Overwhelming and underwhelming: that’s the phrase that some bloggers and I settled upon to describe this massive event. It’s overwhelming in the sense that it is truly massive (as any big industry trade show must be), with endless rows and rows of booths where publishers big, small, (and self-) hawk their wares. There is a seemingly endless spray of people flowing into the giant exhibition floor from all entry points, and you are jostled constantly as you thread through the crowds. On top of this there are wacky promotions going on at nearly every juncture – an author dressed up like an Elizabethan princess, dancing dogs and grannies wearing matching outfits, a balloon animal sculptor – along with lots of promotional freebies being thrust at passersby who must also avoid the snaking lines of people waiting to see some personality or another signing books at a publisher booth. The independent row felt like a safe haven – much less crowded and populated by less frenzied folks. But it was underwhelming too in that the interactions I have with some of these folks over email already are far more valuable than the hurried face to face meetings that end up happening at this event. While the Expo itself is an exercise in endurance, the parties that came after – including the LBC affair – were much more fun and relaxed. But more on that later, I need to get downtown to dive in again. I’ll wrap things up with a more detailed report – including my finally meeting so many great bloggers whose blogs I read daily – by the end of the weekend.
I had the opportunity today, along with a small group of fellow grad students, to meet NPR reporter Anne Garrels. Garrels has become famous over the last couple of years for being one of the 16 American journalists to remain in Baghdad during the war. Her sometimes harrowing reports from the Palestine Hotel seared her voice into the memories of many Americans. She’s been back to Baghdad since that initial period, and she’ll be going back again soon. She exudes an interesting mix of enthusiasm and fatalism about reporting in such a precarious situation — there was much mention of kidnappings and beheadings. She is quite pessimistic about the situation in Iraq, and she seemed genuinely astonished by the way she has seen the Americans handle the reconstruction. The logistics of reporting in that part of the world were perhaps the most fascinating part of the conversation. There is seemingly endless second- guessing about at what point it becomes too dangerous for reporters to be there, and in the meantime much of the time and budget seems to be taken up by solving security issues. There was, in the room, an almost palpable sense of concern for Garrels’ well-being. Certainly she is more than capable of handling the situation, but even so, after meeting her in person, we began to worry about her impending return to Iraq. After her time was up in the classroom we all sort of followed her out of the building — she had kept up the conversation even though it was time for her to go — and outside where she smoked a cigarette and we huddled around her, telling her about ourselves. When she was done, she wished us all good luck, and we all wished her good luck back, and we meant it.Side notes: Garrels mentioned that Anthony Shadid, the Washington Post reporter who won the Pulitzer for his Iraq coverage, is working on a book. She said that his deep understanding of the situation over there should make the book very good. She also mentioned the Committee to Protect Journalists, of which she is a director. The website keeps track of journalists who have been killed in the line of duty, underscoring what is at stake for journalists who put themselves in dangerous situations. Finally, I should mention her book, which, after meeting Garrels, I would really like to read. Have a look: Naked in Baghdad
There is a wonderful exchange in the documentary Moving Midway between the descendant of a North Carolina plantation owner, and the grandson of that same plantation owner’s mixed-race son. The documentary follows the moving of Midway Plantation, which sat across the road from a strip mall, to more secluded acreage. Godfrey Cheshire, the filmmaker (also a descendant of the plantation owners) starts looking into the history of Midway, including its slave families, which is why Abraham Lincoln Hinton, a 96-year old man from Harlem, is invited to the house’s re-opening party.
As he stands in the front hall, Godfrey tells him that the house had originally been built in 1848. “This house?” asks Hinton, “built then, and stood up like this?”
“That’s because your family built it,” says his host.
Everyone relaxes, including the viewer, with sheer relief that someone has said something candid. These two men, who are connected by a long, ugly history, but who weren’t personally involved, and both seem very gentlemanly, have such a strange, limited space in which they can relate to each other. Engaging the history of the South would be too sober a task and, quite frankly, not their responsibility, but acting as if they’re just two guys meeting on a porch is too flippant. The resulting atmosphere is cordial but constricted.
