Bryan R. Monte – The Long Workshop: A Memoir of Thom Gunn

The Long Workshop: A memoir of Thom Gunn, 1982-1994
by Bryan R. Monte

I first met Thom Gunn in January 1982 at the University of California, Berkeley as a student in his creative writing workshop. Strangely, even though we lived close to each other in Haight-Ashbury the previous year, he at Cole and Alma and I at Haight and Clayton, nine blocks away, we had never run into each other at neighbourhood or gay-themed readings or parties. (Haight-Ashbury poet and friend Steve Abbott, however, promised he would introduce us if we ever did).

I didn’t know what to expect from Thom personally, though something about his poetry “spoke to me” years before I knew he was gay and I had moved to San Francisco. My first contact with his poetry was during my last year of high school as I prepared for the Advanced Placement exam in English by reading through the Norton Anthology of English Literature from cover to cover. His poem “Human Condition,” about walking through a fog “Contained within my coat”. The phrase “…condemned to be/An individual,” certainly resonated with my teenage angst, growing up gay in Ohio. It was also consistent with all the walking around I did looking for who knows what, trying to quiet the ever-turning wheels in my head.

Two and a half years later after I had returned early from a mission to Germany due to a nervous breakdown, I received The Poetry Anthology 1912-1977 from my senior high school English teacher as a New Year’s gift to help me recuperate. The book featured Thom’s young face at the top of the book’s thick spine with a young Tennessee Williams in the middle and a matronly, 19th century looking Harriet Moore, the magazine’s editor for many decades, smiling at the bottom. This book contained three of Thom’s poems—“High Fidelity,” from 1955, “The Unsettled Motorcylist’s Vision of His Death” from 1957 and “The Messenger” from 1970. All of these poems are formally constructed, but the rebellious, young man seemed nonetheless to burst through these restrictions.

This is one of the few books from that time, before college, that I’ve kept all these years and certainly one of the few I had with me when I moved to Haight-Ashbury in 1980 to find out what it meant to be gay in a more tolerant environment and to see if I could be a writer. I think I considered it phenomenal for a living poet to have one poem in the Poetry anthology, let alone three.

At Steve Abbott’s urging I purchased two copies of Thom’s books from a second-hand bookstore. These were the thin, 47-page, chapbook length, My Sad Captains (1961) and the somewhat thicker, 78-page, Jack Straw’s Castle (1971). So these two books, published almost a decade apart, had launched and maintained the great man’s career, I thought.

From the very first day class, I knew Thom was going to be different than the other male Berkeley professors. Instead of coming to class in a button-down shirt and tie, chinos or jeans and a wool jacket with elbow patches, Thom arrived wearing a tight, white, round-neck T-shirt, tight Levi’s black jeans, black biker boots including the silver chain back by the heel, and of course, a leather jacket, the scent of which filled the room as his body warmed it. In contrast to his tough guy, rebel-without-a-cause wardrobe, however, Thom proved from the very beginning to be a somewhat shy, soft voiced man, who, nonetheless, commanded the respect of all his students without (as far as I can remember) ever having to raise his voice to call the class to order.

To fill the time during the first meeting, Thom had us introduce ourselves around the circle. (Yes, as a former educator, I’m shocked to realize that this was the one and only class at Berkeley that I can remember in which the classroom chairs were arranged so radically!) The students generally introduced themselves and talked briefly about their writing interests and experience. I don’t know what I said about myself that day, but I remember one or two students mentioning university poetry awards they had won or that they were putting a (chap)book together.

As far as my background was concerned, I’d written about two-dozen, short, imagistic (and some homoerotic poems), which I’d submitted with my admission’s essay to Berkeley. This had earned me a blue, “Do Not Admit Under Any Circumstances” sticker on my admission folder, but that’s another story. These same poems this time, however, were good enough to get me into Thom’s class. In fact, for the next 20 years, Thom’s workshop was one of the few I attended where sexuality of all kinds could be freely used and discussed in poetry.

Five fellow classmates mentioned in my journals include L.R., a short, dark-haired lesbian, Taras Otus, a blond, laid-back Southern Californian with a calm smile on his face that reminded me of Yoda from Star Wars, Miles, a shy, sixth-year undergraduate who wore a broad-brimmed, light-tanned, Australian hat with corks hanging around the brim during class, Cindy Larsen, a Mormon wife and mother, and another woman whose name I think was Marina, who wrote a poem about a homeless man or woman who everyone passed on their way to work. The terminal lines to her poem, as I remember them, went something like this: “How do you sleep at night/ knowing he/she’s on the street/ and you, in your safe, soft, clean bed./Very well, I bet.” It exemplified the smugness and lack of social consciousness of the Zeitgeist as yuppies gentrified San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, Western Addition and Castro neighbourhoods (some “homesteading” as they called it with guns next to their beds and bars on their windows). It also typified the new breed of Berkeley students who seemed more interested in buying clothes than books as more stores devoted to the former opened on Telegraph Avenue replacing the latter.

After the dozen students had introduced themselves and their poetic backgrounds and/or aspirations, Thom explained the rules of the workshop. Students were to submit work twice during the quarter. These submissions could be four short poems (shorter than one page), one long (longer than two pages) and two short poems or two long poems. The poems were to be photocopied and distributed a week in advance of class so that students could make micro and macro annotations about the manuscripts under discussions. Each student was allowed five minutes time to critique the poem before the discussion moved on to the next speaker. Students who had not read and annotated the poems in advance of class were not welcome to critique the poems.

In addition, while a poem was being critiqued, its author was to remain silent and take notes. Only after the critique was finished (usually after a half hour maximum) was he/she allowed to speak and then only to address questions posed by the readers to fill in missing details such as: “Who is speaking here?” or “What colour was the stone?,” etc.

Thom then gave us a stack of handouts about the basics and nomenclature of rhyme and rhythm and also a short collection of representative modernist poems including an excerpt from Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts (which, to his horror, Thom discovered none of us had heard of).

I soon discovered that Thom was a humble, professional, impartial, caring and reserved instructor. He never took up class time telling old war stories about his time with other famous poets and writers. For example, he didn’t mention his Stegner Fellowship to Stanford to study with Ivor Winters or his journey down to Santa Monica to visit Christopher Isherwood. He also didn’t “testdrive” new poems in class. Furthermore, even though Thom was gay and he knew I and some other writing students were gay, as far as I know, he was one of the few gay instructors who respected the barrier between instructor and student. Moreover, he didn’t groom protégés for class or for the poetry contests he judged.

In Thom’s workshop the students’ writing was the most important thing week after week. I don’t ever remember him giving us specific assignments like those I’ve had in other classes which half of the time, the teachers haven’t bothered to check or review in class such as: “Go write a poem from the perspective of an animal of a tree,” or “Imagine you’re attending your own funeral, what would you want someone to say about you in verse?”

Thom was very secure in his role in the class. He just left us to the business of writing and he used the students’ texts as the examples from which he taught. In addition, I don’t remember Thom ever talking about grading as most professors did during their first classes, nor mention participation as a means of boosting one’s grade.

One last very important aspect about Thom’s workshop that stands out took place in the second class when student work was first being discussed. Tom became a bit agitated by student responses that were mostly complimentary and only barely critical of each others’ work.

“C’mon. Stop being so nice. You can be harder on her/him!” Thom explained this outburst by saying that West Coast students had trouble being critical of each other’s poems because they were afraid of giving offence, whilst those on the East Coast tended to be much too critical and competitive, fighting their way to the top over the bodies of the poets whose work they sometimes happily tore to pieces. Soon the chorus of “be harder” started to ring through class spontaneously (followed by giggles) after the students had finished describing most of the good aspects of the poem, but had just barely touched what needed improvement.

Thom waited until everyone else except the poet had spoken, before summing up what had been said and usually adding something important that the students had missed. Thom may have walked into the class the first day by projecting his hard guy leather rebel persona, but he was, on the contrary, the most careful reader and capable writing instructor I’ve ever experienced. Thom returned poems with helpful micro-level (correction of spelling, punctuations and word order, and crossing out overwritten phrases leaving just the essential words behind) as well as a paragraph of macro-level comments (the overall effectiveness of the poem and/or where it fit in contemporary American/English poetry). As a result of this, I can remember his writing class as being orderly, respectful, inspiring and productive. In addition, I don’t remember students ever questioning his judgment.

Within a few weeks, everyone in the class, due to the intensity of the class’s discussions and comments, knew who were the better, more interesting and/or controversial poets. Despite this, Thom gave everyone equal time in class. He was one of the few poetry teachers I can remember who carefully kept track of the time each students’ work was discussed. He waited for the end of the maximum half hour of discussion before he made his summation and delivered his final judgment and/or recommendations.

Thom shared his personal life in class only once that I can remember. That day he asked us if we thought he was too old or physically over the hill. We assured him he wasn’t. I mentioned that he didn’t have anything resembling a beer gut which most men his age had and that he had all his hair. This seemed to put Thom back on top and we got on with the class.

After listening to others’ poems being critiqued the first two weeks, I submitted my own poems for consideration, a long one in three parts called “Coming Out,” and two shorter ones called “Subway” and “To Harry in the Hope of Your Speedy Return.” Because Thom was gay, I felt comfortable submitting the “Coming Out” poem to class for critique. The students in general liked it and weren’t repulsed by the gay subject matter as students in other programs were a few years later. Thom’s students, whatever their sexuality, were able to offer helpful recommendations on how to tighten up lines or rearrange word order to make the poem stronger. After class ended and most of the students had left the room, Thom confided to me that many times he’d tried to capture the spirit of a gay march or protest, but hadn’t been able to. My “Coming Out” poem, however, in its third part, was able to capture that raw sentiment with the image for example of ““I tore my bedsheets to make a banner” (which was about the first march on Washington for gay rights in 1979). He also liked the images of the “soldier boy” and “his boots/laughing on my ribs.” The soldier boy image was one he would refer to in his correspondence for years after I had graduated from Berkeley and gone onto graduate school.

I also remember the laughter in Thom’s class and the constructive criticism when L.R. read her two poems “Femme Dykes” and “sitting on a fence” about blowing up traditional stereotypes and not wanting sometimes to identify with a specific sexuality, which I later published in the first issue of No Apologies. It was then I understood another reason I enjoyed writing workshops so much—to hear previously unpublished work read by as yet undiscovered authors—(and later, the thrill being the first to put it into print). This laughter also rounded out the class when someone, I think it was Marina, wrote a cento for the last class, taking one or two memorable lines from the students’ poems and putting them together into a poetic valediction.

I took Thom’s compliments about my poetry as a sign that he would be open to discussing my writing during his office hours which I tried to sign up for each week. That was when I discovered that even though Berkeley had 36,000 students on 12 campuses, you could still see professors once a week for ten or fifteen minutes. All you had to do was sign up in advance for the professor’s mandatory office hours on the bulletin boards next to their doors in the attic of Wheeler Hall (At least that’s where most of my professors had their offices with windows looking out onto the cement urns at the roof’s edge).

And my visits continued even when I was no longer in Thom’s poetry class. In addition to discussing my poetry, I also talked about readings I was attending in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and Mission districts, both hotbeds of young, experimental writers, my new relationship with Harry Britt, and how I was getting on as a working student. Thom, on his part, however, confided very little to me except that when he’d come to California on a scholarship it had also been difficult for him to get established and to stay.

Some weeks only a few students would show up, so Thom would give me an extra time slot or two of his time. It was those days that I couldn’t believe my luck as Thom discussed even in more detail, the tricks and tools of a poet. During one of these sessions, Thom took out one of the computer punch cards he gave to students to register late for his class and wrote his home telephone number on the back of it. I don’t remember what prompted him to do this, but I only rang this number rarely to talk to Thom about poetry, to tell him about a reading or my gay literary magazine, No Apologies, or to request a recommendation to graduate school.

After I left Berkeley and during the time I attended Brown we continued to correspond at least three times per year. In June 1983, Thom wrote to apologize for not being able to make it to my graduation party. On the back of a Poetry Comic Card #7, showing Walt Whitman sitting in an armchair watching television dated 7 June 1983, Thom sent me his “Congratulations” and wished me “a good summer” but apologized for not being able to attend my “graduation party.” Other times he wrote to confirm he’d received my request for recommendation letters to graduate school. In January 1984, he sent another postcard, this one featuring a short-haired blond man at the Air Force Academy holding its falcon mascot on his arm. Thom commented on the back of this postcard that that man looked “like the “soldier boy” at the end of your poem!…” Thom thanked me for sending him a copy of No Apologies’ first issue and for the recommendation forms for me for graduate school. He was confused though, “Now, one goes to Harvard, one goes to Brown, but where does one other one go?” He guessed that it went to the graduate program at Berkeley and he was correct.

I also phoned or wrote him during this time, asking him to read at No Apologies book parties in November 1983 at the Intersection and in May 1984 at New Space, a converted store front gallery, reading and dance space across the street from New College at 19th and Valencia. Thom, however, declined both times and Steve Abbott and Harold Norse respectively were the featured readers for those two events. Both times Thom thanked me for my invitation, but declined gracefully.

Only once did I see Thom in San Francisco when he wasn’t as eloquent and graceful as he’d been in class or on the phone and which also revealed a bit about his own private life including his recreational drug use. One Friday evening as I was walking on Market Street at 15th near where I lived, I saw Thom stumbling on the pavement. I walked up to him and asked “Thom, are you OK?” Instead of being able to speak to me, however, he could only gurgle and giggle in response. He must have been high and on his way from the N-Judah Duboce Park stop. Thom continued down the Market Street hill in this state.

Whilst at Brown from 1984 to 1986, Thom and I exchanged postcards and letters at least bi-annually, four of which I still have and which are fairly representative of our correspondence from that time. (Taras Otus also contacted me in December 1984 after some of my poems where published in Bay Windows in Boston. We got together at least once in Cambridge to talk about poetry and share our work). In March 1985 I sent Thom a long letter in which I asked him whether I should remain at Brown a second year and get my MA in creative writing. So far, I’d experienced opposition at Brown due to the homoerotic poems, the continued publication of my gay magazine, No Apologies (which ironically had won me the scholarship to Brown) and the response of some of the faculty, their spouses and fellow students to my partner’s presence at some campus readings. Unfortunately in the spring of 1985, even though I had been a fastidious student, attending all my classes and completing my assignments, I was passed over for a teaching assistantship for the next year. This was despite the 15 poems I’d had accepted or published, the three readings I’d given or sponsored on or around campus and the two major readings I was scheduled to give—one at the Small Press Fair at Madison Square Garden in New York City and the other at the Modern Language Association in Chicago.

About this time I had also been told all writing fellowships were being reconsidered. My response to this was to go home and see if I had enough boxes and suitcases to pack everything into to move back to San Francisco. Given the choice of borrowing $8,500 to complete my degree in creative writing or moving back San Francisco to continue with my magazine, the latter not the former seemed more reasonable based on my experience.

Around this time, I sent a letter to Thom in which I wondered whether the move to the East Coast had been worth it. Thom responded in a letter dated April 8 (1985). He said he was “glad that you are shaking them up at Brown…and I’m sure Philip Levine is glad too,” because he felt Levine had also done that at Berkeley even though it was something Thom felt he had “never been able to do” there. Thom also wrote about the value of getting a degree in teaching creative writing. He said that he sort of “fell into it.” He said that he felt teaching writing at a very elementary level—“giving them that starting push,” was “good” and “honest,” but he didn’t feel that writing “needs…or should be taught beyond that level.” He went on further to say that the “Writing Workshop style seems…responsible for the general wimpiness in too much American poetry.” But he concluded that the best thing for me to do “would be to try to get an MA in poetry.”

Then he went on to share that it had also been a “difficult semester” for him also. That even though he: “did a lot writing last year, which made me happy,” he had still decided that his next book would not come out until 1992, à lá Robert Duncan, who published a book only every ten years.

In addition, Thom wrote at the top of the back of the letter’s envelope at the top: “P.S. It gets slippery on that big hill you’re on, esp. in the winter, doesn’t it.” I can’t help thinking he was referring to more than meteorology and geography.

Reverse of envelope of letter from Thom Gunn to Bryan R. Monte, 8 April 1985

Reverse of envelope of letter from Thom Gunn to Bryan R. Monte, 8 April 1985

After his receipt of issue four of No Apologies which featured the second part of the long memoir by Harold Norse and an in-depth interview with Dennis Cooper, Thom wrote me a thank you note on 22 May 1985 on the back of a postcard featuring the Martin Theater in Talladega, Alabama. It was sent to my address at the Graduate department (where I assume the secretaries and anyone else could read it in my open cubby hole before I collected it). He wrote he liked the Cooper interview and my poem Heterophobia (later published by The James White Review as “The Visit”). He wrote me that “Heterophobia” was “good, interesting, gutsy, original.” About my other poem, “Daddy Dearest,” Thom said it reminded him of a man I’d written about “before, in a poem where he was a soldier boy.” Thom wished me luck at the private boarding school where I was about to teach that summer and warned me not to have “too many illusions about it” because it might turn out to be “a more tight-assed place then where you are.”

The next piece of correspondence I have from Thom is dated 16 July 1985. He sent it to that “tight-assed” school where I assisted with a poetry and a film class and was the instructor for track. I had written Thom about a contract an editor had sent me for an anthology. The contract prohibited me from republishing my poems chosen for the anthology for three years. I didn’t know whether I should agree to this because they’d taken many of my best poems like “Intimations of Frank O’Hara,” “Coming Out,” (the one with the soldier boy) “To Harry in the Hope of Your Speedy Return” (which Thom had said reminded him of Ezra Pound’s letter of the merchant’s wife letter in the Cantos) and “The Visit.”

In response to my question, “Should I sign?” Thom wrote that he found it “odd” that I had to sign a contract for a group of poems and not a book especially if I was only getting “two copies” of the anthology in return. He mentioned his own publishing experience and said that “the only times I have been asked to sign a contract for a poem….have been with The New Yorker which pays a great deal of money.” Thom’s advice was that I should either “a. ask for my poems back and send them elsewhere or b. sign the contract with the intention of breaking it.” Thom went on further to explain that “Obviously a. is the more honest.”

I had also sent Thom copies of the poems the publisher wanted me to sign the contract for including “The Mistress of Castro Street” and “Intimations of Frank O’Hara.” Thom called the latter “a real triumph in its assurance of tone, its certainty and tact, and….unashamed sexuality that reminds me of Marlowe in Hero and Leander.”

Thom ended the letter by saying he’d just attended a reading by Robert Duncan lamenting that Duncan was “the only great poet left alive” due to Basil Bunting’s and Cunningham’s deaths. “And, given his kidneys, I’m not sure he’s left to us much longer.”

