I’m badgering an 88-year-old man to remember a few minutes that happened 70 years ago. The memory is, arguably, of historical importance. And he’ll likely be gone relatively soon, to put it bluntly. It’s the reality that gives every word he says gravity. So maybe my questions carry the gentle authority of seeking details for posterity, for the historical record. As if the record needed it.
So at 6:50 pm on June 4, 2014, in a hotel lounge in the small town of Bayeux, France, a twenty-minute drive from where he landed on Omaha Beach on the morning of June 6, 1944, I make an 88-year-old man uncomfortable.
The man’s name is Ernie Corvese. He’s a retired newspaper photoengraver from Providence, Rhode Island. He’s traveled to Normandy with his wife of 62 years, Dolores, for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. As one of the ever-fewer surviving veterans still willing and able to talk about his war experience, Corvese has been interviewed several times in the last few years, telling and retelling the story of his glimpse of hell during that rainy day back in ‘44.
I recently had the opportunity to see Hitchcock’s Lifeboat on the big screen again.
The 1944 film follows nine people in a lifeboat in the north Atlantic after their Allied ship is torpedoed by a German submarine during World War II. The British and Americans survivors have all the diversity convenient to brew conflict and unlikely alliances—they span from a bejeweled woman to crewmen to a business tycoon. But the presence of the German U-boat commander, rescued from the sea after his sub is destroyed, creates the central tension in the film.
I’ve seen Lifeboat perhaps four times, but only twice in a theater.1 A lot has been written about it, as with any Hitchcock film, though much justifiably centers on Tallulah Bankhead not wearing underwear on the set.2 You’ll also find mentions of John Steinbeck’s anger over the dumbing down of his black character3 and a few musings on the damaging controversy that gutted the film’s box office performance. Regarding the latter, several critics and other influential voices in ’44 felt that the German U-boat captain (Walter Slezak) was portrayed as too competent, too gentle-faced and too appealing in every regard to represent a hated enemy.4 This reportedly spurred Twentieth Century Fox to cut promotion efforts and the $1.5 million film did poorly in theaters.
“She wasn’t quirky. She was crazy.”
This was my friend’s assessment of a woman I had met on OKCupid. She had ended our pleasant test drive after two months when I showed ambivalence about naked time, which sometimes happens when I realize I’m not in it for the long haul but still enjoy the dinner conversation. Sort of like an actor in a play that’s closing. Even if the backstage mood sucks, you might still like getting dressed and going on.
My friend’s comment wasn’t empty. She was psychologically troubled. It didn’t take a medical degree to see that. Bits of her past trickled out in the first two weeks and then dropped in large chunks. An abusive parent, pill addiction, years of crippling depression, weight swings, promiscuous eras. On “medication.” The drugs were heavy-duty mood stabilizers, not like the ones in the commercial with the frowny ball. Ads for these pills could use Amanda Bynes.
Where’s the cancer?
I don’t want cancer. Unless that’s going to be in the cards soon anyway. I want my body to stop irritating me with a series of annoyances that cause me to see some doctor, take pills, bitch and lose productive time.
A variety of bizarre, premature shit has cropped up solely to piss me off in the last few years. Arrhythmia. A half-paralyzed face. A Dupuytren’s whatever-the-frig in my left hand. Gout. Pneumonia.
Pneumonia. The old man’s friend. I’m not yet 45.
Meanwhile I’m healthy. “Healthy.” When people say “Thank God for good health,” they specifically mean me. No brain tumor. No lung cancer. No lupus. No diabetes. No Lyme disease. No Lou Gehrig’s disease. No artificial limbs. Nothing that qualifies me as bad off in the slightest.
If you leave a city like New York for an extended stay in the suburbs, one of the first changes you’ll notice will be a drastic drop in the walking you do every day.
Everyone knows this.
Most suburban areas are famously unwalkable. You can’t perform any errands on foot. Maybe the odd errand to a nearby spot, but that’s it. Biking isn’t a reliable answer either. Your destinations are just too far away and far apart.
This is the definition of the suburbs. Your bank is two miles away. The dry cleaners is three miles in the other direction. The supermarket may be in the same strip mall as the cleaners, but how will you get the groceries home? The frozen food will melt.
Wrenching the old payphone off the wall should have been harder. A man who’d been pouring beer ten feet away for better than twenty years muscled a pry bar between a cinder block and the black metal box, and the relic heaved forward with a crunching groan, its broken attachments hanging like mangled arms. Two grey cords strained from the wall, like some last-ditch plea to let the phone stay where it’s been for, God, longer than anyone can remember. The bar opened in 1945. “Sometime after that” often ended discussions about the origins of things.
I was in the carcass of The Back Fence, a saloon on Bleecker Street in the Village. It was the afternoon of Sunday, September 29, 2013, a few days after it poured its last official beer given an ill-timed tangle with the city’s department of health. The bar had long been set to close on September 30, but the health-department troubles spurred the owner to go dark early. Perhaps most hurtfully to long-time regulars and employees, it meant canceling the goodbye shindig planned for the final weekend.
T R A N S C R I P T
TRAVELER 3182, ENCOUNTER 23
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SITE DESC: TABLE IN FACTORY BREAK ROOM
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I go back Tuesday. I needed the break. All I do is work on my thesis. It’s like a massive term paper that you have to defend against the Supreme Court. No thanks I don’t smoke go ahead.
I’m doing my thesis on something called Facebook. Face book. It’s a seminal social media . . . [UNINTELLIGIBLE] . . . [UNINTELLIGIBLE] . . . average people. You know that bulletin board outside your boss’s office? The one crammed with a thousand pieces of paper, the bowling league rankings, those fishing trip photos . . . Facebook is a bulletin board like that but it covers the entire planet.
