Sunday, May 26, 2013

62. Abnormal and Paranormal Adventures

     The blob of orange yam, amorphous, slovenly, absurd.  How can I eat something so ridiculous?  But beside it on the plate, the neat little peas, pert, distinct, charming, so friendly in their green collective, the very opposite of the ludicrous and shapeless yam.  I force myself to eat them: cannibal!

     I leave the diner, go out on the street.  Faces glow, voices squeak and boom.  The façades of the West Village houses, lavender and pink and rose, are luminous.  A folded newspaper falls from a windowsill, lands on the sidewalk with a thump: for me!  Everything that happens is for me!  Someone approaches, looks right at me, his lips move.  Slowly my mind registers: He's looking at me ... he's saying something ... I'd better listen ... I'll have to answer him ... will he notice? ... what is he saying?  The man asks directions and I reply apologetically, unable to help; he notices nothing.  So my decelerated mind is in perfect synch with that outer world proceeding at normal speed!  Then, turning a corner, I'm ambushed by the sun, already low in the sky.  The sun!  The sun!  Inexorably, its pulsing yolk lures me westward, block after block, my eyes riveted to its magnetizing yellow, until the elevated Westside Highway looms up and blocks it out, breaking the spell.

     Back in my room -- a shabby little room on West 14th Street -- the ceiling's chipped paint becomes a cratered lunar landscape, then a pocked face flowering with sores: beautiful!  Next, I gaze at my armpit, see a jungle with jewels.  My mind is loose yet focused, stripped of doubt, immersed in the immediate; I conceive an immense scorn for the blurred vision of alcohol, the slurred speech and mushy sentiment of drunks.

     I shut my eyes: domes, towers, spires of Babylon; hewn into cliffs, Egyptian colossi overlook the Nile; lagoons, purple ants.  Bearded Hittites parade, then humpbacked snails like linked sausages;  under an archway, trilobites jerk in a dance.  But at intervals troops of little cartoon men, mute, deadpan, squat, all triangular in shape and all identical, sneak into these grandiose visions by helicopter, motorcycle, and bike carrying Coke bottles twice as big as themselves, as if to provide comic relief.  Amused, I label them the Hucksters, but strive to preserve the visions.

     I open my eyes: a poster on the wall showing an Alpine village and above it a parade of clouds.  "Green!" I cry.  "Green!"  The white clouds turn green.  When they revert to white, I shout "Green!" again and they at once turn back to green.  I have the secret of green!  No other color, just green.  Exulting in my newfound magical power, time after time I turn the white clouds green.

     Naked, I sprawl on the bed, a lithe little boy, totally self-absorbed and ripe for nibbling, then an awestruck adolescent, thighs spread lewdly yet innocently, chosen of all mortals to give his seed to the sun (a bare lightbulb overhead), this sacrifice empowering the whole earth's fertility.  With all creation waiting, alas, I can't get it up.

     All is not lost.  The Hucksters appear in a long single file carrying above their heads a huge limp penis that with ropes, pulleys, levers, and windlasses they heave and strain to hoist up into an erection --  without success.  Desperate, I blink my eyes till the lightbulb and the whole room pulse, and so fake orgasm, pretend to juice the world, feel drained.  The world is saved.

     I wake up tired, groggy; the clock says six p.m.  My eyes ache; a whole day has somehow disappeared.

File:Lophophora williamsii ies.jpg
These little guys swung the doors
of perception wide open.

Frank Vincentz
     Such was one of my peyote adventures in October 1959 when, having finished my dissertation on André Breton (though not the oral), I left the Columbia campus and moved down to the West Village, so as to get free of academia and be nearer the beatnik scene on Macdougal Street, where in a scruffy little café
I heard scruffy poets read scruffy poetry to eager weekend crowds.  In a Village bookshop I encountered a mimeographed newsletter (no xeroxes then) by a guy named Jack Green, extolling his adventures high on peyote.  Fascinated, I did a bit of homework, reading an 1897 article by Havelock Ellis, and Aldous Huxley's Doors of Perception.  Then, assured that peyote, a cactus growing in the Rio Grande valley, was quite legal and not addictive, I contacted Green, a bearded, heavyset beatnik whom I found hunched over a manuscript in a tiny office on East 5th Street, and got the address of an outfit in Laredo, Texas, that could supply me with the cactus.  I should add that I was middle class to the core, no beatnik, no taker of immeasurable risks.  But for the second time in my life (the first being a trip to Alaska, where I had worked one summer), I was in the mood for something totally and startlingly different, and peyote enticed me.  Soon I had in my possession a small box containing twenty little gray-green thornless cacti nestled close together: the means, I dared to hope, of achieving Rimbaud's disordering of all the senses in order to arrive at the Unknown.

     The peyote buttons proved nauseously bitter to the taste; I could consume them only by simultaneously gobbling a handful of raisins.  The first attempt, with three buttons, was futile, but I persisted.  The next night I managed to gobble seven of them and, with my teeth chattering slightly, lay down, eyes shut, and waited.  What followed was a series of vivid fantasies, the most significant being the African one mentioned at the beginning of my post on earth goddesses (#59, May 2013), which I won't repeat here.  Other adventures followed, including what is narrated above.  Fascinated, I wrote off for another hundred cacti so as to continue the adventure.  The result was more highs with similar vivid impressions: when I went outside, heels clicked sharply on pavements, people's high-pitched laughter resounded grotesquely, every doorway offered up a unique set of sounds.  And when, back in my room, I lay down and shut my eyes again, the inner fantasies resumed, always exotic, always in Technicolor: a turbaned bugler, pyramids, mosaics, strange fish, gaping monsters with jagged teeth, tiny eyes, bands of color, gems, as well as hints of Gauguin, Van Gogh, Dali, Michelangelo, Tanguy, Klee, Picasso, and Chagall -- a feast of modern art.  On one occasion, however, a hideous ape-man appeared -- a kind of missing link, half human, half brute -- who eyed me fiercely with malice, causing me to open my eyes and eliminate this threatening vision, my only experience of fear.

