Sunday, July 15, 2018
No doubt some industrious German has catalogued ways in which novels can end. I don’t have that tome, but can imagine it. Therefore, I will supply my own partial list.
Some novels are coterminous with the life of the principal character. When Emma Bovary dies, the novel named after her ends as well. Josef K. dies "like a dog" at the end of Kafka’s The Trial. The hapless Clyde Griffiths in An American Tragedy ends in the electric chair after about a thousand pages chronicling his life and crimes. Nothing signifies ending as much as the death of the book’s hero or heroine.
Many novels posit a kind of quest. The novel finishes when the quest is complete or has gone so completely awry as to be doomed. Treasure is found in the form of silver coins at the end of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The prospectors in B. Traven’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre lose their wealth in the end of that novel. The monstrous Judge in Blood Meridian somehow absorbs the kid, now become a man, into his embrace, although McCarthy adds an enigmatic final epilogue complicating the book’s system of causes and effects. Ahab’s search for the white whale ends when Moby Dick rams the Pequod and drowns everyone but the narrator. (The grandiose, Wagnerian ending of Moby Dick is the "gold standard" for an ending of this sort – the kind of conclusion against which other ways of ending books is to be judged.)
Simply stated, most novels tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The novel concludes when the story or plot ends. Novels by Philip Roth and Saul Bellow are generally constructed around a plot-line and end when the story concludes. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment follows this pattern as do many novels by Hemingway and Faulkner.
But there are other approaches to ending a novel. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is done when the disorder unleashed in the world by Napoleon’s incursions into Russia is confronted and, then, resolved with a return to normality, here defined as peace. Some book’s end when the hero’s education is completed: Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Ellison’s Invisible Man have this structure. Philosophically inclined writers end their books when they have demonstrated the metaphysical or existential proposition motivating the writing: Sartre’s novels have this form as does Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Another device for ending a novel is the development of a counter-theme that posits a perspective completely foreign to that of the protagonist – from this new, and radically different, perspective the previously narrated events in the book are judged. Examples of this way of ending a novel are Joyce’s Ulysses in which the voice of Molly Bloom in the last section comments indelibly on the adventures of Leopold Bloom (and Stephen Daedulus) in the preceding 700 pages. Apuleis’ The Golden Ass ending with hero’s vision of the Goddess and his entry into a gnostic religious cult is similar – the conclusion of the book is related to, but undercuts most of what has gone before.
David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Thomas Mann’s The Confessions of the Confidence Man, Felix Krull, Part One are two novels that end anticlimactically with concluding chapters that don’t amount to much of anything. At least, with respect to Wallace’s huge book, critics and readers alike report that they feel somehow "cheated" or "disappointed" by the ending of the novel. I have a similar impression with respect to Mann’s book. Whether these books end unsatisfactorily and, if so, what this signifies is the subject of this essay.
Most critics profess disappointment with the way David Foster Wallace’s book, Infinite Jest, ends. The energy required to read this massive and daunting book seems disproportionate to the novel’s ending or lack of ending. If the reader expects revelation, the book’s ending will be distressing: in fact, nothing is revealed.
Early in the novel, the reader encounters an odd term: "fantods". In fact, the word often appears in the phrase "howling fantods." "Fantod" is a mid-19th century term for an irrational horror or fear, strong enough to induce a swoon. The etymology of the word is uncertain – "fantods" first appears in American pulp novels written about thirty years before the Civil War; in fact, the word may be a neologism. The eccentric artist and picture book author, Edward Gorey, resurrected the word and uses it in some of his works. Gorey was a peculiar figure, an aesthete who adopted the style and accoutrements of an Edwardian gentleman – the wan and obsessed figures in his macabre picture books, generally, haunt decrepit Victorian mansions and his stories seem set at the dawn of the automobile age, that is, around 1906. Gorey is an artist who might be described as a "decadent" and Wallace’s use of a term that he revived is significant: it is a clue about the kind of novel that Wallace has written.
Baudelaire, the progenitor of the decadent school in literature, announced that he sought "systematic derangement of the senses." Wallace’s Infinite Jest pursues this program to its reductio ad absurdam. Every character in the book without exception seems to be seeking "derangement of the senses" through illicit drugs or alcohol. Characters spend dozens of pages ingesting vast amounts of mind-altering substances. One man’s plight, waiting for someone to deliver his marijuana, occupies a dozen densely printed pages, thousands of words obsessing about when and how the weed will be delivered. The book ends with an orgy of Dilaudid use, also described over about 20 pages. These examples must suffice for literally dozens, if not hundreds, of episodes in the book. Writing at the end of the 20th century, Wallace embodies the sensibilities of late 19th century, fin de siecle decadent. The characters in his novel are mainly self-absorbed monsters, intensely attuned to the nuances of their various addictions. Infinite Jest’s subject, simply, stated is the nature of pleasure and pain. The people described in his book are engaged in various experiments involving pleasure and pain. The so-called "entertainment", a film so compelling that viewers exposed to it sink into a vegetative state of endless and lethal contemplation of its images, is a paradigm for addiction. Addiction is the pleasure principle distorted by the death instinct – that is, a mania for endless repetition that is ultimately deadly. As the book progresses, the death instinct, a drive at the core of addiction, becomes increasingly predominant. The characters either drug or drink themselves to death or slide into the throes of withdrawal. Foster’s thesis is that addiction may arise in many cases as an attempt to defeat depression. Clinical depression is the sinister twin of addiction – it is a prevailing pain that drives Wallace’s characters to drugs and alcohol. Thus, the whole vast enterprise of Infinite Jest reduces to an anatomy of melancholy and the means that Wallace’s alcoholics and addicts use to repress their depression.
Baudelaire and Huysman explored similar terrain. The decadent hero was a neurasthenic isolate, obsessive in his (these characters are all male) pursuit of pleasures ever more refined and outre. He wavers between suicide and ecstatic debauchery. These characters are exquisitely refined in sensibility, scholars of the arcane, and their supernatural cultivation is reflected in a vocabulary that is, both, immense and grotesque. Like Flaubert in his decadent works such as Salammbo and The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Wallace delights in bizarre words – there is an academic and monkish strain to his prose: he crams the book with linguistic curiosities. It’s evident that Wallace’s addiction, as a writer, is to peculiar and exotic words and he delights in strewing these gems throughout the book.
Wallace’s Infinite Jest seems closer to H. P. Lovecraft than to Dreiser or F. Scott Fitzgerald. In America, the decadent strain, following the early example of Edgar A. Poe (for instance "The Masque of Red Death"), migrated into horror. A curious antecedent to Wallace’s Infinite Jest is the story cycle by the American decadent Robert Chambers, The King in Yellow (1895) Chambers’ stories refer to a play that is similar to "the entertainment" in Infinite Jest. Those exposed to the play, called "The King in Yellow", a macabre story about demon-haunted Carcosa, succumb to the literary work’s influence – they become insane. Like Chambers, Wallace is fascinated with the concept of the lethal work of art, that is, the book or movie that displaces actual life to the extent that those beholding that art become so severely addicted to its contemplation that their lives are forfeit. In fact, Wallace’s Infinite Jest occupies a position analogous to the "entertainment" – the book imposes demands on its readers that are exorbitant and unreasonable. The book is too long, too erudite, too staggeringly repetitive – it offers the same experience, bemused contemplation of lethal addiction, over and over and over again. The book proposes itself as an addiction itself. And, those who have read the book to its end (or non-ending) will have eerie sense that their relationship to the novel is the shadow of the various deadly addictions depicted in the book.
Chambers derived his Carcosa from Ambrose Bierce, possibly the pre-eminent American decadent. Lovecraft, in turn, derives his Cthullu mythos and other aspects integral to his short stories and novellas from Chambers. Lovecraft has a showy vocabulary that is akin in some respects of Wallace’s thicket of exotic words, scientific terms, mathematical formulae and other esoterica. In fact, one of Lovecraft’s short stories, "The Hound" about a death-addict, exhumes all of the sinister and, fundamentally, corrupt esthetics of the decadents and displays them in a text that is only about 12 pages long – the tale embalms the central decadent theme: the sinister beauty of decomposition. Wallace’s morose encyclopedia of addictions, his delectation in describing various kinds of freaks (a monstrous spider-like dwarf, faceless babies, women without skulls), and the MacGuffin that is the engine of Infinite Jest’s plot, the deadly "entertainment", all seem closer to Lovecraft than to a writer like Saul Bellow or Philip Roth or, for that matter, Thomas Pynchon.
Most novels involve portraits of characters in a society that proposes to them various choices. Characters are driven by pleasure and pain but not at a primary level. The novel depicts a society in which institutions exist. Characters interact with those institutions and other characters on the basis of societal norms as to what is desirable or undesirable. Jane Austen’s characters are displayed within a framework of ideas about marriage and friendship that are communal and socially defined. Wallace strips away the institutions – his version of a Jane Austen novel would focus on the primal experience of sexual desire and the need to repeat the pleasure arising from sexual desire. In other words, his vision is severely, even, austerely reductive. Social institutions don’t concern him except as conduits for delivering pleasure and pain to his characters. The only institution depicted in depth in Infinite Jest is the tennis school, another symbol for organizing pain and pleasure into addiction – the students at the tennis school are, in effect, tortured by their instructors. The objective is to turn the boys and girls into professional athletes. But everyone knows that this objective is futile – only a vanishingly small number will be good enough to play professionally and, then, they will learn that professional athletes aren’t happy but rather victims of higher, and more intense, forms of pain. The students are encouraged to become addicted to tennis, to submit their lives to the sport, but this only leads to addiction. The tennis school is, in effect, an institute for producing addicts – the principal character, Hal, emerges from school as a monster of addiction; he seems scarcely human.
In light of the oddities of Wallace’s novel, it’s not surprising that the book can’t end well. The decadent pursuit of ever more abstruse and exotic forms of pleasure ultimately leads to a dead end: when all physical forms of ecstasy are exhausted, the libertine turns to pain. Pain (and its brother, death) become the objects of the hero’s quest. This is demonstrated by Wallace across the last 400 pages of Infinite Jest. The book’s hero, Don Gately, has been shot, lies paralyzed in a hospital bed, and, in order, to avoid relapse into his addictions, refuses the narcotic analgesics necessary to suppress his agony. Wallace spends hundreds of pages entombed with Gately’s mind – as Gately is tormented, he experiences compulsive memories, relives his past (a horror show), and, unable to speak, suffers the agonies of the damned. Addiction has transformed pleasure into pain. And, so, the book mirroring this lethal progression moves from accounts of depression and addiction toward the most fully developed and lengthy description of physical agony ever published.
In a 1996 interview on Los Angeles’ KCRW, Wallace disclosed to Michael Silverblatt that he had built the novel as a fractal structure. Fractals are mathematically intriguing systems – a structure that is organized as a fractal replicates the same basic formation on all scales. The best example for such a structure is the so-called Sierpinski triangle. A Sierpinski triangle is an equilateral triangle that is built from smaller equilateral triangles. Each smaller triangle is itself a Sierpinski – that means, that the smaller triangles are all comprised by even small triangles, a mise en abym that can be extended infinitely either to increase or decrease the size of the formation. Applied to literature, this structure means that every smaller unit of the novel recapitulates the themes and structures of the novel’s larger units. Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is built this way – each paragraph generally recapitulates the story HCE’s life and fall, an account that forms both the microscopic and macroscopic structure of the book.
Many phenomena in nature seems to grow according fractal formulae – a tree initially consists of a trunk and a branch, but each branch develops its own branch and those branches have twigs and the twigs have capillary twigs and so on. (The human circulatory system is similarly designed – at all scales it looks more or less the same.)
Needless to say, a fractal structure isn’t linear, can’t have climaxes, and should be uniform from outset to end. These characteristics define Infinite Jest – everything repeats and the chief obstacle that a reader faces in confronting this enormous book is that it is monstrously repetitive. There’s isn’t anything approximating a climax and there’s no rising or falling action. The big fight occurring in the middle of the book is showy, but described with such infinite exactitude that it can’t be followed – the bloody conflict dissolves into a welter of details. And, further, the fight, a pointless fracas, exists only to plunge Don Gately into the interior hell that he occupies for the book’s last 400 pages. Wallace’s book is a Moebius strip of endlessly replicated processes – pleasure leads to addiction leads to pain leads to miserable death or, alternatively, pleasure leads to addiction leads to pain leads to AA. (There’s more about AA in Wallace’s novel then there is in the whole AA program – the book is longer than AA’s founding documents, for instance, The Blue Book, and, certainly, more comprehensive.) An addicts embrace of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or NA or any of the other 12-step programs can’t be construed as a satisfactory and decisive ending of any kind. This is because AA is itself a program that is fractally organized – it’s not an objective but a process and the process involves endless repetition of cliches and truisms declared at endlessly repeated meetings. As portrayed by Wallace, and, I think, accurately, AA is a hellish antidote to a hellish problem – both addiction and AA involve ceaseless self-reflection on pleasure and the absence of pleasure. The Death Instinct, defined as a mindless drive toward repetition, governs both addiction and the alcoholic’s commitment to bearing witness to his or her struggle by endlessly narratives about addiction. Wallace seems to endorse AA in a full-throated unequivocal way – but he understands that AA is not the solution to the problem; in fact, it’s just another problem, albeit one that is less mortal – the problem of the alcoholic’s boundless self-absorption elevated into a program that mimics the compulsive features of the addiction. The "happy ending" to an addiction story might be construed as joining AA – but AA has as its mantra "one day at a time" and this slogan, namely that "recovery" is always temporary and provisional, doesn’t cohere into any kind of climax or satisfying conclusion. AA is just the addiction process domesticated.
For these reasons, Wallace’s Infinite Jest simply can’t end. The book is committed to a world-view that doesn’t allow for any ending except the death of the character. No character dies redeemed or victorious. Characters just arbitrarily die from accidental overdoses, mistakes, medical misadventures. Death doesn’t have a meaning – it just shuts off the flow of repetitive narrative from that character. Gately’s entombment in his own psyche, a place where memory torments him by endless recapitulation of his crimes committed as an addict, doesn’t end. The text just shuts down mid-thought as it were. On first reading, I thought that the book suggests that Gately is dying or had died. I’m now not convinced of that interpretation. The last pages of the book are more sinister – Gately’s Hell is infinite; it doesn’t end. Like Infinite Jest, it just goes on and on and on.
Thomas Mann published The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (Part One) in 1954. Felix Krull is Mann’s last novel. There is no Part Two as implicitly promised by the title. In fact, I think, the promise of a second part to the long novel is fraudulent. Mann’s con man seduces us into expecting a conventional novel with, perhaps, morals drawn about ethics and the role of deception in society. But the book doesn’t conclude with any satisfying thematic message communicated to the reader. Why should it? The book is the confessions of a criminal. What we see is what we get – no less and no more. Felix Krull is a book about appearances, about how physical beauty seduces not only the body but also the mind – viewed in isolation, the novel is nothing more than a series of sordid episodes arbitrarily ending with the hero’s seduction of yet another woman entranced by his charm and beauty. When you reach the end of this long and very intricately written novel, your first response is to turn the page and look for something more. Throughout the book, we’ve seen the hero indefatigably servicing various women – most of whom he doesn’t have to seduce: they are drawn to him like moths to the flame. In the final pages, the anti-hero sets his sights on the virgin daughter of his benefactor, the museum curator and scientist, Senor Kuckuck. Krull is also attracted to Kuckuck’s wife, a severe-looking and grave Portuguese woman infused with the ancient blood of the goddess matriarchs of the Iberian peninsula. Krull overcomes the reservations of the maiden, embraces her, and is, then, interrupted in his amours by the girl’s mother. Angrily, the mother sends the virgin to her room and advances on Krull like a matador approaching a doomed bull – Mann’s florid prose makes it obvious what will happen next.
This erotic interlude, however, replicates earlier sex scenes including an episode involving a wealthy, middle-aged countess who acts out rape fantasies with the picaresque hero. We’ve seen this sort of stuff before. In other words, there is nothing about the final sexual episode that represents a decisive plot development or that can be construed as somehow climactic. The book just ends, as it were, mid-thrust and the reader feels cheated. But, of course, the entire book is unreliable, the fabrications of a self-acknowledged con man, and, therefore, any reader expecting a meaningful ending to the novel is a dupe: of course, the end of the book is a cheat – this is programmatic: the entire novel is a con-game in which the readers are complicit as victims of the confidence scheme.
Mann’s novel divides into a prelude and, then, four episodes in which the hero demonstrates his prowess in committing frauds. Mann’s prose-style is Victorian – he writes from a standpoint that doesn’t acknowledge Hemingway or similarly laconic trends in German literature (for instance, the epigrammatic and terse style of writers like Wolfgang Borchert). The tone of the prose is similar to the high-flown rhetoric that Mann deploys in Death in Venice and, indeed, in some ways the book is a companion piece to that 1912 novella. (German scholars observe that Mann seems to be parodying Goethe’s autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit – Poetry and Truth – another layer of fraud perpetrated upon the reader: To what extent is the revered Goethe like the anti-hero of Mann’s book?)
In the prelude, our hero lives in the lap of luxury with his father, a producer of a noxious-tasting but popular cheap champagne. The family’s fortunes decline and Krull’s father kills himself. His frivolous mother and sister move to the big city, possibly to set up a brothel. Krull, who has been training himself for pleasure, departs his ruined home in Rheingau for Paris. He’s been in an ambiguous relationship with a painter and family friend, Godfather Schimmelpreester. This figure may (or may not have) sexually molested Krull – with Mann, it always pays to have a dirty mind. But, in any event, Schimmelpreester has posed the young boy, both nude and in elaborate garb, as a subject for his paintings. From these experiences, Krull has become intensely oriented toward physical pleasure and, also, the masquerade – he likes dressing up and becoming other people.
Schimmelpreester gives the youth a letter of recommendation to a hotelier in Paris. But, first, the boy has to evade military service. This is the book’s first episode in which Krull commits fraud. Appearing at the military conscription facility – the book seems to be set before World War One, perhaps, in 1906 – Krull implies that he is sexually deviant, demands to be granted access to an uniform so that he can do his patriotic duty and, then, pitches a fit, a seizure that convinces everyone that he is unsuitable for service in the army. On the way to Paris, at customs, Krull either steals or is given a pouch of jewels. He hides the jewels and becomes an elevator operator at a hotel. Gradually, he rises (ascends) to the position of waiter in the hotel’s swanky restaurant. During these adventures, Krull encounters the wealthy woman whose jewels he has hidden and, upon which, he relies to supplement his meager earnings at the hotel. The wealthy woman is a countess and she delights in having sex with the young man, someone she denounces for her pleasure as "a lascivious, rebellious servant-boy." Simultaneously, Krull has a series of relationships with prostitutes and other members of the demi-monde. The countess gives Krull more money and, in fact, praises him for appropriating her gems to his use. Krull sets up an apartment away from the dormitory in the hotel where he has been staying and delights in dressing up as a wealthy young nobleman and touring the city. One evening, while in this guise, he encounters the Marquis of Venosta, a dissipated young man in danger of being disinherited by his family, wealthy nobles in Luxembourg. The young man has a low-born girlfriend and doesn’t want to leave her. But his family is importuning him to go on a grand tour of the world, a way to enforce separation between the youth and his mistress. Krull and Venosta agree to switch identities – this aspect of the book has some elements of thrillers by Patricia Highsmith, particularly the Talented Mr. Ripley and one must imagine that she read Mann’s novel and adopted some of its plot elements. Krull uses Venosta’s money (or his parent’s money) to travel to Lisbon, the first leg of his ‘round the world tour. On the train to Lisbon, Krull meets the eccentric Senor Kuckuck who lectures him at length on paleontology, natural sciences, and, even, quantum mechanics. Kuckuck invites Krull to visit him in the bosom of his family. There Krull conceives an affection for both Kuckuck’s wife and daughter. After a vividly described bullfight, Krull discourses on love to the Kuckuck’s virgin daughter – here the novel comes to screeching halt for a long speech (it’s about 15 pages) that seems completely incongruous and out-of-character. This is Mann speaking directly to the reader, his last thoughts on erotic love. (In fact, the last sixty pages of book are congested with material of this sort – there is an elaborate letter that Krull writes to Venosta’s parents complete with forged signature in response to their equally long letter to their erring son; this material is important to Mann on another issue – it’s his envoi to the doomed European nobility with all their petty prejudices and ostentatious, if fascinating, folly, a topic that, one must confess, is off the radar-screens of modern American readers and, therefore, not just uninteresting but irritating when developed at length. And, of course, there is Kuckuck’s multi-page lecture on science when he encounters Krull on the train – a lecture that, also, seems misplaced since I don’t think anyone in 1906 knew much about quantum theory, one of the subjects discussed.) Gradually, the young girl succumbs to Krull’s ministrations and, just as he is about to make his conquest, mamma intervenes with her own agenda.
