs himself—and I thought, Of course! You overwhelm them with totally false assuredness. Why invite trouble by expressing doubt or apology?
I walked out of the kitchen on a cloud of wide-eyed admiration. Such nerve! Such boldness and courage! I would never again kid him about being Mr. Softee.
The rest of the evening, as I tried to work with one eye searching all crannies for the bandage and the other watching for the enraged customer, the fluorescent lights were brighter, the night air was exciting. My anxiety, combined with Brad’s audacity and the awareness that my welfare could depend on a bald-faced, immoral act, made it so.
After we closed, I was sweeping the floor, and I found the Band-aid under one of the coolers.
It wasn’t quite as filthy as I remembered it.
I knew I had to get away. For my sanity, for any chance of surviving. Despite the terrible teachers, I would do as well in school as I could. I didn’t rebel. I did everything they asked in their ignorance, their cruelty, so I could get A’s in every class. The key was a scholarship to a far-away college.
It was January and the deadline for my parents to fill out the scholarship application.
I heard my father in the next room. It was one of his rants. “Why should we tell them that? Who the hell are they to ask me that? I’m not gonna tell them that shit.”
He could go on for hours. I grew up with him hollering about everyone’s persecution of him each morning and every night.
I snapped. My years of holding on—to sanity, even to life, and I’m not exaggerating—
my humiliating accommodation to those terrible teachers, and surviving the boredom and the brutal students—my future was exploding, evaporating.
“You have to! You better!” I yelled, and ran out of the house. No destination—I needed to run in the winter dark, anywhere.
I heard a car following. He stopped, got out. He grabbed me. I started punching. In our heavy winter jackets, the blows didn’t hurt, but my mother was yelling, “He has a heart condition! Don’t!”
It would be easy to kill him, I realized, this weak, small man, to strangle him with my hands, but why do that to myself? Why give him that power over me?
I have no recollection of the ride back home, but the form was filled out, I got my scholarship, I was able to leave.
This is a guaranteed true story from an innocent time:
I had a part-time job in a shop for imported items in Harvard Square. That’s in Cambridge? In Massachusetts, near Boston? The shop was called IMPORT CARGO.
This was before everything sold everywhere anyway was imported from another country.
The time and place are important for understanding what happened. Well, in the early days of liberated consciousness—1967, to be exact—I was cashier in a shop of imported goods.
One cargo included hand-carved wooden sculptures from Taiwan of a hand with an upraised middle finger. This wasn’t the plastic gewgaw you later saw everywhere,
but something undoubtedly crafted by carvers with generations of tradition behind them, who assumed this strange object had religious significance for Americans.
One night a little old lady—since this was Boston, a very Bostonian old lady—brought six of them to my counter. When she carried them over from the display, two at a time,
I could only stare at her. Then she said, “Such lovely ring-holders, just the thing for my grandnephews this Christmas.”
So early in the days of liberated consciousness—and in Massachusetts besides—I didn’t know how to tell an old lady that these items were neither ring-holders, nor suitable gifts for her grandnephews. (I didn’t know how to say, “They’re not what you think.”)
So I rang up the six “ring-holders” and bagged them. Besides, I really enjoyed imagining this: Christmas morning in Back Bay, or Duxbury, or Manchester-by-the-Sea, the smell of pine and fresh-baked muffins filling the air, as one by one six grand-nephews would open neatly wrapped packages sent with love by Great-Aunt Prudence.
This is common enough: someone we meet may have a story that is never what we think. Just as I do, and you do. Right?
Which doesn’t answer this question: if we care about other people, does that keep us from being too concerned about ourselves?
Visiting my parents in their small town, I needed to see a doctor and went to Dr. Plotkin’s. You followed a dirt road to his ramshackle house. I could hear chickens in the cellar under his office. He was a kindly man, and he cured the disease I’d picked up
eating beef stew from the steam table in a NYC bar.
Well, I was young and reckless then.
I asked people about him, and I imagined him telling the story I learned:
One day when I was an intern, I came home from the hospital and my wife was hiding.
She had slit the baby’s throat in his crib, and was crouched on the pantry floor off the kitchen.
That night was the first she slept in the asylum. She never slept anywhere else the 30 years she lived on.
