Table of contents


by Alfred de Grazia



Thomas called it a rotten view. In point of fact, we do not know that he used the word "rotten" in his musings; we are better psychologists than grammarians of his mentality. We know that he meant precisely "a rotten view."

It was a hat factory seen from a Hall of Learning. Eight flights up and across from each other. Large windows, brightly lit and unblinded -- to make sure we see all of one another, he thought. I teach students to devalue hats. Those misshapen gnomes poke in pins and feathers, affix beads and tinsel, to overvalue hats. I have no chance against them.

I am cerebral and scarcely exist. They are as exuberant as a mess of maggots. They are fat, short, thin, black, brown, white and especially are they ugly, matched with irons and boards, gnarled tables, crazy steam pipes, spindling carts, spools of ribbon, cloth, piles of clashing colors. Christmas will be coming and they are working overtime; the Democratic Women's Auxiliaries will sport purple fantasies in the dark convention days of winter.

What a colorless office I have: The large-hearted administrators see to that. They look out upon the park and wait for the next committee meeting. They think, 'That's when we'll get Thomas. He's shown signs of creativity lately. If we don't get him onto another committee, he may even write his first article.'

Thomas lit a cigarette and wished he hadn't. In the morning he smoked against the days, in the afternoon against the clock, at dusk out of gloom, at night in relief from his lectures. Twilight in November hurt him. Hope drained like the sap of the trees. Melancholy pervaded his bones; it could even grip his stomach and force his gorge up.

The electricity of a city in autumnal darkness helped him not at all. Naked bulbs and neon. He shuddered to think of the Swedes, and the Russians were even worse: Imagine deliberately colonizing the Arctic Circle!

His class would meet in half an hour. American Civilization. BS 1000. J. S. Thomas, Assoc. Prof., 3cr., Tu. Eves, 0006:15-8. Perhaps he should spill what he thinks about the women and their factory. Such is American Civilization. But the class knew all that and worse.

The trick was to talk about unknowns in terms that would make the students imagine they understood. History, after all, is the instillation of prevailing myth, with such minor amendments as a radical teacher may hope to introduce.

Thomas was no innovator; he taught what he had been taught, but snidely. His notes, based originally upon the exact rendering of his teacher's lectures, had not perceptibly changed in a decade of experience with the course.

The vast conglomerate mystery of Americans. Those women aren't American. The President isn't American. It's a nameless statistical average with a slight breath of life. The average American is an octoroon. I cannot lend an image. Hollywood is against me. Madison Avenue is against me. Their power is as one hundred to one. They are at it night and day, requisitioning all the printing presses from us, blazoning the highways, absorbing the screens of every living room. They are in our tubes of tooth paste, our matches, subways, toiled paper.

They press me against the wall, chattering a desperate static. Loud liars such that I cannot hear a truth. I walk in a plain of muck, not a sparkling stream.

There go the dammed lights… Now what? Trust the self-denying administrators to put the professors in the worst buildings. He felt for the ash tray and found it in the glow of the cigarette. That he crushed and was in the dark.

He sat for a minute and then looked at his watch. Useless; he had lent his luminous one to his boy. He struck a match: 5:30. To hell with it. Let all the lights go out.

He looked out of the window and saw that a good many had. Startling. He got up and walked over to it. No lights. The women, the machines, the purple piles -- all dissolved into dark grey.

They could not have left. Wiped off the face of the earth. No. A match-light. And another. There they stood. Fretting, impatient to get back to their piecework. Their primitive capitalist state was in suspense.

Time for them to have thoughts perhaps? -- Their neglected female phases can shuttle across their minds -- Would Pedro find his plate of food? Have the kids ever come home from school? What will I tell Joe when he wants it again?

And the dropped stitches. The "slight imperfections." 180 hats, imperfect, only at Klein's you should get such a bargain.

It was a bit frightening though. Where are we?

We shall not all fall to sleep,

but we shall be changed,

in a moment,

in a twinkling of an eye,

during the last trumpet.

Would God dare to turn off the world?

Thomas turned quickly to his door, barking his shins on his metal desk. He lurched forward into the corridor. Dark there too. Voices. Presences. A secretary calls, "Who's there?" and giggles. No one bothers to answer her. "Where is Mrs. Saber?" calls the voice of Professor Swazey.

