WORDS

19 Dec

TomWolfe?w=400

I think Parker is a casualty of the Information Crisis. The world has had a good seventy-five years of Freud, Darwin, Pavlov, Max Weber, Sir James Frazer, Dr Spock, Vance Packard and Rose Franzblau, and everything they have to say about human motivation has filtered through Parker and all of Parker’s friends in college, at parties, at lunch, in the magazines and novels they read and the conversations they have at home with their wives who share the same esoterica. As a result, Parker understands everybody’s motives including his own which he has a tendency to talk about and revile.

He understands, for example, that he is now forty-six years old and close to becoming vice-president of the agency and that at this particular age and status he now actually feels the need to go to the kind of barbershop where one makes an appointment and has the same barber each time and the jowls are anointed with tropical oils. It is as if Parker were looking through the microscope at a convulsive amoeba, himself, Parker. “I can’t go into any other kind of barbershop,” he says. “It has gotten so I have an actual, physical need to have my hair cut in that kind of barbershop.” He can go on like this about the clothes he buys, about the clubs he joins, the music he listens to, the way he feels about Negroes, anything.

He understands why pot-smoking is sort of a religion. He understands Oneness, lofts, visions, the Lower East Side. He understands why Ben has given up everything. He understands why his wife, Regina, says he is a ______ and has to do something. Her flannel mouth is supposed to goad him into action. He understands everything, the whole thing, and he is in a hopeless funk.

So here are Parker and I walking along Avenue B on the Lower East Side. Parker is wearing a brown Chesterfield and a Madison Avenue crash helmet. Madison Avenue crash helmet is another one of Parker’s terms. It refers to the kind of felt hat that is worn with a crease down the centre and no dents in the side, a sort of homborg without a flanged brim. He calls it a Madison Avenue crash helmet and then wears one. Inevitably, Parker is looking over his shoulder, following his own progress down Avenue B. Here is Parker with his uptown clothes and his anointed jowls, walking past the Old Avenue B Cinema, a great rotting building with lion’s heads and shattered lepers’ windows. Here is Parker walking past corner stores with posters for Kassal, Kaplan, Aldrich and the others, plastered, torn, one on top of the other, like scales. Here is Parker walking along narrow streets with buildings all overhung with fire escapes on both sides. Here is this ripening forty-six-year-old agency executive walking along amid the melted storefronts. There are whole streets on the Lower East Side where it looks as if the place had been under intense heat and started melting and then were suddenly frozen in amber. Half the storefronts are empty and there is a gray film inside the windows. Pipes, bins, shafts of wood and paper are all sort of sliding down the walls. The ceilings are always covered with squares of sheet metal with quaint moldings on them to make an all-over design, and they are buckling. The signs have all flaked down to metal the color of weathered creosote, even the ones that say Bodega y Carneceria. Everything is collapsing under New York moss, which is a combination of lint and soot. In a print shop window, under the soot and lint, is a sample of a wedding announcement. Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Arnschmidt announce the marriage of their daughter, Lillian, to Mr Aaron Kornilov, on October 20, 1951. This seems to deepen Parker’s funk. He is no doubt asking himself what sort of hopeless amber fix Lillian Arnschmidt and Aaron Kornilov are frozen in today.

Parker sticks his head inside a doorway. Then he walks in. Then he turns around and says, “Are you sure?”

“You said 488,” I tell him, “this is 488.”

“Nifty,” Parker says.

Here is Parker in the entryway of a slum tenement. Slum tenements are worse than they sound. The hallway is painted with a paint that looks exactly the color, thickness and lumpiness of real mud. Parker and I walk in, and there are three big cans of garbage by the stairway. Behind them are two doors, one to the basement apartment, one to the first floor apartment, out of which two or three children have over-flowed when the mother rises in the doorway like a moon reflecting a 25-watt light and yells something in Spanish. The children squeeze back, leaving us with the garbage and the interesting mud tableau. At some point they painted the mud color over everything, even over the doorbell-buzzer box. They didn’t bother to pull the wiring out. They just cut the wires and painted over the stubs. And there they have it, the color called Landlord’s Brown, immune to time, flood, heat, arctic chill, punk rumbles, slops, leprocotic bugs, cockroaches the size of mice, mice the size of rats, rats the size of Airedales, and lumpenprole tenants.

On the way up there are so many turns amid the muddy gloom, I can’t tell what floor we stop at. But Parker finds the door up there and knocks.

For a while we don’t hear anything, but there is a light through the door. Then somebody inside says, “Who is it?”

“Ben!” says Parker. “It’s me.”

Tom Wolfe
“Putting Daddy On”, 1964

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