I moved away from my parents and friends and the city I always loved. I found a house deep in the woods. I found a woman to share the house with me without hope of marriage since, by the laws of the Commonwealth, you couldn’t divorce a psychotic.
My reputation has been that I’ll treat anyone, even the deadbeats who never will pay.
It’s because that evening in Brighton I lost any arrogance I had about my importance on the Earth.
One of my neighbors in New Jersey was Hank Greenberg. I needed his name for a program, so I said, “Hank must be a nickname.”
He said, “Yuh, it was natural for a kid named Greenberg to take that name in the ’40s.”
“So your legal name is Henry?”
“No,” he said.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Adolph,” he said.
In the 1960s, I lived in an SRO on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. An SRO was a Single Room Occupancy hotel. Your room was part of a suite with a shared bathroom and kitchen.
In the room next to mine was Mrs. Mifflin. She seemed ancient—she may have been around 75 or 80. (But I was 19.)
The only time she left her room was once a month for her arthritis shot. Before major holidays she’d get a visit from a great-niece and the great-niece’s little boy. One of the residents of our suite picked up groceries for her. With the weekly rent collection,
these were her only human contacts.
Except for me. I tried to be quiet when unlocking my door, but she would be listening.
She’d open her door and talk to me until I could find an excuse to escape into my room.
Some years later I published the following. The quoted dialog is very much as I remembered it. The reference to the Uris Brothers was kind of a joke: true, they were major developers of that era, but I had also known a member of their family:
The pile drivers are pounding things into the ground outside.
Mrs. Mifflin sighs, says she hasn’t slept two nights—
“And what are they doing? Putting up more office buildings!
Don’t they know New York is an island?
Some day with all these buildings, it’ll break off
and float out to China.”
For Mrs. Mifflin then,
Uris Brothers and all your constructive brotherhood,
for then we’ll all go sailing
on our enchanted heap of stones and glass,
under Verrazano Bridge, slowly across currents and plateaus,
into the sunrise forever.
Mrs. Mifflin would tell me quite often how she’d ended up at the Club van Cortlandt.
(That was its name, although it was not what you think from its name—it was far from grand, and was full of roaches and rodents).
The daughter of a judge in Pennsylvania, she was widowed at an early age. A young woman invited her to move to New York with her. Then the young woman abandoned her—to get married—and Mrs. Mifflin ended up on her own in that room.
I assumed this happened in the 1950s or maybe earlier in the 60s.
Two years after moving out, I had a job collecting data from the city’s Department of Welfare. At the welfare center that served that neighborhood—unethically, since Mrs. Mifflin wasn’t in the random group I was supposed to research—I decided to see if she was in the records.
Nothing had been computerized; each client had a card with entries in ink. Her record was there. The case was opened the year that Home Relief began, in the early 1930s.
Her address at the time—never updated—was the address of the Club van Cortlandt.
She had been in that room for 30 years!
I know now that people can stay in bad circumstances for longer than 30 years. But I was young. I anticipated engaging with many locations and situations in the decades ahead.
In those decades, I remembered the SRO and my neighbor, and how important it is to stay out of those rooms.
And I learned how you can look at people many times without seeing who they are.
Writing about them could help you see them. Writing was many things: a net to catch floating thoughts; a spotlight to turn on your enemies, exposing them, blinding them;
a blanket you weave from your memories, to keep yourself warm; a form of acting, creating a new self or two—or even three.
At first, we thought we were giving our kids a quiet suburban environment to grow up in. Then our son’s babysitter was killed by her boyfriend. Later his teacher, alarmed by his wife’s threat to divorce him and take their children away, murdered the children.
A middle-school classmate of Brenda’s had a father involved with gangsters, who invaded their home and killed the entire family.
The suburbs seem quiet because the density of violence is lower than in the city. Like us, it’s all about appearances.
Almost as bad as craziness that short-circuits our brains, we ‘re a collection of biological processes, some of them disgusting. There may be a leavening of higher consciousness, but there’s no escaping those biological processes.
I was at the medical lab, along with seven or eight others, waiting for someone to draw a blood sample. No one was at the reception desk, since the company, to save money,
used the actual phlebotomists to sign people in and answer the phone, and they were all in the little back rooms with patients. The answering machine, as we learned, was on speakerphone.
