Thursday, June 17, 2010

Living in New York City: Living With a Family Lie

Foto by tgw, "My Crow," New York City 2010
We Lost Some More Great Ones
Bill Dixon, 84, American jazz musician.
Garry Shider, 56, American musician (Parliament-Funkadelic)
Oscar Azócar, 45, Venezuelan baseball player (New York Yankees, San Diego Padres).
Jimmy Dean, 81, American country music singer, actor and businessman (Jimmy Dean Foods)
Jack Beeson, 88, American composer of contemporary classical music

My Lying Brother

He's not here to defend himself. He died in 2002. He died believing he knew truths about both sides of our family nobody else knew. Right before he died, blind and deaf already, he took himself to Savannah, Georgia, to the seat of the Southern branch of our family. Our father's family origins. Just because our family name is the same as a famous revolutionary general's name who settled after the Revolutionary War in Savannah gives no verification of kinship to what our family has always considered "the patriarch," referred to in family history as "The Old General."

My brother had credentials. He had such credentials it was hard to challenge anything he wrote or stated as fact. His views were often challenged, but he managed to blow his challengers off with his enormous knowledge and self certainty. One challenge, for instance, to one of my brother's final words came from a much more famous Texas writer who disagreed with his hidebound view of Texas literature. This "feud" became so widespread the New York Times Review of Books carried dual (dueling) articles by my brother and this fellow Texas author.

By the time of my brother's death he had published 28 books, thousands of articles, essays, short stories, and newspaper columns in newspapers and magazines. I think I've established my brother as a source of historical information, yes, concerned mostly with Texas history, but with an eye out especially focused on both branches of his forebears.

According to my brother, the last words out of the mouth of the matriarch of my father's family, our grandmother, was "Find the Old General." My brother was 24 at the time and those words haunted him for the rest of his life. And then one day I found a copy of the Old General's son's several-volume biography of his father and I glance-read through it and knew immediately that I had to send it to my brother. As a result of his reading this biography, he came to the conclusion that since our father's family had originated in Savannah, Georgia, and that my dad's father's oldest brother spelled his name the English way--adding an e to it--whereas my dad's father dropped the e--but my dad put that vowel back on the end of his name--thus reattaching our lineage to The Old General.

My brother wrote me a long letter--right after I sent him the Old General's biography--when he heard my wife and I were going to Cape Cod with intentions of passing through Rhode Island in order to get there. In the letter he big-brother ordered me to be sure and "find the Old General's house in Newport." So my wife and I, in adherence to my brother's wishes, crossed the high bridge over into Newport after leaving Providence. I remember that day clearly--especially driving over the bridge--I'm a fan of high bridges--the highest in the US for many years was the high bridge at Orange, Texas, over the Sabine River, the area where my mother was born (a bridge I used to drive out of my way to cross just to cross it and then recross it when I visited the area as an adult). I remember driving down off the Newport bridge into Newport and I remember driving around there looking for evidence of the Old General and convincing myself I'd found it when I swear I saw a placard on a white frame structure that said it was the Old General's house. Except for passing through it on the bus, I haven't been back to Newport until this past weekend.

This past weekend I found myself in Rhode Island, in Warren, Rhode Island, to be map-like precise. And when my reason-for-being-there took me off for a ride up Narragansett Bay to see the sites, looping around the Bay, suddenly I looked into the distance and saw a high bridge--"Is that the Newport high bridge?" I asked. And yes it was. She was taking me to Newport! Thanks to my brother's great faith in his research, I thought of it as going home!

My close-close friend and I spent several minutes walking around Newport looking for evidence of the Old General but couldn't find any. We couldn't even find the street named after him. Finally, she went and asked some Newportians if they knew where the Old General's house was. They looked at us like we were from Mars. They knew of a small street bearing that name but, no, they'd never heard of the house. OK. No problem.

We gave up looking for my relative's inanimate-structural remains and trundled on out to the Cliff Walk that weaves its way along the sheer walls of an ancient point that has been bumped into by a large piece of Africa that sits like a miniature Rock of Gibraltar just off shore. This Cliff Walk leads you on a secure trail edging that island of rock on an ambling trip that takes your curious self out and around that notorious row of Newport mansions topped off by the Vanderbilt Mansion, a most grand place I must admit, fuck the fact that it was built off the backs of Irish potato famine men desperate for work and Chinese workers called "coolies"--those who built Vanderbilt's railroad empire. It is a magnificent house on a magnificent lawn--on its own promontory that looks out across the Atlantic Ocean. The Cliff Walk continues on its winding way on down toward the tobacco-rich Duke Mansion (ladied over by the now late infamous Doris Duke)--the Dukedom far out on its own point--I saw it sitting over there but we didn't take the trek, returning to her car and then tooling over to the Purgatory Chasm where we found a marker out on a rocky rise on the edge of a bluff that said it marked the site of the Middletown, Rhode Island, Historical Cemetery--but there was only a mound of weeds and sea grass with a block of concrete that contained only graffiti and no pertinent information as to why it was cemetery--there were no gravestones...we assumed it was a point from which they pitched humans, probably slaves, off into the briny deep. And off this rocky point the rock from Africa can be seen just off left in front of you.

I was feelin' really good about being in Newport--hell, I was ready to retire there--and when we returned to Warren, I got back to a point where it didn't matter the hell whether I was kin to the Old General or not. To hell with him and relatives. I had never given a damn much about my forebears. I did have a cousin who married a Mormon who got into delving deeply into our patriarchal family genealogy. But I never subscribed to her request for help in doing her research in Salt Lake at the Mormon genealogy library. My name is a very common surname and especially in the US. I really never was concerned about it until my brother started all of his investigations into it based on my grandmother's dying words. My mother had always considered the extension of the Old General's Old South family that turned into my father's family as White Trash. She considered her old-American family way far superior to that of the Old General's clan. She never had much to do with any of my father's family.