File:From Giovanni Battista Belzoni- Egyptian race portrayed in the Book of Gates.jpg

Figures walking in profile from Egyptian tomb murals
and papyri manuscripts peopled my visions, even
causing me unconsciously to attempt a similar
 posture while lying on my bed.
File:Mosaic Detail (8391276395).jpg
I often saw mosaic-like patterns.
Michael Coghlan


File:Sarape patrn.jpg
Mexican serapes also appeared.

    Once, as the high diminished, I went into a coffee house and studied those around me, registering images that are with me to this day: a thin, angular girl beside a round-faced, chubby boy, and two chess players, a girl who, having made her move, slumped back relaxed on her chair, her body loose and slack, while her opponent, a boy, sat forward hunched and tense as he studied his next move.  For the first and probably last time in my life, I had the artist's eye; with a sketch pad I could have sketched both couples instantly.

     These adventures I mostly kept to myself.  One friend knew of them, but when, slightly high, I went to him eager to recount these experiences, he greeted me at the door with a weary know-it-all look, informing me that, having taken anti-depression pills for years, he knew all about heightened perception, had nothing more to learn from me.  Why he wanted to kill my adventure I still don't know.  I didn't argue, couldn't, but knew for certain that, had he experienced anything like what I had, he would have raved ecstatically.  Another friend who lived upstate, when informed feverishly by mail, registered astonishment and interest.

     In time, these visions faded, more buttons produced less, I couldn't turn the white clouds green.  But I had learned a lot.  The beauty of every surface, for instance, when studied with a microscopic eye.  A world that was bright, clear, and focused, delivering its essence at every moment.  No strong emotion while under the influence of peyote, no brooding or self-pity or hysterical joy, only a quiet satisfaction with the world as it was.  Intense lucidity, no interest in abstractions or value judgments, only in immediate sense perception; if I had seen a beautiful painting beside an ugly one, I would have been equally absorbed by the lines and colors of each.  This was not hallucination, but simply heightened perception; the real world, only better.  But peyote allowed no opportunity for the practical; had I tried to cook, I'd have become so absorbed in the dancing flame that I'd have forgotten  to put the dish on the stove.  And no possibility for concentration; had I tried to read, the subtle contours of the page would have completely upstaged its content.  But always I was certain that whatever wonders I'd experienced could be explained, even if I myself lacked the means to do so.  Marvels, not miracles.

     Once I realized that I had received all I could from peyote, and that any further experiments would yield only diminishing returns, I gave it up.  It was beautiful, memorable, unique, but also intensely artificial, never the real world that I knew.  Everything it offered me was distorted, beautifully distorted,  as if some gifted artist had imposed his style on it.  I wanted heightened perception in the real world, without an artificial stimulant.  Also, while peyote was not addictive like nicotine, I suspected that for some it might become a gentle refuge from the fierce to-do of living, and that I did not want.  So good-bye to sublime grandiosity, to comic strips of dream.

     I don't recommend peyote to others. First of all, it's been illegal in the U.S. since 1970, though a 1994 statute makes an exception for members of the Native American Church, when they use it for spiritual or religious purposes.  And while I had a benign experience, that might not be the case for everyone.  When my friend upstate tried it, he became paranoid, was certain that people were watching him -- a reaction that I had never had.  Wisely, he too gave it up.  Peyote was my only drug experience ever; I have done no other, not even marijuana.  I don't need it.

     And now for a very different experience.  One September long ago Bob and I arrived on Monhegan, the island off midcoast Maine where we used to vacation, anticipating the usual idyllic two weeks in the cabin that we rented from our friend Barbara.  We spent the first day settling in and by bedtime were more than ready for sleep.  And yet, no sooner was I in bed than I sensed vaguely that something wasn't quite right.  Getting up to go to the bathroom, I sank gently to my knees when I got there, and my mind split in two, an observer floating off in space nearby as he observed the other part of me,  the doer who was on his knees.  The observer watched this spectacle with the utmost detachment and calm, simply noting with casual interest that the doer was on his knees and wondering why.

     How long this went on I have no idea, but Bob, becoming alarmed, came to the bathroom, saw me on my knees, and feared the worst.  But with his help I got back on my feet, the observer vanished, and I got back to bed.  We were both in our separate beds now, but neither fell asleep.  "Let's open the windows," I said, without knowing quite why.  By now it was stormy and raining outside, with occasional bolts of lightning -- not the kind of weather when one would open windows wide, but that is what we did.  Back in our beds, we still couldn't fall asleep.  "Let's go to Barbara's," I finally said, again without knowing why.  Tossing coats over our pajamas, we hurried across the yard to her house, pounded on the door.  By luck, she was still up and came to let us in.  We explained the situation as best we could, and I promptly fell onto one of her two sofas.  Bob and Barbara then returned to the cabin, where they opened more windows, and Barbara, who had a hunch what the problem was, turned off the refrigerator.

     Bob and I spent the night on her sofas and then, the next morning, went back to the cabin.  Barbara came soon after breakfast with a handyman, who took one look at the gas-operated refrigerator and confirmed her suspicion: the motor was caked with carbon and as a result had been emitting carbon monoxide.  We had had a close, near-fatal call.  The handyman cleaned off the carbon, which made the refrigerator safe to use, but Barbara wasn't taking any chances: soon afterward she replaced it with a new one.  Today, such incidents are impossible on the island, for gas-powered refrigerators have been replaced by ones that run on electricity.  They may konk out in a power outage, but they don't give off monoxide.