Throughout the book, Krull, writing to the reader in the first person, proclaims that he is not only extraordinarily beautiful, but, also, well-spoken – at one point, he is introduced to the King of Portugal and charms the old boy with his witticisms. Krull, further, declares that he is supremely disciplined – that he has taught himself how to write flawlessly in, not only the tone, but also the handwriting of other persons. (This art he acquired in order to carry forged letters from his father to his school teachers). He is a little like Hannibal Lector in that his tastes are much more highly developed than those of an ordinary person and his sense infinitely more acute.
It’s odd that Mann emphasizes Krull’s commitment to a very thoroughgoing and Teutonic kind of self-discipline. But this aspect of the novel signifies that the book, although it is without proper ending itself, nonetheless, represents Mann’s last testament with respect to issues that concerned him obsessively throughout his whole life. Therefore, we are faced with a paradox – although the novel doesn’t end in any way that the reader finds satisfactory, the book itself stands as Mann’s last word on lifelong themes.
The reason that Mann has Krull announce to us his rigorous self-discipline is that the picaresque hero is a figure for the artist. As early as 1903 in Tonio Kroeger, Mann declared that the artist must "die every day" and that he is a man set apart from others, one who dares to disturb surfaces to explore the dark pathologies lurking below. In Mann’s view, the artist is singled-out – like Krull, he has special abilities fostered through long, rigorous exercise. Further, he is a professional liar, a master of deceit and manipulation, indeed, a form of con-man. What is a novel, after all, but a long narrative made-up of innumerable lies that purport to be true. Krull starts by stealing candy from a local delicatessen, then, deceives state bureaucrats who seek to conscript him, and, then, advances into picaresque amorous adventures – love is always the realm of deception and, more significantly, self-deception and, therefore, lovers are conspicuously prone to being led astray by the hero’s con-games. But the deception expands. Krull adopts an entirely false identity, transposing himself for the Marquis of Venosta – this con subverts the order of the European aristocracy existing before World War One. He shows himself capable of writing in the high-flown literary prose affected by nobility. And, at last, he expands his con-game to the reader – he assumes the style of Goethe, Germany’s ultimate culture-hero, retailing his lies to the reader of the novel with all the ostentatious confidence of the Sage of Weimar. It’s all a con, because the book doesn’t reach a climax – the novel is a sort of hoax. When we get to the final paragraph, the hero’s sexual conquest of his host Professor Kuckuck’s wife, the book’s structure is revealed to be a scam – it leads nowhere and there is no Part Two. (I’m sure there are literary scholars who will remark that the book was originally planned to have a second part and that Mann had been brooding on this subject for most of his life, modeling Krull off the Rumanian con-artist Georges Manolescu whose memoirs were published in 1905; Mann wrote a short story in 1911 in which Krull appears – therefore, an argument can be made that the book’s peculiar ending is accidental: Mann died before he could carry the exercise to completion. I prefer to misread the book, perhaps, as a hoax perpetrated on the reader – an accurate depiction of the book on almost all levels.)
Krull is an unreliable narrator. In this regard, the book expands a theme central to Doctor Faustus (1947), a book in which the verbose narrator, a variant of Shakespeare’s Polonius, observes everything, tells all, and knows nothing. Faustus is a very profound book, in both the best and worst senses of that word. But it’s the reader that supplies the profundity to the novel – the narrator mostly speaks in platitudes. In Faustus, the narrator cons the reader unintentionally by misinterpreting what he sees and hears – he is witness to the horrifying deterioration of book’s protagonist, the demonic composer Adrian Leverkuehn, a figure whose collapse runs parallel to the decomposition of German idealism and culture into the Nazi cult. Krull is an altogether sunnier book, a comic novel, and one that asserts the importance of surface appearance – Oscar Wilde reminds us that "it is only shallow people who don’t judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible." But, of course, surface appearances can be manipulated and this is what Krull does throughout the novel.
I am moved by Felix Krull on a extra-textual basis. All my life, I’ve been struggling through Mann’s torturously intricate German prose. Mann, like David Foster Wallace, is the ultimate maximalist – Krull is long, 386 tightly printed pages: it contains probably about 60 pages of detailed descriptions of furniture, the lay-out of fin-de-siecle dining rooms and elevators. Mann doesn’t just sketch an interior; he gives you the blueprints, the color-scheme, and, generally, makes a few references to the zoning and construction codes applicable. In other words, he tells you far more than you want to know and, I must confess, a profound irritation with Krull’s last seventy pages or so: Mann shows off with a lengthy parody of the letter-writing styles of petty European nobility (for a modern reader, this is an annoying non sequitur) indulges in many pages of scientific speculation in the worst and most pompous Carl Sagan style, describes the contents of a natural history museum with pointless photographic accuracy, and, then, delivers a bull-fight also presented with frame-by-frame verisimilitude. Most annoying is an interminable discourse on love that postulates, ultimately, that the impenetrable solitude of human beings is an intense obstacle to eros and that sexual embrace begins with the capacity of people to shake hands with one another – this lecture, ostensibly delivered by Krull to the target of his seduction, is about as sexy as a gynecological handbook written by Hegel, and, further, is esthetically inapposite: there is no way that the callow, lecherous Felix Krull would be able to lecture his prospective inamorata in this way – it’s wholly out of character, although obviously important to the aging writer. Yet, notwithstanding these defects, there is something to be treasured in this book: here Tadzio, the unobtainable object of desire in Death in Venice, Mann’s masterpiece written 42 years before, speaks.
In Death in Venice, Aschenbach worships Tadzio, the embodiment of Phoebus Apollo, Ganymede, and Eros himself, from afar. Aschenbach idealizes the beautiful boy – a classic example of what Freud termed "the over-valuation of the object of desire." The dying writer cloaks his sexual lust in Apollonian terms: Tadzio is the image of the great love that leads, as in Plato’s Symposium, to the contemplation of the Forms, the ideas of Love and Beauty and Truth (all with capital letters). But, in fact, dark forces are at work – love equals death – and what Aschenbach believes to be the gentle embrace of the lucid sun-lit Apollo is, in fact, the Dioynisian orgy that leads to death. It’s a form a self-deception that destroys the elderly writer.
Krull was written when Mann had become Aschenbach and, then, some – he was in his eighties. In this novel, the beautiful boy speaks for himself – he is no longer a remote, idealized figure but a vibrant voice on the page. Mann imagines Felix Krull as supernaturally beautiful and attractive to both sexes – in a poignant comment, the old writer has Krull tell us that he senses a transient moment of revulsion in his male characters when they encounter Krull; they are disgusted by their own sexual impulses toward the boy. Krull epitomizes a charade, or confidence-game, that underlies all human life: we are led to regard the beautiful as evidence of the radiant Apollonian truth, but this is deceptive, a mask that the world wears. The Beautiful is a hook, a lure, designed to ensnare us. Below the glamorous mask, there is the dark chthonian realm, seething with uncontrollable desires and irrational instincts – and these desires and instincts are, ultimately, allied with death. Reality is masked: We think we are seeing Apollo, but, instead, the eros leads us on the path downward to the dark subterranean world of reptilian desires. (Mann demonstrated this most brutally in The Black Swan (Die Betrogen), also published in 1954, in which an upright, punctilious and menopausal matron falls madly in love with a much younger man. Before consummating her love, she is diagnosed with uterine cancer and dies – the growth of the tumor in her womb stimulated in her feelings of love and desire that were, in fact, literally pathological – symptoms of her deadly disease). Felix Krull is a comic novel, part of a tradition of picaresque narratives dating to Cervantes and, even, Petronius. The book ends in the bright sunshine of Lisbon with a seduction about to be consummated. It’s a happy book, without shadow – but, by giving a figure like Tadzio, here Felix Krull, voice, Mann closes the loop with his great works written almost a half-century before: love is deceit, the author is a con-man, art is fraudulent, and the sun is shining, the food excellent, the prospect of love imminent and all is well in the world.
Thursday, July 5, 2018
It takes one to know one – a flippant comment on the fact that most of what we know about Diogenes of Sinope, the cynic, comes from Diogenes Laertes’ book, The Lives and Opinions of Greek Philosophers, a rather slovenly compendium of anecdotes arranged by dubious categories with only a whiff of the philosophical about it. Writing in the 3rd century A.D., Diogenes Laertes tells his readers about the first Diogenes, a contemporary of Alexander the Great (and, therefore, Aristotle), a thinker who demonstrated his doctrine by living eccentrically about 400 BC. (The biographical compendium as it relates to Diogenes the Cynic would be equivalent to a modern author writing about Leonardo da Vinci.) Diogenes Laertes measured the truth of a philosopher’s opinions by whether the thinker lived in accordance with his creed. Hence, his book is heavy on anecdote and light on doctrine.
Diogenes the Cynic came from a mercantile family, upper middle class if those categories applied to ancient Greece. His father was a banker and the young philosopher early demonstrated his independence from his family of origin by defacing currency. This was a criminal act and, therefore, Diogenes was exiled from Sinope, an Ionian city on the Black Sea. The young man claimed as his defense a visit to the oracle at Delphi – supposedly the pythoness informed Diogenes that he should debase the currency. (Skepticism is warranted as to this story and all others about the Cynic.)
Diogenes found his way to Athens where he is supposed to have lived in a large ceramic tub once used to hold wine sediments. He proclaimed himself to be a follower of Heracles, that is, a devotee to virtue. But he defined virtue as an antinomian defiance of all societal norms. He urinated on people’s feet and defecated in public at the theater. When a wealthy man took him into his palace with the caveat that he not spit on the floors, Diogenes spit in the man’s face: "I could find no meaner vessel," he said by way of excuse. The Greeks called these practices anaideia – that is, the practice of "shamelessness."
Of course, we recall that Diogenes is supposed to have gone abroad throughout Athens waving a lantern in broad daylight to advertise that he was looking for an honest man. Curiously, his antics won him a following. He was named a cynic or "dog" because dogs fuck in the streets, shit where they want, and are shameless. Dogs are also faithful and will snap at their adversaries – Diogenes defined his fidelity to the truth as faithful and, therefore, dog-like. Ultimately, the ruler, Alexander the Great, is supposed to have come down to the marketplace to show his respect to Diogenes. Alexander asked Diogenes if there was anything for which he wished. Diogenes told the ruler to "step out of his light". Alexander is, then, alleged to have said that, if he were not Alexander, then Diogenes would be the man to whom he most would aspire to be.
Diogenes famously masturbated in the agora. When he was done, he said: "If only I could banish my hunger by rubbing my belly." He was uncompromising. When a young man told him that he was unsuited by disposition for philosophy, Diogenes commended suicide to him – better to die, than to live improperly. Someone once misunderstood Diogenes and said that his whole doctrine showed that life was not worth living – Diogenes replied that it was life ill-lived was not worth living.
Much philosophy is transcendent in its orientation: the philosopher seeks the truth about God or the Forms – the vector of thought is upward or inward to the divinity that lies within the soul. Diogenes’ thought was not systematic and is transmitted in the form of anecdotes and aphorisms. His ideas are immanent – they are vectored downward to the earth and the flesh. He proclaimed that man was a natural being subject to certain desires and appetites and that there was nothing unseemly or obscene about living naturally. He is the anti-Plato. When asked about his identity, Diogenes said that he was "the mad Socrates."
Diogenes is supposed to have died from eating raw octopus or, perhaps, from an infected dog-bite. He told his followers to throw his body outside the city walls to be devoured by birds and beasts of prey. When a disciple remonstrated with him about these obsequies, Diogenes said: "I will be fine if you leave with me a stick to fend off the predators." "But why do you need a stick? You will be insensible and, therefore, incapable of using it." Diogenes responded that this made his point exactly.
After his death in Corinth, the people there raised a statue to his memory, the image of white dog carved from the finest Parian marble. Raphael, in his School of Athens, shows Diogenes sprawled at the feet of Aristotle.
By some miracle of karmic destiny, in 1956 Diogenes was reincarnated in G. G. Allin in Lancaster, New Hampshire. Allin was the son of a religious fanatic who proclaimed that he was going to kill all members of his family and bury them in graves that he had dug in the basement. He made his chidlren help dig the graves. Allin was named "Jesus Christ" Allin by his father and was declared the Messiah, an appellation that Allin took seriously later in his life. His little brother, Merle Jr., couldn’t pronounce his first name "Jesus" and called him "GeeGee" – hence, his stage name. G.G. liked the cross-dressing New York Dolls and, by the time, he was in second grade was wearing a girl’s dress to school.
Allin was the front man for a series of punk bands. He lacerated himself with broken glass on stage and claimed that he had raped both men and women during his performances. (There’s no real evidence for this.) Around 1985, during a performance in Peoria, Allin defecated on stage, smeared the shit on his body, and, then, threw feces at the audience.
Nothing succeeds like excess and so G.G. became a sort of star – he appeared on TV shows with Geraldo Rivera and Jerry Springer. Convicted of rape and assault, he served fifteen months in prison. (He raped a girl, burned her with cigarettes for 15 hours, and drank her blood.) A psychiatric evaluator said that he was "courteous, candid, and intelligent." Of course, he was a heroin addict.
Allin’s schtick of shitting on-stage was compromised by his heroin addiction. Opiodes, of course, are severely constipating. Accordingly, Allin couldn’t defecate on command. Accordingly, he had to take Ex-Lax in increasingly large doses in order to move his bowels. Allin claimed that his shit was divine and that he was providing communion to his disciples when he defecated on stage and threw the stuff at them. Sometimes, he gobbled down a few choice morsels of shit before pitching it into the audience.
Around 1991, Allin began teasing his shows with the promise that he would commit suicide on-stage. This invariably attracted a crowd of people willing to pay 10 dollars a head to see G.G. off himself. But it was just a tease – Allin kept up the shit-eating stunt and continued to cut himself at shows, but he survived them all.
In the summer of 1993, Allin told everyone that he was at the height of his powers as a rock and roll messiah and that he was going to kill himself on-stage. Allin’s band, the Murder Junkies, was led by his brother, Merle Jr. Merle Jr. wasn’t about to participate in his brother’s death and so he refused the gig. Allin went to a small club in the East Village and tried to perform alone, a capella as they say. He broke the microphone on his skull and it seemed as if the show would be canceled before it began. But, someone found another microphone and Allin shouted out three songs. By this time, he had punched several members in the audience, cut open his chest, and was throwing feces around. A riot ensued. Bottles were thrown and a number of people were hurt. Pursued by a crowd hoping to beat him up, Allin ran down an alley. He was barefoot and wearing a leather jock-strap but nothing else. He met his girlfriend, Liz, nearby and pulled off her mini-skirt. Wearing the mini-skirt, he wandered around the East Village getting into fights with people.
Later, Allin went to the apartment of a punk rocker who went by the name of Johnny Puke. Allin shot up with heroin and passed-out. Johnny Puke and his girlfriend noticed that Allin was snoring stentoriously. They took some polaroids cuddling with the inert Allin. The next morning, Puke found that Allin was cold and stiff – he was dead. The cops were called – Allin was wearing a leather jock-strap, was smeared with shit and blood, and had a Nazi helmet on his head.
G.G. Allin was buried in Vermont where his mother, Arleta, lived. He had given instructions to the undertaker that he not be embalmed and that his corpse not be washed. In some ways, this was the equivalent of Diogenes’ demand that his corpse be pitched outside the city walls and left as carrrion for predators. There are thirty minutes of VHS footage, now on You-Tube, showing Allin’s funeral. Allin’s grey and bloated corpse is in a casket under a picture of Jesus. Punks pat the body, stick things in its mouth, and put booze and cigarettes on Allin’s chest. The undertaker, wearing a suit, opens the casket more completely so that the onlookers can see that the grey-blue cadaver is naked except for a leather vest and a jock-strap. People drink some beer and spill it on the body’s face.
Allin’s mother erected a nice granite stone over her son’s grave. But fans came and smeared the granite headstone with feces and pissed all around it, leaving cigarette butts and beer bottles. Arleta was appalled and she had the gravestone removed.
Monday, May 7, 2018
She was an alcoholic and drug addict. She lived in a house on the shore of Lake Minnetonka. She had friends and a long, white boat with a powerful engine. She kept the boat moored at a dock where her lawn became lake. She had one daughter and was married three times. She married the father of her daughter when she was 17 or 18. She divorced and, then, married again when she was about 30. She divorced and lived alone or with various boyfriends for a decade or so. She married a man who may have been some kind of Assyrian or Persian gangster. He was very controlling but, also, protective. She suffered from kidney and liver failure. She endured dialysis but it didn’t really help her. She died for a very long time, sometimes, comatose, other times, partially awake and murmuring things that didn’t entirely make sense. She was moved from one hospital to another at the insistence of her husband. She was the subject of litigation because the final hospital thought that she was doomed and half-rotten in their intensive care and that someone should pull the plug and this was something that her husband would not authorize. It was all a battle for control except the situation was one that on one could control. She died before the lawsuit could be fully played-out. She was embalmed and put in a box. She was taken in a rented Suburban to a rural cemetery somewhere between the Indian reservation at Red Lake and Thief River Falls. She was buried beside her mother and father. She had two mourners at her funeral: her older brother, Jeff, and her husband who was reputed to be a Persian or Assyrian gangster. She was buried many hundreds of miles from where she lived on the shore of Lake Minnetonka, laid to rest on a patch of dry land like an island between bogs and tamarack swamps fifty miles south of the Canadian border. She was Julie’s cousin. When she was a little girl, she was raised with her cousins in Albert Lea and she spent summers on Grandma Sena’s farm near Albert Lea. Her daughter, Robin, arranged a memorial celebration at Lord Fletcher’s, a bar and grill on Lake Minnetonka that her mother had frequented. Her older brother, Jeff, didn’t attend the celebration and told Robin that no one respected her dead mother because she was the "town drunk."
I don’t think the dead woman had much choice about being a drunk and heroin addict. God made her that way.
When I was little, people amused themselves by taking a ride. Everyone would load up in the car and, then, Daddy would drive out into the country and, after an hour or so, might stop for an ice-cream sundae at Bridgeman’s, an ice cream parlor that was very popular when I was a boy, but, then, apparently, became unpopular and vanished. (Maybe, Bridgeman’s vanished because gas became expensive and people couldn’t afford to go for a ride in their motor-cars to amuse themselves and, only someone very fat or very self-indulgent, would make Bridgeman’s a destination, preferring instead to sort of happen onto the ice cream parlor as opposed to making it the object of the trip.) Sometimes, although this was very rare, we would go as far as Lake Minnetonka, the big body of water about 20 miles to the west of Minneapolis.
