Ulysses In Ithaca  
by Phil McCray

1952. Seven years after Nagasaki, and before we sailed for Nausicaa and Charybdus, some of us were aggregated in a large room on the south end of a building on West Hill, in Ithaca, New York. Between this building’s oaky and elmy grounds, and the Nineteenth Century house to which I was carried from a birthing hospital in 1947, there is a quite small, triangular park, which features a brace of forsythia, a sloping lawn, and one enormous oak. Under this oak I now go to sit – to pass an oneiric afternoon – with a carafe of martinis, a cigar, and from within my taking the measure of the difference between time-indefinite and the réchauffé of memory’s scenes d’art. I usually take with me my dog Hellhound, whose long memory permits her to sleep in complete peace for the three hours we together each melt into our sentimental reveries. “We shall but be silt,“ quoth Hellie and I.

Eight months after Nagasaki, young verrenkt men had with eager haste returned to North America bursting with the impression that children would accelerate the forgetting, which it rather did. And so in some unison they impregnated the women they had perhaps suddenly married prior to departing for the ETO or the PTO. If twenty-nine of us fry had all taken a field trip to cross the bridge at San Luis Rey, in medias res, on a certain day, you and I would not have met like this.

Demographic actuarial statisticians employed by departments of education seemed to have fixed in their minds the casual pace of procreation and rate of infancy-survival that had preceded World War II, but in fact they had nervously to deal with teeming human surpluses that forced them to herd young people like lambs into new buildings and old annexes.

The room held one group of persons in the morning, and another in the afternoon. Names and the intertwining narrative paths associated with them jingled in my time-at-sea for many years afterward, all embraced within my arms as scoundrels, sailors, and coquettes.

Years later, on Eddy Street in Ithaca, hard by Cornell University, I spoke with Ephim Fogel (progenitor of the President of the University of Vermont), and I believe that it was Vladimir Nabokov (by then resident of Saint Petersburg, Berlin, Paris, Cannes, and Prague) of whom he spoke, describing the novelist’s asking the ten year old daughter of a colleague how she liked living in a small town. She didn’t know, she said: she’d never lived in a small town. When wee Rachel Kahn appealed to her father that her allowance might be a bit raised, she did so to the “Father of Airline Deregulation.” He was working in the White House as the “Inflation Czar” at the same time my brother was lunching there with Carter, as the EPA “Sunset Law” czar. My brother has concluded that he must have been a particularly sadistic Sixteenth Century Inquisitor, and is consequently my-brother-for-his-sins. When Laura Shill met me in 1967, she yelped “so you’re the guy who hates clichés” for which, in leafy green Geneseo, I had made myself famous and risible, such was my life-long fear-of-snakes abhorrence of canned language. When I rusticate now on sultry July and August afternoons at the little triangular park, I often read a few pages of IN THE SHADOW OF YOUNG GIRLS IN FLOWER or FINDING TIME AGAIN to abet the vodka’s roasting of my ¬reminiscentia-strands entwining back. Brief moments later, in another kind of kitchen, not far from the oak and forsythia, aswoon in the present tense, before she has written THINKING IN TIME: AN INTRODUCTION TO HENRY BERGSON, or THE IMPERSONAL SUBLIME: HUGO, BAUDELAIRE, LAUTREAMONT, or VISUAL DUST: PROUST AND PHOTOGRAPHY, I stood in the breath and by the personal flesh of Suzanne Guerlac, a Haze, black-clad, pre-transgressive not-yet-beaten nik by whom I had been long-mystified and entranced, and who loped through the expansive Sargasso penels of semiotext(e), rhizome/surface tropes, and deconstructed intertextuality, and which will base the novel she will write in the American Vorticist prose that had lately led me to Hart Crane.

