Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Aimless Reading: The D's, Part 28.1 (Isak Dinesen)

Winter's Tales
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Dinesen, Isak
Winter's Tales

This book is quite old. The pages are starting to yellow -- not to keep harping on the passage of time, but there's something melancholy about owning a book you purchased new that is now turning yellow -- further evidence of said passage through a no longer inconsiderable amount of time. I guess I shouldn't get too depressed about it until the glue dries up and the pages start to fall out.

I bought it at the Fordham University Bookstore for an undergraduate course sometime in the early nineties. I remember reading a story called, "The Dreaming Child," which I remember liking, but that's about all I remember. That bookstore was not on the campus, as I recall. It was across the street, on Fordham Road, in what at the time was one of the newer office buildings in the Bronx. It seemed like the bookstore was about the only tennant in the building.

Students would step off the green, gated, neo-gothic campus, cross the street to buy their books, then return through the gate, showing the security guard their I.D. on the way back in. They mostly stayed on the campus, a sort of floating Island in the middle of the teaming streets of the Bronx, except at night, when they roamed in packs out to several of the nearby drinking establishments that allowed for underage drinking. At some point or other most enjoyed the colorful experience of being mugged on the way home from the bar at four o'clock in the morning. I never got mugged myself. Someone tried once, but I got so scared I ran away and they decided it wasn't worth the trouble to chase me.

Having transferred Fordham as a means of escaping a fairly serious cocaine addiction, I realized after a few months that there was no way to get off of it unless I got off of all of it. Along with a friend of mine, I managed to quit drugs and drinking within a few months after my arrival. The effect of which was that I was more or less on the outside looking in throughout my college career, even among friends. So I became something of an observer.

As my friends were wildly cavorting in bars and dorms and apartments, I often sat in the corner, chain-smoking and drinking bottle after bottle of Coke, watching the action unfold with a mixture of envy and disgust. Every once in a while someone would approach me and ask why I wasn't drinking. For whatever reason i always earnestly explained that I had a problem and couldn't drink any more.

This was met with one of two reactions: silence, or confession.

In the case of the latter, people would often take the opportunity to explain to me why they were pretty sure they did not have a drinking problem -- they sometimes thought they were alcoholic but they weren't sure. Once they started drinking, they couldn't stop. They often forgot large chunks of time, woke up in strange dorm rooms, sometimes next to people they didn't recognize, sometimes even with mysterious injuries: cuts, bruises, scratches, torn clothing. But then they didn't drink for a week, and if they could stop for a week, how could they have a problem? They felt better when they stopped, but then there was a drink in front of them and they couldn't hold out. There would then be a pause during which the person would look me in the eyes, asking for either condemnation or absolution. My response was usually to say something like: the only person who can tell you whether or not you have a problem is yourself. This usually brought an end to the conversation. Often they'd put a hand on my shoulder and tell me with sotted sincerity how much they admired what I was doing before they stumbled back to the bar to get another drink.

from The Dreaming Child

In the first half of the last century there lived in Sealand, in Denmark, a family of cottagers and fisherman, who were called Plejelt after their native place, and who did not seem able to do well for themselves in any way. Once they had owned a little land here and there, and fishing boats, but what they had possessed they had lost, and within their new enterprises they failed. They just managed to keep out of the jails of Denmark, but they gave themselves up freely to all such sins and weaknesses--vagabondage, drink, gambling, illegitimate children and suicide--as human beings can indulge in without breaking the law. The old judge of the district said of them: "These Plejelts are not bad people; I have got many worse than they. They are pretty, healthy, likable, even talented. Only they just have not got the lack of living..."

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