Sidekick, A Column About Disability: 1960
It was the age of high fidelity and there I was in my grandmother’s attic with a Victrola. How odd it was, its needle-like the nose of an insect, the platter covered with green baize as if one might throw down poker chips instead of a record. It was most certainly a gambler’s machine.
I’d put the needle on a fast-spinning disc and hear something uncanny…arias and folk songs sung by dead people. Gambling, ghosts, the wind-up mechanism with its crank.
So Enrico Caruso stole into me. I sat beside the contraption with bandages on my eyes and listened to a man who’d been dead forty years, who’d come to America from Naples, the capital of ghosts. Of course, I didn’t know this. I knew a thrill instead which was the start of poetry, a door swinging open on the inner life.
Soon I had a game going. I’d play a record and while it played I’d finger the objects around me. The average opera record lasted three minutes. I’d play “three-minute grope” while the tenor sang of heartbreak.
I pushed my fingers into the fur of a raccoon coat. Touched an old spring-loaded mousetrap, the mouse corpse long gone. I fingered an infant’s dress, inexplicably hanging from a nail. How many things could I touch in three minutes? Poetry.
I’ve written in this column for The Good Men Project about secret friends. I think men need them and moreover, I think all men have them. The lucky ones acknowledge this.
Caruso, also known as “The Great Caruso” was arguably the finest Italian tenor of his age and is still regarded by many as the best of all time. He could soar into high notes without any strain and those who were lucky enough to hear him at the Metropolitan Opera said his voice sounded like a golden thread. He thrilled audiences around the world and was arguably the first international entertainment superstar. He also made the gramophone a household must.
So a blind kid with a victrola falls in love with a great Italian tenor. I see now it makes sense: a disabled child was transported by a dusty machine that brought back alive a dead man’s voice. Later when studying poetry at the University of Iowa he’d realize the attic and the gramophone were not only an incitement to art they were the imagination itself for in his head a provincial fascination opened a hundred worlds of music, biography, history and trivia.
On a rainy autumn night in Iowa City at twenty-four, he thought about Caruso and Marconi aboard a ship far out in the Atlantic, the tenor playing an upright piano in a smoking lounge, the two most famous Italians in the world smoking Egyptian cigarettes, and Marconi, king of the wireless, dreaming about the day when radio waves would bring opera into every living room. And Caruso sang Rondi’s “O Sole Mio” but in half voice so as not to wake anyone at two AM. Above them Marconi’s experimental mast sent out blue sparks.
Dear men reading this: who are your secret friends? What gifts have they given your imagination or inner life?
Caruso liked to draw cartoons. He once drew the letter “C” over and over in a Darwinian leitmotif, like the stages of man, the C’s slowly transforming into the tenor’s smiling face. The tenor as C, high C, fanciful C, C creature, and of course C for Canio’s laughter, C for Cavaradossi, C for Calaf, C for coloration and then the cardinal man.