In those days, open, unpopulated land still remained between Minneapolis and its suburbs and the big lake. Hopkins was where the city ended and the Main Street in that town was still seven or eight miles from the nearest Minnetonka bay and shoreline. This meant that you drove for fifteen or twenty minutes through a wilderness of old, partially abandoned gravel quarries, decaying dairy farms, steep hills staked with raspberry plants, and narrow, cold lakes in forgotten valleys before coming upon an intricate landscape of marinas and villages inserted into isthmuses between great expanses of water, sometimes vibrant with white-caps, arched bridges tall enough to allow yachts to pass between adjacent bays in the lake, shorelines congested with ice-houses pulled off the water and standing on the beach like beehives, great grey mansions turning their rumps to the road so as to open picture windows upon the sunsets over Lake Minnetonka, water-side golf courses for the very wealthy and little sordid-looking resorts and trailer courts between brown cattail-studded marshes where redwing blackbirds swooped and chattered in the air. It was a place completely different from the suburbs where we lived and seemed strangely familiar to me – the little rustic gas stations with stucco walls and red tile roofs and the lake-side taverns and grills extending piers into the water so that people could visit in their fishing boats and skiffs and yachts, the little towns with their streets opening onto the lake and their old resort architecture, fanciful towers and Ye olde shops selling ice cream and salt-water taffey along the main streets, and the sheer complexity of the lake itself with its hundred involuted bays and slender necks of land and its auxiliary platoons of swamps and the big amusement park at Excelsior with the creaking wooden roller-coaster that was so big and so terrifying: all of this reminded me of the seaside in New Jersey, also complicated with saltwater marshes and streams and tidal flats and big dunes on which boardwalks had been built. Minnetonka had hundreds of miles of shoreline and, although I have lived in Minnesota, all my life I have never seen the lake’s western-most bays and harbors, the remote villages in West Tonka where, I suppose, the great prairies extending toward the sunset and the Dakotas and Montana began. I have never taken a ferry to the Big Island where there was once a huge amusement park, vanished even before World War One. I have walked on the lake in a city of ice fishers once a long time ago, but I can’t recall ever being out on the waters of Minnetonka when the ice had gone out and left the bays and harbors open for the fleets of sailboats that fluttered back and forth, tacking against the wind, like butterflies.
Once I went to the Old Log Theater located somewhere on Lake Minnetonka. This was a summer-stock theater built for the amusement of rich people, like the Dayton’s and the Pillsbury’s, who had elaborate mansions on the hills overlooking the water. It was modeled on the summer-stock theaters on Cape Cod and had a rustic look, built, as the name implies from logs, with a hunter-green shingled roof. The Old Log Theater was the first repertory company in the Twin Cities area, pre-dating Tyrone Guthrie’s famous regional theater downtown by a decade or so. Some famous Hollywood and TV actors and actresses began their careers at the Old Log Theater but I can’t recall their names – the place specialized in London East End farces such as "No Sex please, we’re British" and "Don’t Drink the Water."
In High School, I played trombone and sat next to a boy a year older than me named Peter Emblom. Peter Emblom was a very good musician and he played the trombone in a way that made the instrument sound sweet and articulate. By contrast, I could never make my horn do anything but utter rude blatting sounds. Emblom played in a brass rock ‘n roll group modeled at the band Chicago. Once they played a concert at the Old Log Theater, a celebration for the release of their record, and I recall attending in a school bus chartered by my High School. It was a fine concert and I still remember how impressed I was. I often wonder what happened to Peter Emblom and, certainly, I hope that he remains a professional musician playing with some world famous orchestra. But I don’t know.
Lord Fletchers in Spring Lake Park has seen better days. The building is constructed of dark wooden panels and exists mainly to provide toilets and a bar and a kitchen for a big blonde patio that extends long piers out into the small and shallow bay. In good weather, the mooring places on the piers are all occupied and, in fact, sailboats and cruisers queue in the deeper water waiting for a place to tie-up. Big parasol-shaped awnings protect the people dining and drinking at the tables on the patio and, at night, cascades of Christmas tree lights are supposed to make the place a fairyland and, in fact, create a sort of tawdry and romantic atmosphere.
The bar and grill are gloomy places, also with dark-paneled walls, although on the upper level there are some windows opening out upon the water. In the lower level, a couple of party rooms with small wooden bars equipped with beer taps open out onto the patio and the docks extending into the bright water.
The dead woman’s daughter had set up slide-show with many hundreds of pictures of her mother. The dead woman had been very photogenic, with remarkably expressive eyes. Plastic surgery had kept her cheeks and chin and throat taut until pretty much the end of her life. There were no pictures of her taken during the last five years – the most recent image was dated 2013. In the slide show there was a very good picture of all the cousins taken at the dead woman’s second wedding – I recall that the banquet and dance was held at the Lafayette Yacht Club, a great ornate temple to wealth located on a low bluff between two huge bays on the lake. My wife wore a sequin blue dress to the wedding and she was the most beautiful woman in the picture.
Most of the people at the Lord Fletcher’s celebration were pictured in one or a dozen of the slides showing on the screen and so the guests watched carefully and commented on how lovely the dead woman had looked and then made cooing and happy sounds when they glimpsed themselves on the screen, not themselves as they now looked, older and fatter and sadder, but themselves as they had been in the past, taking their pleasure on the great lake or toasting with glasses of wine in taverns or on the Lord Fletcher’s patio jutting out into the sunset or skiing near Lake Tahoe (where the dead woman’s family owned a house) or feasting in Acapulco or Los Angeles.
The party room was packed with people and it wasn’t a sad event and, sometimes, some of the older party-goers went out onto the deck to smoke cigarettes and blink in the bright sunlight at the little bay still grey with ice except around the very edges of the water. Some of the windows were a little dingy and the toilets were grimy and the old bar and grill with its archaic steak-rooms with dark cherry wood walls and ruby-red carpets, stained here and there, seemed not exactly as clean as they could be and the whole place, except for the brand new decks outside, exuded a mood that was Sinatra-era, a little depraved yet still stodgy and conservative and, upstairs, the old decadent marina rats, all of them intensely alcoholic, were getting juiced at the bar, wearing yachting caps and blazers with brass buttons and teasing weary old waitresses who they had known for half their lives.
Of course, dead woman’s parents had been alcoholics and there was a good deal of violence in the family and the deceased told my wife once, when she was herself very drunk and had just beaten her boyfriend bloody, that her father used to beat her mother and that this went on and on and that she had always wished that her mother would take a knife and cut out her father’s heart although this never happened. Her parents stopped drinking and her father channeled all of his considerable energy into his excavating company and he went from being a hungover man bearing down on a shovel in a cloud of mosquitos in the swamps of a northern Minnesota Indian reservation to the owner of a multi-million dollar company, a firm that once bored a tunnel two-hundred and fifty miles through the Sierra Nevada from the snow pack high in the mountains to downtown Los Angeles. The company did the tunneling and excavation at the Denver Airport and had other high prestige projects, including many in Mexico City, and their motto was always to get the bid, be the low-bidder, and, then, use your battalion of lawyers to sue for extras and change orders. In the end, the empire imploded and the company was banned from doing business in California due to its "organized crime connections" – allegedly, the firm used the mob to deal with thorny zoning issues and labor concerns. But, by that time, the dead woman was set up in her house in Spring Lake Park, pretty close to her watering place at Lord Fletchers, and she had her 30 foot yacht and her snowmobiles and dogs and, if she hadn’t been both an alcoholic and drug addict, probably would have done all right for herself.
Although the dead woman always had platinum blonde hair when I knew her, she was born brunette. A picture of her taken in High School shows a waif with enormous, compelling, and tragic eyes. They are the round, wet eyes of a prey animal, doe-eyes. The little girl was 16 and, then, pregnant. She looks beautiful and unutterably lost and haunted, a tiny fugitive who has just emerged from some terrible, wolf-haunted woods.
I have always thought that some enterprising publisher in the Twin Cities should prepare a guide book and history of Lake Minnetonka, a sort of Lone Planet gazetteer for the place. The history section would recount how Minneapolis hotels expanded to open resorts on the shores of the big lake and how there were street car lines that started downtown, on Hennepin Avenue, the main street in Minneapolis, and ran express service to Excelsior and the amusement park and, then, connected with steamers that plied the lake, taking holiday-goers to the various hotels, either grandiose or humble, in the bays and inlets of the lake. There was the huge amusement park briefly adorning Big Island and other islands that were off-limits to anyone but the very wealthy. There was the time that Frank Lloyd Wright was arrested in a motel on a Minnetonka beach and charged with a Mann Act violation. And there were gangster stories, tales of mobsters from Chicago hiding out at fishing resorts on the lake, rumors of the heirs and heiresses of the grain milling companies gone mad or crazy and committing suicide by drowning, boats with corpses in them drifting in the morning mists and the big lake serpent, Lou, probably the last of the prehistoric sturgeons inhabiting the depths of the lake (30 feet to 121 feet), seen for the final time around 1980 and, then, presumably lost forever. There was the time in the summer of 1964 when the Rolling Stones played at Excelsior Amusement Park, entertaining a crowd of about 300. The next day, Mick Jagger, who had an infection, when to the pharmacy in Spring Lake Park and, while waiting in line, met Jimmy Hutmaker. Jimmy was a mentally retarded man who lived in town, very friendly and gregarious, and, as is the case in a small village, he was regarded with warmth by his neighbors and thought of, generally, as the town’s good will ambassador to the world. (There was a fellow like this in Austin, where I now live, who always appeared when anything dramatic was underway so that he could participate by floridly directing traffic – he would be seen at accidents and where trees were knocked down in a storm, standing in the middle of the street and directing traffic with a big grin and expansive hand gestures, something that the police tolerated so long as he didn’t get too close to the calamity requiring their attention. Once, a huge house was put on rollers and dragged down one of our principal thoroughfares and the retarded man took the lead, marching up the street in front of the house that was creeping forward behind him, the mentally retarded man like a drum major, holding off the traffic on side streets and leading the procession down the road – an acceptable thing except that his enthusiasm far outpaced the house which was being towed with all due deliberation down the street so that he was busily closing intersecting side streets eight or nine blocks in front of the house-on-wheels, much to the chagrin of local motorists.) Mr. Jimmy, as people called the retarded man, was a little irate because the pharmacy clerk had run out of cherry syrup and so he couldn’t get a spritz of cherry in his coca-cola. "No cherry coke today, Mr. Jimmy," the pharmacist announced. Whereupon, Mr. Jimmy is supposed to have turned to Mick Jagger and said: "You can’t always get what you want." It’s a wonderful story and most compelling with only one disadvantage, namely that it isn’t true.
I grew up in Eden Prairie, about ten miles southwest of Lake Minnetonka, but it was rare that we traveled that short distance to the lake. Nearer lakes beckoned us, particularly deep fjord-like Bryant Lake and hot, shallow Round Lake, both places where we swam in the summer. The huge open expanses of Lake Minnetonka and the lakeside lanes shadowed with old trees hiding mansions were foreign to us.
After the celebration at Lord Fletcher’s, Julie and I drove to my mother’s house in Eden Prairie. We spent an hour or so visiting with her before driving into downtown Hopkins to a Brazilian restaurant in that town.
Every Saturday when I was a kid, my family drove to Hopkins and shopped at a Red Owl on the corner of Shady Oak Lake road and old Highway 7. (This Saturday afternoon, when I finish writing, I’ll go to the Walmart grocery store in Austin and see the large Mexican families all gathered together to buy their groceries for the week and I will reflect that this custom is not so different from the way my family bought groceries in the sixties and early seventies.) A half-mile away, Red Owl groceries had its headquarters, some big warehouses in an industrial park north of Hopkins’ main street marked with the huge icon of an owl’s head, bright red and white, like something you might expect to see emblazoned on a soda pop can. The Red Owl grocery store at Shady Oak Lake Road is long-gone and the warehouses have been purchased by some other chain of food stores, but the roads into Hopkins remain the same, unchanged from my vivid youthful memories – the hill by 494 to steep for building, the swamps, the old neighborhoods built up in the late forties and fifties hidden by tall trees and, even, the inexplicable zones where nothing has been built, waste lots that are, I suppose, too swampy to be developed.
Downtown Hopkins is also, more or less, like it was forty-five years ago. The old movie theater with its vertical stucco tower pointing like an index finger into the sky is gone, a victim of the era of multi-plexes, but the bars dating back to World War Two and the Legion post and the bowling alley have all survived. There are now storefronts with Spanish writing on them and Asian groceries on the corners but the general physiognomy, as it were, of the town remains, more or less, the same as before.
Samba is a Brazilian restaurant, family operated – the owner is a dignified Brazilian gentleman with fluffy white brows who may be about sixty. His two sons, one of them fat and the other skinny, serve as waiters. They are very friendly people and they will often touch you when they speak, tapping your shoulder or casting a friendly arm around your neck or patting you on the back of the hand. They like to tease their customers – when my mother asked for a big spoon to put her leftover meal in styrofoam carton, the waiter brought a tiny tea spoon (although he had hidden behind his back a big serving spoon.) Similarly, when my mother asked if her dish could be prepared without much spice, the waiter, then, relayed to his partner that the dish should be made as spicy as possible – this causing my mother to redden and wave her hands in the air to signify: "No, no, this was not what I meant." The old proprietor likes it when you say that he looks like his waiters, one of three brothers. He feigns dismay when someone calls him grandpa. It’s all pleasant enough and schtick to promote a larger gratuity and, in that respect, by and large successful.
My mother is from a small-town in Nebraska and, like most people from places of that kind, she’s very voluble and has no anxiety about talking to strangers. She asked the proprietor about how he came to open his business in Hopkins and he told her that he had operated a restaurant in Rio de Janeiro, but the economy was poor and the business failed. So he emigrated to the United States where he worked as a traveling salesman for granite – apparently, Brazil produces lots of granite. When he had earned enough money, he invested in the restaurant and brought his boys on board as helpers. The proprietor explained this to my mother sitting beside her at a chair that he pulled away from another table.
"The restaurant business is very difficult," he said. "This winter, when it kept snowing every weekend, business went down to nothing and, then, they sometimes have road work and close the main street." He sighed. "Some of it you can’t control."
My mother frowned: "But you had the initiative to start the restaurant."
The Brazilian gentleman mimicked wiping sweat off his brow. "Hard work," he said.
At Lord Fletcher’s, the men and women’s toilets are adjacent to an open room where there are pool tables and a door that opens onto the back deck and the docks. I went outside. The sun was warm but the big lake’s breath was cold against my lips and cheek – the ice melts on a lake from the shore inward and the bay was still crowned with a cap of ice like a cataract in an eye.
Near the door leading to the docks, a calendar was marked with notations as to when the ice had cleared from the big lake. The earliest dates were at the middle of March. The last dates were in the first week of May. Curiously, ice lingered in Lake Minnetonka as late as May 6, 7, and 8 in the years 1856, 1857, and 1858. I wondered whether these cold years were correlated with a volcanic eruption somewhere, great clouds of ash and cinder caught in the jet stream and diluting the sunlight that reached the earth. But research showed me that the famous, and deadly, year without a summer was 1816, a cold time when ash from the eruption of Mount Tambora blotted the warmth out of the sky and caused widespread famines in the northern hemisphere. I didn’t find any eruptions clearly correlating to the cold years in Minnesota between 1856 and 1858. Volcanoes are always erupting somewhere, often with conspicuous loss of life. Aetna erupted in 1853 and ash in the atmosphere caused famines in northern Europe but I didn’t find anything suggesting that these effects were translated to the American Midwest.
"Civilization," Will Durant wrote, "exists only by geological consent."
A touchstone for me is William Carlos Williams, "To Elsie", the famous poem that begins with the phrase: "The pure products of America go crazy..." Williams’ subject is a slatternly maid, illiterate and probably semi-retarded. The poem might be read as patronizing, but it’s not really about the ignorant servant girl – rather, Williams detects a strain of recklessness and uncontrolled violence in the American psyche.
While the "imagination strains / after deer / going by in fields of golden rod / in the stifling heat of September," there is something threatening in the atmosphere: "somehow it seems/ to destroy us..." Williams doesn’t exactly identify what "it" is. But he ends ominously: "No one to witness / And adjust / no one to drive the car."
In Williams poem, why is the weather "stifling" in September? We don’t control the weather. And you can’t always get what you want.
This morning on May 6, 2018, eight rifts are leaking lava into a suburban neighborhood on the flank of a Hawaiian volcano. Images on the news show red, spattering lava erupting among green trees, some of which are burning like torches. Roads have cracked open and are being re-paved with viscous magma.
The Hennepin County Sheriff’s department announced on Saturday, May 5, 2018, that the ice had official melted out of Lake Minnetonka as of 12:15 pm and the waters were now clear for fishing and boating.
The food at the Brazilian restaurant was good, although a little bland. Brazilian cuisine is carnivorous with big slabs of beef and dense black sausages. Fried yucca plays the role of potatoes. Ground yucca is used for seasoning, but, I must note, a strange form of seasoning because the brown heaps of spice have no discernible taste.
I drove back over the familiar roads to the home where I was raised in Eden Prairie. My mother’s house stands on two acres a little below the crest of a hill. The land was once pitted and cratered with gravel mines, but those were leveled in the sixties before the subdivision was built. Nonetheless, the old stony slopes still persist, steep in some places with cul-de-sacs where there were once, I suppose, big hollow craters from which glacial stone was harvested.
On the steep road ascending to my mother’s house, the sun was aimed into my eyes, glaring through the trees at the top of the ridge, and I couldn’t really see very well. Someone cried out: "Deer!" I slowed to see four or five deer lazily crossing the road only a couple car lengths ahead of me. The deer were big animals with white rumps and, because the neighbor lady fed them, they strolled up the asphalt street with impunity. The animals were tame and stood in my way so that I had to let them pass, watching me over their grey shoulders with complete indifference. Pausing to nuzzle the sod, the deer walked across the lawns toward the setting sun. It was strange, almost surreal, to see the big animals completely unconcerned about my car, ambling slowly among the manicured shrubs and the mown lawns and the ornamental trees dug into people’s front yards.
"I almost hit those deer," I said. My mother said: "Roberta, feeds them. But they eat up my trees." She gestured toward her side-yard and the little crabtree apple orchard there.
At the Brazilian restaurant, in the sunny dining room, we talked about my brother, Christopher, who is paralyzed by ALS and, apparently, dying. By my standards, he is a wealthy man and lives on a beautiful estate in the forests on the Puget Sound. Although he is considerably younger that I, he retired a few years ago. His home is beautiful and the deep woods where it is situated are also stunning, tall straight trees surrounding his lawn and flower beds. The injustice of Christopher’s illness filled my mother’s eyes with tears.
Ten years ago, Christopher with Julie and I took my mother to Turkey. This was my way of making restitution to her. I have mentioned this before, but will repeat the story: in her last year of High School, my mother received a scholarship to live for semester in Turkey – it was an exchange program underwritten by a local service club, I think, possibly the Rotary Club in the small Nebraska village where my mother lived. But my mother became pregnant and the trip was out of the question. She was pregnant with me and a marriage had to be hurriedly arranged and, then, my parents moved to a remote village in western Nebraska so that I could be born as far away from their home-town as possible.
We don’t control the manner of our coming into the world. Nor do we control the way that we leave.
