Text by Howard S. Miller
(Missouri Historical Society)I scarcely thought I would get dewy-eyed over a funky old bridge, especially one that (from the water) looks to be...well...just another bridge. But in the case of the Eads Bridge in St. Louis, one can't help but get swept up by the enthusiasm of the author, and the aesthetics of the bridge design itself. It's not only a tale of the self-taught James Buchanan Eads, but the experimentation that went into design and construction --- at a time when form could equal function.
We have some startling black-and-white photographs in The Eads Bridge that are enough, if you will pardon the expression, to make a bridge-head out of all of us.
Eads began his financial life as a bottom-fisher, and a special one: one who scavenged the bottom of the Mississippi River. No matter how romantic we may believe it, running riverboats a hundred-and-fifty years ago was a nightmare. Not only were the boiler-room explosions sudden and violent, the river gods would come in the night and move things around. You'd wake up in the morning, and there would be an island where none had existed before; or the sand bar you remembered from last month would have disappeared.
Eads invented a "submarine," very primitive diving-bell --- being an upside-down barrel with cables. By going back and forth across the river bottom, he was often able to find wreckage which he could salvage for profit (which was fair game after five years). By this ingenious method, he made his first fortune --- and made himself an expert on the currents, movement, swirls, and eddies of the Mississippi. He was thus the obvious man to build the first railroad bridge at St. Louis.
According to Miller, Eads design and construction of the bridge between 1868 and 1974 was an engineering miracle, as great as that of the Brooklyn Bridge; indeed, many of the techniques Eads devised for sinking caissons --- sunk to the level of the riverbed --- were instrumental to the engineering techniques that made the later bridges possible. (In effect, these caissons were diving bells, not unlike the ones that Eads had used in his treasure-hunting days.)
Those were the times when one man, alone, could create a bridge (Eads), or a tower (Gustave Eiffel) or an architectural school (Louis Sullivan). In consultation with architects and engineers, Eads design the bridge --- using novel chrome-steel ribs; in consultation with bankers, he raised the money; and in consultation with his friend, the president (Grant), he overcame the usual opposition from users of the river, and would-be competitors. As usual, the drive that made such possible helped destroy its creator. After a series of breakdowns, he died shortly after its completion.
Fast forward a hundred years. The Eads Bridge --- built primarily for railways --- is falling apart. The last train had passed over it in 1974. There is a move afoot to tear it down. A small group of aficionados takes it under wing, and set out to preserve it. The coming of alternative rapid transit --- Metrolink light railway service in 1993--- sets the stage for its rehabilitation and its reopening.
These photographs, taken twenty-five years ago, were probably in part responsible for its saving. They show the fine aesthetic sense of the design, for in the best sense of the word, the Eads Bridge was hand crafted --- each part of it hand-made to exquisite tolerance. In addition, as the author points out, the interior lighting of the bridge was designed, as it were, for the aesthetic pleasure mostly of rail-walkers and gandy-dancers. (One critic called it "19th Century Modern.")
There are over a hundred photographs and drawings from then and from now. They all point to a creation that had as much artistry as a painting by Cezanne, a sculpture by Rodin.
--- W. W. Wright
A Memoir of
(Four Walls/Eight Windows)Assuming the Position can be a bit of a jolt for those who haven't studied or lived in the world of paid sex. If one wants to make it in the big city, and if one is blessed with a nice body --- apparently one can breeze in and start making a fair amount of money, straight off, tax-free, no deductions for workmen's comp, no forty-hour work weeks. It's all overtime. Or, perhaps, better: undertime.
Rick Whitaker is an interesting study for a hustler. Not only did he sell his youth, wholesale --- more recently he has been a reviewer for The New York Times, The Observer, and has published several stories. Assuming the Position is his story of the days before, when he worked the streets.
Whitaker arrived young and fresh in New York from the Middle West and found that by selling his body, he could support himself, making up to a $1,000 a night by catering to the very wealthy that he found through 'escort agencies.'
Like many who choose this way of making a living, he also fell into the world of pot, cocaine, heroin and methemphetamines (crystal meth). As he states --- or understates --- it, "Drugs have sometimes been a problem for me."
There are several highly picaresque tales of the men he is servicing --- the rich attorney, the paranoid psychiatrist, the computer nerd, a very wealthy gentleman of the Upper West Side. For instance, this, about his visit with a "successful Broadway composer:"
I opened the door. The apartment was a filthy, gloomy place that was crawling with cats and hadn't been cleaned in years. The old man sat in a chair in the middle of the mess, surrounded by magazines and records and books and pictures of himself and food and filth and cats. He did not appear at all clean himself, and I was immediately determined to leave straightaway. But then he spoke to me.