A few short months after 1952, Rachel Kahn met the President of the University of Vermont; they immediately ran off together to Ouagadougou Burkina Faso, and affirmed a relationship that is now spanning fifty years. Half a decade after they met, and during the time they were forging that bond, I had one conversation with the President, on the odd occasion of my knowing something that he did not. His eyes looked at me with a startling, or perhaps disarming clarity, one that was so unlike the wise-guy scowls of the sullen and the misshaped, my collegial peers. A person of reckless imagination might confect the notion that in her blossoming greensickness, it was Rachel Kahn herself who infected the President and me with a fantastical devotion to Henry James (much later on to manifest itself as his founding the Henry James¬¬¬ Review and the Henry James Society with its fine scholarship, and as my paralleling the Jamesian, sirenic, and romantic gnarlies by living out really horrible approximations of what Charlotte and the Prince might have done had they been given to “Urban Cowboy” sorts of emotional explosions of anger and remorse). I unstopped my ears and subjected myself to fabulous Densheric and Ververian tortures of the heart. My Henry differed from the President’s, just as they were the same.

On the first day of that spell of mornings in the room at the south end of a building on Chestnut Street, Chuckie Srnka and I walked across Elm Street and entered the building together. We felt comfortable doing that, and every morning thereafter we walked to school together (though later we drove Volkswagens and Chevies) until the very last day, thirteen years later in 1965, of our indoctrination as capitalists, imperialists, appeasers, suborners, chauvinists, and egocentrists. Cancer: 2007, wife and daughters at his side.

Nick Adams (R.M. refers to his mother, an earlier social crime that was reluctant to speak its name: the embarrassment of a divorced woman) was acutely aware of the gaping force across the valley on East Hill, Cornbell University. I once had dinner with Nicky and his mother, who had invited a Brit visiting scholar. Liver was served. Shortly after that, the three of them decamped for Oggsford, and I suppose Nick became an Oggsford man.

Barbie Hodes lived across the street from the trangular park, on Chestnut Street. In 1964 every element of her dazzling mien proposed and assured that she was preparing herself for and directing her life to Fifth Avenue, among the very metaphorical starlights of Society, as if she had a secret foreknowledge of founding Barbara Hodes Ltd. on 39th, and her marrying Michael Gross, who wrote ROGUES' GALLERY: The Secret Story of the Lust, Lies, Greed and Betrayals That Made the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Barbie boarded a train in 1964, a TGV, that flew like an arrow from Ithaca to Manhattan. Before her calmative marriage, she was a sidekick of Lou Reed, a glory and pain that will have demanded much exposure to the elements.

Ithaca’s “Rhine” district is difficult to define, but the impression it leaves is quite clear, of bums, hovels, and transients. Chronological and geographical distinctions are easily disproved, but the sentiment and effects of the Rhine can be confused with no other element of the city’s societies or culture-bands. My father (1917-1993) was, and I am life-long a resident of West Hill. The odd numbered houses of Elm Street perch above a very steep bank, a cliff, overlooking Floral Avenue. The boatyards in which he and I spent many years of our lives are adjacent to the swamplands that, before Flood Control, formed some of the dark and doubtful homes and haunts of the Rhiners. In the 1930s my father and the bolder of his many brothers would hop down the bank to the wetlands below, to socialize (that is to say, play) with the young Rhiners, not excluding the ‘coloreds’ and the many doomed transient hobo kids strung along there by a feckless and drunken parent. It was fishing and fistfights, mostly; but either activity would be followed by some congenial hanging about, until the West Hill kids would scamper up to homes and chores and dinner, and the Rhiners would disappear into their hovels and camps, and vanish from consciousness. “They never came up to play with us,” said my father. “Dad would have skinned us alive.”

Nate was a Rhiner who had “settled in.” He lived-rough in a leaky, tattered boatshack a few yards north of the Buffalo Street bridge, and had in his possession a motored skiff that sometimes ran and always listed due to the sloshing bilges. He was toothless and greasy, and made rather an impression on me in the 1950s. My father would always hail him, and they’d talk, though they doubtless had never been introduced or exchanged anything more than their voices. His boat must once have been rather a dashing craft – sleek, many years before – but it had degenerated into a heap, with flecking paint, loose decking, gashes, wounds, and much creek scumdirt. CCC workers had failed to eradicate the squalors in the 1930s, but waterflow Reconstruction in the 1960s erased any trace of Nate’s life in Ithaca. Nate was born ten years after Antietam; he told us his father had no hands.