The night was dark and windy. When driving home from the Cities, I usually stop at Owatonna to buy a can of pop and some peanuts after pumping gas into the car. But I had bought gas earlier because driving along the curving inlets of the big lake had consumed an extra quarter tank and so I was a little bit low on fuel leaving the suburbs.
I made the cloverleaf where I-35 and I-90 intersect by about 9:30 pm. Earlier the moon hung above the horizon, a yellowish balloon buffeted by scudding clouds, but now the moon was gone, hidden away somewhere in the windy, echoing corridors of the night.
My wife saw the deer first, a big animal turned sideways to offer the broadest target to onrushing traffic, standing exactly astraddle the white center-line between lanes. The deer’s eyes caught the headlights and kicked the beam back at me as a green flash. Instinctively, I jammed on my brakes. The brakes are anti-lock and they didn’t catch but instead stuttered underfoot, a hollow sensation between the brake shoes gripping and releasing, as if I were darting from ice-floe to ice-floe in a rushing stream or clutching at vines and twigs as I fell into a vast abyss. I felt the car’s distress under my heart, the skid and, then, the release of the skid and the skid again. The deer surged to the side and hit the car, a loud thud, a punch that twisted me a little sideways. It was like a furry white wave suddenly arching up to crash against the side of the vehicle.
I pulled over to the side of the road. I didn’t know what to do. If the animal were wounded and lying in a ditch, I would have to call the highway patrol, I thought, or the sheriff’s department. After a moment sitting stunned behind the wheel, I looked in my rear-view mirror, measured the distance between where I was parked, engine still humming, and the oncoming headlights and, then, got out. The wind filled my eyes and nose and mouth. I walked about 150 yards from the car, the vehicle receding behind me in the enormous darkness, just dull red lights on the side of the highway. I had forgotten to pull on the four-way emergency flashers and so, I thought: "my car is now a target also." A semi-truck hurtled past, dragging a hot, diesel-smelling gale behind it – the gravel on the shoulder shuddered and flakes of leaves and paper spun up and around in the vortex behind the truck. I should have put on the emergency blinkers. There was no sign of the deer – the ditches were full of water from recent rains and snow-melt and cacophonous with frogs and the dark fields stretched out to gloomy shelter belts where the old oak trees were stark and bare, leafless, in the night.
I turned and hustled back to my car and, as I approached, I could hear my wife shouting to me.
"Where did you go?" she asked. "You left me here all alone." There was reproach in her voice. I should have turned on the emergency blinkers. "I had to look for the deer," I said. "But I watched," my wife said, "and you just vanished in the darkness."
"It’s very dark," I told her.
The next day, I examined my car carefully for any signs of damage. There were no dents or gouges on the driver’s side of my car where the deer had lunged into the speeding vehicle. The only trace of the deer-strike was a fan of six or seven stark-white hairs caught up in bottom of the back-seat door frame. I was surprised at how white the hairs were.
A few days later, I woke up with a empty, falling feeling in my stomach and my right foot jabbed so hard against the bedstead that I had a charley-horse in my calf.
How much of our lives do we really control? How much is sheer accident? What if I had stopped for gas in Owatonna? Wouldn’t the deer have crossed the freeway there at mile-marker 161 and been long gone, doing what deer do in the stubble of the fallow cornfields to the south of the freeway? What if I had hit the deer on the lane near by mother’s house? What if...
Our sense that we are in control of our lives is pretty much pure fiction.
Once when my children were tiny, I took them to Colorado. With my wife, we were staying in a motel to the southwest of the Continental divide near Granby, about 40 miles from Rocky Mountain National Park. In the evening, we got into my car and drove toward the divide. My idea was to watch the sunset from the crest of the pass.
It was a typical Colorado two-lane curving uphill steeply between green meadows adorned with columbine and overlooking a deep cleft in the mountains where a creek dived and splashed down from snowfields above us. Aspens were shivering in the chill mountain air and the road was completely deserted.
A big deer came up from the steep slope above the white ribbon of the creek. The deer galloped, as if in slow motion, into the side of car, twisted and, then, airborne, flew away.
I stopped my car but had no idea what to do. The road was completely still and I heard the wind whispering in the aspens and the sound of water pouring over boulders and bathing winter-killed trees fallen crosswise into the gorge.
The deer was on its side. Its chest heaved a couple times and, then, it was still. The animal had fallen down the slope a few yards from the traveled-upon asphalt. The light went out of the deer’s eyes. The setting sun poured itself over the mountain tops. There was one peak on each side of the road and, gilded with light, they each looked like the throne of God.
May 10, 2018
Friday, May 4, 2018
In late March, when winter really begins to bite in Minnesota, you may find yourself longing for a getaway, an escape from the cycles of freezing and thawing mud, the ice-storms that make roads and sidewalks lethal, the sudden down-bursts of heavy wet snow crushing everything and bursting your heart when you apply shovel to move it. You may desire to go some place warm and bright and merry. Why not consider spending Spring Break in Pittsburgh? It’s almost a southern city and has an enormous waterfront where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers flow together to form the mighty Ohio. The city’s climate, although decidedly continental, is probably a good 10 degrees warmer on average than Minneapolis. And the people are friendly, unassuming, and gracious. So why not come with me to fascinating Pittsburgh?
You can get too much sun in Mexico or the Virgin Islands or, for that matter, Florida and Hawaii. In Pittsburgh in late March, the sun is a scarce commodity, seldom seen, but when rationed out, golden. Mostly, you can expect rain of varying degrees of coldness – icy rain in the morning and, then, chilly drizzle until noon. After noon, the rain feels warmer and, somewhat, greasy, invisible except for low, scudding clouds – slick oily droplets decorating the awnings of buildings and the railings. Sporadic downpour make walking interesting, but you can pretty much wager that you will spend every day for weeks and weeks if you stay in town that long immersed in a slow, soaking drizzle. (Most cities the size of mighty Pittsburgh have many aggressive beggars and panhandlers to annoy passersby on their sidewalks – not Pittsburgh: the persistent chill and the periodic blizzards as late as mid-April and the continuous, creeping dampness seem to have eradicated these pests.)
For a few hours, the sun might pierce through the clouds and, then, the day is glorious, if chilly, and the last small slicks of ice and snow glow in the yellow light, and, then, the dramatic moment has passed, and the rare, old sun ceases its visit to ancient Pittsburgh and all is darkness and gloom once more.
Before traveling on your Spring Break to Pittsburgh, you will need to "bone up" on Non-Newtonian fluids. A Non-Newtonian fluid’s consistency depends on the stress exerted on the substance. Such fluids exhibit pseudo-plasticity. Pseudo-plastic fluids are reluctant fluids – they are substances that prefer to adher together, viscous, and resistant to flow. Such fluids may remind readers of certain prose styles – for instance, David Foster Wallace, often, writes in a rebarbative pseudo-plastic way.
Apparent viscosity of a Non-Newtonian fluid is defined as sheer stress divided by sheer rate. This equation describes tomato catsup’s reluctance to pour forth from the bottle in which it is packaged.
The San Francisco of the Rust Belt
Pittsburgh’s central city rises on a point of land where the Allegheny and Monongahela join. Innumerable bridges, dramatic structures painted brilliant sunburst-yellow, pass from the peninsula that seems about a quarter-mile wide to the steep river banks towering over the city. The river bluffs don’t rise to higher terrain that extends level away from the gorge. Rather, the bluffs ascend to narrow, razor-back ridges and, then, on their opposite faces descend in an equally precipitous manner into a labyrinth of hollows and ravines. With the exception of the central city, Pittsburgh and its suburbs is entirely vertical, a landscape of towering hills, grey and wet with trees despoiled of their leaves and rotting litter on the slopes. Old decrepit houses in failing decrepit neighborhoods hide in the dark and sunless valleys, terraces of clapboard homes with bad shingled roofs rising along one-way lanes up the hillsides. Along the top of the ridges, there’s generally space for only two or three streets before the hillside plunges down to the wet ravines and the neighborhoods that seem washed into those place like detritus of a great flood. From the bridges crossing the rivers, you can look up and see a procession of homes high overhead, crowning the hilltop, and, of course, one would expect those residences to be palatial with great balconies and terraces and resplendent panorama windows. But this is not the case – as in La Paz or Cuzco, it seems that the neighborhoods become poorer, more remote, more idiosyncratic, the higher they are installed on the hills. The row of homes on the crest of the high bluffs are blinded, with only small haphazardly placed windows piercing their sides – the houses turn their asses on the city and look uncommunicative, lodges and boarding houses where the miners and steelworkers once lived, cooking shanties and lean-tos built onto the sides of the structures and peaked roofs penetrated by ugly tin chimney-pipes.
How anyone can navigate the hills and the heights and deep declivities in an ice storm (frequent here) or blizzard is beyond me. The roads climbing the hillsides are disconcertingly sheer. Most of them are too narrow for two vehicles to pass side-by-side – when ascending look closely to see if any vehicles are coming downhill: if a truck or car appears wait at the stopsign and don’t venture up the hill. The sides of the ladder-like lanes are scarred with places where lorries and motorcyclists lost control and descended in ruinous rolls and flips down the densely wooded hills. If you are at the top of the hill, eight-hundred feet above the rivers, gaze down the sluice of the roadway – it’ll be raining and flooded with cataracts and cascades in full spate – and, whatever else you do, don’t try to drive down if anything (and I mean anything) is coming upward toward you. There’s no leeway and one of the other of the vehicles, you or the other guy, will either have to back up – no easy feat when your car is canted to 35 degrees – or simply crash.
If you do get to the hilltop, you’ll probably have to turn sharply right or left because there will be space on the ridge for three or four narrow roads running parallel to the escarpment. Along these roads, overlooking the valley, there are several Italian restaurants – humble-looking joints but with magnificent views – a couple pizza places, one or two old man bars with grim-looking geezers bent over their booze, a high-rise for the elderly occupying the highest part of the ridge-line, a dog clinic, everywhere sidewalks tilted steeply up or down, narrow steps dropping to alley ways inclined to small garages. It looks exactly like the Italian north side of San Francisco except that the buildings are decrepit and there is garbage strewn down the hillsides and clogging inaccessible fissures in the cliff and everything looks gloomy and dark, the restaurants shuttered at midday and the bakeries too big for the amount of pastries and doughnuts that they sell and where the ridge is highest and the view most impressive there is a concrete block Dollar General Store without any windows at all and, like San Francisco, everything is cloaked in greenish, toxic-looking fog, no redwoods here but, instead, little forlorn bushes that conceal under their battered toes small scraps of dirty snow.
A View Not to Be Missed
Seek out the Duquesne Incline, an elderly funicular that will send you down the precipitous slope of Mount Washington on what is called the South Side Slopes – that is, the bluffs overlooking the Monongahela River. The Incline is in a neighborhood that looks like San Francisco if San Francisco had been devastated by 50 years of underemployment: there are some white apartment buildings that don’t look down on the river, but rather turn their backs, preferring to direct their cockeyed gaze down into a hollow where a couple hundred buildings seem to have slipped and slid down into a wet crater between rainy hilltops.
You can stand on the high-point of the river-bluff, next to the head-frame of the funicular, a squat, spidery tower of gears and iron girders crouched above a long rail that runs down to the valley floor. The "incline" as it is called costs $2.50 for a one-way ride – you pay at the bottom and make sure you have correct change, otherwise the conductor in his brick and rusting steel cage will reject your fare and you might have to ascend the hill by means of the concrete stairs, about 900 of them zigzagging up the slope. The ride is smooth and provides the viewer with varying vantages on the downtown skyscrapers of Pittsburgh and the bridge spanning the rivers and from the top of the hill, through the old, rain-spattered glass windows, you can see that the Allegheny River has a tint very different from the tint and texture of the Monongahela, both variations on different colors of sewage, and the Ohio, at the confluence, is a saturated rust-red brown as well that is different as well from the hue of the two rivers that clas[ hands at old Fort Duquesne and Duquesne Point.
At the base of the incline, the car stops above a ruinous railyard. There’s no reason to decamp from the funicular except to pay your fare. Some steps descend to the wreckage and cyclone fences protecting the rail cars, all of them idle and peacocked with bright red and green and yellow graffiti. The hillside itself bears a couple of collapsed warehouses and some brick foundations. There’s nothing at the base of the incline and, so, after lingering there for one or two minutes, the conductor calls "all aboard" and you go up the hill to the top once more.
It’s highly recommended that you secure luxury hotel accommodations during your Spring Break in Pittsburgh. This is because the daunting traffic, the confusing and almost vertical one-way lanes, the paucity of parking, the intricate system of bridges that appear suddenly and spirit you away to another bank of the river before you can even change lanes, the narrow sluice-like roads snaking up and down the river bluffs, the sinister dead ends, and the ceaseless grey fog and rain all conspire to require that you have a cozy place of refuge at the end of the day. Best to have a high bed, layered with mattresses and blankets, and a dozen puffy pillows so that you can just stay under your covers all day long, hiding from the turmoil of the traffic and the relentless grey murk.
The Drury Hotel on Grant Street is a good recommendation for your Spring Break in Pittsburgh. The place is conveniently located – no more than six or seven rain-soaked blocks from restaurants and close to the freeways that brought you here and on which you will depart. Most of the rooms in the Drury Hotel tower open onto a cavernous air-shaft, although some have better views – for instance, across a narrow chasm to the sheer side of a concrete skyscraper with big windows where men and women are bent over computer screens when not spying on the inhabitants of the hotel. The Drury has an Art Deco lobby with a vast mural showing a bird’s eye view of Pittsburgh suspended above wall fixtures, lighting sconces, that look a little like something you might see on the front of an expensive automobile made in the 1950's. Breakfast is served in that room and there are always enough high-topped tables to accommodate the guests eating in that place. Parking in an underground ramp concealed somewhere under the hotel is valet only – this means you will need to tip the attendants 5 dollars every time they go downstairs to bring your car into the tiny terrace above the wet sidewalk on Grant Street, a place accessed by grooves cut in a retaining wall that are so small as to be almost invisible – your car will just barely fit through those fissures and its frightening to make the hard-right off Grant to insert your vehicle through the crack and steeply uphill to the jack-o-lantern grinning attendants at their shanty trembling in the wet cold. Parking is 29 bucks a night, but figure, at least, another 10 dollars – five going and five coming home.
Let’s say that you want to buy a souvenir of your stay in Pittsburgh. Your best bet is to hike down to a neighborhood known as "the Strip". It’s a little to the Northeast of downtown and the desk clerk at the Drury will tell you that you can walk there with ease except that it is about 20 blocks through a rather desolate stretch of city and, of course, the constant rain will drench you coming and going. Further, you have to be careful about directions in Pittsburgh – for some odd reason, it always seems that you are going south. There is, in fact, only one direction in Pittsburgh no matter what way you facing – it is always south. Look into the sunrise – that’s south. Look toward the river – south again. Look at the sunset (or where the sunset would be if it weren’t raining) and that will be south too. Therefore, you will need some kind of compass to show you which way to go. The sky will be no help since above you there is nothing but foaming grey rain clouds.
Following your compass, take Grant to the NE past some decrepit sushi places and temp service offices and, then, shelter awhile from the drizzle under the freeway overpasses. Pittsburgh is bisected, trisected, quadrisected by freeways but all lanes seem to lead south. In any event, pass beyond the freeway and, then, along the sidewalk in front of the enormous and featureless Pittsburgh Sewer and Water Building – the structure faces river flats where cars are parked and warehouses that looked like they have just scarcely survived carpet bombing. After about a thousand yards of Sewer and Water building, the structure takes on a flat sleek profile and becomes the Allegheny County Medical Examiners building, also six or seven blocks long since corpses are always being found in the oddest and most unexpected places in Pittsburgh – across the street from that building there is a cyclone-fenced parking lot where vans labeled FORENSIC EXAMINER are parked in a row. In front of the Allegheny County Medical Examiners building someone has dropped a remarkable sausage – it’s long, narrow, covered with a sort of whitish alum powder, perhaps 28 inches between the sausage’s two metal-ties and only an inch and a half in diameter, some kind of exotic, spiced dry-sausage, the sort of meat product like prosciutto that always tastes rich with rot when you put the chips of sawn-off meat on your tongue. The sausage lies inexplicably in the center of the wet sidewalk, about a half block from the place where pathologists are diving in and out of the building through a door that is emblazoned with round, official seal of the County of Allegheny. Two blocks away, across one of the bombed-out lots, the Heinz building rises, it’s escarpment bearing a house-high image of a catsup bottle disgorging a stream of red syrup down the side of the building. There seems to be a relationship between the pathetic lost sausage and the mural on the Heinz building but, of course, only a barbarian would put tomato catsup on an exquisite artisanal sausage of this type.
Another thousand yard of rainy slum and you come to the Strip. This is two rows of shanties selling seafood and jambalaya and sausage products facing one another across a crowded street that pedestrians are using as a sidewalk much to discomfiture of the vans trying to service the ethnic grocery stores and taverns interlarded among the food shacks. Here you can buy Pittsburgh Pirate and Pittsburgh Steelers memorabilia, key chains showing the bridges connecting the peninsula to the river bluff heights, tee-shirts and hoodies and caps with sports insignias on them – lots of sports merch all made in China, it seems, and sold to you by sullen Chinese or Laotian women wilting in the wet air. I hope you want sports team stuff for your souvenir. Otherwise you are out of luck.
There are drunk people on the street. A crew is renovating a church, making the place into yet another ecclesiastically themed brew-pub. Thunder sounds in the clouds.
Kicap is a Malaysian word for a condiment popular in that country at the time of the East India Company’s incursion into the Orient – Kicap was made from pickled fish brine and vegetables, sometimes mushrooms or fruits. It is, in fact, a kind of chutney and was marketed in India as "East India Sauce". Strongly spiced chutneys were a necessity in a hot climate in which much of the meat and fish were served in a semi-rotten state.
British traders brought Kicap back home. In England and Wales, the sauce was called "catchup", imitating the Malaysian name for the condiment.
Prior to about 1909, Catchup was made from spices and unripe or damaged tomatoes in vinegar and high fructose syrup. Preservation and shelf-life was a problem for the product and required the use of benzoate injected into the Non-Newtonian and pseudo-plastic chutney. Benzoate was thought to be a health hazard and was, ultimately, banned by the FDA. Chemists at Heinz Company in Pittsburgh saved the product – they developed a formula using high levels of vinegar and vine-ripe tomatoes that was essentially indestructible and that didn’t require benzoate as a preservative. Every cap of Heinz catsup is marked with an imprint "57" – that is, the number of special spices and ingredients in its catsup.
Ultimately, Heinz developed 57 varieties of catsup, one for each of its special spices and ingredients, and diversified. For instance, the company owns Ore-Ida potatoes.
Andy Warhol, a native son to Pittsburgh, is undoubtedly the city’s hero. One of the bright yellow bridges, articulated like the exoskeleton of a crab, is named after him. You can drive across the Monongahela River on that bridge to a museum installed in an old commercial building, the whole place dedicated to the artist’s work.
Parking is 8 dollars at the intersection of General Lee and Sandusky – you’ll know the place by the bright Brillo box serving as the guard hut. A guy will come out in a rain-slicker and take your cash and then, he’ll direct you into the lot which is partly covered by a freeway that zooms by overhead. The parking lot is under construction with respect to certain areas frost-heaved and pot-holed by the winter and, if you put your car in the wrong place, you’ll be trapped in the lot because there’s no reasonable way out of the place if you park in a cul-de-sac and construction equipment blocks many of the lanes. In the end, the attendant will have to take your keys since he’s oversold his lot and put the car somewhere blocking another car at the same time dealing with the queue of vehicles that want to enter the lot (Warhol’s museum being a very popular attraction) but that are not allowed entrance because the place is now full, the drivers in those cars cursing the attendant and cursing the white-fright-wigged Andy Warhol as well as the city that gave him birth.