"She's in her office, Professor." This would be Miss Slutz, Patricia, pompadoured in several shades of yellow and accented of voice from long complaining about stepped-on toes in Brooklyn subways.

Well then, all must wait. Mrs. Saber runs the Department. Peccorelli is there too; he clears his throat apologetically. Another shuffles his feet. One sighs. All must denote their presence. They are not alive if not seen or heard. And no one stinks enough to detect -- or can smell anymore, for that matter.

A cold wind blows. It is Mrs. Saber. Colder than the bitter wind of Washington Square in January. "Who is responsible for this?" she inquires. Why must she always insinuate guilt? Swazey strikes a match. Saber presses the elevator button. A foolish act, for which she will be sorry, and nastier later on.

"The lights are off throughout the building, Mrs. Saber."

"The lights are off across the street," ventures Thomas.

"Well, call the switchboard," she says, and retires.

Students are fumbling their way down the hall now.

"Now just wait a minute," orders Professor Swazey. "Don't just crowd up here. If everyone will stay where he is for a few minutes, we'll get the lights again, I'm sure."

The students weren't sure. They edged towards the stairway. Soon there was a thick cluster of them waiting for lights by the elevator, and the stairway door swung back and forth often.

Thomas returned to his office. Let Swazey contend with the forces of darkness. Showing his goblin face in the light of matches. Always confident of diagnosis and prognosis.

Swazey is a popular teacher. Last year's Great Teacher Award Winner! He cannot wait for the new students' teacher-rating system to go into effect. He will flaunt his scores in our faces, intimating that we are ashamed to reveal our own.

Isn't there some statistical correlation between popularity and optimism or popularity and judgmental incapacity? Are the most popular teachers homosexuals? Sexless? Thomas sometimes wished he knew how to test such ideas.

Perfect setting, the university, for the big fraud Swazey. Has rewritten his doctoral thesis on the French Novel in American Libraries twenty times in various formats and published it each time with a fanfare; has given forty-eight outside lectures on the need for liberal education and viewed through his dissertation; never picks up a dirty fact until it has been polished clean by half a dozen of the establishment. It is men like him who raise lumps in the throats of alumni singing the alma mater.

Thomas groused in the dark about his students too. Hoi polloi, assuredly progressive, looking ahead, the hope of the future, and all of that -- he detested them, the lazy incompetents, whose most amazing quality was their self-esteem. His sincere regret at not "producing a record of publications" was that he could not therefore he permitted to be a bad teacher, could not stop pretending to like students, could not be excused from teaching itself.

Having perambulated and peopled his private hell, Thomas concentrated upon his lecture. He began to mumble in the tones of a priest on his second mass before breakfast. While talking, he shuffled a deck of cards perfunctorily:

We teach American civilization here as history, mainly because we cannot teach it any better way. It is easier on the mind to watch successions and processions than to analyze an event in depth. An incident when penetrated below its historical surface goes down, down, very deep, until it explains everything. At least I think so; I have never really been able to get down that far. (pause for uneasy laughs).

Besides I think that there is a terror in the depths. You look a little frightened as it is, from the electric power failure of a few minutes ago. (Always tie things in with immediate experiences.)

The beauty of history comes from your being able to recognize the present by means of it, but you do not therefore feel uncomfortably responsible for the present age.

On the other hand, so that you will not feel too irresponsible, we shall introduce a quiz next week covering the two weeks' work. (Pause for laughs.) (I wonder if they are still collected around the dead elevator?)

In our Odyssey through American time and space, we reached last week the mountain men, a brute, cruel, and lawless group whose chief contribution to our culture was to trample the wilderness and madden the Indians. You may ask yourselves: Is New York City the work of a new kind of "mountain man?" (Watch their eyes glaze and jaws drop at this point.)

Thomas sat still for a moment, listening for sounds from the hall. Were they still waiting for Godot? He felt restless, but thought: 'Let me practice what I preach. Be self-sufficient in the absence of sense.'

The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us.

There is more day to dawn.

The sun is but a morning-star.

Thomas was more American than Thoreau. The more light the better. He got up and fumbled his way to the window. It would not open, but as he pressed his nose tight against the cool pane he could see the beams of headlights glancing off the walls below.

He turned to the corridor. The huddle, no doubt changed in composition a dozen times, supported the same queries, like passwords handed over from the last watch -- "Should we walk down or wait?" "What has happened?" and "Will classes be late?"

