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Platt Bayless

The contrast of Brooklyn’s past and present is perhaps nowhere so defined as at 20th St. and 7th Avenue, where, facing one another across 20th St., as though it measured the centuries which ran, broad, between them, one finds the historic Green-Wood Cemetery opposite the Green-Wood Park Beer Garden, the former holding the corpses and quiet company of Brooklyn’s buried past, the latter attracting the beating hearts and fresh memories of its soon-to-be-dead present, and all the drunkenness that accompanies finite society. I, for my part, prefer other gardens. And while I do not refuse the hooch—O! far from it!—I take my liquor on the streets of Brooklyn, where a new world nightly is born and daily dies. When to the surface of the sky the stars rise as bubbles materialize in a bottle at its opening, the lamplight, with what light it can muster when faced with true night, renders patches of matter in what has become space merely, as though the day on earth were the reflection of the high sun, and night, of the black heavens, and what stars shone were refracted back to them in the streetlights’ receding constellations. Here one sees one’s home in the cosmos, and were one sober, would doubtless feel the terror attendant to the fact, too anxious at the sight to stare. But the courage wrought by a gainful potation on such occasions permits one the privilege which this earth and orbit offer, and the disinterested, glassy-eyed gaze—’tis the immortal standpoint of the poet and painter, from which all visions are equally freed from the question of their reality—to which a shadow’s formal possibilities do not call forth fear, but something, rather, more akin to wonder. But ’tis not the wonder of the scientist—no, the drunk is not impelled to record what he discovers, though it sound the lowest note of existence. It becomes to him, and is past, and while you may deride him for being rendered passive in the presence of such power, will you mock his not meaning to fit his fingers around what is always passing into other images? To speak any sense, the scientist is forced to symbols and a driest prose, and the practical man satisfies himself making little sense at all; but the wino, with lips wet, hums a tune truer than any philosophy. It is what Plato dared not write, but would trade writing to see: with the black trees backed by streetlights, swaying in the summer breeze, I too sway, as though my will passed from my heart to their branches, and sight, divested of its seer, were one with its visions of an empty avenue, whose lights strike rhythm out of void, sliding into dark corners where shades mingle and light’s lost but night lives. I walk and wander, and am nightly baptized in the fact that place is never without time, and the same corner is never two seconds the same, and that the first sip awakens the tongue, blood, the heart’s deeper memory, and the second and third bottle are so sui generis they rediscover, as though for the first, the pleasures attendant to life.

I happened upon this corner yesterday evening, and glided past the bar, a beacon, of sorts, of light, like a moth lamp, which draws youths who never learned and old winos who’ve forgotten why it is we drink to imbibe and rouse and forget their forgetting. But as a moth is drawn to light I fled from it—or rather, passed outward with it beyond the visible brink, where, like light, I was scattered in the darkness.

What happy circumstance, thought I, that night life choose to live by light, reserving to me the black streets, sky, wind and shadows. Let them to their cocktails; a wino’s for naught but economy of the drink. I prefer, and shall prefer forevermore, to serve myself a simple brew at the corner store over ordering a drink fashioned for a steeper fee. The freedom with which the drunkard peruses the shelf, waiting to see what malt, what brew, by what label or what memory, should strike his fancy, as a bandleader considers the songs of the night’s setlist, is bested only by the freedom found in their playing—the cool sip, gulp, smack and glug. I dare say none is freer than the jazzman or the wino—none more honest either. For there’s no appellation on the charge of phony playing; the evidence hangs in the air and meets the ear face to face. And there is no lie the drunk can tell that is not betrayed by his breath; nor has he a heart to deceive, for his world is manifest, having, as he has, contented himself with what is, so long as he may view it from the highest seat. Sobriety is an endless burden, filled with selves at close quarters, needs and motives, meanings to be teased out; living, for some of us, if live we must, is undergone best stripped of one’s will, given up to the higher power of a bottle. We are selfless, really, and will you find fault with us for that? To one who would, I’d inquire who it is—what self and from what ground—who is so seated to call me low. For we descend, we winos, not from the Bacchants of Dionysus, nor from Diogenes and the cynics, as some would have it—nor are we sons and daughters of Old Adam—but we are the true beneficiaries of the laughing philosopher’s eternal will, which bequeaths, not zeal, but the knowledge of its futility. Nor fear we poverty, which fear like a premonitory pain drives most to misery before they’ve brought life’s goblet to their lips. A day’s labor, I dare say, need only suffice for a night’s libation.

