Sitting in Bewley’s, Reading James Joyce Aloud

In college, I was particularly drawn to an author I’d never heard of before, a fellow named James Joyce. He wrote of complex thoughts and feelings but in a simple way. His sentences flowed like swiftly moving water. No author I have ever encountered had smoother prose. Not only that, but his prose never had a false step in it. Over time, he became a god.

During my recent trip to Ireland, I discovered that Joyce is revered over in Ireland, not just in American college English departments. We discovered statues, carvings, photographs, paintings.

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In Dublin, a couple magicians invited me to have lunch with them at Bewley’s Oriental Café, which is on the famed promenade called Grafton Street. I stepped inside and breathed in the glamour and the history. Over a fabulous scone and tea, we sessioned, as magicians like to put it, trading secret moves and conspiring, as we are wont to do. Everything we do is a conspiracy against the laity, ourselves being a kind of clergy.

Our magic session at Bewley's in Dublin

Our magic session at Bewley’s in Dublin

In the middle of my afternoon there, I discovered that Bewley’s is mentioned in Joyce. It’s in his short story, “A Little Cloud.”

Little Chandler had come home late for tea and, moreover, he had forgotten to bring Annie home the parcel of coffee from Bewley’s.

Suddenly, the place was imbued with a golden literary glow. I discovered that there’s a James Joyce balcony and a small painting of Joyce on the wall. I read the story in Dubliners, and discovered that it’s about the frustrating tension between our burning passions and the banality and drudgery that we call responsibility. That’s a tension I have lived, baby, baby.

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There were so many different moods and impressions that he wished to express in verse. He felt them within him. He tried to weigh his soul to see if it was a poet’s soul. Melancholy was the dominant note of his temperament, he thought, but it was melancholy tempered by recurrences of faith and resignation and simple joy. If he could give expression to it in a book of poems perhaps men would listen. He would never be popular: he saw that. He could not sway the crowd but he might appeal to a little circle of kindred minds.

I thought that when I published What Happens to Us.

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A street scene on O’Connell Street, the main drag in Dublin

Standing in front of "The Needle" on O'Connell Street in Dublin.  People wonder what the monument means.  To me, obviously, it's a celebration of the Irish junkie.

Standing in front of “The Needle” on O’Connell Street in Dublin. People wonder what the monument means. To me, obviously, it’s a celebration of the Irish junkie.

Later, Claire and I were walking down O’Connell Street, which was named after Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell. Look at a country’s patriots and you will discover the country’s soul. Born in 1775, Daniel O’Connell was a fiery orator who campaigned for the right of political representation in Parliament for the Irish people, which is of course what motivated the American colonists during the Boston Tea Party. In the 1840s, in his sixties, O’Connell campaigned for Irish independence and was jailed for it. His health suffered in prison, and when he was released, he made a pilgrimage to Rome. He died en route. Per his wishes, his heart was buried in Rome, and the rest of his body, in Dublin.

I was sick while traveling, as well. Some days, I simply couldn’t find the strength to walk around. In some photographs, you can see it in my eyes. It was like I forgot to wear mascara.

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You can see that I’m sick in this photograph

On one of my healthier days, we posed for a photo beneath O’Connell’s statue, then walked down the street and played around at Joyce’s statue. In one photograph, I’m aping Joyce’s dandyish pose. In another, I’m comically begging Joyce for the ability to write as well as he did.

In front of the O'Connell statue

In front of the O’Connell statue

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Joyce is one author to whom I truly aspire. When I first encountered his prose, I was astounded that he could express such complex concepts in such a simple and direct way. In college, I was a literary democrat, averse to such stylistic royalists as Henry James, T.S. Eliot, and Thomas Disch. On top of that, Joyce wasn’t afraid of his heart. The people in his stories were regular people with regular concerns. A crying baby. A colleague who has surpassed the protagonist. Envy and disappointment.

When I begged a bronze Joyce on O’Connell Street for writing ability, then, I wasn’t being facetious, I was being sincere. One’s ability to write is renewed every single day in every gesture you make towards life, and the price you pay is humility, curiosity, and honesty. And if you don’t pay enough, that ability is revoked. At various times in their lives, many great authors have been denied that ability because they wouldn’t pay the price—Salinger, Hemingway, LeCarre, Delillo, and so many others.

