Patrick J. Keane pens here a gorgeous, dense, trenchant memoir that manages to combine literature, childhood, horrid illness, aging, God, death, and friendship. All memoirs are tragic in that they serve only what is gone. But the trick with a memoir is to do what Pat does here and fill it with feisty, vivid, ebullient life, with caring for friends, with loyalty, so much so that we forget the underlying premise, that all this is passing. I’ve already read and reread this essay. It makes me think better of myself, reminds me of my friends, brings up memories of youth.
February 1, 2012: the scene, Skidmore College’s Surrey Inn in Saratoga Springs. This event, arranged by Salmagundi’s Marc Woodworth, was one that actually deserved to be labeled unique. A celebration of William Kennedy’s new novel, Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, the evening combined readings from the book with reenactments of the novel’s lavish use of piano music and song. Marc had asked me to read a passage as part of the festivities, and I had come over happily from Syracuse to participate.
There was much to celebrate. This book had been a long time gestating and it was not an easy birth, coming almost nine years after Roscoe, one of the best novels in the great Albany Cycle that had begun with Legs. A few years back, after delivering the first of a series of daylong readings from Moby Dick as part of a Melville celebration in Albany, Bill had taken my friend Pernille and me to the flat on Dove Street where, in 1931, Jack “Legs” Diamond had been gunned down, shot through the head. Now, though they lived in a large house outside Albany, Bill and his wife Dana maintained the flat for evenings in town, and as a memento of the most glamorous of all Prohibition gangsters.
The new novel, when it finally appeared, was even more pulsing with life than Legs, a vitality all the more remarkable considering that Bill, having recently overcome serious medical problems, is now in his eighties. Then, too, Skidmore and Saratoga owed much to Bill Kennedy, whose generosity with a portion of his MacArthur Award had made possible the New York State Writers Institute, its month-long summer program based at Skidmore. Appropriately, the atmosphere in the Surrey was festive, with most of those present dressed as if we were in the Floridita bar in Havana, where Hemingway famously held court. In one scene of the opening section of the novel, set in revolutionary Cuba, the protagonist, Daniel Quinn, converses with Papa and witnesses him punch out an annoying tourist: a Floridita scene reenacted as part of the Surrey celebration.
The passage Marc assigned me was one I might well have chosen myself: part of the day-long meandering of George Quinn, Dan’s father, now a victim of dementia, but whose selective memory constitutes a mini-history of Kennedy’s beloved Albany. It is the day following the shooting of Bobby Kennedy, and Albany is trembling on the verge of a full-scale race riot. Oblivious to most of what is happening around him, George wanders through the streets, a disoriented Odysseus or Poldy Bloom. Principal among those he encounters is an old flame, Vivian, who, getting him off the dangerous streets, invites him back to her flat with nostalgia and romance on her mind. She tells him about the time, long ago, when he took her dancing, and the trolley ride back from Electric Park to Albany. They have another drink, and they dance again, this time waltzing in place. Only waveringly certain of her name, he says, “Let me call you sweetheart.” “You can do that,” she responds. He sings to her; he touches her breast, kisses her mouth. “There’s something about a kiss,” he concludes, “that you can’t get anyplace else.”
After the readings and the music, I spoke for awhile with old friends, Bob Boyers, the founder of Salmagundi, and his beautiful wife Peggy, whom I first knew as a Skidmore student and who is now a distinguished poet. I made a date for breakfast with Bill and Dana, once a dancer and still a stunner. And then I turned on my cell phone and stopped smiling as I listened to a voice mail that changed my plans for the evening.
There would be further festivities back at Marc’s house: a variation on a familiar theme, the exodus of writers performing at Skidmore back to the home of Don and Judy McCormack to talk, drink, and laugh for hours. This night I was staying with other friends, Dick and Ann Haggerty. They had come to the Kennedy celebration, but left after the main event, assuming that I would be going on to Marc’s with the other “performers.” But after playing and replaying the voice mail, I decided to skip the extension of the evening. Though it was a couple of miles to Dick and Ann’s house on the outskirts of Saratoga, and the wind had made the night cold, I felt the need to be alone, and to walk.
