Monday, September 07, 2009

First Attempts at Second Person

Another one from the vaults and while I remembered this more fondly in memory, it seems clearly mishapen here: too much lead in, not enough of the juicy stuff at the end. Ain't that life, though? So, here's an essay from at least 1987.


Yes, you. The details matter, as a way around all that must be said. It was Dad and his wife Louise, and my sister Linda and Richard, and I. Driving up country in Dad’s land-boat Chrysler New Yorker (ten years old, twelve miles per gallon, thirty-four thousand miles), after food as an excuse to be together. I must admit these things have grown easier since both Dad and I have learned to place no demands. So we balance dichotomies: the left to right of the political spectrum, the highway between the university and the machine shop. Our eyes glint as we discuss how to turn my learning into money. Louise, ever eager to interpret, tells me what my dad means. It’s her way in, I can’t resent it. “It’s not that your father is against the government helping the poor. It’s just that you have to remember where he came from, how he got what he got.”

We get our meals, here at the Culinary Institute of America. A nation’s future chefs toil for us, over-salting here, under-cooking there. We complain politely among ourselves, mimicking our obviously foreign waiter clearly much happier whipping up a soufflé than waiting tables. But the regimen of the place rotates everyone through each job, so here he is smiling broadly, repeating everything he says, as well as asking us twice, for each order, as if his accent infects even his ears. I eat too much. I always do at this kind of thing, happy to devour on someone else’s plastic. What the family has become--a series of over-eatings.

After food we continue a few miles up the Hudson. The goal is the Vanderbilt mansion, as Richard is somewhat of a Vanderbilt buff. A guy who bums around the country selling ugly metal-etched paintings that shift shade with a room’s light, a guy who lives with his married sister until living with my sister, unmarried, he has an obsession with the Gilded Age. Which means day trips to Vanderbilt mansions, which means weekend excursions to Newport. Richard even reads up on the histories, can spout figures, names, dates. Sometimes we escape our own lives by becoming tour guides to others’. Part of me knows this isn’t the place for a full stomach: the gaudy opulence of style upon style, indiscriminate, like cotton candy with Salisbury steak with sweetbreads, washed down with Courvoisier, Cutty Sark, and Kool-Aid.

The day itself is East Coast oppressive. The sky washed out to gray, not threatening rain but just as much not threatening sun. And me uncomfortable, be-suited, my tie dangling from my Adam’s apple, the armpits of my white shirt darkening. Below, the river rolls on imperceptible, except for knowing how it works on maps. It rolls past this place where the rich once lived, past Hyde Park and Roosevelt’s ghost, past Bear Mountain and its tenuous bridge, past Indian Point and its ominous bald-headed dome, past New York City itself. But here, the river gives no hint of the future, merely mulls along, attesting to the Ice Age, allowing New England to begin, looking beautiful, of little use.

This mansion actually has fewer rooms than the largest Vanderbilt estate, the Biltmore in North Carolina, has bathrooms. Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the man who amassed the original fortune in shipping, played it smart and wise by not divvying up the wealth in his will. The bulk of the fortune went to one son, who doubled it, via railroad, before he died eight years later. Other Vanderbilts were granted “nominal” sums, as was the case with grandson Frederick, the owner of this particular estate. After two years and $660,000 (in 1896 dollars), the mansion was complete--a little get-away place up the Hudson. Our tour guide tells us this, so does Richard. Linda buys our tour tickets, goads Richard along. None of us belongs here, even after the sumptuous meal, even with our finer clothes, awkward among t-shirted, camera-toting tourists. No one could fill such a place, like some map where the scale never works and the towns seem lost in the landscape, foundering out of each others’ sight. Every room seems like a church, awe-inspiring, silencing, somber. Full of old wood, tapestry-hung, absorbing light, aging in any hint of day. The skylight, high above the marble-tiled main hall, admits as little light as possible, eased under the burden of the summer haze.