     What I most remember about this incident was how my mind split in two, with one part observing the other with detached curiosity, but nothing more.  I wonder if people drowning undergo the same bifurcation, with an observer watching calmly as the doer splashes about in desperation and then, exhausted, drowns.  This is the only full-fledged out-of-body experience that I have ever had, though today, in my dynamic maturity, I sometimes briefly observe myself in action as if that acting self were a different person: interesting, but a pale imitation of what I experienced on Monhegan.  These experiences are not uncommon, since one person in ten is said to have had them, but science has yet to find an explanation.

File:Inicio projecao.jpg
An artist's attempt to render an out-of-body experience.
But I doubt if any art work can adequately convey it.

     So we can have two selves simultaneously, one observing the other.  Only two?  In a poem I have listed nine -- not nine totally distinct selves, which would be schizoid, but nine different fantasy personas that vie with one another for precedence:
  1. A bisexual stud equally attuned to spankings of bare-bottomed boys and penetration of the jungle of Woman;
  2. A naughty little nitwit queer who revels in submitting to male dominance, shocking prudes and jocks with his cry, "I'm fruit!  I'm fruit!  I'm fruit!"
  3. A seeker who with prayer wheels, mandalas, and yogurt would renounce blind lust, aspiring to high and low nirvanas and fragrance of grace;
  4. A sour-tongued critic who denounces this theater and playpen of the mind, reviling these eroto- and mystomaniacs as crazed, depraved, inane;
  5. A remote observer who views all these selves serenely with detachment and amused tolerance;
  6. A blathering poet;
  7. A scheming greed creep;
  8. A health nut;
  9. A weepy suicide who skulks in self-pitying woe.
Yet even this list is not complete, since the observer is eyed in turn by an observer who is likewise eyed by an observer through a mirror maze of infinite regression.  To put it mildly, we are complex individuals comprising many masks or personas, no one of which dominates for long.  Which makes it tough for biographers.  Confusing, to be sure, but fascinating.

     And  now to dreams.  Not exactly abnormal experiences, since we all have them nightly, but experiences that follow patterns and rules quite different from our waking experience.  Since other people's dreams can be a bore, I will cite only one, the most memorable dream I have ever had to date, quite unique and never repeated since.

     I was in our garage at home -- "home" being the house where I grew up in a suburb of Chicago -- where lawnmower, rakes, shovels, my father's bait cans and outboard motor had all been mysteriously removed, and the space usually occupied by my father's car was empty, with grease spots on the floor.  There had been a disappearance, with violence suspected.  A murder, perhaps, but who was the victim and who the murderer?  Locked deep in my throat, I detected a wedged obstruction.  Coughing, heaving, I felt the blockage loosening, the buried evidence at hand.  Doubled over, choking, gasping, I heaved again, strained, felt a great mass moving, and as hot blood gushed from my mouth, I retched up and beheld, torn out at the roots and thrashing in spattered gore on the pavement, a huge tongue.

     This dream has always baffled me.  The garage was my father's domain, and he was a dedicated fisherman and garrulous to boot, always full of stories, many of them hilarious.  Does that make him the victim, and me the murderer?  Or are we both victims?  And is the tongue to be interpreted as phallic, or is that too simple, too obvious?  I leave it to the amateur Freudians out there, but with this warning: what you come up with may be a projection more of your own psyche than mine.  Analysts, beware.

     Finally I want to look at near-death experiences and what they tell us about the hereafter.  Once known as soul travel or spirit walking, in our more secular age they are referred to as NDRs.  I first heard of them long ago on WBAI (yes, them again!), when a doctor was interviewed who told about attending a little boy who was dying, he didn't say of what.  The boy was not in pain and, unlike most adults, was comfortable with the fact of his dying.  But he asked the doctor what it would be like, and the doctor told him what he had learned from other patients who had died and then come back.  Freed from the body, the mind or awareness hovers for a short while at the death scene, aware of what is happening but unable to communicate with anyone there, as if watching through a thick glass pane.  Then it moves away from the scene of death toward a dark tunnel, at the end of which is a brilliant but restful light.  At this point some express a wish to return to life so as to finish something they have left undone, and if the wish is granted they do indeed return, come back to life in their body, and report their experience.  Which was as much as the doctor knew, since those who go deep into the tunnel toward the light never return.  The boy found the doctor's account very comforting; there was nothing to be afraid of.

     Sometime later the boy died quietly in the night, but then returned to life.  His first words: "It's just like the doctor said."  He then explained that he was a bit uncomfortable dying in the darkness of night, and so had asked if he could come back to life for a little and die in the daytime.  His wish had obviously been granted, and on the following morning, in broad and comforting daylight, the boy died again, peacefully.

     This story moved me very much.  Wanting to learn more, I got hold of a book on near-death experiences that said a great deal more about them.  As in the doctor's account, the near-death subject hovers over the body for a while, surrendering without fear or grief or despair to this new state of being, while feeling a calm seriousness, mental quickness, and sense of surety.  There is no doubt, no debate; this simply is.

     Next, some hail a cab or cross the River Styx, or spin in spirals or descend into a well or cave, but most feel propelled through a dark tunnel toward a welcoming light.  Critics have seen this as a replay of passage through the birth canal into the glare of the delivery room and its white-garbed personnel.  Medieval accounts involved a parting of the ways, one toward heaven and the other toward hell, but  today all subjects move toward light.