People come from all over the world to see this museum. In the elevator at the museum, you will meet Swedes and Germans and French people. (You won’t exactly meet them because they are aloof when it comes to Americans, particularly Pittsburghers – but you will, at least, see them and hear them speaking in their outlandish tongues, complaining no doubt about the provincial cuisine, the terrible weather, the inadequate parking.) Up on the seventh floor, you start your journey down through the building with big rooms entirely decorated with family photographs of the Warhola clan, religious artifacts relating to Andy’s faith as a Byzantine Catholic, whatever that may be, and school memorabilia – drawings made for Andy’s mother, caricatures, postcards and letters. The display is quite touching and there are some interesting facts disclosed by the labels on the wall – after a couple years in NYC, Warhol was making 80,000 dollars a year as a commercial artist, and, therefore, was immensely successful. At that time, Andy had little ferret-like eyes and very pale skin and dark black hair. His boyfriends tended to big larger, more bulky, with faces like bruised flowers.
Somewhat incongrous to see suburban Pittsburgh families – clean-cut dad and mom and a couple of toddlers in tow – standing in a big room where three of Andy’s movies are showing simultaneously, each film projected in a format 20 feet high and 20 feet wide. The museum screens scenes from Chelsea Girls, Blowjob, and something called Loomis’ Ass, an odd film that shows a man’s tightly clenched buttocks that someone is trying to pry apart with various tools: a mop handle, a wrench, a screw-driver, a small baseball bat, etc. In other galleries, there are pictures of automobile accidents including the famous silk-screened image of a car upside-down burning on a residential street, a passer-by hustling along the sidewalk and trying not to look, and the corpse of the driver somehow flung out of the vehicle and impaled ten feet in the air on a utility pole overlooking the wreckage of his car. Other silk-screens show Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy and Elvis Presley brandishing a pistol and there are a series of pictures of a stark, antiquated-looking electric chair in a prison somewhere. Warhol was close friends with Drue Heinz, a famous patron of the arts and the wife of Jack Heinz, the Tomato Catsup King, and many of the pictures are gifts, or on loan, from the Heinz family.
If you have time, you can go into a dim room and sit on a bench and have a camera record a screen test. I did this experiment and must say that I found the results startling – apparently, I am extremely charismatic on film, a nobly bearded figure just barely visible in a motionless black pool, half-drowned in dead dark waters: I remove my glasses and wave them in the air. The darkness seems overwhelming. In another room, a wall is covered with larger-than-life-sized pictures of Warhol Superstars and their screen tests flicker on grey screens, profiles and half-profiles of beautiful people rim-lit so that their hair shines like a halo.
And further down, floor after floor, descending toward the entry-way: a great frieze of metal oxidized where Andy and friends pissed on it, a room full of floating silver orbs, more TV screens broadcasting Andy’s "Fifteen Minutes" an MTV production, more movies, and a row of huge silk-screens portraits of the artist in which Warhol’s white wig crouches on his skull like a pale and melancholy tarantula.
When Warhol died, untimely killed by a botched appendix operation, his body was shipped back to a Pittsburgh suburb called Castle Shannon and buried in the family plot near that place. At the church that his mother attended, there was a solemn Mass – in the Museum, a placard tells us that Andy was a "devout practicing Byzantine Catholic, something he concealed, hiding his faith from most of his friends and associates." In NYC, the church that Andy attended hosted a feast for 500 homeless people in the artist’s honor. The gift shop features a children’s book written by one of Warhol’s nephews – the picture book shows the family driving from their farm in West Pennsylvania to visit Warhol at his Factory. One of the images shows the artist waking up in bed, roused by the small children chasing one another around his room, the angry artist very bald – "Uncle Andy didn’t have time to put on his wig when we raced around his bed early in the morning."
A dark gallery shows a video feed. On-screen, there is a view of Warhol’s grave in the suburbs south of the City. (Another video feed shows the dark interior of St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church, Warhol’s parish church in Pittsburgh where his funeral took place.) The video uses a telephoto lense that squashes everything together. The gravestone is granite with a cross cut into the polished rock above the name and, below, a lozenge displaying praying hands. People have left cans of Campbell’s soup on the flat top of the granite marker. Of course, it’s rainy and there are some ragged slicks of snow in the grass and the granite is shiny with drizzle. A girl wearing black walks up to the grave. She looks down for a moment and seems to shudder in the rain. The video is recording the scene live. She, then, steps to the side and a fat man appears wearing a flannel shirt that is red and yellow checked. He looks at the grave for a moment, fiddles a little with a couple of the cans on the flat top of the tombstone, and, then, stands to face the camera, the granite grave rising about to the level of the pilgrim’s groin – someone is taking a picture of the flannel-clad man. The man holds his mouth open like a fish. He seems to be underwater. Then, he moves to the side and neither camera shows him again.
Rivers of Steel
Pittsburgh is spectacular today in its three-river gorge. But imagine what it was like at the turn of the century. Bessemer converter furnaces lined the rivers, each of them named after a woman. The Bessemer furnaces, according to old accounts, worked "three shifts of Hell" every day. Their five story columnar towers sprayed fire upward into the air. At night, the river was lined by furnaces like torchbearers, or like maidens with their hair wildly aflame or like comet spreading their fierce tails in the night. The river reflected the torrents of fire rising upward into the dark sky.
The furnaces are gone now and the mills closed. The last Bessemer furnace in the valley near Pittsburgh was the Carrie Furnace across the water from Homestead. It was shut down in 1986. During the summer-time, you can take a walking tour of the industrial site and its environs. Viewed from Homestead, the furnace looks like a tall, dignified vessel, a sort of elongated milk bottle of the old kind, a steel pillar of the sort that a saint like Simeon Stylites might occupy while awaiting God’s prophecy. Someone who lived in Pittsburgh in the nineteen-fifties said that it was an extraordinary spectacle to see the furnaces at full fire and the sky fiery with blowing ash and soot, but it wasn’t always easy to breathe the air in those valleys and laundry hung out to dry turned grey after only a few minutes in the dirty wind.
The industrial history of the valley is told at the museum in the old Bost building on Homestead. The Bost Building was the headquarters of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (AAISW) during the great strike in the summer of 1892. Homestead’s historical district is part of the Rivers of Steel National Historic Monument. During your Spring Break in mighty Pittsburgh this should be one of your foremost destinations.
Henry Clay Frick
If the tales of the old Robber Barons exhilarate you, then, Pittsburgh should be your destination. One of the fiercest of the old-time industrialists of the Gilded Era was Henry Clay Frick. You can visit his estate in East Pittsburgh, high above the river in the rolling hills and not that far from the steel foundries at Homestead. Frick was Andrew Carnegie’s partner in the U. S. Steel Corporation, at first the Scottish robber barons trusted lieutenant and the president of his company and, later, his bitter enemy.
Born in 1849, Frick was named after the senator who spent his professional tenure trying to broker a settlement between the slave-holding South and the North, Henry Clay. His family had some resources and Henry Clay Frick went to college, although he was an indifferent student. In 1868, he began work at his maternal grandfather’s whiskey distillery, the place where Old Overholt, a popular brand in the Old west, was made. After a short stint in the distillery, Frick made some investments in coal. Some cousins owned a couple hundred acres of coal-producing land near Pittsburgh and, with money borrowed from the local banker and financier, Thomas Mellon, Frick built a coke-producing oven near the mines. (Coke is required to produce steel.) Frick’s coke-ovens were profitable and he bought more coal-land so that he could erect additional ovens and make more product for sale to the steel industry. By the early 1880's, Frick was known in the Allegheny and Monongahela valleys as the "King of Coke". Near his coke-furnaces, Frick built company towns and paid workers with scrip that they could only redeem at his company stores.
Andrew Carnegie was 19 years older than Frick and a leading producer of steel in Pittsburgh. He needed coke for his steel furnaces. Carnegie entered into a partnership with Frick in the Fall of 1883. Frick had suffered some temporary setbacks, some of them associated with his involvement in the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a corporation that had acquired a large tract of land near Johnstown, Pennsylvania. This land, used for recreational purposes by the club members, occupied mountainous terrain overlooking a huge lake impounded behind a earthen clay dam. Frick had also been purchasing up competing coke businesses with the objective of establishing a monopoly over that product and had become over-extended. Initially, Frick negotiated with Carnegie for additional capital to operate his coke furnaces – Carnegie acquired 50% in the stock of Frick’s coke business. Ultimately, the two businesses were merged with the result that Carnegie had a vertical monopoly on much of the steel industry – he owned mines, coke-plants, Bessemer furnaces such as the one at Homestead, and steel forges.
You can go to Frick’s estate on Point Breeze at Squirrel Hill. It’s an expensive neighborhood with large dwellings marching along broad streets up to the huge park where Frick’s home, Clayton, occupies the crest of a hill. Clayton is everything that Frank Lloyd Wright detested in a building – it’s a Victorian monstrosity with round towers shingled with red slate and small dark windows, some of them with masonry eyebrows, and ornate courses of white brick above a stick-built filigreed wrap-around porch. Everything about the home proclaims weight and density and volume – the structure seems squat and compact, despite its huge size, a kind of dwarf that has been scaled-up to squat like an ogre on the hilltop.
Frick built a play house on the estate for his grandchildren. The play house, however, is an actual house, larger than the places where most of his live, although with cute child-sized furniture that makes the interior of the structure seem all the more gratuitously large. Nearby, there’s a greenhouse full of orchids that seem to buzz and hiss with a sinister reptilian life and the panes of glass are wet, smeared by the rain that is always falling. Farther downhill, an art museum holds various treasures. (Frick was one of the greatest art collectors in American history – his collection in New York City holds some of the greatest canvases in the country.) Inside the museum is all marble halls, hushed, with a central rotunda where clerestory windows leak wan light down onto the paintings and the alabaster sculptures arranged around the room.
When I was at the art museum, the place displayed various impressionist paintings, bright sunny things very much at odds with the cold, wintry rain plunging down out of the sky outdoors. The paintings should have warmed us, but, instead, they merely were mementos recalling how chilly it was outside and how lifeless and grey the day was. People spoke in whispers.
Henry Clay Frick himself is hidden away in a remote gallery. His bust is carved from white Carrera marble, licked smooth and as polished as an agate just removed from rock tumbler. The image is idealized – heroic brow, a vast beard like that of the Greek sage, big bulbous stone eyes gazing into an impenetrable future, a huge, strong, beautiful old man.
It’s no picnic to find Warhol’s grave out in the high hills and deep hollows south of town. The roads are confusing and terribly congested and there are no landmarks. I came to the cemetery at last after driving a maze of residential streets among suburban houses hanging like molluscs to the steep hills.
The graveyard is a cheerless place – if it once had trees, they have long died under the onslaught of some insect boring through their trunks. The stones stand on the sloping hill, naked to the rain and sleet. Windrows of snow still make ribbons between grave-markers. The place looks familiar to me: a wet hill, granite headstones scattered across the slope among old columnar grave markers from which the rains have washed names and dates – I saw this place once in a movie, I think. But what movie?
On the lane that loops through the graveyard, a Trump supporter is walking his dog. Around these parts, everyone supports the President. The man is about 70 and his dog is gravel-and-slush colored fur-ball, only a little larger than a rat, the little beast trembling at the end of the old man’s leash. The old man has a "Make America Great Again" hat and is wearing a Marine corps. coat and he has a flushed face, probably the effect of over-indulgence in beer and wine, but possibly also exaggerated by the cold and the pelting rain. I pull up to the man and roll down my window and ask him: "Do you know where Andy Warhol is buried." The man is very friendly. "Oh yes," he says, "go back down this road and you’ll see a telephone pole. Look up at the pole and there will be a couple of cameras mounted there. Just follow the aim of the camera and you’ll find the grave. You can’t miss it." I thank him and find a place to turn around and the old man leads his dog up the slope and into a fringe of distressed-looking saplings.
It is just as the man described: the pole, the sleek-looking cameras, the vantage up the hill toward the grave standing just in front of a larger stone marker, cut from black granite, and inscribed Warhola. We trudge up the hill. Angelica, clad all in black is ahead of me, and she reaches the gravestone first. It is decorated with a cross and praying hands and there are five or six cans of Campbell soup on the monument’s flat top, a keyboard in the wet grass and some other souvenirs probably purchased at the Warhol museum. Angelica sniffs. Sleet falls. I ask her to take a picture of me and I stand behind the grave, a little winded from the climb puffing out my cheeks and inhaling through the "O" of my mouth like a fish.
A Little Dancer
The highlight of the show at the Frick Museum in Pittsburgh is Degas "Little Dancer." The figure is bronze, a material that seems to be bad taste here in steel-built Pittsburgh and the marble gallery of the great steel tycoon, Henry Clay Frick. She’s life-size and arches her back and her face is an incommunicative wedge, instrumental like a tool for splitting logs, and she has bangs that frame her features – her eyes are closed and she is like a Greek kore, a maiden from the Underworld, a bride of Pluto, I suppose, in this hall of Pluto where one of the wealthiest, and, therefore, most Plutonian all Americans once lived. There is something dead about the little dancer. She seems to be offering herself to the darkness. The little fabric tutu around her hips doesn’t help – it’s more shroud than veil.
The little dancer is as dead as her counterpart the Carrie furnace, abandoned on the banks of the dark river. Her fire has gone out.
If you’ve got someone in your car with a belly full of seconal, it’s best to seek out the closest hospital or clinic, no matter how rural and, possibly, badly staffed. You have to get the poison out and it doesn’t take much craft to deploy a stomach-pump. This isn’t rocket-science: you have to get the poison out. But this didn’t occur to Edgar Kaufmann, the merchant prince of Pittsburgh, who had found his wife slumped over a couch and unconscious in her bedroom in their famous house, the most famous house in all the world. Kaufmann carried her to the car and drove, as fast as possible but his destination was Pittsburgh, not the county hospital only a few miles down the pike. And, perhaps, although it’s deeply uncharitable to say this... perhaps, Kaufmann was in no real rush to get his wife’s stomach pumped. Perhaps, there was something else clouding his judgment. No, it was best to drive as quickly as possible along the maze of roads in the mountain highlands southeast of Pittsburgh, from Fallingwater up to the hospital in downtown Pittsburgh, a distance of 65 miles but, in those days, a trip by motorcar of more than two-and-a-half hours and one that proved lethal to Liliane Kaufmann.
At Mercy hospital in Pittsburgh, the doctors stared at Edgar Kaufmann, the merchant king of Pittsburgh, and his lovely, languishing wife, pale as the snow, and, after examining her, said that she was dead. At the reception following Liliane’s funeral, Grace Stopes, Kaufmann’s mistress presided and Edgar married her two years later. People attending the funeral didn’t necessarily think it was unusual that Ms. Stopes was so much in evidence, even making final arrangements for Liliane’s burial. Kaufmann was a millionaire. He was like Frick and Carnegie on a lesser scale. The rules that applied to mere mortals didn’t necessarily apply to him.
At the Rivers of Steel headquarters in ghostly, half-abandoned Homestead, you can see an alarming video. The images, presumably filmed in the late 1890's, show a half-dozen steel workers cavorting around a ten-foot high molten ingot. A steam-hammer punches at the ingot, beating down on its top like a hammer on an anvil. With each stroke of the steam-hammer, the big piece of boiling metal explodes casting down great fiery veils of sparks and burning cinders. The men come within an arm’s length of the ingot, hopping around it as the explosions of blazing ash and fire burst above their heads. It seems wholly impossible that any flesh-and-blood human being could come this close to the embattled pillar of molten metal and, yet, the camera’s fixed eye records the men prancing and grinning, showing off as they dodge the curtains of falling sparks. The men seem to glory in the fire and their proximity to it. They dance around the white-hot column merrily as if it were Maypole.
The first strike came before the deadly Johnstown flood. At the Edgar Thomson Works at Braddock, a Pittsburgh suburb, Carnegie decided that three shifts were too expensive and inefficient and so issued an order reverting operations to two 12 hour shifts. The workers protested and went on strike. Carnegie met with all his laborers at the Thomson Works and settled the dispute by offering to tie wages to steel prices. Union members were not enthused about this proposal and not willing to accept the risk that a decline in prices might result in a steep decline in wages. Accordingly, by secret ballot the union members voted to accept lower wages paid on the basis of an eight-hour work day.
The second strike happened after the Johnstown Flood. Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie were widely blamed for that calamity and the work force was skeptical as to their good faith and, even, decency when it came to the laboring classes. At Homestead, workers had been paid by the ton of steel produced. Carnegie and Frick thought that wages had become exorbitant since new open hearth processes were more markedly more efficient than Bessemer conversion and had materially increased yields. Accordingly, management decided to reduce wages to an hourly rate. This led to another strike at the Homestead Works.
Management responded aggressively advertising for replacement workers. The scabs were escorted to the gates of the Works by the Sheriff and 125 deputies. But there were more than 2000 workers in possession of the works and it was obvious that any attempt to insert the non-union laborers into the facility would result in savage fighting with serious bloodshed. Furthermore, the workforce at the Edgar Thompson works threatened to implement a sympathy strike. The Sheriff and his deputies withdrew from Homestead, leaving the workers in possession of the Works. Ultimately, the Union at Homestead agreed to a sliding scale wage committing to a three-year contract.
Wall of water at Johnstown
Why were our two Robber Barons, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, blamed for the Johnstown Flood?
East of Pittsburgh about 60 miles, in the Allegheny highlands, an eighty-foot deep lake filled a narrow mountain valley. The lake was impounded behind an earthen dam. Carnegie and Frick were leading members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, an association of wealthy industrialists who owned the forests and hills above Lake Conemaugh, the body of water cupped in the valley by the high, packed earth dam. Lake Conemaugh was a mile wide and three and one-half miles long, big enough for the wealthy members of the club to launch yachts on its cold and murky waters. The Fishing and Hunting Club members had villas along the lake and had stocked its waters with expensive game fish. The dam’s spillway was deteriorating but had not been renovated for fear that opening the sluices would result in the escape of the trout and other game fish inhabiting the lake. Furthermore, the top of the dam had been lowered, shaved flat so that a road could be built to link a colony of summer cottages in the hills overlooking the lake with the railway station on its other side. Civil engineers warned the manager of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting club that the dam was in bad repair, the sluices and spillways clogged, and that the road atop of the embankment had adversely affected the dam’s structural integrity.
On May 31, 1889, after heavy rains, the dam crumbled. A wall of water roared down the narrow river gorge destroying a company town owned by Cambria Iron Works, Woodvale. Barbed wire was manufactured in that town and the flood struck the forges like a tornado, filling the water with red-hot metal and thousand of feet of deadly, razor-sharp wire. Then, the flood toppled like an avalanche onto Johnstown, now lethal with the shark’s teeth of metal ingots and barbed wire. Like Woodvale, Johnstown was completely eliminated. The enormous wave of spiked water smashed into the stone arch railroad bridge at the Little Conemaugh – about eighty dazed survivors emerged from the floodwaters and climbed up onto the stone bridge. A few minutes later, several freighter cars filled with light oil smashed into the brick arches of the bridge and exploded. A pillar of fire incinerated the hapless survivors clinging to the railroad ties and rails atop the bridge.
Several lawsuits followed but they were dismissed. No one was ever held responsible for the catastrophe although the popular press laid the blame on Carnegie, Frick, and their fellow club-members.
