Nighthawks, Edward Hopper, 1942, Oil on Canvas, 33 x 60 in. (approx), Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
I’ve been reading this evening with Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks playing in the room. Van’s music stirs a sense memory. I am suddenly sitting in the Cinderella Discotheque in Nicosia, Cyprus surrounded by a dozen or more Greek Cypriot friends and one or two Turkish Cypriots and a few Americans and some mad Arabs and we are all together here, men and women. It is February 1974, and I know this because General Grivas died in late January and his posters are everywhere outside on walls and telephone poles and lamp posts. Below his heroic face wiry men hunker in the cold before braziers and sell chestnuts roasted on the spot. The chestnut-men roll cones from stiff gray paper so you can carry the treat without burning your fingers. The oils from the chestnuts soak through the paper in camouflage patterns as if the vegetable kingdom itself makes art to honor the dead guerrilla.
And so it is February 1974. My drink in those days is Canadian Club with coca-cola and everyone in the disco smokes intensely flavored cheap British cigarettes except for the odd Cypriot showing off his wealth with American Marlboros. And Van is singing now about “another time and another place.”
My friend Georgios wears a light brown shirt with an embossed tattersall pattern, a shirt that’s two sizes too small, and the tiny, tight shirt dwarfs his torso beneath his razor-cut Donovan doll’s hair: the European mullet. Greek and Turkish women when they are pretty are so pretty that you want to pray to them, and for them, and over them, chanting “forgive me father for I would very much like to sin,” but though they smile and drink and smoke just like the men and you can dance with them, you cannot have them. Not these; these are for Zeus. Everyone smiles and everyone’s eyes are just that little bit wet from too much smoke and booze and soon we men will dance together just like goddamned Zorba the Greek and the women will make such a fuss over our dancing I think maybe I can have them after all. I am just a Louisiana boy so full of joy at who and where and what I am that this moment burns like magnesium, a magician’s flame, then, *poof*. Gone.
Yet here I am now reading some half-assed disappointing novel and whoa, over the speakers comes Van Morrison, singing about his “…little red shoes, pointing a finger at me.” Boom, I’m back again. Really back not just in the scenery but of myself, my young arrogant-assed self who is not the least bit impressed. Don’t you do anything? he asks me. I think he’s horrified.
To tell the truth I haven’t tried to do much of anything for a long time.
That same long-ago evening I left the Cinderella and saw a Grivas poster in an alley and decided to take it for a souvenir. I stood on a box and with exaggerated drunken care took it from the wall, then turned to see about twenty angry Greeks who wanted to know why I was defacing the image of their great hero. All my Greek friends were gone to Ginnie’s restaurant already. I was alone with Ray, my American pal. I don’t remember what I said to get out of trouble, but somehow I convinced them it was innocent and they let me keep the poster.
What I should have said is this: for the first and only time in my life I feel cool. I feel like the absolute cat. I need to take this poster to remind me in years to come that there was a time when I was so cool I did not have to be hip. And now that I am here in front of you with all of you angry I feel a rush from that, too. I feel alive and full of piss and eisel, thrilled at the challenge of surviving these few magnified minutes. I dare you to misunderstand me, and if you do, so be it. That’s what I should have said. I was so damned cool at the time, maybe that’s what I did say.
I don’t think I have the poster any more. Doesn’t matter. I need to feel that same rush again. I need to seek it out. I promise to try. Even if I have to deface something cherished.
Fuck the mundane.