Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Review: Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and Other Tales of New York

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and Other Tales of New York by Stephen Crane. Edited with an introduction by Larzer Ziff with the assistance of Theo Davis. Recommended.

If Edith Wharton captures the snobbery, superficiality, hypocrisy, materialism, and coldness of New York City's turn-of-the-century elite, Stephen Crane reveals the toughness, callousness, brutality, and violence of New York's working class. Ironically, Wharton's Lily Bart and Crane's Maggie Johnson, both romantics moving in anti-romantic spheres, share a similar fate—abandoned by their respective societies.

Unlike Wharton, Crane wrote from a primarily journalistic, dispassionate point of view. The settings, the situations, the speech, and the similes reveal the underbelly of life among the working poor. Maggie opens with "a very little boy," her brother Jim, serving as "champion" of Rum Alley, an aptly named area where life is centered on working, drinking, and fighting.

Maggie and Jim's father can't keep him from fighting because that's all the boy knows, and the torn clothes that his drunken mother bemoans cannot compare to the furniture and crockery damage that occur during their violent marital spats. The father, a drunken brute like his wife, does not understand the irony of his demand when he says, ". . . Yer allus pounding 'im . . . I can't get no rest 'cause yer allus poundin' a kid. Let up, d'yeh hear? Don't be allus poundin' a kid." The infuriated mother responds with increased savagery. "At last she tossed him to a corner where he limply lay cursing and weeping." Jim, Maggie, and even the baby Tommie seem to be as disposable as the rest of the household goods.

Life in the city is lived outwardly, and the strong do not question themselves. While "Jimmie had an idea it wasn't common courtesy for a friend to come to one's home and ruin one's sister," his contemplations of his own actions toward women are cut off by self-absolution before such introspection can lead to self-incrimination. Later, Pete will share this attitude when Maggie attempts, in his mind, "to give him some responsibility in a matter that did not concern him."

Maggie and Jimmie's parents represent an extreme. Everyone knows their family's business, from the residents who share their tenement with its "gruesome doorway" to the group of urchins who waylay the mother as she is ejected from a saloon for "disturbance." The Johnsons' troubles delight the neighbors; the old woman downstairs tells Jim that "deh funnies' t'ing I ever saw" was Maggie "a-cryin' as if her heart would break, she was. It was deh funnies' t'ing I ever saw."

In the midst of this squalor, Maggie does have an inner life. Combined with her romanticism and naïveté, it convinces her that Pete is the height of urbane sophistication as he bullies waiters, telling them to "git off deh eart'." Interestingly, as she toils over "eternal collars and cuffs," Maggie has a daydream that foreshadows Pete's final chapter in the novel; she imagines him with a half dozen women "and thought he must lean dangerously toward an indefinite one, whom she pictured with great charms of person, but with an altogether contemptible disposition."

In Maggie's final appearance, Crane does not use her name, which perhaps answers her question from the preceding chapter: "Who?" She begins her anonymous journey near a theater district, where the affluent emerge from "a place of forgetfulness." Her wanderings on this one night reflect her life over the previous several months, as she leaves behind the bright light and glamor on a trail of rejection that leads ever downward, until she meets a wreck of a human, who follows "the girl of the crimson legions." No longer Maggie, she represents those whose naïveté, hopes, and foolish romantic dreams are crushed by the code of toughness that Jimmie fights for at the beginning and the hypocrisy that her lamenting mother exhibits at her fall.

These stories can be hard to read, partly because most of the relationships seem detached or distant at best and bitterly heartless at worst. Maggie's father talks about pounding "a kid" as though they are not his own and have nothing to do with him. Pete is "stuck" on Maggie's shape only until she gets in the way of greater desires. George of George's Mother is happiest when he has made his old mother miserable. At the same time his "friends," whose habits and exhortations have led to his downfall, abandon him, just as he turned on his mother.

Love is a rare visitor to Crane's pages, apparent mostly in the maternal indulgences of George's Mother and the rediscovered affection of Mr. and Mrs. Binks in "Mr. Binks' Day Off." It is only in the countryside of New Jersey that the battling Binkses find a moment in which to express genuine affection: "Mrs. Binks had stolen forth her arm and linked it with his. Her head leaned softly against his shoulder."

Notably, the other loving relationship, between a child and "A Dark-Brown Dog," is marked by the brutality of the one and the submissiveness of the other. Their friendship begins when "the child lifted his hand and struck the dog a blow upon the head"; the dog "sank down in despair at the child's feet." In the world both know, the more powerful must domineer, and the weaker must submit. Living by this simple rule, however, does not guarantee survival.

Crane self-published Maggie, and it is sometimes clear that his work could have benefited from an editor's counsel. For example, similes such as, "The little boy ran to the halls, shrieking like a monk in an earthquake," are ineffective and draw too much attention to themselves. Yet these stories are an amazing accomplishment of observation and writing that make Crane's premature death at age 28 even more tragic.