The next month, I received Thom’s recommendation (on University of California, Berkeley stationery) dated July 30, 1985 for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to help fund my magazine. First, Thom praised my magazine saying it was “innovative, bold and interesting” and that it was “one of the few magazines whose main concern is with Gay literature rather than…Fall fashions, cultural chit-chat, etc… and that its approach is consistently serious and responsible.” Then he mentioned my ability as an editor saying in the last five year he had “watched with interest the growth of his editorial talents in connection…with his poetic talents.” Thom called me a “dedicated and discriminating editor” and my magazine “worthy of whatever support” the NEA “could give it.”

I was over the moon with such a recommendation (and also one from Felice Picano, the editor of the Seahorse Press). One afternoon, out of the blue, I was telephoned by a woman from the NEA, who asked if I could raise half of the magazine’s budget from private investors. Instead of lying and telling her what I now realize she wanted to hear, I told her the truth—that I didn’t think I could raise 50% of my operating costs for the magazine’s expansion from private investors. (I could barely scrape enough money together each month to pay my rent and groceries!) This honest answer, unfortunately, probably doomed my request. I don’t know how far it got and if that was the last hurdle, but at the time it didn’t matter. I was exhausted from working two and sometimes three part-time jobs to pay for graduate school and keep a roof over my head let alone go out fundraising for private backers for a literary magazine.

The last piece of correspondence I received at Brown or have preserved is a short note on a piece of cardstock paper in an envelope dated 15 November 1985. This was in response for a letter of recommendation to a graduate school that was to be sent directly to the university without me seeing it. Thom, forever the anti-establishment hippie, wrote: “Now you can see it and still have waived your right to see it!”

I returned to San Francisco in February and July of 1987, the first time during a winter school holiday and the second after finishing my first and last year teaching high school in Massachusetts. While in San Francisco that February, I stayed at Edward Mycue and Richard Steger’s apartment and also visited James Broughton and Steve Abbott. On 16 February 1987, on the way back from Steve’s, I stopped at Thom’s. This is my journal entry:

On the way back, I stopped by Thom Gunn’s house….Thom was on the phone, so one of his roommates let me in. When he came in the room, he was as shy as always, wearing a leather band with flat metal studs on his left wrist. He’s thinner than the last time I saw him….His back was bent forward and he hugged himself. We talked a little bit about Massachusetts versus California—weather is warm, it’s spring already, drivers are nicer, etc. and I told him his picture was in the English Lit. textbook we use for the upper levels. He asked which one it was, but when I mentioned the title, he didn’t recognize it. I said it was the one in which he had a beard and was wearing a black, Zig-Zag T-shirt. He still didn’t remember it. A few minutes later, he walked up to me and shook my hand after we made a date to get together Friday at 5 at the Twin Peaks Tavern.

We met that Friday in the Twin Peaks Tavern at the busy corner of Castro, Market, and 17th Streets. As the rush hour traffic whizzed by and the music played not as loudly as other places in the Castro in the bar, Thom and I talked about my first job teaching creative writing in Massachusetts’ high school. I told him I intended to return that summer to San Francisco, that I’d spent the last week contacting San Francisco employers via the Brown University graduate network. A hotel and an advertising firm had both promised me work, so we both drank to my imminent return in just a few months for an hour or so before we both went off to our next appointments expecting my return that summer.

In July 1987, Thom’s was one of the first places I stopped to show off my new car and tell him about my road trip across the country. (My journey started just 30 miles west of where the Pilgrims landed with a detour north at Iowa to Minnesota to see Phil Willkie and Greg Baysans at The James White Review. (I attended a writing camp in the Wisconsin woods sponsored by JWR and led by poet, Robert Peters). Thom was happy to see me and posed for a photograph with me.

Bryan R. Monte & Thom Gunn in San Francisco, July 1987

Bryan R. Monte & Thom Gunn in San Francisco, July 1987

The next record I have of Thom is a black and white photo postcard of a short-haired, young, bare chested man with a chain around his neck looking at his shadow against a white wall. It’s dated Nov 16/88 more than a year later and it was sent to my address in Silicon Valley with the instructions to “Please Forward” if necessary. I had invited Thom to a reading of my long poem, “Neurotika.” It featured snippets of my own erotic misfortunes and the escalating AIDS crisis in San Francisco interlaced with music loop of Bryan Eno’s Music for Airports, part 2, gay travel magazines reports about where homosexuality was criminalized in the world and newspaper reports of the spread of the world-wide AIDS pandemic. Thom’s response to my invitation was short saying he wouldn’t be able to make it because he would be in Portland then. He did however wish me “Good luck.”

I saw Thom for the last time at a reading he gave at Black Oak Books in Berkeley in 1992. It was just after the publication of his fourth major poetry book: The Man With Night Sweats. I attended that reading with the late poet and doctor, Ronald Linder. It was a cold, overcast, foggy day and I remember all the lighting was switched on inside that enormous store.

Thom still recognized me without me having to introduce myself even though it had been more than a decade since I’d sat in his class. He smiled, chatted with me briefly and signed a copy of Night Sweats and also a broadside of the book’s title poem, “a gift from Black Oak Books”…“on the occasion of the reading by the author.” As he’d mentioned in his letter to me in ’85, Tom had kept his promise not to publish again until 1992.

I corresponded with Thom at least once more that I remember after I moved to Europe in 1993. In 1994 I sent him my poems arranged in a book-sized collection entitled Neurotika asking for his opinion and, if possible, a book blurb. Thom posted the poems back to me a few months later with a letter that I have either temporarily misplaced or lost during one of my four moves during the next seven years. I can’t remember exactly what was in the letter, but essentially it said that the publishing world had changed considerably since his first book, and that he no longer knew where to refer me. I did notice, however, that Thom had taken the time to go through my entire manuscript, just as if I were still in his workshop, and edit it. For that I was grateful, even if it seemed I was on my own to find a publisher and/or an agent.

More than twenty years later, I still consider it a privilege to have studied and corresponded with Thom Gunn. He was a great poet and a modest and masterful teacher. He gave me the start that I needed and offered advice for years after I’d left university. This kept me going through the dark years when I had no time to write whilst trying to keep my head above water financially and trying to forge ahead with my teaching career in a new country. Now that due to my disability I have time to write again, I look back on Thom, his class, and my classmates fondly. As I sit in a bookshop in Amsterdam listening to the Westerkerk’s two o’clock chimes signalling it’s time for Amsterdam Quarterly’s monthly writers workshop to begin, I realize that Thom taught me all I ever needed to know about writing and teaching writing—and I want to do the same for these writers.

Pat Seman — Homecoming

by Pat Seman

The road lies before me. A dirt road. Empty. On either side vast fields stretch in long, smooth undulations to the far horizon. Not a house, a farm or a person in sight.

I’m about to visit my grandmother’s birthplace, the village she left so long ago to look for a better life in the New World. I’m here in the ‘old country’—a phrase my Dad always used, that I haven’t heard since my childhood.

I have no idea who, if anyone, is left of my grandmother’s family. All I have is the name of a village.

Now, only a few kilometres to go on the last lap of a journey that started in Amsterdam and has brought us more than a thousand kilometres through the forests and hills and wide plains of central Europe to this remote south-west corner of Ukraine.

We’ve just come off the main road—a switch-back road through gently rolling countryside, lined with huge trees leaning towards us, newly-leafed and in blossom.

A wooden signpost at the turning points the way along the dirt road which seems to go on and on in a straight line to nowhere. The village has to be out there somewhere. Surely not far now. I don’t know what to expect. A huddle of houses surrounded by an eternity of empty fields?

Dust rises from our car wheels as we hit the dirt track. We drive slowly, swerve to avoid shallow ruts and potholes. I roll down a window. A lark is singing somewhere over the fields. The earth is a deep, rich brown, alive with tender, green shoots laid out in long, neat rows.

The road goes into a long curve. Trees appear, a farm. The land on our right rises into a steep, grassy bank. We drive downhill past a memorial inscribed 1941-1945, with the figures of two men, strong torsos, heavily muscled, one bare-chested, kneeling, his arm twisted back in the grasp of the other who is booted, holding a gun.

A church, then another large concrete building that could be a school.

The road narrows, steepens, follows the course of a shallow stream. We’re drawn down into a tiny valley. Low houses painted in shades of blue and green amongst trees. Gardens with neat wooden fences. The land, carefully ploughed and planted, reaches down to the stream now lined with willows. Ducks float on the water, waddle in convoy across the road. We slow down to let them pass. The stream disappears. Houses hug the grass verge as the road winds and curves. It climbs round a bend and I look down on a small house with a steep corrugated iron roof, on its sky blue plaster walls and decorative panel work painted green, white and blue. There’s a wooden fence immaculate in exactly the same pattern of colours. A pile of logs is neatly stacked in one corner. I glimpse a vase of flowers at the window. A man pushes aside the curtain at the doorway and steps out into the yard.

I wonder if this is my family’s village. It feels sheltered, intimate. But the road widens, the houses fall away.

Then, on a rocky bank at the side of the road, in large concrete Cyrillic letters, painted blue,


All I had to guide me here was a scrap of paper on which, years ago, my father had written the name of his mother’s village. I remembered him telling me that it was near the town of Chernivtsi, the capital of Bukovina, which is now in Ukraine. He also said that my grandmother’s father was the mayor of the village. This was all the information I had. I’d never thought to ask any questions until it was too late and my father had died, taking any stories about the Old Country with him. So, when I decided to try and trace my roots, the first thing I needed was that scrap of paper. I knew that we’d kept it, put it away somewhere safe. But where?

It was my husband who finally hunted it down; in the attic, on a faded post-it stuck to the screen of an old computer that we’d stored way, gathering dust. We deciphered the faint letters to read ‘Vasolau’. Then poured over atlases – old atlases in which Bukovina was part of the Soviet Union, more recent ones placing it in an independent Ukraine; found nothing. So we homed in on Chernivtsi and its surrounding area on Google Earth. There were villages aplenty in tiny Bukovina: in the foothills of the Carpathians, on the banks of the River Dniester, close to the border with Romania. But none with this name. We’d come to a dead end.

I was teaching at a language school in Amsterdam and in one of my English classes was a Ukrainian student, Luba. She already knew about my Ukrainian roots and, when I told her about my failed efforts to find my grandmother’s village, she offered to look for information online on a Russian site. She came to the next lesson with a printed-out map of Bukovina. She’d circled one village as the most probable.

It lay thirty kilometres north of Chernivtsi on the banks of the River Dniester. It was called Vasyliv.

We drive past the large concrete sign into the village. A long row of low wooden fences stretches on either side of the wide road; beyond it houses set back in courtyards, down narrow side streets, spread out amongst gardens. The road is all but empty of traffic. We pass a group of women in headscarves. They turn and stare at the strangers in the red Renault with its foreign licence plates; at me sitting in the back, my husband, Jaap, at the wheel and beside him the slim figure of Tanya, our interpreter.

I’ve been more confident that this could be my family’s village since Tanya has thrown herself into the task. We were brought into contact with her when we asked at the hotel reception for an interpreter. This is the first time that she’s helped someone find their family and she’s curious, full of enthusiasm. She took us to her language school, to its small office at the edge of a school playground. We sat at a table piled high with English textbooks, next to two teachers preparing lessons, while she made phone calls in an attempt to trace my grandmother’s records. First to the regional office in the neighbouring village to Vasyliv where she was informed that the archives had just been moved to Chernivitsi, then to Chernivitsi where they told her that they were in the process of transferring all records to a new office. Finally, she contacted the chairman of the Vasyliv village council. When she told him my grandmother’s name he said,

“Bring her along. Of course her family is here. Half the village is called Semenyuk”.

I’m nervous, yet at the same time feel strangely numb. It comes, I think, from a sense of surrender. Now that I’ve set this process in motion, that I find myself in this remote corner of Europe about to meet complete strangers—strangers to whom I’m tied by blood and history – I’ve no choice but to take whatever, whoever, comes. I’m also curious.

Last night I talked to a young woman from Canada staying at our hotel, who’s also searching for her relatives. She wants to make a film. But first she must go to the village and find out if there is still family. And if she does find them, she has no idea how they’ll receive her, what she can expect.

When I was a child, about six or seven years old, a stranger came to our flat in London. I was sent down to open the door. Standing on the pathway, framed in the dim and foggy light of 50’s London, was a man in a long, grey raincoat, his face in the shadow of the hat tipped over his forehead. He could have stepped straight out of our tiny black and white TV screen—Harry Lime, the cold war agent, fresh from the war-torn streets of Vienna. In fact, he was an old friend of my Dad’s from his hometown, Brandon, in Canada. He’d just arrived off the boat and had come to see us before setting out on the final part of his journey. He was about to visit his family in Ukraine, to go behind the Iron Curtain—for me, at that time, an undefined but hostile world; a world that was uniformly grey, peopled by dour, unsmiling faces. I realise now that he was probably going to Bukovina. He must have called in again on his way back but I can’t remember. I don’t even know if he managed to meet his family; only that his by presence there and the fact that he was trying to make contact with them, the authorities were alerted and his family was put into danger. He was certainly not made welcome. It was a period, when all communication between Ukraine and the outside world was frozen, when the people and families trapped in that world for all intents and purposes disappeared.

The long line of fences and houses is broken by a football field, then a cemetery—a large field full of white stone crosses. We reach a small concrete building set back from the road. Mikola, the chairman of the village council, is waiting for us at the gate. As Tanya introduces us he reaches out to shake Jaap’s hand, then greets me with a courteous nod. He’s a short man with warm brown eyes, a drooping moustache and grey shoulder-length hair. He takes us into the building, down a wide corridor and into his office. It’s a homely and comfortable room. In one corner is a long three-part dressing table mirror over a small table. On the table stands a jar of wild flowers. Next to it is a computer desk against the wall. Its shelves are full of greeting cards and family photos and one pink toy dog. A big, yellow fishing net is propped near the door and there’s goldfish in a small tank by the window. On one wall hangs a portrait of Tsar Nicholas and his wife Alexandra and facing them, impassively, President Yevtuschenko. Three women rise to greet us as we enter. Mikola introduces us to his assistants; Vanya, Svetlana and his wife, Katya. Katya and Vanya are cousins. They are both Semenyuks. They greet us warmly with firm handshakes and big smiles.

We all sit down at a long table and Tanya shows the photograph taken in Canada of my grandmother and my father, a young boy in his teens. Looking full of responsibility, he stands sternly at her side. Gathered around them are his sister, Jean, his younger brother, Mike and sister, Ann. Only the little ones, Mike and Ann, are smiling. Tanya tells them that my grandmother’s father was chairman of the village.

In Mikola’s white Mercedes we’re driven to a small house on a rise where we’re introduced to Alexander, whose great-grandfather had once been the village chairman.

Alexander is excited to see us. He sits me down and kneels at my side showing me photo after photo of the family in ‘Moose’. Moose? I suddenly realise, he’s talking about Moose Jaw, the Canadian prairie town in Saskatchewan, where my father was born. So one after the other the villagers must have followed each other out to Moose Jaw and formed a community there – an extension of Vasyliv on Canadian soil. I’d had no idea. I’d always thought that my grandmother’s emigration had been a solitary adventure, that she’d followed her husband out to Canada and that they’d settled where there was work. The photographs keep on coming, but I recognise nobody. I can see Tanya shaking her head. Alexander is really keen to establish a family relationship but it turns out that his great-grandfather’s name was not even Semenyuk. The connection is on his mother’s side. He takes us out to meet her. She’s sitting on a bench in the yard. She is blind. She takes hold of my hand, tells me that she spent the years of her childhood in Canada, in Moose. She went to school there, but she can’t remember any English now. All the words have gone. And she certainly can’t remember my grandmother. It was so long ago.

The first time I met my grandmother was not in Moose Jaw but in another prairie town, Brandon, where my Dad grew up. I was eleven and had to take some extra time off school for the big trip to Canada. It was the first time my Dad had been back since before I was born. I remember my grandmother’s hair was tied into two plaits, pinned to her head. She wore dark clothes and an apron. She looked like my Dad, the same long, serious face. I remember the wooden house where she lived. It was long and low with a veranda and out back was a big garden full of vegetables and at the end of the garden, the toilet, a little wooden hut with a hole in the ground. I was scared to go in because the walls were draped with spiders’ webs. I remember her bedroom with an iron bed and plain white sheets. Underneath her bed she kept a trunk, which she drew out and opened to show me the white linen shift that she’d made and embroidered for her deathbed. I remember that she and my Dad spoke Ukrainian together but I had no ear for the lilt and the music of it then, no interest.

I also remember my Dad leaning against a wooden fence in Brandon as he talked in Ukrainian to my grandmother’s neighbour and the two onion-shaped domes of a Ukrainian wooden church that rose in the distance behind them. I can see already how much there is in Vasyliv that would have been familiar to him had he ever been able to come here; how little, at least on the surface of things, life has changed here since my Dad’s childhood, spent far away in Canada. I wonder what more I’ll learn about my father now that I’m in Vasyliv.

Mikola takes us for a tour of the village. He drives us to the river and parks in the middle of a field. in deep grass. We’re on a bluff looking down at a point where the Dniester is joined by a smaller river, the Siret. He tells us that, situated on this confluence, Vasyliv was once an important town linked to the great trade routes that flowed from the Baltic to the Black Sea by way of the Dniester. Here he says, pointing to the banks below, was a harbour and there a trading station, and there, pointing to a large field to our right, a castle. Vasyliv, he says, was once wealthy and powerful, a fortified town with numerous wooden churches and monasteries. All destroyed, burnt to the ground when the Mongols swept through. The bones of the slaughtered still regularly turn up in the gardens and fields around the village.

He drives back along the main street and draws our attention to the big, yellow pipes on either side, high above the ground. After years of wheeling and dealing he’s finally managed to bring gas to the village and is proud of his victory. As we drive past the large football field he points out a small white wooden tribune standing at the far edge – yet another of his achievements in the long struggle with the authorities to get funding to improve the village. He reels out story after story of official corruption and indifference. Yet, Mikola is in buoyant mood. He has plans. Vasyliv, he believes, with its gently rolling hills and river setting is the perfect tourist destination.

And, as if to prove his point, he takes us down another turning to the river; this time down a narrow, bumpy, dirt path lined with low fences and small wooden houses. Here on the left he tells us, along the banks of a tiny stream, were once a row of windmills run by several Jewish families. The path stops by a copse of trees and we walk down to a wide river meadow where two or three tethered cows and a piebald horse quietly graze. Just before us is a small island in the river. Two boys are swimming across the channel, another sits on the bank, fishing. To our left a narrow track trodden through the grass leads along the river, through the trees that crowd its banks, towards a row of small houses visible on the rise, their long plots of land, curving down to the water’s edge. To our right the river makes a wide turn, disappearing behind a high cliff, where the land rises into a steep hill.

