In winter the ashen stucco houses shaped like Camel cigarette-boxes squat before the Bensonhurst bay-mist. Bensonhurst, low, flat, rheumatic marshland, is a realtor’s reclamation project. Many of the streets which may be compared to the booming oil cities of the Oklahoma country seem to have sprung up over night. The houses are a makeshift stage-setting for a slapstick comedy. The materials of which they are composed are dirt cheap. They are job-lot houses.
At one corner is Gravesend. In the cold neutral months it has the muted stare of an empty tincup. Ten minutes from there by subway is Coney Island.
Sometimes on rainy afternoons Jerry Calefonia’s bicycle shop, opposite the street-taxi station, is closed down. Then everything inside is a still-life with the exception of the goldfish. Like Woolworth’s 5 and 10 cent toys they wheel monotonously through a glass jar of faucet-gray water.
That afternoon Jerry had shut up shop to take in the movies.
The Bensonhurst moviehouse recalls the dated red-light district— the old Cleveland, Kansas City, Chicago or San Franscisco red-light town. The general interior has much of the lewd dopefiend Japanese café and danchall about it. Otherwise there is a dungeon-silence and darkness throughout the theater.
Public school children were scattered about the audience. A very sexy picture was being unreeled on the screen. The head of Jerry Calefonia was partially dipped in the silver dust which tipped his ears and hair as it flowed river-wise toward the white sheet. He was sitting in one of the back rows next to a young girl. he had intentionally taken a seat there. Toward the finish of a Harry Langdon comedy he had tried to touch her leg. She did not move to another seat although there were plenty of empty ones in the same row. This made him hopeful. And under cover of his overcoat he reached after her again. But she only recrossed her legs and swung them Indian club fashion over one another, flipping the hem of a chinese-red dress lower over a pair of round-moon knees. In the dive-darkness of the theater they were as regulgent as a 75-watt mazda bulb. Jerry Calefonia squirmed. Chanson triste was ebbing slowly, intermittently distilled from a movie violin.
Before the end of the six-reeler Jerry got up. His sinews were taut, insulated; his bones were dry and a tomb-chill had settled in his joints. His whole body felt hollow-chested and his knees sagged like an old gunnysack. She’s a teaser, he said to himself.
Jerry Calefonia was not a pervert. But he was red hot for a woman. Since he had come to New York he had not learned how to get one. All the houses were closed down, and he had not gotten on to the underground American technic.
Jerry Calefonia was still wobbling with sea-legs. He stood outside of the moviehouse and muttered at the rain which hiccuped into the gutters. Chewing the inside of his cheek he pushed his pennyround face into the mist. He pushed it away from him as if he wished to lay it aside so that his head would be apart form his body. In this vague physical, which was trying to work out for himself, there was the peasant-like departmentalization of the body.
Jerry Calefonia was a Catholic. The Argentine as different. Another matter. Buenos Aries was as blessed as the Virgin Mary. There every time he wanted a woman he did not have to run to the church top cross himself in holy water in order to feel clean again. In America man was too dirty for himself. America was a big mistake. He would go away soon.
— Edward Dahlberg, from Flushing To Calvary (1932)
Edward Dalhberg spent some of the last years his singularly fraught and brilliant life teaching at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. Some readers otherwise unfamiliar with Dahlberg might know this from Jonathan Lethem’s essay “The Disappointment Artist”; while I value more of Dahlberg more highly than Jonathan, we agree on the great merits of Because I Was Flesh (1963). In 1997, while in Lawrence, Kansas, I purchased a few late-period Dahlberg books which had been deaccessed from UM/KC; an odd but cool coincidence. Were they mad or something, I wondered, or did people not care? They should! Likewise the underheralded work of Norman Oder of the Atlantic Yards Report which— with that of article co-author Amy Lavine— has recently turned up in The Urban Lawyer, a journal edited by students and faculty of the University of Missouri at Kansas City School of Law. Is anyone going to get mad now? They should, like Mother Jones, be furious!
— Brian Berger