Cold War Mambo

​         The Cold War doesn’t mean a whole lot to me. At most it is an idea, or just an entry in some encyclopedic text. In fact when I think of that era of nuclear terror and social upheaval I guess I view it as some far off carnival. Indeed, there have been days that I wished I’d been present to take part in all of the movement and excitement. In my senior year English project in 2005, a retrospective of my life up until that point, I wrote of how I wished I could have been a grunt in Vietnam. The attraction I felt was the tragic heroism of those young men who were thrown into a foreign land to fight a war of abstractions, a war all too real to them. I guess I saw some form of poetry in it all, poetry that was absent in my present social reality.
​         But that was more a fantasy than anything else, no matter how much ethos the fantasy might have had. As I think more about the Cold War now and try to understand the way in which its currents course through my life, and what it all means to me, I find myself thinking of my father’s recent visit in September. To say he’s an interesting guy would be a disservice. He was born to a well-to-do family right as the fifties rolled around, both his parents radiologists, his mother a Catholic and his father, unbeknownst to the rest of the family until a few years ago, a Jew. From his days in his middle-class home he went through college, then lived as a hippy, ended up back in med school and finally settled into a life of global travel.
​         Here in New York, though, my dad and I are making our way down MacDougal Street to meet up with some old friends of his. I’m busily looking around at the sights when my focus is brought back to center by my dad letting out a whoop. Mark, one of his buds, is directly in front of us, a cane in his hand. My dad laughs, throws up his own cane with an “en garde” and they immediately start fencing. Without a clear winner and both of them chuckling I then follow them up to Jimmy’s apartment, another of my dad’s buds, and sit down with the three of them, drinking wine and bourbon and waiting for the wives to filter in. As I sit and listen it seems like they have suddenly left this world and returned to their years in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, pulling me along with them. It’s one of those magical moments that lingers with me.
​         Mark and his wife Nel tell me they met my father when he walked in through their kitchen window with a “heey maan”, looking for some kitchen utensil. Both of them laugh as they say it aloud for me. Their Haight-Ashbury apartment would eventually become the focal point for their gang of counterculture peaceniks. My dad laughs and contests the recounting though.
​         “No that’s not exactly how it happened. I remember it clearly. I climbed up into the second story bedroom window, stuck my head in and saw both of you cowering in bed and holding each other tightly.” He breaks into more laughter and I’m of course doing the same, picturing my dad’s afro’d head looking in a stranger’s window in the middle of the night. It was definitely a different time back then.
​         As the night goes on and the conversation flows, it becomes more apparent to me that my dad and these friends are the only ones who really managed to move into a new life. They take turns bringing up names from their shared past, and again and again I hear names of people who never got over their habits, who passed, who withered away. I get the sense that while the fates of these other friends is saddening, there seems to be an unspoken acknowledgement that this is just how things are.
​         Among the named is Chuck, a rough guy who reportedly spent time in prison for murder. But as I listen to my father and his old friends talk about him one thing becomes immediately clear: despite Chuck’s history, the man was one of the greatest, most gentle friends they had. They all speak of him with deference. My dad tells me that he owes his current life to him.
​         ​”Chuck is the one who told me I had to go back to school,” my dad begins. “He didn’t want me sitting around, living his lifestyle forever.” My dad went back to medical school and managed to merge his countercultural ways with a traditional American life.
​         As the talk continues I discover that Jimmy, Nel’s older brother, is a talented photographer, but when I ask to see his photos he demurs.
​         “I didn’t really keep any, I’d just take the pictures and leave them.”
​         “I’ve had to collect them for safekeeping,” interjects Mark, “Otherwise they’d all be lost.”
​​         But what few photos Jimmy has kept are nothing short of iconic. He shows me a hazy picture of Mark, Nel, Nel’s sister, Chuck, and Chuck’s prostitute Native American girlfriend, all bunched up together on the floor, their backs propped lazily against a plain white wall, each one of them with the most serene look on their face.
​         “Why do you think they look so peaceful?” Jimmy asks excitedly, holding the picture for me to see.
​         “I dunno, they look high,” I say and am surprised by how childlike I feel.
​         “We were smoking opium,” Mark says.
​         “No man, I remember taking this photo. You guys were on quaaludes,” Jimmy shoots back, sparking a lighthearted argument as the old friends try to remember what exactly it was.
​         Jimmy then brings out a stack of photos, each mounted carefully on particleboard so that they are now tiles. As he arranges them on the floor he explains what each one represents, telling us how the entire series hinges on the theory of the dialectic, using the space, light, and mass of the Brooklyn Bridge’s architecture and art to tell the history of Manhattan, from its purchase to its modern state as a metropolis. My dad remembers Jimmy talking about the project in the mid seventies and is amazed to see it in its completion, now some forty odd years later. I’m left speechless. I feel like I’ve witnessed the creation of an expressionistic masterpiece and I can only think that it needs to be in a gallery.
​         Then there’s one particular photo that Jimmy took back in the gang’s Haight-Ashbury days, one that my father showed me only a few years ago. When I first met Jimmy here in New York, during a Rosh Hashanah dinner with him, his wife, and Mark and Nel’s family, I mentioned the photo, almost in passing. Immediately Jimmy perked up and in his excited manner began firing off questions.
​         ​”The photo of your dad and Chuck? The bald guy? They’re both standing there smiling, right?”
​         “Yeah,” I said, “It’s one of my favorite photos of my dad.”
​         “I took that photo! I thought it was lost! That’s the best photo I’ve ever taken, it really is. It’s the perfect moment!”
Jimmy began telling everyone about the day he took that photo and what it meant to him. The funny thing is that, ever since the first time I saw it, that particular photo immediately became incredibly meaningful to me as well. And as we sit in his Village apartment he tells us all the story again. I don’t get tired of hearing it.
​         Finally as we all part ways for the night Jimmy stops me.
​         “You know I’m the official unofficial historian for The White Horse Bar?” he tells me. He invites me to come back so he can give me the grand tour of the Village and show me where all the beat poets hung out. He has that same excited passion I feel coursing through myself now that I’m here in New York, wading around in what I must call the flotsam of the beat writers and punk musicians of yore. To find this enthusiasm alive and well in someone who was there, who knows how to recognize the debris and put it together, to have someone to bring it all back to life, is exhilarating.
It’s the same kind of excitement I felt on a recent trip home, where I found myself with my dad piling punk CD’s into my hands: X-Ray Spex, Ramones, Dead Kennedy’s, Talking Heads, the works. I also took a book titled “Please Kill Me” about the history of punk, written by punk. As I took the book from him and looked at all the punk CD’s, I wondered what impact it all had on him when it was actually happening.
​         “What’d you think of punk when it first came out?”
​         “I thought they were doing something great. I was disillusioned with the hippy movement. It had lost its meaning by then.” Then he pauses. “But I was older by then, and in San Francisco.” But even if he didn’t get to live alongside it he still gets to hold on to it.
​         So I think that, if I’m connected in any way to the Cold War, it isn’t through the guns or political bravado of that era but rather through legacy of its artistic movements. That is what is all bound up in who I am, passed down through my father, through his life experiences turned to stories, both told and untold. Passed to me through the decisions made in my rearing and the lessons taught, interests kindled. And somehow all of this has become enveloped in that single photo of my father and his old friend Chuck, a frozen moment that captures both an era passed and an era present, captured in my fathers timid smile, really only visible through his bespectacled eyes, reminding me that I am my father’s son and that somehow that makes me a part of all he has lived through, and he a part of everything I have yet to live through myself.

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