Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Pearls and Roses, Chapter 4

Pearls and Roses, chapter 3

And what was the place that had prompted all this furor? Not the cafe in France where an American party had gone awry, not the town where the party-goers had stayed, nor the abbey they had plodded around, nor the archives they had explored, a little. The cause and heartbeat of their furor lay not even in their own homes, for at home they could retreat from each other. It lay in their pasts, of course, but what a cliche to say so. Who can help having a past? No, it lay in their workplace. Strange places they are. You are just about as intimate and may be as outraged, there, as with your own family; maybe moreso, because with your family, love or at least familiarity smoothes many rough spots. You know you have not chosen them and yet there they are, forever, whenever you like. At work it is different. There they are, every day, looming large, knowing and doing as only you also do. It’s your job. You care enough to wring their necks sometimes. And yet when they, or you, move on, it is as if you had never known each other. "You had co-workers, not friends," – so writes the advice columnist to the woman who cannot understand why she is so alone in retirement.

This workplace, Monique Productions and the Boyd Foundation, had its headquarters in a tony section of downtown Naperville, amid the dark boutiques and glassed-in jewelry stores showing one or two expensive Chinese vases beside the diamond solitaires in their windows. It was an odd workplace. The joint firm’s origins went back to only a few years before Alice began working there, back to one of the minor vacations that wealthy Mr. and Mrs. Boyd had taken during their retirement. Mr. Boyd was an amateur lover of architecture who had not pursued the profession partly because he had inherited his family’s clothing store, and partly because he liked his avocations being amateur. Mrs. Boyd, for her part, in retirement developed what had always been a minor avocation for archaeology. She liked the image of herself as a spry old lady in khaki shorts and string-tied hat, out in the desert, brushing sand off a new petroglyph. And she liked the work for its own sake. She took courses at the university’s extension center, and went on field trips with young people. When this fine old couple vacationed together, each had something to prove, and each secretly wondered why on earth the other didn’t climb down and give the everlasting subject a rest. They enjoyed life and each other immensely.

One summer day, in the midst of a driving tour of Mark Twain country, they walked about the decrepitude of what once must have been an elegant early nineteenth-century waterfront in a town on the Mississippi. They noticed moldings and windows, joints and woodgrains and jigsaw work on parapets. "If you ask me it’s as sophisticated as any little town in Europe would have been able to build," Frank said. "And all going to wrack and ruin. What a shame."

"Look at the quoins on that old building," Monique pointed. "You never see work like that anymore. What was it, the bank do you suppose?"
"Maybe the brothel." Frank was craning his neck up at the third floor. Monique giggled. After walking in silence some time he said, "You know, I’m damned if I don’t think there must be something we can do. Look at this. It’s an actual wooden sidewalk. Like in the movies."
"Yes? What do you mean, ‘do’? You mean sweep it?"
"No. Call attention to it somehow, show it on the news, preserve it."
"I’m sure local people know it’s here," she said.
"Not if they don’t care. I mean it doesn’t matter, if they don’t care."

A beat-up small car drove slowly, menacingly past. Monique began to notice that as charming as the old ruins were, they still constituted a half-living neighborhood that was not in good health now. There were boarded-up windows, and vacant lots strewn with garbage. There was a smell, not so much of fish, for that might have indicated an industry and life, but of rotten water. She suggested they hurry on, and think about everything at their nice hotel way up in the green bluffs of the state park.

There they talked over dinner. Frank had been revolving the subject in his mind. "What we want, I suppose," he said, "is to try to restore these places or to show how badly they’ve been neglected. Or both."
"But ... the property must belong to someone who obviously can’t make a buck restoring it. You said, if they don’t care .... The past is not to everyone’s taste," she prodded him.
"Oh, I don’t know. I saw quite a few ‘for sale’ signs around."
"Well, okay. We can’t buy all that."
"I know." He chewed silently.
"You know how it is in Chicago. They’re forever tearing down gorgeous old robber-baron mansions. The land is always more valuable than whatever old thing is on it. Look at that new Walgreens."

"I know. But that waterfront didn’t look like it was jumping with new growth. Who would care if we ...." He drifted off. "There must be dozens like it all over the country, too. Dozens, what am I saying? Scores, hundreds. Do you know that it’s the same distance between New York and Los Angeles as between London and Baghdad? We want to call attention to these places, without being ourselves ..." and he trailed off again.
"Without being ourselves experts in anything," Monique said. "And like you said, who’s going to care?" She bit her lip, feeling suddenly ashamed that she was not acting the supportive wife. It was so hard sometimes to judge what men wanted to hear.

"We could make a home movie about it," she offered. "I could show it at the club. Peggy is on the Historical Society board."
"True." They ate for a while in silence, while the sun sank in gold behind the black forested river bluffs.
"I wonder how historic sites get preserved," Frank began again. "I wonder how you get on the National Register of Historic Places. What kind of people decide that, what kind of people do the work."
She sipped her coffee. "Scientists, engineers, preservationists," she suggested. "Society ladies like Peggy." Monique did not consider herself a society lady.

"I suppose. Maybe you apply for grants or have people sign petitions or something."
"Well, why don’t we film these buildings, seriously? I could show it to Peggy. She might have ideas. It’s a start. And if nothing else, we’ll have a record of the site and a little souvenir of our trip. No harm done."
"I can’t imagine what Peggy would know how to do."
"Well, maybe Janet then. Janet lives right next door to the guy running for Congress."
"This is not his district. We’re not even in the same state."
"So, he’s bound to know the guy whose district this is. If he wins. There’s no law against using a telephone, is there? Look, all this was your idea. I’m just trying to be supportive. If you want to have a hand in somehow saving that old brothel, I’m all for it."

