"this place is a vortex," says laki vazakas, the beat videographer, and i shake my head silently. yes, i answer quietly, and turn my jacket collar up a little. it is cold and dark and clear, and laki is explaining to me about cherry valley.
it is a vortex, he repeats.
maybe it's the water up here, or maybe it's the shape of the night. but when you consider all the exceptional energy which has gathered in and emanated from cherry valley, there's good reason to think laki is on to something.
technically it is sunday, but only just. laki and i are walking back from a late night low rocking jam session at carl waldman's house, ann's brother, it's after midnight saturday night not a soul in sight, charlie and pam plymell have preceded us back to charlie's house but laki and i have opted to walk, now he's stopped in the middle of the street in this dim-lit cold upstate new york village air, to get some footage of rury's grocery store by streetlight. after an evening of low-rolling improvisational blues and high company, i'm feeling it. the vortex. the water. the night. cherry valley.
it is the spell of the moment, one which is not easily broken. only that a woman in a car pulls up in front of us and rolls down her window and leans out and says "what ARE you two filming." laki and i look at each other and don't know what to say, "rury's," he says finally, and with offhanded authority. and i say "oh yeah, rury's, doesn't it look great at night!" we laugh, maybe it's a small town thing; maybe she wants to make sure we're not terrorists casing out rury's, the president has told people to watch for unusual activity and i don't know but that two out of towners filming after midnight in cherry valley might constitute that. either way, the challenge of having to answer her perfectly unnecessary question is sufficient for us to stop filming and trek on to back charlie's.
cherry valley, in case you don't know it, is ginsberg country. a tiny out of the way village settled amid the endless westerly ridges and valleys of new york state. from manhattan you head north to albany and then follow the sun as it begins its 3000 mile trek across america, but unlike the sun you stop here fifty miles into the journey. cherry valley, where 18th century pioneers, in their continental westward flowing way, stopped; and called the place they stopped the frontier; a nation's frontier before the frontier became flatter and wider and further away than this, when the frontier began to change in untold ways; ohio, kansas, colorado, california; as charlie plymell says, it's only a three and a half hour drive from manhattan if you don't stop to piss, though how long it took ginsburg and peter orlovsky, who traveled on different wings than angels, to discover their 70 acre farm in cherry valley, how far from the mean streets of new york city or tangiers, i cannot say. as for charlie, he landed here after being blown out of the maelstrom of wichita, kansas to san francisco, by a literary cyclone that tore mcclure from his kansas roots and planted him down in the bay area too. for plymell, it was the haight ashbury hippy sixties, where in addition to living with ginsburg and neal cassady on gough street he became printer of the infamous zap comix which help defined the era. "allen introduced me to cherry valley," he said, and the sense of the place held sufficient appeal to the midwesterner and his wife pam that they've been solid cherry valley citizens ever since.
as for me, what i can say is that, if i hadn't gotten turned around in cobleskill on this particular evening, i would've proved charlie's time prediction right; it would've been a three and a half drive, neat, no chaser, to come up the west side highway from spring street downtown, where i was at a poetry reading at the ear inn (at three o'clock on any saturday afternoon in new york city, there is not a better poetry reading series i know of); where i meet up with maureen and nick from bigcitylit, they want me to meet thom ward the publisher from boa editions who is reading, and vicki hudspith of st marks is there and an earnest cathy macarthur, curious and studious about everything, at the ear inn things are winefriendly and aesthetic and crowded and fun, but when i look up it is after five and the sky's growing dark so i take the straight as piss road, shoot up route 9 cross the tappan zee take exit 21 west north on route 145 through preston hollow and cobleskill and some other towns, then up over the humpback starlit moonbeam ridge, dotted with clouds and cows and dairy-eyed dreaming night, cherry valley here you are.
actually, there is something in the water in cherry valley. that something being lithium, to be precise, the patent medicine types in the 19th century they bottled it and sold it, they claimed cherry valley's lithia springs bottled water would do just about anything for you that you wanted doing, happier kidneys or better sex, i wouldn't know what; but what they didn't know was there really were beneficial psychotropic effects, lithium carbonate is the current stuff in modern medicine to lay on depressive personality types and smooth them out. "the old residents of this town just drank the water and smiled," charlie says, and grins to illustrate; he also says the place used to be called happy valley not cherry, and he has pictures to prove it.