"Aren't you a beauty!" the man said..."Oh, you are a diamond in the rough..." I began to find the stillness of our mutual regard --- and the intensity of the old man's lust --- to be somehow erotic. Even his slovenliness and the ugliness and disorder of the room became suddenly touching, and I had an urge to whip the old man into a sexual frenzy.
Then there is the attorney who is a foot man. No, not a footman: a foot man. Whitaker arrives, takes off his shoes, and straightaway sticks his toes in the guy's mouth (only in the world of hustling!) "Once I got the hang of it," he says, "and started pushing with some force, he paused to say how impressed he was that I knew how to use my feet so well." Then, this moment of reflection:
I found the spectacle of a hustler smushing a client's face into the floor with his feet vaguely erotic, but a little melancholy, too. The john was not at all bad looking, he was prosperous and intelligent; he had a lover and a nice apartment --- I couldn't figure why he had such a strong urge to be abused...
The handful of explicit sexual experiences that Whitaker gives us, with these rather gruesome characters, are the best in the book. There is always a moment that he finds he is aroused by them and their world, no matter how smelly, no matter how kinky. In these moments, he shows himself not only to be a good hustler, but a fine writer as well.
Unfortunately, these tales of other men's lust doesn't sustain the whole of his story. Mixed in with these are philosophical passages, quotes from Walt Whitman, Leonard Woolf, Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde. Then there are whole chapters in which he describes his non-business life: going out with friends, eating, going to parties, having non-paid sex with those who care for him, visiting home.
Unfortunately, these chapters have the feeling of being stuck in there just to fill up the book: "Listen," he's telling us, "I just wasn't merely a prostitute; I did other things, too; things which we should call normal." It is as if he is begging us to believe that despite the fact he would go into some stranger's apartment and within five minutes be sticking his feet in the guy's mouth, he's just a regular fellow like you and me.
One of our friends who has known several hustlers, says:
Hustling is easy money and some of the guys really love it. My friend Jeff did, because he enjoyed the men he met and the absurdity of it all.
The hustler thinks he is in control of life, and if he hustles on the side while holding a regular job, and if he is not dependent upon the money for his board and room, he does have that control.
But if he lets it become his only source of income --- he gets in trouble and loses control. Soon enough he will be old trade and the johns want more, and pay less.
Assuming the Position is not without guilt, or doubt. But whenever Whitaker finds himself faced with these two states of mind, he is quick to soft-pedal it:
I began to believe that hedonism was as good a philosophy as any, and better than most. If nothing matters, then why not have a good time while I can?
At another point, he leaves a client, one he might have been able to build a relationship with, saying, "He was resigned to saying goodbye. He gave me the money and kissed my forehead. I went out and returned to my odd, amusing life."
I have wondered if I was being immoral when I was hustling, but it never really felt like an authentic questions. I was not hurting anyone apart from, perhaps, enabling some men to perpetuate an expensive bad habit.
Hurting no one. Except possibly himself. He is, after all, only "assuming a position" --- in both senses of the phrase. In addition, he wants us to know that he is not just an ex-hustler; he is a cultured ex-hustler:
I remember that everyone has some defining problem, whether it's acknowledged or repressed, managed or circumvented, cherished or hated; and mine isn't so bad as some people's problems. I have a good life, and some wonderful friends, and right now I'm listening to a recording of a Handel opera, which I can appreciate as a great work of art.
It is true that there are times in Assuming the Position when Whitaker seems to believe that things like drugs and sex-for-pay can be destructive --- "what I was doing was making me immune to almost any feelings at all" --- but he will turn right around and subvert these sentiments by speaking archly of his "odd, amusing life."
This whole journey leaves us feeling a bit like we had been hustled ourselves. We would recommend that, before he embarks on his next venture, Whitaker study some of the great hustling books in the world of letters. The recent --- and fine --- Geisha could be a model, as well as Genet's Thief's Journal, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, and --- for descriptions of a man who willingly prostitutes himself for women --- Thomas Mann's Confessions of Felix Krüll: Confidence Man, as well as the highly sensual autobiographical Memoirs of Casanova. And there's always Moll Flanders or Sister Carrie.
What holds these works together for the reader is the simple --- and never over-stated --- fact that the author (or narrator) never seems to think about, worry about, allude to guilt. It's a far cry from Whitaker telling us, endlessly, that he doesn't think he worries. It's almost that he's shouting at us, How many times do I have to tell you that I'M NOT GUILTY? How much further ahead he and his writing would be if he would believe it, instead of merely saying it.