“Hello,” someone said after the phone rang, thinking he was speaking only to a machine. He gave his name and his phone number, audible to everyone.
He said, “I was told by Dr. Schultz to deliver a stool sample to your lab. How do I get it in the little jar? Do I have a movement as I usually do, on the toilet, and then scoop a little out? Won’t it be contaminated by the water?”
By this time, I was running to the back to find a technician. “The answering machine is broadcasting someone’s private details!” I said.
One of them rushed out. “It’s supposed to be off!” she said.
“It isn’t,” I told her.
The terrible thing was – I knew the caller. Since then, it hasn’t been easy to look at him with composure when we meet on the street.
I assume it’s clear to everyone that whatever I appear to be—even aside from looking like an accountant—is probably not what you think. I’ll try to fill in the picture with some of my Career Highlights—not always my proudest moments, but among the more interesting.
I was in an award-winning play at La Mama, a theater in the East Village. A newspaper praised my performance, as the manager of a burlesque theater, in these words: “the personification of American sleaze.”
Quite an accomplishment, if I say so myself.
I invented a new kind of textbook series for a publishing company. It brought in millions of dollars in profits every year. After it was launched, my entire staff and I were laid off .
We found out later that this was a move by an executive of the company to cover up his sexual harassment of one of my assistants. With no union to protect us, we had no idea the law may have been on our side—if in fact it would have been.
In order to attract visitors to a museum I worked at in Newark, New Jersey, I developed a Day in Newark program for tourists, combining a visit to us with lunch in the Portuguese neighborhood and a tour of either a nearby art museum or the Thomas Edison lab in West Orange.
We got national publicity because some newspapers found the idea of Newark tourism
I realized that a student in my 10th grade class couldn’t read. When I asked how he got to the 10th grade, he said he’d always been quiet and polite, so the teachers—usually nuns—had passed him from grade to grade.
I worked with him, and two years later he was writing short stories and playing the lead in his senior-class play, which I directed.
In a West African seaport, I painted murals in a bar that was owned by the son of Rasputin’s private secretary. As a young boy in the Czar’s court, he sat on the knee of the Mad Monk himself.
Do you remember Janis Ian? Her hit record while a teenager was “Society’s Child.”
When I interviewed her for a magazine, I got a scoop. I found out that her new hit song “At Seventeen” was in fact about something that happened when she was sixteen.
“Why ‘seventeen’?” I asked.
Because, she said, it scanned better, which means the meter of the word “17” was a better fit for the music than “16.”
The lesson—be sure every line in your life scans well.
For a training video, they planned to cast actors and have puppets made that looked like them. This turned out to be too expensive, so they bought some puppets and then looked for actors who resembled the puppets. That’s how I got the job—I looked like a puppet.
Next, for a music video for the Lumineers, I was rotoscoped into a cartoon.
Please note: I’m available to impersonate an actual person.
I worked with one of the greatest American actors late in her life. When we tried out a play of mine in a summer theater, I realized that even if the project went no further (and in fact it didn’t), I would never hear words of mine spoken more beautifully and movingly.
This is what happens: you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror, and of course you recognize yourself, but what would the person you used to be think of what you’ve become?
First you deferred what you wanted to do because of what had to be done. The reasons were natural and normal: keep your job to feed the family, to pay the bills; never make waves.
The first time you did something wrong and hurtful—but practical—was difficult; the second time was easy.
And so you’re someone your earlier self wouldn’t waste a moment with.
Have you the skill and courage to be your own mediator? Set a meeting up between the two of you, encourage compromise to foster mutual respect.
And hope it’s not too late.
It isn’t just alcoholics who deserve respect and protection from comedy. I’ve learned that lesson—for example, when I was part of a comedy act and we performed—just once—a sketch about a teenage girl in Europe forced to hide from the Nazis in an attic.
Our comic take was that she acted like an American teenager, reluctant to give up her youthful diversions, and refused to go. Her father said, “Ja, no more strudel.”
But no one laughed! They just sat there!
Well, I want to say a few words now about cancer. No matter how much you’ve thought about it, or watched it destroy the people you’re close to, or people you’re acquainted with, it’s never what you think.