there's some history to the place which might make you wonder. you might wonder, for example, whether drinking the lithium-laced well water of the valley effected samuel morse, who one day decided to string a wire from his cousin's house to the bank, thereby transmitting the first telegraph message in history and creating the information superhighway; or a fellow named spalding, who one day woke up and wrote a novel about finding buried tablets in the earth -- a story which joseph smith lifted whole passages from, supposedly, and they ended up in the book of mormon.
but 19th century lithium spas and alleged literary thievery are not my aim, i'm here on a visit to charlie and pam. a pilgrimage of sorts and of course by extension, to visit allen and peter's farm. "the committee," the hobohemians called it; what manner of commitments were made and kept and broken in that asbestos-shingled place, only to mention that, like charlie says, peter had this great organic garden thing going on, and he tended to lecture everyone who showed up at the farm on the benefits of vegetarianism -- but it was commonly known that he used to sneak into the city from time to time for a steak. anyhow these days allen has gone to his great reward, peter is under close supervision "somewhere near manhattan," and while the ginsberg entourage has mainly left the streets of cherry valley and wooded retreats of its environs for other apron strings, this little village remains home to an impressive band of aesthetes; not least of whom are charlie and pam.
but like i say i don't get here and find this stuff out in three and half hours; i'm late, having become turned around in cobleskill; i should have trusted charlie's directions or the corroborative nods of the counter girl at the convenience store on the north end of that town, but i don't, and i end up driving twice across the same sad starlittered fields and mountain passes, dazzled each way with the play of the moon through the clouds, before i give in and do what they told me and find my way to cherry valley.
so now it is some time after ten when i arrive.
the plymell's place is a rock solid wall structure of looming limestone, there are literally angels in the architecture, sweetfaced things, in the darkness i can make out in one clunch fisted spot the porcelain face of a doll, pink cheeks black eyes ruby lips, charlie tells me later he found the doll face when he was rehabbing the place and decided to cement it in, why not? there is a walking stick leaning at the entryway, all totemed up with feathers and b
ones, some personal god to speak with on long lonely treks up into the hills. pam comes to the door, i have heard her referred to as "the beloved pam" but that doesn't get the job done -- i soon learn she's way more than that, pam's lived in san francisco and new york and paris and casts a considerable aesthetic presence on the entire scene, has more than a passing familial connection to sylvia beach, who ran shakespeare and company and published james joyce; her mother's mary beach and mary's husband is claude pelieu, fine artists and no mistake about it, there's a big french aesthetic connection going on around here, they live not too far from these confines. lately they've been doing collage work, explains pam, and she shows me a disc of their work she's been toying with; there is more than a little resonance back to charlie's early hippy days, the 1960 batman gallery era, when he began to make a name for himself; only their work at times reaches from cut-ups and abstraction toward the expressive intensity of pollock, the sensual stained glass warmth of chagall, the jarring political confrontation of picasso.
pam explains that charlie's already down at carl's place, bebop the three year old white lab is already leashed up and ready to walk, how about me? "i'm ready too," i say, "c'mon 'bop," says pam, so we're off, down montgomery past judge morse's place, a couple of churches each no bigger than a house, and up the deserted main commercial road to carl's.
inside it is obvious that the evening is well begun in anticipation of my arrival. dangerous dan is haunting his drumset near the front door; carl works out a meandering reflective theme on an electric bass; someone named cunningham from suny oneonta is flicking deep undergound guitar licks into the aura; while a young woman who may be with him is hummingly lost in a contemplative microphone reverie. "we've resurrected peter's old banjo," shouts charlie in my ear, meaning orlovsky's, it only has two strings on it so far, nobody plays it; instead he takes the mike, grins, hands it to me, "have a question for me, george?" he asks and just like that a faux public interview has begun, a parody of itself, i ask a question in the mike, "charlie, what is your economy in this place," i ask, "dog biscuits and bird seed," he replies, then drifts into and around and through the room, digging the music, the thought, the moment; then sits down and begins sampling from a bookshelf, plato, ray bremser poetry, or perhaps his own book "the last of the moccasins," a beat memoir classic; finally he begins a process of intoned gone phrases, in and out of sound and focus; it is pure gas.
