OLD PHOTOS, by S.K. Johannesen
The scene is a bar or cabaret. Four women with marcelled hair and powdered faces entertain two men at a table. The wall against which the table is placed is occupied with a large mirror, in which unseen lights leave spots of glare. Reflected also in the mirror is the litter of bottles, glasses and ash-trays on the table. The photograph is brightly lit, grainy, slightly askew. The effect of the scene, without doubt intended by the photographer, is a feeling of oppression and unease.
One of the men is turned slightly away from the camera. His face is further obscured by a hand holding a cigarette. He is attending to the woman on his right.
The other man is sitting opposite the first, his back to the camera. His face, however, is reflected in the mirror.
The man is young, in his twenties. He is slight and fair with a high forehead and a face that narrows toward the chin. His ears stand out from his head. He wears a hat, rather than a cap, pushed back. His reflected image is looking directly into the camera, but the gaze is uncomprehending. The man is drunk. His arms are around the women on either side of him, awkwardly, the boldness of the gesture not concealing his inexperience. His eyes are wide open, disbelieving, startled by something more than the bright lights. Their paleness in the photograph suggests blue eyes, Northern eyes.
The face of the man in the mirror is the face of my father.
I am sure of this even though there are difficulties with the dates. The caption in the book of photographs says that this picture was taken in Paris about 1926, at a bar frequented by foreign seamen. My father was supposed to have been settled in America by 1920, but he might have gone to France later. He had certainly been there before.
The only other bit of evidence with a bearing on this matter is a seaman's document of my father's, dated July, 1920 in New York. On the back he scrawled a name and an address in St. Denis. I cannot decipher the last name, but the first is unmistakably "Arthur." In any event I think of the Arthur of the document as the same man as the other man in the photograph, the one across the table whose features are obscured. Furthermore, I connect this Arthur with a man I remember from an episode in my childhood.
Thanksgiving Day in New York is often chill and windy. It was the one day of the year that was like Sunday, but without church. Everything about the day had an uneasy quality. It was the custom in the neighbourhood for children to go out begging in the morning. You rang doorbells and said "Anything for Thanksgiving." People shoved oranges and walnuts at you, and on the street night workers coming up from the subway gave you pennies. However, my brother and I were forbidden to beg. Our mother thought such things common. Instead, while she prepared the turkey or the ham for Thanksgiving dinner, my father took my brother and me for a walk.
We are dressed up, in my memory of these jaunts. My brother is still in short pants and I am in a knickerbocker suit with long socks. Both of us wear mackinaws with zippered hoods. My father has on his best hat: pearl-grey with a wide slate-coloured band and a tiny feather. He rolls from side to side when he walks, like a ship in heavy weather. I always thought this was a sailor's walk, until my brother developed the same walk later.
We do not talk on these walks, or play, even if we go to Sunset Park or Bliss Park or Leif Erikson Square, because we have our best clothes on. Anyway the parks are empty of human life. Sheets of old newspapers spin in the wind, which also blows grit into our eyes. Fingers freeze to the monkey-bars, and the boards of the see-saws have been removed. More often on these occasions we walk down to the docks through the deserted holiday streets: across Fourth Avenue, down the last steep stretch of Bay Ridge brownstones, past Third Avenue and the overhead train and the flop houses, to the forbidden zone beyond.
You can't get really close to the water down here, but the smells of tide and tar and bird droppings are strong, and also the smell of the garbage in the scows at the Sanitation Department pier at 52nd Street. Piers and warehouses and freight yards have encroached on the remnants of a once densely populated district of dock-workers' families, although a few mean houses persist on the side streets, and saloons still cling to the corners. We pass catwalks arching over oil-soaked tracks, vacant lots of brown weeds and broken glass, stacks of crates behind chain link fences, cranes and shunting engines and other machinery. A watchman sits staring at nothing, as though blind, in his booth by a warehouse gate.
My father explains nothing and looks at nothing and his pace is uncomfortable for us. Rather than lag behind we run on ahead. "Run on ahead," he says. "Wait at the corner." Or at the tracks. Or at the gas tank. And so we tear away pell-mell, arms pumping, to loiter at the designated place for my father to catch up. I experimentally apply arm and head locks to my brother while he half-heartedly kicks me in the leg, both of us watching for my father's rolling windward approach, hat down by his ears, hands thrust deep in his overcoat pockets, his blue eyes far away.
On these walks to the docks we always stop to see Arthur. (I have, as you see, come to call him this, although I have no clear memory of a name for him then.)