     The light at the end of the tunnel is described as clear, white, orange, golden, or yellow, but always as brighter than ordinary daylight, yet welcoming and soothing.  It radiates wisdom and compassion, flooding the mind until one seems to understand everything in a single gaze.  The light is God made visible; Christians see it as Christ.  In medieval accounts the light judged the deceased, but in modern accounts it simply questions them so as to help them remember and understand their life.  Some see their whole life in an instant, as if watching a movie or leafing through pictures in a family album.  There may be regret, but not guilt; there may be consolation, or learning that increases self-awareness, or even a feeling of omniscience.  Some report experiencing a glimpse of heaven, or colors more beautiful than those of earth, or verdant lawns, or blue sky and lakes, flowers and rainbows, precious metals and jewels, trees and fountains, golden gates, or shining walled cities.  There may also be throngs of white-clad beings, usually deceased relatives and friends.

     These spiritual beings are guides and gatekeepers who send the deceased back to life if they are destined to return, or if they feel a compulsion to return because of family bonds, unfinished business on earth, or some newly conceived mission to undertake.  This decision is made at some barrier -- a wall or fence, river or mountain, or door or gate or curtain of mist -- beyond which there is no return.  Following the decision to return, revival is usually instantaneous and may be jolting, as if soul and body are out of synch.

     Those who return are filled with an awareness of the importance of love, and a realization that life continues in some form after death.  They may have newfound psychic powers, feel zest for life, show less interest in material things, have a strong sense of purpose, take delight in the natural world, or feel compassion toward others.  But they may also feel regret at having lost the omniscience once briefly acquired, and may find life on earth trivial by comparison with what they briefly glimpsed.  "Why did you bring me back?" asked one.  "It was cosmic!"

     Source note:  For the preceding account of near-death experiences I am indebted to Carol Zaleski, Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times.  I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.

     These accounts of near-death experiences are not without their critics.  Some psychologists see them as fantasies of immortality inspired by the mind's refusal to accept the fact of death, and some Christian thinkers attack them for reporting deliverance without conviction of sin, salvation without judgment, redemption without faith.  Certainly NDRs reflect the deceased's beliefs: Catholics report seeing the Virgin and saints, Protestants experience Jesus, those of other faiths encounter the deities, saints, and guides of their faiths.

     I myself have often wondered if the dying might not encounter exactly what they anticipate: if you hope for heaven, you'll end up in vistas of light; if you dread hell, you'll be cast into the flames of perdition; if you have no belief at all, you'll drift aimlessly in limbo forever.  An interesting notion and a great motivation toward faith, but little more than an amusing conjecture.  I take near-death experiences as true and valid, but perhaps as mere hints and suggestions of what is to come, which we can only know for certain once we have passed beyond the point of no return to be immersed in the immensity of light.  There, I suspect, we'll all find some surprises, though I don't presume to say what.

File:Frederic Leighton-Orfeo ed Euridice-1864.jpg
Orpheus and Euridice, Frederic Leighton, 1864.

     The mystery of death and the afterlife have always haunted mortals, who have dealt with them in countless myths and legends.  For me, the most moving is that of Orpheus and Euridice.  When his beloved Euridice dies, Orpheus, the world's greatest singer, poet, and musician, plays on his golden lyre so beautifully that even Hades, king of the underworld, is moved to the point of allowing him to lead Euridice back to earth on one condition: he must not look at her until both have left the underworld.  So he leads her back, but on arriving in the upper world he looks back at Euridice, who is still just barely in the underworld, and she is lost to him forever.  Many artists have rendered the story, and Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice is in the standard opera repertoire.

     But for me, the work of art best expressing the journey after death is the nineteenth-century Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin's painting The Isle of the Dead.  In it we see a desolate, rocky island with steep cliffs rising from the sea, a dense grove of tall, dark green cypresses, and what seem to be portals or windows hewn into the face of the cliffs.   Approaching it is a small boat with an oarsman at the stern,  a standing figure clad all in white who faces the island, and also in the boat a white object that could be taken for a coffin.

File:Arnold Böcklin - Die Toteninsel - Google Art Project.jpg
Arnold Böcklin, The Isle of the Dead (1883).

When, long ago, I first encountered a reproduction of this painting, I was mesmerized.  I took the standing white-clad figure to be a deceased soul crossing over to the afterlife, which the island represents.  No more explanation was necessary; the painting said it all.  Like a good poem, it didn't state, it suggested, and in so doing conveyed the mystery of death.

     Böcklin never gave an explanation of his painting, though he described it as "a dream picture: it must produce such a stillness that one would be awed by a knock on the door."  Most interpretations are similar to mine.  He painted several versions of it in the 1880s, and prints of it found their way into many homes.  Freud, Lenin, and Clemenceau had prints in their offices, and Hitler acquired one version  of the painting itself; it was his favorite work of art.  Today there are versions in Berlin, Basel, Leipzig, and New York, where the Met possesses one.  A fifth one -- the one owned by Hitler -- was destroyed in the bombing of Berlin during World War II.

     So what do I conclude?  That death itself is not to be dreaded.  Some of us have adventure in our earthly lives, and some do not.  But in the end we will all experience the greatest adventure, beside which earthly adventures are trivial indeed.  No need to rush, but when the time comes, why linger here when one could experience such marvels?  Instead, bon voyage!

     A bite into Apple:  It seems that Apple, the company I love to love, has been stashing billions overseas so as to avoid paying taxes here.  No surprise: all multinationals do this quite legally; it's just that, having vastly more profits, Apple stashes vastly more money abroad.  Congress is -- belatedly -- up in arms about this, just as the British Parliament is raging over Google's avoidance of taxes over there.  Do I still love Apple?  Yes, with all its giant warts.  Do I want Apple to pay its fair share of taxes?  You bet!  And if its actions are legal, let Congress stop ranting and raging and get started on serious tax reform legislation.  If the 99% pay taxes, it's time the 1% did the same.  Or will this all blow over and nothing get done, as usual?  Time will tell.