"what is the function of the flame? charlie, i ask." "to remind us," he answers without hesitation, and heads off into a new jam-driven vision.
the entire woven effect is hilarious, dizzying and mysterious, and before long i am giddy, transported along with it; i picture the drive here under moonlight, cows grass cloud fields, big night sky over route 10, and find myself drifting along, comfortably, into the midst of the stoned jam session; and now i reach out to the electric piano, and begin tickling lost phrases of my own across the keyboard, reflected musical nothings that are from nowhere and going nowhere, just here, of themselves; streaks of sound, slipped out of and through and back into the electronic mist of it all.
i don't know how long the jam lasts, but at some point things break up and after our stroll through the village laki and i join charlie at his limestone castle; pam has put out a spread of good cheese and bread, garlic'ed olives, all of it laid out attentively, and we men of cherry valley, happy as lithium, dig in, accept the spread, grateful and fatigued. we are soon off to sleep.
the next morning i am up before the rest, as is my habit, and figuring bebop won't bark at me now that i'm welcomed into the clan, take a walk down to the convenience store, a gas station, at the town center; along the way noticing the street trees, saplings really with their dog tags still on them, the municipality is planting cherry trees, not native black cherries, but it is a nice gesture. the filling station is the only thing open in town this early on a sunday morning, two picnic tables to sit at and look out at the other buildings at ground zero cherry valley - a blue-painted masonic lodge, brown and white painted community health center, and a modest three story brick commercial building that houses a flower shop and nancy's gifts.
here in the convenience store is a sea of commodities to distract me; rolling rock stacked higher than a man, 99 cent american flag pins. lotto tickets, atms, antifreeze and a rack of gloves and knitted caps for cold weather. in ones and two come hunters in camouflage, it's bow season already, they're looking for coffee. women and children stop on their way to church, "no you cannot bring a breakfast sandwich to church!" says one mom to her daughter, "then how about a bagel?" asks the little girl. the bagel wins. among the men the talk of the morning is about a year old skidoo some guy's hauled in on the back of a polaris trailer behind his pickup, it's for sale.
i turn to the local paper, cooperstown, and learn that a new york city ladder company, from st albans, has come up by invitation to the area for some rest and relaxation, the boys "braved the cold" just last saturday to go golfing with some of the local firefighters, it was "very therapeutic for me," admits the woman who organized the trip up, and she hopes the firemen liked it too. in other news, otego opted out of prison consideration after more than half the 1500 voters in town signed a petition against it; the state was trying to decide whether or not to build a prison there, planners say a prison will bring 300 jobs and a twelve million dollar payroll, but the state says they won't put a prison anywhere if the people don't want one, and the voters have said no, now what?
when i get back to the big stone house pam's up, we talk awhile, charlie should be awake soon, he walks the dog at ten, and sure enough he appears before i can even turn around. charlie wants to show me down to the creek, where he feeds some pigeons every day, so down we go, alongside the house there are totems everywhere, actually, and a small path with a handrail built from twigs. we have to cross a small sweet bridge where watercress chokes the shallows, down the zigzag way i see water pooling up in spots, but even more than water there is a damn lot of the green watercress in the little creek bed. with full sun the day is beginning to warm up nicely; we are surrounded by a broad meadow of cattails and tall weeds, colorful in its variegated season, just now brilliant with yellows and browns, a dry caked painter's smock shining opaque in the bright sun. in a distant grove yellow leaf aspens shiver; there is a red blur in the green mountain backdrop, a barn and silo, and the one dark mysterious view which goes on forever, beyond that. at our feet, a small flock of ghost flies dance, perfect randomness, yet never colliding; a chaotic rising cluster which lives and breathes the life of the creek. "there were good trout in the creek a hundred years ago," says pam, who has joined us; these days a trout would have to lie down sideways exhale and do the sidestroke if it wanted to swim upstream.
