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Kandahar: A Memoir

by Jeffrey Mehlman

 

December 2001

Kandahar–New York. The local papers marveled at the serendipity
that had brought a celebrated playwright not only to cobble together
a play set in Afghanistan, and that just prior to the events of
September eleventh, but to come up—even—with a one-liner about
the Taliban heading for New York. It was Kabul though that was the
city of the play, and compared to the sacred city of Kandahar, it was secularity
itself. I had done the playwright one better, then, in that
“Kandahar” was the name sacred to me. That I should be writing this
fantasia—but is it one?—of Kandahar in New York on a flight from
Boston to Los Angeles, the very itinerary of the eleventh, inspires a mild
shudder. What it might inspire in my fellow passengers were they to
look at this page, written how many thousands of feet aloft, I can only
imagine. Happily,my left hand lies over the page; surely no one will read
me.
          One does not write in order to go unread, however, so allow me to
dispel the mystery. Kandahar may be a name sacred to me; it may even
be linked, for the New Yorker I remain at heart, to a section of lower
Manhattan not far from the site of what would be first the World Trade
Center, then Ground Zero. But my Kandahar had nothing to do with
religion, or at least with Islam. Though it had a whiff of the transcendent
about it. Some fifty years ago,my father, eager to reward an overachieving
son, or perhaps merely to add a dash of style to his otherwise
drab wardrobe, took me to a Lower East Side sweater wholesaler named
Kandahar. As the owner of a dry goods store uptown, he was generally
familiar with the turf. His life, it seemed to me, was largely devoted to
pleasing others, and the most common form taken by his will to please
was the emergency afternoon dash to the Lower East Side to find the
girdle, bra, or whatever, of just the size requested by the customer that
morning, but, alas, nowhere to be found in the jumble of boxes through
which he, or his sales help, would desperately rifle. The item was
promised by nightfall (the store closed at 9 p.m.), and thus began the
dash downtown. In the hit-and-run descents on Maidenform or
Warner, I was the lookout. My job was to sit in the double-parked Olds
and ward off any cops—with my mere presence, like a pudgy scarecrow—
who might be inclined to issue a ticket. It was God-awful boring,
but managed to leave at least one lasting impression worth noting.
WQXR—nothing but the best for this overachiever—was my one relief
from tedium. And particularly Mozart, since I did not yet have the
dumb courage to rebel against the boxiness, as Updike put it, of so much
classical music, the decorative symmetries that led Shaw to speak of
much of what preceded Wagner as so much wallpaper for the ear. So I
sat there absorbing Mozart, or rather putting him to use: making him
the medium that would allow me to choreograph the chaotic street
scene before my eyes into a kind of ballet performed by anxious Jewish
wholesalers, indifferent Puerto Rican street vendors, kids in search of a
stretch of uncluttered asphalt on which to play ball, and anyone else who
might enter the magic of my—that is, Mozart’s—ken. All before Peter
Sellars even dreamed of setting Don Giovanni, was it?, in a New York
shooting gallery.
          And all the while, I performed my job well. No tickets were issued.
Which may have been another reason I was taken that day to Kandahar,
where neither my father nor I had ever been before. The sweater I
emerged with was a dark green affair, which I wore, and kept wearing
for many years after. But my attachment to it had less to do with style
than with the circumstances under which it was acquired. When the
time came to pay the agreed-on price, the men from Kandahar asked to
be excused as they repaired to the back room. When they emerged, it
was to inform my father that they had just checked his credit rating in
the good book, the Dunn and Bradstreet credit guide, and that having
ascertained that his rating was “triple A plus,” they regarded it a matter
of honor for all concerned, no, of religion, that he allow this sweater to
serve to initiate his credit account with Kandahar.
          Who would have expected that the merchant, an indifferent student
for all his youth, should emerge summa cum laude from that encounter
on the Lower East Side? And that he should do so in a kind of surprise
ceremony staged in the presence of his son? It was the green not of
Islam but of my father’s honor that I wore all those years in the form of
a shaggy wool sweater from Kandahar. I remember sweating later that
afternoon as we stopped for a bra on—was it Ludlow Street? A crew of
Yeshiva bukhers—the phrase is Yiddish for taliban, but who knew?—
seemed to prance across the street to the strains of Così fan tutte. I was
proud.

