Thinking over the past week, which then takes me further back, as it always does —
Robin Williams could have been capable of striving deeply into acting and the cinema world but my hunch is he couldn't control his vices, so the comedy masqueraded much of his madness. He was as mad as depressed. If you watch him in his earlier films, you see deep potential and scale. Then he got lazy with fame, fortune and needing the audience to respond to him. Thus the standup and the constant tv work on talk shows where he couldn't resist but to go into his scheme, which I loved of course, since it was channeling my own humor and madness but I'll let him do it for me. With that relief, I can stick to the real world. We use our comedians and they know it. The two rarest ones: Keaton and Chaplin made more than comedy. It was drama. I feel terrible for Williams since he had powerhouse abilities and now he's sunk by his own hand. Hunter Thompson raising a big revolver at his kitchen stool, son and family in the other room, blows his brains out. No warning. Another one who worked masterpieces, gone. In the meantime we have the likes of Kissinger and the whole Bush family moving around us doing just fine. Accepted or ignored in a benign way. We lose the Masters. It's always been this way. Thompson and Williams ended up believing, somehow, that they were shunned.
Now look at the comedians of old — George Burns, Milton Berle, Sid Cesar, Bob Hope, Jonathan Winters, Joan Rivers, Lucille Ball, Jerry Lewis, Don Rickles, Carol Burnett, many many more, all lived and some are still living, deep into old age. What did they have, despite the comedy, the tragedy, the acceptance and the shunning? They have and had a classical bent. Very different from the 60s icons and troubled souls, although Dylan may get there. They all had a poise and an elegance for style and demeanor, and an almost balance with patience and timing, and they listened as well as any wild animal since they drew their work from the public and privacy of life. They took care of business.
Susan and I have just put down one half of the chapel roof, or is it a garage or is it a small barn, that may one day also become part bookshop, or even a lending library? You dream when you build if you're really building. Build in a routine and you're sure to get a routine. Today we take a rare lunch break since the work has driven us ravenous. We'll go out and start on the other side of the roof so we can finish it all by tomorrow afternoon and then take off Sunday and travel, frolic, hike, search out the bookshops, byways, even strangers, and say "hello." We give ourselves, if we're lucky, one day off a week.
Changed horses at the last minute yesterday morning - 4AM - and took the new Tacoma pickup, which I call the Bronco. We were gone by 5 and in the Berkshires, southern level, Stockbridge town to be exact (where Alice's Restaurant was, sung by Arlo Guthrie, I ate there once upon a leafy time), where I used to see Norman Rockwell cross the quiet streets very early in the morning on my way as a teenager to work the family lumberyards with a roving manager. I was his roving sidekick. 5 lumberyards, one a day for us, quite a mutt & jeff team. Rockwell with his pipe, debonair hat, and the New York Times under his arm. That's what he was walking for. A classic gentleman. It's 7:30 and chilly when we arrive in the town.
Now the town is summer-tourist crazy, bustling, loud, way too much traffic storming through for a town its size. Susan used the bathroom she likes from the fanciful Red Lion Inn (50 years ago my father was flagged down for a speeding ticket right at this corner, four kids in the backseat) while I got the bicycles out from the back of the short pickup. They fit like sardines, but they fit. And we rode for a good hour around all the side street neighborhoods with good homes, none too fancy, and then a deeper ride through the back gardens of Austin Riggs, the expensive mental institution. James Taylor was stationed there when I was that boy passing through. The rumor at the time was his heroin addiction, who knows? When he got out he played a concert, large as jesus, up the road in Lenox and I was there for Sweet Baby James.
By 9 we were at the used book shop we love, and its owner a real tireless book lover out of Manhattan long ago, in her 70s, with a classic eye and so many books I need to be there almost all of a day. So we were. The owner says, and she has a sweet way of saying it, "I love you visiting, but you take my best books." I smile back to this Londoner (native home) and say, "Well, I can't very well take your worse books." She laughs and agrees. Susan worked finding books and I also asked her to just sit out in the sun and partake there. No complaints. I worked the premises. Good stuff. Nuts in the cheeks. Winter fuel. It will also appease us from any appetite to head back down to the Berkshires in a week to a library book sale we hardly ever miss in Lenox. This year we'll miss it, having spent our wad here, and work instead in buttoning up the chapel construction. I have stone work to get to.
So while I'm finishing up, Susan in the sun, and this place is off the beaten track 5 miles from a tar road, the outer Berkshires, I see a very old fellow and know who it is instantaneously, hobbled horribly and being helped from his silver Honda by his male companion, a good and patient man, holding the old fellow up, with his cane, soft comfortable shoes, who looks at me square in the face as I approach and I look at him squarely and say, "A lovely day." Meaning the sun. He seems to agree with a nod and goes back to figuring out how to cross the earth. And I mean he's in very very rough shape moving. Susan, sitting in the sun, was surprised the man was in such bad condition yet had the wherewithal to have immediate attention onto her when he got himself, with help, out of the car. He was going to get inside the tiny book packed building and get plunked down into a comfortable wooden chair up front near the checkout counter and his friend was going to bring him a box of old postcards and John Ashbery was going to wheeze a bit and catch his breath looking over this postcard collection. I've been reading him all my life. We're nothing alike but he's my sort of man of letters. And I felt fortunate to have been with him for a moment today.
Susan later asked before we left, "Don't you want to say something to him?" I do but I shouldn't. He's at a point in life of just getting from one place to another is a dog-team effort. Leave him be to relax.
We drove home the three hours through the old roots and tangled roads of back lots and farmlands. I love the drive back to my old home place. . .in the Berkshires, and I can see it's only a matter of time my other home place, Vermont, will also be overrun.
"summertime" photo 2014 © bob arnold
Ashbery is very frail, and also edging toward 90 years of age (b. 1927), and I mean he should have been carried from the car and into the used book hamlet (which is his familiar, well welcomed by the owner etc) but there is a admirable determination on his part to get from point A to point B with his cane. I couldn't help myself to be right there, in my own familiar (the rural setting) with a man who meant a great deal to me since the age of 15 when I was discovering his poetry, art essays, and translations goodness sakes the same time I was discovering Ted Enslin, Cid Corman, James Koller, Janine Pommy Vega, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac and Hayden Carruth. Here is, essentially, the genius of the NY School, Frank O'Hara, a pal, later Ted Berrigan, all the guys. The guys that helped save my young life. I'll regret I didn't say something more than "hello" which I at least did, eye to eye, because I am capable of also regretting that I bothered him if I did go ahead and make the plunge. Better to be moderate, since I'm often anything but with an endurance and at least a wish at taking on the day.
(letter to John Phillips, 16 august 2014)