Back in Warren--Sunday morning, along with my old pal, L Hat, I walked around Warren looking for a place that served breakfast and real coffee--and we found it at a place called the Coffee Pot--we walked right by a street named after the Old General and neither of us noticed--so my searching for my family in Rhode Island was over and I was in the mood to get on back to the Apple and get back to living out my normal Manhattan-based life.

Over across the East River, over in Brooklyn, is a whole park named after the Old General, who at one time was leading his revolutionary forces down from Long Island, into Brooklyn, then through Manhattan on up the Hudson to West Point, New York, where he was temporarily in control of the fort there--then later, he even shows up at Valley Forge.

Back in NYC, after a steak dinner and two pints of Bass ale, and after watching Paraguay and Italy end up in a 1-1 tie in the last World Cup match of the day, I came back up to my apartment and began thinking about writing something about my Rhode Island adventure. I decided to Google the Old General, and, boy howdy, what I found knocked me for a loop--my brother was a liar. He didn't know what the hell he was talking about about the Old General in terms of Newport, Rhode Island. I found out the Old General was actually born in Coventry, Rhode Island, in the East Warwick area, which, ironically, was directly west of where I was visiting in Warren.

In another irony, it turns out, my mother's tribe--I knew they migrated from New England via Pennsylvania to Tennessee (the Nashville area)--is not only from Rhode Island, but perhaps from Warren, Rhode Island--the town in which I was staying. And yes I did see my mother's family name on a Warren street and in an ad for a Warren hotel. And Googling my mother's name in Rhode Island history showed me her family was just as prominent in the settling of Rhode Island as the Old General's family--and one of her family members was one of the original founders of the town of Warren.

My brother had never traced my mother's family back like he did my father's because he was hung up on proving our last name went directly back to the Old General. He knew a lot about my mother's family and wrote a chapter about their relations who came to Texas from Tennessee with General Sam Houston in the 1840s and 50s to settle in Central and South Texas. But he never thought about going further back since as far as he knew there were no Old Generals in her family. I had been able to trace that side of my mother's family back to Western Pennsylvania but never thought much about going further back than that. Then while attending a coin show in the World Trade Center back in 2000, I came across a dealer selling Central Asian coins and noticed his last name was the same as my mother's. I told him I was half him and he began to talk about his family in New York City. During the conversation, he mentioned his family had come to New York from Massachusetts and Southern New England. I put that info in the back of my mind until out of curiosity after returning from RI I Googled my mother's family name and found out how prominent her name is in Providence and Warren--equal to though not as dominating as my father's family name.

Ironically, my brother was not known as a liar. My mother used to emphasize how honest a man he was both in his history and his own writing. The Old General phase of his investigations came late in his life. That he wrote he felt at home in Savannah and that there on the land where the Old General's plantation sat he could sense the presence of a man who my brother could relate to in a familial sense. My brother knew a lot of "great" men and women of his generation. There seemed to be a party every night at my brother's house in Dallas. At those parties there's no tellin' who you might bump into--like the leading archaeologist from Israel (a guy I got along with fine since I'd studied archeology with Dr. Frank Hibben out at the U of New Mexico briefly in the 1960s), or as was always some famous writer or newspaper man--always somebody nationally recognizable hanging around his house. My brother didn't need the Old General in terms of his own fame. His obsession with this American history figure was simply a fulfillment he needed to accomplish before he died. Brass-tack facts weren't important to him at that time and it would only be natural for him to say the Old General lived in Newport and was in the shipping business and had a couple of ocean-going vessels in his fleet. Tis true what my brother said about the Old General wiping out his own personal worth by supporting his revolutionary army with his own money--paying them, buying them uniforms, etc., so you see, there is truth in every lie.
Now back in Manhattan--and like I said, there's plenty evidence of the Old General's time in New York all around me here--I'm back to my own existence. I lost my appetite in Rhode Island. Strange to me. While there I ate a pulled beef barbecue sandwich, about four slices of leg of lamb, one eaten in a tortillo, a half'a scone, several chunks of pineapple, a sesame-seed bagel, and a lot of coffee and Brooklyn Lager beer (when in Rhode Island drink a beer made in Brooklyn--if it's still made in Brooklyn and hasn't been bought by a giant beer consortium and is now manufactured in Latrobe, P.A.). On returning to Manhattan, I was soon in my fav Irish pub eating steak and mashed potatoes--back to drinking Bass ale! Trouble was, since returning to Manhattan I've developed this horrible condition that I think is Acid Reflux Disease--sitting here right now typing this, I have not gone out and gotten my morning coffee, doughnut, and orange juice, the typical on-the-go breakfast in Manhattan. I'm afraid to eat now. Irony, in Rhode Island all my physical problems hit the hay and I was about as healthy over there as I've ever been in Manhattan.

I mean the air in Manhattan is totally polluted. I'm a nutjob when it comes to air-conditioning. I hate it. I'd rather suffer 110-degree heat than be sweaty cool under air-conditioning. I do have two large fans--but they are blowing the polluted Manhattan air directly in on me. Across from my bedroom window is a cell-phone transmission set up--there is one on nearly every building roof in Manhattan these days. There is one on the roof of my building, too. Supposedly these microwave devices send electromagnetic charges throughout our Manhattan-based bodies whether we're home or in the street morning, noon, and night and will eventually lead to respiratory problems, especially sinus infection and asthma. Still.... Manhattan is my home. Though I felt good in Rhode Island and my friends there are truly great friends, one of whom I love very much, but it's not my home, Old General or no Old General.

for The Daily Growler

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