He smiled at her over his own coffee, seeming to return to himself. "You know," he said, "making a home movie may be the best idea of all. Remember that tenth-anniversary TV show a few years ago about the statues at Abu Simbel being cut off the rock face and moved so they wouldn’t be flooded? That was a great show."
"Yes, it was." We’re not the Egyptian government, she thought.
They gazed out the black window, closed off by the wilderness night, now, to any sight but their own reflection. "Well," she began. "Why couldn’t we start a foundation ... why couldn’t we found a film company to film these rundown places and show them on television like that? Kind of like glorified home movies. We could send people anywhere."

He stared. "I don’t know anything about TV. Really."
"We wouldn’t have to. Or anyway we could learn. But if we started a foundation I’ll bet we could hire, well, would you say five decent people who know about cameras and production and things?"
"Where do you hire people like that?"
"I don’t know! But if we can find five people who know how to make a good film of this waterfront, or of other projects like it, all we have to do is sell a film like that to television. People do it, you know, people who are no smarter than we are." This was one of Monique’s favorite expressions. She used to drum it into their children’s heads, and it had encouraged them to attempt things they were otherwise afraid to do. Now she drummed it into her grandchildren’s heads.

"But even that is no guarantee the place would then get fixed up afterward. That’s what I’d really like to see. Beyond home movies. That’s the point."
"It might be a start. The ripple in the pond – I mean the stone thrown in the pond. Any use of the media is so powerful. Speaking of TV, remember that show the other day about the women who started their own radio call-in show by just picking up the phone and calling Information to ask for the number of a radio station they could start with? And they called the station and got an appointment and were given air time, and now they have this radio show that’s broadcast all over the Midwest. And they’re absolute nobodies. Or were. Now they’re handling millions for charity, besides their own pay."
"Sure. It can be done. We don’t have to break into WGBH Boston immediately, you know. Maybe we never would. But why couldn’t we look into opening a film company?"
He leaned back in his chair. "You want to make a foundation to make a film company to make documentaries about ramshackle places in need of architectural help. Fixing up."
"That need historic preservation, yes. What do you think?"
"I think I don’t know my ass from my elbow in any of this," he laughed.
"Neither do I, but what are lawyers for? Let’s ask Chuck when we get back. Hasn’t he got a sister in Hollywood? Maybe she’ll know something."
"She’s a model."
"Well, anyway. There must be some way to get it done. That’s how these things start. Someday we’ll be writing our memoirs and dedicating them to Peggy because she encouraged our first crummy little 8 millimeter film, or whatever they are. Tell me no one would want to touch our money. There’s an interest group for everything. This could be great fun."
"That it could." They sat happily in silence. Their coffee was cold. Already she had named the company "M-Unique Productions" in her head, and pictured the building in a nice section of downtown Naperville, among the antique shops, where they could set up their offices.

"I like it," Frank said at last. "I like it very much. And we’ll make everything non-profit, too."
"All right. What’s the point of that?"
"No taxes. And we’d certainly be providing a public service to somebody, I would think. We’ll have a foundation to pick what projects we want to film, and we’ll start a film company to do the work."
"Wonderful," she smiled broadly. "Whom shall we hire?"
"I don’t know," Frank drummed his fingers on the table. "Come to think of it, I wonder how we’ll pay them."
She looked blank. "Through the profits of selling the films, I suppose. Or through the money we raise as a foundation anyway?"
"That’s the thing. There are rules about that. Non-profit corporations can’t have profits."
"How bizarre."
"Yes, but those are the rules. I don’t know how it’s done but I know there are rules. We’ll ask Chuck, he’ll know. Hospitals do it all the time. They are non-profit, but they must have to pay their employees. I know that’s why they give you practically everything in the room except the water in the toilet bowl when you’re discharged, because they’re non-profit and they have to show they’ve spent all their money on supplies. I suppose that includes salaries."

"I’m sure it can be done," Monique said, faltering after a little quiet.
"Oh, heavens, yes." He waved his hand. "This is very exciting. If only we had some champagne," and Monique relaxed and smiled happily. "Shall we make it official?" he asked.
"Why not? But no champagne. We’d better be careful of our money, now that we’re film producers and public servants and all."
"And artistes." He raised his nearly empty coffee cup to hers. "Well. To our new career," he pledged, "and to us."
"To us," Monique repeated. They clinked their cups together nicely, with a low, scratchy, porcelain heaviness.

This was 1978, which explains why Monique Boyd spoke of home movies but not home videos, and why Frank was still impressed by the Egyptian government’s rescuing the ancient colossal statues at Abu Simbel, which would have been drowned by the diversion of the Nile and the opening of the Aswan Dam more than ten years before. Alice was fifteen in 1978, so idiotically well-read that she had already been able to write in her diary – long past, on the occasion of her eleventh birthday – that she looked forward to her body’s development, to a baby someday "suckling at rounded bosom." She had already read things like The Song of Hiawatha, and would shortly struggle through Jane Eyre. Her sensibilities could not even be called Victorian, if Victorian is meant to imply stiff or prudish. They were pre-Victorian. She belonged in Austen. She was Lydia. At fifteen, she had a boyfriend. At seventeen, in 1980, while Frank and Monique’s company was really getting underway, she went even further than that.

Pearls and Roses, chapter 5

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