Thus, with four cans in tote, I turned the corner onto 20th St. Across from me sat, quietly peopled, Battle Hill—whose stones hovered above the fence in the moonlight, where the statue of Minerva waves to the black harbor. Each tombstone, itself unique, built, by sheer multitude, a cemetery, and represented, really, the notion of a grave-yard. I took this opportunity to open, in this company, my first can, for the residents of this stretch were none as a court might accept testimony from. The pop, hiss and glimmer of the tab spoke of honey to come, and tears swelled to the surface of my eyes—such bliss! by what grace!—when in offering I traded air for beer in the function of my windpipe and put away half the pint in one lift of a hand, which is the drunkard’s true salute.

One knows not when intoxication starts nor when it ceases—indeed, one suspects it lies buried like a seedling, awakened by the draught—or hidden in the present, like the sky behind the stars, which a subtle shift in interest reveals, or reminds, to have been present all the while—for the sound of a can’s commencement, its hold on one’s palm, the first swoon at first sip: these all predate what can be attributed to the hooch qua liquid, which alone the layman calls the drink, while the drunk, on the contrary, knows the drink in essence to persist, with its wide embrace, rather from the first living yeast to the fungi on the liver of a drinker deceased. It is the holy ghost, passed as a taste, from father to son.

I lowered my hand and stared into the wooded cemetery. A prolonged gaze rendered the beating of my heart visible as a rhythm over the hill, and the throb of blood in my head began to take its pace from the forms and floaters that danced before my eyes. With a deep inward smile I beheld each tombstone, which were echoed by a glistering halo—and behind them, dark trunks, trees bound by blacker backings, which mirrored and sang to the darker cavities behind my eyes. For these my heart sighed, from these my lungs drew a new impulse to pursue.—What is it moves a wino? The drink, surely—or perhaps the wish to lay his eyes to rest for one contented night, in pursuit of which he habitually keeps himself awake. Of these two forces of nature within me, which drew me to aspire toward this sable station, as though it were my kinsman calling for my ear, or my general, come with orders—I know not. Not sober—never!—I was not as yet free from concern in moral matters, being only one kotyle wetted. But the rest of the pint was put down, and from thence I was bound to the rim of the cemetery, it being encircled only in backstreets, until, reaching one of its internal edges, I was moved to vault its fence and pursue, among Brooklyn’s damned, this, my attendant general.

Peculiar creatures are we young winos, so outwardly ambitious, so inwardly vicious, and virtuous to our vices, having the courage and means to see adventure to its purposed end. He, and all he sees, the young drunk, is utter possibility, for wandering becomes a young man in the eyes of his comrades; the promise of possibly hitting on something as yet undisproven, his meandering art is dismissed by the way as a stepping-stone to placid manhood and not, as it is in the old drunkard, the mark of hopeless want and ceaseless toil. If an onlooker observed as one observes a miracle my graceful surmount of the barrier, he is ignorant of the miracles that daily visit the wino—such as life on awaking and sun at morning—for the ease with which he greets necessity with ability, and will swim the East River without a drop spilt to secure the next taste, might impress even the soberest judge, yet it is nothing beyond a present task to the actor himself.

Once inside the fence, an itch within my gullet decried its dryness and pleaded for its one true ointment. Not a thought reached the surface before the second can was opened and I stared down its siding which in that dim admixture of lamp- and moonlight shone blue and wide as though the Atlantic’s broad back slept still for a minute and I, spread prostrate on the water with my chin in my palms, watched the wine-blue earth bend around me. The can depleted, my soul emboldened, I ascended the small hill which stood before me, until, fatigued, I found a patch of grass on which to lay my head.

Ah! What peace when rude sounds abate! when every atom in the breast returns to its place in the earth and breath contended slows and deeper draws, and one’s bones sing to the Lady of silence! By the stillness of this air one might think himself resting in a quieter past or pasture under which fewer settled, but as it were (and the truth cannot be too often repeated): the dead here are quiet company. Stars too, what few shine over Brooklyn, who, few though they are, like saints or friends, are proven in the appearance if one would but look and no more. O! Cast me in bronze and let my eyes remain fixed on this illustrious patch of heaven, a monument to drunken contemplation! Would that I might return to that plot and those visions, laid upon I know not whose grave! For I surely saw much of service—much we mortals might profit by—but as with monks who take a vow of silence for their practice, the drink and what it proffers is given one on condition only that, carrying nothing in, he carry nothing out of its intoxicant monastery. The divine whisper, lisped in leaves and given unto sight in the purple sky and carved moon, to be had mayn’t be held, being here but for an instant and, as soon as noticed, nowhere; and with the sense of having sensed, I’m left to render figures in this after-all account.

