Brooklyn, 1929. Of course Crane’s been drinking and has no idea who this curious Andalusian is, unable even to speak the language of poetry. The young man who brought them together knows both Spanish and English, but he has a headache from jumping back and forth from one language to another. For a moment’s relief he goes to the window to look down on the East River, darkening below as the early night comes on. Something flashes across his sight, a double vision of such horror he has to slap both his hands across his mouth to keep from screaming. Let’s not be frivolous, let’s not pretend the two poets gave each other wisdom or love or even a good time, let’s not invent a dialogue of such eloquence that even the ants in your own house won’t forget it. The two greatest poetic geniuses alive meet, and what happens? A vision comes to an ordinary man staring at a filthy river. Have you ever had a vision? Have you ever shaken your head to pieces and jerked back at the image of your young son falling through open space, not from the stern of a ship bound from Vera Cruz to New York but from the roof of the building he works on? Have you risen from bed to pace until dawn to beg a merciless God to take these pictures away? Oh, yes, let’s bless the imagination. It gives us the myths we live by. Let’s bless the visionary power of the human— the only animal that’s got it—, bless the exact image of your father dead and mine dead, bless the images that stalk the corners of our sights and will not let go. The young man was my cousin, Arthur Lierberman, then a language student at Columbia, who told me all this before he died quietly in his sleep in 1983 in a hotel in Perugia. A good man, Arthur, he survived graduate school, later came home to Detroit and sold pianos right through the Depression. He loaned my brother a used one to compose hideous songs on, which Arthur thought were genius. What an imagination Arthur had!
I'm the man who gets off the bus at the bare junction of nothing with nothing, and then heads back to where we've been as though the future were stashed somewhere in that tangle of events we call "Where I come from." Where I came from the fences ran right down to the road, and the lone woman leaning back on her front porch as she quietly smoked asked me what did I want. Confused as always, I answered, "Water," and she came to me with a frosted bottle and a cup, shook my hand, and said, "Good luck." That was forty years ago, you say, when anything was possible. No, it was yesterday, the gray icebox sat on the front porch, the crop was tobacco and not yet in, you could hear it sighing out back. The rocker gradually slowed as she came toward me but never stopped and the two of us went on living in time. One of her eyes had a pale cast and looked nowhere or into the future where without regrets she would give up the power to grant life, and I would darken like wood left in the rain and then fade into only a hint of the grain. I went higher up the mountain until my breath came in gasps, my sight darkened, and I slept to the side of the road to waken chilled in the sudden July cold, alone and well. What is it like to come to, nowhere, in darkness, not knowing who you are, not caring if the wind calms, the stars stall in their sudden orbits, the cities below go on without you screaming and singing? I don't have the answer. I'm scouting, getting the feel of the land, the way the fields step down the mountainsides hugging their battered, sagging wire fences to themselves as though both day and night they needed to know their limits. Almost still the silent dogs wound into sleep, the gray cabins breathing steadily in moonlight, tomorrow wakening slowly in the clumps of mountain oak and pine where streams once ran down the little white rock gullies. You can feel the whole country wanting to waken into a child's dream, you can feel the moment reaching back to contain your life and forward to whatever the dawn brings you to. In the dark you can love this place.
We stand in the rain in a long line waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work. You know what work is—if you’re old enough to read this you know what work is, although you may not do it. Forget you. This is about waiting, shifting from one foot to another. Feeling the light rain falling like mist into your hair, blurring your vision until you think you see your own brother ahead of you, maybe ten places. You rub your glasses with your fingers, and of course it’s someone else’s brother, narrower across the shoulders than yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin that does not hide the stubbornness, the sad refusal to give in to rain, to the hours of wasted waiting, to the knowledge that somewhere ahead a man is waiting who will say, “No, we’re not hiring today,” for any reason he wants. You love your brother, now suddenly you can hardly stand the love flooding you for your brother, who’s not beside you or behind or ahead because he’s home trying to sleep off a miserable night shift at Cadillac so he can get up before noon to study his German. Works eight hours a night so he can sing Wagner, the opera you hate most, the worst music ever invented. How long has it been since you told him you loved him, held his wide shoulders, opened your eyes wide and said those words, and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never done something so simple, so obvious, not because you’re too young or too dumb, not because you’re jealous or even mean or incapable of crying in the presence of another man, no, just because you don’t know what work is.
Some days I catch a rhythm, almost a song in my own breath. I'm alone here in Brooklyn Heights, late morning, the sky above the St. George Hotel clear, clear for New York, that is. The radio playing "Bird Flight," Parker in his California tragic voice fifty years ago, his faltering "Lover Man" just before he crashed into chaos. I would guess that outside the recording studio in Burbank the sun was high above the jacarandas, it was late March, the worst of yesterday's rain had come and gone, the sky washed blue. Bird could have seen for miles if he'd looked, but what he saw was so foreign he clenched his eyes, shook his head, and barked like a dog—just once— and then Howard McGhee took his arm and assured him he'd be OK. I know this because Howard told me years later that he thought Bird could lie down in the hotel room they shared, sleep for an hour or more, and waken as himself. The perfect sunlight angles into my little room above Willow Street. I listen to my breath come and go and try to catch its curious taste, part milk, part iron, part blood, as it passes from me into the world. This is not me, this is automatic, this entering and exiting, my body's essential occupation without which I am a thing. The whole process has a name, a word I don't know, an elegant word not in English or Yiddish or Spanish, a word that means nothing to me. Howard truly believed what he said that day when he steered Parker into a cab and drove the silent miles beside him while the bright world unfurled around them: filling stations, stands of fruits and vegetables, a kiosk selling trinkets from Mexico and the Philippines. It was all so actual and Western, it was a new creation coming into being, like the music of Charlie Parker someone later called "glad," though that day I would have said silent, "the silent music of Charlie Parker." Howard said nothing. He paid the driver and helped Bird up two flights to their room, got his boots off, and went out to let him sleep as the afternoon entered the history of darkness. I'm not judging Howard, he did better than I could have now or then. Then I was 19, working on the loading docks at Railway Express, coming day by day into the damaged body of a man while I sang into the filthy air the Yiddish drinking songs my Zadie taught me before his breath failed. Now Howard is gone, eleven long years gone, the sweet voice silenced. "The subtle bridge between Eldridge and Navarro," they later wrote, all that rising passion a footnote to others. I remember in '85 walking the halls of Cass Tech, the high school where he taught after his performing days, when suddenly he took my left hand in his two hands to tell me it all worked out for the best. Maybe he'd gotten religion, maybe he knew how little time was left, maybe that day he was just worn down by my questions about Parker. To him Bird was truly Charlie Parker, a man, a silent note going out forever on the breath of genius which now I hear soaring above my own breath as this bright morning fades into afternoon. Music, I'll call it music. It's what we need as the sun staggers behind the low gray clouds blowing relentlessly in from that nameless ocean, the calm and endless one I've still to cross.