Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Richardson's (Reluctant) Travels: A Journey to Newark

Since I had the pleasure of accompanying my friend Mr. Samuel Richardson on his reluctant Saturday airing to New Jersey, I will relate in the following post some notable details from that little excursion for the pleasure and edification of my readers.

It must be announced at the outset that, having never visited New Jersey before, Mr. Richardson had registered many objections against this undertaking. Nevertheless I prevailed upon him to suspend his fulminatings against New Jersey--- which State he had described as having a general atmosphere of Perdition about it--- if only for one Saturday.

"But my dear Mr. Richardson, you have said the same thing of every State in the Union," I protested. "Did not you claim t'other day at Mr. Brockden's dinner that Massachusetts and Connecticut were headed for Perdition? How you mortified Miss Shanka, a native of Massachusetts, and how you upset Miss Farquhar, a native of Connecticut, with your surly words." After some consideration, Mr. Richardson relented, "'Tis true. 'Tis true. If every State is in Perdition what difference can it make where you are? Anyway, was it not Mr. Alexander Pope who declared that universal darkness covers all, and what not?"

So last weekend we hopped aboard the New Jersey Transit at Penn Station and made our way to Newark. The scenery was so completely new for him that he was absorbed by all things around him with an even greater degree of shrewdness than he is known for. Nothing escaped his penetrating gaze. Yet in all one's travels, he would say, 'tis wise to remember that though the scenery may change, the stage personae and the stories remain much the same the world over; that the same hypocrisy, the same fraud; in short, the same follies and vices are to be found dressed in different habits. In Brooklyn they are dressed in camel coats; and in Queens they wear ponchos. In Los Angeles, a knave is dressed like a cholo; and in Oakland, California he wears vintage button-down shirts and scarves. But human nature is everywhere the same, everywhere the object of detestation and scorn.

After we arrived in Newark, we initially did not get far beyond the train station, for Mr. Richardson spent some time observing the taxi drivers as they lolled by their cars outside the building soliciting customers. He expressed to me later that he was much struck by their boorish manner of behaving---for at that moment he dared not express his thoughts out loud in their presence.--- Indeed it must be said that Newark's taxi drivers are the most insolent group of human beings who've ever banded together and formed a labor union. Several times Richardson and I heard, as we conitnued our walk, wild cries of Getta outta ze cab! Getta outta ze cab! Getta outta ze cab!  echoing throughout the city's roads, which I dare say may be the drivers' mating signals, or something of the sort.

Following the scene with the drivers, I saw him walk over to a street cart to buy honey-roasted peanuts. Before he left with his purchase Mr. Richardson exchanged a few pleasantries with the dark-haired street vendor, albeit quite reluctantly. Shortly later I asked my friend as we rambled down Broad Street, "How like you those peanuts, Mr. Richardson?" He tossed some into his mouth and answered, "I can not say they are bad." However, he went on to fret over the fact that the fellow who sold him the peanuts had a pungent smell about his person that was less than pleasant. He also marveled at the same fellow's vigorously hairy set of knuckles. Notwithstanding such grievances his peanuts were but tolerable.

I led him on a walk towards the Passaic River, as I wanted to show him the waterfront. As we continued down Newark's streets, he would sometimes comment upon the extreme narrowness of the sidewalks, especially when we had passed certain restaurants that offered outdoor seating; he complained that the chairs and tables did protrude and occupy too much space on the sidewalk, about two-thirds in fact, he was precise enough to observe, for the comfort and safety of the pedestrians.

Nevertheless when we reached the waterfront we managed a more congenial time of it. We sat upon a bench, from which we commanded an impressive prospect over the Newark skyline, feeding the pigeons and the ducks who were bold enough to come near us. At that moment, I must say I was very pleased with myself. We talked upon various topics which I will omit here as not being worthy of notice. While meditating over the urban blighters who were making a nice feast upon our food crumbs, Mr. Richardson observed that the pigeons and the ducks have a certain advantage over us humans. "When a pigeon's thirst and hunger is satisfied, he is content," he said, "but though I am, like the pigeon, pained with want, I am not, like him, satisfied with fullness." I congratulated him on making such a profound comparison, and I promised I will have recorded it by the end of the day.