     P.S.  The Congressional confrontation with Apple turned into a love fest, with our elected officials proclaiming their love for Apple's gadgets and hailing it for changing the way we live.  Quite a contrast with their onslaught against the IRS.  As one journalist observed, these days it's better to be a tax dodger than a tax collector.

     A bite into Monsanto:  Yesterday, Saturday, March 25, a chilly, windy day with rain, there was a march against Monsanto at Union Square.  As those who follow this blog know, if Apple is the company I love to love, Monsanto is the company I love to hate (post #58, April 2013).  So I thoroughly applaud this march, even if I couldn't myself be there.  And I applaud even more the fact that tens of thousands of activists the world over, in some 40 countries and at least 48 U.S. states, participated.  Other cities holding marches included Chicago, Cleveland, St. Paul, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Boulder, Harrisburg, Orlando, Montreal, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Melbourne, Berlin, Paris, Brussels, and even Moscow.  The protest against GMOs is worldwide, because they threaten the whole world.  And this is a grassroots movement organized by ordinary citizens angered by the lack of action by governments -- and even by mainstream environmental organizations, some insist -- on this all-important issue.  Last March, in fact, Congress passed a biotech rider now dubbed the Monsanto Protection Act that lets Monsanto and other companies continue to plant and sell their products even if legal action is taken against them, which once again shows whose side our government is really on.  And last Thursday, just two days before the march, the U.S. Senate voted 71 to 27 to reject a bill that would have allowed states to decide whether or not genetically modified food should be labeled, a provision that polls show most Americans favor.  Need I add that former Monsanto employees have often worked for the FDA, and still do?  And if you don't know what GMOs are, you'd better find out fast, because they're in your food already and will be in it even more, if no one stops Monsanto.

     Coming next:  Jim Fisk, part 2: The Great Gold Corner of 1869, or, Can't a fellow have a little fun?  After that, in whatever order: Trees, Farewells, The Mania and Disease of Progress, Who is a hero?  And newly in the works: A West Village Murder and the Fear of Night.

(c)  2013  Clifford Browder




Sunday, May 19, 2013

61. Jim Fisk, part 1: Prince Erie

            Here begins the Saga of Jim Fisk, a series of posts relating the later adventures and misadventures of the nineteenth century's most colorful robber baron.  We last saw him in post #46, where, at the end of the Great Erie War, he and his pal Jay Gould inherited the Erie Railway, its coffers empty, its track two streaks of rust.  He immediately moved the Erie offices into an opera house that he had just bought and renamed for himself: another Erie first -- a railroad in an opera house.  What follows is slightly fictionalized, being drawn from my unpublished fiction, but it adheres closely to historical fact, and most of the dialogue is drawn from contemporary sources.

   *                   *                  *                    *                    *                   *                   *                  
            It was a marriage of opposites: Jim Fisk all grin and girth, a ruddy-faced glad-hander in check trousers and an orange or red vest, fingers studded with rings, punning and chortling to chorus girls, clerks, and reporters, the observed of all observers about whom gossip gushed; and Jay Gould, a feather of a man, puny-chested, skinny-limbed, with big dark silent eyes under a soft felt hat, and the pallor of a back-shop clerk: a thin talker, a dainty eater, gray-suited, his thoughts like quiet mice.  Together, they ran the Erie Railway.  Both stole; they called it “financiering.”

Fisk in full regalia, hair pomaded, mustache
waxed to a rapier tip.

            Jim Fisk was a joyous thief, loose as change, his mind all flash and froth.  To seize a little upstate railroad, he bought stock, fired off a volley of injunctions, and sent a trainload of Erie employees armed with shovels and wrenches against a trainload of workers loyal to the management.  They met head on, engine to engine, whistles screeching, with a jolt, a hubbub of oaths.  Fists flew, clubs thumped, skulls were cracked and gashed; outnumbered, the Erie men fled.  Quipped Fisk, when informed by wire at a safe remove, “Nothing is lost save honor!”

File:Jay Gould 1911.jpg
Some thought he looked a bit sinister,
even devilish.
            Jay Gould was a whispery thief immune to the bite of conscience, passionless as dawn.  To meet him was to walk in river mist or a soft frost.  He sat at his desk for hours, his brain tensile as a gymnast, felted as a stalking cat.  Nothing so pleased him as submarine flowers of intellect, faceted crystals of thought.  His mind hatched schemes so daring that even Jim Fisk gasped.  When Jay Gould’s schemes fired up Jim Fisk’s bounce, Wall Street popped and sizzled.

            When they locked up all the greenbacks in sight, markets splintered into panic; from all sides, insults and oaths glanced off their iron-plated egos.  When they cornered Dan Drew in Erie and he came to them owing them millions, pleaded through the night (into the Sabbath – for a churchgoing Methodist, a sacrilege), huffed up, and puckered down, waxing hot, cold, hot in a web of pleas and  wiles, they were adamant; and when, shoring up his pride, he said good night in a choked voice and scuffed out into the dawn, they guffawed.

            Those seeking access to Jim Fisk in his Opera House office – money men, journalists, humble suppliants – entered a marble-paved lobby through portals guarded discreetly by a squad of bruisers whose job it was to keep out process servers: Fisk’s minions, the very sight of whom made Jay Gould wince.  From there visitors mounted a grandiose staircase to traverse a huge hall frescoed with flowers and vines, among which nestled naked cupids and nymphs, then passed through carved oak doors into an anteroom staffed with ushers where, if approved, they were waved through a bronze gate into another great hall with frescoed walls and ceiling. 

            There, on a leather-cushioned throne behind a mammoth black walnut desk, sat Prince Erie, surrounded by mirrors and silk hangings, with sixteen buzzers close at hand to summon any employee in the sixteen departments of the Erie offices.  While male secretaries scribbled letters that he dictated three at a time, clerks and messengers scurried to do his bidding, their laughter at his constant jokes bubbling upward under a cerulean ceiling splashed with ERIE in gold.  Amid this splendor and bustle, visitors were received, schemes conceived, interviews granted, acts of random charity performed.

