Tuesday, November 25, 2008

In the palace of art

A few weeks ago I was sitting here on Saturday morning waiting for Sam and Jas to show up; and I got to thinking about Pop and Louie Jiggs. Specifically, I got to thinking about the time back in the 1970's, when they went to the art museum down in Philly, of all places. I never got straight the story of what inspired them to make the trip; but it's been worth a lot of laughs over the years, the notion of Louie Jiggs and the Pop of that era loose, unchaperoned, in the palace of art. You've got to remember that this wasn't all too many years after that other Italian fellow visited the Louvre and decided he liked the Mona Lisa - he really liked it - so he cut it out of its frame and took it home to have it where he could look at it whenever he wanted.

Don't get me wrong, Pop and Louie were both church going folks, solid reliable workers, each at his own trade; and they were basicly law abiding in most things. Neither would ever have stolen something from a person, unless it was a very rich person and no relation to them. But if either of them had been alone in an alley when a bag of money fell off a Brinks truck, well. . . I, for one, have never been too judgmental about Joey Coyle even though I always give back small amounts when careless cashiers make errors in my favor. But I've never been alone in an alley when a bag of small bills fell off a Brinks truck; and I've always thought that folks who are judgmental about Joe Coyle never have been either.

But I've strayed from the Art Museum. Pop was much too smart to think he could take a painting from the Philadelphia Museum of Art even if no one was looking. First off Pop was not a big art lover; although he was a pretty fair artist who every year surreptitiously painted a very credible little Santa, Sleigh and Reindeer in the sky on the picture Mom had in the dining room down in Trooper. But at the art museum Pop would also have known that there was no way to sell such a painting even if you could take it. Pop was not very well educated; but he was very good at math, very good at computing odds, which are, after all, nothing but risk reward ratios. But Louie. . .

Louie was a little fireplug shaped guy, a barber by trade, and he was a perfect exemplar of the ethics of the time. One time in the 1980's Louie came up to visit at Mom and Pop's house in Collegeville. On the way out the long gravel driveway from their house Louie stopped in Mr. C's section of the shared driveway, out of sight of the house; and he dumped off a bunch of cinder blocks and other trash in the drainage ditch next to the driveway. Jas brought that up while he and Sam were here, as he always does when the subject of Louie Jiggs comes up. "Outrageous," Jas always says, dumping trash by the side of the driveway that leads to your best friend's house. That, of course, was an era when none of us gave a second thought to opening the window of a car and tossing out a bottle or a food wrapper, or a brown paper bag of trash, as long as there wasn't an obvious cop around.

In a sense the art museum was designed for the edification of folks like Pop and Louie; but in another sense one can't think about their visit there without imagining the reaction of the Visigoths when they first conquered Rome and wondered wide eyed in its marbelled and statued streets, dragging their squealing and struggling prizes along with them, looking for a place to conduct some well deserved rest and recreation. I may owe my bluish gray eye color to one of those Visigoths, or to one of the Ostrogoths. Although my eye color could also owe to a Roman Legionary bringing back a souvenir, so to speak, from Gaul or Germania. Or I may owe by blue eyes to a legionary buying a German wife during the good times, for the Romans at least, when Julius Caeser and Caesar Augustus and their predecessor and successor thugs had disciplined armies of diminutive legionaries about as tall as Louie Jiggs out conquering and plundering and otherwise "civilizing" the known world.

One of my fraternity brothers, a southerner and ex-military type a few years older than the rest of us, used to remark after a few drinks that I was the only "blue-eyed Wop" he had ever seen. I used to counter with a comment on the likely rest and recreation habits of his white trash ancestors. And then I would take a firm grip on the neck of my beer bottle, just in case, and I would express my surprise that his skin color was so light. He and I got along well; but he was bigger than me and more muscular even after the summer when I went to Army Airborne School, so I always made sure to be ready to use the bottle when I went down that road. "Silky," he would say, "I could kick your ass for that, you know." And I would answer, "Maybe so, and maybe not, cracker." And he would laugh.

