Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Deeds in the Tempus Fugit.

It's been a while since I visited the Tempus Fugit. Not that I haven't wanted to walk up there and have the sweet nectar that is Pike's Ale (the ALE that won for YALE.) It's just that my summer maladies have revisited once again and between a general feeling of weakness and a real bout of an ailment called pericarditis (an inflammation of the pericardial sac) I have been unable to visit.

Last night, however, Dame Insomnia kissed me gently and pulled me lovingly from my sleepy nest. She helped me on with my jeans. She tied my wing-tips. She even helped me place the leash on Whiskey's collar, and before long she guided my feet uptown to the Tempus Fugit.

There are inanimate objects or natural phenomena that change with greater rapidity than the Tempus Fugit. It's entirely possible, to my eyes at least, that the Tempus Fugit has changed less in the 89 years since it opened at the height (or depth) of Prohibition than have the giant Sequoia in Yosemite or, say, the great cataract we call Niagara Falls.

I'd wager that some of the low wattage lightbulbs that illuminate the bar are the same ones bought decades ago by a salesman who might have known Edison in Menlo Park as he tinkered away in his factory and thought about making plastic discs speak and spouting hate against Jews.

Whiskey and I assumed our positions. Me on my favorite stool one in from the end; Whiskey curled like a stock photo at my feet. Once again the bartender with the grace of a Martha Graham, an Isadora Duncan or a young Phil "the Scooter" Rizzuto, swept around and back with a bowl of cold water, salted Spanish peanuts and a short eight-ounce pull of Pike's. In mere moments he was back behind the bar, perched in his catbird seat, leaning and ready to inform, enlighten, amuse and elucidate.

I had drained Pike's number one and second glass was placed before me.

"A man came in the other night," the bartender began his story as he began wiping the bar with a damp terry, both in a circular motion. "He wore high lace-top boots with camouflage khaki tucked in. They looked rather like World War I-style puttees."

"A style I haven't missed," I said.

Ignoring me. "His shirt was also camouflage and over it, he wore a multi-pocketed safari vest. He had two cameras strapped around his neck. One a small automatic, another compact but larger like a Leica."

"'I am a war photographer' he began. 'I take pictures of battle.' I bid him go on. I thought about Capa's work in Spain, or on D-Day's bloody shingle. I thought about Capa with his head blown off by a Vietnamese mine that lay beneath the grass. He turned down a life, he did, with Ingrid Bergman--she wanted to marry him--to pursue war photography. And it killed him in the end."

I drank my drink and drank him in.

"What wars have you photographed?" I asked. "Congo? Colombia? Gaza? Egypt? South Sudan? The Karen rebellion? Afghanistan? Pakistan? Iraq? Myanmar? Tibet? Or maybe something closer to home? The Bloods? The Crips? The Latin Kings? The Antis? The Pros? The Westboro Baptist Church, perhaps. Have you travelled to the Bronx and seen the war of poverty? What have you shot?

"The war photographer stared into his glass. 'I have shot no wars,' he said to me. 'But that is what I aspire to do. To capture the blood, the sweat, the shit, the human stains.'"

The bartender stopped wiping the bar and he stopped his reverie. Then he began again.

"It was Capa who said, 'if your photographs aren't good enough, you're not close enough.' Today there are people who call themselves war photographers, but do it from arm chairs or arm's length. There are people who do not create art who call themselves artists. Writers who do not write. Parents who absent parenting. Even, I'm sure, bartenders who cannot pull a brew." He pulled me another Pike's.

"It is an Empire of Illusion we live in. A Cathedral of Ephemera. We are all residents of the United Sham of America."

"That's a little dark for a Monday night," I laughed.

He continued:

"Liber scriptus proferetur,
In quo totum continetur,
Unde mundus judicetur."

"My Latin's a little rusty," I admitted. "Outside of the Tempus Fugit, I seldom use it."

He translated:

"Lo, the Book of Ages spread
From which the deeds, all deeds are read
Of the living and of the dead.

"That's from Thomas of Celano. A 13th Century Franciscan. It couldn't be more relevant today."

"Deeds. Not words," I said.

Whiskey stirred at my feet. She probably looked at her internal clock and noticed it was time to leave. Or maybe she had had enough Latin for one morning.

I pushed two twenties across the bar and held them there.

"Take them," I said.

He began to push them back to me.

"No," I said. "Deeds, not words."

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