But Joyce was an Irishman, as well, and in college, I couldn’t have understood what that meant. I now have an inkling of it. It meant being part of a race of people who were occupied and oppressed in their own country. It meant Irish people not being able to own property in their own country. It meant the occupiers taking land and belongings from them and giving them to colonists.

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One 12th-century occupier “writes scathingly of the barbarity and uncouthness of the Irish: their refusal to mine or till the soil correctly or to trade as they ought to trade, their cunning and violent ways, their lack of honesty.”

An earlier source claims that even “the most powerful go barefoot and without breeches, and ride horse without saddles.”

A 14th-century source says that the English occupiers’ “regular clergy dogmatically assert that it is no more a sin to kill an Irishman than a dog or any brute….They have striven with all their might and with every treacherous artifice in their power, to wipe our nation out entirely….” (All of these passages were taken from The Story of Ireland, by Neil Hegarty(Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, New York).

Joyce, then, was part of the movement that was attempting to rescue Irish identity after centuries of being trampled in the dirt. Joyce’s ordinary people with extraordinary passions were an attempt at claiming an Irish literature. It was a literature that encompassed their great lights.

Charles Stewart Parnell, whom English Prime Minister William Gladstone described as the most remarkable person he had ever met. I walked down Dublin’s Parnell Street to take our laundry to the cleaners.

Sean McDermott, who was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916, which led to the Irish Free State in 1922. He was executed for his part in the Rising.  Today, there’s a Sean McDermott Street in Dublin.

Oliver Bond, a wealthy Irish revolutionary who was a leader in the violent demonstrations of the 1790s, and died under mysterious circumstances in prison in 1798.  Today, there’s an Oliver Bond Street in Dublin.

All of these men are luminaries in the blossoming flower that in 1922 became the Republic of Ireland.

As we all know, oppression has a way of enhancing a people’s literature, music, and other expression. Look at American blacks, South Africans, and yes, Irish writers from Joyce to Dylan Thomas to William Butler Yeats to James Stephens and others.

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My mother listening to James Joyce at Bewley’s

A bronze statue in Bewley's Oriental Cafe

A bronze statue in Bewley’s Oriental Cafe

A beauty mimiicking a bronze statue in Bewley's Oriental Cafe

A beauty mimiicking a bronze statue in Bewley’s Oriental Cafe

So, when I was sitting in Bewley’s, I read James Joyce aloud.

I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.

It was lovely to read Irish authors in Irish places.  When I was taking a dawn walk in the beautiful wet bogs and heath of County Louth, I read Yeats aloud.

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An Irish farmhouse at dawn

An Irish farmhouse at dawn

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

And whenever I saw a photo of an Irish author, I had my picture taken. I aspire, I aspire. Responsibility beats me back, but then I advance again. Back and forth, to and fro, discouraged and imbued, isn’t it always the way?

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Mimicking James Joyce, which I’ve done all my life

What They’re Selling

Self-portrait of my father, Donald, circa 1952

Self-portrait of my father, Donald, circa 1952

My father had been a smoker since he was a teenager, and had never been able to stop. For the previous five years, he had been losing weight, so we knew something was wrong. We tried to get him to go to the doctor, but he refused. He eventually died a horrible death from emphysema and lung disease.

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

My mother sometimes wondered if she was responsible.  Of course my father held the ultimate responsibility, but she painfully asked herself whether she might have done something that would have allowed him to survive.  Three  years before his death, he lost so much weight that we knew something was wrong.  When we brought up going to the doctor, Dad walked away from us.

“Leave it to me,” my mother said.  “I know the right moment to bring it up.”

She tried.  But Dad’s ability to stonewall unexpectedly exceeded my mother’s ability to manipulate him.  We even tried to trick him into going to the doctor a couple times.  My sister asked him to drive her to the doctor, and then go into the examination room with her, and when the doctor came in, he start talking to Dad about his own health.  He just stood up and walked out.

There were many people on Dad’s side.  Mom, sis, and I.  The Surgeon General when he released his report.  Those commercials on television.  And 49% of my father.

On the other side, working against him, were many people, as well.  Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds.  All those Carolina farmers.  All those Carolina senators and congressmen.  All those 1950s ad agencies like Sterling Cooper that recommended cigarettes “for your health.”  And 51% of my father.

I sometimes wonder what could have convinced that 1% to defect.