I suffer museum fatigue almost immediately. My senses overload too easily, as I try to add up the Medici tapestry and the Brussels tapestry and the Venetian lanterns and all the mythological figures that dance and prance and hunt humans for love. History gets compressed into one house, a truer library, a cache of pop-up books, each announcing its epoch and style.
American royalty makes no sense, of course, but what else could be the desire here? Forget democracy or the eternal betterment of man or inalienable rights. But most importantly, forget time. If we can own 16th century and 18th century and 14th century, then we are those centuries, en masse. The time line collapsed and jumbled and lived in. All centuries are home. I bumble from room to room, the linen, the brocade, the marble a blur, not meaning much more than dollars, but perversely fascinating. They owned this, just as Richard owns his facts. All that matters is the held.

Of course, this is the public show, the fanfare meant to stun. Upstairs awaits, the place where people slept and bathed and made love, did their living and bode their time. The tour troops up the stairs, duly warned of the ascent. Again set on our own, I wander separate from the couples who always hover near the other of their pair. I see the only American-made furnishing, Frederick Vanderbilt’s desk, and it’s the only piece I’d want as my own. Too huge, yes, big as a coffin, but well-worked oak. If I worked behind it, I would turn it around, face it away from the door and towards the windows. This position is far less powerful, but I would be willing to bare my back to the world to have the Hudson before me, and beyond the Catskills--nature at its simplest and most silent and most casual. Awesome by being ordinary. Vanderbilt let it be his background, the power leading to him. I’m sure no one could look him in the eyes for what was behind him.

He and his wife had separate rooms. The kind of thing the Hays Office and motion pictures prepared us for later, several generations of virgin birth celluloid children, as mom and dad, however much conjugally a couple, could never share the same bed, just as kissing on the horizontal was forbidden, just as every wrong-doer had his day. But the Vanderbilts lived before movie morality sorted our world, and they clearly had the money and power to do as they wished. Separate bedrooms. The house itself was social, a desire to mingle with neighbors the Rodgerses and the Roosevelts and the Millses and the Astors, an issue beyond money. Money meant style, and style meant silence, and silence meant sexlessness.

So there is her bed, huge and canopied and billowed, velvet red like a peony field in full bloom, yet cut and held at that point of color at the bursting. This room is as much bed as Frederick’s is desk. And around the bed, solid around the bed, a railing, just like the ones churches removed with Vatican II. There is a small gate, for display now closed. Then I notice the bed is raised slightly, above the floor a few inches, just enough to make the geography familiar and distinct. This bed could hold no mere woman. Someone above and apart, in sight but not near, really. The guard explained, claiming the model for the room was a queen’s bedroom circa Louis XV. It turns out the royal lady would accept merchants in the morning, beyond her rail, offering their wares. She’d conduct business from the bed, perhaps with ladies a-waiting inside her circle. Wordless, she’d merely motion and any man’s knee would greet the heavily napped rug, itself weighing two tons.

It turns out it has nothing at all do to with this, but the private times, when the unobtrusive door from her husband’s bedroom swings open, and maybe she drowses a little, or maybe not. She may wait, unsure how to be on her side of the rail, left there like heaven. This isn’t a time or an age for vaulting over the rail with silly nothings amidst a quick removal of clothes. But forward Frederick comes, unsure too what he and his money and being a Vanderbilt has done. How can the pose ever end? So he kneels. She comes forward. It’s as odd as Latin, when the stone gate swings and they swoon together, sacramental. It’s body, yes. The Hudson at the back of the house knows not, cannot touch this. Maybe here they get closest to what the whole house means, the denial it fights. Time no more. Long sought, this peace, which maybe the house brought them to. When his wife dies, Frederick moves to the third floor for twelve years. The house is passed on to a cherished niece; there are no children.

And you, you weren’t there and didn’t know and couldn’t see, and anyway, it was a difficult time, love trouble. That time, that distance apart brought us together. I did some thinking without knowing, with my family, again, feeling those strange pulls that tell you where you’ve been, who you are, what it is that you hate. Maybe why you love. You, yes.

(20 of 31 in the drive to 2500)

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