Jill Johnston: The Johnston Letter

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Jill Johnston was the first dance critic of the Village Voice and thus the preeminent chronicler of the Judson Church movement before going on to broaden her horizons — and ours — as one of the founders of the New Journalism. This occasionally updated space includes recently re-uploaded columns previously published on the DI.

The Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 2
July 2005: In Search of a Blank (Uploaded to this page 8/21/2019)

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2005 Jill Johnston

The most famous dance review of all time was a blank space about six inches long, perhaps three wide, circa 1958. The concert and choreographer were identified and the review was signed but that’s all. The “writer” was the publisher of the rag in which it appeared, telling you something. I never had the power or authority to be so smart. Recently I was invited to northeastern Vermont for an “art event” called a fulmination sculpture. The “North East Kingdom,” so also known, has always seemed an attractive place to go, if only for its exotic moniker. If I turned the event into a blank, which I have been conflicted about, I could only say I went, and that I have consigned it to blankdom. The look of the thing would be lost — its brilliant commentary. Anyway it’s the sort of literary performance that can only really be done once. A c.s., i.e. coffee shop, friend of mine called Myrta asked me what I would be doing on the weekend. I said I was going to Vermont. She said, “What’s that?” She never heard of Vermont. Nor New Hampshire or Maine either, as it turned out. I love that. She is about 55, and came to New York from Puerto Rico when she was 16. Her life is very rich and she doesn’t have to go anyplace. Or even know the names of places she doesn’t go to. She knows Miami where she drove once with a boyfriend and two other couples. As soon as they arrived, she caught a plane back to New York. I see her at the c.s. only on Fridays when she comes in from Yonkers and then only for 20 minutes at most, provided I manage to get there before she goes to work cleaning houses in my neighborhood, and believe me I look forward to it. Her stories, good ones or bad ones, swell with knowing pleasure and laughter. I doubted that the “fulmination sculpture” in Vermont would be funny. Advertised as a shooting fest with real guns and a poor old standup piano for target, certain remains of the piano, like its cast-iron “harp,” would end up as the “sculpture.” It was an excuse to go up there. And I know people in the Kingdom, most appreciably artist Patty Mucha, ex-wife of Claes Oldenburg and newly threescore and ten. She invited Ingrid and I to stay overnight at her house. I like seeing people from old lives. Or current lives. Although I am very absorbed in myself, to paraphrase the great Florida Scott-Maxwell when she was 82, a large part of me is constantly occupied with other people. Sometimes I wish I had an investment in cosmology or bees or penguins or something that would take me more away from people. Imagine for instance being part of those obsessive teams of astronomers staying up all night hunting for the smallest, dimmest crumbs of creation, trying to find out whether or not we are alone in the universe. I hope they find out soon, because we really need new company. Penguins are perfectly wonderful (yes I saw the new film about them and their inconceivable 70-mile “March,” waddling to breeding grounds in Antarctica), worthier by far no doubt of the zealous attention we reserve for our fellow hummins. And with penguins we share an extraordinary parallel but of course separate history as species that developed somehow into evolutionary disasters. While penguins are simply birds that can’t fly, we are creatures who can’t die, finding everlasting life in ways of killing each other off. I can’t explain the paradox. Call me a writer in search of a blank. In the North East Kingdom the sky is very high, and the vistas stretch to infinity. I love driving around there, and the air is just as pure as its reputation. It was raining all day the day of David Bradshaw’s fulmination event. I know David from the past too. Back in 1991 Ingrid and I were in an audience