This is how I felt for the entire three days I recently spent in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Just being there reminds you that, had you been born in a different time or place, there were people you would be expected to hate. Not everyone chooses to travel to the physical embodiment of racial and sectional conflict, but then I am a history fan. And, as I wrote in March, I’m in the process of reading a biography of each American president. Having recently arrived at the Civil War, I decided to celebrate, if such a word can be used, by visiting Gettysburg.
Along with everything else, Gettysburg is beautiful. The three-day battle spread itself for miles around the town, and because the battlefield is now a national park, Gettysburg is surrounded by woods and fields that have remained untouched except by monuments. As Kent Gramm writes in the opening of his book, Gettysburg, “It is the most beautiful place on earth. But death is everywhere — in every meadow, along every Virginia rail fence, all over those quiet, rocky hills at sunset.” My friend Kara, who traveled with me, and I spent our time learning and relearning the story of the battle. A topographically-based battle is remarkably easy to grasp, especially when the topography is preserved, and you are walking around on it.
There are two long, parallel ridges – Cemetery Ridge and Seminary Ridge – that extend southward from the edge of town and frame the second and third day’s fighting. Then there are the contested hills – Culp’s Hill, Oak Hill, Little Round Top, and Big Round Top – that provided more brief, concentrated action. The major events of the battle – Buford’s stand on the first day, the Wheatfield and the Little Round Top bayonet charge on the second day, Pickett’s Charge on the third day – cluster around these high grounds.
We spent the first day at the Gettysburg visitors’ center and museum, plus a visit to the room-sized diorama. The next day we went on the self-guided auto tour, for which you listen to a CD in your car that tells you what points to drive to and what to know about them (usually: the next stop is a spot where many brave men died), and walked in the National Cemetery in the evening. The third day I went on a horseback ride along the Confederate encampment lines with a Robert E. Lee impersonator. As Kara said, you can’t throw a rock in Gettysburg without learning a historical fact (did you know Union Major General Daniel Sickles shot and killed Philip Key – son of Francis Scott Key – for sleeping with his wife, and was one of the first people to be acquitted of murder via a plea of temporary insanity?). By the end of the trip we knew the narrative of the battle like the backs of our hands.
The town of Gettysburg is entirely dedicated to teaching you what happened there 148 years ago, but it avoids interpreting itself. The museum’s 15-minute orienting film introduced me to the Gettysburg gaze — a particular brand of narration (in this instance supplied by Morgan Freeman, impartial as the voice of god always is) that pervades the town, describing every skirmish as good vs. good. Good wins.
Michael Shaara’s Gettysburg novel The Killer Angels, which we listened to on our drive, is the champion of the Gettysburg gaze. Its film adaptation, Gettysburg, takes it even further. Scored like NBC scores the Olympics, the film features commanders in freshly dry cleaned uniforms who philosophize more than they command. One Union commander, marveling at General Lee’s success, says “It’s amazing what one honest man can do.” “One honest man,” his superior replies, “and a cause.”
This is freakishly off point. The Southern campaign for independence was not one honest man and a cause. It was the culmination of near a century of sectional conflict which, among others, The Missouri Compromise, The Wilmot Proviso, The Compromise of 1850, the repeal of The Missouri Compromise, popular sovereignty, and The Kansas-Nebraska Act all in turn failed to assuage, and finally escalated into a fury. Sure, it all started as Jeffersonian democracy versus Federalism, but those were hardly the rallying cries of the armies as they shot at each other.
The auto tour ends on the Union side of Pickett’s Charge, the foolhardy press of 12,000 Confederate soldiers towards the better-situated Union line, which decimated Lee’s troops, ended the three-day battle, and turned the tide of the war. You stand on Cemetery Ridge, looking at Seminary Ridge on the other side of town, and you try to imagine two armies watching each other across that distance, preparing to fight each other because the Constitution didn’t explicitly prohibit slavery. Your brain tries to fill in all the steps in between and obviously falters. In Gettysburg, Kent Gramm argues that the Civil War was fought for opposing abstract ideals — union and independence. As you stand on Cemetery Ridge, picturing 7,000 dead bodies scattered in the valley before you, it’s hard to comprehend that they got there because of opposing abstract ideals. So you stand with furrowed brow for a bit longer — that bizarre requisite time you spend standing silently at complicated historical locations, usually about two minutes — and go back to the car.