The spring sky, high and blue with its thin drift of clouds, the sheltering trees. The green meadow and the winding river; its quiet, steady flow.

It is beautiful here.

On the way back along the bumpy path we glimpse a young girl walking towards us up the slope from a garden below, herding a flock of geese.

Now Mikola takes us along yet another path. It runs down between high grassy banks and this time comes to the river at a point where immediately opposite, on the other side of the water, is a high cliff, its earthy brown and green contours stretched into rippling reflections in the river’s strong flow.

Two women in wellington boots stand ankle-high in the water washing clothes, a pile still stacked in a wheelbarrow behind them. Two little girls sit close by, balanced on the prow of a wooden skiff beached on the riverbank, their feet dangling in the water.

Mikola leads us a few metres up the path again and then turns off and through a gate into a large yard. We’ve come to his house. A well stands in the middle of the yard. It’s made of wood and painted blue with an intricately fretted and decorated tin roof that gleams in the morning sun. Proudly he demonstrates his latest acquisition – an electric pump for the well. He turns on a switch and we watch as the water gushes out. He takes us around his property, shows us pigs in a sty, then a big garden at the back of the house with long, neat rows of vegetables. Their frail green fronds and leaves are just emerging from the soil.

He picks up a handful of soil, holds it out to us. “Black gold, they call it. The richest soil there is. Stalin came here and stripped us of our earth. Took it back to Russia in trainfulls.” He lets the soil slide slowly through his fingers.

Back at the office a woman is waiting for us. She is tall and wears a bright yellow, floral headscarf. Mikola introduces us to Maria Vasileyevna, a teacher at the village school and Vasyliv’s local historian. She’s here to help me trace my family. She sits down with us, puts on her glasses and studies the photograph. As she takes out a notebook I notice her large, work-roughened hands. She has the shape of my father’s mouth, his eyes. She tells me that she’s a Semenyuk on her mother’s side.

“We are one big family here,” she says. “ We all come from the same earth. It’s in our blood, we take it in with our mother’s milk. The earth of this village is a magnet. It pulls its children back. And so you have come to us”.

Maria finishes her notes and asks if she can take my grandmother’s photo with her. She promises she’ll do what she can to find my family.

Mikola drives us, together with Katya, Vanya and Svetlana, to a restaurant by a lake in the next village. We sit in a wooden arbour, eat stuffed chicken cutlets, cabbage salad and a huge carp, fresh from the Dniester. We drink vodka and each time the glass is filled for another toast – to our health, our wealth and happiness, to our continued friendship.

On the way back to Chernivtsi we stop off at a petrol station. In the office a man is leaning against the counter, drunk. As we leave he suddenly bursts into song in a deep, rich baritone.

The next morning Tanya calls me on my mobile. Maria phoned her at seven o’clock. She has found my family.

Sharon Feigal — How to Drive Stick

How to Drive Stick
by Sharon Feigal

One day in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark, a small boy on a small bicycle prepared to ride directly into a small pile of freshly mounded earth. The red bicycle was so tiny that, with its training wheels, it looked more like a tricycle. The boy, helmeted head bent in concentration, readied himself for the challenge. His father’s hand on his shoulder steadied his nerves.

I cycled past, and as I did, I heard a light thump, and a satisfied harumph as the father groaned in sympathy. I looked back. The daredevil was still jaun-tily upright, his front tire just slightly embedded in the soft dirt, his eyes wide with confusion under his helmet but his mouth held in a proud line.

When I was his age, I had many idols, among them the great motorcycle stuntman Evel Knievel. I couldn’t jump a motorcycle over several parked trucks, but I could line up logs beside a small ramp and attempt the jump on my bicycle. I lined them up, but a memory of actually missing any of them in the subsequent “jump” eludes me. It probably never happened.

Somewhere along the line, we lose our fearlessness. We become cautious with our possessions, aware of their vulnerabilities as well as our own. We are terrified of collision, terrified too of a loss of control. As children, some of us crave those feelings and learn from them. Some of us ride our skateboards as hard and as fast at the flat wall as possible, alone in the parking lot, anticipating with delicious dread the impact that will follow if we fail in our daredevil last-minute pivot.

Maybe we’re the same ones that always have to learn everything the hard way. Or at least the painful way. Maybe we’re the pigheaded non-believers, distrustful of the loving parents who tell us that our antics will end in raw knees and broken toys. Or maybe we’re just experiential daredevils, out to discover for ourselves what it feels like to fling ourselves headlong into a muddy pile of dirt.

As it happened, my dreams of living up to the legacy of Evel Knievel weren’t completely unachievable. I did have access to a motorcycle—my dad’s humble 1969 Honda CL70, silvery grey with blue trim, which his own dad had given him when he was at Western Washington University studying Biology and Chemistry.

The first in his family to go to college, Dad had used the bike to get himself and sometimes my mom around to classes, work, his apartment, and on adventures, back in the early 1970s in damp and grey Bellingham, northwestern Washington State. Despite the very limited capacity of a 70cc engine, he once convinced Mom to ride with him to the top of nearby Chuckanut Mountain, a well-intentioned adventure that disappointingly ended in hours of rain and two frozen and bedraggled individuals returning home late that night.

Out on the winding country roads of the Lincoln Creek valley in the southwestern region of Washington, I rode on the front between Dad’s arms when I was very small then on the back when I grew a little bigger. When I became a teenager, my dad began to let me take it out on my own, although never very far. I was too young for a driver’s license, and didn’t even have a learner’s permit, so I was forbidden from traveling as far as town, but farm kids grow up driving many vehicles in order to help out with the work, and I’d been driving tractors and 3-wheelers for most of my life.

At the age of 15, the well-intentioned but ultimately disastrous adventure that was my parents’ marriage was long over and I was mainly living in town with my mom, stepdad, and a handful of siblings. My dad still lived out at the farm, 20 minutes away up Lincoln Creek, and my brother and I still spent lots of time out there with him.

My friend Nathan lived just inside the city limits. His parents had converted their garage into a house extension, which meant that his teenage bedroom was accessible covertly at any hour by side door, after knocking on the window.

One afternoon, I borrowed Dad’s bike with a promise that I was only going to cruise up and down the valley, certainly no further than the foot of Cook’s Hill Road, about 5 miles down the creek. Along the way, fuelled probably by lovesickness from a crush on either Nathan himself or one of our other friends to be found at his place, I decided to drive an additional five miles into town for a visit.

Partially in order to make up the time so that my dad would not suspect the distances, I had an excuse to drive much faster than I ever had before. My hair was flying out behind me, and the twists and turns of Lincoln Creek Road—a death trap to many motorists over the years—were exhilarating. Not much later, my first boyfriend and I would race up and down that same road in his VW Beetle, misunder-standing Dad’s cautionary advice: “You should drive so that you never use the brakes on this road.”

Nathan wasn’t home when I got to his house. I pounded on the window of his bedroom, but was not brave enough to ring the doorbell and ask his parents about his whereabouts. Disappointed by the unavailability of my friend for my unannounced visit but excited from the ride, I turned around and headed back to Lincoln Creek and the farm.

Our farm lay in a particularly wide and low section of the valley, and the road curved down out of the evergreen trees and into it at a distance, then continued in a wide bend past further farms and homes before disappearing around the next big curve. The farm itself squatted at the end of a long driveway, leaving the entire section of valley and road visible from the front porch of our house. At night, headlights from occasional vehicles chased patterns around the walls of my childhood bedroom.

It wasn’t surprising, then, that my dad heard me coming, and was waiting for me in front of the house.

“Everything alright with my bike, Sharon?”

“Um, yeah…” I killed the engine. I wasn’t really sure what he was asking, but his hands were on his hips and his tone told me that I was in trouble.

“Engine sounded a little harsh. Did the clutch stick?”

“Clutch?” I knew the word. Tractors had them, I knew. It had something to do with the gears, in the form of a little lever or knob, and you needed to be in a very low gear to get them out of deep mud. You’d probably want someone to give you a push, too, and a few boards to wedge under the tires. 3-wheelers had them as well, but you changed gears with a little joystick. The car that Dad had been trying to teach me to drive had a pedal that you operated with your left foot, usually resulting in us rolling backwards down Cook’s Hill. I wasn’t entirely sure what the clutch had to do with the allegedly harsh sound of the engine, though. I can still feel the bewildered look I must have had on my face, eyebrows crinkled and raised, teeth poised to bite my lips.

Dad tried again, “What gear is it in?”

Uh oh. The motorcycle had more than one. On cars, tractors and three-wheelers, there are numbers stamped on the joysticks or levers. I hadn’t ever noticed one on the motorcycle. I got off and peeked back at it. Nope, I still couldn’t see any num-bers.

At this point, I’m sure my dad knew exactly what had happened, every part of it. Our valley echoed very well. It was usually possible to guess the size and speed of the vehicle by the sound of its engine through the valley. My dad must have deduced that whether or not I’d gone further than I was permitted, I’d done it at speeds far too fast for first gear.

There are second lives, and probably third and fourth, for motorcycles. The lucky ones get repaired, using the parts of other machines, and restored. Unfortunately, that little CL70 took the hard knocks from that lesson in transmissions. A few weeks later, and only after I asked, my dad told me that his mechanic could do nothing for it. Heartbroken, he’d watched it hauled away on the back of someone’s truck, des-tined for parts.

Shortly after this incident, we gave up trying to teach me to drive a car with a manual transmission. No amount of explaining could teach me how to smoothly operate a clutch. Through a barter, Dad acquired a beige 1981 Buick Regal, a giant, safe boat of a sedan, and I learned to drive an automatic transmission. I won’t lie—it’s much easier, especially on the hilly terrain of the west coast. I made it through my first three years of college in eastern Washington with automatic transmission. At the end of those three years, my life and my second car in tatters through a series of other mishaps, I relocated to Minnesota to start anew.

My fresh start turned out to be vehicular as well as personal, since the loss of my last car. I started with a bicycle, which was soon stolen, but home, classes and jobs were sometimes too distant from each other. A motorcycle is a lot cheaper than a car, and motivated by limited resources, I rode the bus from home to home, test driving secondhand motorcycles, always in first gear. I dared not touch the lever beside the left foot peg—the clutch itself.

Eventually, I found a 1977 Honda CB550k, a black beauty with orange detailing and all the extra bits you can imagine. We went for a ride around a parking lot, but I was too afraid to brave the streets and traffic home, that cool spring evening. The seller, an attractive and rather bewildered guy only a little older than I was, arranged to drive it the half hour to my place while a friend drove him home. Meanwhile, I wrote the biggest check of my life so far, for $500.

Once again choosing the most obstinate and solitary method of learning new things, I did not enrol in the Motorcycle Safety Course offered by the State of Minnesota. There, I could have been patiently instructed on every step of riding a motorcycle, starting with getting on it and leaning it up. I could have experienced falling over and picking up a bike with a very manageable 125cc motorcycle, larger than Dad’s old CL70, but still not much more than a moped. Instead, I took the written exam that granted me my learner’s permit, enabling me to ride, during daylight hours, with no passengers, on non-freeway streets, in full protective gear, something not required for fully licensed bikers in Minnesota.

A friend had given me a well-worn and very oversized leather biker jacket, and another friend gave me a pair of matching second-hand helmets. I wore combat boots and leather workman’s gloves that I’d bought at an army surplus store. I spent every free moment of every day teaching myself to ride that bike around the calm, flat, and uninhabited streets of the quiet residential neighborhood where I rented the attic bedroom of an elderly couple. There was very little street traffic there, and almost no one was ever parked on the streets because every home had a full garage in the alleys that snaked around backyards.

Every corner had a stop sign, and at every stop sign I fell over. Years of attempting to understand how clutches were operated behind the wheel of a car were repeated and condensed by the visceral experience of falling over every 30 seconds. The motorcycle, bearing protective guards for its engine that kept the whole bike off the ground, was unscathed. My wardrobe and knees were not. Within a couple of weeks I no longer owned a pair of pants without holes in the knees, and I’d had to retire the first of the two helmets. But I was able to ride.

I spent that summer taking weekend road trips around the level terrain of the upper Midwest, studying the mechanical manual and learning to do my own frequently needed repairs. I took the Motorcycle Safety Course, where the teacher asked me to please stop showing off. The other students were intimidated. My first passenger was a friend about twice my size, and we got home—slightly tipsy from Foster’s lager—through the traffic gridlock that was downtown Minneapolis’ BBQ Festival.

Dad visited the following autumn. Autumn in Minnesota is beautiful, with all the deciduous trees showing reds and golds, mounds of leaves everywhere. It’s a great time to visit. By then, I was fully licensed. We went for some short rides. Now it was his turn to sit behind me, on this newer, larger Honda, trying to steer me from the hips when he got nervous, but lacking any imaginary brake pedal as he’d had in the cars.

When it was time for him to fly home, the only way I could get him to the airport from my new place in a student house in Dinkytown, just north of campus, was to borrow my boyfriend’s car, a dull-grey Japanese compact. It had a manual transmission. I had never borrowed his car before. I had never driven his car before. I had never told him that I didn’t know how to drive a stickshift.

My dad was more wary. “When did you learn to drive stick?”

I hesitated. “Well, the bike has a clutch. It can’t be much different.” I was game, if nervous. We packed up the bags and I got behind the wheel.

“Do you want me to drive?” he wanted to know. Was he worried that I would ruin this person’s car like I’d ruined his little bike?

“No… I’m going to have to drive back without you anyway.” Maybe he could coach me like he’d done when I was younger. Wait. That had never really gone all that well.

I put the car into gear and drove off down the street without incident, in the direction of the southbound freeway. We needed to get past downtown Minneapolis to the airport, south of the city and its wealthier suburbs.

When I moved to Minneapolis, I was shocked by what passes as driving skills in the locals. They seldom used their turn signals, they veered left on their widest of wide lanes in order to execute a right turn, and they descended into a complete panic whenever traffic needed to merge.

I was pretty pleased with myself as we started down the ramp leading to Interstate Highway 35 West. Freeways should be easy—without stopping, you smoothly change into higher and higher gears until you are gliding along at a reasonable pace. That’s the theory, anyway.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t taken into account what time of day it was—rush hour. The freeway was a tangled mess of traffic. Cars were stopping and starting, making wild rushes to pass each other on the left or on the right, and swerving in the lanes to look for a chance to do so. All of the best examples of Minnesotan driving were to be seen. My poor dad, never comfortable with city traffic anywhere, started to look a little pale. His right hand reached out, not so subtly, and took hold of the panic bar above the passenger door. His left hand gripping the edge of his seat steadied his nerves.

There were some mishaps along the way. I stalled the engine a couple of times, coming out of a dead stop on the packed freeway, a harumph from Dad every time we came to an abrupt stop. But we got there in the end. Dad made his flight, I made it home again, and my future husband was none the wiser about the dangers visited upon his hapless vehicle. I couldn’t have been prouder. I’d finally mastered manual transmission. I could drive stick. And no one had taught me how.

Neil Hughes — Easter Saturday on the North Yorks Moors Railway

Easter Saturday on the North Yorks Moors Railway (May 2012)
by Neil Hughes

“We’re going to the beach!” the anxious little girl, who had been trying to get into the adults’ conversation for some time, announced in a shrill voice.

Was it Scarborough, maybe? That was not where I was about to head off for that day but one look around the small group of us gathered in Helmsley youth hostel (in East Yorkshire) that doubtful, overcast, Easter Saturday morning convinced me that none of us was likely to stay warm that day. A little fitful blue sky rifted the corner of the mostly grey horizon. A small bird sang tunefully—albeit that a little mournfully—of possible Easter rebirth.

The previous day it had poured. Morning quiet – stations of the cross at church – then an afternoon cloudburst. I had spectated at a diligently-performed street presentation of a trial-and-crucifixion passion play in Kendal before the heavier precipitation, moving then through the rain-soaked dales—Sedbergh, Garsdale Head, Hawes, Aysgarth—to Thirsk and then after this to Helmsley. No-one really thought that today, the culmulation of such a long north country of England winter, would be any better. Though I was going to Whitby, ancient home of St.Hilda, her convent and its conciliatory, epoch-making synod, and also terminus of the North Yorkshire Moors railway, neither held any especial prospect in themselves of presenting me with glittering sunshine upon arrival.

It had been a silent winter—certainly for me in Cumbria. The silence of the snow, when it falls; the silence of mountains; the silence of the economic recession gradually enveloping the country; the silence of…silence, punctuated only by the occasional howls of countries that were being dragged into war, famine or the autocratic rule of dictators: South Sudan, Nigeria, Syria. I was relatively little aware of this where I was, of course, surrounded by fields, streams, owls and the rugged Cumbrian mountains. And I had a general disillusionment with politics too: was the British coalition government going to bring us out of the mess? Probably not in any way.

The previous evening at the youth hostel had been silent too, pierced only by the intermittent outbursts of chat from the individuals and from two or three families gathered around squat Formica-topped tables in the members’ kitchen, with that same optimistic, diplomatic little child and her parents among them. The cosy electric lamps glowed quietly, that same presumptuous bird hesitated a careful, cautious note or two outside in the dark once the drizzle stopped; punctilious drops of rain descended from the roof each time it started again. The immediate agony of Easter suffering was over; quiet calm announced itself once more.

But now each was off to Scarborough, Whitby or somewhere over a rainbow.. First thing in the morning I walked into the neat, limestone-walled town centre, buying bread and seeking travel directions. I had been before to the North Yorks Moors; I was just seeking, I suppose, some assurance that things were still pretty much now as they had always been then.

The day, in more ways than one, was undeveloped: still, hopeful, clear. Levisham station is in a hollow, reached by a tortuous, single-track road that winds down a valley side amongst trees, past a camping and picnic site, then over a level-crossing. On the way I stopped briefly to look at Lockton youth hostel, noting the friendliness of more than one local person who each helpfully guided me to where its agilely-concealed entrance lay. At Levisham station platform, amongst well-preserved Victorian buildings, I identified first, the booking office, then purchased a ticket: a rover for the whole line. In the end, I never visited Pickering down at its south end, though.

