January 27th, 2005

caillebotte_man at his window


The rain has let up, after having fallen slowly and steadily through most of the night. The cat, apparently having heard the cessation of the rain, has insisted on going out. Upon opening the door, I see the declining moon emerge briefly amid a foggy swirl of broken cloud. There might be a bit of sunshine today. Now I hear the speeding car from which one of the appalling local papers is delivered. Up the block, back down, on to the next street, bringing the details of those events which appeared in abbreviated form on television last night.

One of those events will undoubtedly be the one which occurred in Glendale yesterday. I was struck (perhaps an unfortunate choice of verbs under the circumstances) once again by the awareness that there are some Californians who cannot bear to be separated from their cars even in death. A common form of suicide in Butte County is to drive an automobile off the cliff and into Butte Creek Canyon along a particular stretch of the Skyway, the main road between Chico and Paradise. The cliff side near a lookout called Inspiration Point is littered with decades of wreckage, too costly to remove. The authorities generally fetch the bodies, and leave the ruined vehicles to slowly decay.

The failed suicide in Glendale will probably be charged with a felony, having been responsible for killing people other than himself. I suppose the authorities might end up killing him for it. This, I think, would not count as irony. The irony, if any, comes from the fact that, in clinging to his personal vehicle as a means of self-destruction, and ending up using it to derail a vehicle of mass transit, precipitating a deadly disaster, he did no more than imitate, in a more violent way, the policies followed by the State of California itself for most of the twentieth century. In the 1970s, he could have been Governor.

I am reminded of an incident which took place long ago. An acquaintance of mine, an older fellow from New Jersey, had a habit for many years of popping up at one place or another which I frequented. He had three children, a son and two daughters, who sometimes accompanied him. I once had occasion to stop by the house he was living in at the time (there were a whole series of them) and I met his wife. She was a nervous and frazzled-looking woman, extraordinarily shy, who vanished into another room as soon as possible. It was the only time I ever saw her. I believe she died a few years later. I always pictured her as a ghost, even when she was living, haunting the decaying and disheveled bungalow next to the freeway whose roar the thin walls barely diminished.

Their younger daughter seems to have shared much of her mother's temperament. Her father was oddly calm and cheerful in the face of what, from outward appearances, was surely a disastrous life. An older daughter took more after him, though she was a bit more hardened and less naive, and was, I thought, the most rational of the lot. There was also a son, possessed of a rather endearing goofiness, the charm of which was frequently overshadowed by his utter cluelessness about what constituted normal behavior. I think he had a touch of ADD.

Over the years that I saw them now and then, the kids grew into teenagers and their father grayed a bit, but otherwise they were unchanged, as though their personalities had already been fixed somehow, down to the smallest detail, and would remain with them forever. I came to think of them as being trapped in a bubble of time. The younger daughter was rather disturbing. She was prone to uncontrolled outbursts much like those of her brother, suddenly lashing out in anger at one or the other of her siblings, or bursting into laughter for no reason, or, just as easily, having crying jags over the slightest thing. I always suspected she was headed for an institution of some sort, but, as far as I know, she never made it.

They had moved to a more distant neighborhood, and I hadn't seen them for some time, when I read in the local newspaper one day of a suicide in Alhambra. A teenaged girl had stepped in front of a speeding train on the Southern Pacific's main line. It was the younger daughter. I was shocked, but not surprised. I wondered if her father, a good natured sort, but distracted as he was, and sorely lacking the competence to deal with the world, had ever attempted to find some sort of help for her. Perhaps he had managed to do so, but it hadn't done any good. California had already shut down its mental hospitals, and treated even the severely mentally ill on an outpatient basis, if at all, through an overworked and poorly funded system that was itself almost pathologically incompetent. Those who fell through the proverbial cracks ended up on the streets, or in prisons, or in front of speeding trains. They still do.

A couple of years after this, I saw the older daughter. She was working as a clerk in a drug store near my house, and recognized me, though I didn't recognize her until she told me her name. She seemed to have achieved some degree of stability, and even to have grown a bit, (though she had always been the rational one), escaping the time bubble in which her sister had died. She didn't mention the tragic event, and I didn't bring it up. I saw her in the store a few times after that, but a short time later she got a better job somewhere else, and I never saw her again.

