General Non-Fiction posted March 17, 2019

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Night of the Round Table - Part 1

by Mark Valentine

I stepped out of my house, much as a prisoner might walk through the gate on his release day; beholding the sun and the sky, breathing in the fresh air, awed by the fact that life, for the next thirty-six hours at least, held more possibilities than just killing time. The one small step that carried me across the threshold of my front door had the immediate and palpable effect of lifting a weight from my shoulders, a burden that had been crushing me for months -- the unbearable weight of other people’s misery. 

My mother had been living with us for two years. When she first moved in, it was a major, life changing, style-cramping, marriage-threatening, inconvenience. Then it got worse.

The worst part was not the physical care – the diaper changing and lifting in and out of bed, nor was it the limitation of freedom, the never-being-able-to-go-out because my mom needed to be attended to 24/7. It wasn’t even the sadness of watching my mom’s physical and mental health deteriorate. No, like Azkaban, the worst part was the Dementors. For the one reader out there who may be unfamiliar with the Harry Potter series, here is Remus Lupin’s description of Dementors from J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban:

“Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope and happiness out of the air around them… Get too near a Dementor, and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself…soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.”

Of course, I wasn’t going through this alone. My wife was my cellmate. Unfortunately, empathy is a rare commodity in Azkaban. Misery loves company and will stop at nothing to ensure it finds some. Instead of alleviating each other’s pain, we added to it with the weight of our own unhappiness.

The reader may well wonder at this point, “What kind of horrible person can speak of his mother in such terms?” It would be a feeble excuse to point out that dementia had turned her into a different person than she had been (and she wasn’t all that pleasant a person to begin with). No, a better explanation can be found in the adage “Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it.” What it revealed, in my case, was that I wasn’t the exemplar of Christian charity that I had fancied myself to be. I was a horrible person.

And so I found that I needed to get away from that version of myself as much as I needed to get away from the Dementors. Fortunately, I had a voucher from Southwest Airlines that was about to expire, a son who was a freshman at New York University, and enough Marriott Rewards points for a free hotel stay.

To minimize the burden on my wife, my time away would only be thirty-six hours. She would be taking a trip of her own in the near future, a four day trip planned in March to visit our daughter. Thus, my in-and-out visit to NYC didn’t seem unreasonable. Besides, thirty-six hours of New York is about all I can handle. Anything more and the meaning of the Sartre quote, “Hell is other people”, becomes apparent.

I would get into Manhattan late Saturday afternoon, spend the evening with my son, then meet him for lunch and take him to a play on Sunday, before returning to Chicago late Sunday night.
My journey of 800 miles that began with that single step that crossed the threshold of my front door, continued with a drive to Midway airport, a plane ride to LaGuardia, the Q70 bus to Jackson Heights, and the R train to Midtown Manhattan.

As I emerged from the subway at 49th Street and took in the neon circus that is Times Square, I smiled and thought of the well-known lines from William Ernest Henley’s, Invictus: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” At least until Sunday night.

I checked into my hotel and texted my son to make dinner plans. We decided we would eat at that most quintessential of New York eateries -- Outback. Screw experiencing local culture, they have good steak.

They have good beer too. I had a few of those as my son and I caught up. We discussed his classes, his band, religion, philosophy, and life. The food was good, the beer was cold, and I couldn’t have imagined better company. My son is an amazing person. I see just enough of me in him not to demand a paternity test, but, for the most part, he seems to have dodged the worst my genes have to offer in the chromosome coupling that created him. 

After lingering for as long as we could get away with, my son informed me that he had plans to write songs with his bandmates that night, and so we hugged outside the restaurant and chose a rendezvous spot for the next morning. Then he walked south on 6th Avenue toward NYU and I walked north toward my hotel.

The night was still young by New York standards, and I was not about to waste the thin sliver of freedom that had been granted me. I didn’t have any specific plans for the evening, but I sure as hell wasn’t going back to the hotel to watch TV.

I’m not sure how old William Ernest Henley was when he wrote Invictus, but I am guessing he was too young to know that the whole ‘master-of-my-fate’ thing only goes so far for middle aged men. We are, unfortunately, constantly at the beck and call of our bladders. Thus, I had only made it a few blocks from the restaurant, when nature called in the loan on the beer that I had just rented. Fortunately there was an Irish pub nearby. Not only that, but they were televising the Notre Dame-Wisconsin hockey game. It was almost over, but there was enough time to enjoy a Guinness at the bar as I watched the final minutes. By the time the game ended (the Irish won 5-2) I was feeling a little buzzed, and decided that a Manhattan pub crawl would be my evening activity.

While there are never a shortage of reasons to drink at home, the price to pay is too steep to give in to temptation. If you’ve ever tried to clean crap-covered bed linen when you’re hung over, you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t, count your blessings. At any rate, I limit myself to an occasional beer or glass of wine when I’m at home, and I’m always at home.

But there would be no soiled linen tonight (at least I hoped not). No voice calling out to me to make sure I understood how miserable her life was. No voice beckoning for me to bring her some water, turn up the heat, or readjust her pillows. Who knew when I might again have a night with so few demands? My son wasn’t with me, so I didn’t need to model responsible behavior. I could sleep in tomorrow. I wasn’t driving. I had money in my pockets. All the planets had aligned -- I was going to get drunk.

A few blocks down from the Irish pub, I looked through the window of a bar to see a guy with a guitar sitting on a stool, playing for the patrons. I went in, ordered a Blue Moon and imagined it was the sixties and I was a young student listening to Dylan. I tried to remember what it was like to be young and idealistic. I was like that once. I had vision. I wanted to change the world.