In experiences like this, is not the waiting as important as the event itself? One is waiting, hoping, maybe imaging; then finally the superbly well-preserved steam train, its column of smoke and prospectively a whistle, approaches the station. But first, the signal clatters up (indeed up, on the NYMR, not down). But it’s a diesel! I can’t say I’m overly disappointed, though; the day has only just started and it’s all part of the adventure. The multiple-unit diesel is quite a vintage one, too…

I sat down close to an Asian family and then exited at Goathland, the next halt along the line. Enough time was available here for a brief moorland walk, stroll into the picturesque village and visit to the veteran Hull and Barnsley railway carriage secreted behind the platform. The sense of proximate history is palpable. This is why so many families, couples, individuals and children are here to try to recall it as a small part of their past too. An ebullient stream runs underneath the solid brick station itself. In the waiting-room, although it is a little chilly and musty, a freshly-lit coal fire burns in the grate and there is a welcoming presence of staff. I emerge and sit awaiting a southbound train, a mite diffidently inspecting facial features. The motorbikes, the sirens, stress of potentially anti-social, threatening neighbours and other ills of modern life are ephemerally, critically forgotten, though not altogether. Waiting for a fascinating object, steam-hauled, to pull in one transiently experiences a real-life encounter with the past. Is there even a tear in one or two eyes present, maybe?

As its stentorian equivalent arrives on the opposite platform, my own means to proceed to the next station north, Grosmont, pulls in. It is fronted by a sparklingly-clean, green ex-Southern Railway loco complete with prototype smoke deflectors. Both I and other customers—even though this resplendent specimen is facing back-to-front—are delighted and jump in. Were I a trainspotter, I would note that this is certainly not one that I have seen before.

At Grosmont we discover the reason for this surprise, novel occurrence. A full wedding train, soon to be appropriated by an authentic bride and groom, stands prepared in the bay platform. Our own de-coupled locomotive, now crowded around with supporters, young and old, backs away down the line and then is reconnected to the front of the standing matrimonialised Pullman coaches. In a short time the bridal party arrives. I enquire tactfully of a member of staff how much it costs to hire the Pullman train. He immediately, with a sympathetic smile, gives me a leaflet. One cursory look inside decides for me that this is not something I’ll be making a project of to celebrate my sixtieth birthday.

Crowds gather inquisitively, not wanting to appear too prurient. Through a gap between coaches on the other platform—I have now crossed the track—I see bride and groom express a grateful embrace, the green locomotive being the wider frame, for the benefit of photographers. A few shafts of sunlight, piercing through, brighten the day. I then swallow down a sandwich on the fourth platform that is used only by the intermittent BR (Northern Rail) trains between Whitby and Middlesbrough. I have just witnessed an argument. Amongst a dysfunctional family, two adults and two children, one a teenager, one younger. Life as it is, I suppose; one day you’re married – as I may yet be—then, before long, arguments like this one. So when does true life actually begin?

My train for Whitby duly having arrived, I step in and spend most of my time aboard peering out of the end-of-carriage window, imbibing smoke, especially in one tunnel. People aboard are contented; now we are all going to the beach (or the seaside, anyway) notwithstanding the fitful weather. At Whitby I disembark as do many others, though together with a good proportion of people and a fresh influx of day-trippers who had newly gathered. I remain on the lengthy, harbour-side platform, watching the locomotive turned around and gazing, in so marking time, across a flotilla of yachts and busy engineering sheds to the hill where St. Hilda’s monastery still outlines erstwhile holy austerity, though more like a skeleton today than an edifice likely to influence the day-to-day running of modern political economy. In the secular world of 2008 and its aftermath, motorcyclists, scooters and other joyriders buzz about like angry bees on the surface of any credible, authoritative attempt at piety.

As the transformed locomotive, now attached to the front of the eight carriages and facing the correct direction, recesses then back into the station, a scurry for places is triggered. I find myself edging forward into a compartment in the front coach – probably not the one I would have chosen. The prevailing mood inside now did appear to be something like: ‘Fantastic – we’re in! Now let’s get the windows open and enjoy the view!’.

In my own compartment (Remember compartments? They still have them in France, Italy and elsewhere.) I find myself in the company of Jack, Sarah and Tom (the latter is Sarah’s boyfriend or maybe even husband and these are not their real names). Jack, from Peterborough (a lifelong rail enthusiast) had suffered a stroke some twelve months ago and had partially lost certain of his speech powers. In the manner of those, who of necessity, have to express themselves in this way, he used elongated speech patterns which the patient Sarah—a daughter and also perhaps a nurse—and the putatively, long-suffering Tom, do their best to translate and re-configure into acceptable English. Jack, although he doesn’t appear to have lost any of his intellectual capacity and, indeed, was at pains to be communicative, also tended—no doubt as a result of his stroke and perhaps also because he was now unleashed for one day—to be a little childlike in a capacity for also wanting to wander off and stand at the end of the coach, where anyone attempting any kind of confrontation or even interlocution would meet with pure gobbledegook. Sarah’s great worry—not perhaps unreasonable—is that Jack might perhaps inadvertently step out of the train at the wrong station and not be able to climb aboard again before it moves off. She keeps urging the good-humoured Tom to check that dad’s alright, which he duly did each time that Sarah requested it, even though the corridor is quite populated with many other enthusiastic passengers.

The only occupants of the compartment, we struck up an amiable relationship. Jack, it turned out, had been a rail driver himself and it was sad that he could no longer express himself as self-assuredly as he might once have done about many aspects of the railway operation here and railways today in general. Even so, as we pulled out of Grosmont an audible, even if frank, argument erupted between two members of staff about how a valve should be opened whilst water was being pumped into the locomotive’s tank. Jack, in his broken, curt and truncated language freely and readily joined in, sobering the participants down and ultimately needing to be restrained by Sarah (She feared, perhaps, that he might perhaps be inadvertently sanctioned—or even sectioned—by well-meaning though zealous bystanders). I had been about to doze off in the declining afternoon sun, but now was wide-awake. Jack, too, was delighted next as a previously unnoticed heavy freight locomotive was now attached to the front of the train.

“It’s a ‘ten’ – a ‘ten’,” he kept singing.

Following the locomotive change, however, the train remained in the station for a while; no one was quite sure why until an ambulance arrived. Jack, head out of the carriage window, observed this new happening with meticulous candour.

“A stiff, a stiff,” he soon announced through Tom, his attention not unnaturally aroused by the incident, soon assured us that this was not actually the case.

“Still breathing,” was his terse assertion after a quick scan outside—a less fundamentally morbid but still not wholly (in itself) reassuring comment. A wheelchair/stretcher was bundled across to the waiting vehicle; shortly afterwards our train’s own departure ensued.

“We’re going more further now,” Jack told us. The trio were up in Yorkshire for three days, staying at a B & B. The previous day they had visited the York Railway Museum and the ex- train driver had delighted in taking a steam-led trip along two hundred yards of track. Equally Jack’s eyes now shone as, ephemerally lifted from the debilitating rigours of his moribund condition, he was re-immersed in the world of pistons; motion, the thrill of a certain kind and, principally, a sense of mutual duty that he knew only too well gripped him now again, inexorably and comprehensively.

Momentarily my own thoughts regressed back to my own father, Allan. Brought up adjacent to or within the proximity of a railway line in two separate and discrete inner-city Liverpool dwellings he had acquired a rich love of rail and all its related paraphernalia,, transferred later to both his sons, my two-year younger brother Grahame and myself. He, Allan, had died of cancer, the prostate version of the latter that can affect even the fittest (and he was very fit). He played tennis, in fact, even until the last year of his life. As his newly indoctrinated children, my brother and I had been taken all over the country staring into countless rail sheds and goods yards, taking down numbers, seeking permitted entry into signal-boxes, sometimes to work the levers themselves. But now he, too, was dead and his memories and pleasures taken with him.

One night, as a child, I’d had a high temperature and been unable to sleep. My mother and father both attended the bedroom, uncertain of whether to call the GP, but principally trying to devise ways to calm me. Intermittently in the background of a still, frosty winter night we could hear a ‘mixed-traffic’ steam locomotive slipping as it tried to make the gradient of the semi-circular Liverpool dock route about a mile from our house. My father – just as much interested in the railway context as in what was happening in my bed – kept us both informed.

“They’ll be putting down salt,” he said. And my mother, being the quick-thinking maverick genius that she was, soon began likening my situation to that of the train.

“D’you think it’ll get up the bank? It’s trying quite hard. That’s what you have to do. Despite everything that’s stopping you, you have to try to get to sleep.”

Searchlights were put out along the track whilst my father continued watching intently from the bedroom window. Three tentative, tenacious exertions forward; then two back. Occasionally one could hear the semi-distant clang of an iron bar being moved or a briefer peal of a man’s voice. Inexorably—for me, imploringly—the heavy-laden goods train began moving up the hill, first like a spider scaling a sheer bathside wall, then gradually more confidently. It passed out of detection and moved on into the night. Within a few moments, the passion of my illness surmounted and metamorphosed into an incident of a far greater and enduring human scale—and its proper angelic overcoming too—I was asleep.

Our North Yorks Moors Railway train hurried Jack, Sarah, Tom and I each to our respective destinations. Afternoon sun now illuminated the entire landscape.

“Look, Sarah said, at the shadow of the smoke on the field.” Indeed, one confident billow after another was outlined on the tufty grass and moorland at the track-side. It was indeed a quaint, beautiful—and because we were all gazing at it momentarily at once—a uniquely uplifting, uniting and confidence-building sight despite the speed at which, as an historic remnant, each fresh puff rapidly disappeared from our vision.

And so on now—each to our own cars and homes. In the station at Levisham our train overshoots the platform. I earn admiration—not unmingled with perplexity—as I jump from the isolated carriage down on to the gravel.

“Couldn’t you have just walked down the train?” asks a liveried, exasperated guard as I pass (though not unkindly). Then I am ascending the hill in my car, which has emerged unscratched from the car park despite the exponential increase in the number of vehicles parked there since I deposited my own earlier in the morning. I ultimately wrest my neck to cast one final look at the shy cluster of pre- rail-grouping heritage buildings before I turn my back upon them until next time.

So away goes the train: away with Jack, Sarah and Tom, its argumentative crew, possibly the Asian family I met earlier or the disputatious trio at Grosmont, maybe even the little girl from Helmsley youth hostel. It’s been a good day for all and maybe I’ll meet them all again somewhere, sometime.

Maybe we can all love and respect one another better now too. Here today were, in tiny microcosm, many ingredients needed for a more understanding outer society too. I sit now in the cafe at Lockton, drinking coffee and eating a piece of cake. And I look out, thinking through these and many much profounder thoughts too.

Bryan R. Monte — New Eyes for Saint Lucy: A Memoir of Jerome Caja

New Eyes for Saint Lucy
A Memoir of Jerome Caja
By Bryan R. Monte
Copyright 2014 by Bryan R. Monte. All rights reserved

It has been my privilege to have known, at the very beginning and the very end of my education, two visual artists, whose works hang in major galleries. These two artists, one dead and one living, have produced distinctive works which can be found in galleries and museums such as the Smithsonian, the San Francisco MOMA and the Saatchi in London.

I don’t know if my association with these individuals was by luck or fate or whether I just naturally gravitated to them. But being a writer who finds himself spending more and more time as an art critic for my literary magazine, Amsterdam Quarterly, I find that knowing these two people intimately—their interests, aspirations and foibles during their childhood and/or (post)adolescence—gives me an added insight into their work with regard to its subject matter, style and format.

The Jesuit saying, “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man,” is apropos for my acquaintance with the first artist, Jerome Caja, the notorious bad boy of the San Francisco gay art scene in the late 1980s to mid-1990s. In September 1964 we were both pupils in Mrs. Kosowski’s dreadfully-overcrowded (45 pupils, 42 desks), Irish-, Czech-, Polish- and German-American, first-grade class at St. Clements (Catholic) School in Lakewood, Ohio.

In those days, the only way the overstretched teachers could keep track of their pupils was by strict, alphabetical seating. As a result I spent most of my time in elementary, middle and high school talking, working and socializing with pupils towards the middle of the alphabet such as Larry McMurtry, Megan Rowe, and Jerilyn Friedman. There was, however, a tall, thin boy at the beginning of the alphabet with short blond hair and glasses so thick they left red dents on his nose, (on the rare occasions he removed them), who caught my attention. Not only did he look interesting, but he was also good at storytelling and mimicking the mannerisms of some of the students and teachers out on the playground during recess. With these skills, he soon made himself known in the large class and had attracted a small group of friends (one of whom was myself).

St. Clements First Communion 1964. Bryan Monte, second row to the right of the priest, Jerome Caja, second last row, fourth from the right side.

St. Clements First Communion 1964. Bryan Monte, second row to the right of the priest, Jerome Caja, second last row, fourth from the right side.

There were other reasons, though, why Jerry was interesting and even unique. He came from one of the most well-known and devout families in a parish with ten and later eleven boys. His parents frequently attended mass, (daily during Lent), and were always involved in pancake breakfast fundraisers or ferrying boys to campouts for the school’s scout troops. (In contrast, I can remember my father taking our family home early from a parish barbeque because the man taking the tickets remarked: “Who the hell are the Montes?” even though, as he later roared in the car, “I have three kids on the God damn honour roll and nobody knows who we are!”)

In addition, Jerry lived just down the street from St. Clements, on Lincoln Avenue. I can remember going over to his house and meeting his other older and younger brothers who were almost carbon copies of each other. They all had the same tall, thin bodies, long noses, and dark Bambi eyes. The only difference was their ages. Jerry and I usually played with the dozens of green, plastic toy soldiers in the basement, lining them up for battle. That was, until one of his older or slightly younger brothers decided they wanted to wrestle. I soon learned to stay back and not join in because wrestling, for the Caja boys, was serious business. Board games and pieces flew into the air and chairs, lamps and tables were overturned as the boys tested each other’s strength. I imagine with eleven male siblings around the dinner table and two or three to a bedroom, there was probably plenty of competition for just about everything.

And there was yet another reason I felt attracted to Jerry, though I couldn’t really understand it at that time. Even though most think that a child has little knowledge of sexual orientation, when I was six going on seven I thought I had scanned some sort of understanding in Jerry’s head which comprehended why I didn’t enjoy torturing insects or small animals in my backyard or why I wasn’t repulsed by girls but enjoyed playing with them as much as with boys.

At any rate, I learned a lot that first year. I learned how to read. I taught my younger sister the phonics lesson I learned each day. Until my parents found out about my tutoring, they and my sister’s kindergarten teacher thought she was a genius. I learned how to pray. The nuns taught us the Our Father, Hail Mary and Nicene Creed in preparation for our First Communion the following year. I learned how to attend mass in the dark, stained-glass-windowed, parish church. Its clerestory walls had a mural of the saints’ gruesome martyrdoms—St. Clement, the parish’s patron, thrown off a ship with an anchor around his neck, St. Peter, crucified upside down, St. Lawrence, grilled over a fire, St. Sebastian, shot full of arrows, Saint Hippolytus, pulled apart by horses, and St. Lucy (patron of the blind and poorly-sighted), her eyes gouged out because a pagan man found them so beautiful he wanted to marry her. All these saints looked away from their torment with big, ecstatic doe eyes upwards towards heaven. From the nuns I also learned how to “turn the other cheek” when they struck me with a hand or ruler for disobeying or just because they were upset.

But with Jerry I always felt safe and by the end of the first year I felt I could ask or tell him anything. That was until our first cub scout campout together that summer. One night, Jerry and I lay next to each other on the floor of the tent in separate sleeping bags listening to the scoutmasters’ card playing and the whoosh of the Coleman gas lamp under the shelter ten or fifteen yards away. We talked for a while and when the others had fallen asleep, I asked Jerry if he would hold my hand. To my surprise, Jerry wouldn’t do this. I asked again, but Jerry continued to refuse. After repeated requests, however, Jerry reluctantly did as I asked, probably to keep me quiet. About 15 minutes later, however, he took his hand away.

The next day, everything changed. Freaked out by my hand-holding request, Jerry told all the other boys what I had asked and I suddenly found myself an outcast from Jerry and the rest of the troop who did their best to torment and/or exclude me from activities without the adult leaders knowing what was going on.

After I came home from the campout, I didn’t see Jerry for the rest of the summer and I didn’t go over to his house, afraid I’d be humiliated again. When school began in September, my distress was compounded when I discovered that Jerry and I were now in different second-grade classrooms—I in Miss Barbara’s class and Jerry in Mrs. Savage’s across the hall. Worse yet, Jerry refused to talk to me out in the schoolyard and wouldn’t let me come over to his house. He also made fun of me, throwing a limp wrist to mimic me (though I’d never done that myself) as I now became a part of his entertainment.

In my distress, I enlisted the aid of Mrs. Savage. I told her about how close Jerry and I had once been and how he now didn’t want anything to do with me. (I left out the handholding incident). I begged her to bring Jerry and me together so we could talk. One afternoon during recess, Mrs. Savage did as I requested and Jerry marched sullenly up to me in the playground under Mrs. Savage’s watchful, but somewhat distant eye. I told Jerry that I missed him and didn’t understand why he no longer wanted to be friends.

Jerry however, would have none of it. He called me “a fag” and said: “From now on, I’m only going to hang out with the cool people.” I didn’t realize our school had cool people being only in second-grade, but obviously Jerry did. I now wonder: could Jerry’s desire for fame or notoriety have been so acute, even at the age of seven, that he knew to get rid of anyone perceived as a liability?

Jerry’s desire to ignore or exclude me was difficult to maintain since we attended the same weekly school, scout and church activities together. It was torture sitting across from Jerry in the back of one of the fathers’ or mothers’ station wagons as we were being ferried to another weekend or summer campout. The connection between the Cajas and my family was also close. I can remember Mrs. Caja bringing a Ziggy cartoon book from my mother for me on the mid-week parents visit for scout summer camp at Camp Avery because my mother couldn’t leave my father’s side that evening at the family-run pharmacy. My request for Jerry’s hand was an open secret and none of the boys would share a tent with me unless the scoutmaster forced them. As Jerry led another group of boy’s on a hike into the woods to smoke, look at his older brothers’ porn or light an illegal fire, I’d lay on the grass next to my tent, reading a science-fiction novel about people travelling in a space ship at almost the speed of light, practicing my telekinesis, pushing clouds through the afternoon sky.

Jerry still found ways to punish me for hanging around. After shouting obscenities into the thick backstage curtains, upset because he was about to go on as the Virgin Mary in the nativity play, Jerry, at the last minute, stuffed me into his white sheet costume and pushed me out onto the stage. It was a non-speaking part so I kept my head down in the dim lights, hoping no one would notice me. Later that evening at home, however, my mother mentioned to my father what the man sitting next to her in the audience had asked: “Where did they get a girl to play Mary?” It was only time I can remember my father laughing uncontrollably—and not because something was funny. I began to understand what Jerry feared about my desire to get close to him, about being a fag and gender bending.

