In "The Song of Wandering Angus," Irish poet and mystic, William Butler Yeats, writes: "I went out to the hazel wood, because a fire was in my head." I have had a fire in my head for the last six months. There is a story simmering just below my consciousness that singes my dreams and teases me with maybes and what ifs. It has heat and electric sparks, flashes of scent and guarded mystery. It is a tale in the becoming. The mulch of my fears and hurts, hopes and fragile needs is slowly blending with my memories to stir life into a story that seeks light and air.
This morning I awoke with the memory of a night in the late 1970s when my brother, Dave, and I went to a benefit in a loft in the SoHo section of New York City. We were both teaching at Upper Darby High School, just outside Philadelphia. Dave was the theatre teacher; I was a 12th grade English teacher. The benefit was being staged by Poets and Writers, a nonprofit literary organization that had started in 1970 and was kind enough to list me and my 1975 novella, Death of the Poet King, in their Directory of American Poets and Fiction Writers. Their membership list was impressive, I wanted to meet a New York literary agent who had agreed to represent one of my books, and Gregory Peck and Walter Cronkite were speaking at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Harlem. It was an ambitious night, especially after teaching all day, but Dave and I were not afraid of traveling by Amtrak to the land of Oz to see how many wizards we might discover. We had no idea when we boarded the train at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia what lay before us.
By the time we arrived at Penn Station, grabbed a taxi, and made a mad dash up many steps to the agent's office, we caught her just before she was leaving. She was not what I was expecting. All business, with little patience or interest in me, she told me that she would try her best to find a home for my fantasy novel and dismissed us.
It was a spring evening in NYC so we decided to not let her lack of social graces get us down (she never did sell my book) and jumped on a bus to take us all the way up Amsterdam Avenue. When we arrived at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, there were limousines everywhere. The stone cathedral, dating back to 1892, was immense. Six hundred and one feet long, with a nave 124 feet high, the crowd inside was swallowed by seven chapels, long pews, and an air of majesty and reverence. A solo violonist began to play in the center of the cathedral. Just beyond him was Zubin Mehta, the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, gently guiding the mournful sound up and up into the shadows above us. No one spoke or breathed or blinked. Then Walter Cronkite began to speak from a lecturn on the raised high altar. The voice of America, the man who told us the truth each night on the CBS Evening News, here was the man who had walked me through triumphs (Apollo 11) and tragedies (assassination of John F. Kennedy). There was no separation between the man and the information he gave me each night, because "that's the way it is."
Then, without warning, Captain Ahab and Atticus Finch and Captain Mallory from the Guns of Navarone was before us. Gregory Peck, as handsome and deep voiced as his movie counter parts, looked at each and every one of us, and, heaven help me, I heard not a word the man said. I knew that he had a distant relative, like my own, who was involved in the Easter Rebellion in Ireland. I know that I had feared for him in The Omen, cried with him in The Yearling, and pitied him in How the West Was Won. Now, he was a flesh and blood man, decended from the big screen (there were big screens then), speaking with that particular cadence and tone directly to me.
I felt that the night was complete. It was only starting.
By 7:30 we found our way to the Poets and Writers' benefit in SoHo and checked in. It wasn't crowded yet, but the buzz moving through the loft was that celebrity guests would be arriving shortly. The buzz was correct. Within an hour, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, E. L. Doctorow, Kurt Vonnegut, James Baldwin, Erica Jong, Susan Sontag, and I were standing in the same large room. I was teaching a Composition class at Delaware County Community College two nights a week to help ends meet, and we had just read a short story by Baldwin. Fortified by a couple of beers, I approached Baldwin and asked him if I might ask a question about the story. Much to my surprise, he was very open and spoke to me at some length about the origin of the plot. He was a short man with very expressive eyes and a slow, distinctive manner of speaking.
Dizzy with my success, and another beer, I approached Kurt Vonnegut, who, I quickly discovered was ahead of me in beer consumption. We chatted for half an hour about his unexpected entry into becoming a Sci Fi writer and where he saw his career heading.
Before the night was out, I found myself dancing to funky music between Erica Jong and Susan Sontang in a lower level of the loft. The benefit didn't break up until 11:30. Dave and I had to teach the next day, but the night wasn't over for us yet. But, I'll leave that tale for another blog.
Over the years, I have often wondered if any of this happened. Reality is such a fragile thing, and I have always had an active imagination. So, when I woke up this morning, remembering this odd adevnture where elbows were rubbed with the gods of film and TV and literature, I had to smile. Because, the first email that I opened was from Poets and Writers. And, in that email was this photo of the late James Baldwin, the late Allan Ginsberg, and Erica Jong from a benefit in a loft in SoHo in 1978.
Copyright (c) 2012 by James Hugh Comey