Platinum credit cards
The Kaufmann’s were cultured German Jews. In Pittsburgh, they supported the opera and other performing arts. Their dry-goods emporium on the south side was successful. Before the turn of the century, the brothers Jacob and Isaac Kaufmann moved their operations to a grand building on 5th Street in Pittsburgh nicknamed the "Big Store." The Kaufmann brothers made millions, opened a fleet of other stores and lived lavishly in New York City. Morris Kaufmann, the third brother was less successful, but still prosperous. His son, Edgar managed the Big Store in Pittsburgh.
Edgar’s marriage to Liliane Kaufmann, his first cousin, was strategic, a way to consolidate his interest in both the Big Store and other parts of the Kaufmann enterprise. Liliane was pale and beautiful with the alabaster profile of a silent film heroine. She was Isaac’s daughter and Edgar had to marry her in New York City – the state of Pennsylvania didn’t allow first cousins to marry. Upon his marriage to Liliane, Edgar became the president of the Kaufmann businesses.
Liliane served as a buyer for women’s fashion in the stores. On the Big Store’s seventh floor, she opened an exclusive boutique called "Vendome", featuring au courant Parisian fashions. As she aged, Liliane became more regal – people recalled her as looking like a Queen.
Liliane and Edgar had a son, Edgar Jr. The young man studied architecture at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin fellowship in Wisconsin and Scottsdale. Edgar Sr. engaged Wright to design his office in the penthouse of the Big Store. (After the Big Store was sold to Morton May in the late forties, the office was extracted whole from the department store, preserved with all of its custom-built furniture, and sent to London where it now adorns the Victoria and Albert Museum.) Edgar Sr. had the interior walls of the Big Store faced with black marble. Later, he engaged Frank Lloyd Wright again to design and supervise construction of his summer home, Fallingwater over the cascades of the Bear Creek about 66 miles east of Pittsburgh.
Edgar Sr. was athletic and handsome. He had the photogenic good looks of a Hollywood leading man and women were attracted to him. The man even had a neat little dueling scar incised into his cheek, the result of an affair of honor involving some students at Heidelberg, a school that he attended before graduating from Yale. He enjoyed the company of a series of beautiful mistresses, girls that he selected from the workers at the Big Store. Edgar bestowed upon each of his mistresses a special platinum credit card authorized for purchases at Vendome and elsewhere in his department store. The so-called Merchant Prince was sexually voracious – the store always had four platinum credit cards outstanding at any given time.
Liliane, no doubt, was wounded by her husband’s marital infractions. She struggled to retain her dignity notwithstanding flagrant evidence of Edgar’s philandering. She took to drinking and, sometimes, chased her booze with seconal and other barbituates. Edgar, who loved Liliane after his own fashion, was alarmed and so decided to hire Wright to build a cottage for her at Bear Creek.
Bear Creek was a 5500 acre tract of wooded and wild highlands, steep hills cut by ravines full of rushing and falling water. Kaufmann built a sort of summer camp there for his employees. There were rustic cabins, stables, and trails on which to ride horseback. The place had some vegetable gardens and a dairy farm and was, more or less, self-sufficient. Kaufmann financed a train station nearby and it was an hour ride by rail from downtown Pittsburgh to the hilly and green woods at Bear Creek. Every employee of Kaufmann’s Big Store was authorized to take summer vacation at little or no charge at Bear Creek. It was at this place in 1934 that Frank Lloyd Wright began building Fallingwater.
All the races of the World
A gallery in the rear of the Frick Art Museum in Pittsburgh is quiet. The paintings on the wall are silvery grey and brown images by Corot, small and exceedingly elegant images that seem like delicately hand-tinted daguerreotypes. The gallery feels like a corridor, like a passage to some place and, indeed, perhaps there are toilets in the vicinity or a commodious broom closet. The window curtains are heavy and always closed.
Henry Clay Frick, carved from white Carrera marble, occupies the center of the room. He’s an armless torso in the classical mold, a bust with heroic chest and shoulders and a big round brow, bald like a milk-white globe, the map of a planet entirely enveloped in glacial snow and ice. Frick looks delectable, the color of sour cream or satiny vanilla ice-cream, and you want to lick his head and smooth nose and his slim pursed lips. The bust of Frick is larger than life-size. It was made posthumously from photographs of the great industrialist by Malvina Hoffman.
The name of the sculptor was familiar to me. In 1930, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago commissioned Malvina Hoffman, then considered America’s Rodin, to document all the races in the world in life-size bronze statuary. Hoffman traveled around the globe with her husband, photographing ideal racial types for her project. Ultimately, she sculpted or cast 105 statues showing the physiognomy of the various races. These sculptures were arrayed in the Field Museum’s Hall of Man and remained on display until 1969. When I was a child I spent hours perusing an old anthropology book that reproduced many of the statues as black and white plates – some of the images filled me with horror: for instance, the Burmese women with their necks elongated into serpentine proportions by brass rings and the Africans showing duck-like distended lower lips with plates inserted in them; but other pictures were strangely familiar and comforting – the implacable Eskimo and the North American Indian and the small round-faced Congolese pygmy. Children like taxonomy: different types of dogs or bugs or varieties of domestic farm animals or classes of stones and there is no reason that this mania for organization, really a sort of Platonic idealism involving perfect types and epitomes, should not apply to human beings... Except, I suppose, that it has now been concluded that racial categories don’t exist at all and can’t be genetically demonstrated and that, therefore, it is pernicious and possibly racist to classify people in this way. Thus, the figures made by Malvina Hoffman were banished from the museum and the Hall of Man closed. (Hoffman’s project, inextricably related to eugenics in the thirties, was discredited by Nazi use of racial categories, and fell seriously out of fashion – but, matters of style are cyclical and there’s no question that Hoffman’s noble specimens, exquisitely muscled and, in many case, engaged in useful pursuits –hurling spears or shooting arrows – are beautiful in their own right and, of course, the chief indicator of race, that is skin color, doesn’t exist in her sculptures at all: the figures are cast in bronze and, therefore, all have the same patina. Accordingly, in 2016, many of the sculptures were dusted-off and removed from the subterranean storage vaults to which they had been exiled, and allowed to pose, once more, and shoot their arrows and jab with their lances, in one of the upstairs exhibition halls – the show, of course, properly distanced from the viewers by Brechtian labels and plaques questioning our assumptions about race and genetics, that is, Hoffman’s gorgeous shiny-smooth men and women put back on display although not as scientific specimens but as examples of a certain kind of art. The show, I’m told, was very successful and, now, standing here and there in the shadows of the great balustraded stairways or guarding drinking fountains you can find in Chicago’s Field Museum a stray bronze herdsman or hunter-gatherer strayed from the 2016 exhibition. And I will tell you that when you come upon these statues, you will have a warm feeling in your heart and you will want to reach out and embrace the cold bronze, which is, in fact, surprisingly warm and smooth like a perfected skin, and say to the mute figures: Hail, brother! And Hail Sister! I’ve missed you. I’ve been looking for you.)
When she was middle-aged, the formidable Malvina Hoffman looked much like Liliane, Edgar Kaufman’s wife – she had the same porcelain complexion, sad eyes, and a profile like a silent movie actress. She had affairs with beautiful people of both genders and would have been a proto-Feminist except that some of her ideas, particularly those animating the Races of Man project, were not particularly progressive and her esthetics fell out of favor, considering, of course, that she lived into the era of Andy Warhol, and, in fact, in her last decades, she spent her time sculpting images of the wealthy and powerful. It was at this time that she used photographs of Henry Clay Frick to make the bust of him on display now in the Frick Collection in Pittsburgh and, so, there he is, the color of ice cream or particularly purified flour, the ideal type of noble White Man, the beneficent Captain of Industry. For luck, spit on your fingers and, then, dab at his bald head. This is one of the pleasures of taking your Spring Break in Pittsburgh.
Martha was Henry Clay Frick’s little daughter. When she was two, the child accidentally swallowed a pin. She was sick thereafter, weak with a lingering abdominal infection. Frick built a playhouse for her on his estate. The house was bigger than the homes of most of Frick’s work force at Homestead and employed at the other furnaces along the river. The children had tea parties in the house’s formal dining room, hosting their pet squirrel and pet rabbit. They sat at child-sized tables and sipped their tea from child-sized tea-cups, but the room was large and had dark panels.
Frick subscribed to the homeopathic school of medicine. He feared surgeons. His doctors told him to submit Martha to surgery to remove the pin embedded in her guts and encysted in infection. Surgery was dangerous in the 1891 and so Frick hesitated. The child’s health deteriorated. At last, Frick relented and called for the surgeons but, by then, Martha was too weak for the operation and she died. Martha was the proverbial "apple" of her father’s eye and Frick was overcome with grief mixed with guilt at his procrastination with respect to surgery.
A third strike ensued at Homestead. It turned ugly and many people were killed. Carnegie was away fishing for salmon in the Scottish Highlands and he was no help to the embattled Frick. Someone tried to kill Frick and almost succeeded. Then, his wife gave birth to a little boy who was named Henry Clay Frick, Jr. The child was sickly and Frick’s wife also was ill, confined with a post-partum infection. A month after the bloodbath at Homestead, the baby went into convulsions and died. Did Frick experience these tribulations as some kind of retribution for what had occurred at Homestead?
In the context of the death of Frick’s children, fairness demands that I cite Carl Sandberg’s poem about the obsequies of a working man’s child in Chicago. No one mourns too much – mourning is a luxury these poor people can’t afford. The child was sickly and its medical charges were ruinous to the immigrant family. The day after the funeral, the father, a "Bohunk", I think, Sandberg says, returns to his work at the slaughterhouse pushing blood with a broom for nine-hours a day. I can’t recall the name of the poem at this time, but it is in Sandberg’s Chicago, a book of verse that every American should read and re-read. (If Donald Trump and his minions had read this book they would be better people; if you read this book, it will make you a better person.)
Another of Sandberg’s poems, "Anna Imhof", is an elegy for working girl killed in the Triangle Shirt Factory fire. At the end of the poem, Sandberg offers this faint consolation: "It was the hand of God and the absence of fire escapes."
Warhol Museum Gift Shop
Don’t forget to visit the Warhol Museum gift shop. The gift shop has lots of cool things, souvenirs of your trip to America’s largest Museum DEVOTED TO A SINGLE ARTIST.
Andy made an interesting comment about getting and having. It’s inscribed on the wall. Quoting approximately, Andy said: "I really wanted something. I wanted it a lot. And, then, I got it."
Amazon should broadcast this message every time you open its website.
I really wanted to spend Spring Break in Pittsburgh and, then...
Homestead Strike (1)
In May 1892, before he left for Scotland, Carnegie told Frick to reduce the wages of skilled laborers at the Carrie Furnace in Homestead. Frick took this action and the Union called for a strike. Before the strike vote was taken, Frick locked the workers out of the steel mill and erected an 11 foot high wall around the Works. The striking workers called the place "Fort Frick."
Frick contracted with the Pinkerton Agency to provide security at the Works. When the strikers heard that a train carrying scab workers was en route, more than a thousand armed men surrounded the railway station. It was a false alarm: there were no replacement workers on the train. But the event alarmed Frick and he called for the Agency to recruit 300 men with weapons to intimidate the Union. The Pinkerton Agency was incorporated to provide security to President Lincoln during the Civil War. Its motto was "We Never Sleep" and its trademark was a wide-open disembodied eye.
The Little Bill was a tugboat moored in Pittsburgh. It was pressed into service to tow two large barges loaded with Pinkerton guards up the Monongahela River to Homestead. One of the parks in Homestead was adorned with a Civil War monument and an old cannon. The Union leaders took the cannon from the park, tinkered with it, and dragged it across the railroad trestle to a hill overlooking the town. The Union men were steelworkers. They were used to working in metal and they had no difficulty forging some cannon balls.
Frank Lloyd Wright had a car that was the color of mustard mixed with red clay mud. He drove the car up to the construction site where Fallingwater was being built. The big cantilevers extending over the silvery ten foot high cataracts were under construction.
Liliane Kaufmann was probably drunk. She favored gin when she was at her cottage at Bear Creek in the Laurel Highlands. She told Frank Lloyd Wright that his car was the ugliest color she had ever seen. She had a good eye. After all, she had been buying high fashion garments in Paris for Vendome for many years.
Wright sneered at her and said that he planned to paint the concrete poured at Fallingrock the exact same color as his car.
Mrs. Kaufmann thought that he was joking.
Homestead Strike (2)
Mid-morning with sweltering heat: slowly the Little Bill approached the piers at Homestead. The Pinkerton men stood behind barricades on the barges. The date was July 6, 1892. The plan was to land the Pinkerton men on the piers leading to the Works. In this way, the men could be disembarked directly into Fort Frick.
The Union maintained a telegraph station in the Bost Building a couple blocks uphill from the river-front in Homestead. They received a message at 4:00 am that the barges had left Pittsburgh eight miles downstream and were now being tugged to Homestead.
When the barges appeared around the bend in the river, the Union men, about thousand strong attacked the clapboard fence around Fort Frick. The fence was torn to pieces in a few minutes and Fort Frick no longer existed. The strikers, then, poured through the Works knocking down its guards and defenders and lined-up on the river bank near the piers. The Pinkertons carried lead-loaded clubs and revolvers. The strikers were better armed with halberd-like cudgels, axes, and hundreds of Winchester repeating rifles.
The barges slowly approached the docks. The sun was bright and the air heavy with humidity. The river was glassy and seemed almost without current. The leader of the Pinkerton men was in the tugboat. The Little Bill glided up to the dock, backing in the water and kicking up a white wake. The Pinkerton boss went ashore and told the commander of the strikers to vacate their positions in the plant. He could hear windows being smashed in the Works, desks being thrown out onto the ground and people hammering the furniture apart to make clubs from the heavy, mahogany wood.
One of the strikers swung a cudgel and tried to knock the Pinkerton boss’ head off his shoulders. He ducked, swore, and jumped back onto the tug boat.
The strikers were afraid of an attack from the hills overlooking the Main Street of Homestead. Battalions of housewives, carrying their babies in their arms and wielding hammers and lead pipes, swarmed out of their homes and took up defensive positions in the alleyways and backyards.
For a moment, it was silent.
One of Pittsburgh’s primary attractions, something you must not miss, is on the campus of Pitt U. This is the Soldiers and Sailors monument and museum. The structure rides the crest of low, levee-shaped hill and its front elevation is florid, a great porch with mighty columns, rising to a monumental pediment upon which the roof is layered like a wedding cake, ornamental step pyramids topped with huge urns and figures, something like the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, which is, as you undoubtedly know, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
In front of the building, confined atop marble plinths, are a representative and stalwart soldier, three-times life-size, a noble youth in a Civil War uniform and, across from him, beyond a cascade of alabaster steps, a sailor stands. Sailors wear trousers that seem to accentuate their genitals –such statues always have, I’m afraid, a rather homo-erotic and lewd aspect. The Sailor has a big penis and he surveys the quadrangle in front of his perch with a cool, calculating eye.
Inside the museum, it is very humid. The exhibits are arrayed around a central auditorium. Some workers are setting up a sound system in the moist auditorium – the high coffered ceiling is disfigured with water stains and there are buckets collecting the drips that fall languidly from fifty feet above. Behind the pulpit, the Gettysburg address is inscribed in foot-high letters on a wooden wall. The auditorium is crammed with red velvet fold-up seats, tight as the cabin of a Delta passenger flight.
The exhibits are old uniforms, starred with bronze and pewter and silver medals, beribboned chest displays and scarlet epaulets. The uniforms hang like cadavers in vitrines full of daggers and lances, pistols and rifles – the sinister archaic panoply of war. One case holds Abraham Lincoln’s death (or is it life?) mask, a kind of clot of mud shaped like the dead Presidents brow and nose and bearded chin. A replica of the red velvet rocking chair in which he was sitting at Ford’s Theater when assassinated occupies half of the exhibit case. Alan Pinkerton’s men obviously couldn’t keep him safe.
The World War One exhibit exhibits prosthetics used by defaced soldiers after the Great War, that is, the War to end all Wars. There is a nose, some lips, all quite lifelike, and, then, half a forehead on which there is molded in plastic an eye painted very blue – it is like the disembodied eye ("We Never Sleep") that is on the Pinkerton logo. "Such prosthetics although not exactly lifelike helped disfigured veterans to cope." – this is the legend typed on a little scroll of paper beside the display.
It’s a somber place – I come outside depressed. Warm rain is falling and the air is misty and there is a blood drive underway across the boulevard, student fraternities vying to see which Greek organization will donate the most fresh undergraduate blood. I feel a little dizzy and so I sit on a wet bench.
Eighty or so blocks east of downtown, a greyish, smoke-colored tower rises above the city. The tower seems out of place and, when you first visit Pittsburgh, it exerts a mysterious appeal, drawing you to its base like a magnet. I first drove into Pittsburgh a few years ago, fired from the slingshot of a freeway ramp downtown where I followed the one-way streets back and forth through the skyscrapers and commercial district, passing the old heavy-set buildings with their weighty hanging cornices – the building where Frick had his offices still stands at the center of the island-like peninsula between the rivers. Where the one-ways open up at the outskirts of the high buildings, you can look across the hilly terrain up toward the strange tower standing like a sentinel against the horizon. Taking care to avoid the articulated yellow steel bridges with their joints and exo-skeletal arches and spans, metal crustaceans defending the river crossings, I reversed direction, heading uptown away from the reconstructed rubble-walls and lawns of old Fort Duquesne in the direction of tower-apparition. Beyond the hulking brick sheds of the old city, I could see the tower, faintly luminous hovering over the hills and hollows like an avenging angel. It was an improbable sight – a soaring Gothic cathedral, the color of white ash, looming over a hillside decorated with Greek temples and a mausoleum like that of Halicarnassus, crowned with wedding-cake-shaped step pyramids. What was this curious skyscraper?
A roaring avenue runs under the skyscraper, a broad fluted pillar ascending to lofty skyways shaped like the cloister-walk of an ancient monastery, pointed Gothic arches both on the ground level and fifty stories above, gargoyles and flying buttresses literally flying, aloft, hanging over a grassy sward where students of all shapes and sizes and colors are traipsing to and fro with their book bags and back packs. This tower is the central classroom building for the U of Pitt, a Gothic skyscraper shaped like New York’s Chrysler building or, even, vaguely like the huge candelabra silhouette of Moscow University. The building is an isolate, apart from the massif of downtown where there are some conventional glass shard towers, blue prisms atop sky-blue pedestals, protruding from foothills of Victorian commercial skyscrapers displaying arrays of huge Chicago-style windows and tile facades.
The interior of the gothic classroom skyscraper parodies a cathedral – there are wet arches, grey pillars, and ceiling vaults above a large open space in which students are reclining on sofas or sitting together at little round tables and, tucked into the corner of the church, a cafeteria is serving hot food and, further, steaming up the humid interior. Fog forms on my glasses. Around the perimeter of the gothic sanctuary, a lightless hallway fifteen feet above the vaulted cathedral’s floor accesses small gloomy classrooms. The classrooms are each decorated in the style of some foreign land – there is the German classroom, the Korean room, the Persian, Chinese, Polish, Lithuanian, Spanish, and Moorish classrooms, 50 of them in all, each simulating the national style of a European or Asian or Middle Eastern country. (As far as I can ascertain, there is no classroom built after the manner of an Egyptian school, let alone, any chambers simulating the educational systems in Mali or Zululand or the Congo – Africa, it seems, may lack graduate seminars and, therefore, lack charming rooms to imitate with their dark paneled wood walls and carved ecclesiastical lecterns and wet stained glass windows although Scotland is granted a room as is Wales. Boku Harem, I suppose would approve.)