Another time, he set the cub scout pack on me literally. One winter, we were gathered inside a warm, wooden cabin in Beldwin Village in Lorain County because it was too cold and rainy outside to camp out in tents. Cooped up in this cabin, I made the mistake of looking at Jerry across the room too many times. Jerry had the boys hold me down while they and punched and pinched my bare torso so long that it burned a bright pinkish red called a pink belly. I was amazed that Jerry could be so cruel. He just looked at me and said: “You had it coming. I warned you not to look at me.” Perhaps this was the reason that my photos of Jerry at scout camp are always a bit fuzzy, taken with a simple Brownie camera and usually from quite a distance.


Jerome Caja and unidentified camper, Camp Beaumont, Ohio, August 1969. Photo © 2014 by Bryan R. Monte. All rights reserved

Serving mass together was also torture. As the two of us put on our black cassocks and white surpluses alone in the same room next to the altar, I began to feel like one of those clerestory saints being hacked or burned to bits in some sort of simultaneous earthly torture and holy communion. (This is perhaps the archetype of all my future relations with tall, blond, athletic men who I pursued or rather observed mostly from a distance after Jerome’s rejection and my social humiliation/isolation. Those blond, mostly straight men to whom I was undoubtedly attracted later in high school, but to whom I almost never expressed my need for intimacy as I had with Jerry). I also noticed that the priests seemed to like Jerry and paid him more attention even though he cursed when he tripped in his cassock going up or down the marble steps, he didn’t know all the prayers and he sometimes drank the leftover, consecrated wine instead of pouring it down the drain.

The last time I remember spending time with Jerry was in the church basement for a scout meeting. I was 12 and had made it to Star Scout with merit badges in marksmanship, cooking, coin and stamp collecting or philately (which brought lisps of appreciation from the guys in the troop) camping and hiking. I’d also recently been inducted into the Order of the Arrow after a 2-day hike and sleeping out alone without a campfire or flashlight under the stars at Beaumont Scout Camp in the woods of Northeast Ohio. I had hoped to make Eagle before I started high school, but I soon realized that wasn’t possible. Even though I was still in the scout troop, I had once again done the unthinkable and was about to leave St. Clements’ for the evils of public school. I explained to nun after nun and priest after priest who pulled me out of class and into the hallway that spring before I left, (some of whom graphically described my soul burning in hell), that my departure was due to financial considerations— the tuition having recently been increased from hundreds to thousands of dollars per student per year, a price my father wouldn’t or couldn’t pay.

At this last scout meeting in June 1970, someone had left a long, thick rubber hose on the floor of the church hall. Jerry got it into his head to tie the hose between two supporting posts to use it as a slingshot to launch himself into the air and across the hall. Instead of making him airborne, however, the cord spun and flipped Jerry over, smashing his head against the floor. Everyone was horrified by what happened, even the assistant scoutmaster, who was present. Jerry fortunately remained conscious and rubbed his short, blond-haired head repeating: “Fuck” or “Shit, that hurt,” over and over again. I don’t know if he sustained any injuries as a result or whether he was taken to hospital. That was before the days of MRI scans.

For twelve years I didn’t hear anything about Jerry. Then in autumn 1982 while attending Berkeley, my mother sent a half-page clipping from one of Cleveland’s daily newspapers. Almost as large as the article was a photo of Jerry as a seminarian with shoulder-length, blond hair surrounded by a group of adoring, but troubled, inner-city youth. It didn’t surprise me that Jerry had decided to go into the priesthood. Growing up in such a large, devote Catholic family, the law of averages predicted that at least one and maybe two Caja boys would receive a “calling.” And, becoming a priest would give Jerry the opportunity to be in front of people again in the spotlight at least once a week. Looking at Jerry’s wavy, androgynous, shoulder-length hair, though, I wondered if the Catholic Church had become more liberal or just desperate for new priests. Surely that hair made Jerry looked unmistakably gay. I wondered if he had ruffled a few feathers at seminary. A year later I graduated from Berkeley and in 1984 I got a scholarship to Brown (probably because of No Apologies, my gay literary magazine, I had founded in San Francisco the year before and continued publishing at Brown).

The next time I read about Jerry was in late 1989, two years after returning to San Francisco after graduating from Brown and teaching high school writing courses in New England. By day I worked as a microcomputer technician making rate charts and data back ups at an insurance company. By night and in the weekends, I covered the gay news as a radio reporter on a show on KPFA-FM in Berkeley. While preparing my script one night after work, I saw a photograph of a drag queen with stringy blond hair, big, Bozo eyes, and double rows of light and dark lipstick on the front page of one of San Francisco’s gay newspapers. It accompanied a feature story about a man named Jerome who had become the mistress of Wednesday jockstrap Jell-O wrestling at Club Chaos just around the corner from where I lived on Valencia Street. The photo piqued my interest because there was something familiar about those big eyes and long nose. I realized Jerome was Jerry when he identified himself as a “recovering Catholic” who had sex with men in Cleveland’s Edgewater Park.

Through my press contacts, I discovered that in between seminary and his refereeing of the Jell-O wrestling, Jerry had come to San Francisco in the mid-80s to get his Masters degree at the Institute of Art. For his graduation he had worn a transparent gown he’d made of plastic pouches filled with different coloured liquids and floating, fake goldfish. (Reportedly, Jerry was also naked underneath the see-through gown, but I have yet to see a photo which confirms this).

Even though the gay community was my beat, I had missed Jerome’s splash on the gay drag/art/sex/literary scene, probably because when he was at Club Chaos, I was in bed as I had to go to work the next morning. And it was still a few more months before I literally ran into Jerry by accident, one cold, windy, January night walking up Castro Street. All 6’7” of him, hard skin and bone, literally collided with me in front of the Castro Theater. He was wearing his trademark high heels and fishnet stockings. I also could smell beer on his breath and figured he was drunk. I said: “Jerry, it’s me, Bryan.” Jerry just stared at me and said: “That’s great, baby, (burp), but I got to go,” and he continued walking down Castro Street. I don’t know if he recognized me. I would have liked to have invited him for a cup of coffee at the 24 hour donut shop down the street, but once again, he didn’t want to talk.

A month later, I heard about Electric City, a weekly LGBT TV show broadcast on San Francisco City College’s cable channel. Electric City had heard about me too. They suggested I do the gay news for them. From the beginning I was a bit apprehensive. This rag tag group of druggy, leather and drag queens was a little too over the top for me. In addition, I believed radio was a much more intellectual medium. What you said on the radio was more important than how you looked or what you did while you were saying it. Against my better judgment, I consented to a tryout. As I had expected, I spent hours in makeup or in front of a camera doing many takes for the same news segment I could have delivered live, unshaven and shabbily dressed on the radio in 10 minutes. I soldiered on, however.

As I was taping one day, Jerome walked in the door. I had heard Jerry was part of group, but I hadn’t seen him since I’d bumped into him in front of the Castro Theatre. Jerry said hello then went into a back room to get ready for a short promotional segment. They filmed Jerry lying flat on an ironing board and, by some sort of trick photography, blotted out the board and made it appear as if he was flying through the air. That day or a week or so later the crew asked me to stretch out my arms over my head and jump up and down. Then, they adapted this video to make it seem like I was jumping while holding the Electric City logo.

At the beginning of April, Jerome had a big art show in a space (a former shop) at Collingwood and 19th Street then called the Art Lick Gallery. The name of the show was “Compact” and I remember trying to look through the white sheets taped over the windows while Jerry hung his very small, framed miniatures painted with nail polish on “found” materials (such as used McDonald’s French fry cardboard holders, junk mail envelopes, plastic restaurant tip trays, recycled paper or tin foil). Some, due to the erotic subjects like “One, Two, Three, Pee on Me, nail polish on tin or “The Foot of Christ,” enamel on toenails (1991), reminded me a Roman art work or early Christian reliquaries. “The Birth of Venus in Cleveland,” nail polish on plastic tip tray (1988) is a self-portrait of Jerome wearing only fishnet stockings and a bra, standing in an inflatable children’s wading pool in a backyard. In the background is a clothesline on which laundry dries, the line attached at one end to a column atop which is a statue of the blue-robed Virgin Mary. This scene, (except for Jerome’s nudity and transvestitism), was familiar to most Catholic families in the Lakewood whose large families (four child minimum on my street) played in backyards that included hand-made shrines to the Virgin made from upturned white washtubs with a statue on a pedestal in the middle. And Jerry’s Marcel Duchamp/Salvador Daliesque (re)interpretation of Bartolome Estaban Murillo’s “The Immaculate Conception” by painting Bozo clown faces on the Virgin and the angels surrounding her in the clouds, placed Jerry’s painting solidly in the Postmodern movement since his unique sign(ature) over Murillo’s work hijacked and upended its motif and critiqued Catholic tradition.

Although I’d been on the radio for a while, very few of my friends and none of my co-workers had noticed or even commented on the show. Once the Electric City promos were broadcast, however, friends, co-workers, even strangers in the subway stopped me to ask me if I was that guy on TV. I realized then the power of TV over radio. I also realized I might be able to make a name for myself and maybe some real money. My natural cautiousness and the desire to stay out of the spotlight, however, kept me from pursuing it. I decided that even with TV’s increased recognition I was going to stay with radio. Then I invited the cast of Electric City to be interviewed by me on the radio in May or June 1990. The night of the interview, however, no one showed up. Through Rink, a photographer friend, I heard they’d got their dates mixed up (even though it was in the station’s published calendar) and were sorry about it. Due to a conflict with my fellow program members shortly thereafter, however, I decided to leave the show and the station, so I never got another chance to interview Jerry or Electric City on the radio.

I did see Jerry, however, one last time, just a few days later, at the head of the 1990 LGBT parade even though I didn’t recognize him. Wearing a Hare Krishna orange-coloured outfit including a skull cap, (which completely hid his long hair), big round glasses, a round gold disk hanging from one ear and a bagel from the other, an orange sash, leopard lingerie and a Kielbasa sausage hanging from a chain link necklace, Jerry created a new persona: Konnie Krishna. As he walked the parade route, people around me asked: “Who is that stealing the show?” and I couldn’t answer them.

A few weeks later, while resigning from the radio show and handing in my keys at the station, I saw Jerome’s name with Steve Abbott’s and a few other San Francisco writers I’d published in No Apologies. They were involved in a big reading in San Francisco, but somehow had forgot or neglected to invite me either as a writer or a reporter. I felt betrayed and excluded once again. I stopped writing gay news stories in my spare time and started teaching ESL and creative and technical writing evenings after work to save money to leave town. Since my insurance company had already been through three reorganizations going from 17 to 12 to 7 offices nationwide, I figured I wouldn’t survive the next one. In addition, even though I’d been looking for another job for the last year and half, I hadn’t had one offer since most businesses downtown were downsizing and/or moving out of town.

Moreover, almost a dozen friends had sickened and/or died of AIDS related illnesses including two ex-partners. San Francisco was turning into a ghost town. I started imagining seeing people on the street that I’d known years ago, who I later discovered were (long) dead. I also thought that even though I had tried to be “careful,” I probably didn’t have much time, so I figured I had the opportunity for one last adventure.

In 1993, I moved to the Netherlands with a one-year job contract and a journalist quality camera. I lived in two small rooms in a barely heated attic for two winters. By spring 1995, I had my own apartment, lived a Spartan life and, through some 16-hour workdays, created a slightly profitable computing and English teaching consultancy. Later that summer, I suddenly and inexplicably felt moved to start writing a long poem about Jerry, which I worked on for months in between projects. On the phone in early November just after my birthday, I mentioned the poem to a friend in San Francisco. He paused, then choosing his words carefully, told me that after a long illness, including the loss of his eyesight due to CMV, Jerome had just passed away of AIDS-related illnesses. (I discovered later he’d died on my birthday). The synchronicity of wanting to write a poem about him in the last months of his fatal illness and the date of Jerry’s passing wasn’t lost on me. I wondered if somehow Jerry, in his distress, was somehow able to contact me as my parents had before they passed—sending their fatal heart attack and stroke pains to me thousands of miles away so I packed my things at work or made plane reservations at home even before the phone rang.

After that, I spent the next few years running my business, securing my permanent residence permit, and developing my first serious, long-term relationship (at the age of 41!). I went from teaching courses at a private college to getting a job and tenure at a public one. During this time, I lost track of Jerry’s artwork and its legacy. On one of my yearly visits to San Francisco, though, poet Ed Mycue, mentioned that there was a book about Jerry on sale at bookstore at 20th and Valencia, once again, right around the corner from where I had lived in San Francisco.

On a table next to the window I found a prominent, fanned stack of large, orange-coloured, hardback books: Jerome: After the Pageant, by Thomas Avena and Adam Klein. On the cover behind his painting of the Bozo clown-faced angels and the Virgin, was a Jerry himself with big glasses and lips. Inside I discovered various photos of Jerry with which I wasn’t familiar. The most interesting was a photograph of Jerry’s paternal grandfather and his brother-in-law dressed in women’s clothing and his paternal grandmother and her sister dressed in men’s. There was also a very uncharacteristic painting, “Still Life with Broken Doll,” (1988), interesting for its distortion in perspective. The traditional bowl of fruit and vase flowers on a red table cloth tilted perilously downwards as if they were about to fall off. A doll with its right arm broken off was also splayed across the tabletop. The room also has a yellow chair and walls of deep blue. Outside, beyond on the orange curtains and pumpkin on the windowsill, is a white picket fence and another house painted in Van Gogh-like thick, eerie strokes as if a strong wind or a tornado, were about to blow it apart.

As a result of knowing Jerry since he was in elementary school and his family’s contact with mine, I think I have a very good understanding of how his Catholic background, which persecuted him for being gay, “inspired” paintings such as “Sacred Heart Circle Jerk,” “Rape of the Altar Boy,” and “The Last Hand Job.” His “The Holy Spirit Getting New Eyes for Saint Lucy,” painted in 1988 seems particularly prophetic as Jerry lost his eyesight months before he died. I wonder if in heaven, God, in his Infinite Mercy, restored Jerry’s vision, as he did St. Lucy’s, her eyes found miraculously intact in her corpse just before her burial, usually portrayed as being brought back to her on a golden plate in the beak of the dove of the Holy Spirit. For those of us left behind, I only hope we can learn to see as well as Jerry did and to make something beautiful and unique from our lives no matter how long or short they prove to be, no matter how rich or poor we are, no matter who includes or excludes us.

Juliet K. R. Cutler – Morogoro Markt

Morogoro Markt
van Juliet K. R. Cutler

Weifelend over het verlaten van de betrekkelijke veiligheid van de Land Rover, zat ik voor enkele minuten de openlucht markt te bestuderen alsof getuige er van zijn voor het betreden mij meer op mijn gemak zou laten voelen. Ik declameerde hardop een paar eenvoudige Swahili zinnen in de verstikkende wetenschap dat ik niet genoeg wist, en ik sloot kort mijn ogen en haalde diep adem. Zo graag als ik in Tanzania wilde zijn, de waarheid was, op dat moment, dat ik ik mij wilde verstoppen.

Een lappendeken van rieten dakbedekking, plastic dekzeilen, en jute zakken beschermde de geïmproviseerde markt tegen de intense namiddagse zon. Stapels van tomaten, avocado’s, sinaasappels, mango’s en papaja’s waren netjes gestapeld in kleine groepen op geïmproviseerde tafels in felgekleurde manden. Vrouwen, jong en oud, deelden het nieuws van de dag terwijl zij zorgden voor het het fruit en de groenten (wassen, sorteren en verkopen)—en kleine kinderen met elkaar aan hun voeten speelden.

Aan de rand van de markt zat een pezige, oude vrouw op de grond, haar benen uitgestrekt voor zich, een platte ronde mand op haar schoot. Zij sorteerden stenen van de rijst.

Meerdere zon-gerimpelde mannen leunden op hun stokken in de schaduw van een nabijgelegen mangoboom—hun silhouetten samen gebogen in een rustige, ontspannen discussie. Vrouwen kwamen en gingen met kalme, oplettende gratie—een mand, een emmer, of een enorme tros van bananen balancerend op hun hoofden.

Kijkend naar hun, voelde ik me dwaas in mijn angst, doch angstig niettemin. Als een mzungu, of blanke persoon, wist ik zodra ik de Land Rover verliet, ik meteen het middelpunt van de aandacht zou worden, iets wat ik gewoonlijk probeerde te vermijden zelfs in een bekende situatie. Maar hier was er geen plaats om mij te verbergen. Voor hen was ik bleek, stralend wit in een zee van gewaagde kleuren belichaamd. Toen ik met tegenzin uit de Land Rover glipte, probeerde ik mijzelf kleiner te maken, om onzichtbaar te worden, om op te gaan in het geheel, maar het was onmogelijk. Elk hoofd werd omgedraaid. Ieder oog was op mij gericht.

Ik bewoog op goed geluk over de markt, op zoek naar niets in het bijzonder, en speelde mijn rol als yen, het onwillige spektakel. Ik vermeed oogcontact. Ik sprak niet. De kleine kinderen keken met grote ogen, en klampten zich nog strakker vast aan hun moeders. De oudere kinderen fluisterden met elkaar en wezen. Een vrouw buigt zich naar mij: “Zuster, zuster, ik geef je een goede prijs.” Stof en menselijke arbeid, zonlicht en stank, vliegen tussen verruking—ik was overdonderd.

Het duurde niet lang voordat ik besefte dat ik gevolgd werd. Een groep van drie jongens volgde mij, op een paar stappen na. Ik keek naar hen uit mijn ooghoek, toen ik mijn rugzak van mijn rug deed en dicht tegen mijn borst hield. De jongste leek vier of vijf en de oudste misschien acht of negen. Ze waren gekleed in vuile, overdreven wijde blauwe korte broeken en rafelige gekleurde shirts, en ze droegen geen schoenen.

Ik wilde niet direct naar hen kijken. Ik wist niet wat te zeggen als zij me om geld zouden vragen. Ik stelde mijn Swahili zin in gedachten voor, ‘Hamna Shillingi kwa wewe. Er is geen geld voor jullie.’ Een bericht, veronderstelde ik, dat ze op vele manieren gekregen hebben.

Ik vermeed intuïtief het binnenste van de markt toen ik hier en daar grillige bochten begon te maken in een poging om mij van de jongens te bevrijden. Ik hield de Land Rover goed in de gaten die me van de talenschool waar ik studeerde naar de markt heeft gebracht om mijn Swahili “in een authentieke omgeving te oefenen.” Ik keek nerveus naar de groenten en het fruit, en ik knikte afwezig in reactie op elk gebruik van Swahili. De kleine stoet van jongens hield aan.

Ik telde de minuten tot mijn real-life taalles voorbij was en ik kon terugkeren naar de veiligheid van mijn kleine logeerkamer op de taalschool. Net voor de afgesproken vertrektijd, stond ik binnen sprint afstand van de Land Rover and draaide mij naar de drie jongens, voorbereid met mijn Swahili zin.