Next we proceeded to the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart,---which he compared favorably with Canterbury Cathedral, although he said the latter was much bigger lengthwise---and was more charming for not being crowded in by car traffic on all sides. He marveled over the fact that the portal stairs to the Cathedral were rigged with a handicapped-accessible ramp, which, as Richardson noted, is much easier to ascend on one's knee, and so must facilitate the modern pilgrim's holy crawlings. We walked deep inside the nave and took a seat; again, we talked about various topics which I will not relate here as not being worthy of note.

Suddenly, he wanted to know whether my smart phone, or my gew-gaw as he liked to call it, had any reception at that moment. When I checked and answered him affirmatively, he seemed not too pleased with that answer, yet he uttered not a single word of it. I was happy to sit with him like that for a certain period in silence inside the pew. There were no more than six other people in the Cathedral with us. As I glimpsed Richardson's face deep in reflection, I noticed that though his eyes were open, he seem not to be focused on any single object. How I wished that, if only for that moment, I could enter the recesses of that man's mind, to experience what must have been his mind's ballooning of itself to match the proportions of the Cathedral's vast interior space.

By the time we had left the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart the sun was near setting. I said to him that time runs fast when we do enjoy ourselves so much. After we crossed the Passaic River, Richardson decided that we should go inside one of the purveyors of frozen yogurts which looked to be so popular among the local people. We entered one such store; and with very little instruction on my part, he managed to operate successfully the yogurt squirting machine, selecting the Peanut Butter flavored one. 

In the store  there were quite a lot more people than in the Cathedral, mostly children with parents eating frozen yougurt----who, though they were unaware of it, were being instructed an imporant lesson, as the followng scene will make clear. As we were putting on toppings, we noticed alongside us a group of people down the line; he drew my attention to a curious social interaction. 'Twas a mother and her daughter filling up their deserts with toppings; the mother ruled that the girl was permitted only a certain amount of toppings; these limits the girl resented, quite naturally, with banshee-like screechings. Indeed the poor child was being asked to select from among twenty different toppings; to be particular, from four different chocolate toppings, five fruit, five peanut, and a handful of a category of topping for which I have no language to describe. Once the girl reached her maximum allowance,  however, she had a difficult time restraining herself from trying to obtain more. Arguments burst forth between her and her mother, no amount of whose vehemence could restrain the girl's desire for more toppings.--Please, mommy, can I have more?---I want more toppings!---Why can't I have these other ones, Mommy?---were the little girl's words, which she repeated ad nauseum.

We sat down to eat our yogurts when Mr.Richardson spoke to me in the following way, "I hope you paid attention to that pretty conversation piece on the line. The young girl is quite right to feel the injustice of having to suffer twenty different choices of topics but told she could only have four. Is this not the same double pickle our modern society puts us in every day? One hand gives us a cornucopia of the choicest viands, while t'other wags a reprimanding finger in front of our eyes. 'Tis no wonder man is never satisfied with what he owns. Alas, such waste of human energy expended in the name of self-restraint!" And after a pause, Richardson resumed, "Truly, my friend, I would exchange my life with a pigeon, so that I could live among these winged urban blighters, if for one day only, what think you of that?"  

"We know very well too", I said, "how you'd use your gift of flight. Although you'd have the body of a pigeon, you'd have the piercingness of an eagle. You'd use your gift of flight to ascend the skies and with your satiric acumen peep down on us humans from your Olympian heights. Finally, you'd translate knowledge so soaringly obtained into short and pithy ejaculations." He said he was made much obliged for my kind words and offered to pay for my frozen yogurt.

But before we could leave the store he was imposed upon to exchange some pleasantries with the people sitting next to us, who o'erheard him speaking and who quite naturally must have been struck by something in his words or appearance. They asked him something about his manner of dress---no doubt they were curious about his peruke--- and his manner of speaking, which they believed was very antiquated indeed. They said that they had never before heard anyone in Newark declaim in such articulate manner as Richardson did. Though Richardson conversed affably enough in such situations with strangers whenever they occurred, it can not be said he derived much satisfaction from such correspondences, and so avoided them as much as possible.

By the time we left the yogurt shop, the sun had fully set and evening had spread o'er Newark, and our journey having reached its end. Mr. Richardson said something about universal darkness, which I could not hear very well, as we directed our steps to the train station. In less than two hours, we arrived home. We continued talking into the early hours of the morning of the following day, o'er numerous cups of coffee, sorting our impressions of Newark, I carefully transcribing and cataloguing Richardson's various proclamations, which are here provided for my readers in edited form.