            Such magnificence masked the frantic vibrations and rumble of a steam-operated printing press buried deep in the bowels of the basement, whereby, through what director Fisk termed “freedom of the press,” blank sheets of paper were converted into certificates of Erie stock.  Thrown in abundance on the market, this watered stock had brought instant profits to Messrs. Fisk and Gould, while depressing the stock’s price to the nethermost depths.  “When Erie declares a dividend,” went a Wall Street saying, “icicles will form in hell.”  Though headquartered in a marble palace, the railroad was pinched for funds.

File:Cornelius Vanderbilt three-quarter view.jpg
He didn't look quite so stern and imposing,
when Fisk barged into his bedroom.
            Jim Fisk decided that Erie’s finances required his personal attention.  Lugging a carpetbag and with a lawyer in tow, he barged into Commodore Vanderbilt’s red-brick residence on Washington Square to confront the richest man in the nation.  Brushing past a servant, he and the lawyer bounded up the stairs and burst into the Commodore’s bedroom. The titan was sitting on the edge of his bed in a dressing gown, one slipper on, one off.

            “Commodore,” said Fisk, “I’m here on behalf of the shareholders of the Erie Railway, to collect the money you swindled us out of in that settlement last July.  Now here” (he opened the carpetbag) “are fifty thousand shares that you made us take off your hands at 70, which comes to three and a half million.  And we want another million back that was paid you to cover your losses.  So please make out a check for four and a half million dollars, with interest from July 11.”

            Astonished, Old Eighty Millions reddened with rage, all the more so in that the stock was now selling for 40.  “I hain’t sold no stock to Erie,” he lied, “nor received no million bonus!  I hain’t payin’ you one cent!”

            Hot words followed, with Fisk’s demands splintering against the iron of the old man’s will.

            “Well then,” said Fisk, scooping the stock certificates back into the carpetbag,  “We’ll sue.”  With his lawyer he headed for the door.

            Thundered Vanderbilt, “Sue and be damned!”

            In the lawsuit that followed, Jim Fisk testified before the august wisdom of Justice George G. Barnard about his first meeting with the Commodore during the recent Erie war.  Questioned by his attorney, he assumed a whimsical expression that had the courtroom smiling from the start.

            “Sometime after our little vacation in New Jersey” (laughter), “I had an interview with the Commodore.  It was pretty warm – not the interview but the weather.”  (Laughter.)  “I remember, because the Commodore was a bit profane about it.”  (Great laughter.)  “It shocked me to hear him talk that way.”  (Continued laughter.)

            “Did you call on Mr. Vanderbilt?”

            “I think I did.”

            “Do you know that you did?”

            “Most undoubtedly.”  (Laughter.)   “The recollection is vivid and the memory green.”  (Laughter.)

            “What happened?”

            “The Commodore received me with the most distinguished courtesy and overwhelmed me with a perfect ambulance of good wishes for my health.”  (Laughter.)  “Then we came plump up to the matter at hand, and we had it out.  He said he couldn’t make sense of us – our outfit had no head nor tail, and old Drew was no better than a batter pudding.”  (Great laughter.)  “It distressed me to hear him say that, but upon reflection I said that I agreed.”  (Continued laughter.)  “While we were talking, I was looking at his shoes.  They had four buckles.  I thought to myself, if men like this have shoes like them, I must get me a pair.”  (Hilarious laughter.)

            During his whole testimony laughter rippled through the courtroom, cresting at times in great waves, until the judge himself was wiping tears from his eyes.

            Months later, when Vanderbilt testified, he provoked no ripples of mirth.  He denied heroically, lied with grandeur, or announced defiantly, “Them’s are things as I keeps to myself.”  Called in turn as a witness, Uncle Daniel, sweet-tempered throughout and brimming with injured innocence, evinced pits of ignorance and bottomless chasms of oblivion.  The case promised to drag on for years.

William Magear "Boss" Tweed (1870).jpg
Yes, his name rhymes "greed," but
let's not push it.
            Jim Fisk decided that Erie’s lack of political connections required his personal attention.  He went to see Boss Tweed in the Boss’s Duane Street office.

            “What can I do for you, Mr. Fisk?” asked the massive Tweed.

            “Boss, I’d like to talk to you about a railroad.”

            The Boss grinned broadly.  “Always glad to talk about a railroad.”

            What exactly the two men said in the Boss’s inner office no one ever knew, but when they emerged a half hour later, they were basking in a warmth of newfound friendship that soon extended to dinners at Delmonico’s.  Fisk savored the aroma of power that wafted off the Boss, while the Boss appreciated Fisk’s bonhomie, his zest for keen living and astute financiering unvexed by petty qualms.  When their camaraderie expanded to include intimate suppers at Josie Mansfield’s brownstone, Tweed found Fisk’s ladylove to be a charming and most attentive hostess, while Josie, entertaining the city’s grand mogul and his cronies, was thrilled to the cockles of her heart.  At the next annual election, William Marcy Tweed and City Chamberlain Peter “Brains” Sweeny joined the board of the Erie Railway.

            When Judge George G. Barnard, once the wrathful nemesis of Erie, learned of Boss Tweed’s growing partiality for Jim Fisk and Jay Gould, his hard feelings toward the duo softened like a warmed lump of wax.  Meeting them socially through Tweed, he found them both to be perfectly delightful fellows, and discovered that he shared specifically with Fisk (Gould being a hearth-clinging family man) the delights of good liquor, fine cigars, and the teasingly shapely legs of a cancan.  Thereafter his glistening black locks, ruffled shirtfront, and diamond sleeve buttons were seen increasingly at Josie’s, where he dropped in for poker and champagne.  Fisk and Barnard relished in each other a heroic risk taker immune to the buzz of fools. 

