Continuing a 32-Year Conversation With Myself

I’ve always been a fan of what I call “found object journaling.” While most of my journals use freshly purchased wirebound notebooks, I sometimes find and use notebooks discarded by others for my thoughts. Like a crab finding an abandoned shell, I move right in and make somebody else’s notebook my literary home for a few months. These notebooks are often from school classes, tossed away as soon as a class ends. They’re rare, but they exist.

My latest find is a real gem. I know, because it’s my very last class notebook from Princeton University, “Spring ’80” written on its yellow cover. After I graduated I held on to it as a record of my closing months at Old Nassau. I knew I had it, but never paid much attention to it until I finished up a volume and decided to use the 40 or so open pages in the massive 130-page, narrow-ruled notebook now. So the classes of the 22 year old me are mixing with the daily thoughts of the 54 year old me. I think of it as a single conversation with a 32-year gap in it.

My classes were the History and Philosophy of Science, English 313 on Literary Criticism (I would have been better off taken a plain old English course rather than one on the criticism of literature), and Religion 348 on Modern Judaism with Ellen Umansky, an excellent teacher who is now a professor of religious studies and the Director of the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Center for Judaic Studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

My notes from Umansky’s class are riveting because the lectures and precepts marked my first rigorous, academic study of Judaism. Until that point, I had been completely self-taught as I meandered my way into some understanding of Judaism. Now, I had some badly needed guidance.

Writing in an impossibly compact handwriting I can’t duplicate now, I jotted notes on the rise of the Jewish Enlightenment. Haskalah, maskilim, the Besht (Isaac Baal Shem Tov), mitnagdim, the Mussar movement, Moses Mendelssohn — they were all covered in just one lecture. As the notebook rolls on, I can sense the solid organization and the enormous territory covered. A March 3 discussion covered “forerunners of Zionism,” going all the way back to the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE and marching ahead to the 18th and 19th centuries. Leo Pinsker, Herzl, Peretz Smolenskin, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, Ahad Ha-Am:  the names keep rolling on and coming in between other lectures and classes featuring Coleridge, Hazlitt, Chaucer, Dryden, Johnson, Baudelaire and scientific equations that are completely incomprehensible to me — did I actually understand them at one point?

The notebook marks my keen awareness of the closing of a tumultuous four years of college. I note the months and then days before my senior thesis was due on May 11, 1980. The inside cover has the phone numbers of publications to which I would apply for jobs — the New York Times, the Journal of Commerce, Fortune and Forbes. The inside cover also had the contact for an internship in the office of New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, where I indeed had an interview in Washington with his senior legislative assistant Chester Finn, Jr., now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution focusing on K-12 education issues. He was baffled about why a guy from Texas wanted to work in the office of a New York senator.

Even my doodles are full of meaning, from a drawing I called the “Laughing Centaur” to Grateful Dead song titles “St. Stephen” and “Dark Star” to wistful scribbles of the names Christie, Esther and Barbara (my mind was wandering to romantic daydreams that 30 years later I would turn into a book). There’s even a thumbnail-sized sketch of Texas with dots indicating my home town of Mission, no doubt meant to show a classmate where I was from and where I really hoped I would not be immediately returning.

In May, I started the laborious handwritten process of composing “Modern Judaism paper (last one!)” that started with the line, “A hesitant mysticism pervades the Zionist thinking of Mordecai Kaplan and Ahad Ha-Am.” That essay concluded my undergraduate education on a high note.

The future relentlessly barreled down on me in the spring of 1980. As challenging as Princeton had been, that future would be even more chaotic when I plunged into the real world of New York life and high-stakes business journalism just days after graduating. The very last page of the notebook has notes on “apartment survival techniques” and hints like “check Salvation Army, places for clothing, furniture” and the almost-poetic “if trouble get lawyer.”

And now, 32 years later, I’m still doodling names in margins of notebooks, although I tend to do so in Hebrew and Russian. I still read about Judaism and build on what I learned in Religion 348, and I even attend the outstanding speaker series that Ellen Umansky organizes at Fairfield University. I still like the Grateful Dead and I’m not above picking up a good bargain at Salvation Army and Goodwill stores.

And I’m still writing in notebooks, although these days I prefer the wide-rule format — they work much better for 50-something handwriting.

 

Photography on the Border

A theme that cycles through my book, especially the earlier chapters, is life on the border between Texas and Mexico. I very rarely went to Mexico, and for the tamest of reasons. But others went for untame reasons and I heard their conversations growing up. Drugs, cheap liquor and Boystown — the name of the red-light brothel zones.

The rawest reason jumped out at me during a recent visit to, of all places, the International Center of Photography in New York, one of my favorite museums. The exhibit that caught my eye, and took me right back to the banks of the Rio Grande, was a look at the contact sheets of the Magnum photo agency. Contact sheets are direct prints from negatives on to  photo paper, how photographers used to assess their work, finding the best and weeding out the rest.

One of the Magnum contact sheets came from photographs for a book called “Boystown: La Zona de Tolerancia,” published in 2000 by Aperture in association with the Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern and Mexican Photography at what was then Southwest Texas State University, now Texas State University-San Marcos.

I have that book.

I have it, moreover, through a surprising process — an accident, a matter of a noontime trip to the Virgin Megastore in Times Square in 2004, before it closed. I worked in the Midtown and always enjoyed lunch breaks at the store, a sprawling multilevel cathedral of music, books and movies. The place had a bin for books that were damaged or unpopular. I glanced at the bin. The big-format book with the black spine and silver lettering that announced “Boystown” practically leaped into my hand. The spine was cracking, the edges were worn, but I didn’t care; I would have paid triple the price of $4.99 for this amazing window into the life pulsing on the other side of the river, a world I heard about, but never even got close to experiencing — not that I ever had a desire to visit the red-light districts of Mexico.

Eight years after getting the book, I saw one of the contact sheets at the ICP. The explanatory text filled in some of the gaps in the book, which kept its geographic details very vague. None of the essays give details about where on the border the photos of prostitutes with drunken gringo frat boys, aging ranch bosses and Mexican workers were taken. The black-and-white photos existed in a feverish neverland that existed somewhere but no place in particular. However, the text for the sheet identified the local as (if I recall correctly), Ciudad Camargo, across from Rio Grande City. The place immediately grounded itself just 30 miles from where I grew up, in Mission.

These days, I doubt too many lonely Anglo ranchers and drunken frat boys are yahooing it across the border for debauched fun as they did in the 1970s when these photos were taken by Mexican street photographers hustling for a buck. The places still exist, but I’m guess the clientele has radically changed. Still, the book captures a place in time, when I was taking notes and starting to write about what was going on around me, on the other side of the river.