My father was born in 1915.
He never really cottoned to the telephone.
At least from his sixties onward, he regarded a ringing phone to be a minor emergency. Like a Western Union man banging on the front door with a telegram. The telephone was an expensive communication device to be used sparingly, if at all, and it posed several technical hurdles that were marks of a contraption not quite perfected.
One was dialing. This act required opening a book, adjusting eyeglasses, concentrating intensely to place a finger in the correct hole in the delicate rotary thingy and applying just the right clockwise force to make the desired number register.
Naturally, being up in years increased his difficulties with gadgetry. But I never took his pained approach to using the phone as a late-life issue. I tend to think he always viewed the telephone as something between a technical nuisance and a clanging miracle box. Hell, when he was a kid, you still had to turn a little crank to get some telephones to work. He told me that. The nickel the only handy phone required? That was a slice of pie. Dropped calls pissed you off.
Listening to old radio shows is not a pastime that suffers a lot of discussion.
There are several reasons. First, the whole genre of “old-time radio” is alien to most people under 75. The big-network sitcoms, dramas, cop shows, horror and thriller series, westerns, variety programs and so forth that defined America’s home entertainment in the 1930s and 1940s were all effectively dead by the mid 1950s (the period known as the “golden age of TV,” not coincidentally).
This means that a person born after, say, 1936 will typically react with a squinty-eyed, gaseous expression when you mention old radio shows. As if I Love Lucy1 isn’t back far enough and you’re trying to out-old them.
Secondly, a lot of people consider the idea of listening to a recording of a play featuring long-dead actors—people even their parents would not remember—to fall, on the entertainment scale, somewhere below knitting in prison.
At least knitting has a point. Tell someone you basically like to switch on TCM and then stare at a wall, and you’re asking for judgment.
When I was writing a book eight years ago, I engaged in a temporary mode of living that was hyper focused and backwoods boring. I would rise every day at about 5:30 am, work in a determined fashion until noon, eat, exercise, see an old movie at a nearby theater or meet a friend, eat, and then be in bed by 8:45 pm. I’d listen to an old radio story while I read a blog or two (often Book of Joe from anesthesiologist Joe Stirt), then fall asleep by 9:30 pm.
At about two am, I’d wake up. Or rather, I’d open my eyes and find myself in a state that felt a lot like wakefulness, but not quite. I’d have a highly sensitive perception of the dark room I was in, but no sharp awareness that I was no longer asleep. It was an odd, placid form of being awake; more aware but less alert. There was no tug of tiredness trying to pull me back under, nor any restless notion to get up or turn on a light. It was a ripe sentience that allowed clear but limited thought and wanted stillness.
I was experiencing segmented sleep, something that was as normal as defecating outside up until about 150 years ago. It’s as close to Lincoln as I’ll get. (Segmented sleep, I mean.) Evolution probably created it so we could listen for predators, count the younglings and tend to a dying fire. Internet porn is a more recent use.
“Because you watched The Human Centipede.”
These words sat atop my Netflix homepage for weeks and could not be removed. The movie suggestions below were not helpful; think of movies like The Human Centipede that you’ve never heard of. When the film came out in 2010 and caused a mild ruckus, it played at the IFC theater in New York. I meant to see it there but never did. Years later, after I ventured a private viewing via Netflix, I was reminded of it every time I launched the damned website.
I envisioned the doorman in my building, Mike, standing in my apartment with a cop while covering his nose and clicking though my laptop. “I don’t know what he died of, but I can tell you what he liked to watch,” he says.
When the next deviant-but-talk-worthy movie came out, I’d catch it in the theater. Keep things tidy.
So I saw Raze on the big screen.
Like about ten million other Gen-X guys in the mid 1970s, I was exposed to the Farrah Fawcett poster in a typical way: courtesy of an older brother. A friend’s older brother, in my case. He was fifteen, reckless and mean, getting into the kind trouble that would cause him to have a short life. An aroma of denim and pot followed him. He lived in my friend’s basement where he played his Led Zeppelin records. At six, I was curious about what went on down there. Whatever it was, I was pretty sure it would kill me.
The poster appeared in the basement stairway one day, on the slanted ceiling above the basement steps. Near the bottom. I was heading down behind my friend, perhaps shuttling a Coke to the older brother, or some message from his mother that likewise required two to deliver, and there it was.
Most memories of that basement are down to faint odors of musty carpeting and the pastel covers of board games that were missing pieces the baby sister would occasionally cough up. I remember that poster, though. I remember looking directly at her eyes when I was halfway down the stairs. I saw those teeth. Those teeth and that hair. The next step down was one small step for a six-year-old, but one giant leap for a boy beginning a life that would hopefully be complicated by females.
The disturbing public excoriation on Twitter that upended the life of 30-year-old PR exec Justine Sacco on Friday, December 20, 2013—after she sent an ill-conceived Tweet1 that went viral—was one of the greatest spectacles of mob violence in social media to date.
I couldn’t resist joining in.
When I got wind of the brouhaha over her tweet via a post on Boing Boing at about 7 pm that night, I booked over to the #HasJustineLandedYet feed and had me a good time watching the blood orgy on my iPhone.2
For context, there was a juicy charge to the situation: the victim had no clue she was being ripped to shreds by Twitter users worldwide. She sent the tweet a little after 10 am EST while in London, then boarded an 11-hour flight to Cape Town, South Africa. She reportedly flew first class on British Airways, enjoying amenities3 that sum to a veritable inflight anus licking but evidently don’t include that newfangled trifle called WiFi.