I enjoy remembering, but I do not believe in photograph albums. They are bulky, and troublesome to maintain. There are always stacks of pictures in the drawer, waiting to be placed on the pages.
Years ago I decided “No more albums,” and began searching the thrift stores for used frames. Whenever I settle and build myself a studio, I hang the photographs on the walls. I am surrounded by my history, by the people I love, by memories. Wherever I look, there I am, where I used to be.
There I am in 1944, a few weeks before D-Day. I’m wearing a broad brimmed fedora, my jacket was wide, padded shoulders, and I’m sneering. If it had not been for that photograph me and three other kids would’ve robbed and mugged the greatest symphony conductor of the time Arturo Toscanini.
We had it carefully cased and planned. He conducted a weekly radio program from Rockefeller Center in New York City. He had a large rented home in Riverdale outside of the city proper. He was driven to the 49th Street entrance in a luxurious Chevrolet. He was a punctual man. Short with flaring white hair. Skinny, rat-eyed, natty. We were told he carried a wad of bills in his pocket to pay for the nightclubbing he did after performances. We were dressed neatly in borrowed zoot-suits to blend with the crowds of respectable people and soldiers.
Then a street photographer working the area snapped our pictures and poked the receipt into our pockets. If we mailed him a dollar– it could be in postage stamps– he would send us the photographs. We wanted to kill him. If we had mugged the “Great Toscanini” the cops would have learned of our presence on the street and could’ve gotten our pictures. We walked away. A few months later I sent for my picture.
There I am in 1939 lifting weights in an institution for ‘the social correction of delinquents.’ It was about 6 miles from Eastport, in Maine. Big chest, bulging shoulders, trim waist, stallion legs.
Eleven years later, in 1950, I was in New York City, just starting to become a writer, and I was forced into hiding. There was a catch-a-communist frenzy on. A senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, was on a rampage for personal publicity. He used the Communists as his lever.
In 1937 I joined the Young Communist League. It was the only place where you could get free donuts and coffee, and be taught how to lift weights. Ironically, the Young Communist League was one of the few organizations that was not considered subversive. I had signed their membership, Hymie Cockamamie.
There I am in 1959 holding my youngest son, Matthew, about a year old. Behind us is a bulky television set with a screen the size of a book page. It was a day when my first wife thought I was a stupid envious man.
Around 1958, we had gone to a party and met a tall, soft-faced blonde guy named Charles Van Doren. His family were noted scholars and literary critics and I immediately disliked him. He believed my novels were too raw. I said he was a superficial punk living off his family’s reputation.
And there he was, a television star, answering questions that could earn him $64,000 on the television quiz-show. I said,” I don’t believe he knows that much. You heard me talking to him. I had to give the creep the definition of eclecticism. He’s a know-nothing.” She claimed I was just an uneducated lout who didn’t know the sex of the Statue of Liberty.
On November 16, of that year, Charles Van Doren walked into the House Caucus Room and testified that he had been fed the answers to the quiz. I pitied the poor child, but I did envy the money he made.
There I am, in 1939, standing in front of the high school with two satin streamers across my chest.” Second Best Dancer” and ” Second Best Looking.” The only reason I came in second in those two categories was because the guy who came in first had gotten to the voting committee before me. With strong-armed intimidation. You could win any high school poll. I was wearing my older brother’s suit.
I have seen the studios of other writers. They have paintings and books, fan letters and book jackets, accolading reviews and some photographs of their families framed on their walls. Few ever used their walls as a gallery portraying their past.
I enjoy looking at and remembering all those yesterdays. I feel continuous, moved along with time. I did not become what I am right now, right now. I have been grown like a gardenia or weed, through time. I am connected to a social and personal history. In those times when I was photographed, I am fixed and unchanging. I will always be the same even while I am becoming more, and older.
(first published October 27, 1985 the Manhattan Mercury)