He and I both kept back an empty or two on the table when we went with a couple of our other fraternity brothers to the redneck bar near campus for the Friday night fights. Don't get me wrong, we never went to fight. He had had his fill of fighting in Vietnam, and I've never believed in fighting unless it's absolutely necessary. We went as spectators. We would leave after one beer if we couldn't get the table that was up a couple of steps on the little side platform overlooking the bar area. That platform had a railing that served like the palisade of a Roman legionary camp once the inevitable fight started and the chairs and bottles started flying.

Good times. . . having a few beers, watching the factory worker rednecks get drunk, wagering a round on which cracker would start the fight, wagering on which of them would pinch or otherwise insult which other one's girl, lining the railing to discourage assault on our little fort, and then watching the fun until the cops arrived to end the fight. One of our number, Bill F, was an off duty cop, so we never had any problems; although he had to show his badge a couple of times.

But this post was supposed to be about paintings and sculptures rather than performance art. Pop used to laugh when he remarked that it was tough tearing Louie away from the nudes in the classical art sections of the museum. Louie's eyes about popped out of his head, Pop used to say. A great pity that both Pop and Louie died before the internet.

Pop also always commented on the painting of the huge sow done by one of the Wyeths. Aside from the nudes that painting of the sow was the most memorable to them; that and a painting of a cowboy holding a huge catfish, now that I'm thinking about it.

Remembering the painting of the cowboy with the catfish always got Pop remembering that the blacks used to fish for catfish in the Schuylkill. Pop and every other white person in Norristown called blacks "colored" in those days - now that I think about it that's not true, Grandmom L referred to blacks as "chocolat." She was more or less accepting of everyone; but she was suspicious of anyone whose ancestors on both sides weren't from Ascoli Picento, her home town in the Marche' section of Italy; and she was suspicious of the motives of most people whose ancestors did come from Ascoli Picento. Talk about suspicious, Grandpop L, a member of the Marche' club in Norristown, used to say in Italian something like, "having a Marche' knocking at the door is worse than having a dead body in the living room." The idea, according to Pop, never one hundred percent reliable in such matters of translation, was that it was easier to get rid of a body than to get rid of a Marche' with a proposition.

Anyway, Pop wouldn't eat catfish from the Schuylkill because, he said, they had a muddy taste. This was perhaps not surprising because he also said that at that time the surface of the Schuylkill was dark with coal dust, and the Norristown sewage flowed untreated right into the river. Pop also always said that "the colored" liked and would buy catfish; but even they wouldn't eat another kind of fish, a very bony kind of fish, that he and they caught in the Schuylkill. They sold those bony fish to the Jews, Pop said. The Jews liked those bony fish and would pay for them. The big snapping turtles, Pop said, were the real prize. Restaurants would pay significant money for those snapping turtles, plus the cook would treat you to a rich bowl of the soup after it was done. Pop fondly remembered those bowls of snapper soup, shared out back of restaurants with a black guy named Sims who was his fishing buddy. One of the few luxuries he and Mom bought in the 1950's, was an occasional can of Bookbinder's snapper soup. Sims later became custodian of one of the movie theaters, The Norris, that was one of Pop's regular daily stops when he was a runner for Uncle Joe Sky and picked up numbers and horse business after he returned from the war.

Like I said before, Pop wasn't formally educated; but he was a storehouse of information and he had friends in all walks of life and all sections of the population. He knew the custodian the movie theater every bit as well as he knew the desk sergeant at the police station and the chief clerk at the Montgomery County Courthouse and the secretary in the district attorney's office. He also knew the Greek and Hebrew alphabets; and he knew the names of the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman gods as well as the names of lots of artists and composers and politicians and kings and generals. He had to know all those people so he could efficiently do his business; and he had to know all that random stuff so he could quickly do the crossword puzzle in the Daily News after he read the sports section, before he got to the serious work of the day and headed off to make his regular stops on the way to Norristown picking up the wagers of the day.

1 comment:

NOMAD said...

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