February 15, 2015

Man Out of Time


A massive blizzard swept over New York in the winter of 1947, burying much of Brooklyn. I only learned this recently, after Morgan picked up a photo from the Brooklyn Historical Society. The photo, taken just two blocks from our apartment some sixty-eight years ago, reveals snow so deep it buried the cars parked along the street almost completely, save for the roofs and the tailfins.

            It was a rough winter across most of the northern hemisphere that year, with temperatures plunging to record lows (sixty-two below in Alaska!), and snows heavy enough in England to almost completely knock out the rail system.

            I bring this up because when Morgan mentioned the photo was taken in 1947 I replied, “That’s when I always wanted to live.”

            She thought I was just cracking wise, but I was deadly serious. “Remember a few years ago when I was looking for a heavy black desk phone?” I reminded her. “I was specifically looking for a 1947 model. That was part of it there.” It was true—as much as possible I tried to equip my last apartment in proper 1947 style. Unfortunately, the world and its assorted annoying necessities got in the way.

            A lot of people I know are nagged by the lingering sense they simply were not designed for life in the early twenty-first century, and belong sometime else. One friend pines for the early sixties, another for the 1870s, another for Ancient Greece, and Poe wrote that he felt as if he’d been born a century too early. For me, though, it’s 1947.

            When I was a kid, maybe as a result of living in a provincial Wisconsin town and being saddled with an apocalyptic mindset, I always ached for the future, for a new world, one in which everything would be broken and burned and chaotic. Well, both the future and the apocalypse arrived, but neither were quite what I’d been hoping. I think it was upon realizing this that I looked backward, and looked specifically at ’47.

            So why ’47, right? Why so goddamn specific? If you consider it in historical terms, there was nothing all that remarkable about it. It had about the same level of excitement as any other random year. Europe and Japan were still rebuilding after the war. There was the usual array of train accidents, ferry disasters, airplane crashes, floods, hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, and explosions, all told killing thousands upon thousands of people. It was all pretty boring for the most part, though, save for a few minutes of excitement here and there for people with specific interests: Jackie Robinson was signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers. The UN General Assembly voted to create the state of Israel. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Poland became a fully Communist state. India and Pakistan became two separate nations and promptly went to war. Assorted other skirmishes were breaking out here and there and the Iranians were hanging a lot of people in public, but none of that was much of a concern to us here in the States. With the Nazis and the Yellow Peril crushed and the adrenaline rush of WWII drained away, a fog of ennui and paranoia had settled over the country. The postwar economy was still pretty shaky. The Cold War was underway. HUAC went to Hollywood to smoke out all those dirty Commies in the film business. The first UFOs were spotted in the Pacific Northwest, and one crashed in Roswell, NM. The body of the Black Dahlia was discovered in some bushes in Los Angeles. The world’s largest airplane, Howard Hughes’ Hercules, flew for about eight minutes. The World Series and a presidential address were televised for the first time. Best Years of Our Lives won a fistful of Oscars, and Miracle on 34th Street was released. The world’s first real computer was switched on.

            What points me to 1947 specifically, as with most everything else, are the movies. Lurking beneath the usual Hollywood hoo-hah, in 1947 movie theaters were awash in films that painted a darker picture of what was going on outside the theater doors, in the alleys and back rooms and prisons and quiet small towns. Dark, tough-minded pictures concerning men and women trapped in desperate, often accidental circumstances. It was a golden era for what would later come to be called film noir. So along with lighter comedy fare like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and the typical smattering of musicals and romances, ’47 also gave us Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past, Orson Welles’ great Lady from Shanghai, Richard Widmark’s remarkable debut in Kiss of Death, Lawrence Tierney at his most coldly vicious in Born to Kill, the unrelentingly grim Nightmare Alley, Crossfire, Dead Reckoning, Brute Force, and a film that’s been at the top of my all time favorites list as long as I can remember, Delmer Dave’s adaptation of David Goodis’ first novel, Dark Passage. The list of personal favorites from that year alone seems endless.

            The idea isn’t that I want to live in 1947 so I could spend all my time in the theaters. When I watch these films now (assuming I could still see them) and look at the faces of the character actors, listen to the dialogue, the voices, the music, note the architecture and the period details (the sinks, the hats, the furniture, the phones), I see a long-gone world I ache for. I understand these films are highly stylized and romanticized, but beneath that the hard simple truth is that people didn’t look the same and didn’t talk the same in 1947. They all had different faces and different voices, unlike today. And unlike today they didn’t speak in endless, empty repeated inanities. And oh, how great it must have been to be able to walk into a tavern, toss a few coins on the bar, and ask the bartender for a shot of rye.

            Way I figure it, all the technological essentials were in place to provide me with the same level of comfort I have now, right? They had electricity and indoor plumbing and communication and transportation. The subway had been up and running for almost a half-century by 1947, and the Gowanus was already running thick and brackish with dumped chemical waste and sewage (actually I’ll need to check the date on that one). What the hell else would I need? Refrigerators hadn’t yet made it into every American home, and what we consider certain fundamental medical advances were still a ways off, but that’s okay—it kept the population down, meaning there was still plenty of room for the rest of us and real estate was still affordable thanks to that lower demand.

            Best of all, though, and I think this is what really lies behind it all, 1947 lacked most of the endless, face-scratching annoyances that mark the modern world. You could pick up a real newspaper filled with actual news instead of trying to find even a whiff of real hard news across an array of so-called news sites offering little more than celebrity gossip and human interest stories. The closest thing to a hand-held device anyone had was a wristwatch, so you could have a conversation with someone without having them check every forty-five seconds to see if they’d heard from someone more important or interesting than you. Radio was still king, and offered more than droning political or sports talk shows and commercials for shady personal injury lawyers.

            “Like” wasn’t the third word in every sentence. Architects put some care and thought and real art into building design, instead of simply tossing up another faceless glass monolith with no character whatsoever. The homeless were wise and charming drunks who never shat themselves and always had the inside scoop on whatever was happening in the neighborhood. Music and the movies were so much better. The Red Scare was an ugly business, and both surveillance and identity theft were already issues, but all were much more ham-fisted and silly than they became in the Twenty-first Century. Cars were cooler. You could still find actual phone booths and newsstands. Cheap diners and dive bars were simply what they were instead of being ironic simulacra aiming at the kitschy fake nostalgia crowd. New York still had a solid unique identity, as did Chicago and Philly and every other major city, instead of the entire nation being one sprawling high-end shopping mall. Life, in a word, was more real and direct, it was something you experienced directly instead of through a screen. Even if people were still stupid brainwashed assholes for the most part, at least those hats were fucking great, and better still they never, ever blew off, even when you were driving a convertible.


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