Tuesday, 30 January 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The birthday blizzard of 1977

It was 30 years ago today that the blizzard of 1977 struck Western New York. And it most likely was the worst birthday of my mother's life.

After 30 years, I don't remember the details. It was a Friday, and my dad went to work. Although I can't be sure, I think that the schools were closed. My impression is that I spent the day at home with my mother and with a sense of nothing happening and a sense of something about to happen.

It was my mother's 58th birthday. She would have six more.

My mother suffered from depression and anxiety. For me, who loves snow, the winter of 1976/77 was beautiful and magical, with its accumulation of sparkling snow cover. For my mother, though, it must have seemed dreary, oppressive, and lonely, like the harsh New England winter setting of Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome, and January 28 must have been the dreariest and loneliest day of all.

I've read that it didn't snow much on January 28, but high winds caused the existing snow to drift. Later, I would see photos of houses in Buffalo buried to the roof line. High winds always frightened me. Whenever I felt the trailer shake and shudder, I had visions of it being blown off its cement blocks, falling like a toy, and life as I knew it would end forever when that happened.

Perhaps that is how my mother felt when my dad didn't come home from work.

Being young and optimistic, I wasn't worried. I knew, with the occasional confidence of youth, that my dad was all right. But I knew,from my mother's silence and her attention to the storm and the transistor radio, that she couldn't shake her growing gloom, her feeling that all was not well and would not be again.

Then my dad still didn't come home.

I tried to act as though everything were normal. I insisted on making the traditional birthday cake. A birthday would not be a birthday without the cake or a photo of the birthday person with it.

My dad didn't appear, and he didn't call, and I suspect supper was somewhat late that evening, put off until after its usual 5:00 p.m. serving in the hope that he might show up or send word somehow. But he didn't.

It was probably between 8:00 and 9:00 p.m. when I finally convinced the birthday girl to cut the cake and to try to celebrate. I still have the photo I took, in which she is wearing a red pantsuit and is wearing a look of worry under a forced half-smile. A 15-year-old can't realize that a 58th birthday may be neither special nor happy under even good circumstances, but especially not when it is accompanied by visions of car accidents and widowhood. Logic—the fact that most roads had been closed and that no one could get through on them to cause or participate in an accident—does little to hinder such thoughts.

My mother never slept well, often getting up restlessly between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m., and I suspect that this was one of the longest, most sleepless nights of her life.

At some point in the morning, my dad appeared suddenly at the front door. "Where have you been?" At the plant, of course. He had done what most of the other workers had—worked a double shift, eating out of vending machines. "Why didn't you call?" There were dozens of employees lined up to use the limited number of pay phones to contact anxious spouses, children, parents, and other family members. He genuinely did not seem to understand why she had been so worried.

He had worked the double shift, driven the three or so miles home when allowed, parked at the entrance to the trailer park because the roads were impassable, and slept in his van, probably under the scratchy old army blanket that went everywhere the van did, because the roads through the park were impassable. He walked home after it was light and there was a break in the weather.

I don't know if my mother ever forgave my father for the blizzard of '77 or the worst birthday of her life, and I don't know if he with his pragmatic nature ever understood all the anxiety that she could put herself through. Perhaps they are finally sharing some of that birthday cake today, and perhaps she is finally smiling.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Review: 100 Ghastly Little Ghost Stories

100 Ghastly Little Ghost Stories edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg, and Martin H. Greenberg. Recommended.

Like other tales, ghost stories set a tone that may be terrifying, mournful, moralistic, thought provoking, whimsical, or even humorous. In this anthology, ghosts appear for a variety of reasons. In "Across the Moors" by William Fryer Harvey, the anonymous ghost seems to wish only to tell someone about the experience that "served as the turning point in my life." Predictably, others seek revenge, even against the descendants of those who harmed them. In many stories, the presence returns because it is not at peace in some way or it wishes to warn the living. A handful of ghosts relive their deaths, so to speak. A few ghosts are not even aware that they are dead. Another twist features inexorable, repeating events of a ghastly nature instead of the beings themselves.

Interestingly, ghosts rarely transcend their humanity. Unlike Jacob Marley, whose vision beyond the grave is clearly greater than his living one was and who warns Ebenezer Scrooge against making the same errors he did, these ghosts remain true to their human nature and outlook. The family of "The House of Shadows" by Mary Elizabeth Counselman continues to live as they always have, unchanged. In "How He Left the Hotel" by Louisa Baldwin, a dead man walks whose habits and paths are no different from those he followed when he was alive. Vicious killers become vicious ghosts; malicious people become malicious ghosts, like the engineer of "The Light Was Green" by John Rawson Speer. "A Grammatical Ghost" (Elia W. Peattie) is as fastidious in the afterlife as she was in life. Few if any of these spirits behave any differently than we expect them to, given what we are told and can see of their lives and values. There are few surprises here.