Swazey and Waxter still talking down the hall, still confident of the light. That alone made Thomas distrustful. Came a voice from the wall of the elevator, southern, mournful: "Walk down, nothing working." He went for his coat and cards. With movements of careful deliberation, he joined the match-light recessional.

Why were there no sirens? No signals of disaster? No bells -- well of course no bells -- no power, no bells. Someone was coming up, saying with relish, "The whole North is out of light." "Don't believe it," was Thomas' opinion. Disembodied voices mooed.

The up comer bumped Thomas against a female. "Excuse me." Not a bad feeling, soft thighs, instead of iron railings. Wonder what she looks like? Try it again. In the darkness, who knows, who cares. Yes there's the voice. "I'm sorry, can't see very well, heh, heh." Carolina Piedmont colored. Not a bad feel to her either. Wonder what Professor Oubetsky would say of him now? ("Good boy, that Thomas, real knack for accents.")

I could really stand here in the stairwell, testing them all. Not proper research -- still they test poisons on criminals. Well, one more anyway. "Ooff!" Thomas got a hard elbow in the stomach. Better wait a moment before descending; she might have recognized his accent. Plenty of subway training to that girl.

Sense of touch as good as the sense of hearing. What floor are we on? Fourth? Third? Enter another group on the landing. Matches on and out. Smokers lead the way, these who "would rather fight than switch" followed by those who smoke their brand "ten to one," joined by the current of those smoking "the brand of educators and scientists" and the pipe smokers, with their treasury of matches.

The lobby has a weak flashlight and a voice of authority. They belong to Howard, gangling, fawn-colored, the custodian. He should have gone to college because he is bright and wanted to go. Whenever he saw him, Thomas crepitated irritation at the admissions bureaucracy that ordains the careers of the young.

Howard was stuttering as he guided people, by light and by hand. It was his nervous habit. It was exciting to know more than any and all of these people who were supposed to know more than him. Everyone emerging asked him questions. Professor Thomas, for example, "What's up, Howard." "I don't know, Professor. Lights are out all over New York and as far as Canada."

"Are you sure?"

"That's the word from the radio. I'I'I'I'I'm sure."

"What's the radio operating on?"

"Emergency power, but only a couple of stations,"

"Aren't you supposed to be going home?"

"Ca'ca'ca'can't now. Have to see what happened." He turned for a moment. "You folks will have to move away from the exit. P'please don't block the exit."

As Thomas went out onto the sidewalk he was startled by a group of several girls who called out "There he is!" "How could they have known me?" His mind searched frantically.

Then that big booby of a research assistant Waxter came pushing by him and barreled into their midst, letting them clutch him for support and sweeping them with him down towards Rocky's Grill.

Thomas stood in uncertainty. Almost time for class. The dammed lights better go on right away. Kill myself trying to get up to 509 Main Hall. Not much use to try anything. Fell down the stairs of the Hotel Marguery in Paris, over twenty years ago, in the blackout. Nobody can soldier like an old soldier: tell them I got stuck somewhere like everybody else.

"Candles for sale. Candles." Unbelievable -- Some guys peddling candles already. Three skinny specters, one holding a light, another a box of candles and a third making change. Thomas felt proud to be a New Yorker.

No altar boys, these: cool, lawless eyes. They studied him carefully.

"How much are they?" he asked.

"Twenty cents each."

Silly. What to do with it when the lights go on.

But he bought one anyway. That's cheap if the emergency lasts.

The first profiteer is always a piker compared to the last one.

Should I go over to the Main Building now? Maybe the little blonde in the front row will turn up in the dark.

He stepped into the doorway to light the new candle. It was fun in itself. He could see Howard dimly, directing and counseling. A good man, Howard, never to be fulfilled. Not as he thinks or wishes. In the eyes of a larger intelligence. "We are in the lap of a great intelligence." He does fit there. Not all men do. Even when good. I should look absurd there. Light a candle for Howard.

In the lights of the cars, however, his candle would be useless. He blew it out, and slipped its length into the pocket of his jacket. He was on the street now with everyone else. But, as usual, he had nothing in mind to do. The cosmic gyroscope oriented him to the right, which sent him North by West, or diagonally across Washington Square.


Table of contents