All our days ended this way. The stories and statistics would build up until it was impossible to grasp, so we’d go back to the hotel and collapse on the beds to read the AV Club and update our Facebook statuses. This is when the Gettysburg gaze comes in handy. Everything turned out fine, you tell yourself, everyone involved was brave and good and civil rights were just around the corner. (That sounds ridiculous, but one narration we heard drew a direct line from Gettysburg to Jackie Robinson.)
The closest encounter I had with partisanship during my visit was talking with the Robert E. Lee impersonator on a horseback tour of the battlefield. He bemoaned the fact that I was from Indiana, preferring to socialize with his fellow natives of “God’s country.” I told him, though, that my family had lived in North Carolina before settling in Indiana in the 1850s, and that the relatives who remained behind served for the South. He praised the brave deeds of the regiments from that state, to which I assured him he was welcome. Eager to use my outsized knowledge of 19th century politics, I chatted with him about George McClellan and John C. Calhoun, the presidential elections of 1852 and 1856, and the Mexican-American war (which he fought in, although he disagreed with policies of James K. Polk, who is a long distant cousin of mine, and this caused some tension). In all this he avowed Southern partiality, but in a passive, melancholy way.
The New York Times published an editorial in 1867 that read: “The contest touches everything, and leaves nothing as it found it. Great rights, great interests, great systems of habit and of thought disappear during its progress. It leaves us a different people in everything from what we were when it came upon us.” The greatest mercy of Gettysburg is that it releases you from culpability. It’s the American Mordor. Whatever the sins of the past, they were destroyed there in fire. Surely we continue to read about and visit Gettysburg to learn what happened, but just as much to confirm that it did.
Image credit: The stone wall on Cemetery Ridge, via the author
About a month ago, I took the afternoon off and walked down to the Brooklyn cruise-ship terminal. Poets Essayists Novelists (PEN) had issued an open invitation to schmooze aboard the massive Queen Mary 2, in honor of its upcoming World Voices Festival here in New York. I had gone, of course, for the only chance I’ll probably ever get to walk around what was once the world’s largest cruise ship. And for the free lunch. I am a connoisseur of free lunch. But even if PEN hadn’t plied me with champagne and lobster thermidor (and the chance to observe the literary demimonde in what I like to imagine is its natural habitat – Philip Gourevitch chasing his parking validation slip across a windswept parking lot; Dale Peck, the worst tambourine player of his generation, jamming with the house band on “Paperback Writer”) I would still be writing this post. Why? Because I love PEN World Voices.Now in its fourth year, the festival brings together writers from around the world for readings, conversations, panel discussions, and for a chance to meet readers. Unlike certain other jamborees that shall remain nameless, this one works actively to shape American literary tastes, rather than passively reflecting them. In past years I’ve found myself going to events to see Mark Danner and staying for Alma Guillermoprieta, or going to see Don DeLillo and discovering Tatyana Tolstaya and Alain Mabanckou. If you’re in or near New York and you haven’t yet been to the World Voices festival, it’s well worth checking out. Again, I’m not just saying this because of the goat cheese terrine on a bed of baby field greens.A complete listing of events can be found at the PEN website. Below are my picks for the most promising-looking events, free except where noted.Tuesday, April 297 p.m.:Circumference Celebrates Poetry in Translation With Brian Henry, Christina Svendsen, Jeffrey Yang, and special guests @ Housing Works Bookstore Cafe.Wednesday, April 301 p.m.:Five Years of the PEN Translation Fund: A Celebration With Esther Allen, Barbara Epler, Edwin Frank, Wen Huang, Sarah Khalili, Idra