Arthur's feet swell badly. One shoe is cut open down to the toe. He is fat and breathes noisily with every movement. His room, at the top floor of a brownstone near Third Avenue, lies part way along the landing and has no outside window. A little light filters in from an air well through a small frosted window. He has a narrow cot and a few possessions on shelves, hooks to hang his clothes on, and a single chair. There is a toilet with a brown wooden seat and a pull-chain in a closet off the landing.
During these visits my brother and I stand awkwardly in the little room or wander out to the landing and hang over the bannister. My father and Arthur murmur in Norwegian, a lulling sing-song on topics forever lost.
When we are ready to leave Arthur presses on my father an evaporated milk tin with a slot punched in the top with a knife blade, in which he has put pennies during the year, for the missionary offering at the Eben-ezer Sunday School, where my mother is Superintendant of the Cradle Roll and the Children's Department. My father takes the heavy tin without comment and puts it in a paper bag he has brought for this purpose. Later, my mother will open it with a can-opener and wash the sour-smelling pennies before counting them and twisting them, fifty at a time, into papers to take to Sunday School. My mother makes wry faces during this operation because Arthur is not a Christian and shows no signs of becoming one, and because it was a principle governing life in the city that you never knew where things had been and coins in particular.
On one of these Thanksgivings, when he had already taken the evaporated milk tin with the pennies and put it in the paper bag, my father, on an impulse, invited Arthur to come along for dinner.
Arthur arrived late. My mother was angry and then sullen and the meal went badly. My father made it worse. He made my brother and me recite our Christmas pieces, even though we had just got them and didn't know them very well yet. Then we had to sing our Sunday School songs for Arthur, "Climb, climb up sunshine mountain," and "Jesus loves the little children" in Chinese, which we had learned from Sister Sorlie who had been a missionary in China and whose face was scarred by smallpox.
We had to stand close to Arthur during this recitation and we could smell his clothes and wanted to pull away and my father got red in the face and gave us angry looks.
My father announced after a time that he was walking Arthur back to his room, and I was to go along. I didn't want to go, and my mother gave him looks, but he insisted, perhaps as some sort of punishment of her, or me. There was no way to tell.
It had got colder since the morning and Arthur could not walk very well, but instead of going to his room we went to Sunset Park, at the top of the ridge overlooking the harbour.
They walked side by side in the clear autumnal light, my father walking more slowly than usual, in consideration of Arthur, who was pitched forward and shuffling in his clumsy shoe, with obvious difficulty and pain, against the sharp wind. We walked across the park to the edge of the long hill that sweeps down to the bay, from where we could see the ships and the Statue of Liberty sharp and clear and tiny. The deep ultramarine of the water faded to pale green at the foot of the Battery and toward New Jersey. Everywhere the water was agitated by the wind into flecks of white that flashed tiny and quick on the surface. Cirrus clouds high above Manhattan raced toward the Sound, making the earth seem to move beneath our feet.
Arthur's face was blue and veined like a cheese. A drop of clear mucous hung on the end of his nose. He glanced at me and then at my father. My father turned away but I could see the tremble of his jaw and the muscles working just below his ear. I knew he was very angry, and that it had to do with Arthur. I sensed, even then, in a child's first intimation of the intricate passions of adult life, that their quarrel, if that is what to call something so silent and awful, had nothing to do with the unhappy day, but was ancient, and deeper than words. I wanted to howl in misery from fear and the cold but didn't dare, and stood back and kept quiet until they were at last ready to move off, over the brow of the hill and homeward.
So far as I know my father never saw Arthur again after that day. His name was never mentioned in our house that I recall, and my father has been dead for many years.
I saw Arthur again, however, in a quite unexpected way.
Gustav Løvland, or Brother Løvland - for we called everyone connected with the church Brother and Sister in those days - was a house-painter by trade and later custodian at Sailorss Snug Harbor, on Staten Island, where a dwindling handful of sailing-ship veterans shuffled about among enormous rosewood billiard tables and ship models in glass cases. Although Brother Løvland lived in this modest way, his brother had been a minister of the crown in Norway. That was the way things were with Norwegians in Brooklyn.
Brother Løvland was a fine musician and respected as a man of culture and of lofty character. He played the violin and in the twenties had written music, gospel songs with verses and a refrain, and published them on sheets with his photograph on the cover, a lean aristocratic face and a wild mane of hair.
The Løvlands moved to Staten Island about the time Elim left the converted movie house on Seventh Avenue for the former Jewish Temple on Fourth Avenue. That was about 1941 and my father was still an elder at Eben-ezer, and Eben-ezer people didn't associate much with Elim people. Nevertheless, the old movie house, now The Hospital and Prison Mission, was neutral territory for Special Meetings, and was always referred to as Old Elim.