Going through my father’s effects after he died, we discovered lots of literature he had received from the tobacco industry. These expensive four-color booklets talked about smoking as a matter of civil rights. You have a right to enjoy a cigarette, the literature said. Fight for your rights, it said. You have the right to smoke next to people, or in restaurants, or at your job, or wherever the hell you want. Don’t let the politically correct liberals take your rights away from you.  (To see some recent versions of this argument, go here.)

The authors of this literature were co-conspirators with the tobacco industry in killing my father.  In the months after he died, I sometimes unexpectedly began to cry.  Once, while standing in line at the grocery store and seeing a headline that reminded me of him.  Once, while driving down Ohio Avenue under the 405 and hearing a song that reminded me of him.  My thoughts were forever bumping into memories of him.  They still are.

Combo David and Donald shot closer

Recently, I saw a news item on one of the companies that used to put together that literature, The Center for Individual Freedom. It’s an organization, you understand, that manufactures lies and sells them to an unsuspecting public. And during that election cycle, they were selling lies in nine congressional districts attacking nine different Democrats:

http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-hidden-donors-20101024,0,5753488.story

These days, they’re attacking the ACA and global warming.  See for yourself.

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They killed my father.  They’re the 1% in more ways than one.  Don’t fall for what they’re selling now.

French-Kissing Your Own Death

In 2007, I walked into a magic shop in Fullerton, California, and ran into someone I hadn’t seen in years.  It was Ken, someone I knew in high school.

“Are you David Groves?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“I’m Ken Smith from high school.”

Ken had heard when my magic book, Be a Street Magician!: A How-To Guide (Aha! Press, 1998, $40) was published, but didn’t know if it was the same David Groves.

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We hadn’t been friends in high school, but had both belonged to the Chess Club and sometimes hung out together for lunch.  In the coming months, we got to know each other again.  I was now a professional magician and he was a hobbyist magician.  We lived in the same city.  We got together for lunch at Panera, traded secrets, and connected.

It turned out, however, that he was quite a sick man.  He had been on dialysis for eight years, and it had taken its toll on him.  Once, when we told a mutual friend that we had gone to high school together, he looked at each of us and then delivered a too-frank response.

“You gotta be kidding, Ken,” Bob said.  “You look 20 years older than David.”

“Thanks a lot,” Ken said angrily.

Ken and I didn’t connect in all ways, however.  When the Tea Party started out in early 2009, Ken attended some of its first rallies.  He railed against government, taking the stand that government incompetence is a redundancy in terms and that, as Grover Norquist puts it, government should be shrunken down to the size at which it can be drowned in a bathtub.  I bristled at that kind of talk, being a traditional liberal.

It was also strange considering Ken’s 10-year stint on dialysis.  The procedure costs approximately $50,000 per year per patient, but the government covers all costs.  Over 10 years, then the government spent roughly half a million bucks to keep Ken alive.  Given his financial situation, Ken would never have been able to pony up the money for dialysis on his own.  Ken’s father had died of renal disease in his thirties, dialysis not being available back in those days, and so it’s clear that Ken would have died without it.

In other words, socialized medicine saved Ken’s life long ago.

Still, Ken maintained his untenable positions, so we avoided political talk.  That’s the best way to keep a friendship.

Soon, inspired by my weekly restaurant gigs, Ken landed a gig at a Westside coffee shop named Dinah’s, performing magic on Thursday evenings from table to table, developing a following.  He had been doing it for a couple years when he called me one day with excitement in his voice.

“I’m going to have a kidney transplant,” Ken said.  “I’ve been waiting for 10 years now, and I’m finally getting to the top of the list.”

Ken asked me to take over his regular restaurant gig for a while so that he didn’t lose the job.  I dove into it, appearing there every Thursday evening at subpar wages (about 40% below my usual pay and 80% below my usual tips) as a favor to Ken.  I was saving the restaurant so that I could hand it back to him when he returned.

As a promotional stunt, I started the Yikes! Brigade.  I carried around a little digital camera and took photographs of magic fans holding a sign that expressed their astonishment at the magic.  Astonishingly, it grew to more than just a stunt.  People loved to pose with the sign, sometimes in creative ways.  To date, I have over a thousand Yikes!  photographs.

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Ken’s operation went well and his body accepted the new kidney.  However, the operation triggered a series of medical complications.  Over the next few months, he nearly died three or four times.  When they finally stabilized him, he still had a blood clot in his leg that they said could take a year to completely dissolve.  He couldn’t walk for a long time.  And when he tried to handle a deck of cards, his hands shook so much that he couldn’t perform the sleights, much less entertain an audience.  If he had tried, they wouldn’t have enjoyed it.  It isn’t fun witnessing somebody’s frailness.