of perhaps five for a dynamiting performance he staged in the hills whereby a large sheet of steel positioned over an excavated hole was rocketed into smoke-borne pieces, the makings I believe of a “sculpture,” once they fell back to earth. He is well known in the remote Vermont hills for this activity. Pianos are not his true métier. Before now, he has shot only one to death, and that was unplanned. After staying up all one night as he tells it banging on a piano until the felts were dead, he carried it outside and shot it from 15 yards away with a 44 magnum revolver then terminated it by setting a jug of gasoline on it. I asked him why he did that and he said he didn’t know. I would never have told my c.s. friend Myrta about this or why I was going to Vermont. She understands many things, and is altogether much smarter, wiser anyway, than I am, but I wouldn’t risk putting our brief weekly meetings to the test. Her life revolves around her family and cleaning houses. Cleaning is a kind of meditation which absorbs her troubles. She gets lost in it. And it’s a good living. I asked David how he makes a living and he doesn’t know how he does that either. I suppose women take him in because he’s hunky and good looking and does inexplicable things. As an expert marksman, he can offer protection, and neighborly help when, say, certain outsider animals have been eating ones that are penned in. Patty told me that David once drove an hour south from Mad Brook Farm — a surviving outpost of the New Age commune era, close to the Canadian border, where David lives when he’s in Vermont, and site of his new piano eradication — to her house to shoot a raccoon that was threatening her chickens. Patty keeps only ducks now, just two of them. I watched her make deviled duck eggs and place them artfully on a platter, then cover it with tinfoil, as her contribution to a potluck that was scheduled to succeed the death of David’s piano. However the piano never died, not while we were there anyway. Forty-five shooters with revolvers, semi-automatic pistols and rifles of different vintages couldn’t make it keel over, surely the reliable sign of death for things that stand up. Two or three thousand rounds of ammo were shot at it. This was a plausible disturbance of any peace. I sat in a field with my ears dubiously plugged looking up at the hillside where the 1902 Wheelock, not tuned in many decades, thus somehow deserving of its dreadful destiny, faced us down — until I felt shellshocked, and went in search of Patty’s deviled duck eggs, stowed away for later consumption in a nearby Mad Brook house. Forty or so spectators who milled around in raingear under umbrellas were invited by David to inspect the poor Wheelock after its keyboard had turned into a mass of wood and ivory splinters. I milled a little but was mainly settled into the most divine chair, a ten dollar canvas affair bought by Ingrid at Bed & Bath which folds up and slips into a matching colorfully striped canvas golf-like bag. Patty stayed close by, resplendent in red: red slicker, red boots, red umbrella. The right color obviously for defense against any friendly fire. We made it to her eggs before they were all eaten by the chips & soda guardians, collecting food for the potluck. Ingrid had on an aesthetically faded New Age tie-dye, suitable for Mad Brook, though I wished I had encouraged her to wear her famous Ben Vautier T-shirt that says “I don’t want to do art, I want to be happy.” Imagine a penguin T-shirt that would read, “I don’t want to reproduce, I want to be happy.” Am I moving toward the desired blank? After all, though my subject here is not apparently dance or dancing, it is being syndicated in a much bigger website called The Dance Insider, a serious online dance magazine. There were no blanks at Mad Brook. David pressed three crushed bullets into my hand, mementos of his shooting spree, now secreted in my bamboo jewelry box along with some other unusual gems. When I see Myrta again, she will know nothing about all this, as we resume laughing over our lives. Her stories are not really funny per se, it’s just the way she tells them, her own amusement over events she has mastered by possessing them so completely. She is, to paraphrase Florida S-M once more, fierce with her own reality.