In the dimly lit, shadowy German classroom, the lectern is carved with the image of Siegfried, horned, and slaying a dragon. Bas relief woodcarvings on the walls portray scenes from Faust. The windows are fitted with stained glass in heraldic patterns associated with the old principalities in Saxony and Bavaria. An Asian girl with dark hair sits at one of the desks. Angelica and I walk around the room admiring the scenes from Faust carved into the wall panels. An earnest young man comes in and sits beside the Asian girl – he is still wet from his hike in the rain falling outside; his shoulders are all moist and dewy. "Are you waiting for a class?" I ask the Asian girl. "Yes," she says. "What is it?" I inquire. "It’s a creative writing class."
The novelist, Michael Chabon, wrote his first book as a student at the Carnegie-Mellon Institute, an institution affiliated with the U of Pittsburgh. Perhaps, he read from drafts of his novel in this very room. Chabon’s first book, a bestseller in 1988, was The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. I have always loved that name – I suppose, it is one of the reasons that I decided to spend Spring Break in that City.
What is Sublime?
At the Carnegie-Mellon Museum of Art and Natural History, a great ramp floats above the glass and travertine walls of the new annex. The ramp is wheelchair accessible and so it has an incline strictly circumscribed by regulatory law, a fixed, gentle, gradient. The ramp hovers in the air cantilevered from a wall and above a similarly sloping floor, also made from beige-colored travertine, that leads down to the parking lots. (Because of Spring Break, the Museums are free and the parking lots are packed and families sharing brightly colored bumbershoots hustle over the slick asphalt and wet pavement sidewalks to swarm into the place.)
Atop the long, cantilevered ramp, anchored as it were in the landing at the second floor 30 feet aboave the lobby, an exhibition extends into a series of galleries with high white-walls and skylights smeared with greasy, industrial-looking rain. The exhibition is called "Reason and Chaos" and it is about the Enlightenment. One of the arguments advanced by the array of text materials and objects exhibited is that an interest in the Sublime was central to the Enlightenment. Reason could encompass, if uneasily, even the most majestic terrors of the World.
What is Sublime?
According to the show: Shipwrecks are sublime.
Pale, swooning maidens threatened with rape by swarthy Turks are sublime.
William Blake’s prophetic works and his tempestuous engravings are sublime.
Elsewhere in the museum, there is a painting by Thomas Church of great floating cathedrals of icebergs in the Arctic Ocean – even before, the demise of the Titanic, icebergs were sublime.
Tornadoes and typhoons are sublime. The high mountains are sublime.
A cantilever in which tons of concrete hangs over a void is sublime.
Pseudo-plastic flows, such as landslides and avalanches (and catsup poured sweet and tart from a bottle) are sublime.
Some, but not all, forms of death are sublime.
Pittsburgh, standing proudly in its gorge, encircled by Bessemer converter furnaces vomiting fire into the night sky, is sublime.
A crew of concrete workers made a road through the muddy woods to the side of stream toppling over the rocks and plunging down into a dark well-shaped pool. The lowest level of Fallingwater crouched next to the falls like a small, fortified bunker, it’s top irregular with great boulders thrust up through the structures. (Wright’s command had been to preserve as much of the indigenous rock as possible and allow the cliffs alongside the creek to pierce the building’s basements and emerge as irregular stone crowns crouching like old molars in the corners of upstairs rooms.)
The forms for the first great cantilever suspended over the cataract and plunge pool itself were in place. FLW was nowhere in evidence – he was attending to one of his many mistresses or, perhaps, in Japan collecting woodcuts by Hiroshige and Hokusai or, possibly, supervising the construction of the hard-backed, stiff and gothic furniture that he required for installation in his buildings. Although the architect was not on hand, Edgar Kaufmann was present and he had his company engineer at his side. They scrutinized the blue prints. The engineer told Kaufmann that Wright’s structural calculations were all wrong and that the cantilever would snap off and drop tons of concrete into the Merchant Prince’s beloved Bear Run Creek. On the spot, Kaufmann halted work, delayed the concrete pour, and had his own engineer supervise the installation of more structural steel into center of the great concrete patio cantilevered to hover over the torrent rushing through the little boulder-lined gorge. There were protests on the scene, but the steel was installed and, then, the concrete poured.
Of course, the concrete contractor tattled to FLW by telegraph.
Wright was furious and wrote that Kaufmann had no right to tamper with his design, and that "there are some who regard me as a competent architect". "If you have no need for my services," FLW wrote, "I will not provide them." Kaufmann wrote back and said that "there were more than a few who regard me as competent in many things" and that, in fact, he had no need for the famous architect’s services.
The project was too important to both men. FLW’s career was in decline – the Depression had robbed him of most of his patrons and he had spent many years abroad working on the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, so much time, indeed, as an expatriate that some people pretended to have forgotten about the troublesome architect. Wright needed a commission to put him back on the map again. And Kaufmann’s marriage to Liliane was in perpetual crisis and he needed an exorbitant gift to her, a summer house unlike any other. And so the quarrel was patched-up.
Two beautiful late Bonnards grace the walls of the Carnegie-Mellon Art Museum: they show the artist’s wife, Martha, either soaking in her bath or peering pensively from a window. At the end of his life, Bonnard always painted paradise although, objectively stated, his canvases show a kitchen, a garden behind the artist’s house, a bathroom with a tub that looks like a Roman sarcophagus. Martha is tall and slender; she was approaching 70 when Bonnard painted the two pictures of her in Pittsburgh, but he always portrays her as smooth and lean as the trunk of a poplar tree, a beautiful glistening wraith in a limpid pool of bright water. The Museum holds an excellent early version of Edward Hicks’ "Peaceable Kingdom" with wild animals like stuffed toys surrounding William Penn and the noble Indians with whom he is transacting business. John Singer Sargent’s "Venetian Interior" is mysterious and beautiful, painted with the technique you see in a Velasquez canvas, the colors at once floral and intensely expressive, a chaos of brush strokes if you look closely that magically coalesces into something else. The collection displays some Catlin paintings of Indians, a Chief and a buffalo hunt under the inscription "the noblest work of GOD is unsophisticated MAN.’ There are remarkable paintings by Peter Doig and a canvas by John Curran adorned by two naked women with improbably shaped breasts and buttocks.
One gallery dead-ends with huge gilded doors to the Grand Salon on the Normandie, a French cruise-liner. An Art Deco Aurora glides through the silver sky on chariot aimed for the furnace of sun. Nearby, two huge murals show men locked in mortal combat: workers with clubs face down a row of anonymous-looking thugs pointing long guns at them. Hands are raised, some of them clutching hammers. Clouds of gunsmoke boil around the figures. These are paintings by the Pittsburgh artist Raymond Simboli showing the famous strike at the Carrie Furnace in Homestead in July 1892. The first mural, covering a whole wall, was painted in 1930 and it is broadly realistic in the style of the Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera. The second mural, shows the same scene, the clash of dense phalanxes of workers armed with steel pipes and tools smashing against a wall of pointed rifles: this painting is full of diagonal lozenges, fractured cubist planes surrounded by motion-blurs, a kind of cinematic version of Cubism or some hitherto unrecognized late-form of Pittsburgh style Futurism. The pictures are huge and striking. After enough time lapses, human calamity ferments into art.
Winslow Homer’s "The Wreck" is a big painting, probably about six feet tall and ten feet long. "The Wreck" is remarkable because it doesn’t show a wreck at sea and because the sea itself is present only as menace implicit in an explosive plume of unseen wave dashed against unseen rocks and a sort of snarl of green-black water visible beyond a dune at the very bottom right of the large canvas. Sloping steeply upward is a steep dune of ocher sand. The dune is horned with two pyramid-shaped groups of rescuers turned desperately toward the invisible sea. Between them the great splash of atomized water rises in a pale cloud. A group of men on the lee side of the sandy slope are hunched forward like beasts of burden hauling a great brown row-boat toward the place where the dune’s angle of repose slumps down to reveal the murky jaw of the sea. Standing in center of the composition is Coleridge’s ancient mariner, an old man wearing a rubber rain-slicker and gesturing at the viewer. He is summoning the onlookers to the rescue but the entire image is an obstruction to any practical engagement with the foundering ship hidden behind the mountainous dune. To reach the sea, or even a vantage on the sea, one would have to clamber up the wet sand and pass between the cones of the men who seem to be toppling onto one another in the force of the wind. And the wave smashed into a plume of frothy pale water and the sheer weight of the rescue vessel sinking on its wheels into the sand and the mariner himself, with his forbidding gesture, standing like Dante in Hell, warns you back and away from the calamity. The picture is a masterpiece: it propels the viewer into the same dilemma as the figures that it represents: how to reach the sea and its invisible terrors when the entire landscape is sloping forward, tumbling down, wet and soggy, on the would-be rescuers? The wreck is two-fold: a ship is sinking and we can’t overcome the obstacles on the edge of the sea to even behold the calamity.
No knows who fired first. There was a popping sound and, then, a sheet of lateral red fire flamed out from the armed workers lining the river bank. Bullets clanged off the metal hulls of the barges. The Pinkerton men dived for cover. In the first volley, a number of the guards were hit and several killed outright.
On the bluffs overlooking the river, the old civil war cannon was loaded. The first three-pound ball shot from the cannon smashed into a lean-to on one of the barges. Pieces of wood and canvas erupted into the air and, then, flopped down onto the Pinkerton men crouched against the barge’s rusting iron hull.
The tug-boat captain didn’t know what to do. Withering fire from the river bank had driven the pilot to the floor, huddled under a storm of breaking glass and splintering wood. The mate was down with his testicles shot off. The tug idled and the barges drifted on the current, chained together so that they couldn’t escape from the gunfire.
The strikers manning the cannon loaded again, checked the range-finder, and fired the weapon. This time the shot sailed high and wide, hurled over the barges and the embattled tug and, even, the front lines of the armed workers shooting at the boats. The three-pound ball hit Silas Wain, an immigrant just arrived from England, and cut him in two.
There was a lull. Then, the Pinkerton men smelled burning creosote and looked upstream to see a flat-bottomed boat filled to the brim with burning railroad ties drifting down toward them. Greasy smoke blinded the guards and, through the black pall, rifle barrels flashed. The fire-boat missed the barge and twisted around in the current coming to rest against the stone pylon of the railroad bridge a few hundred yards downriver.
There were a half-dozen dead on both sides and many wounded. When the killing began, both the Union men and the Pinkerton guards realized that this exchange of gunfire was not a game, but rather lethal and deadly serious. The combatants took cover and most of the men didn’t dare to lift their heads over the barricades to fire at their adversaries. So the shooting subsided, only a random shot now and then. From the hillside across the river, the cannon roared a couple more times but the strikers manning the gun didn’t know how to aim it and the iron balls splashed harmlessly in the Monongahela.
The standoff continued. Mid-afternoon some barrels filled with kerosene were set afloat on the river upstream of the barges. The barrels also missed the barges and drifted downstream harmlessly, spilling fire on the river water.
Late-afternoon, the Pinkerton men waved a white flag. Their boss went on shore and negotiated with the union men. The strikers agreed that the Pinkertons would be granted safe-passage across the river embankments and down Main Street to the train station from which they were to depart from the area, and, indeed, the State. The telegraph in Bost Building reported to the newspapers in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and New York that the strikers had forced the surrender of the Pinkerton men.
Wright estimated that Fallingwater would cost $35,000 to build, a lot of money in 1936. In fact, the home cost over $155,000. A massive cost overrun of this sort may be equated to a cantilever. The expenses of building the structure project far beyond the financing available. Every building is a structure in two spaces: the tangible spatial dimension and the economic space that underpins the enterprise. Wright’s buildings tending to be massively cantilevered, both physically and economically.
Although it irritated the Edgar Kaufmann, he had the do-re-mi and tolerated Wright’s cavalier disregard for his budget. The two men were cut of the same audacious cloth. Once, one of Kaufmann’s girlfriends secretly exchanged her platinum charge card for the card of a competitor jewelry store in Pittsburgh. The woman charged several thousand dollars in merchandise back to Kaufmann, her purchases underwritten by the platinum card issued to her. Kaufmann was appalled. He confronted his mistress and canceled her card and with it the relationship (there were a lot more mermaids in that sea) and, then, returned the jewelry to the retailer. (You know the old Jewish joke: why did God make gentiles? Because someone had to buy retail.)
The retailer balked and Kaufmann sued. The news was splashed all over the newspapers and Liliane was mortified. But there was nothing she could do.
Many years later, Edgar Kaufmann’s son, the gentle, artistic, and gay, Edgar Jr., donated Fallingwater to the Conservancy of Western Pennsylvania. When he was asked for a one word description of the house, he said "Romance." Kaufmann’s longtime companion, himself an architect, was commissioned to build a ticket kiosk, visitor center with small cafeteria, and a bookstore on the site. The structures are wonderful in themselves, more true to the spirit of FLW than most of his own buildings. The kiosk with redwood benches where tours gather is central to a system of radiating boardwalks all of them under wooden awnings – of course, it always rains here when it is not snowing. The small cafeteria and visitor center is a little chalet-like gem. Another walkway radiating from the kiosk leads to the toilets – you can’t use the facilities in the house – and, there is a third walkway, leading to the glass walled wooden hut of the bookstore and gift shop, an exposed space that glows like a gem. All of these buildings are inconspicuous and melt into the brown and green woods. You can’t see Fallingwater from the visitor center – it’s hidden among the trees on the slope above the rushing stream that one can hear but not see.
The Western Pennsylvania conservancy acquired the property just in the nick of time. The lower level cantilever was in imminent danger of collapse. Even with Kaufmann’s surreptitiously supplied structural steel, the projecting concrete patio was simply too large. Immediately, the Conservancy cut into the pre-stressed concrete and added several tons of additional structural steel. The cantilever is now stable but visible sloped – it tilts seven inches from horizontal down toward the leaping white water gushing through the rocky hillside beneath the building.
My father thought that it was barbaric to serve a meal without catsup. I think his opinions on this subject were shared by most men of his age. Catsup was modernity – it signified jazz and talking pictures and sleek, fast cars. Catsup was one of the wonders of the age.
In the USA, Heinz enjoys a 60% market share with respect to sales of catsup. The condiment is popular in England and Wales – Heinz controls 82% of the market there. (One of the few successful securities that my father held were stock interest in H. J. Heinz and Company.)
In 1953, Jack Heinz of Pittsburgh married the English courtesan, Drue Maher. Drue Heinz became a leading patron of the arts and renovated much of downtown Pittsburgh. The great American film director, King Vidor, once said: the only true subjects for a movie are war, wheat, and steel. He neglected to mention catsup. Pittsburgh today shows more evidence of the beneficence of Drue Heinz, the catsup queen, than Carnegie and Frick. Mrs. Heinz arranged for the erection of a symphony hall named, of course, Heinz Hall. She was a primary underwriter of the Warhol Museum and one of Andy’s most loyal patrons. In New York City, where she lived part of the year in an apartment on the Upper East Side, she helped to found the Partisan Review and Ecco Press – she was also a major donor to the Republican Party, particularly admired by Ronald Reagan. Drue Heinz spearheaded water quality efforts in Pittsburgh, renovated the river side parks, and financed the restoration of the so-called Pittsburgh cultural district. (In Pittsburgh, she lived in a manor house in Sewickley Heights, pop. 810, one of the wealthiest enclaves in the United States.) Many of the most noteworthy art works in the Carnegie-Mellon museums were bequests from her.
A minor actress in England, Drue had been one of Bing Crosby’s girlfriends in the mid-thirties. She knew everyone – she was close friends with Norman Mailer and Thomas Wolfe as well as Seamus Heaney. A couple days after I returned from Pittsburgh, the world was saddened – indeed, grief-stricken -- by the death of Drue Heinz. She was 102 years old and died on March 30, 2018
at the age of 102. She owned mansions at Hobe Sound, Florida as well as Sewickley Heights, Pittsburgh, but she died at another family property, Hawthornden Castle in Midlothian, Scotland
The Pinkerton men staggered off the barges, two single-files of wild-eyed men with hair and beards stinking of gunsmoke, their hands and sleeves burned by flaming cordite. Groups of men cautiously navigated the gang-planks supporting litters on which wounded men were sprawled. Atop the embankment, a half-dozen dead strikers had been dragged into row to display the carnage caused by the Pinkerton attack. Both halves of Silas Wain were in that row but transposed – his head and torso was below his hips and legs. The Pinkerton men were forced into a single file and paraded past the corpses where they were disarmed, forced to pitch their revolvers and security badges onto a heap and, then, escorted by armed strikers through the Works where some of the outbuildings were burning, up an alleyway, and, then, to Main Street.
At least a thousand women had gathered on Main Street and they were brandishing kitchen knives and rolling pins and held buckets of household slops and boiling water. The women parted, opening a narrow path through the crowd. The first half-dozen Pinkerton men ventured into the place where the female mob had split open and forged forward a twenty or thirty feet before the women closed-in around them. The Pinkerton guards screamed as the women stabbed at their eyes and genitals, clawing the clothing off their backs and, then, beating the men with clubs and buckets and broom-handles. Crawling on their hands and knees, some of them half-scalped, the first group of Pinkertons emerged at the far end of the mob. Some strikers ran forward and tugged the women riding on the men’s backs off them and, then, it was the turn of the next group of guards to run the gauntlet. The bloodshed lasted for several hours as group after group of Pinkerton enforcers were savaged by the women. The telegraphs reported this as well.
After all of the invading force had been duly beaten, the bloody men were sent by train to Pittsburgh where Frick was receiving communiques on the battle of Homestead. He sent telegraph messages to Carnegie in the Scottish Highlands. Carnegie didn’t reply.
It’s peaceful in Homestead and, after the hurly-burly of Pittsburgh, the streets seem deserted and the row-houses ascending the steep hills, built without sidewalks, so that you go through the front door straight from the inside to the outside, stepping across a two-foot wide gutter onto the traveled-upon road, these gaunt, haggard worker-houses with their conjoined red brick walls, although still inhabited (you can see yellowing curtains inside, a cat on the windowsill eyeing the street, a decal on the door reminding you that the inhabitants don’t call 911 and are armed and dangerous) also feel abandoned, left to the vagaries of an unkind fate. At the bottom of the hill, there’s a methadone clinic and a storefront offering pro bono legal services and another storefront where pregnancy counseling is available and, generally, one might say that this town or suburb of Pittsburgh or enclave where industrial workers were once housed around a Bessemer converter furnace, however you characterize Homestead, has seen better days. When you tour the Rivers of Steel museum in the old Bost building, the Union headquarters and field hospital and the site of the dozen or more telegraph transmitters sending news of the Battle of Homestead to the surrounding world, the door isn’t even open – you have to ring a doorbell to gain access (I suppose due to the proximity of the methadone clinic and the junkies wandering around in the alleyways) and, then, a woman will greet you and seem strangely bemused, even awestruck, that you’ve come to the museum which is otherwise completely deserted – "How exactly did you learn about us?" she will ask – and, then, you can take an elevator up to the fourth floor where there are some paintings interpreting the Battle of Homestead, big murals by local artists, and some dusty glass cases full of old-time pictures and guns and ugly-looking wooden clubs that seem vaguely dildo-shaped, a couple of video monitors on which you can watch twenty minute movies about the Battle of Homestead narrated by someone like Peter Coyote, see some pictures of the old Carrie furnace blasting sparks skyward like an inverted booster-rocket from the era of the moon-shots, the empty rooms guarded by empty asbestos suits and empty hard hats hung on hooks on the wall.