Monday, January 19, 2015

The Life of Peter Pupsik, Part One

         Had Mr. Peter Pupsik written his own life, in conformity with the opinion which he had given, that every man's life may be best written by himself---had he employed in the preservation of his own history, that clearness of narration and elegance of language with which he expressed his ideas, the world would have had the most perfect example of autobiography that was ever exhibited.
          As I had the honor and happiness of enjoying his friendship for upwards of twenty years; as I had the scheme of writing his life constantly in view; as I acquired a facility in recollecting , and was very assiduous in recording his conversation, of which the extraordinary vigor and vivacity constituted one of the first features of his character; and as I have spared no pains in obtaining materials concerning him, from every quarter where I could discover, and have been favored with the most liberal communications by his friends; it is clear that no other biographer could enter upon such a work as this, with more advantages.
          No truer remark has ever been made on the state of modern man than that his life is full of contradictions. Mr. Peter Pupsik, born in a country that no longer exists, exhibits these contradictions better than most others. Since 1991, his birthplace, which once occupied one-sixth of the earth, has been erased from all world maps; alas, as he expressed it, his paternal roof has been dissembled forever. He was born in the  place which used to be variously called the Land of the Tartars, or Great Russia, or simply Rus, in the northerly province  of Z-------; which land at the time was over-ruled by a Communist regency.                 
          That he was remarkable, even in his earliest years, may easily be supposed. An early illustration of many of Pupsik's later characteristic traits may be given through the following description of his early years, relating the hows and whys of his five-year long estrangement from his parents.
          Pupsik was not quite nine  when the country's Premier, Mr. Kh----, who had been governing  over the country since before Pupsik's parents were born, had suddenly died. Pupsik's father, a rather mousy creature, had broken the sad news to his son. The death of Mr. Kh---- had occasioned a great deal of lamentation among the Muscovites, yet no one was more apparently afflicted than young Pupsik. Attending the funeral while perched upon his father's shoulders, thronged by the Russian multitudes, Pupsik gaped at the coffin as it passed through the streets of the capital. Back home later that day a neighbor asked Mr. Pupsik how he could possibly think of bringing such a young child to a funeral, as the massive assemblage could have easily been stirred to a violent frenzy, endangering the boy's life. For 'tis well known that in that part of the world funerals of public officials often turn into bloodthirsty routs. The father answered, because it was impossible to keep Pupsik at home; for, young as he was, he believed he had caught the true public spirit and zeal for his country.
          Indeed young Pupsik was much tribulated. For a long time following the Premier's death, Pupsik was consumed with grief. And furthermore, he displayed a certain amount of intolerance towards any perceived slackening of grief and reverence for the departed Premier on anyone's part.
          "Mamachka," said Pupsik at the breakfast table "why did the Premier have to die?"
          "Alack-a-day, dear son, every life must have a stop, " said Mrs. Pupsika, " all of us will seek out of this world at some time or other. Now eat the rest of your kasha. Go on, be a good boychick."
          "But don't you think the Premier's death a great calamity for our country? Would you say 'twas a very bad calamity, or the worst ever?"
          "Why, just listen to this little one here," said his Father. "Whoever put such deep questions into your head? 'Tis no denying, the Premier's death was a hard blow to our country, but now we have a new leader, and we have recovered fairly well as a country. Eh, what say you, dear wife?"
          "Sure, sure" said his Mother, "and while the leader is new to office, we must be generous to him and treat him as one who might be worthy of our respect. For until he falls short of his obligations, we ought to hold him in very high estimation indeed. Now eat your kasha, little one,"
          "Mamachka, don't you think the Premier rather too young to die?"
          "No, my boy, the Premier was an antiquary," said his Father. "Dwell not over-much on such morbid fancies, let us finish breakfast." As was natural to expect, the collective nerves of the Russian people were made highly strung following the death of the Premier. Individuals were conscious of their behavior being subjected to more public scrutiny than was normal. The slightest deviations in manners from what was considered proper was likely to arouse suspicion.
          "He was a reeky codger, and that's the end of it. We shall have no more on this talk," boldly said his Mother, then scooping more buckwheat onto their plates. The father was made much content  with her generous dishings. Even had he wanted, he could not have said a word at that moment since his mouth was food stuffed. Indeed the one person he feared more than the Premier himself was his own wife; to whom he yielded his authority, or whatever was left of it to yield, as gladly as he had to the Premier.
