JOB’s serendipitous NYC literary pilgrimage

Or, what I did for Memorial Day.

It began with a phone call from my mother letting me know my Uncle Jack was dying (he passed from this life quietly and peacefully on May 29, his beloved family – and many of his 11 kids by his side. He was, as the last-cited integers might suggest, an inspiration and a role model for me).

At any rate, the goal was to fly solo to NJ and visit with my uncle in his last days. Like a hermit crab, though, with each passing minute of the announcement to depart forthwith to my home state, the journey/baggage was quickly developing by accretion .  First it was the two oldest offspring – both licensed drivers who could share the burden of time behind the wheel (18-20 hours, five states, and lots of Ohio farmland, depending on travelers’ Gatorade intake); then our German exchange student wanted to come along – she had never seen NYC before (and to be fair, I encouraged her to come); then it was most everyone but Mama, who would stay behind with the youngest.

In the end, we all- Papa, Mama and ten of the younger set – from four months to 17 years old – piled into “Driver 8 [+2],” the fifteen-passenger white Ford van and posing as a Baptist Church evangelizing team we were heading east.

Well, of course, as part of the visit to NJ, we had to hit New York – and hit it we did…hard. On Memorial Day. (“Everyone’s goin’ to the shaw for Mahmorial Day – no sweat.”)

Um. Nope.

Everyone was either hitting the shore points OR staying in NYC – and cramming Central Park around midday.  Interim, Papa Joe enlisted the help of his dear older sister to herd eight or nine teens/preteens (I can’t really remember how many –

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you…)

on a walking tour of NYC.

We weathered the crowds well – no one of our party getting unnecessarily lost – although we came close at one point with some nonsense that involved some preteen female interest in posing with a rather Ab-centric Abercrombie & Fitch model.

We traveled south from Madison Square Garden and inched our way to Times Square and then from there over to Central Park and then back again to MSG – and Penn Station. There was absolutely nothing to do that didn’t cost more money than a father of a large family could spare to part with. It was, in two words, economically prohibitive. I know you don’t care, Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Bloomberg; but there it is.

Never mind the details – suffice it to say that the experience of being practically mugged by Elmo, Cookie Monster, two Iron Men, the Statue of Liberty and I think a couple Power Rangers, although they may have been Iron Men too, proved that just as the business of America is business, so the hustle and bustle of NYC is a bustling hustle. In Times Square experience dressed as innocence seeks out the tourists – especially the ones with cameras (although I suppose that’s redundant) and glom them for a picture and a mandatory tip. In case you need a hint, the belligerent buffos all carry mail pouches with “TIPS” stenciled in an ink black high-grade military font.

Never have I felt more exploited…. Rubbing the NaCl into the wound, as I passed one Iron Man, he murmured to me, “Hey, Dad, smile, why don’t you? – it’s almost over.”

As far as I can tell, our walking route took us east from MSG to the Empire State Building down 34th Street. We then hooked a left and headed north up 5th Avenue to 42th St., hooked another left until we hit Times Square (Broadway and 7th), got mugged by human-sized Muppets, then continued up 7th Ave. and hooked a right onto 49th St. and visited the golden guy at Rockefeller Center. We then continued on 49th and turned left on 5th Ave and proceeded on to Central Park, entered through the southwestern corner, enjoyed the sunning turtles in one of the little watering holes they keep for maintaining the sanity of the odd Country Mouse who happens to visit the Big Apple, ate hot pretzels for lunch, and exited the park from the south. From there we continued down 6th Ave., passed Macy’s and on back to our train.

A few incidents of note: My children, being Eloise fans, did their darndest to get kicked out of the Plaza Hotel. The doorman shooed them out in grand style.

On our way up 5th Ave., I saw the ghost of Walker Percy. A man who looked pretty much like the coveting curmudgeon of Covington was standing next to one of those typical Manhattan newsstand kiosks plastered with paper flesh. For all I know he could have been a ghost as he stood there, stock-still. He was wearing formal slacks, a striped dress shirt open at the collar, and had slung a sports coat over his left shoulder in the casual fashion of one taking a look at the horses as they entered the track. He looked neither hurried nor worried. Instead, he was gazing up at the skyscrapers, the way one gazes up at the ceiling when one’s heard a bad joke, a sardonic grin on his face as if both amused and amazed that so much humanity could be so lost.

Perhaps to drive the point home, not far from the newsstand where Percy’s ghost lingered, we passed the 5th Ave. Presbyterian Church. The letter sign out front announced in the familiar chunky black plastic lettering, the weekend sermon: “The Blessings of Being Lost.”

Then, not long after this – or perhaps before it – I discovered the first payoff for Papa on  his Manhattan meandering:

nyc pilgrimage 1

The very place that the Man in the Perpetual Hat, Maxwell Perkins, received  F. Scott, Ernest, and Thomas Wolfe – not to mention Marjorie Rawlings and James Jones.

Best story about Perkins. Charles Scribner was notorious for running an upright ship and so when the young Turks – Fitzgerald, Hemingway, et al, started coming on as Scribner authors, Perkins had a jolly time of it persuading Scribner to allow for profanity. Scribner stuck to his guns, though, and gave Perkins a list of words he was not allowed to have appear in Scribner books: fuck, shit, piss.

Of course, as Scribner handed down his orders by phone, Perkins, desperate to catch the list before his boss hung up, wrote it down on his desk calendar. Some days later, Hemingway came for a visit and saw the list as Perkins had written it. “Jesus, Max! Are you that busy, you need to schedule these things in advance?” or something to that effect. (I might have some of the players confused, but you get the general drift.)

I mentioned that my daughters – mostly my third-born – were desperate to see the Plaza Hotel. On our way up 5th Ave. I happened to catch the glint off a rather largish brass plate affixed to the pale grey brick of an anonymous building. I stopped long enough to realize it accomplished the hat trick for my literary pilgrimage.

Howells it was who first taught me to fall in love with money, you see. But not in the way you might think. Here’s the opening paragraph of what I wrote to get an MA from University of Dallas:

In  many ways, by the time The Rise of Silas Latham by William Dean Howells was published in 1885, the novel as an art form had come into its own in America. The literary landscape first formed by the novels of Melville and Hawthorne was beginning to take on a more definite shape by the time Howells’ groundbreaking novel came on the scene. Lapham was published in America the same year as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) and only eight years after Henry James’ The American (1877), both of which novels broke new ground in their own right regarding the dawning self-awareness of the American character. For Twain, Huckleberry Finn’s unique articulation (in his own dialect no less) of the American scene could never be mistaken for the observations of a European. Likewise, as his name suggests Christopher Newman goes to Europe bearing the new American character with a certain blend of innocence and experience that James valued not only for the ambiguity it provided for James but also for the contrast it provided to the European character.

Howells’ work, though, stands at a kind of midpoint between the nativism of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and the sophisticated continentalism of James’ The American.  Indeed, Howells distinguished himself in the New England cradle of American intellectualism with his own brand of sophistication, yet he retained enough of his Ohio back-woods roots to recognize that the natural speech and homegrown culture of America were fair game for great literature. But Howells’ gentle satire contrasted greatly with Twain’s more acerbic wit; and his understanding of high society remained that of an outsider, a Yankee for sure, but one whose roots ran to the wilderness of the Mississippi rather than to the banks of the more cosmopolitan Charles River of Boston’s aristocracy…  


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