The author claims to have written this book only a year after he stopped hustling. Our thought is that it would have been better for him to sit on these eggs a while longer, to let them hatch --- rather than hustling them out, in such a hurry, for the whole world to contemplate.--- R R Doister
In the Fire
Power of Zen
Q: If God is all wise, all glorious, and all kind --- why is there so much pain and suffering on the earth?
A: To thicken the broth.--- Zen koan
Bedard was a fifteen year student of Zen, and had recently started intense study under Sunyana-sensei, a Zen Buddhist priest --- when, out of the blue, he developed leukemia. It was a particularly virulent variety, and at one point, his doctors gave him no more than two weeks to live. During the course of Lotus in the Fire we are there as Bedard undergoes the radical, painful, debilitating, enervating, body-destroying treatment for his illness.
At the same time, he gives us his extended thoughts on Buddhism, how Zen taught him to deal with pain, along with thoughts about the insubstantiality of life and the flesh and the soul. The descriptions of long needles, aspirations, lumbar punctures, intubation, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, bone-marrow transplants, chemotherapy are harrowing: they were terrible for him, and they're terrible for the reader.
Since his treatment lasted for over a year, and since this is a 188 page book, we have many detailed passages as,
He placed a long, thick needle on the right side of my abdomen about an inch or so below my ribs and began to hammer it through the liver. Several times I brought my legs and head up from the intense pain...At one point after being told to lie still yet again, I raised my voice to the surgeon and said, "Why don't you lie here on the table and try not to move while I hammer a needle through your liver?"
Central to this book is the author's view of karma. The author states, without question, his belief that his grisly suffering is a result of his past actions.
There was no one else to blame, no one else to hold responsible...In Buddhism all things have their cause. Our body is a memory of past deeds. We create our own suffering, and the teachings we need most lie within that suffering...We are the inheritors of our past actions, and this life presents us with a wonderful opportunity to meet their effects with a bow of acceptance...
Lotus in the Fire might better be subtitled The Book of Job Meets the Great Way of Buddha. Like Job, Bedard is afflicted with incontrovertible pain and suffering. In Job's case, there is a bitter irony that overshadows this tale of woe: his agony is not payment for any sin, but, instead, the result of a horse-race wager between God and the devil (the devil claims that if God dumps endless woe on the head of Job, he would be quick to deny him. Job's tale has the added piquancy of three "friends" who lecture him, ad nauseam, on his imagined sins.)
Bedard, like Job, gets an overwhelming dose of woe; too, he has a potent faith to sustain him. Unlike Job, he has a powerful support system of family, friends, and his "sangha" --- his Buddhist peers. Most of all, unlike Job, he feels directly responsible for his plight:
We are the inheritors of our past actions, and this life presents us with a wonderful opportunity to meet their effects with a bow of acceptance.
Bedard even goes one step further --- welcoming his year of agony:
Leukemia has left me a gift for which I am immensely grateful: the resolve to examine my own thoughts, words, and deeds carefully and to try to live each day in harmony with all sentient beings.
This paradox --- the concept that pain is a gift from the divine --- has always been a tough call. Much of philosophy and religion is spent on trying to deal with it. Christians have manufactured the concept of Original Sin: our forebears have sinned and we have to go through extraordinary pain to extirpate that sin. Job --- contrarian that he was --- said, "I'm suffering; there's no reason for it; God is doing it to me for his own reasons; most of all, I refuse to give up my faith, even though it's not my fault."
By contrast, Bedard says, "I'm suffering; I don't like it; but it's all my fault, and once it's done with, I'm going to be a better person for it."
Which, karma or no, sounds a hell of a lot like Christian guilt to this reader.
§ § §
A good editor would have cut the story of Bedard's pain --- not to derogate it, or belittle it --- but to make it more manageable for the reader. At the same time, he would have encouraged Bedard to deal more fully with the question of pain, pain that is visited not just on him, but on all --- especially the young and the innocent of the earth. To quote Malraux:
Like all the writers of my generation, I had been struck by the passage in The Brothers Karamazov where Ivan says, "If the divine will implies the torture of an innocent child by a brute, I'm handing back my ticket."
(Malraux then goes on to say that a certain chaplain of Glieres, after reading the book, said to him, "It's first rate, but it's the eternal problem of evil; and for me evil is not a problem, it's a mystery.")
It would have helped greatly if Bedard had been able to tell us, in terms of Buddhism, why there has to be pain visited on the young, the innocent, the guiltless. He could say, as he did for himself, that it's all a matter of "karma." However, for some of us old Job-ians --- especially those of us who think of ourselves as existentialists --- the very concept of karma (at least past life karma) is a bit of a cop-out.
--- Laurie Wilson