The message on my cell phone was from Jim Cerasoli, one of my two closest boyhood friends. We had gone through much together growing up in the Bronx, including getting into what a 45th Precinct policeman once referred to, alliteratively enough, as “a shitload more than our share” of trouble. We were part of a large crowd, twenty or so boys and girls. All the guys in the crowd, except Jimmy and I, had married the girls we grew up with. He and I had married outside the crowd, and we were the only ones to get divorced. A lesson there. We are all now in our early seventies, and for many years now, we have gotten together in the Bronx or Long Island at least once a year. More recently, though that may soon end, it has been twice a year: a change prompted by a terrible accident that had befallen one of us, my other closest friend, Warren Cheesman, and Jimmy’s being stricken with a particularly cruel form of terminal cancer, multiple myeloma.
As the long-retired Borough Engineer of the Bronx, Jimmy has excellent medical coverage and he’s needed it. Since the first diagnosis some five years back, he has survived a long and often excruciating ordeal of marrow transplants and blood transfusions. His physical strength has always been remarkable. I was with him the first time he ever picked up a barbell. He was about 15 and he amazed a group of older guys by military pressing his own bodyweight. He was as quick as he was strong. None of us had ever seen him lose a fight; in fact, it seemed unimaginable. But, to judge from the message he had left on my phone, he felt he was finally losing this one.
The message was somewhat rambling. Jimmy had been compelled to attend a Democratic political event he’d organized and the voice mail was unusually frank since it was late and he’d obviously had plenty to drink at the affair. No wonder. His doctor had just informed him that he now needed a prescription that would cost $8,000 a week. No matter what insurance he had, that seemed off the charts. On a few occasions in the past, Jimmy had expressed guilt about being a burden on the health care system. Why should he get treatment that most could simply not afford? I’d always urged him not to feel that way as long as the quality of his life was as good as it seemed to be. At times, when he said he’d accomplished what he’d wanted to, and no longer had any “project” worth living for, I’d chastised him with the example of Warren, who had struggled through a long, painful, and necessarily incomplete rehabilitation, yet continued to make the most of his life despite ever-diminishing physical capabilities. Jimmy agreed. But now, the voice mail suggested, given the slow but inexorable progress of multiple myeloma, and faced with this almost prohibitively expensive drug, he had reached a crossroads.
Aside from its final expression of love, and the characteristic admixture of humor and self-deprecation, the message was, obviously, deeply disturbing. I had felt certain for some time that Jimmy had no intention of letting the cancer play out to its end. If he felt the final stage coming on, he would simply choose to stop taking any medications, old or new, accelerating the inevitable rather than submit to slow deterioration, the horrible endgame of multiple myeloma. Had he reached that point? It was far too late to call him, but as I walked the dark Saratoga streets, I reminisced about our long journey together, including a walk on a similarly windy night almost sixty years earlier.
It was a melodramatically stormy evening, and we were walking through a wooded area in a then rural section of the Bronx. We were engaged, with all the seriousness of fourteen-year olds, in a cosmological-theological conversation: a discussion that has gone on ever since, often centering on the infinitude of the universe, the mystery of origins and endings, and on a crucial double-question: “Does God exist and, if so, does he care?” When I expressed religious doubts, Jimmy pointed toward a tree shaking in the wind. “Tell that tree you don’t believe in God,” he challenged. I found I couldn’t.
We have come a long way since then. We’ve both had bouts with cancer, mine as nothing compared to his; and we have both become unbelievers, evolving if not progressing from the Catholicism of our boyhood. Unable to square the traditional concept of an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God with the challenges presented by evolutionary biology and by the sheer amount of suffering in the world, much of it undeserved, I have become an agnostic. Jim, a science-minded engineer conversant with the workings of quantum mechanics, has also pursued an amateur but scholarly interest in the Bible. The result is that he is, and has been for some time, an atheist: a conviction unaffected by the fact that he knows he is dying of an incurable disease. Though perhaps no one can be utterly fearless in the face of death, Jimmy is freer of that fear than anyone I’ve ever known. As a philosophic materialist, he has taken to heart the argument of Lucretius in On the Nature of Things: after death “we shall not feel because we shall not be.”
When I talked to him the next morning, he was, marginally, less despondent, and, as always, funny. But, as William James famously says in Varieties of Religious Experience, no matter how we ignore death, try to forget about it, or even laugh in its face, “still the evil background is really there to be thought of, and the skull will grin in at the banquet.” I felt that image vividly at the end of the exuberant event honoring Bill Kennedy, and even more on that chilly walk back to Dick and Ann’s.