De kleinste jongen reikte uit naar mij met een brede, sappige glimlach en bood mij kalm de helft van zijn gepelde sinaasappel aan. Hij at van de andere helft.

Ik knipperde hete tranen toen ik neerknielde op ooghoogte van de jongen en glimlachte naar hem. We deden dit een hele tijd, terwijl de kakofonie van de markt langzaam naar de achtergrond verdween. Hij had me onvoorbereid betrapt, maar het maakte niet uit. We hadden geen woorden nodig, Swahili of anderszins, voor deze uitwisseling.

Vertaald door Bryan R. Monte en Marian van Loon

Lucien Knoedler – Mr. Tan

Mr. Tan
by Lucien Knoedler

For Carl

Peace and serenity plunged in a quiet South Sea sweetness. These words crossed my mind when retracing two small watercolours from Fak-Fak, in the olive-green cabin trunk bearing my dad’s name in big white block letters. Each depicts a small wooden house on tree-trunks and a manned proa: one is set in hazy moonlight, the other at sunset or daybreak, but since the Arafura Sea reaches westward it should be the evening glow. These idylls were made by Mr. Tan. Fak-Fak is located in a territory of 323,000 km², which was Dutch New Guinea formerly. For 50 years it has been Indonesia’s easternmost part, since divided into West Papua and Papua. The small town, in West Papua now, was widely spread on the steep slopes of the Fak-Fak Mountains, and its rough and unpaved roads hardly allowed any motorized traffic, except for the military vehicles from the barracks at the top. I lived here from my third to ninth year, with a break of six months in Holland, in 1955.

Amongst the goods and chattels my dad left me, I found a variety of ethnographic objects from remote tribes in the southern areas called Mimika and Asmat, then still living in the Stone Age: amulets, a scary wicker mask, daggers made from the bones of wild boars and nose pieces’ skilfully carved from bones. I also pulled an axe out, a cut stone wrapped with bamboo cords onto a tree branch, a forked limb, to obtain the scarcely nourishing insides of the sago palms, as well as various-sized penis gourds. In between these mostly male-chauvinist edifying works and, sure enough, a woman’s petticoat-like skirt of straw, I discovered an oil by Mr. Tan. This represented a Papua property on dusty russet-coloured ground with a coconut tree and banana trees on both sides, each delicately painted, with, in the foreground, a skinny old woman with a naked torso. In the background, roughly depicted, the Arafura Sea and, in the distance, Pulu Panjang, many miles of a long, wooded island offshore ending at the bay of Fak-Fak. On the back of the painting, in elegant calligraphy, was a dedication to my mom. Signed K. T. Tan, 1955.

Though this oil doesn’t express any presumption, in spite of its refinements and excellent sense of colour, it still isn’t a product of an innocent pastime. Don’t we humans develop our conscience and empathy by inadvertently training the coordination between our hands, eyes and ears? While practicing on a musical instrument, through handwriting, drawing, painting, carving, creating sculptures anyhow or by just playing freely, we do, meanwhile, connect and liberate the others and ourselves simultaneously. Mr. Tan too enabled himself to relate to his surroundings, with taste and care; with mindful attention to addressing his imagination this way, he also gained the courage to endure the prospect of being hospitalized for years to come.

I sometimes think of my early childhood involuntary, when it starts raining after a hot summer’s day when the air is all at once filled with a spicy, hallucinatory aroma that almost makes me sneeze. The pores of all organisms open up, I have been told, to receive water from heaven with insatiable hedonism, completely scented. Aren’t taste and smell by far the oldest senses? All memory is stored therein, in order to survive. Quite functional, isn’t it? It’s pure magic in just that instant, to be vainly searched for on demand. Our memory is most limited, however, in contrast to what we usually pretend. Traveling in the past depends upon our innate resourcefulness to easily by-pass and bridge chasms and clefts, most of the time confusing dates and the order of events, and unscrupulously inserting inaccurate stories belonging to other people as well.

While leafing through my dad’s papers, I caught sight of a few letters Mr. Tan had sent my mom on typewritten aerograms. Amongst them was a handwritten card on which he reported he was definitely cured of leprosy as he travelled to Sorong by ship, 150 miles northward from where he had undergone a successful surgery on both his feet. Little by little, I was able to call Mr. Tan to mind. I was six years old when I first met him—I think it must have been in January 1958, during the dry season when temperatures regularly exceeded 40°C at midday.

It was in the afternoon when my mom said that she wanted to take me to Mr. Tan. She called me right after siesta, a deadly dull siesta for me that ended at four precisely. Impatient, I once set the clock in the living room half an hour forward, but just before I wanted to leave, my dad turned up from the bedroom noticing in surprise that time had flown. As he saw my fright right away, he didn’t give me a stern look in return, instead, pointing out that I should stay inside as a punishment just as the time when I had once climbed out of my bedroom window too early. On the contrary, he burst out laughing and let me go. I was so relieved I decided to never ever repeat this short cut either.

The leprosy hospital, my mom and I went to, stood under coconut-trees by the sea, just outside the shopping centre of Fak-Fak. This kota was just another unpaved, bumpy and stuffy road about a mile long, flanked by low houses of mostly stone along the cliff face at the left, and on the sea side, wooden houses of which the irregular back parts leaned on a forest of pales sticking into the beach. Among the stores was a large Chinese caboodle with a small department offering a lot of toys, mostly cheap and fragile ones made in Japan, but attractive since quite a few were battery-driven. There were big-sized trucks and cars, planes and a UFO too, tricked out with little colourful lights. Imagine my surprise once I recognized the face of the owner of this shop emerging from the broad stone staircase while I was celebrating my birthday with my friends on the lawn in front of our house. As he stood on the platform it appeared that he carried a lot of toys, the ones I had pointed to at his casual request a few months earlier. “Which do you like?” he asked. And I remember well my dad’s face then; at first he looked embarrassed, then he sighed resignedly. He very much disliked me to be involved with anyone because of his position, this shouldn’t have happened in front of my peers anyhow, as these toys could have been part of a contraband, he explained to me later. Wasn’t this a disguised request for a favour? This happened indeed more often later on.

Fak-Fak’s shopping street, onto which the leprosy hospital faced, ended in the wooden dock of the bay standing in turquoise seawater dotted with coral and tiny colourful fish. Over the water, some 500 yards farther, next to a huge rock wall lay Danawaria, a kampong hidden behind mango trees next to a huge multi-branched bayan, also called waringin, which according to indigenous belief, represented the tree of life. Wasn’t there in the distance on the white beach, next to the mangrove, a big American landing craft rotting since it had been left in the aftermath of the Second World War too, as several near Hollandia, the capital? In Fak-Fak, a similar vessel belonging to the navy was still in service.

My mom had visited the leper clinic since we’d arrived in Fak-Fak, back in mid 1954, and now she wanted to introduce me to Mr. Tan. He had asked for me, she’d explained on the way. A 15-minute walk down along a steep, irregular footpath next to rocky wasteland below our house at the left, the general hospital and the hard courts at another lower plateau on the other side, the lepers’ stay lay beyond, behind high bushes. Before we walked up the wooden stairs to the front door, three steps up, my mom told me that Mr. Tan had lived here for many years. I looked at his house: a large wooden shed of about 50 x 80 feet on pales put on the beach during the war, I learned, inside a lime-washed open space with on top, probably the original zinc roof turned weather-beaten, darkly, glowing in the burning sun. Under the shutterless high window frames covered with mosquito nets, about 20 beds stood equally split over both sides of the ward.

The leper village near Merauke, the town of about 2,000 inhabitants where we lived next—along the coast of what is called Papua nowadays, 750 miles south-eastward of Fak-Fak—was incomparably better equipped: a central clinic with private houses and rooms for singles and families. My mom officially opened this missionary-work, initiated village. After all, she was the wife of the resident commissioner, now the head of the second largest of the five provinces of the Dutch overseas territory of West New Guinea, as he formerly was of the smaller province of Fak-Fak. While my mom cut the tape in the burning sun observed by quite a crowd, my dad stood at her left side and on her right side, in a white cassock, Mgr. Tillemans, the Bishop of Berissa seated in Merauke—an ample man with restless eyes.

The two men, acquaintances since they had met in Melbourne and Brisbane during the war, were often involved in a fierce demarcation dispute. However, the prelate was fond of my mom, a vicar’s daughter, and this amended the antagonists’ conflicts, it seemed. What’s more, my father did acknowledge that missionaries, both Catholics and evangelicals of diverse nationalities, started developing aid projects in New Guinea long before the war. In contrast, the Dutch government actively appeared there after 1949, after it acknowledged Indonesia’s independence. This part of the former Dutch East Indies was assumed would become a nation by itself in due course (adjacent to Papua New Guinea, no longer belonging to Australia, but an independent state since 1975). However from above, this was done in a stepmotherly way, also disparaging the experienced and dedicated officers on the spot, meanwhile equipping them marginally and paying them very badly for their demanding work, even though life was very expensive due to the long supply routes. As a matter of fact, to the Bible-driven pioneers and to the usually highly-educated government officers later on, living wasn’t without risk, if not downright dangerous, deep in this vast and sparsely populated territory of largely impenetrable rainforests, crisscrossed by huge, meandering rivers and an extremely rough mountain chain, the centre peak of which, Puncak Jaya, is one of the world’s seven highest summits. Even though my dad respected Mgr. Tillemans’ authority and anthropological insights, the prelate’s efforts to interfere with government affairs made his eyes sputter with fire. He found he had little in common with the Catholic authorities. After all, as an 11-year-old, a priest had told him his Madura-born mom didn’t deserve a place heaven because she was a Muslim. His Catholic baptized dad—a Javanese whose grandfather, originating from Southern Germany, cohabitated with a native Muslim woman soon after his arrival as just a 19-year-old—of course did. My great-great-great-grandparents’ 13 daughters and four sons were all upstanding baptized Catholics, as they got German first names as well—onto the fourth generation. Born on the Indonesian island of Madura, my dad wasn’t baptized, though. (His father didn’t care about it and only acknowledged his only child at the town hall). As he didn’t adhere to any creed and considered all religions equal, this may explain Mgr. Tillemans’ quiet dismissive attitude towards him, too. Anyhow, in my dad’s cabin trunk I found a shoebox containing all kinds of snapshots and a stack of handmade invitations for Christmas and Happy New Year from Merauke’s leper village, each entirely Catholic inspired.

Back to Mr. Tan. He was of Chinese-Indonesian origin and used to be a school teacher, then, I guess, in his late 40s, more than 10 years my mom’s senior. I still see him before me: both feet contorted, thin as a rake, with a grimace around his mouth. My mom hinted at him with her chin, accompanied by a wide-eyed and stern expression that I knew too well when I had to keep low right away. An unnecessary warning, as usual. Without pointing, she referred to the row of beds on the left side. Returning her look with the same expression, I indicated that I had noticed him already. Come on, he was the only patient in the room! Lying at the centre, he had turned to the entrance, huddled, on a bed covered with a white sheet. He stared ahead, musing, it seemed to me, his coal-black eyes wide open.

At this time of day, about five o’clock, the residents preferred to stay outside, below the barracks where chickens and a rooster scratched. Except, Mr. Tan did not. Did he expect us? At the back of the ward, the double doors were wide open and through them I saw the island of Pulu Panjang. Next to the doors, two nurses whispered in each other’s ears. They had—if I remember correctly—pale grey suits on, high fitting to just below the knee, with long sleeves and a white apron over it, their bare feet in solid brown shoes. From a small cap on their heads, an equally tinted headscarf hung halfway down the back, the front trimmed with a white, starched edge. Both missionaries waited at the entrance when my mom and I entered, their hands folded above their waists while nodding with a smile, bowing their heads graciously. They stood next to a much younger doctor, a relaxed leper specialist with soft brown eyes in a narrow and pale face under black straight hair. He wore a long white jacket with short sleeves; around his neck, a stethoscope.

My mother waited at the foot of Mr. Tan’s bed. As soon as he noticed us, his face brightened; he clambered and then sat up, delighted as children in a classroom awaiting their turns, it seemed to me. His frail body in an open pyjama top looked so fragile. With a soft, yet warm and clear voice he spoke, as now and then he crowed with pleasure, his almost toothless mouth wide open.

In the blazing heat, the salty breeze barely offered cooling. In an hour, night would fall and the mercury would drop rapidly to about 30°C. Farther on, the breakers continuously pounded on the reef, and since it was high tide, the seawater slid on the sand under the hospital floor, slowly sighing. I wondered what might happen during the monsoon when the fronts of sky-high, pitch-black clouds arrived over the turbulent Arafura Sea and, once over land, gushed their huge loads with thundering violence on this building. These downpours often caused banjirs also flooding the deep, cemented gutters along the covered porches around our hilltop house. A deafening pandemonium it must be under this hospital’s zinc roof time and time again. Could it withstand so much rain?

In their conversations my mom called him Mr. Tan, as he addressed her with “madame.” She also encouraged him with crayons, oil and canvases she ordered from Holland. No wonder, I later heard my father explain, since she attended art school, as did her grandfather. I can’t draw at all, he would continue, but she does. Did I ever see her doing so? Hardly. In a rash moment, perhaps. The materials for Mr. Tan arrived with the Kaluku, the Karossa or the Kasimbar. With an interval of a few months one after the other, these Singapore-loaded, 2,000 BRT cargos with passenger accommodation from the Dutch Royal Shipping Company lay at anchor in the lee of Pulu Panjang, near the bay of Fak-Fak. From the view from the lawn in front of our house, I could see the boat lying in the distance. Big chests, piles of boxes and bags of rice and other victuals were loaded into barges and transported to the jetty in the bay. As all letters came by Beaver, a single-engine water plane with which we had arrived and would leave again, a parcel by sea always contained a gift to me from my grandma: a dinky-toy or coloured pencils or a meccano kit.

Mr. Tan’s resilience amazed me, as if the increasingly mutilating leprosy didn’t bother him. Once drawing he was in his element, forgetting everything around him. Now and then he asked my mom for advice while seemingly covering his drawing pad from me—which I found strange, because he was sitting high on his bed, so I couldn’t see what he was depicting, or was he just fond of teasing me?—meanwhile keeping a couple of pencils in his battered fists and a pair clamped between his lips. I was not allowed to touch those pencils anymore, my mother had warned me at the front door. In the meantime, Mr. Tan sized me up swiftly, and I noticed, while he was looking at my mom, he seemed to nodding approvingly. He could smile too, or did I imagine this? In her presence, he felt senang, happy, and that pleased me.

Mr. Tan didn’t return to Fak-Fak. After he was cured, he had found a job in Sorong involving missionary work and leprosy control. We lost contact after the sudden death of my mom ten years after I met him. From his letters emerged a person of remarkable determination and accuracy, as well as of elegance. What’s more, he was very well able to handle the typewriter, despite his handicapped hands that were missing quite a few fingers. In any case, his writing shows hardly any error, his command of the Dutch language was exemplary—as certainly was his Ambonese and Cantonese as well, I suspect.

After first writing to express his gratitude for the letter my mom had written him on December 20, 1965 and for the goods that had reached him unopened, he continued his reply of January 18, 1966. Starting with a description about the weather in Sorong, just south of the equator, he imagined winter in Holland would be much too cold for him. In the dead of winter in the Southern Hemisphere, the daily temperature in Sorong didn’t drop below 25°C, he explained. The date of this epistle showed that two years and nine months had passed since the government of the western part of the island of New Guinea had been transferred to Indonesia. In the next passages, he commented on the worsening living conditions since the Dutch had left. Food shortages occurred regularly, while even remote luxury goods were either unavailable or stolen right away. It obviously lacked a general authority, he underlined, as anyone showing the courage to complain to the police of any crime, was likely to disappear in jail himself. Shipments by post had proved unreliable, since parcels were often opened before delivery or simply disposed. Any goods from Holland should be packed and sent separately, he stressed, also recommending safer alternatives, such as sending goods in the luggage of missionaries traveling to Irian Barat (as the western part of the island of New Guinea was first called after 1 May 1963). He painstakingly put down both their names and congregations.

A considerable part of his letters contained extensive lists of the equipment he needed, such as a tape recorder—a Philips EL 3585—as well as 1 Adaptor AG 7022, 1 Adaptor cable EL 3768/06, 1 Connecting cable EL 3768/00 and 1 Connecting lead EL 3768/02. All this was to be financed by his benefactresses, among whom was my mom. He also emphasized not to confuse apparently similar equipment, explaining how to avoid this, as the tape recorder would be used to spread the Gospel in remote territories of New Guinea. It’s quite amusing to see how carefully detailed Mr. Tan expressed himself; he must have been a strict but fair teacher, keeping everything under control, now eagerly liaising close contact with people far and wide.

Finally, I found a black & white photo he sent to my mom, taken in Sorong after his foot surgery. He appears sideways, a man of small stature wearing a dark jacket over a tieless white shirt and probably khaki trousers. He wears glasses in a light frame and holds a tiny, rolled, tobacco cigarette in his left hand. It appears that he has gained quite some weight. He signed the oil dedicated to my mom with the initials K.T., his letters closed with Ch.T. Tan—Christiaan Tan now apparently—as he wrote in a small, but self-confident signature.

Juliet K. R. Cutler – Morogoro Market

Morogoro Market
by Juliet K. R. Cutler

Hesitant about leaving the relative safety of the Land Rover, I sat for several minutes studying the open-air market as if witnessing it before entering it would make me feel more at ease. I recited a few basic Swahili phrases to myself with the stifling knowledge that I didn’t know nearly enough, and I briefly closed my eyes and took a deep breath. As much as I wanted to be in Tanzania, the truth was, right then, I wanted to hide.

An overhead patchwork of thatched roofing, plastic tarps, and burlap sacks shaded the improvised market from the intense mid-afternoon sun. Piles of tomatoes, avocadoes, oranges, mangoes, and papayas were neatly stacked in small groups on makeshift tables and in brightly colored buckets of every size and hue. Women, young and old, shared the day’s news as they tended to their fruits and vegetables—washing, sorting, and selling—while small children played together underfoot.

At the edge of the market, a sinewy old woman sat on the ground, her legs extended in front of her, a flat round basket in her lap. She sorted rocks from rice.

Several sun-wrinkled men leaned on their walking sticks in the shade of a nearby mango tree—their silhouettes bent together in quiet, leisurely discussion. They watched as women came and went with easy, careful grace—a basket, a bucket, or a huge tier of bananas balanced upon their heads.