          "But couldn't some other person have been, I don't know, substituted for the Premier?" persisted Pupsik in his inquisition "and died in his place? 'Twould have benefitted the whole country." His mother and father looked at each other quizzically, unsure whether to admire, pity, or take alarm at the boy. They knew not what to make of his ardent displays of patriotism, upon which he insisted the more eagerly as they sought to temper him with what they thought was common sense. Might not the Premier's death be the work of some cabal, he asked? Was not a complot laid to betray the Premier? Did they not think there was a shortage of wailfulness among the people? Why were no flagellants to be seen following the coffin? The parents exchanged more puzzling looks, amazed at their son's precociousness. While the Mother was too furious to say anything, the Father, after swallowing his food, braced himself and managed to say, "Wouldn't my boy enjoy himself more if he had another dishing of beet juice? You always said, beet juice was your favorite."
          "Damn your eyes, and damn your juice," squealed Pupsik, "I demand greater respect for the Premier. Show more respect! And why aren't you standing when the  Premier is being spoken of?" He had gotten up from his chair by then, and was now gesticulating with his hands most truculently---- in such manner as to be no doubt familiar to those among his friends ---or indeed his enemies, of which he had many more---who knew him in his adult life. Till he had driven himself into exhaustion at the end of the day, Pupsik's harangue was relentless; and no matter what they tried, his parents could not bring his zeal under control.
          The following morning, he seemed calmer. It appeared as if last night's talk was water under the bridge. Yet two days later, a group of gendarmes came by and arrested the parents, carrying them to a labor camp in the remote province of B----. Pupsik was immediately placed under the care of the State, and was delivered to a boarding-house located in an eastern Oblast. There for a period of five years he was bred up, cloathed, fed, and taught. And after the five years passed, he was remitted to his parents,  who were discharged from the camp upon completing their sentence.
          Throughout the period of his residence at the boarding-house, Pupsik had gained a considerable amount of friends and admirers among the children, who were living there, as it were, in hock---some of whom, like Pupsik, having put themselves there on their own volition--- as well as among the staff members. For every body came to be awe-struck by his personality, and they admired his efforts to spread patriotic zeal among them, and to inculcate a sense of devotion to the State. His fame began to spread after he related the story of his denouncing his parents. This abreption, as he called it, was forced upon him on account of their less than indifferent patriotism. This action was greeted with universal approval.
          The children stood there and listened most raptly to Pupsik as he spoke to them, often standing on his bed in his little slippers. In a transport of fervor, he expiated on the need to defend the values of the State, to be ever vigilant against the alien element, as he called it, and to wipe out defiance before it begins. He reminded them, that as children they have a unique, privileged role to play in this crusade; for, should they ever be restored to a family, he preached to them the virtues of spying on their parents, of reading their correspondence, of sifting through their drawers, and even peeping at them through keyholes, anything to discover evidence for a wavering of universal patriotism. He also managed to win the admiration of the staff members, each of whom regarded Pupsik as their personal favorite among the children, and so they treated him with certain allowances, such as extra dishings of beet juice from time to time.
          One of his major concerns, which would emerge later in his adult life, can be traced to this period. During his stay at the boarding-house, he instilled in the boys, ignorant as they were of such modern notions---those shifty-eyed rascals, as he later described them---the regular practice of taking care of one's teeth, the lack of which practice horrified him tremendously. He taught them the proper use of a toothbrush and he taught them not to eat the paste. This took some time in being fully adopted by them, but Pupsik's zeal ultimately proved to be as effective in this mundane realm as well as in the greater public realm.
          As mentioned before, after five years Pupsik's parents won the rights to recover him from State custody, and they paid him a visit one day to carry him home. At first he hardly recognized them, but he soon admitted that they looked rather healthier, and that they had a more alert air about them.  Before leaving the boarding-house, the little family took a few minutes to sit for the road, and then commenced the 1,500 mile journey back to the province of Z-----. The parents thenceforth never again gave Pupsik reason to suspect their complete reverence for the State.