I wasn’t planning to make it to Princeton for my 25th reunion this year. It looked like no friends were going, but all the usual preppy suspects had registered early. Did I really want to pay two thousand dollars to lodge my family for a weekend among the hordes of Reagan Youth, especially now they’d gone smug with middle age? At the last minute I got an invite to crash at a big house in town with a few of my old buddies, one of whom has never left. “You don’t even have to officially register or go to the tents,” Ted said, “just hang out at Terrace.”
At Princeton, they don’t like to feed you in the dining halls after sophomore year, so most students join an “eating club.” My club was Terrace, a run-down Tudor mansion originally built for president Woodrow Wilson, literally and figuratively around the corner from all of the other clubs. It was the first to do away with “bicker,” a selection process similar to fraternity rush, the first to open its doors to everyone—Catholics, Jews, women, gays, African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, scholarship kids. I was led there by a tall, skinny, blue-haired guy with a chain in his nose at the end of an otherwise miserable Freshman Week, and for the next four years I left only to go to classes, the library, and occasionally to sleep; in our day it was a refuge for the few punks, hippies, out-GLBT community members, and anyone else who didn’t belong on campus.
The plan to spend reunions at Terrace had just one catch: Dead Head Night. Terrace was going to be jammed on Saturday. Phil Lesh, the band’s bass player, was playing a concert of Grateful Dead songs there with his touring group, which included two of his sons, one of whom was a graduating Terrace Club member. No offense to those folks, but talk about bringing up a slew of bad memories:
The last time I saw the Dead—as a tourist among my more dedicated Terrace brethren—I had a bum trip. Of course. My style was club music, the earliest days of acid house. After stuffing myself full of a variety of groceries I’ve subsequently cut from my diet, all I could think was, “Whoa, this is a religious cult. And like my own religious cult, Roman Catholicism, this one is focused on a living man. Jerry Garcia. How bizarre.” At the exit signs, backlit people danced in that herky-jerky, wrist-flapping Dead Head way. Steal your face. The hirsute guy in front of me was picking splinters from his beard. His hands left angry little dove-trails. I tried closing my eyes. But as I was peaking (troughing), all I could think was, “These people worship Jerry Garcia. Unlike Jesus, Jerry can’t bank on rising again. What the hell are they going to do when he dies?” The whole concert was ruined for me: these poor misguided Dead Heads, worshipping a mortal. Who would console them in the future?
For that matter, who was going to console me? I needed to be talked down. After the show I went looking for my girlfriend, Maud Kinnell, whose father, Galway, had until that day been my favorite living poet, my
The women I’d grown up with—on the Jersey side of the Arthur Kill, near the Merck plant in Rahway, and later a block from the boardwalk in Belmar—with their tough acts, dropped R’s, and tight clothes, were all about volume: big hair, big nails, big mouths, even big hearts sometimes. Much of a muchness. I was entirely unprepared for Maud Kinnell. She was like an Athena sprung fully formed from the brain of Baudelaire. Heathcliff transgendered. A TB-clinic refugee. Very Gothic chic. An unlikely physics student, she wore black Agnes B dresses, Victorian boots, black eye shadow, and cultivated her resemblance to Louise Brooks by bobbing her straight black hair. Sure, her father was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, but her mother was dating Joseph Brodsky, a future Nobel-laureate. As a kid, she’d even watched Sesame Street with Amiri Baraka, her dad’s friend. But those living writers didn’t intimidate her. She read Proust for a laugh, Nietzsche for social hygiene, Jens Peter Jacobsen for aperitif lyricism, and Rilke for advice on love.
God, was she obsessed with Rilke. She did her best to impress his modes upon me, especially his penchant for solitude. I was only nineteen, but still she opined that I’d never have any success as a poet until I’d learned to embrace solitude, to put my art before all other things, including—and especially—people. Even her.
(Not that she particularly like her own solitude: Within weeks of our first conversation, which lasted all night, she insisted I move into her dorm room because she hated to be apart from me. She aborted every trip home to see her folks. She’d turn around at Penn Station and come straight back to me at Princeton. Eventually we adopted an expedient policy: I agreed to go with her whenever she wanted to visit her family or friends. Enmeshed, they’d call it now. It doesn’t take a psychologist to see it made her feel better to criticize my abstract commitment to writing.)
I wasn’t ambivalent: I hated solitude. I’d grown up with an enormous Irish and Italian family—even lived in a tiny house with my grandparents, parents, and eight of my mother’s nine brothers and sisters for a couple of years before my siblings were born. While I appreciated a daily walk in the woods, a quiet morning at the typewriter, I liked a bit of noise, family and friends around me, at the end of the day. Still do. After the bummer at the Dead concert, I wasn’t having any of it. Rilke. What did he know? Who if I cried out would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies? Where was Maud?
After the Dead show, Maud wasn’t around: not at Terrace, not in the dorm room we bunked in together, not in the library, lab, nowhere. Then I remembered why she hadn’t gone to the concert in the first place: Galway took her to a dinner party in town. The whole dinner party had been engineered in order to introduce Maud to X (not his real name), another undergraduate, someone Galway and the other oldsters wanted to fix her up with. Before we started dating, Maud had expressed interest in X, but now we’d been together for six months, an eternity in college. Why was Galway trying to introduce them now?
