ThoseEast Endexcursions salved my suburban contempt. When they dwindled, I waxed nostalgic for our summertime forays—although, my heart still belonged toBrooklyn.
I leftLong Islandright after high school. It was death that drew me back. My father first, Grandpa next, and then my grandmother. My mother needed me. The functionality of my return was made tolerable by jaunts toNew Yorkfor theater, music, art. After the girls were born, our ventures increased right through their teens—Broadway musicals replaced by CBGBs, Tramps, and the Bottom Line— all gone now. When the girls moved into their own lives, I moved back into mine.
I’d always been fixated on the lives and deaths of artists—seeking out their haunts and graves. Charley Patton inHollyRidge, F. Scott inRockville. Hopper in Nyack. Once I “discovered” the Pollock-Krasner house in The Springs and theGreen RiverCemetery, where they, and my favorite poet Frank O’Hara, are buried, I turned fromNew Yorkto the light.
The light. I’d seen it before inNew Orleans. A shopkeeper took me up Dickensian stairs and pointed at a dirt streaked window: “That’s where Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire.” Even though he’d saidNew Orleanswas fertile with “artists and other liars,” when I saw the flat, glowing light—the kind of light that’s exactly right for storytelling—I believed him. Now standing beside the Pollock-Krasner studio, I knew it wasn’t the still water softly licking the grassy shore nor the protective barrier of trees beyond it that nourished their art; the source was that same autumnal cast in mid-summer.
Inside the modest house, I ran my hand up the banister, and when I walked down I reached out toward the bottom wall, because that’s what one does when running downstairs, because that’s what they did. Not even the fresh paint could seal the impression that the fingers of artists touched that space in the everyday. The everyday, that’s what I was seeking, not just the extraordinary conclusion.
AtGreen River, Pollock and Krasner are buried behind each other under glacial stones, but I always visit O’Hara first. His is a flat, slate rectangle that reads: “Grace to be born and live as variously as possible.” Under an identical slab beside him, rests Patsy Southgate. I imagine Frank and Patsy—fabulous with one another—smirking at the stylistically ornate stones that grow from the uneven earth around them. Decades passed between their deaths: Frank was 40, Patsy 70. But when you’re buried, length of life matters less than how those years were lived.
In Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” he walks us through chores and decisions—the pedestrian and the metaphorical—as he prepares to leaveNew YorkforEast Hampton. He’s overcome with “quandariness” choosing a book for Patsy: Verlaine, Hesiod, Behan, or Genet—writers who kept the common man central to their art. Then he sees Billie Holiday on the cover of the Post. He’s transported back to the 5 spot, where “she whispered a song along the keyboard to Mal Waldron….” A moment made profoundly meaningful by its recollected permanence juxtaposed with transient life. O’Hara continues: “And everyone and I stopped breathing.”
Like Frank O’Hara, I have mined the mundane, shuttled between the city and the sea, have been led by the light into the realm of artists and other liars.
* * *
The translucent sky’s reflection onMeadow Lanetransforms the bay’s natural hue from
murky to aquamarine. On a swatch of sand, hermit crabs dance, their single claws reach toward the firmament in clumsy unison. Joe and I walk toward the lane, but there, just beyond the busy brush and choreographed beach, in a salt marsh between still water and an emerald cord-grass wall, a fine line drawing: The purest white egret stands alone.
We drive past the poet’s house; the red flag on his mailbox is up. “It’d be different if it was down,” I say. Joe agrees.
“The poet drives this road to buy bread,” Joe says.
“He drives this road to drink red wine at Tidewater—beforenoon.”
And soon we turn it into a kind of game, naming everyday destinations that form our destinies.
I drop Joe off and continue west, but then, there it is. Beside an abandoned out post, surrounded by gravel and tall weedy grass: the tepee. I park beside it and walk in and out, in and out, and cry.
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