Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Too Late Now, Part 2

I haven't thought about my sojourn at 216 Carlton Avenue in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, for years, but after writing about my move there, I've been besieged with memories of the place. My time there coincided with the temporary end of my relationship with M. (The relationship started up again the following year when I met him by chance in a part of town where I rarely ventured. I became pregnant soon after, and he urged me to have an abortion, which, perversely enough, led to our marriage a year later, a marriage which was perhaps -- though I loved him terribly -- doomed from the start.)

I spent the autumn of 1989 living at 216 Carlton in impoverished solitude, having lost my waitressing job at a chic restaurant in the publishing district, where most of the profits appeared at any rate to be going toward the wholesale purchase of cocaine. Somehow that fall I was able nonertheless to save up $90 to buy a beautiful black velvet Renaissance-style hat at a neighborhood shop (I passed it on a couple of years ago to Dawn Eden, on whom it looks extrememly fetching). Every morning I would get a chocolate croissant at the corner deli and drink a whole pot of coffee which I made in a large-ish Neapolitan macchinetta. This coffee was so strong that my friends called it "coffee gluten." One frigid day I decided to give it up, and, when I reached the point where I thought I was going blind, I walked for a couple of miles in the cold to clear my head, ending up somehow at a pizza shop in Brooklyn Heights, where I drank a double espresso and promptly felt much better.

One of the things I remember most clearly from that fall is the way the mimosa trees grew behind the building, making a sort of impassable jungle between my brownstone's back lot and the one across the way. When I sat in the window and gazed out across the back lots of my block, I got a delicious sense of the peace that one feels when one is all alone in a quiet place in the midst of an enormous city, the same sense that one gets from staying up all night with only the radio for company. When I think of that view now, I can still hear the bellowing tenor of a man who lived across the way and used to sing along with gospel recordings, the only interruption in the stillness of those mornings, but one that soon became woven into my solitary contemplation.

Those mornings, almost invariably, I would listen to Joni Mitchell's great album Court and Spark (above), and to the jazz programs on WKCR, one of the true treasures of New York City. One day about a week after I moved in, I woke up and switched on the radio and heard, to my shock, a piano ballad version of the elusive song that had been haunting me. The announcer identified the leader as James Williams, with the eminent Ray Brown and Elvin Jones, from the recording Magical Trio 2. I bought the CD and gave it to my brother to tape for me, since I didn't have a CD player; the cassette tape has surely disappeared in one of my many moves since then, and the recording is now out of print. Williams himself died tragically young in 2004.

These memories bring to mind Czeslaw Milosz's 1938 poem "Encounter":

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.


Maclin said...

Wow. That poem strikes me as a devastating rebuttal of the idea that we can ever be perfectly at ease in this world.

There are several versions of "Too Late Now" on eMusic, including Nancy LaMott's. One by Tina May, whom I've never heard of (or at any rate can't remember hearing of), but the sample sure sounds good.

Pentimento said...

Wow - thanks for the link! I've never heard of Tina May either, but she seems really good - I love the blue notes in the piano part in the clip of "Too Late Now" - a kind of Joni Mitchell-ish touch, at that. I might download that album. And I've always liked Nancy LaMott, who also died tragically young, but I think that the straightforwardness and delicacy of the Lerner and Lane song are easy to overwhelm with heavy arrangements, as seems to be the case with her version.

About the Milosz poem - I believe it is a kind of meta-poem, a poem about what all of poetry and all of art are about, with the distinction that the narrative voice claims not to be mourning the passing of time and the loss of all that is dear, but to be merely astonished by it. One of the poem's brilliant touches, however, is the address "O my love," which rather destabilizes the statement: "I ask not out of sorrow," or at least it seems so to me.

Tertium Quid said...

When I watch old movies with my daughter, e.g., the Marx brothers (my favorite Marxes), I cannot help but think of all those beautiful MGM singers and dancers, then in the prime of life, now dead and gone yet preserved on the silver screen.

Pentimento said...

In that way, film is a memorial art. I felt the same way tonight when I listened to a marvelous 1957 recording of La Bohème. The singers -- and they were aomng the greats -- are all dead, and it's almost heartbreaking to hear their beautiful voices preserved.