The next morning, before breakfast with Bill and Dana, and after talking to Jimmy on the phone, I found myself flooded by memories of our crowd growing up in the Bronx. Those thoughts, in turn, triggered recollection of a more recent Bronx adventure—this one part of the aftermath of another event honoring Bill Kennedy.
This was the First Annual Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award, a glorious affair held at the Manhattan Club. New York City’s Irish community was out in full force. After a gregarious open bar, I found myself sitting for the speeches between the actor Gabriel Byrne and the playwright John Patrick Shanley, unmistakably born and bred in the Bronx. I had just seen the film version of his play Doubt –starring Meryl Streep, who had also played a lead in the film of Bill Kennedy’s prize-winning novel, Ironweed. I mentioned to Shanley that my mother loved his Moonstruck, and would have enjoyed the scene in Doubt set in Parkchester, where she had lived for years. When I congratulated Byrne on his performance in Miller’s Crossing, he insisted that “the dialogue the Coen Brothers had written” for that film was “so good that a trained seal could have delivered the lines.” I doubted it, but appreciated the self-effacing wit.
Understandably, Bill was deeply touched by the O’Neill Award. After his warm and funny acceptance speech, and a few more rounds of communal drinks, he whispered to me: “Pat, I haven’t had a bite to eat all day. Dana, Brendan, and I are going around the corner to Gallagher’s for a steak. Don’t say anything, just slip out quietly and join us.” After a few necessary farewells, I went to the checkroom and discreetly retrieved my raincoat, a garment bag and a satchel. I had come down to New York on Amtrak, not only for the Kennedy honors, but to spend a week in the Bronx with family and to attend one of our now biannual crowd reunions. I lugged my goods to Gallagher’s, and settled in for drinks and laughs with Bill, his wife, and their son. We were soon joined by others.
The next two hours were so convivial that I forgot that I had to make the last Express Bus to the Bronx. I offered apologies for what became a sudden departure and headed across town at full tilt. I thought I’d be able to make it, but hadn’t calculated on the extra minutes I’d need, burdened as I was with two bags. I got to Madison Avenue just in time to watch the last bus to Throgs Neck disappearing in the rainy mist. No cab would take me to the Bronx. That left me with a single option: the last bus to the Bronx, headed, as I recall, to Morris Park Avenue. I clambered aboard and asked the driver to drop me off anywhere in the Bronx where he thought I’d be likeliest to get a cab to Throgs Neck.
He may have taken my “anywhere” literally. Whether through mistake or malice, he deposited me in a section that resembled nothing so much as the desolate postwar setting for The Third Man. There I was, at 1am in the morning, hauling two bags, rigged out in a suit and London Fog raincoat, and carrying about $1,000 in cash in my wallet. No cabs, no cars, no lights, no stores open. Having grown up in the Bronx, I shrewdly recognized this as a less than ideal situation. To add to the absurdity, it began to drizzle more heavily, and the wind picked up, whipping my raincoat like a defeated flag.
I set off walking, another of the nocturnal trudges that seem to have become a motif in these reminiscences. I walked for several blocks, the drizzle turning to rain, the mist thickening. It was beginning to approximate a scene on the fells, with the Hound of the Baskervilles looming in the wings. Finally, I glimpsed lights haloing what appeared to be a door. As I approached, a voluptuous young woman beckoned me in. What I at first took to be a brothel turned out to be a tavern. In retrospect, I detect a resemblance to the scene I was assigned to read at the Surrey Inn celebration. Just as Vivian had saved George Quinn from the dangerous streets of Albany by inviting him into her flat, this buxom beauty had saved me from the potentially dangerous streets of a rundown section of the Bronx, shrouded in windblown rain and mist, and altogether unfamiliar to me.
I went in. The place was warm, colorfully lit and packed, the customers primarily Puerto Rican, and exuding good spirits. The crowd was young: attractive women, amply breasted and with even bigger hair, accompanied by dates, most of them with tattooed, impressively muscled arms. I shuffled to the bar, dragging my luggage, wet and seriously overdressed for the occasion. I might as well have been an alien, a man from Mars blown in by the night wind. I smiled at the lovely bartender, tattooed but decidedly female, wiped the rain off my face and ordered a beer.