Throughout the Rhine era, notions of its crime and poverty were often exaggerated into attributions of a dangerous kind of unwholesomeness and depravity. Socio-economic eugenics supplied enough of a gulf between its people and those of us on West Hill or Fall Creek or South Hill, but democratic educationalization began to integrate persons who otherwise had no occasion to mingle. I became aware of Joe Simon in 1960, at Boynton Junior High on Buffalo Street. He was a Rhiner in all ways. I believe he lived on Cherry Street, in execrable conditions, and his share of life was a desecration. He wore the same clothes every day; and I never knew him to own a winter coat. He was undernourished, small and weak. Despite these afflictions, Joe had classroom friends, and was included in the joshing and jokes, though he too probably never was invited home. One day after school I saw him on the street; he’d secured a one-serving bag of potato chips, and just as he opened it a Creeker came along and needled him into sharing his chips. It is possible to imagine that those chips were the most nutritious meal he was going to have all day. As he palmed the open bag to the other boy, several more Creekers came by, each dipping their hand in for a chip. Joe could only smile, and let all the chips go, with a sort of bemused exasperation that might have suggested he’d rather have the amiable attention of those boys than the chips.

Later that winter Joe and his cousin were walking on the railing of the State Street bridge near today’s “Jungle,” which is presently rather an innocuous area for transient and lifer outdoor sleepers compared to the much severer privation from which it is sometimes said to derive. The other boy slipped and fell into the ice and creek below. I don’t imagine either of them could swim anyway, and certainly not flailing in icy water. Joe, of course, immediately jumped in to try to help his cousin. Death by drowning, both.

Those of us whose parents were reasonably proficient at moving things around according to the little marks on special paper, or those of us who might even have ourselves flourished at moving things around according to the little marks on special paper, will have Ithaca fixed in our memory as a benign and healthy place in which to have matured with other persons who grew up safely too, but it is unlikely that our lives lived out in the second half of the Twentieth Century and curling into the Twenty First Century will have ever demanded taking the measure of that within us which might have forced us to fling ourselves into cold water heedless. I have afforded myself the privilege, and honor, of calling this particular element of instinctive behavior “courage,” and if I cannot quite see it in myself or in others, I can always see when in other people it is not present at all.

Sandra Bowlsby and I ate crackers together. There are Bowlsbys living in the Jungle in 2010. George E. Bowlsby, Sandra’s younger brother, later to occupy the room that Chuckie and Rachel and I did, lived in the Jungle for forty years. He was found drowned, a few weeks ago, in the creek by which he had lived. That would be May 26th, 2010.

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob branched Sephardim and Ashkenazi and let us also say Anastasi; there was a diaspora, and dispersion, expulsion, migration, exiles, pogroms, Nobel prizes, Shoah, homeland-seeking; there was the business of mitochondrial DNA, ancestry-lineage markers and signifiers, and there was parenting. Thus appeared Judy Hamilton. At various times in my life, she has been the only ghost-figure (reified) that featured in the subtile reaches of my own mythmaking. She was always at my side, I realized much later. For six years at the building on Chestnut Street I was consistently measured as the fastest runner, a fact in which, year repeating year, I took much pride. (A stopwatch would reveal that I was the fastest except for Judy, but that never counted because she was only regstered on the girls‘ ledger.) Among us all, because of her true true smile, she was the only knight pure enough to be capable of peering into the grail cup, while Bors and Parzival and Lancelot were finding other excuses to fail, and errants such as myself just went burbling down with the Pequod. Diabetes.

We departed Ithaca in twenty-nine stout ships, bound for Castile. We each in our various cabins circumnavigated the Fifteenth Century world, and harbored in Capetown jails, on Iroquois trek-tramp trudges, and deep within the Age of Innocence; some of the voyages were vivid, bloody and gai, and some were brutally wearying by any standard, yet most of the sailors led lives of quiet desperation and went to the grave with the song still in them. “Quiet desperation” refers to those who (cravenly) sailed too close to the rocky shore, whereupon giant cannibals threw rocks down upon them and sank many ships, and ate the sailors alive as they were drowning.

Harry the Truman looked down upon our soft-edged pine blocks from a large glassed frame. Our naps were opiated. There was much hopping, some skipping, and bunching up in smaller groups. There were indemnities and there was cringing.