And then there was the little issue of the brain operation.  They had cut open Ken’s head for some reason, I forget exactly why, and it had left an ugly scar that made him look, as he put it, “like Frankenstein.”  Ken was despondent.  He said he was giving up magic for good.

But through all of it, Ken stuck with his Tea Party beliefs.  While spending months recuperating in hospitals and recovery centers, I would sometimes visit him, and whenever I did, he had the television tuned to Fox News.  When asked, he happily spewed anti-government beliefs.

“Government screws up everything it touches,” he would say.  “Why should we let it do anything?”

And all the while, the government had paid for his operation, his medical care, and his recovery.  Knowing how many times he had been in ICU and for how long–months and months–I estimate that he must have racked up at least $3 million in medical bills, and perhaps even more.

Ken had spent his working years as a salesman for Best Buy and Circuit City, until his disease had precluded his employment and he went on disability.  If he had depended on his company insurance, which he didn’t, he would have quickly exhausted the deductible.  Moreover, the insurance company would surely have found some way to dump him, either from his preexisting condition or from some technical loophole.

But now, of course, Obamacare outlaws canceling policies for preexisting conditions.  Neither can they dump you for those famed technical loopholes.  Insurance is now for everybody.

Now, as I watch on television as the Tea Party suicide caucus destroys the Republican party, daily voting against their own best interests, I think about Ken and his anti-Ken beliefs.  I marvel at this amazing phenomenon.  I marvel at how someone can be so angry at this invention, government, that saved his life long ago.  And I marvel at how effectively the conservative powers can be can use lies to make their party faithful vote for their own deaths.

Note: Ken Smith is not my classmate’s real name.

The No Trespassing No Sidewalk No Road Shoulder Blues

I’m heading to Kansas in a couple days, and am remembering something that I often discover about the red states: that there are political differences between them and my native California.

I’m not just talking about the obvious factors, such as people looking askance at men holding hands with each other, or at women dressing more skimpily, or people in general looking older, even though they may not be.  I’m talking about looking up the bus fares for Hutchinson and discovering to my shock that it costs $4 compared to the $1.50 fare in Los Angeles.  Not only that, but I’ll have to walk 1.2 miles just to get to the bus stop.  Kansans don’t believe in tax money being spent on frivolous things like poor people’s transportation needs.  They believe in what they call “self-sufficiency”–that is, every man for himself, period.

I’ll be doing some genealogical research while I’m in Hutch, and discovered another red-blue split: The state government doesn’t believe in transparency.  While birth and death records are public in California and many other states, they aren’t in Kansas.  They are available only to immediate family and “anyone who can prove a direct interest.”  The red-state mentality is authoritarian rather than transparent, as explained in the fine book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, by George Lakoff.

Charles S. Groves

Charles S. Groves

I’ve run into this in other red states, too.  While I was in the Carolinas in the late 1990s, I noticed that their state and local governments don’t spend much money on infrastructure.  I tried to bicycle in Charleston, for example, and discovered that there were virtually no bikepaths, few sidewalks, and very little or crumbling road shoulder.  Get out of historic Charleston and it was dangerous just to walk down the street, with cars whizzing by so close to you.  You had to trudge through the weeds and brambles just to keep from getting hit.  The city is designed, it seems, for the convenience of those in Cadillacs and limousines, and not for those who have to walk to their destinations.

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While driving from Charleston to Raleigh, too, I noticed a definite red-state complexion.  I wanted to stop along the way and walk onto the beach, take off my shoes, squish my toes in the sand, feel the salt air on my face.  But in the Carolinas, there are miles upon miles upon miles of seaside mansion estates that preclude any public use.  In 1971, California passed The Coastal Initiative that codified into law the idea that the beach (such as Carmel Beach, above) belongs to the public, and that no more private or commercial building would be allowed there.  Obviously, that is too radical an idea for the Carolinas.

People often throw up their hands at politics, saying their vote makes no difference.  But here, that concept is disproven.  Not only does politics have an impact on the large issues, such as war and who’s going to chair the Fed, but also, on the issues that affect us every day, such as sidewalks, streets, and beaches.  And so I head off towards a red state, hoping for the best.