Novey, Christopher Southward, Eliot Weinberger, and others @ Segal Theater, CUNY Graduate Center: 365 Fifth Ave8 p.m.:Readings: Public Lives/Private Lives ($15) With Coral Bracho, Peter Esterhazy, Rian Malan, Ian McEwan, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Annie Proulx, Evelyn Schlag, A.B. Yehoshua; introduced by Salman Rushdie @ The Town HallThursday, May 12:30 p.m.:Resonances: Contemporary Writers on the Great WorksWith Fatou Diome, Flora Drew, Ma Jian, Antonio Muñoz Molina, and Charles Simic; moderated by Esther Allen @ William and Anita Newman Library, Baruch College4 p.m.The Secret Lives of Cities With Yousef Al-Mohaimeed, Juan de Recacoechea, Joshua Furst, and Francisco Goldman; moderated by Matt Weiland @ Instituto Cervantes New York6 p.m.Publishers Weekly: On Translation With Morgan Entrekin, Edwin Frank, Halfdan Freihow, and Michael Kruger; moderated by Sara Nelson @ Elebash Recital Hall, CUNY Graduate Center: 365 5th Ave.7p.m.Thomas Bernhard and the Art of Failure With Horacio Castellanos Moya, Paul Holdengräber, Fatima Naqvi, and Dale Peck; moderated by Jonathan Taylor @ Austrian Cultural ForumFriday, May 21 p.m.:Reading the World With Peter Carey, Halfdan Freihow, Janet Malcolm, and Francesc Seres; introduced by Rachel Donadio @ Scandinavia House: 58 Park Ave.8 p.m.:Wristcutters: A Film Screening and Q&A with Etgar Keret @ Instituto Cervantes New YorkSaturday, May 31p.m.:Epic Journeys With Rabih Alameddine & Aleksandar Hemon @ Elebash Recital Hall, CUNY Graduate Center4 p.m.: A Tribute to Robert Walser With Susan Bernofsky, Deborah Eisenberg, Jeffrey Eugenides, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Michael Kruger @ Gilder Lehrman Hall, The Morgan Library & Museum8 p.m.:Review of Contemporary Fiction Presents New Catalan FictionWith Charles Baxter, Josep M. Fonalleras, Merce Ibarz, and Francesc Seres; moderated by Mary Ann Newman @ Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House of NYUSunday, May 42 p.m.Conversation: Jeffrey Eugenides & Daniel Kehlmann ($15) @ The New York Public Library, South Court Auditorium6:30 p.m.The Third Annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture by Umberto Eco ($20) On the Advantages of Fiction for Life and DeathWith Umberto Eco & Adam Gopnik; introduced by Francine Prose @ The Great Hall at Cooper Union
“Frank, we gotta take that clock.”
It was May of 1989, and Tony Rihner had just finished his drink, looked across the table at his old friend Frank Tripoli, convinced this was the night the heist would go down. Frank didn’t know it yet, but these older, slightly inebriated Butch and Sundance were about to go to Downtown New Orleans and take the clock off the front of the D.H. Holmes Department Store on Canal Street.
“Frank, you know they’re just gonna throw that clock away. They don’t understand what it means!”
To outsiders, the clock looked like nothing special, just a faded timepiece one might find at a Ninth Ward garage sale or in the bargain bin at a Royal Street gallery. But for over a century, the spot under the D.H. Holmes clock had been a famous meeting place for locals. Whether heading out to lunch or gathering after Saturday shopping, friends, parents, lovers, husbands, or wives would say, “I’ll meet ‘ya under the clock” and any New Orleanian would understand.
It was even a literary landmark. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces (Tony’s favorite book) opens with Ignatius J. Reilly “studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress” under the D.H. Holmes clock.
But things were changing. Dillard’s, a Dallas-based company had just purchased D.H. Holmes, at one-time the grandest department store in the South. Sadly, it fell to the same fate as the other New Orleans shopping landmarks that lined Canal Street: Godchaux’s, Maison Blanche, LaBiche’s, S.H. Kress all shuttered their doors one by one. It was the same story over the entire nation: Elegant downtown districts abandoned for the blander air-conditioned malls and parking lots of the suburbs. The wide sidewalks of Canal Street, once brimming with men in three-piece seersucker suits and women in Sunday dresses and white gloves, were now eerily empty.