X was a descendent of Chinese feudal lords on one side, one of the twentieth century’s greatest European violinists on the other. He was beautiful, impeccably dressed, elegantly mannered, and dumb as a brick. “He’s perfect for you,” Galway told her. So Maud reported, once we finally caught up with each other. I was devastated. Completely betrayed. The fact that Maud hadn’t actually gone home with X—or even made any plans to see him again—didn’t mitigate things much. How could she have agreed to go to that dinner? How could Galway have planned it? What kind of asshole names a collection of poems about his wife and children The Book of Nightmares?
I broke up with Maud, left her room, and went to Terrace Club, where I spent the night under a table, still twitching.
Well, the worst has happened, of course. Jerry Garcia died in 1995, less than ten years later. But it looks like the Dead, and all those Dead Heads, are still going strong—they’ll still turn out by the hundreds, thousands, even at Princeton, to hear the children of the Dead, grown now, playing the standards that were already oldies when I was young. Certainly they were still powerhousing the night of my 25th reunion at Terrace Club. The place was jammed to full capacity, people were on the roof, the terraces, the lawn, even hanging out of windows from all three stories of the building. People who couldn’t fit inside the club’s property were crowded up beyond the fences, around the circular driveway, and behind the outdoor stage. The band played a host of those old songs, even the ones this amateur knew: Uncle John’s Band, Sugar Magnolia, Casey Jones, and Phil Lesh’s kids sounded even sweeter than Bob Weir or Jerry. Strangest of all, they were joined by jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan, another Terrace alum, who was there to celebrate his thirtieth.
We studied Stanley Jordan’s moves, fingers pounding the neck piano-style. “It’s straight out of Robert Johnson’s playbook,” said my buddy Rob Brink, who’s presently making a feature film about the great blues guitarist. Rob and half a dozen other friends and I danced to the Dead (that’s not dancing, that’s butt-dipping, my eldest son Nicholas, an expert hip hop dancer scoffs), mostly sober, really enjoying it. Between sets we broke out our phones, showed each other pictures of our families.
“I’m so glad you married a beautiful woman,” my friend Kate said, oddly. “I always hoped for that for you.” What a strange remark for Kate, especially since I’d just been saying that Sabina Murray, my wife, grew up in Western Australia before joining her mother’s family in Manila, and she puts up with zero whinging, no self-pity. Merely a flesh wound, and I’m going to tease you if you ask for a band-aid. The fact that she’s the funniest person I’ve ever met, as well as one of the best writers in my generation, the youngest winner of the PEN/Faulkner-Award for fiction ten years ago, didn’t exactly put me off her, either.
But then I realized that Kate was one of the people who helped me through my final break-up with Maud Kinnell, almost a year after that first one the night Galway tried to fix her up with X. The exact details of that lasting argument are lost to me now, but in the run up to it I remember a deep critique of my poetry, Maud concluding, “If I don’t love your poetry, how can I love you?”
I’ve come up with several answers to that question in the years since, but they’ve long ago become moot. (Luckily I’ve gotten a little better as a poet since I left my teens, and, having generated my own company as a parent, my relationship to solitude is more easy-going these days). Those answers were even less relevant once the band began playing again. They weren’t the Grateful Dead, but then again I wasn’t that young man anymore, either. In fact, I enjoyed the band—and myself—much more than our earlier incarnations.
What a privilege it was to have them there. And I was left with that, an appreciation for that deep privilege, surrounded by Rob, the best actor I’ve ever seen on a stage, Kate, whose art installations I deeply admire, and half a dozen other old friends, some more, some less conventionally successful now, but all very intelligent, all serious thinkers, vivid, mercurial conversationalists. What an excess of privilege it had been to live there with them for four years, at Terrace, at Princeton. And as very young writers—I didn’t forget where I came from, in my old neighborhood you were taunted for reading, could get your ass kicked for writing poetry—we had access to Robert Stone, Joyce Carol Oates, JD McClatchy, Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert, Paul Auster, Stephen Wright, Edmund Keeley, James Richardson, Julian Jaynes, even, indirectly, Joseph Brodsky. What an excess of access we had there.
As Phil Lesh and friends were wrapping it up, I even found it possible to begin thinking about forgiving Galway after all those years. Here’s a first step, ending this with a devastating poem of his:
When I was twenty the one true
free spirit I had heard of was Shelley,
Shelley who wrote tracts advocating
atheism, free love, the emancipation
of women, the abolition of wealth and class,
and poems on the bliss of romantic love,
Shelley, who I learned later, perhaps
almost too late, remarried Harriet,
then pregnant with their second child,
and a few months later ran off with Mary,
already pregnant herself, bringing
with them Mary’s stepsister Claire,
who very likely also became his lover,
and in this malaise a trios, which Shelley
had imagined would be “a paradise of exiles,”
they lived, along with the spectre of Harriet,
who drowned herself in the Serpentine,
and of Mary’s half sister Fanny,
who killed herself, maybe for unrequited
love of Shelley, and with the spirits
of adored but often neglected
children conceived incidentally
in the pursuit of Eros—Harriet’s
Ianthe and Charles, denied to Shelley
and consigned to foster parents; Mary’s
Clara, dead at one; her Willmouse,
Shelley’s favorite, dead at three; Elena,
the baby in Naples, almost surely
Shelley’s own, whom he “adopted”
and then left behind, dead at one and a half;
Allegra, Claire’s daughter by Byron,
whom Byron sent off to the convent
at Bagnacavallo at four, dead at five—
and in those days, before I knew
any of this, I thought I followed Shelley,
who thought he was following radiant desire.