in the middle of this field charlie is filling a pigeon feeder with a seed mixture and trying to explain the contours of the meadow in terms of a mathematical gyre that he has been studying, it emanates from an egyptian throne or something, in perfect proportionality, informs all kinds of existential manifestations, charlie is standing in tall grass looking for patterns, i am trying to follow, he searches to find the words to explain them to me but "words are the first to go," he says. in chaos we search for order, for theory. why do we persist with this quest
for reason, for order? "because we're stuck with it," says charlie, but reassuringly.
for all his hobohemian iconoclasm, charlie did study formally and well, don't let him tell you otherwise, oral interpretation of poetry in wichita, philosophy; later, he sparred regularly with the stentorian elliot coleman at johns hopkins, a patrician of considerable standing and erudition in his day, a man whom charlie found he was unable to phase in debate and civilized discourse until the proper moment came; being that hour on most afternoons when coleman inevitably sought solace in a cocktail. with a background like that it shouldn't be a real surprise that ideas and dreams are charlie plymell's mentor, his master, his metier; despite his well-documented ramblings and celebrated inclination to see the falseness inherent in institutions and the phonies who inhabit them; charlie plymell, the institution of the mind; i recall to plymell how ira cohen said that he kept looking for a guru "but every time i scratched the surface i found a schmenderick." the best master, says ira cohen, is the one we find in ourselves. "what's a schmenderick," charlie asks, and i look around and realize, i'm not in new york city.
it is ten o'clock, "time for 'bop's morning walk," says charlie. it is a relief.
we all pile into the car, laki and charlie and me; and 'bop, who rules the back seat, even when we remove the comforter he normally sits on he cries for his spot, it is in the order of things, dogs seek order too, and no doubt fishes and aspens and reeds; we drive up to june barwick's place, a high spot overlooking the village from one particularly green ridge of cut fields, 'bop romps with his two girlfriends who live here, a chocolate and a black lab, while charlie describes the perambulations of local revolutionary war figures, history lessons from a crest overlooking cherry valley. it is a tale well told, and he reaches to tell it with confidence; tories, patriots, spies, george washington racing across and around and among these ridges, up the schoharie valley, which was the breadbasket of the british, and back; oh and the great cherry valley massacre is in there too somewhere, though charlie barely gets to tell it.
bebop's girlfriends are joycean, says their owner, who comes up from the house to meet us. her name is june, one of the dogs is named nora barnacle, the other is molly bloom, "they prefer their full names"; she's looking for another joycean name for an as yet unborn addition to the menagerie. i suggest sylvia beach. but june rankles at so unseemly a notion as naming a dog after the relative of someone you know. she laughs uncomfortably, and so i change the subject, we discuss black walnut trees; and wild blackberries, how they may be made to migrate across a field; the dogs take turns dominating each other rolling into and over and nipping each other, trying to dump the humans to the ground in their playful process, "looks like they've found a new body to knock down" says june when they plow into me, but i have found my sea legs in these autumn hills, and remain standing throughout.
back at the house we find ray otali and a bottle of good beaujolais, he's french; and a computer entrepreneur, he wants to show pam how he can help with mary and claude's website, or maybe it is charlie's website, nobody is very sure; after a lot of techno-chat, i extricate charlie and we head off to the climax of cherry valley's grand tour -- allen and peter's upstate shangrila, "the committee."
it is a circuitous drive over a different mountain, a distant spur of cherry valley from where the village lies, and heavily wooded. charlie keeps mentioning hunting season, why? "we might get shot," he says simply. along with laki and ray, we approach the farmhouse through an impenetrable stand of overgrown saplings and weeds, a narrow drive just barely passable and chained, we have to get out and walk through, passing the remains of peter's organic garden, charlie points it out. at the far border there are apples falling from a row of apple trees, 'bop and i plow shiplike and bounding through the overgrown field like harbor swells to retrieve apples; i pass some out.
then on to the asphalt shingled farmhouse, solid and abandoned and the grounds around it badly in need of attention. "don't break in there is nothing here to steal," says a chalkboard by the front door. at the western end of the house the remains of a barn, it has been knocked down; there is a door frame hung in surreal fashion from an ancient maple; ray and i take the path down to the pond, low for this time of the year. "listen," i say, and ray sniffs the air. "to what?"