But in the stillness, the octagonal face of the old D.H. Holmes clock still glowed, a relic of a disappearing New Orleans. Tony suspected it wouldn’t be there for long.
A few days before meeting with Frank, Tony went snooping around the old downtown store. One of his first jobs was approving credit on the fourth floor in the 1960s, a time when the storefront sparkled with lights and shoppers stopped in their tracks to marvel at the displays. But now looking through the dusty windows, he saw Dillard’s workmen in white caps taking down memorabilia — the portrait of Daniel Holmes, photos of the company baseball team and images of those smiling ladies who served up sweet macaroons and chicory coffee on the first floor café — all of them thrown in the trash. In true Ignatius-like fashion, Tony decided this ignominious fate would not befall the famous clock. Something had to be done.
Neither Tony nor Frank were sentimental. But they were what New Orleans blue bloods and Yankee writers would refer to as “Yats,” native-born and raised in blue-collar families. They carried with them an overwhelming sense of civic pride along with a distinct downtown accent that sounded more like Jersey City than the Deep South; often, their colorful vernacular was spicier than a cup of Galatoire’s gumbo. To Yats, the neighborhood, with all of its traditions, customs, and characters, must be protected, because they knew they lived in a place under perpetual threat of being destroyed, whether from a hurricane, oil companies, or corrupt politicians. It’s the small traditions — from eating red beans and rice on Monday to meeting under a clock outside a department store — that remind them that some part of this sinking city will endure. Those reminders are sacred, even if they seem trivial to the rest of the world.
“Frank,” Tony stiffened with determination, “we gotta take that clock.”
Frank hated what was happening to the city just as much as Tony, but they were 40-year-old married men and Tony’s plan sounded like a fraternity stunt. “Tony,” Frank answered, “you wanna steal something off the front of a building…on Canal Street?”
“Hey, we ain’t thieves,” Tony corrected. “We’re preservationists.”
Though standing a few inches taller than Tony, Frank knew protesting was futile. Besides, this couldn’t be any more dangerous than the time Tony roped Frank into running with the bulls in Spain. Chugging down his last sip of beer through his bushy mustache, Frank agreed to the plan. They would “preserve” the clock. “But first,” Frank said, “we need disguises.”
Attempting to look the part of workmen, they dressed in light khakis, white polo t-shirts, white sneakers and white caps. They grabbed a ladder and a few tools from the garage, piled into Tony’s Buick Riviera and drove to 821 Canal Street. It was a Wednesday night around 10pm. They could hear the ruckus from the bars in the French Quarter as they set to work loosening the bolts that had been in the overhead for more than 50 years. Occasionally, a curious pedestrian strolled by.
“Aw, my lawd” one lady said, “They takin’ down the clock!”
“Yes Ma’m” Frank replied.
Another passerby just stood there shaking her head in disbelief. For nearly 20 minutes Frank stood on top of the shaky six-foot ladder battling the long rusted bolts, while Tony kept watch. Exhausted, Frank handed the wrench to Tony who took his turn with the clock.
Then, by chance, or divine providence as she believed, Sally Reeves, the daughter-in-law of the President and Chairman of D.H. Holmes happened to come strolling around the corner. “Hey!” she yelled. “What are you guys doing?”
“We’re taking down the clock Ma’am,” said Frank
“And who gave you the authority?”
“Mr. Dillard” Tony said.
“I don’t believe you. My husband’s father was the president of D.H. Holmes. Give me your IDs.”
The jig was up. Frank, whose cool demeanor and towering presence always seemed to calm people, stepped closer to Reeves and explained their plan. She faced a decision. She could either let the two amateur “preservationists” take the clock or it would belong to a Dallas real estate tycoon. The question was, which was the lesser sin? “Well, I still want to see some I.D.” She wrote down their names and continued on her way.