The site of the battle of Homestead, other than the bloody gauntlet which is, after all, Main Street, lies downhill in a part of the river bottoms that probably floods annually – there are some parking lots where the Works once stood alongside the river, a few brick structures standing isolated on the hollowed-out blocks that now look a little swampy, a tract of unassuming low ruins and debris, and, then, an asphalt jogging path along the riverbank where the armed men once fired volleys from their Winchesters down onto the guards on the barges. The railroad bridge still stands a little upstream, the top trestles replaced by new iron but the old stone pylons just as they were in July 1892. The Carrie furnace rises like a burnt Kore, still charred with the flames of the underworld that she has escaped, a slender maidenly bottle-shaped tube made from black iron on the river’s opposing bank. The maiden is surrounded by a wilderness of rusting scaffolds and hoists that look like instruments of execution. Up on the higher slope of the opposite river bluff, where the three-pound howitzer was located, there is a now a condominium offering river views to its tenants, and, then, higher up, mist hides the homes on the summit of the bluffs. A gentle cold rain is falling.
Aren’t you happy that you’ve come to Pittsburgh?
Tunnels bore through river bluffs. The bluffs are crowned with dingy, impoverished neighborhoods and the tunnels are long, two miles or so. The tunnels opens into the bluff atop the river terrace and runs through the hill to the other side, emptying into a deep, steep-walled hollow where the entrapped traffic howls and, overhead, little slant bridges cross the ravine. The wet highway curves up the ravine between a gauntlet of cheap motels, liquor stores, gas stations and pizza joints. The businesses look like debris washed down into the narrow valley.
On top of the hill pierced by the tunnel, a neighborhood of ugly wooden buildings perch unsteadily on the brink. Vertical neighborhoods rise above the commercial strip on the hilltop street, steep inclines between old, desolate-looking houses. The commercial strip has a single lady-cop standing at an intersection guarding wet and snotty-looking elementary school children.
The Weeping Glass is a Goth emporium in a nondescript store-front atop Mount Washington. Vials in which stringy-looking black widow spiders are embalmed in fluid are for sale as well as the penis-bones of racoons and other mammals -- baculum is the name for the finger-shaped yellow bones. The proprietor of the store’s face juts with metal prongs and staples. He warns me not to touch the black widow vials – "very fragile," he says. It’s dark as the tunnel of coal mine in the store with heavy black curtains drawn over the front window. The skulls of rodents with many teeth gleam like the yellow harvest moon on high shelves and there are tee-shirts on sale with zombies and corpses on them. Of course, Pittsburgh is indelibly associated with the late George Romero, the auteur who made Night of the Living Dead. (After graduating from Carnegie-Mellon in 1960, Romero worked for WQED, public television in Pittsburgh where he shot sequences for Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. He made Night of the Living Dead in the environs of Pittsburgh. The treeless hillside cemetery where the film begins looks very much like the place where Andy Warhol is buried.)
A chubby middle-aged woman emerges from behind a black curtain. "I can do a reading," she says. She lists options ranging from ten dollars to 50 dollars priced according to the array of the Tarot cards employed. We know there’s no future: It’s Pittsburgh and so we politely decline her offer.
Outside on the street, the police woman escorts the little kids across the road one-by-one. The tops of hills are shrouded in mist.
The tally at Homestead was four or five dead Pinkerton men (numbers vary) and 12 strikers. Thirty-four union men were hurt. Every one of the 305 Pinkerton guards was damaged in some way by the riot in Homestead after their surrender.
A week after the fighting, the National Guard entered Homestead in overwhelming force and secured the town. Carnegie telegraphed Frick and told him to get the plant re-opened or he would return from Scotland and close down the facility once and for all, thereby turning Homestead into a ghost town. Frick settled the strike offering the workers return to work on basically the same terms existing before the strike. The leaders of the striking union were arrested and charged with murder. Most of the workers returned to their jobs. The union ratified a new contract with the company. The Pittsburgh Post reported the news under the banner headline: They Surrender.
Alexander Berkman had big ears. He had larger ears even then Kafka and Kafka’s ears were enormous, protruding, absurd. A picture of Berkman taken in 1892 shows a saturnine young man with huge ears, pince-nez glasses over big round eyes, and blubbery lips. The full lips and big eyes make Berkman look a little bit feminine – there is something coquettish in the tilt of his head.
With his girlfriend, Emma Goldman, Berkman ran an ice-cream parlor in Worchester, Massachusetts. It was the sort of work available to recent immigrants. Both Berkman and Goldman were Russian immigrants and anarchists. Berkman and Goldman followed the events in Homestead closely. Berkman decided to travel to Pittsburgh to assassinate Henry Clay Frick. He thought that if he killed Frick, the workers would rise, take to the streets, and that the murder would trigger a revolution. Emma Goldman encouraged him and said that she would raise funds to finance travel to Pittsburgh for this purpose. At that time, Emma was reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and, inspired by Sonya in the novel, she set forth to earn money for the attentat by prostituting herself. Please look up Emma Goldman on Wikipedia and look at her picture – it is helpful to have a mental image of Emma’s face and figure. Emma went to a bar, offering her body for ten dollars – there were no takers. One of the men that she solicited tried to be gallant – he told her that she "just didn’t have the knack." Goldman and Berkman hocked some belongings so that they could purchase a revolver. Berkman used a file to sharpen a piece of metal rod into a dagger. Then, armed with his gun and home-made revolver he went to Pittsburgh.
Frick’s skyscraper stood next to the Carnegie building in downtown Pittsburgh. Frick had made sure that his erection was several stories taller than Carnegie’s offices. Berkman took an elevator to the top floor where Frick was working in his offices. A Negro valet met Berkman in the lobby and said that Frick was too busy to see him. The anarchist said that he had come to apply for a job. He pushed past the Black man and entered Frick’s office. At his desk, Frick looked up at Berkman and shrugged. Berkman pulled out his revolver and shot Frick several times in the neck and shoulder. Frick fell back in his chair. Berkman calmly advanced on Frick who raised his head. Berkman put the muzzle of the smoking revolver right between Frick’s eyes. Berkman pulled the trigger but the gun didn’t fire. When Berkman pulled the trigger, Frick saw vision of his little daughter Martha, vivid as life standing next to him. Frick fell backward and Berkman leaned over him, aiming the gun again. At that moment, a carpenter who was making some renovations in the outer office rushed into the room and struck the anarchist in the back of the head. Berkman fell down, groping in his pocket for his dagger. Several other workmen entered the office, charged Berkman, and held him down, smashing at his face again and again. At least the working men in the Frick skyscraper showed no interest in joining the revolution – instead, they beat Berkman unconscious.
Frick sat up and regained his seat. After Berkman was dragged from the room, the robber baron said that he had work to do and that he would continue answering correspondence and dictating letters. A surgeon was called and, as Frick worked, he sounded the industrialist’s wounds with his instruments, locating the bullets so that they could then be extracted. Bandages were placed on the wounds piercing Frick’s shoulder and throat.
Frick worked until supper time. When he tried to stand up, his legs wobbled under him and he almost fell. He was carried on a stretcher to the elevator and, then, to an ambulance that he took him to the hospital where he was treated for blood loss.
Make sure you cross the Monongahela and take the riverside highway (57) along the muddy flood to Troy Hill – it’s about seven minutes from downtown and well worth the drive. This is one of Pittsburgh’s signature attractions.
The road to Troy Hill is a one-lane trench incised in the steep slope. When you drive that road, you tilt back in your car as if in a Lazy-Boy recliner – the top of the tunnel-like road is aimed at the North Star or Arcturus. At the top of the hill, the neighborhood is isolated by vertical, trash-strewn slopes on all sides – there’s an intersection among the greyish brick houses with a stop-light, although when I was there I saw no traffic, and three big churches with square-heavy towers. The churches are like neighborhood bullies – they loom over the smaller houses and the taverns and ancient corner groceries that seem to primarily support themselves by selling cigarettes and vape-equipment and lottery tickets.
The chapel of St. Anthony, notwithstanding its name, is a massive, heavy-set building, vaguely Italianate in design. Inside, the place is ornate and there are gory Stations of the Cross around the perimeter of the sanctuary, life-size statues of people beating and mocking Christ. Jesus has a greyish face and huge suffering eyes and blood pours from a hundred wounds on his body. A sign tells you not to touch the Stations and warns that a photoelectric monitor will trigger an alarm if you approach too closely. Nearer to the altar, the walls of the church have been hollowed into innumerable niches and dove-cotes covered with glass so as to house Father Mollinger’s collection of relics – more than 5000 by some counts. The great majority of the relics look like track-and-field awards, a dismal greying ribbon to which a tiny locket is attached. The locket has a crystal face and you can see embedded within a fleck a yellow or chalk-colored fleck of bone. Some of the relics are a bit larger, perhaps, the size of a military Purple Heart medal (if you have seen such a thing), a bit of brass or bronze supporting a crystal prism containing some bone embellished with a floral swath of fading silk ribbon. Mollinger collected a dozen or so skulls and they sit like morose cabbages wearing incongruous crowns in glass boxes by the altar – there are several ornate medieval reliquaries and, somewhere in this throng of corpse-parts, a piece of the Holy Cross, really just a sliver, and a nasty-looking, irregularly forged nail.
Father Suitbert Mollinger was a German-speaking priest from Belgium and the King of Troy Town for many years. His annual Corpus Christi parades and festivals were famous throughout the valley and attended by thousands of people. At the Corpus Christi festival and ceremonies for the feast day of St. Anthony of Padua, Father Mollinger would provide medical care to supplicants and was said to heal between 100 and 150 people at a time. There’s a tiny museum across the street from his Chapel built primarily to house the priest’s vast collection of relics – Mollinger was also the pastor at the Heilige Name church, a larger and more utilitarian place, only a stone’s throw from the big chapel. The museum in the old rectory contains Mollinger’s relics – his cane and eye-glasses and some Bibles and breviaries. Mollinger had anal trouble, apparently a wicked itch, and he developed a rectal ointment to treat his problems and, in fact, he specialized in providing homeopathic remedies for anal fissures. An inveterate entrepreneur, Father Mollinger produced the rectal ointment in mass and sold it as a mail order remedy, apparently becoming even more wealthy (he came from a prosperous merchant family) from that enterprise. One of the cases contains a small box labeled unpretentiously Father Mollinger’s Rectal Ointment, with a small engraving of the priest next to the printed material. (Whenever I hemorrhoids or anal itching, I apply catsup to the affected orifice – this works quickly and effectively and provides a marvelous rectal perfume as well.)
Hard rain fell on Troy Hill. Angelica and I walked the perimeters of the little knob with its crown of churches and tightly packed brick homes and businesses. At each corner of the square hill, a ruinous flight of steps ran down into the valley where there were more houses and churches all hammered together into a single mass of masonry. The steps seemed to be broken in places and the wooded hillsides were tangled with garbage crucified in the trees and shrubs growing out of the steep slope. If you threw a dead cat off the top of Troy Hill, as has been done, no doubt, a dozen times or more, the animal’s carcass would land on the roof of a house or church 135 feet below. A girl with the sleek prosperous appearance of a realtor directed the work of a lone man, burly heavy-set kid with side-burns – he was unloading furniture from a panel truck, carrying it across the wet pavement into one of the houses. The end of the month was approaching and new tenants, I suppose, were about to take possession of the apartment on the street corner. The distant intersections vanished in a cloud of falling rain and a stray dog limped piteously down an alleyway. At the corner across from the Chapel, the diocese had its headquarters and people were staring morosely into lit computer screens.
Our tour at Fallingwater was scheduled for 8:45 am. The literature accompanying my ticket confirmation strongly urged that visitors arrive one-half hour before their tour. Google Maps estimated the drive from downtown Pittsburgh to Fallingwater would require 93 minutes – the site is 65 miles away but the terrain is difficult and the roads very intricate. It was far easier to reach that place in the thirties and forties when the train ran from Pittsburgh southwest to Bear Creek with its cabins and tennis courts for use of Kaufmann’s Department Store employees.
We left the hotel at six a.m. It was dark and the radio informed me that there had been landslides near Pittsburgh and that a number of roads were blocked. The rain was unsettling the terrain and tearing down hills, sloughing slopes off rock and sending trees and sod careening in the valley. This was Johnstown flood weather – a slow, steady seep of rain out of the sky, mist in the hollows, and things dissolving in the dank, wet morning.
We drove first one-way and, then, another. Sometimes, we drove in narrow flooded valleys past fast food places and little motels and used car lots. Then, there was a soaking freeway with empty lanes vanishing in both directions in the grey mist. For a long time, we drove on narrow country lanes embedded in the earth like ditches because of their extreme age. The trees closed tightly around the road and the hilltops were hidden in fog. The landscapes were probably pretty in a Hudson Valley School sort of way but, in the weather enveloping us, they were impossible to see. The country had a ruinous, deserted look about it, crossroads with old brick and clapboard houses huddled close to the road, lanes that took detours around big stark oak trees, all shivery-looking and naked in the fog, and, then, inexplicably little subdivisions of white, bright new housing standing in forlorn cow pastures.
It was a long way – certainly, a complex and impossible trip if you were driving through the night with a dying woman in the backseat of your car.
The parking lot at Falling Rock is tastefully hidden from the visitor center, which is very elegant, framed from wood as fine as you might find in an expensive chest-of-drawers or antique chair. The visitor center is tastefully hidden from the house itself.
The tour guide takes you down a path and first you hear the water, whispering in the distance, then, louder and visible dashing itself against rocks in a fissure forced through a wooded hillside. Fallingwater takes you by surprise, around a turn on the trail. At first glance, it is quite ugly – the concrete has a strange hue and the red Cherokee steel looks prosaic and industrial and the big cantilevers aggressively strain toward the river as if components of some large and incomplete mill-house. Indeed, in some respects, the structure is, in fact, akin to a mill-house – a residence poised over a waterfall but without all the groaning and moaning and wheezing gears and the grinding sound of the millstones twisting on one another.
You cross a bridge to enter the house through a kitchen. The waterfall is close to the kitchen which is tucked under the main level and the largest cantilever and people have to shout to be heard over the sound of rushing water. It’s like having the world’s largest toilet running night and day.
Beyond the details of furniture and lighting – Wright’s fixtures hidden under wood panels to cast light indirectly up against pale ceilings that seem to be fashioned from the substance used to wall Japanese homes – and beyond the layout of big cantilevered patios over the toppling stream and the open plan of the rooms, the question arises: what is the general impression that Fallingwater makes on someone within the house? What is the pre-conscious, as it were, Gestalt of the house?
In every room in Fallingwater, on the steps and the corridors and balcony-like patios, one is conscious of the stream splashing and plunging and leaping like a dolphin beneath the house – and, not exactly, below the house but within the rooms, present because the sound of the water is present in all places. The sound of water visualizes to mind as a white ribbon or a deep white and foaming gash. Thus, every room seems somehow bisected by a white presence, a ghostly white wound, and, if you allow your mind to blur and defocus, as it were, looking past the specifics, the particular details and nuances in the construction, what remains is the vague notion of an X, that is a crossing – ocher and Cherokee red crossed with a slash of white foam, a sense that there is something striking across each room and that something is ephemeral and white as a ghost and perpetual, a living, vivid white line drawn across every object and every page of every book in the house, the same vivid, dashing, darting white-line bisecting the furniture and dividing into two parts the Hokusai and Hiroshige prints on the wall, this X where water crosses things as a foaming white entity.
They see her on the lowest cantilever when it is dark. She stands there pensively gazing away from the house and the phosphorescent white of the cascades below in their gloomy jaws of boulder and cliff. She has the face of a bruised and helpless silent movie star. She is also white like something imperfectly projected and her pale features are translucent so that the trees covering the slopes opposite the house are visible through the creamy mist comprising her. She gazes from the edge of the cantilevered deck and, if one were to follow her eyes, if one were to trace the aim that her eyes take on the dark woods, if one were to follow the corneal lens (as it were) from pole to grave, an operation familiar to you from the cemetery where Andy Warhol is buried, you would find an extension of a path uphill on the hillside facing Fallingwater half-concealed in the brush, and, then, a dark place where cypresses flare against the night like black torches, and, among those trees, the mausoleum with its great bronze doors decorated with bas reliefs by Giacometti, a man and a woman standing irretrievably apart in a lonely, barren landscape, the sepulcher of the merchant prince, Edgar Kaufmann and his melancholy wife Liliane.
When the cast and crew making a movie adaptation of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was in town, an actress named Sienna Miller, called the city Shitsburgh. This was duly reported in a lifestyle magazine distributed in bars and at movie theaters in Pittsburgh and its metropolitan area.
The title of the article was Semi-famous actress dumps on "the Burgh". Sienna Miller gave a limp apology. She claimed she had "fuckloads of fun" in Pittsburgh.
She also said that she thought it was incongruous that her remark was front page news during a week that had seen the "slaughter of seven Amish people gunned down at their Church" in West Nickels in Lancaster county near Philadelphia. (In fact, the gunman shot eight girls at the Amish church and school, killing five of them.)
Old Andrew Carnegie declared in 1889, three years before the Homestead Strike, that the "material prosperity is helping to make the national character sweeter, more joyous, more unselfish, more Christ like." He also wrote that "the man who dies rich, dies disgraced." These were words published in June 1889 in The North American Review under the title Wealth. Carnegie, as a social Darwinist, also noted that charity required wisdom and that "indiscriminate charity" is a serious obstacle to the "improvement of the race."
Carnegie did, in fact, give away as much of his fortune as possible endowing 2,509 libraries in small towns and villages throughout North America – the first library was built in 1889, the last in 1925. (The largest and most beautiful of the Carnegie libraries is in Pittsburgh – you can tour the 1895 building during your visit).
Carnegie remained intensely competitive. He liked to play cards with children at his Scottish estate. Carnegie’s daughter, Margaret, paid the local children to let "Grandpa ‘Negie’" as he was called always win. Otherwise, ugly scenes ensued.
Carnegie did give away all his wealth. When he died, he owned two homes, one in New York and one in Scotland. The last of his money was bestowed on his loyal housekeeper and maid.
Carnegie was disheartened by World War One. He was old and naive enough, a gentleman of the 19th century, to think that war is bad for trade. Carnegie urged that men of good will join together to form a league that would advocate for the abolition of all armed conflict. The fighting at Homestead haunted him. He said that "it was deep wound that would not heal."
In bad health, Carnegie sent a letter to his old partner, Henry Clay Frick. Frick was ailing as well. Carnegie asked to be reconciled with Frick and requested a meeting. The two men had not spoken for more than 20 years after Carnegie ousted Frick from his companies.
Frick read Carnegie’s message and, then, crumpled the paper and threw it in his waste basket. Frick spoke to the emissary from Carnegie: "Yes, you can tell Carnegie, I’ll meet him. I’ll meet him in Hell where we are both going."
Carnegie died on August 11, 1919. Unless he was trapped in the Bardo, or took a detour, Frick met him in Hell on December 2, 1919.
Austin’s Carnegie library today was full of Mexican and Laotian and Sudanese immigrants reading books.
After he successfully flew across the Atlantic, Charles Lindbergh lent his plane to Edgar Kaufmann. Money changed hands and the plane was hung in the grand vestibule of Kaufmann’s Big Store in Pittsburgh. The plane was there for several years. Hundreds of thousands of people admired the Spirit of St. Louis in Pittsburgh before it was flown to Washington and the Smithsonian Institute.
March 30 - May 4, 2019