As I was sipping it, a distinguished looking fellow who turned out, unsurprisingly, to be the owner came up to me and engaged me in conversation. We retreated to a corner, and kept talking. He got the next round. We continued talking. By the time we’d shared several more beers, we knew a good deal about each other. I asked him at one point how he managed to maintain such good order in a crowded bar in an obviously tough neighborhood. I don’t know if he’d read Elmore Leonard’s novel or seen the film version of Get Shorty, but he said, as Travolta does in the movie, “Look in my eyes.” When I did, the warm blue turned to ice; an impressive transition.
But it was only with the arrival of closing time that I got the full measure of the man. As his patrons filed out, they invariably offered their farewells with a mixture of affection and respect. I thought for a moment that my new friend must be connected. But, growing up in the East Bronx and working at Breezy Point Beach Club to put myself through Fordham, I’d seen plenty of gangsters. None of the Bronx loansharks or bookies I knew had anything resembling this guy’s class. And only one of my members at the beach—a charismatic guy who used the cabana owned by Joe Profacci, and who turned out to be that don’s main button man—had the commanding presence of this fellow. But my beach club member, charming in a Legs Diamond sort of way, was a professional killer. The man I’d just spent two hours with was a tough-love entrepreneur who respected his customers: a man who knew how to run a bar offering a convivial atmosphere, a clean well-lighted place and a safe oasis in a rough neighborhood. He was treated accordingly.
When the time came to leave, my new friend got me a cab and had my bags carried out by an employee who refused the tip I offered. I got to my aunt’s house in the early hours, having thoroughly enjoyed two events in the one evening, the second of which might have ended very differently. I could imagine the headline: “Retired professor and active buffoon found mugged and murdered in the mean streets of the Bronx.” If Hemingway, tossing back a daiquiri at the Floradita, had come across the headline, he might have remembered the frozen carcass of his leopard on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro and added, “no one knows what the lunatic was seeking in that neighborhood.” The next day, when I saw Jimmy, I told him the story. He laughed—as did Bill Kennedy when I repeated it to him a few weeks later at the urging of my friend Judy McCormack.
Oddly and quite innocently, Bill Kennedy figures in both these juxtapositions. The recent Surrey Inn celebration will always be darkened for me by the voice mail from Jimmy; the Eugene O’Neill presentation by the potentially dangerous, but finally delightful and Kennedy-esque, aftermath in the Bronx. But then, when one gives it more than a moment’s thought, all the adventures and joys of life seem circumscribed by darkness and threat, with death the ultimate reality surrounding—haunting and enhancing—the transience of life. That explains, not only the mingling of vitality and nostalgia at the heart of William Kennedy’s life-affirming novels, but of much else in literature and life.
Art is long, life short, but in life as in art, we are moved by chiaroscuro, the play of light and darkness. Aside from scholars, who now reads the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Venerable Bede? But there is a reason men and women have remembered for more than a thousand years Bede’s vivid comparison of human life to the “swift flight of a sparrow,” coming out of rain and snow, to fly through the king’s festive and fire-lit banquet chamber, only to quickly disappear out “the other door.” While the bird is within, he is “safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space” of warmth and light, “he immediately vanishes out of sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or of what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant.”
As I, along with my friends, come ever nearer to that other door, I become more and more acutely conscious that, for all my reading and experience, I am as utterly ignorant as I was when Jimmy made me stare at that tree shaking in the wind more than half a century ago. One of the few things I am sure of is the strength of the bonds established all those years ago in the Bronx. As I was typing these thoughts (I am not making this up), an e-mail arrived from Warren Cheesman. Knowing that Jimmy rarely reads e-mails, he was responding to my sharing with him and with two other of our lifelong friends, John and Elsbet Wallace, this latest news about Jimmy. Like Elsbet, Warren was crying when he responded, but, along with offering to contribute substantially to alleviating the cost of any medication, he pointed out that Jimmy was part of the “experiment” offered by this new medication. Beyond that, he wanted me to tell Jimmy that “the longer he can endure, the greater his contribution to the world, and to us, his friends.” However dark it may seem, however cold the night wind and all that it portends, there’s something about gathering around a communal fire, and, especially, about true love and friendship, that you can’t get anyplace else.
—Patrick J. Keane
Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College and a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).