~

          The fall of Kandahar, my own private Kandahar, did not occur until
many years later. It was precipitous and brutal. The circumstance, for
all its sadness, was banal. I recount it only for the sake of its bizarre conclusion.
          My mother had recently died, and, still grieving, I arrived for the
first time with my young family (our daughter was five) at the home
above the store on 84th Street that my mother’s hospitality had graced
for so many years. She had died but weeks before.
          It was on that occasion that my father brought me into his—their—
bedroom, sat me down on what my mother, in a wise gaffe, used to call
her “chaise lounge,” and informed me that he had taken up with a new
woman, none other than my mother’s “best friend” of years past, and
that he was now considering moving with her to her home in southern
California. I had returned home in a gingerly effort to reclaim my past,
now bereft of its central presence, and was told that that home was to
be dissolved eagerly—and for good. My shock was total. I raised my
hands in a gesture that acknowledged the tottering world around me,
the years accumulated, and asked:“What happens to all this?” Kandahar
fell with my father’s response:“So that’s it. You’re only interested in the
money.” I walked out and, with the exception of one lawyerly visit, did
not see him for the next eight years.

~

          A reconciliation of sorts came much later. Children need a grandfather,
and the man who would have everything was prepared to put up
even with a son who had seen through him in order to have the grandchildren
he believed he deserved. And he rose to the occasion, with
rather spectacular spikes in his grandfatherly skills coinciding with the
first bouts of his second wife’s Alzheimer’s. Indeed it was as though the
more she forgot, the more he appeared to remember what I had hoped
he would never cease to be. Yet the drama of the fall of Kandahar, as I
continued to think of it, continued to simmer beneath the surface. How
could he have thought what he pretended to think on that fateful after-
noon? It was as though he had staged an imaginary offense in order the
better to be able to walk away, to impose on his son the divorce he had
never, it appeared to me, had the gumption to ask of my mother, his
wife.
          Still, that was all speculation. What was needed was less an explanation
of his plaint than a refutation. That occasion came my way during
the summer of 2001, in my fifty-seventh year, during a visit to the spectacular
travertine expanse of the new Getty Center, high on the intersecting
ridges of two hills north of Los Angeles. With the passage of
time, it had become possible to visit the museum, that is, to secure parking
without prior reservation. And so it was that on a fine August afternoon,
my wife,my father, and I climbed into his 1987 Cadillac and went
for a visit.
          One was astonished straightaway by the framed views of ocean and
city, the rare luxury of a travertine balcony in the sky. But one was similarly
surprised by just how accommodating the place was. Wheelchairs
made the trek up and down walkways, from pavilion to garden to
framed prospect, amenable to the aged, and my father was certainly
game. And thus it was that I had my Getty-inspired exercise regimen
prescribed for an afternoon.
          It was not easy work, wheeling two hundred pounds and more of
paternity up and down the ramps, and the inspirational uplift provided
by the collection, most strikingly in the nineteenth century, alleviated
the burden only slightly. It was the framed views of valley, city, and
ocean that drew one on.
          It was not until after I had left Room 202 in the West Pavilion, a
room so generally undistinguished that it went unmentioned in the official
brochure, that things began, once again, to click. A generally forgettable
nineteenth-century painting by a little known Englishman had
jolted me unexpectedly. Might it have been the subject? It was called
“Mercy” and showed the young David ostentatiously sparing the life of
a reclining King Saul. Specifically, the young hero orders his aide not to
run the sleeping monarch through with a spear. I was familiar with
Gide’s treatment of the same motif, which I had attended to some years
back in a book on antisemitism. For Gide—but was it Biblical too?—
David was interested above all in demonstrating to Saul that he had no
designs on his life. So having come upon Saul asleep in a cave, he
clipped off a piece of the King’s robe, in order to be able to show, later
on, that had he wanted to kill Saul, nothing would have prevented him,
since the snatch of cloth from the royal robe demonstrated clearly that
David had not lacked an opportunity.
          The painting, by way of the recollection out of Gide, bore the
strangest of kinetic fruit a mere five minutes later. As I strained to wheel
my father up the travertine—no, as I struggled to prevent him from
rolling too quickly down the travertine and into the panorama—it
occurred to me that here was my long-awaited chance to release him,
that is, not to release him, into the multihued glory of a southern
California sunset. David, that is, was I. Or rather would be, if I could
imagine my father, now 86, reacting to my phantasmagoria with anything
other than a mixture of confusion and annoyance.
          So I filed the fantasy in some pocket of my narcissism and proceeded
to reward myself for this newfound combination of erudition and
virtue by accepting my father’s generosity in hosting my wife and me in
a delectable dinner overlooking the very sunset from which my aching
wrists had spared him.
          Erudition? There remained my embarrassing ignorance of the
painter who had so effectively scripted my trip to the Getty. It was, in
fact, a month or two later, in Boston, that I decided to remedy that ignorance.
The words “Saul David Getty,” typed into the oblong box provided
by my search engine, quickly revealed that the painter who had
so flattered my narcissism, so inured it to the claims of Oedipus—but
what was psychoanalysis, I would occasionally tell my class, if not the
conviction that we are, all of us, condemned to act out both myths
simultaneously?—the painter was one Richard Dadd.
          And then came the revelation. The painting had been executed in
the Criminal Lunatic Department of Bethlehem Hospital, the asylum to
which Dadd had been consigned in 1844 after murdering his father in
a delusional fit. The painting, it was commonly agreed, was a brilliantly
executed denial of a parricide that had actually taken place. And it
was a painting I had declared my own. I may have been right to claim
that Dadd’s David was I, but if so, I had identified with delusion itself.
And whether he had known it or not, the retired merchant from 84th
Street would have found in my apparent defense, against an accusation
he had no doubt long since forgotten, the clinching argument for the
prosecution.