I did see her father once after that, though. Ever the unrepentant Easterner, he never owned a car, and I was not surprised one day a few years later when I saw him on a crowded bus, fo a line I took infrequently. We talked for a minute, standing in the aisle, and then a seat opened up. I insisted that he take it. He must have been past sixty by then, and, never in very good health to begin with, his age was telling. Still, he had retained his cheerful demeanor and his dedication to small talk. An invariable element of almost ever conversation I'd ever had with him had been about his search for a different apartment or house. This time was no exception, and he asked, as he always did, if I knew of any places that were available, and cheap, as he was thinking of moving. As usual, I didn't, and he went on to talk about where he had had lunch that day, and what he had eaten, and how much it cost.The bus reached my stop, and I got off, wishing him luck in finding a new apartment. Neither of us had said a word about his younger daughter.

As the bus pulled away from the stop, I saw him through the window, attempting to engage another passenger in conversation. He always had to have somebody to talk to, even if the talk was about nothing. But then, maybe talking about nothing was the point. Maybe that was how he remained in his curious bubble, defying all that changed around him. I never saw him again, and it has now been almost twenty years. It seems unlikely that he has survived this long. When I think about him now, I picture that time bubble collapsing on him, and he vanishes with it, as though he had never really been in our time at all, but merely drifting through, unaware, trapped in his own world but imagining he was in ours. Maybe that's what his younger daughter saw. Maybe that's what disturbed her enough to stand in front of a speeding train. I doubt that I'll ever know.


One of the stories I recall hearing about Philip Johnson was how, after he had said in a lecture that Frank Lloyd Wright was "the greatest architect of the 19th century," Wright had been rather annoyed. The next time he saw Johnson, at a gathering of some sort, Wright said to him, in feigned surprise, "Why, Philip. I thought you were dead!" Later, unable to resist another dig at the younger architect, Wright asked him "Are you still building those little houses, Phil, and leaving them out in the rain?"

The little houses Wright was referring to were the small, glassy boxes Johnson began designing in the 1930s, one of which was Johnson's own dwelling. On first visiting one of them, Wright had asked, "Phil, am I indoors or outdoors?" Wright was himself famous for having designed houses which integrated indoor and outdoor spaces, but he never blurred the line. Johnson all but obliterated it. One of a handful of pioneering American modernists, Johnson became as influential, if not quite as famous, as Wright himself. I think there was a bit of jealousy.

Comparatively late in his career, and many years after Wright had died, Johnson suddenly scandalized a whole new generation of architects by designing an immense Manhattan skyscraper to look, as even the most obtuse critics could see, like an immense case for a grandfather clock. This departure from his earlier style by a distinguished older architect gave considerable impetus to the emerging mannerist post-modernism which has since become the dominant style of architecture. One revolution was not enough for Philip Johnson. I'm sure Wright would have disapproved.

The death of any famous architect invariably brings to mind the case of Stanford White, the brilliant late 19th-early 20th century architect who was shot and killed by Harry K. Thaw about the time Philip Johnson was born. Found not guilty by reason of insanity, Thaw was sent off to a mental institution. The famous tale about him is that, on the way there, he and his guard changed trains, and while traveling between depots, they saw a large, recently constructed public building that had been built in the rather chaotic, eclectic style of the late Victorian period, and Thaw exclaimed "My God. I shot the wrong architect!" Could that be true? Is it possible to shoot the wrong architect? Every one of them has built something for which they probably deserve to be shot. But we forgive them, because they build other things that redeem their arrogance, their presumption, and even their lapses of taste.

What can be said about Philip Johnson? He scandalized Frank Lloyd Wright. He was an iconoclast who came to be respected, then risked that respect by becoming an iconoclast again. He lived in a glass house, threw many bricks, and got away with it. He lived a very long time. Sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse, he was the most influential American architect of the twentieth century. Nobody shot him. I guess that adds up to success.

Philip Johnson