From here forward, I confess, Reader, I am doubtful of specifics, but the daemon which to Socrates was a repentant prod, in my head now rings like funerary bells pulled at a tempo that seconds my pulse, and bids me fix before sundown to its rhythm what can be recounted, lest again this moment of discretion pass and all be lost forever.

When I turned from that silver second sun and stood to face the cemetery’s inner chambers, I remembered that my intended yet was nigh, and the dark roads throughout the cemetery promised a return of sorts should I but follow deeper: thither, they murmured, stood the general with my orders. I charted a course none but a drunkard could re-trace, and even he, as he stumbles into footprints well-worn but sees not that they lead past the flattened image which his weary eye makes of the trek, would never know them mine. I was alone in this wilderness, as a wino’s used to be, wanting nothing save the can which next I opened, and to see my evening to its end. I walked with such ease and sipped with such discretion in such utter shade beneath the trees, I wonder if the very ground I walked on knew my presence—for I say, I myself forgot I walked and drank. At times I might as well have been a passenger asail across the stillest pond: as one drifting with the wind might set his back into his boat and watch the pink clouds of evening move above him, heedless of where he’s headed, so I sailed between the trees and graves and watched the passing blacks transmute and from nothing come and to nothing go, a perfect dance of shadows through which moonlight drew an ever-pleasant, temporary boundary. There I looked, and there I was; a specter or a blind-spot on the surface of the night’s eye.

I found myself, at once, at the ridge of a valley, which opened like an empty ocean before me. As I stepped from under the trees to meet this basin, the white moon gazed again upon me. Several rows of ordered gravestones knelt like worshippers in prayer in measured circles which, descending from round the rim, by their mass composition, pointed to one grand and central stone, who, like the high priest of this inurned congregation, hailing in praise the soft moon, was repaid for his devotion with her silver light. I bowed, and raised, in dutiful piety, my last can to the moon; opened it; and prayed silently before the god as the effluent booze assimilated to mine own bloodstream.

I approached, by small, timorous steps, the sunken pulpit and the principal stone who looked to meet me, feeling that with him stood my fate. As I approached, the stone seemed to grow; it rose to a point high above my head as I descended into the valley. I began to shake and to struggle with my legs, whose small advances demanded untoward exertion. I felt drunker in that moonlight before that rock than ever in my inebriate life—this, after a fourth drink, which, when bought, was to be only the first of many in this night’s adventure. Yet my heart beat faster and more thoroughly through my ribcage as my feeble steps sank deeper into the yielding mud. My breath sped to a pace never before seen in man—I stood tense throughout my whole body, while still growing closer to the tallest gravestone and this center of the solar system. I hardly knew what held me together when I reached out with my free hand to touch the rock. The moonlight set the letters into relief and my fingers, trembling, ran across the smooth beveled edge before running over the letters themselves. When my eyes were finally brought to read the epitaph, my body must have given out, for the next thing I knew I was in the mud on my back, immobile, staring up the edge of the tombstone I’d just touched, which pointed from above my brow like a long, stone finger at the moon.

Long I stared into that still crescent, till at last I felt the final breath within me have out, and I closed my eyes only to find the moon behind my eyelids, in contrast to their black backs as sharp as it had stood before space. My trembling ceased; my heart quit its beating. This breathless silence I knew to be death—I am alone again with the one eternal witness of my birth, my life and this, its cessation.

. . .

Believe me, Reader: I thought I had died! Upon waking in my bed this morning, I wondered that it was not some drunkard’s angel that laid my swaying head to rest, or whether it was not perhaps another dream. I can’t begin to consider whether it was or no—for I would first have to say of this waking world itself that it weren’t hallucinated, a question I fain would beg. But the description I’ve given you is as I remembered it this morning, when I attempted to follow what clues it offered to that selenocentric valley, somewhere in Green-Wood Cemetery, which I swear to be my gravesite. Entering through the gates, and in daylight, I was sufficiently disoriented, solely reliant on these buried intimations of a journey taken, with the question at heart as to whether they might be followed. I again ascended Battle Hill, to where Minerva hails Lady Liberty, but knew not which tombs to take heed of from there—I couldn’t make out or again make up which of the great mass of trod grass marked the wake of last night’s voyage.

If you would follow this inscription to visit that holy ground, where my soul, and, I’m persuaded, many others have sojourned, I commend thee. But I confess, I failed. Indeed, like all great minds, I fell short of my intended target, and while the morning greeted me with piercing lucidity, which persists with me now, it is ebbing, and with it, the will to on.