Bruce Bryant, pickled with LSD, sledded down Libe Slope. Rosie Wertz, a Rhiner, dressed in rags. Do not think that I am very much impressed with that as a colorful way of describing the habiliments of persons from that slough of poverty, for what she dressed in was rags. Her eyes were crusty, and her face was a sheencake of dirt. Quo vadis my Rosie? Surely not half so easefully onto death and dissipation? One married a Viennese prince; one disappeared into the hollow far plains of west Texas.

Some of us are homers. Albert Smith made the sort of difference that can usefully be called “real” by founding the deli in town that has pleased countless thousands of souls by replicating the perfect enjoyment of taste that is implied in the title of Edmund Wilson’s collection of short writings: “This Room and This Gin and These Sandwiches.” A thousand, thousand sandwiches have been perfect in execution and fulfillment, by measure in excess of the pleasure delivered by William Shakespeare, Milton S. Hershey, or that malevolent Malvolio of a Melvillean Confidence Man, Diane Disney’s pap Walter (another Laestrygonian). Albert’s deli stands. If there ever was an abiding in Ithaca, other than the gorgeous one, it was the sandwiches.

There were fathers. I have held firmly to the image of Sammy Panato firing from the deck of a battleship, an anti-aircraft gun (bob pop bob pop pop, ta,ta,ta,ta,ta) but I also believe that Darlene displayed in a later classroom a swastika flag he’d captured in Europe. John Vasse was shipboard near the Philippines, and he would have been the wisest guy on the boat, unimpressed with rank, and able with the most facile wit to unflate the boneheaded lies and soulless encouragement coming from the captain’s jerk of toadies. My father entered Paris soon after it was possible to do so, gathered up an abandoned German motorcycle and breezed with a friend up and down the long, opened-air spaces of the boulevards. He bumped into Marlene Dietrich in a store; she was searching for nylons. His father had voyaged from Kansas in a prairie schooner back east, to these ravines and lakes of Upstate. Earl flew over Sugarloaf full of bombs, and came home to never say a word about the dead. My uncle Paul is at the bottom of the North Atlantic, in the form of silt.

Ithacans vow pen is champ, and Trojans are material bearers. Mike played ball, but failed to make the Majors. Leon carried a purse, it made us mad. Ricky was from the very beginning, napping on our floor throws, an accomplished gay rights advocate in San Francisco. Ronnie taught us everything we would ever know of cerebral palsy, and there were polio receivers in the building. Sam wondered what made the white kids think they could just go ahead and play. Daedalus had four matrimonial adventures and has regarded himself as a bicyclist. Warriors died. Pete Smith, alcohol. We had cancers, we had strokes. I had thought that Noni Korf was the coolest person I have ever known, though lately I have realized that it is her daughter Maia Vidal who may save us. In other mills, where the breeding of nuclei transpired against different intentions, Ithaca bred actresses, just imagine: Amy Rosoff and Mary McDonnell and others, to walk among whom, as to trip in skipping among Rosie, Barbie, and Rachel in the early fomentation of their wills - was to be flying as if in a dream. I clasp your hand, topic sentence, we used to say; a semiotic and textual present tense. Following the reduction of lighthouses to irrefutable registers, I bicycle through the night ‘til dawn, and read about Passchendaele and Verdun, where boys jumped heedless into icy water.

Eventually, signal June 16th 1953 came along, and shortly thereafter we each deliquesced like butterfly wings into our summertime yaws of even vaguer negative being. Less than half of us remain. One day there will be but one left, and after that last passing, there will remain for other Ithacans, after the last ship has disappeared below the waves, the heart of the heart of the sort of Daisy Miller one can see well beyond the petulance and poofy vanity James has laid upon her: that would be the vision of Judy Hamilton smiling and laughing, susurrant in the trees with the voices of the Iroquois kids who played here six hundred years before us, as they dazzled one another with beauty and promise and their accomplished hunting of bunnies and cunning angling for the plentiful fish in the creeks and lake in the flatlands at the bottom of the hills, as we, after the late war, built our inextricable mazes.

Phil McCray, MFA 1971 Iowa Writers’ Workshop, followed by unexpected divergences: potter, archival consultant and manuscripts cataloger Cornell University, bicyclist Paris-Brest-Paris 1987, image publisher Loudeac Tile Studio Ithaca NY. Present tense: past recaptured - prose fiction and memoir.

1 comment:

  1. He is an awesome wordsmith (and quite good-looking actually).