            This new friendship showered benefits on all.  When Erie stockholders, outraged by the company’s dubious financing and perennial lack of a dividend, leagued together to enjoin Fisk and Gould and oust them from control, the duo obtained from their favorite magistrate (now a recipient of Erie stock) an injunction enjoining the enjoiners that left the two directors with their railroad snug as rats in cheese.  Thereafter Fisk sent Barnard two stuffed owls symbolic of his double wisdom, and the judge’s name was blazoned on an Erie locomotive in gold.

            Jim Fisk decided that the state of theater in Gotham required his personal attention.  No sooner installed in the Opera House, he leased two other theaters as well, hired directors and performers, and overnight became the biggest theatrical producer in the city.  Having a go at Shakespeare one month and at farce or opera the next, he piled failure upon failure until he found a winning formula at last: The Twelve Temptations, a splashy musical with a real waterfall, Spanish dancers, an Egyptian ballet, and  one hundred tantalizing females kicking high in a cancan that at once became the talk of the town.  He advertised like crazy; multitudes flocked.  

Received Nightly with Wild Enthusiasm
-- The Mystery Still Unsolved
-- The Most Novel of Novelties
The Wonder of Wonders
Contains Nothing Objectionable

            Flaunting his shirtfront diamond, producer Fisk posted himself in the lobby before curtain time to fling a jovial greeting at Boss Tweed, Judge Barnard, dapper Mayor Oakey Hall, and lesser luminaries and friends.  During intermissions he hopped from box to box or mixed with tipplers at the bar, giving of his abundant good cheer to all.  At the Opera House Miss Mansfield had a box of her own just above his, though as a sop to propriety he forbore to visit it, being well aware that select members of the audience were craning their necks to glimpse the lady in question and whoever cared to be seen in her company.  At the final curtain he took a bow with the cast. 

            So taken was impresario Fisk with Offenbach, that he sent the respected Austrian-born director Max Maretzek to Paris to lure the master of light opera to New York.  Maretzek returned not with Offenbach, who declined, but with a bevy of renowned female performers to spice up the Opera House offerings.  From then on manager Fisk was often seen driving in the Park with such stunning beauties as Mlle Irma and Céline Montaland, if not a whole troop of dancers.  Rumors soon circulated of naughty doings in the wings of the Opera House, then tales of nightly orgies in his frescoed office, with Fisk cavorting among half-naked dancers amid a catered spread of caviar and champagne.  How Prince Erie could find time for such escapades and still manage or mismanage a railroad, and keep Miss Mansfield reasonably content, no one quite explained.

            A scourge of old-fogey ideas, impresario Fisk barged into rehearsals to critique the scenery, calm a prima donna’s tantrum, joke with stagehands, wink at a soubrette, and offer the director some pointers based on his own vast theatrical experience (one season as a circus roustabout handling hyenas and kangaroos in his teens).  Directors resented these intrusions; stagehands and performers relished them.  Once, hearing that Max Maretzek, against his expressed wishes, had agreed to conduct a concert at a rival theater, Fisk burst into a rehearsal in a rage, assailing the director with a barrage of insults.  Maretzek was known for his violent personality, dictatorial and intransigent.  Incensed, he strode down from the podium and aimed a punch at Fisk’s nose.  Fisk parried, and the two grappled and fell to the floor in a tussle, Fisk’s bulky torso ending up on top, while divas and dancers screamed.  Stagehands broke it up; the two combatants retired in high dither, Fisk with a torn shirtfront, and Maretzek with a darkened eye.  The director, threatening a lawsuit, quit.

            Soon after this a shareholder brought suit against Prince Erie, demanding his ouster for bringing females of bad repute into the corporation’s offices, alleging “that the frequenting of the building by impressionable young clerks and by opera and theater women at the same time, with the tread of ballet girls and echoes of operas and songs, and all sorts of string and wind instruments, resounding in said building, is demoralizing to said young clerks, destructive of the company’s interests, and without parallel in railroad history.”  Informed of the suit, Fisk grinned.

Admiral Fisk
            Jim Fisk decided that navigation on Long Island Sound required his personal attention.  Having acquired the Narragansett Steamboat Company, running boats to Fall River, Massachusetts, he refurbished his boats with new carpets, plush upholstery, bronze statues, brass spittoons, splashes of gilt, and a band to serenade the passengers en route.  Also a canary in every cabin, since he loved canaries and shunned silence and solitude.  His boats, he deemed, were now more than a match for Dan Drew’s floating palaces on the Hudson, which boasted neither bands nor canaries.

            A half hour before departure Fisk would appear on the dock in a blue naval uniform specially designed by his tailor with gold buttons and braid, and three gold stars on the sleeves – an outfit identical with the dress uniform of a United States admiral, except for lavender kid gloves and a shirtfront sparkler.  Thus attired, he stood by the gangplank uttering nonsensical commands to the crew that impressed boarding passengers but by agreement were otherwise ignored, his nautical knowledge being nil.  Soon afterward he hurried ashore to watch the boat depart, flags fluttering and band blaring, and receive the captain’s salute.

File:Appletons' Greeley Horace.jpg
Known to his readers as Uncle Horace.
            One afternoon an older man in spectacles and with a fringe of whiskers, wearing floppy trousers and a wide-brimmed, low-crowned hat, shuffled up the gangplank.  In this rumpled seeming rustic Fisk recognized Horace Greeley, the most influential editor in the nation, whose New York Tribune had spiked the Erie management on many an editorial prong.