I remembered my very first trip to New York, many years ago. I was working and living at a Catholic Worker House of hospitality in Peoria, Illinois.  I came to see the spot where Dorothy Day, my hero then and now, had begun the movement. She had died the year before my visit, so I never got to meet her, but just to stand in the places that she had stood was inspiring.

Before she became famous as the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day hung out in bars like this, heck, maybe even this very bar, with the likes of Eugene O’Neill. She was a bohemian, an activist, and an aspiring writer.

There was a time when I aspired to be an aspiring writer. Dreaming of actual success as a writer seemed too ambitious a goal for someone of my talents, so I dreamed of simply having a seat at the table with the other aspiring writers. I’m 59 now, and 59 year-olds are not aspiring anythings – we have become what we will become.

What Dorothy Day would become was a saint (even if the formalities haven’t been finalized yet). While she would write, that wouldn’t be her primary vocation. She would end up giving up everything to serve the poor in the most tangible way possible. She would be one of those rare people who took those gospel passages that most of us gloss over, you know the ones about feeding the poor and sheltering the homeless, literally.

In my younger days, I read and reread Loaves and Fishes and The Long Loneliness. I tried to follow in Dorothy Day’s footsteps, but life is a marathon, and, as it turns out, I only had the stamina to keep up with her for about the first fifty yards. I attended the University of Illinois, just as she did. I ran a Catholic Worker House for homeless men, just as she did. I entered the seminary, a door that was unfortunately closed to her – she would have made one hell of a priest. Me? Not so much.

I gradually drifted from that lofty trajectory. The thing about gradual drifts is, because there are no sudden turns to grab your attention, you tend not to realize how far off course you’ve gotten until it’s too late. The Wiliy Lomans of the world never plan on being Willy Loman; it happens while they’re not paying attention.  

As my fifty-nine year-old self listened to a guitar player sing Dan Fogelberg songs in a bar on Sixth Avenue, I thought about the contrast between the man I had wanted to be and the man I became. That contrast nagged at me and wouldn’t let me enjoy the music, so I decided to pay my tab and leave. But first I went to the bathroom.

I was tipsy as I headed back out onto Sixth Avenue. I thought about just going back to my hotel, but as I crossed 44th street, off to the right I spotted the Algonquin Hotel. In the twenties this hotel had been, along with Maxine’s in Paris, one of the centers of the literary universe. The Algonquin Round Table lived on in the imagination of writers everywhere as a Camelot, an idealized version of what life at the top must have been like. Witty, urbane writers of all sorts trading bon mots over afternoon cocktails. The literary equivalent of the cool kids’ table in the high school cafeteria.

While I was no longer an aspiring aspiring writer, I did like to write, and so I thought I’d stop in to see if there might be any lingering ghosts that could serve as muses. I grabbed a stool at the bar, the same bar where Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott would drink, and I ordered a bourbon (beer seemed too pedestrian for these circumstances, it was time to get out of my comfort zone and live larger).

The bartender filled me in on Algonquin lore. He informed me that when the New Yorker magazine started in 1925, the Round Table members insisted that its offices be within walking distance of “The Gonk”, their nickname for the Algonquin. Hanging out at the Algonquin was the priority. As Dorothy Parker once said, “I hate the office; It cuts in on my social life.”

I ordered a second bourbon and we exchanged our favorite Dorothy Parker quotes. Mine being her assessment of Ayn Rand’s, Atlas Shrugged (a sentiment which I share) “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” The bartender (whose name I have forgotten) trotted out the now legendary quote that Dorothy gave during a game the Round Table members played where one would choose a word and another would have to use it in a sentence. Dorothy’s word was ‘horticulture’ and the sentence she created was “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”

After the third bourbon, I asked if I could see the actual room where the writers met. He said it was a frequent request, and that, while there were tours occasionally, it was a private room now, as it had been in the twenties, and that, on this particular night, it was in use. At one point, after I had gone to use the bathroom, I thought I might just make a wrong turn and happen into the Rose Room by mistake. My drunkenness and lack of style must have given me away as someone who didn’t belong at whatever private party was going on in there, because the minute I turned in that direction, a detail of very polite waiters, very politely swarmed around me to ask (politely) if they could help me with anything. I told them I must have made a wrong turn and they offered to show me back to the bar. It was a very genteel version of the bum’s rush.

Oh well, one last bourbon and I’ll be on my way, I thought. I downed it quickly and took out $45 from my wallet to pay the bill. I figured four bourbons in Chicago would cost about $35, did some inflation-adjusting, and added a $5 tip for what’s-his-name, the bartender. He handed me the bill – it was $84 with tax.

It was then that I decided, come hell or high water, I was going to see the Rose Room.


Story of the Month contest entry

When my children were little they would often request bed time stories that were "one square real and one square made up". I don't remember where the idea of "squares" came from, but what they meant was that I should tell them a story that started out as non-fiction (usually a vignette from my childhood) and that turned into fantasy at some point.

This is in that spirit. Part 1 is that actual account (well, as actual as I can remember - as you'll see, I'm a bit inebriated by the end of the night) of my current living situation and recent visit to New York. Part 2, which I'll post shortly, veers off into fantasy land.

I also divided this into two parts because it's pretty long and anyone willing to suffer through the whole thing should get two member cent payouts.

The photo is one I took on the night in question.
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

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