"to the silence." yes, says ray, silence, it is a beautiful thing, and he breathes in deeply as charlie approaches. "a little too much silence for allen, i think," he says.
we cannot stay too long, paul bley is due for a visit back at charlie's, with his wife, carol; and i am eager to meet a man who played piano with chet baker and charley parker and sun ra, and furthermore wears the first purple sweater i have seen since bud schulberg. but we have a few stops on the way back, including one spot where charlie slows down at the house of an artist he knew once who lived here and actually had in his possession jackson pollock's last notebook and wanted to lend it to him. "i wouldn't take it home, i was afraid to," he says. inside was a drawing, jackson pollock's last dream. "he thought it was a vacuum cleaner," says charlie. "i thought it was a muffler and a tailpipe." so what was it? "anything you want it to be -- it was abstract."
but one last detour, to the house of roach, a friend of charlie's, the type of man in whom plymell seems to seek a remorseful tenderness beneath his tough mask, he's from the south shore of long island, a rough enough looking fellow with plenty of stories to tell, says charlie, brushes with law or organized crime during his biker days; roach is an avid collector of things, we find him at his work bench where he begins laughing hard and pointing to "things" around him and proudly explaining them to me; "that metal arrow weathervane there, it's from a prison they tore down," he says; "this clock mechanism here, it's 150 years old -- came out of a long island railroad station they were tearing down."
on the walls of the shed are old license plates from various states of the union, and japan. "that there says hiroshima," he declares. "1945." "see this book?" says roach, pulling an old kennedy era photo essay on beautiful women out of a dark unknown spot. "1962. it's worth hundreds."
roach's latest project is a 2 1/2 carat diamond he has and wants to deal quickly, looking for a buyer and now that he is done impressing me he is down to business, asks charlie to help him sell it on e-bay, they discuss that a bit, roach holds a caliper in his hand to show how he measured that diamond, "two and a half," says roach, charlie seems puzzled but willing.
we take a walk in roach's yard, "i own 700 feet that way," he says, and points uphighway, towards a pond with a narrow covered bridge over a spur of the water. "built that covered bridge myself." i walk across it, there is a small sign, bud's pond, 1986. "the pond has a name," i say. "oh, i had a son, he died in a car accident," says roach quietly; and then catches his breath and says in a husky whisper "muskrat!"
"there, don't scare it!"
i look, there is a tiny brown spot, evidently a muskrat head, poked out of the water midpond. "they destroy the pondbank," says roach, and heads back into the shed with long strides for his pellet gun. laki and charlie are somewhat ashen, i tell roach that he could get a ferret and that would take care of the muskrat, but he's all action now, roach the action figure moves with cartoon precision, the stalking murderous grace of a hunter, roach crouches slightly and aims. he picks off the mus
rkat in one thudding shot.
"got him in the head," says roach proudly.
charlie says nothing. laki says nothing. "i had to do that," shrugs roach. "i know, i don't like to kill animals. but charlie, they do damage."
the three of us beat a retreat to the car, roach following us. "don't forget, 2 1/2 carats," he shouts at us as we pull out of the driveway.
there is not much talking on the drive back to charlie's.
at the plymell house, night is closing in fast.
we find paul and pam sitting amiably at the dining room table over wine, and we join them. ray and carol are giggling happily upstairs discussing gigabytes, but soon they come down too. over polite conversation, ray's talking about ionesco. "i drove with him in a car," says ray, "and said to him, mister ionesco, what i learned from your writings is this: you taught me that the question is more important than the answer.
that sounds about right to everybody. "yes," i say, "but what about gertrude stein's last words, on her deathbed: what is the answer."
ah, WHAT is the answer, says charlie. everybody smiles at that. the answer IS what, apparently, in tonight's company.
on this cherry valley sunday evening of good wine and companionship, i'm satisfied with that.