Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Big Lebowski or Where Have You Been Mr. Robinson

I love old timers. I really do. I always have. They never walk up and confront you directly, they always kind of just sidle up and then you just happen to notice them standing there. As if they didn't want to impose themselves on you. As if they expect to be regarded as irrelevant. They don't necessarily have to be all that old either, like 'The Stranger' (Sam Elliot) in the Big Lebowski, they serve in my experience in our society something like the function of a Greek Chorus; conscience and narrator in one.

The Marlboro Harvest Festival had been rained out so we were setting up our tents on Sunday at Cluett Schanz Park instead of Saturday as had been originally scheduled.
"The grapes are no good this year. Not enough sugar." I had actually noticed the elderly gentleman before picking his way with his cane among the wine tents.
"Well," I temporized 'We'll see, they still got a few weeks, we'll see if it dries out."
"Yeah, I went to Cornell in 1967." This immediately struck me as a bit odd. The gentleman standing there appeared to be in his eighties, his baseball cap and stoop said he had done some farming in his day. I had gone to Cornell in 1968 and he struck me as being at least twenty five years older than I.
"You remember the Boxcar?" (OK, now I was really freaking out, as they said back in the day.)
"Sure I do, out towards Dryden, the Warehouse was in back."
I remembered the Warehouse distinctly. It was what it said it was, a warehouse converted to a club. The likewise eponymous Boxcar had been just a bar, sans music. I had seen Taj Mahal and James Cotton Blues Band among others at the Warehouse in 1969 I had in fact (children look away) got drunk on White Lightning in the dressing room with James Cotton.
"Yeah, sawdust on the floor." He smiled at the recollection.
"I know every joint that served beer within twenty miles of Ithaca."
"Yeah, you went to Cornell alright."
"I know all the farmers around here. I ran the Community Bank in Highland. Knew Mark, you know Mark Miller?"
"Oh yeah, only met him once but helluva nice fellow. Didn't care much for his son, Eric."
I had met Mark Miller at a HVWGA luncheon. He had sat there beaming the whole time but in this kind of impersonal way, the way people who all their life had blinded people with their intellect and now don't want to blemish that impression cultivated over a lifetime with the natural infirmities of old age do. Like an artist who knows when the painting is done and doesn't want to mar it with the extraneous brushstroke. Their erratic blinding light simmers to a steady beaming paternal radiance. They become masks. Finally, strangers to everyone and finally themselves. That was the Mark Miller I met. No doubt he too in his younger days had gotten drunk in the dressing room of some itinerant blues man or jazz artist.
"You know how he got started?"
I shook my head.
"Well he used to live down in Scarsdale. Had these two week deadlines."
Mark Miller used to be an illustrator (Saturday Evening Post and Herald Tribune I think.)
"He got so nervous you know with those deadlines. So his wife bought him this five gallon jug to make wine. That's how he got started."
"Really? Didn't know that. What's your name?"
"Fred, Fred Robinson. Yeah, --I'm the last of the old time community bankers."
"Ken, Lifshitz. I'm from Monroe." This was perhaps the first time I had ever said this and really meant it.
"Oh yeah Citizen's Bank, right?"
"Yeah, right, Marilyn from Citizen's Bank."

Anyway, the Hudson Valley within about the past year has lost two of it's greatest lights. Mark Miller a little over a year ago, and Ben Feder just last week. With their loss, we descend a little more into an impersonal age, an age where machines and algorithms make decision, not people, a world of beaming benign masks, a world where you could never drink White Lightning with James Cotton in the dressing room of the warehouse. I generally don't care really for this 'bemoaning the faceless present' stuff much, but lately it is growing on me. Maybe it's because I am getting to be an old timer myself. Maybe it's because I am getting to be a stranger to myself and everyone else. In either case, that is a shame.
"Yep, no more community bankers after me."
I realize that I am, at 58, a person with the sensibilities of an eighty nine year old man. This is not really surprising, as I have had the sensibilities of an eighty nine year old man since I was fifteen.
"Yeah, not enough sugar this year."

(Note to future biographers: The Mark Miller collection is being held at Cornell,
Mark Miller and Benmarl Winery Collection #6716. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.)

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