Up until the early spring of this year, I considered myself an absolute Christmas fiend. Not in the Grinch sense of breaking out the Boris Karloff accent and green grease paint and plotting how I might swipe presents, but rather trying to figure out, as early as possible, how best to immerse myself in a holiday that I loved like no other, in a typically over-the-top fashion. You know that person you read about, who bops his head along to Christmas songs on the oldies station—yes, Brenda Lee, you rock around that tree indeed!—the day after Thanksgiving, who insists on seeing Rudolph “live,” every year, because it’s just more real on TV than Blu-ray? I was that guy. Before I had occasion to become a different guy. And before I decided to spend this holiday season with M. R. James.
In the summer of 2003, I attended a viewing party celebrating the premiere of The O.C. at my friend Diesel’s house. Specifically, in a guesthouse planted in an overgrown corner of his grandparents’ backyard. We called it the Barn, or the Sidehatch.
The Sidehatch had moldy furniture, an unreliable toilet, seashell ashtrays, and yellowed window lace. The refrigerator was noisy and warm. A thorny jungle pressed against the back windows. We sank into the spotted divan, clinked cups filled with stolen table wine and scarcely potable vodka sodas, and cheered as Ryan, the greasy angel from Chino, took up residency in the Cohen family pool house.
In dreams I occasionally confuse those two structures—the faded shingles of the Sidehatch easing to smooth, cool white—the way you might confuse a historical personality with the actor who portrayed them on film. That viewing party is a warm memory I often revisit in colder, lonelier moments, and the Sidehatch remains close to my heart, as much an unexpected salvation as Ryan’s Newport Beach.
Grace Paley was born Gracie Goodside ninety years ago today, and my grandmother still calls her that. My grandmother’s parents separated when the Depression hit: her father lost his job, and couldn’t countenance his wife, a beautician, the household’s only breadwinner. In summer, her mother stuck around the beauty salon, but my grandmother would visit her aunt and uncle in Long Pond, in Mahopac, fifty miles north of the city. Uncle Al was a piano teacher, and one of his students a girl named Grace. Two years older than my grandmother, Cyril, Grace spent the whole summer in Mahopac. Her father, a doctor, built a house there, and he’d bring the family up from their Bronx brownstone, at Hoe Avenue and 172nd Street.
I first picked up Paley after my father’s father, Mortimer, died. I hadn’t realized she was part of their same world of meetings, but my grandmother told me. My grandmother remembers everything.
Dr. Goodside—Isaac—he had a chauffeur, Saunders. God forbid, you could never use that word. It was a driver. Gracie’s father, he came from a large city in Russia, not the Pale of Settlement. They spoke Russian, they did not speak Yiddish. He went to medical school in Italy, and his great pleasure was when the Italian fruit vendor came, you know, with his truck. He’d come once or twice a week, and Dr. Goodside came to talk to him in his broken Italian. Gracie’s father, he also was a great fan, a lover, of Victor Hugo—and his son, who became an ophthalmologist, was named Victor. Gracie was the youngest, she must have been at least ten years younger than Jeanne, Jeanne after Jean Valjean. And she was named Grace, and her sister said to me, in Italian, it was Grazie—thanks, thanks. Jeanne told me this when she was already teaching. She was much older, and she was married to a child psychologist, a real son of a b—a child psychologist who hated children. They never had children.
Gracie was unusual, she was extremely bright. Every day she was made to read at least an hour, I think she was made to study Russian. And they had a large house in Mahopac, her parents always encouraged kids to come to the house. Her father was a music lover, and he would invite people over to his house, and play music. He had this phenomenal record player. My Uncle Al, the piano player, was such an SOB—he would say, “I’m not going, he doesn’t know anything about music.” But that’s how I knew Gracie, the lessons. Her parents, they wanted us to come to her house, we went there, we played Monopoly. I would see Gracie almost every day—we would go swimming, we would have a hare and hound race, try not to fall for the false trails the guys set up. And we’d discuss politics and sex and stuff, whatever kids at that age discuss. She was the leader because we always went to her house, and she was the one who had ideas, and who could give advice. Even at that age. Wherever you went to meet, it was always at Gracie’s house. All the kids would follow Grace.
The other children—Victor, he was not a talker, and Jeanne, Jeanne was always apologizing. I don’t think they ever really answered the father. And their mother was a quiet woman. Gracie was always the one who was really challenging him.
The online forum was empty when I submitted the essay, my first for Modern & Contemporary American Poetry. It was still early—a few minutes before the midnight deadline, when peer evaluators would then be assigned to post feedback. But not knowing who that peer might be, nor how their public evaluation might portray my work, made the quiet unsettling. Expectant, I awaited review on this naked, vertiginous stage.
Our assignment for ModPo, as this Coursera version is known, was to close read the Emily Dickinson poem identified by its paradoxical opening line, “I taste a liquor never brewed.” In the poem, ubiquitous intoxicants are absorbed literally out of the moisture in the air. They unhinge our debauched speaker, who before long is “Reeling—thro endless summer days—From inns of Molten Blue.” Describing the scene I invoked soaked clouds crossing the summer sky, befitting a heavy drunken stupor. “Clouded,” I titled the essay.
I have lived in this house on the edge of Galway City for over five years now and for a couple of hours a day I sit with my feet up on the window sill and look out over this cul-de-sac. And no matter what time of day I sit here it always seems to be the middle of the afternoon. The place is constant, not given to mood swings or tantrums, just that tree and the sweep of tarmac which curves along by the green, nothing much to hold the eye or interest. Of course this is precisely the kind of stillness in which the mind’s eye gets lost—vista as vortex. From time to time the stillness is broken up by a car or a child or a stray dog crossing the green. Sometimes a ball rolls into view. These are all quietly interesting but sooner or later they meld into the stillness of the place.
Today it’s raining—patient, steady rain which will keep falling into the night. That’s December rain, nothing new or unusual about it. Beyond the rooftops the sky has lowered down in heavy grey folds. Two years ago we had snow here for the first time, and for nearly a month the whole place was blanketed in soft whiteness. And while snow added little to the stillness of the place, for a short while it looked like it was elsewhere. —Mike McCormack
Starting out for the southern end of the Reading Viaduct means walking alongside a live railroad track, vigilant for the sound of a CSX freight train approaching from behind. Your destination is the mouth of an abandoned tunnel, which will pull you into stretches of almost total darkness thirty feet below ground. You aren’t headed for the tunnel because you love tunnels, but to glimpse the diversity of landscapes that makes up Philadelphia’s Reading Viaduct before it becomes the city’s answer to New York City’s Highline. You are there for the tunnel as much as for what’s on the other side: the promise of meadowland and prairie hiding in plain sight.
The Reading Viaduct may one day become a linear park transecting downtown Philadelphia. Should that happen, the Viaduct would be like no other park in the world. The three-mile stretch runs thirty feet underground at one end and emerges as an elevated line thirty feet above street level on the other. Since the 1980s, it has been abandoned. Sections of the Viaduct may undergo development as early as next year. Read More