Watching them, I felt foolish in my fear, yet fearful nonetheless. As a mzungu, or white person, I knew as soon as I left the Land Rover, I would instantly become the center of attention, something I commonly sought to avoid even in familiar settings. But here, there was no place for me to hide. To them, I was colorless, brilliant white in a sea of bold color incarnate. As I reluctantly slid out of the Land Rover, I tried to shrink, to become invisible, to blend in, but it was impossible. Every head was turned. Every eye was upon me.

I moved through the market haphazardly, looking for nothing in particular, and playing my part as the unwilling spectacle. I avoided eye contact. I didn’t speak. The smaller children stared wide-eyed, clinging to their mothers a little tighter. The older children whispered to one another and pointed. A woman stretched toward me, “Sister, sister, I give you good price.” Dust and human toil, sunlight and stench, flies amid delight—I was overwhelmed.

It wasn’t long before I realized I was being followed. A group of three boys trailed several paces behind me. I glanced at them out of the corner of my eye as I pulled my backpack off my back and held it close to my chest. The youngest looked to be four or five and the oldest maybe eight or nine. They were dressed in dirty, overly roomy blue shorts and ragged colored t-shirts, and they weren’t wearing shoes.

I didn’t want to look directly at them. I didn’t know what to say if they asked me for money. I composed my Swahili phrase in my mind, ‘Hamna shillingi kwa wewe. There isn’t any money for you.’ A message, I supposed, they received in many ways.

I intuitively avoided the market’s interior as I began to make erratic turns here and there in an effort to lose the boys. I kept a close watch on the Land Rover that had brought me from the language school where I was studying to the marketplace to “practice my Swahili in an authentic environment.” I nervously browsed the fruits and vegetables, and I vacantly nodded in response to any use of Swahili. The small parade of boys persisted.

I counted the minutes until my real-life language lesson was over and I could return to the safety of my small, spare room at the language school. Just before the appointed departure time, I stood within dashing distance of the Land Rover and turned to face the three boys, prepared with my Swahili phrase.

The smallest boy reached out to me with a wide, juicy smile and quietly offered me half of his peeled orange. He was eating the other half.

I blinked back hot tears as I knelt down to the boy’s eye level and smiled back at him. We remained like this for a long moment, as the market’s cacophony receded into the background. He’d caught me unprepared, but it didn’t matter. We didn’t need words, Swahili or otherwise, for this exchange.

Lucien Knoedler – Meneer Tan

Meneer Tan
Lucien Knoedler

Voor Carl

Pais en vree gedompeld in Stille Zuidzeezoetheid. Deze woorden vielen mij in zodra ik twee aquarellen uit Fak-Fak terugvond, verborgen in de olijfgroene hutkoffer waarop in grote witte blokletters mijn vaders naam stond. Op elk prijkt een rieten huisje en een bemande prauw: het ene tafereel in nevelige maneschijn, het andere bij zonsondergang of ochtendgloren, maar aangezien de Arafoerazee zich er ten westen uitstrekt moet het avondrood zijn. Deze idylles zijn gemaakt door meneer Tan. Fak-Fak is gesitueerd in een gebied van 323.000 km² dat voorheen Nederlands Nieuw-Guinea heette. Sinds 50 jaar is dit het meest oostelijke domein van Indonesië, inmiddels onderverdeeld in Papua en West-Papua. Het stadje, nu in West-Papua, lag toentertijd wijd verspreid over de steile hellingen van het Fak-Fakgebergte. Haar ruwe, onverharde wegen stonden gemotoriseerd verkeer nauwelijks toe, behalve dan voor de militaire voertuigen van de kazerne bovenaan de berg. Ik woonde hier van mijn derde tot mijn negende jaar, met in 1955 een onderbreking van zes maanden in Nederland.

Tussen de have en goederen die mijn vader mij naliet, vond ik allerlei etnografica afkomstig uit de zuidelijke gebieden die Mimika en Asmat heten. De mensen in deze contreien leefden destijds nog in het Stenen Tijdperk. Ik haalde amuletten tevoorschijn, een angstaanjagend rieten masker en dolken gemaakt uit de beenderen van wilde zwijnen, kunstig uit been geneden neusstukken. Verder een bijl, een gepolijste steen die met een koord van bamboe aan een gevorkte tak bevestigd is waarmee de nauwelijks voedzame meel uit de stam van sagopalm werd gewonnen, en peniskokers van diverse lengten. Tussen deze voorwerpen, merendeels ingegeven door mannelijk chauvinisme en, zowaar, een soort strooien petticoat van een vrouw, ontdekte ik een olieverfschilderij van meneer Tan. Het stelt een Papoea-erf voor. Op stoffige, roodbruine grond staat een kamponghuis, aan weerszijden daarvan een klapperboom en pisangbomen, elk subtiel gestalte gegeven, en vooraan een oude vrouw met ontbloot bovenlijf. Op de achtergrond is, ruwweg geschilderd, de Arafoerazee te zien en Poeloe Panjang, het kilometers lange beboste eiland voor de kust dat eindigt ter hoogte van de baai van Fak-Fak. Op de achterzijde van het doek staat in elegante kalligrafie geschreven dat het is opgedragen aan mijn moeder. Was getekend K.T. Tan, 1955.

Uit dit schilderij spreekt dan wel geen enkele pretentie, zelfs al is het nog zo verfijnd en geeft het blijk van een voortreffelijk gevoel voor kleur, toch is het niet de vrucht van onschuldig tijdverdrijf. Immers, ontlenen wij mensen ons bewustzijn en empathie niet onwillekeurig aan de training van de coördinatie tussen onze handen, ogen en oren? Terwijl we een muziekinstrument bespelen of schrijven, tekenen, schilderen, houtsnijden, allerlei sculpturen maken, door enkel vrijelijk te spelen, verbinden en verlossen wij de ander en onszelf gelijktijdig. Zo stelde ook meneer Tan zich in staat zich tot zijn omgeving te verhouden, met zorg en smaak, met aandachtige oplettendheid sprak hij zijn verbeelding aan om zo ook de moed te verzamelen in het vooruitzicht van een jarenlang verblijf in een ziekenhuis.

Onwillekeurig denk ik soms terug aan mijn vroege jeugd, juist als het op een hete zomerdag gaat regenen en de atmosfeer opeens vervuld is van een kruidig, hallucinerend aroma dat me haast doet niezen. De poriën van alle organismen open zich dan, heb ik me laten vertellen, om in onstilbare genotzucht het hemelwater te ontvangen. Zijn geurzin en smaak niet de veruit oudste zintuigen? Alle herinnering ligt erin opgetast, om te overleven. Heel functioneel, nietwaar?. Het is pure magie in een ogenblik die zich op afroep nooit laat wekken. Ons geheugen is immers zeer beperkt, in tegenstelling tot wat we doorgaans pretenderen. In het verleden reizen is afhankelijk van onze ingeboren vindingrijkheid kloven en kliffen gemakkelijk te overbruggen of te omzeilen, terwijl we meestal de data en de volgorde van gebeurtenissen verwarren en ondertussen zonder scrupules ook nog inaccurate verhalen van anderen invoegen

Terwijl ik door de paperassen van mijn vader bladerde, ontdekte ik brieven van meneer Tan aan mijn moeder, getypt op luchtpostpapier. Daartussen een handgeschreven briefkaart waarop hij meldt dat hij van lepra genezen is verklaard en per schip naar Sorong gereisd, 250 kilometer noordwaarts, waar hij met succes aan beide voeten was geopereerd. Allengs kon ik me meneer Tan weer voor de geest halen. Ik was zes jaar oud toen ik met hem kennis maakte—ik meen me te herinneren dat dit in januari 1958 was, in het droge seizoen wanneer het kwik ’s middags wel vaker boven de 40°C uit rees.

Het was op zo’n middag dat mijn moeder mij vertelde dat we naar meneer Tan zouden gaan. Zij riep me meteen na de altijd oersaaie siësta die om vier uur voorbij was. Ik heb uit ongeduld de klok in de zitkamer eens een half uur vooruit gezet, maar juist toen ik de deur uit wilde gaan, kwam mijn vader uit de slaapkamer tevoorschijn, verbaasd dat de tijd vloog. Zodra hij mij beteuterd zag kijken, wierp hij mij niet een strenge blik toe waarmee hij zeggen wilde dat ik voor straf binnen moest blijven zoals toen ik een keer te vroeg uit mijn slaapkamerraam geklommen was. Nee, hij schoot in de lach en liet me gaan. Ik was zo opgelucht en besloot ook deze truc niet nog eens uit te halen.

Het leprozenhospitaal waar mijn moeder en ik naartoe gingen stond onder klapperbomen aan zee, even buiten Fak-Fak, aan het einde van de winkelstraat. Deze kota lag langs een hobbelige en stoffige straat van zo’n anderhalve kilometer lang: lage, merendeels stenen gebouwen links langs de rotswand en aan de zeezijde houten huizen en ook winkels waarvan de uiteenlopende bijgebouwen aan de achterkant op een woud van palen in het lager gelegen strand steunden. Daartussen was een grote Chinese santenkraam waarin een schap met een boel speelgoed, goedkoop en gauw stuk, made in Japan, aanlokkelijk toch omdat de meeste door een batterij werden aangedreven: grote vrachtwagens en auto’s, vliegtuigen en ook een UFO opgesierd met kleine kleurige lichtjes. Wie schetst mijn verbazing toen ik het lachende gezicht van de eigenaar van deze winkel vooraan boven de brede stenen trap tevoorschijn zag komen, terwijl ik met mijn vriendjes mijn verjaardag op het gazon voor ons huis vierde. Eenmaal op het bordes staand bleken zijn armen vol van het speelgoed dat ik een paar maanden eerder op zijn terloopse verzoek had aangewezen. “Welke vind je mooi?” vroeg hij. En ik herinner me ook nog goed mijn vaders gezicht toen de man het speelgoed voor mij neerzette, op het gras; eerst toonde hij zich beschaamd, om vervolgens berustend te zuchten. Wilde hij perse niet dat ik op de ene of andere manier voorgetrokken werd om hem, en dit al helemaal niet in bijzijn van mijn leeftijdgenoten, dit speelgoed zou even goed bij smokkelwaar hebben kunnen zitten, legde hij aan mij later uit. En was dit niet een verkapt verzoek om een gunst? Dit gebeurde later inderdaad wel vaker.

De winkelstraat van Fak-Fak, waar het leprozenhospitaal op uitzag, liep uit op de steiger in de baai waar het turkoois zeewater bezaaid was met koraal en kleine kleurige visjes. Aan de overkant van de baaimonding, ruim 500 meter verderop, lag naast de enorme rotswand Danawaria, een kampong verscholen achter mangabomen naast een imposante, wijdvertakte waringin die naar inheems geloof de levensboom wordt genoemd. Lag daar op het witte strand in de verte bij mangrovebossen niet ook een Amerikaans landingsvaartuig al vanaf de Tweede Wereldoorlog weg te rotten, zoals meerdere bij de hoofdstad Hollandia? Eenzelfde schip deed in Fak-Fak nog steeds dienst, het maakte deel uit van de marine.

Mijn moeder bezocht de leprozerie sinds we medio 1954 in Fak-Fak kwamen wonen, en nu mocht ik meneer Tan ontmoeten. Hij had naar mij gevraagd, verklaarde zij onderweg. Vanaf ons huis een kwartier lopen over een steil en pokdalig pad langs het rotsachtige, braakliggend terrein beneden ons huis links en rechts voorbij het algemeen hospitaal en de tennisbanen op een lager plateau, lag verderop naar beneden het leprozenhospitaal, verborgen achter hoge struiken. Voor we de houten trap naar de voordeur betraden, drie treden omhoog, vertelde mijn moeder dat meneer Tan er al jaren woonde. Ik bekeek zijn huis: een barak, een soort loods op palen van zo’n dertig bij vijftien meter in de oorlog op het strand gezet, was me verteld, van binnen een witgekalkte open ruimte met vast nog hetzelfde dak van donkerbruin uitgeslagen zinken platen die onder de middagzon hevig gloeien. Aan weerszijden van de zaal, onder de luikloze, met muskietengaas bespannen kozijnen, stonden wel twintig bedden in twee gelijke rijen opgesteld.

Het leprozendorp bij Merauke, de stad van zo’n 2000 inwoners waar wij nadien woonden – aan de kust van Papua nu, zo’n 1200 km ten zuidoosten van Fak-Fak – was onvergelijkelijk beter voorzien. Bij een centrale kliniek waren privéhuizen en kamers voor families en alleenstaanden neergezet. Mijn moeder verrichtte de officiële opening van dit door de Missie geïnitieerde dorp. Zij was immers de echtgenote van de resident van de op een na grootste provincie van Nederlands Nieuw-Guinea, zoals hij dit voorheen van de kleinere provincie Fak-Fak was. Terwijl mijn moeder, in de brandende zon gadegeslagen door een menigte, het lint doorknipte, stond mijn vader aan haar linkerzijde en rechts naast haar in een wit habijt Mgr. Tillemans, de Bisschop van Berissa gezeteld in Merauke – een zwaarlijvig heerschap met rusteloze blik.
De twee mannen, sinds hun ontmoetingen tijdens de oorlog in Melbourne en Brisbane bekenden van elkaar, waren niet zelden verwikkeld in een soms scherpe competentiestrijd. De prelaat bleek evenwel gesteld op mijn moeder, een domineesdochter, en dat scheen veel goed te maken. Er kwam bij dat mijn vader terdege besefte dat missionarissen en zendelingen van diverse nationaliteit al lang vóór de oorlog begonnen waren met ontwikkelingswerk in Nieuw-Guinea. De Nederlandse overheid vertoonde zich er pas daadwerkelijk na 1949, sinds de erkenning van de onafhankelijkheid van Indonesië. Dit deel van het voormalige Nederlands-Indië moest mettertijd zelf een natie worden (grenzend aan Papua New Guinea dat nu niet meer Australisch is want sinds 1975 een onafhankelijke staat). Maar van boven af gebeurde dit op stiefmoederlijke wijze waarbij de ervaren en toegewijde bestuursambtenaren ter plaatse werden geringschat, marginaal van middelen voorzien en uitermate slecht betaald voor hun veeleisende werk. Het leven van de van godsvrucht vervulde pioniers en later ook de doorgaans hoogopgeleide bestuursambtenaren was niet zonder risico, zo niet ronduit gevaarlijk, diep in dit uitgestrekte, dunbevolkte gebied van grotendeels ontoegankelijke, door grote, meanderende rivieren doorsneden regenwouden en een extreem en ruig centraal bergland waarvan de piek, de Puncak Jaya, een van ’s werelds zeven hoogste toppen is. Erkende mijn vader Tillemans’ autoriteit en antropologisch inzicht, diens onversneden inmenging in bestuurszaken deed zijn ogen dikwijls vuur spuwen. Hier kwam bij dat hij met katholieke gezagsdragers weinig op had. Niet zonder reden: nog pas 11 jaar oud trof hij een priester die verkondigde dat zijn Madoerese moeder geen plaats in de hemel verdiende omdat zij een moslim was. Wèl zijn katholiek gedoopte vader, een Javaan wiens grootvader uit Zuid-Duitsland immigreerde en spoedig na aankomst, maar net 19 jaar oud, met een inlandse, islamitische vrouw ging samenleven. Mijn betbetovergrootouders’ 13 dochters en vier zoons werden niettemin allemaal keurig katholiek gedoopt en elk kreeg ook een Duitse voornaam – tot in de vierde generatie. Mijn vader is evenwel nooit gedoopt (dit interesseerde zijn vader niet, om zijn enige kind wel officieel te erkennen). Hij hing geen enkel geloof aan, beschouwde alle religies als gelijkwaardig, en ook dit zou wel eens een verklaring kunnen zijn voor Mgr. Tillemans’ afwijzende houding jegens hem. Hoe dit zij, in mijn vaders hutkoffer vond ik in een schoenendoos waarin bij allerlei kiekjes een stapeltje handgemaakte uitnodigingen voor Heilige Kerstvieringen en Zalig Nieuwjaarwensen uit het leprozendorp bij Merauke.

Terug naar meneer Tan. Hij was van Chinees-Indonesische afkomst en bleek onderwijzer te zijn geweest, eind veertig destijds, schat ik, ruim tien jaar ouder dan mijn moeder. Ik zie hem nog voor me: de voeten verkrampt, broodmager en een grimas om de mond. Mijn moeder hintte met haar kin, een gebaar dat ik bij de grote, gebiedende ogen die zij dan opzette kende. Het was een teken dat ik me meteen gedeisd moest houden. Een overbodige waarschuwing, als zo vaak. Zonder een vingerwijzing duidde ze mij op de rij bedden ter linker zijde. Ik had meneer Tan al opgemerkt, beantwoordde ik haar blik met mijn ogen. Kom nou, hij is toch de enige patiënt in de zaal! Ter hoogte van het midden lag hij naar de ingang gekeerd, op een met een wit laken overtrokken bed, ineengedoken. Hij staarde voor zich uit, mijmerde, scheen me toe, de gitzwarte ogen wijd open.

Op dit tijdstip van de dag, tegen vijven, zaten de bewoners liever buiten, onder de barak waar kippen en een haan scharrelden. Niet meneer Tan. Verwachtte hij ons? Aan de overzijde van de zaal stonden de dubbele deuren wijd open en erlangs heen zag ik het eiland Poeloe Panjang liggen. Terzijde daarvan fluisterden twee verpleegsters in elkaars oor. Ze droegen – als ik het mij goed herinner – lichtgrijze gewaden tot net over de knie, met lange mouwen. Daaroverheen een wit schort, hun blote voeten in stevige bruine schoenen gestoken. Op het hoofd stond een kapje waaruit een eveneens lichtgrijze hoofddoek tot halverwege de rug hing. Die sluier was aan de voorzijde afgezet met een witte, gesteven rand. Deze missiezusters stonden ons bij de ingang op te wachten; de handen ineen geslagen boven hun middel knikten zij glimlachend en bogen minzaam het hoofd. Ze werden geflankeerd door een jonge leprozenarts, een ontspannen man met zachte, bruine ogen in een smal en bleek gezicht onder zwart sluikhaar. Hij droeg een lange witte jas met korte mouwen, om zijn hals hing een stethoscoop.

Bij het voeteneind van meneer Tans bed wachtte mijn moeder af. Zodra hij ons opmerkte, lichtte zijn blik op, krabbelde hij overeind en ging rechtop zitten, alsof hij, als kinderen in een schoolklas, verheugd op zijn beurt wachtte. In deze houding leek zijn tengere lijf in het open hangend pyjamajasje nog breekbaarder. Hij sprak met een zachte en toch heldere stem, en nu en dan kraaide hij van plezier, de haast tandenloze mond wijd open.