~

          I began these notes three days ago, on a Boston-Los Angeles flight,
with a childhood recollection of Kandahar in New York. I write now
on the return flight after tending to my father, who even as I write lies
semi-comatose, apparently dying, in a cheerful Encino hospital, of pneu-
monia. Barely had I arrived in his Encino apartment when I was summoned
to the intensive care unit by a supervising nurse intent on persuading,
no, badgering me into giving my father up. Time to let him
go, I thought, but the thought immediately translated into a strain in my
wrists, and I held on—as at the Getty. Richard Dadd may have called
his painting “Mercy,” but its legend of a death forestalled was palpably a
relic of an age before mercy killings.
          I had fortunately read my father’s “living will” on the plane to
California and was certain that it would take more than an impatient
nurse—the stipulation was two doctors—before I could envisage shutting
down the ample congeries of tubes and machines that appeared to
be sustaining him.
          Or was it that oldest of counsels, imparted to me by him in my
childhood: “If anything happens to me, head first to the safety deposit
box”? Was I the one who had gotten things precisely wrong this time?
Might I have been keeping him alive—to the point of what the nurse
regarded as torture—for the sake of the money? And all out of strict
fidelity to his oldest teaching.
          Fortunately, he weathered the crisis of that first night in Encino.
Moreover, a newly administered antibiotic would need time to work.
Early the next morning, I called David, a childhood friend who was
none other than the son of my father’s second wife. He is a prominent
epidemiologist and was generously riding herd over the crew of doctors
attending to my father. He confirmed me in my resisting the hectoring
nurse, reminded me that in California’s youth culture the presumption
that only the young have a right to live had issued in some particularly
nasty medical habits.
          Richard Dadd’s painting again loomed before me. Supine Saul, with
his bin Laden beard and turban, was still my father, whose name, have I
said so?, is in fact Saul. But Dadd’s David had modulated into my friend
David, instructing his robed aide to lay down his spear (or was it her
syringe?) and spare Saul’s life. I was out of the picture, as medicine frequently
prefers it for the uninitiated, but the picture had only grown in
hallucinatory accuracy.
          Soon, I realize, my father too will be out of the picture. May that
moment, when it comes—when? my plane lands in Boston in less than
an hour and I dread the news—serve as a bond, both of us “out of the
picture,” as compelling as the one we knew a half-century ago that afternoon
at Kandahar in New York.

 

Jeffrey Mehlman teaches French at Boston University. A French translation of his most recent book, Emigré New York: French Intellectuals in Wartime Manhattan (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), will be published by Albin Michel in 2005. (4/2005)


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