You have to decide—is it your body’s betrayal of itself, or the result of where and how you’ve lived, or maybe the consequence of an abduction by aliens?
When I was diagnosed, the first thing that happened, since my job provided insurance from Aflac—I started getting checks—all kinds of money—it was like winning the lottery!
Next, I had to look at my life in perspective. I decided it had been pretty good.
If there wasn’t going to be much more of it, well, I couldn’t complain too much.
Don’t get me wrong—it took a while to get to that point.
I’m okay now, and I’ve been okay long enough to feel at ease about it. I had surgery, radiation, humiliation, side effects—but the result is I’m okay.
It’s like finding unexpired time on a parking meter—a bonus, a gift, not rare, not remarkable, but a kick in the existential pants.
And nothing like what I’d ever thought.
There’s something odd that happens when you act. You go through something in a play or a film, and you start believing you’ve really done it.
One character I played was autopsied for a TV program. (The autopsy table, by the way, was really uncomfortable.) Then I got dressed and went home.
Recently I played a man dying of lung cancer, with his daughter at his side.
Our scenes were intense and emotionally draining. Afterwards, I found myself thinking: Hey, that’s it—I’ve done dying. We’re wrapped. I won’t have to go through that again.
Delusions can be comforting, can’t they?
The last story I’m going to tell is about the way people connect. It refers to one regret in my life, which will have to stand for all the regrets:
We were producing something I wrote based on the history of an old canal in New England. My friend Geoff was preparing a musical score. He was stuck in writing music to accompany an essential piece:
At Lowell, near the end of the Canal,
in a mill building restored for history and culture,
a beautiful Cambodian
demonstrates a blessing dance of her country.
She wears embroidered silks and dances barefoot,
all curves, stillnesses, and concentration.
The dance blesses this place and us.
It has survived her country’s tragedies.
The audience represent a hundred years of immigration
from most of the continents.
It was just an interval, the Anglo-Saxon hegemony in New England,
though not quite finished yet, an interval between the Indians
and then the hungrier nations, each in its turn—
as the Canal was an interval between ox teams and the railroad—
as each patch of Earth belongs,
as each second of light belongs
for a moment to each of us.
Curves, stillnesses, concentration.
The problem for Geoff was: what did Cambodian classical dance music sound like?
Today we would go online to find examples, but this was before that was possible.
I had an easy solution: I was planning to visit my mother, whose town had a Cambodian neighborhood, including stores that sold goods imported for that population.
I went to three of the stores. The music being played—and sold on CDs—was Cambodian popular music, a blend of East and West, which I found unpleasant.
More important, it wasn’t the classical music I’d heard when the dancer performed.
At the last of the stores, the kid at the music counter referred me to an old man at the back of the store, near the tables of clothing and silk cloth. Managing to communicate,
with his limited English and my non-existent Cambodian, I explained what I was looking for. He smiled and disappeared for a few minutes, returning with a single tape cassette, with text on its box in both Cambodian and English.
As I assured him that this was what I was looking for, he smiled again. I recognized that smile from other encounters. I knew what it meant: that I respected his culture; that I wanted to share some part of it; that this stranger on the other side of the world
honored something of what he had left behind.
The old man asked me to wait. He brought out something from the back of the store,
a small hand drum. He explained what was obvious when I looked more closely:
it was handmade and covered with snake skin. He let me tap it.
The price of the beautiful drum was more than I could afford. But I’m sorry I didn’t buy it.
I think this is the question to ask about regrets: whatever different path you might have taken, wouldn’t you be the age you are, with the face you wear, and maybe even in the place you find yourself today?
This isn’t another story, just an observation:
The astrophysicist talks about dark matter and how it must exist although it hasn’t been found,
and I remember hearing that this universe may be only one of an infinite number of universes,
and then I think that, despite that practically unimaginable vastness,
we usually think about how much fiber we need to eat daily, and how will we find the money to pay the tax bill, and where did I leave the tack hammer
and how we touched each other that night in February years ago.
Someone just sent me a note—it’s someone I’ve known since we were both 16—“You always seem to be happy and are doing so many fun things.”
I could reply: It’s not what you think—but maybe, after all, it is.
In any case, there are other stories I can tell .
Visit again, and I will.