Relieved, and somewhat vindicated by Reeves’s decision, the two set to work again. After 45 minutes, the last bolt budged and the 23-pound clock dangled from a thick electrical wire. Frank handed Tony a pair of uninsulated shears. As Tony clamped down on the wire, electricity surged through his body almost jolting him off the ladder. The clock dropped into Frank’s arms. It was exactly 10:45.
For a second, the two could hardly believe they had done it. They rushed the clock into the trunk, threw their tools into the backseat, and took off down the street. Racing down St. Charles, under the canopy of live oaks, the old friends laughed and hollered. It was time for a drink. They pulled into the next bar they saw and raised a glass to their success. That’s when Tony decided they needed to send a message. “Frank, call The Times-Picayune!” The Picayune was the local newspaper and while not exactly a Brink’s Job, the missing clock was still a worthwhile news item.
“What should we say?” Frank asked.
“Let them know someone saved the D.H. Holmes clock” Tony said. They were, after all, heroes, a righteous if not dynamic duo in the cloak of night protecting the hallowed icons of their city.
Frank nervously dialed The Picayune. When he was connected to the city news desk he blurted out, “The clock has been kidnapped!” then hung up the phone.
It wasn’t quite the message Tony had in mind, but they continued on with a victory celebration drawing the attention of two girls at the bar. “What are you guys so happy about?” they asked. Frank and Tony smiled, proudly walked the girls out to the parking lot, and opened the trunk to show off their prize. “Holy shit,” one of the girls said, “you guys are going to jail!” Unready to face such a sobering prospect, Frank and Tony quickly closed the trunk and decided to take the celebration back to Frank’s house. There, they posed with the clock for some Polaroid pictures: bringing it through the door, pointing to the time it stopped, and lounging on the couch with it. Then they packed it up and hid it in Tony’s house.
Officially, no one knew who had the clock, but Frank and Tony told the story to their friends. On special occasions, like a backyard 4th of July barbecue or a private Mardi Gras party, they would take it out to wow the guests.
“Mr. Dillard is gonna sue you guys!” their friends would say. But Frank and Tony didn’t care. “Let him sue us. I’ll steal the fucking thing again!” Tony retorted. And his friends would erupt in laughter and cheers.
For seven years they kept the clock. Then one day they got a call from a developer named Pres Kabacoff. Dillard’s had donated the old D.H. Holmes Canal Street store to the city of New Orleans and Kabacoff, a developer and preservationist of sorts, was turning it into a hotel. Sally Reeves provided him with Tony and Frank’s information in hopes that the clock could be restored to the building. At first the guys were suspicious. “Well, even if I did have it, what would you do with it?” Tony asked. Kabacoff explained his intention to restore it to its former glory. The guys explained they didn’t want any money. All they wanted was for people to meet under that clock, just like they used to do.
A few weeks later they got an invitation to the grand opening of “The Clock Bar” at the new Chateau Sonesta Hotel. Kabacoff explained it was a temporary placement, while they finished up renovations. But Tony wasn’t buying it. He could have held on to it until the renovations were completed. The clock wasn’t meant to be a wall ornament.
Eventually, Kabacoff made good on his promise. He moved the clock back to its original place, where it hangs today. In 1997 the city of New Orleans commemorated the literary significance of the site by installing a bronze statue of Ignatius Reilly underneath the clock. But sadly, few people wander by. The hotel constructed its main opening on the opposite side of the building, facing the French Quarter. The Canal Street entrance is the back door, which they keep locked. Other than the occasional devotee to John Kennedy Toole’s novel coming to pose with Ignatius, no one meets under the clock anymore. “It just isn’t what it used to be like in the old days,” Tony laments. “This was a vibrant meeting place. And now bums piss in that corner, just behind the statue.”
But Tony has no regrets. “That clock always belonged to us, the people of the city. As long as I’m alive, it always will.”
Special thanks to filmmaker David DuBos, who contributed to this article. DuBos is currently adapting Butterfly in the Typewriter into a feature film.
Photo Courtesy of Tony Rihner.