            “Welcome, Mr. Greeley,” he said warmly, reaching to take the editor’s carpetbag.  “Come right on board.  We’ll be off directly.”

            Greeley’s pink moon face registered surprise; he grabbed his carpetbag back.

            “My name is Fisk,” the admiral announced with a grin.  “You’ve probably heard of me.”

            Greeley looked puzzled, then nodded.  “Oh yes,” came the high-pitched, squeaky voice.  “You were an ensign in the North Atlantic blockading squadron in 1864.  I wrote about you once.”

            Fisk laughed merrily.  “No, Mr. Greeley, I’m James Fisk, Jr., of the Erie Railway.  I’m indebted to you for several editorial compliments.”

            Owl-faced, Greeley eyed him through his spectacles, then announced in resonant tones, “Long ago I invested five thousand dollars in the construction of that line and to date have an eighty-percent loss.  That railroad is grossly mismanaged.  It should pay a handsome dividend.  It runs through a rich agricultural region and – ”

            Bystanders had cocked an ear, but the rest of Greeley’s tirade was lost, for at a signal from Fisk the nearby band saluted Greeley with strident blasts of “Hail to the Chief.”

            Not all criticism could be muffled with a blast from a band.  Erie’s workers were underpaid or sometimes not paid at all.  At a machine shop in Jersey a reporter interviewed one of them, who exclaimed bitterly:  “This road’s close to bust!  How could it not be, when so much money goes for wine, women, and opera houses full of actresses and dancing girls?  They tell me Fisk went driving in the Park the other day with a woman whose hair was full of diamonds.  Diamonds, by God!  We work twelve hours a day for a lousy dollar and sixty-two cents.  No wonder there’s talk of a strike.”

            Word of this reached the Erie offices.  As both well knew, Jay Gould couldn’t talk to a gang of workers if his life depended on it, so Prince Erie decided to give the matter his personal attention.  Visiting the machine shop where discontent was said to be keen, he went wearing a jaunty velvet cap and a sparkler, greeted the men heartily, ignored their sullen silence, mounted a crate to address them.  He was plain Jim Fisk, he told them, an angel or a devil, since the papers had called him both.  But he and Mr. Gould were spending millions on Erie's cars, engines, roadbed, and rails, so as to improve its service.  As for the workers, their homes might be humble, but when their daily toil was over and they straddled the legs of their supper table, they could enjoy the evening with their family, whereas he'd spent many a night in his office studying how to whistle up a hundred million dollars by noon the next day.  And he was doing it for them, because their interests were the same.  And if any of them should ever come to New York, and he could help them, they should come see him in his office.  With their help, he and Mr. Gould were going to make Erie the greatest corporation on the continent.  "So good-bye and God bless you!"

            Growing shouts of approval had seasoned his address; now, loud cheers accompanied his departure.  The men returned to their jobs convinced that plain Jim Fisk was the best friend a workingman could have.

            The next day he was driving six-in-hand in the Park in a turnout lined with gold cloth, three white horses paired with three black, entertaining Mlle Irma and Céline Montaland, their bright scarves plucked by the breeze; every eye in the Park was on him.

File:The drive in the Central Park, New York, September, 1860 (Boston Public Library).jpg
The Drive in the Central Park.  Here Prince Erie loved to cavort, driving six-in-hand
with a bevy of dancers.

     Follow-up to last week's post on fascism:  From the New York Times of last Thursday, May 16:


     "Under pressure from Wall Street lobbyists, federal regulators have agreed to soften a rule intended to rein in the banking industry's domination of a risky market.
     "The changes to the rule ... could effectively empower a few banks to continue controlling the derivatives market, a main culprit in the financial crisis."

     Neither the banks nor the regulators have learned anything.  No further comment is necessary.

     A solution for WBAI?  As always, but now more desperately than ever, WBAI needs money.  So imagine my surprise when, tuning in the other day during the current fund-raising marathon, I heard them offering as a premium two CDs entitled "Six Steps to Wealth."  At first I thought it was health that they were offering, but closer listening confirmed that it was wealth.  WBAI, that bastion of anticapitalism, was offering "Six Steps to Wealth" for a mere $120!  The program host praised to the firmament the author of said CDs, one Dr. John Demartini, who has toiled nobly for 38 years, so he himself declares, in the cause of human betterment.  Samples of the material were played, in which Dr. Demartini explained that the only obstacle between yourself and the wealth you aspire to is ... yourself! To redeem us from this predicament, he offers his six-step program.  But he also has the key to countless other problems, and to those willing to pledge a mere $360 a "superpac" of his wisdom will be sent, wisdom that will change your life.  That I am leery of martinis in any form has already been made clear in post #47, Discovering New York (February 2013), so I of course declined to accept these generous offers.  But I had an epiphany:  Dr. Demartini offers a six-step program to wealth, and WBAI desperately needs exactly that.  The obvious solution: all those running the station should themselves invest $120 (or $360!) to overcome whatever it is that keeps WBAI from realizing its financial potential.  What could be more clear?  I truly hope that the station will embrace my suggestion.  No more fund-raising marathons -- O joy!  O bliss!  O ecstasy!

     Coming attractions:  Next week, Abnormal and Paranormal Adventures (saving the world through a cosmic jack-off, floating in space and monoxide, coming back from immensities of light).  Also: more Jim Fisk (the great gold corner of 1869), Who is a hero? (Obama?  the Dalai Lama?  Bradley Manning?), Farewells (both tearful and nasty), the Magnificence and Insolence of Trees (I love those guys).  And in the works:  Go Ahead: The Mania of Progress (America's favorite obsession, what it has done both for and to us).  The favorite post to date: Man/Boy Love (#43, January 2013), though last week's post on fascism got a record 118 one-day views on Sunday, and another 85 on Tuesday.

(c)  2013  Clifford Browder