In de laaiende hitte bood de zilte bries nauwelijks verkoeling. Over een uur zou de avond vallen en dan pas daalde het kwik snel, tot zo’n 30°C. Verderop bulderde de branding op het koraalrif. Nu het vloed was schoof onder de vloer over het zand de zee traag zuchtend af en aan. Ik stelde mij voor hoe het er toeging als de fronten van hoge, pikzwarte wolken die in de moessontijd over de roerige Arafoerazee aandrijven, met donderend geraas hun vrachten ook op dit gebouw zouden uitstorten. Deze zware buien veroorzaken dikwijls banjirs die uiteraard ook de diepe, gecementeerde goten langs de overkapte veranda’s rondom ons hoog gelegen huis deden overstromen en vervaarlijk kolken. Een oorverdovend kabaal moest het er onder het zinken dak van dit hospitaal zijn, keer op keer. Was het wel tegen zoveel regen bestand?

Meneer Tan, zo sprak mijn moeder hem steeds aan, kon goed tekenen en schilderen. En “mevrouw”, zo noemde hij haar, stimuleerde hem daarin ook met de potloden, verf en het canvas die zij uit Holland liet sturen. Geen wonder dat zij dit deed, hoorde ik mijn vader vertellen, zij had net als haar grootvader de tekenacademie gevolgd. Ik kan helemaal niet tekenen, vervolgde hij als gewoonlijk, zij wel. Maar heb ik haar ooit zien tekenen? Nauwelijks. In een onbewaakt ogenblik misschien. De materialen voor meneer Tan kwamen met de Kaloekoe, de Karossa of de Kasimbar. Deze in Singapore beladen vrachtschepen van 2000 bruto ton met passagiersaccommodatie van de Koninklijke Pakketvaart Maatschappij lagen met een tussenpoos een paar maanden na elkaar voor anker, in de luwte van Poeloe Panjang ter hoogte van de baai. Vanaf het gazon voor ons huis kon je in de verte van het wijde uitzicht de boot zien liggen. Grote kisten, stapels dozen, zakken rijst en andere etenswaren werden in sloepen geladen en naar de steiger vervoerd. Kwamen de brieven met de Beaver, een eenmotorig watervliegtuig waarmee wij aangekomen waren en weer zouden vertrekken, bij de pakketpost per schip zat altijd wel een cadeautje voor mij van mijn oma: een dinky-toy, of kleurpotloden, een meccanodoos.

Meneer Tans veerkracht verwonderde me, alsof de verminkende lepra hem niet deerde. Tekende hij eenmaal, dan was hij in zijn element en scheen hij alles om zich heen vergeten. Soms vroeg hij mijn moeder om advies en dan leek hij zijn blok tekenpapier voor mij af te schermen – wat ik raar vond, omdat hij hoog op zijn bed zat en ik echt niet zien kon wat hij maakte –, terwijl hij potloden in zijn gehavende knuisten klemde en een paar tussen de lippen. Ik mocht die potloden niet meer aanraken, had mijn moeder mij nog bij de voordeur bezworen. Intussen monsterde meneer Tan mij schielijk en keek vervolgens naar mijn moeder. Het leek of hij goedkeurend knikte. Hij kon glimlachen, of verbeeldde ik me dat maar? Bij haar voelde hij zich senang en dat stemde me tevreden.

Meneer Tan is naar Fak-Fak niet teruggekeerd. Genezen verklaard immers, vond hij werk in Sorong, bij de Missie en was hij er betrokken bij de leprabestrijding. Ons contact ging verloren bij de plotselinge dood van mijn moeder, tien jaar na mijn ontmoeting met hem. Uit zijn brieven rijst een man op van opmerkelijke vastberadenheid en nauwkeurigheid, als ook verfijndheid. Bovendien kon hij goed met een schrijfmachine overweg, zelfs al was hij gehandicapt, miste hij aan beide handen meerdere vingers. Zijn brieven vertonen nauwelijks verschrijvingen, en zijn beheersing van het Nederlands was uitstekend – zoals ook van het Ambonees en Cantonees, vermoed ik.

Na eerst zijn dankbaarheid te uiten voor de brief die mijn moeder hem op 20 december 1965 schreef en te melden dat de goederen hem ongeschonden bereikten, weidt hij in zijn antwoord van 18 januari 1966 uit over het weer in Sorong, om daarna te zeggen dat de Hollandse winter hem veel te koud leek. Hartje winter op het zuidelijk halfrond geeft in Sorong een dagtemperatuur die niet onder de 25°C komt, verklaart hij. Uit de datum van zijn epistel blijkt dat twee jaar en negen maanden eerder het bewind over dit gedeelte van Nieuw-Guinea aan Indonesië overgedragen was. In de volgende passages beschrijft hij de almaar slechter wordende levensomstandigheden na het vertrek van de Nederlanders. Regelmatig is er voedseltekort en zelfs goederen die niet eens een luxe kunnen worden genoemd blijken niet voorhanden of bij aankomst direct gestolen. Het ontbreekt aan gezag, stelt hij, en wie de moed opbrengt zich bij de politie te beklagen over welk vergrijp dan ook, loopt grote kans zelf in het gevang te verdwijnen. Postzendingen waren onbetrouwbaar gebleken, aangezien pakketten vóór aflevering werden geopend of gewoon leeggehaald. Goederen uit Nederland van welke aard dan ook dienen afzonderlijk verpakt en verstuurd te worden, onderstreept hij, waarbij hij veiliger alternatieven aanraadt, zoals in de bagage van missionarissen die naar Irian Barat reizen (zo werd het westelijk deel van Nieuw-Guinea vanaf 1 mei 1963 eerst genoemd). In zijn ijver laat hij niet na hun namen en congregaties te noteren.

Een aanzienlijke deel van zijn brieven bevat uitvoerige lijsten van de apparatuur die hij nodig heeft, zoals een bandrecorder—een Philips EL 3585—als ook een verloopstekker van het type AG 7022, een tussenkabel EL 3768/00 een hulpstuk EL 3768/02. Deze zaken werden alle gefinancierd door zijn weldoensters, onder wie mijn moeder. Hij wijst erop op het oog gelijk materiaal niet te verwarren met het juiste en hoe dit te vermijden, en dat de bandrecorder voor de verbreiding van het evangelie in afgelegen gebieden in Nieuw-Guinea zal worden gebruikt. Het is vermakelijk om te zien hoe meneer Tan nauwgezet details vermeldt. Hij moet een strikte, rechtvaardige schoolmeester zijn geweest die graag alles onder controle wilde houden. Daarnaast leek hij er nu op gebrand nauw contact te onderhouden met mensen van heinde en verre.

Tenslotte vond ik een zwart-wit foto die meneer Tan mijn moeder stuurde. Deze is genomen in Sorong na de operatie aan zijn voeten. Daarop staat, van zijn linkerzijde genomen, een man van klein postuur gestoken in een donker colbert over een overhemd met open kraag en kennelijk een kaki broek. Hij draagt een bril met een licht montuur, in zijn linker hand houdt hij een gedraaide sigaret. Zo te zien is hij behoorlijk dik geworden. Gebruikte hij op de achterzijde van het schilderij dat hij aan mijn moeder opdroeg de voorletters K.T., zijn brieven ondertekende hij met Ch.T. Tan—nu kennelijk Christiaan Tan—in een klein maar zelfbewust handschrift.

On Forgetting or Why I Can’t Remember Interviewing Allen Ginsberg by Bryan Monte

On Forgetting or Why I Can’t Remember Interviewing Allen Ginsberg
by Bryan Monte

Whilst moving house two years ago, I unexpectedly came across some old photographs from the late 1980s/early 1990s taken by San Francisco photographer, Rink. They were in a box I had packed and sealed in 1993 before moving from San Francisco to the Netherlands and hadn’t opened at my next three addresses. The photographs were of people I had worked with and/or interviewed when I was a radio reporter and a writing instructor. This was the time of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco, when many support organizations, such as the AIDS Foundation, Shanti, and Project Open Hand, were in their early days and still working out of old warehouses and donated shops.

Sorting through these pictures of writers, painters, comics, politicians, and other public personalities from this time, I came across a photo of Allen Ginsberg surrounded by three men. Ginsberg, with his trademark, rumpled suit, bald head, and salt-and-pepper beard, was easily recognizable. From the camera angle, however, I could only see the back of the heads of the three people surrounding him. One head, with a whorl of hair right at the crown, however, struck me as a bit familiar, but I still couldn’t identify the person.

Thankfully, the photo was the first of series of what are referred to as contact sheets—positive photos in strips the size of negatives. As the photographer circled around the group of men, the face of the man with the whorl of hair who held a notepad and who was asking Ginsberg a question came into view—and it was me! But how could that be? How could I have forgot such an important meeting with the then pope of leftist gay, American poetry? And more importantly, why had I forgot just this meeting?

It wasn’t the first time I’d met Ginsberg. That was in mid-1980s when I was a graduate student at Brown University. That evening, Ginsberg sat alone on Sayles Hall’s wooden stage, reciting his poetry for hundreds of enraptured students, including sections from Howl, as he accompanied himself on a zither. Afterwards, I had the opportunity to talk to him and to give him a copy of my gay magazine, No Apologies. Ginsberg was gracious and genuine and he took his time to talk with everyone unlike the dozen or so other well-known American or British celebrity poets I’d met previously. Soon thereafter, I received a review copy of his Collected Poems, 1945-1980 from his publisher. All these details from an even earlier meeting I remembered, but not the second time four years later in San Francisco that had been completely and inexplicably wiped from my memory. How could this be?

I’ve since researched the causes of long-term memory loss especially since I feared it might be due to my multiple sclerosis. I found plenty of articles on short-term memory loss, (Where are my keys? Oh, we had an appointment!, etc.), but nothing really conclusive about long-term memory loss related to MS. In fact, the causes of this type of “forgetting” were usually due to head injuries for those in their 20s and 30s (due to vehicular accidents, combat—including post-traumatic stress—and injuries from domestic violence), strokes for those in their 40s and 50s (due to high blood pressure, overwhelming jobs and/or debts, raising children or divorce), and dementia for those in their golden years.

I don’t remember suffering any blunt trauma before, during or after this period. In addition, I don’t think my MS related injuries or medications are the cause. In general, MS is tracked in the brain as well as in the spinal cord through lesions that are created when the body’s immune system starts attacking the nerve endings’ myelin coatings. Most of this damage, reportedly, only affects short-term and not long-term memory. (Although it seems logical that if a lesion short circuits part of my brain affecting how my legs and hands work, then it might also have some effect on locating, storing or transferring information in the scarred area).

No, according to popular wisdom, MS and physical trauma are not likely the causes of this missing memory. Considering the time period and location involved, ground zero in the AIDS pandemic, however, I think it’s more likely it’s due to post-traumatic stress syndrome. You see, unlike Tony Kushner’s Angels in America where only one really bad guy, Roy Cohn, dies on screen and one drag queen gets a fabulous, send-off complete with professional Sicilian mourners and an Afro-American gospel choir, my experience with AIDS in San Francisco was a lot less colourful and the dying were everywhere—literally hundreds of them. These included at least two dozen friends and acquaintances I knew from grammar school, high school, and college, men from work, church, writing groups, support groups, bars and political clubs—and two ex-partners.

Before combination therapy became common in the mid-90s, men I knew sero-converted, fell ill or died every month. According to the official statistics, the mortality rate was 50 per cent. If it wasn’t you, it was the man next to you—an epidemic of rapturous proportions. Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken, the other left; two women grinding at the mill; one will be taken, the other left. (Matthew 24:20) In my building, however, the mortality rate was even higher—two out of every three or 67 per cent.

The weekly gay newspapers were filled with pages and pages of obituaries of men in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s. Living at ground zero, it was almost impossible to go to work, buy groceries, get my hair cut, buy clothes, or rent a video without seeing at least one, slow, emaciated man, too young to be leaning on a Zimmer frame or a cane, carrying a big bag of prescriptions from the corner drugstore or supermarket pharmacy. Even out at Ocean Beach, where I lived miles from the Castro, there wasn’t a week when I jogged along the breakwall that I didn’t see a man sitting in his car with an IV hanging from a sun visor, watching the sunset between the Farallon Islands, forty miles out in the Pacific Ocean.

Other images that still remain in my brain were the visits by out-of-town relatives who were conspicuous by their accents or dress. I remember a mother talking in a Southern drawl walking down Market Street, her son wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, his face aswarm with purple, Kaposi Sarcoma lesions. Or a farmer father with a sun-burned, red neck and a John Deere green and yellow baseball cap, sitting in Just Desserts on Market Street, his pre-teenage son enjoying his cheesecake seemingly unaware of the tired, pained look on his father’s face. I also remember stories of dying lovers giving their possessions away before their out-of-state families, many of whom they hadn’t heard from for years, arrived just days before they died. Immediately after the funerals some relatives then emptied their sons’ shared apartments and bank accounts as if they had been living alone. One man, whose partner died of AIDS, came home one day from work to discover his apartment plundered by his dead partner’s family. They took all furniture—even a sofa he had purchased on credit and was still paying for.

And those who died came from different walks of life. Ken worked in my insurance company’s purchasing department. He came back from his experimental cowpox treatments mooing in good spirits even though he knew he’d be feverish and barely able to work the next day. Jerome (whom I knew in first grade as Jerry), was the mistress of Wednesday night, jockstrap jello wrestling at Club Chaos. He painted miniature, nail polish portraits until he went blind from CMV. Mike designed the cover of the magazine I gave to Ginsberg at Brown. Two years later walking through Golden Gate Park, I thought I saw him and called his name, but he kept going. A few days later I asked someone who knew Mike if he’d seen him lately. The man paused for a minute, then told me that after a long, difficult illness, Mike had passed away a year ago.

One soon learned not to enquire about the missing. When the Falsettos, the gay a capella group, returned after a six month absence from the radio show, I made that mistake. “What happened to X?” I asked. My question was met with stares and stony silence. Anyone who was out of sight for more than a month or two was considered ill or dying, so many died so suddenly or went back home to spend their last days. (In fact, even thirty years later, I’m still being recontacted by friends afraid they would discover, via an Internet search, that I was dead).

In the late 80s/early 90s, multiple medications, hospitalisations, disappearances and funerals became normal. One attended a funeral (now euphemistically referred to as a memorial service) every other month or changed plans so someone else could. Funerals became so frequent that it became common to compare services and wakes for music, attendance and refreshments. And undertakers (now referred to as bereavement councillors) placed their advertisements in the gay papers next to the pages of obituaries.

The great, the good, the average and the below average, the messy and the fastidious, the courageous and the cowardly, the promiscuous and the monogamous in time were all taken by an illness from which there was no escape and no cure due to powers corporeal or incorporeal. The rich, though, still tried to cheat death by checking into private clinics in Switzerland to have their blood exchanged. The religious made pilgrimages to Loudres, Rome or Israel. All they bought in the end, however from what I could see, were a few more months of suffering. One summer, twenty-five years later, one of my eighty-year-old church friends complained to me that she’d attended five funerals in eight months. “You wouldn’t know what that was like!” she snapped. I just stared at her. She immediately apologised.

And if the rising body count (and strangely enough, apartment rents) weren’t traumatic enough, then the jobs in San Francisco began to disappear. My company went through five reorganizations in five years before moving its headquarters to a “cheaper labour market” in Chicago. And with the rounds of corporate restructurings and reorganizations, came the suicides. That’s when the redundancy compensation packets jumped from two weeks to two months to six months to prevent lawsuits.

I made it through the first three restructurings, though I started looking for other work during the second. At this time I also held three, minor, evening jobs working as a technical writing instructor, an English as a Second Language tutor and a writing workshop leader. In addition, I occasionally sat in on focus groups for Silicon Valley software firms, so I thought I might have some chance to find something else. But in three years, the closest I ever came to finding a new job in San Francisco was an e-mail promise of an interview for a six-month, no health benefits, supervisor’s position at a pharmaceutical firm’s call centre an hour’s drive down the road in Palo Alto. And I was informed by Human Resources at my insurance company that my unemployment compensation from the state would be only half my monthly salary.

I remember one cattle-call interview for a now prominent, world-wide, Internet company (which made the ADSL box I now use at home) that took place in Silicon Valley, for which I had to take a half day off work at my own expense. Applicants were made to stand in queues of 10 to 15 people in a large hall until they were pulled out at what seemed like random (I still don’t know what their criteria was). If selected, you were brought over to a table and still standing, asked to explain who you were and what you could offer the company. I stood in the queue for more than an hour until my lower-back pain flared up. I knew from experience that if I didn’t sit down immediately, I wouldn’t be able to work the next day. I left without being interviewed. At home that evening, lying in a warm bath that sometimes, but not always, eased my pain, I saw my future and realized I wasn’t going to find another job in San Francisco—even though I still kept trying.

At any rate, due to my present amnesia concerning the late 80s/early 90s, my journals are becoming increasingly interesting—as if they’ve been written by someone else as time fades, distorts, or even buries some facts. Reading them three decades later, I no longer feel guilty about not getting back together with one attractive, intelligent former boyfriend (he’d slept with five men that week) or with another (who’d had someone on the side during our “relationship”) once I moved back to San Francisco after graduate school in 1987. My journals from that time help me remember things correctly and put my doubts to rest.

In fact, when I first returned to San Francisco in 1987, a gay politician warned me: “Assume every one is (HIV) positive until you know otherwise.” It was good advice and I acted accordingly. Maybe that and distributing some of the first AIDS information pamphlets in 1982, (years before the government would print or distribute any) at the Gay Freedom Day Parade saved me. Four out of the five people who passed out that information are still alive today. Or maybe it was my overactive immune system, which causes my MS, my white blood cells attacking my nerves thinking they’re enemy invaders. At any rate according to the extensive blood tests I had the last time I was hospitalized, I’m still HIV negative.

Even more interesting about my journals from this period are the gaps of days, weeks or sometimes months between entries when I was too busy working or looking for work, out on my beat looking for a story, writing my news scripts, or preparing and correcting students’ lessons or papers when I should have been sitting down collecting my thoughts and putting my poems and stories on paper. I wonder what I could have written then if I had held a steady job and found an emotionally and financially stable partner in San Francisco in my 30s. Instead, I spent that decade and most of my early 40s trying to survive physically and financially, making a new life in a new country, trying to outrun AIDS, and get as much living in as possible before it caught up with me. (With so many dead friends, I just assumed, I wouldn’t make it).

Ironically I was blind-sided by another unexplainable and incurable disease: MS. Now disabled and out of work but finally with time to write, I wonder whether I will be able to finally write my stories through my daily fog of forgetfulness, fatigue, clumsiness and pain caused by my illness and medications, and how many other important events in my life, like interviewing Ginsberg, I’ve also forgot.