I bought 100 Hair-Raising Little Horror Stories edited by Al Sarrantonio and Martin H. Greenberg and 100 Ghastly Little Ghost Stories at the same time because they seemed to make natural companions for long winter nights. I read the second almost a year after reading the first and found it disappointing in comparison.

Perhaps it is their very nature that makes ghost stories less effective than tales of horror. Ghosts are personal, connected in some way to the specific people and places that they haunt. I have nothing to fear from Jacob Marley or from any of the motley crew that roams the pages of this collection. I have killed no one, cheated on no one, and sent no one to the gallows, nor do my home or work place seem to attract spirits. I do not collect morbid objects like "Mordecai's Pipe" (A. V. Milyer). Some of the ghosts' actions seem horrifying, but I felt detached from them, perhaps because they are fictional ghosts acting out against fictional people in ways that are not entirely unexpected.

In comparison, horror stories, like those of Poe, rely on the darkness of the mind and its imaginative ability—how terrifying can the soul's darkness be? It is difficult to translate that sense to ghost stories, which, ironically, seem more tangible. Horror can extend as far as the mind can, but in the end ghosts are merely dead people—mostly predictable dead people. Without a spectacular ending twist, part of the suspense and the element of the unknown is lost.

Still, although there are more misses and fewer hits here than in the horror anthology, this is an entertaining book, worth curling up with on a dark and stormy night.

Saturday, 13 January 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Buyer beware

"St. Ives, as a conscientious formulator of safe botanical products, has never tested on animals and never will." —1991 St. Ives product package

Never say "never," as the saying goes. St. Ives is now owned by Alberto-Culver Co., which does test on animals, and the above no longer appears on St. Ives products.

Dream: On the ledge

I looked out the window and thought that I saw the lake lapping the ground- or first-floor windows of the buildings across the street. I thought, "That cannot be possible; the lake cannot have risen that much in only a couple of hours." I looked again, and it seemed normal. But then I looked yet again, and there was the gray water, swirling up higher along the lower windows. I did not dare to think about my own building.

My apartment had a door in a passageway that I never used. One day, I realized that it I did not know whether it was locked, and the possibility it might be open made me nervous. I could find neither lock nor key.

It was only then that I thought of opening it. I walked out onto a ledge, but could not be sure if there were stairs or a ladder leading up to it from outside. Then I noticed that I had unconsciously walked to the edge of the ledge without taking note of its width; I could have walked off it. As in other dreams, it did not seem stable, and it overlooked a tree-filled park or forest that I could not reach and that was not real.

I continued to be anxious about the unsecured door and intruders for some time. When I next looked, there was a lock with a small, jewelry box-type key in it. I wondered briefly how I had overlooked the lock and key before.

I was watching television with my parents. During a commercial, I changed the channel to what appeared to be a movie with Elvis Presley singing and dancing to a gym or auditorium full of high school kids during a Christmas party. I walked up to a large window and could see him and another person on the stage from above. I watched them gyrate and throw their heads back so that their contorted faces would appear briefly. I tried to get my cousin to see Elvis from the window. From that angle, he looked not only human but silly, but my cousin could not see what I could.

I became so engrossed in watching the movie from this angle that it was a while before I guiltily remembered to change the channel back for my parents, just as my dad was saying, "Where is that show we were watching?"

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Dream: Consulting and travel woes and anxieties

5 January 2007

I was working with one of my former consulting coworkers, but at some point I was supposed to catch a flight to Washington, D.C., also for work. I was carrying a suitcase, but had no ticket or even date and time.

Along with my coworker, I was supposed to meet with the corporate comptroller and corporate director of human resources (possibly the city of Chicago). I took a bus, which passed through a particularly tempting rural area of woods and winding roads, where I really wanted to walk.

I never decided, and then the scene changed. I was in the city and then at the outer glass door of the corporate controller's office, on which I knocked. I realized, though, that no one was there, possibly because I was late, and that I should go to the office of the corporate director of human resources. I couldn't find it.

I was in an atrium area and began to recognize people and offices from my old firm, even though the offices were open and otherwise different from what they had been. There were also many new people mixed in.

I encountered the former IT director, turned health care consultant. After some questioning, I told them all who I was looking for and why. They told me they were going to scheme to get the business from us.

At some point, I felt like they might have tried to get me to come back, but when I woke up I wasn't sure about that. Still anxious because I didn't know when I was to leave for Washington, D.C., I managed to find the office of the corporate director of human resources. The consultant was not there. I apologized for being late, but the director asked me if we had added the word "local" to the ad. I knew nothing about an ad, but I didn't want her to realize that.

The director showed me a printed piece that was long and folded accordion style. While discreetly trying to find the word "local," I discovered that, if I let fall open a certain way and at a certain speed, the images in the photos moved, as they do in a flip book. There was one of a waterfall in which the water flowed. I showed this to her, and she became fascinated with it. Meanwhile, I was distracted by thoughts of the travel issue, the missing consultant, and the scheming consultants, as well as anxiety over whether or not they wanted me back or not.

It took me an hour to wake up.