The auditorium was long and narrow with a raked floor and a centre aisle. The movie façade had long ago been replaced with a yellow brick one with small square turrets at the corners that made it look like a tiny armoury or citadel. The Elim folk had, in their day, painted a banner across the front of the auditorium in gothic letters, "Det er fulbragt!" in Norwegian, which meant it is fulfilled, meaning the words of the prophet Joel that young men would see visions and old men would dream dreams.
Brother Løvland was a legend in those circles, his reputation for discretion enhanced by his remove to Staten Island during the struggles over succession that engulfed the Elim people at the time of the move to Fourth Avenue. At the Special Meetings at Old Elim, Brother Løvland directed the great combined string bands of Eben-ezer and Elim, reinforced by the Rock Church people, who were Swedes, and also played his violin in a way that made people weep.
I courted his daughter Ingrid, who was thin and sweet and wore kerchiefs on her head in the manner of those days. The undertaking required stamina: a walk of several miles from 53rd Street to the 69th Street Ferry terminal, the passage on the ferry, the bus from St. George to Clove Lake Park, the hike across the park to the Løvlands, and then back again in the small hours of the morning.
Brother Løvland had a man he called Tafts to dinner one night, an untidy hulk of a man with dreadfully wheezing lungs and swollen feet. This was my Arthur. I am certain he didn't recognize me, and I said nothing. After dinner Tafts consented to play the piano, and launched on a Liszt Rhapsody which he played with reckless attack. He lifted his great fists high over his head and brought them crashing down in glancing hammer blows that ended far off the end of the keyboard. All this over his heavy breathing, and grunts of pain because of his feet.
The talk that evening was of Brahms and Schubert, punctuated by illustrative passages, played impetuously and argumentatively by Tafts on the piano with more wheezes and grunts, or meditatively and with modest authority by Brother Løvland on his violin, which he always kept by him.
Another world was opened to me, and I forgot Ingrid completely. After playing some other pieces on the piano Tafts launched into stories that kept us spellbound until much too late for me to catch my ferry.
I never thought in those days to attempt to piece together any of these fragments into a history, or to ask anyone about them who might have known. The discovery of the photograph of my father in a cabaret in France caused me to consider him in a wholly new light and gave me a motive for unravelling the mystery of Arthur. I became mildly obsessed with it, spending a good deal of time going through some old photos of my father's, which my mother gave me one day in a distracted and offhand mood.
I managed to identify here and there a picture I was rather sure was of Arthur and my father, most of them from the twenties, before my father found religion. In one they pose with other young men at a Coney Island bath house. Another shows them on a picnic, with a car. Arthur is lounging on the running board playing a guitar to two young women in slacks and head-bands who are preparing a lunch on a blanket. My father is sitting stiffly in the back seat of the car. In a third, my father stands on the deck of a ferry between two laughing women with heavy legs in shiny stockings and cloche hats. I imagine Arthur to be the photographer.
One set of images in the album I return to again and again. Three photographs. All taken about the same time. The scenes are in Norway. It must be about 1915 or 1916.
The first photograph shows two young men sitting on a log, one of whom is my father. The print has so faded that his nose is no more than two oily spots and his lips a faint pink line. He looks chubbier than he later became and his suit is ill-fitting and puckered at the seams. A boater is pushed to the back of his head. The eyes are round, pale, the pupils dark pinpoints. Arthur - for it must be he - is slighter than my father. One leg is placed over the knee of the other. His boater is cocked forward and his eyes and much of his face are in shade.
The second picture is clearer than the first. A pretty girl is standing on wooden steps in front of a white building. Her dress is plain and hangs straight to just above her ankles. I imagine the dress to be dove-grey, or perhaps plum. She is wearing boots done up with hooks. She has no hat or gloves. Her hair is dark and piled loosely on her head and caught untidily in a ribbon. She is smiling. Her mouth is wide and her teeth regular and her eyes are full of merriment.
The last picture is a shot of the white building, which appears to be a dormitory. The building is two storeys high and very wide with many windows. The door and the wooden steps on which the girl had been standing we can now see are at the centre of the building. There is a small x in blue ink on one of the upper-storey windows, the second one from the left.
As I have recently thought over these odd events and inscrutable images I am struck by the mystery and the sadness of the lives of the dead. What had happened to Arthur? What had happened to my father? Would this girl with the wide mouth and merry eyes have saved either of them?
I learned only recently, on a visit to a friend in Norway, what happened to Brother Løvland. There had been an accident, she said, many years ago, the death of a grandchild, a boy, Ingrid's child, in the winter, at Sailor's Snug Harbor. The boy slipped under the ice in the fountain pool and drowned. Brother Løvland blamed himself and died shortly afterwards of an inconsolable grief.
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