©Jill Johnston 2005; originally published on www.jilljohnston.com. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here.

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The Johnston Letter
Volume 1, Number 1: Reviving Amsterdam

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2005 Jill Johnston

Once upon a few decades ago I wrote a column. A title for one could easily have been OLYMPIC GREASY WATERMELON — words I saw just last week, down the street on a T-shirt at my Crunch gym. The guy wearing it was at the counter where I show my plastic card to sign in. I used to think up zany titles for my columns, ones that might make you want to find out if they had any bearing on anything, thus read on. Since the column appeared in a newspaper I could be sure someone would see it. Here a click is involved. I’m trying to adjust. I adjust all the time, otherwise I’d be dead by now. I go to the gym for instance even though I can’t go places on their running and biking machines. I mingle with the biceps jocks in the pushing pulling and lifting areas. I never walked or ran or danced on my arms, which therefore don’t mind my trying to use them this way. Sometimes when I check in and a worker asks me if I want anything, like a towel, I say yeah two new legs. They smile agreeably, not collusively exactly, but patronizingly I suppose. When I was their age, God will know, I saw the likes of me as a species apart, arrived here perhaps from another planet fully formed in this steeped or percolated state. An important adjustment to make as you await new legs or launch a click column is to forget about saving the world, realizing you will only offend people. By world of course I mean self. I start every day at my c.s. or coffee shop, before going to work which entails returning home. I’ve called it Segafredo after the first name I gave it, before knowing that Segafredo is the coffee they make, not its real name. Lately I just say c.s. Practically the whole place is distressed — the walls, floor, ceiling, bathroom and my favorite table, a large round wooden leaning affair, its top thick as a butcher block, with half inch crevices unevenly crossing its scurfy surface. The bathroom is masterfully small and has a nice mirror if you can get far enough away from it to appreciate your dubious morning visage. The front end of the toilet lid is all of six inches from the wall it faces — a hastily hammered raggedy-edged vertical stretch of graffiti-decorated plaster board. The friends I make at the c.s. are a bit like those you meet on shipboard or airplane. You may see them there repeatedly but not anyplace else. If you leave the c.s. with one of them you are probably in trouble. Not that you can’t get in trouble inside too. I made a big adjustment when I started hiding more or less at the back, in relative darkness, at the large leaning wooden table, next to the kitchen, armed with my newspaper, papers in general, my journal and book du jour. Just last week, opting to sit at one of the two small round window tables up front, I had an adventure. Two points of interest suddenly converged — a striking lady of years sitting at another table, and an arresting quote in my biography of T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence is my latest love. I fall in love with dead people — as who does not. It isn’t just my percolated state. And I still have arms for embracing the living. I should have used them, strengthened by Crunch machines and all, to embrace Bertha Harris before she died last month. I may have been making up for it at the c.s. by approaching this beautiful picture of decrepitude, a lady of surely eighty plus, stark white hair straggling to shoulders, a vase of flowers at one elbow, a bleached face, a look pensive and defeated, with my quote by T.E. Lawrence. I had just excitedly come across it. Having adjusted to an unexciting life, this wasn’t easy to handle. I almost ran the four yards to her table. A little earlier I had introduced myself by way of passing her and commenting on her pretty vase of flowers, which came, she remarked impassively, from a friend’s garden. Now, breathless after four yards, I laid my book in front of her, open to the page with the quote. She read it and said she wanted to copy it. I gave her my pen and she found a piece of paper in her bag. The quote goes: After 70 an unearthly richness attacks most of our elders and they become wells of satisfaction to me. Only then one gets to like them too much and away they go and die. After that great deed I finished reading my book and went to work. I have something new at home — a giant pot housing my avocado plant. The pot blocks out one third of the light from one of our two tallish windows facing south. By “our” I mean myself and Ingrid, who set up this space for a click column. She designed the whole website. My son Richard did the technology. On Ingrid’s part, it’s a conspiracy of sorts. Back in 1969 long before we met she saw one of my columns on an Amsterdam newsstand. By 1980 when we got together I was no longer writing them and between then and now I have written books and sundry articles in many publications. Now, as it seems, Ingrid has revived Amsterdam, and resurrected the reason she wanted to know me. I’m a very obliging person, during the day at least, full of eagerness to adjust. At night I’m focused on nothing more or better than begging every power in creation to help me sleep. When I get up I celebrate survival with agreement. I haven’t entirely adjusted to my new pot, which my daughter Winnie brought here one day with her son my grandson Ben, creating an astonishing replanting scene involving hacking apart the old pot long cracked down one whole side of it anyway and banging in a board to extend the window shelf. Wrapping up this column replanting, I have more watermelon news: Those three words, OLYMPIC GREASY WATERMELON, seen on a T-shirt at Crunch, describe a game played by Olympic hopefuls or Crunch trainers involving two teams standing at pool’s edge poised for a greasy watermelon to be thrown into the water whereupon they all dive in and grapple to secure this dirigible fruit and bear it off to the opposite team’s goal. That was a good day at the gym. I might forget sometimes to set a pile of blocks at my grand weight of 15 pounds and start pulling on the cords. One day the cords wouldn’t budge. I thought the mechanism was broken or something, and consulted a biceps jock standing nearby. He said it was set at 100 pounds! At the c.s., I have had worse moments but the other day, working at the back next to the kitchen I was in for a pleasant surprise. A woman with upswept white hair approached me on her way to the bathroom. She was wearing a copious long white like peasant dress, dotted all over with appliquéd flowers. I didn’t recognize her until she said she wanted to thank me for that quote. She was the quote lady! Today she was smiling, and she inquired animatedly, “How did you know I was over 70?” Making me sort of gape. “How old are you in fact?” I asked her. And she came up with 71! But really even smiling and wearing a cheerful dress she couldn’t be a day under 80. She wandered off murmuring over the quote, the “wording of it…so unusual.” The word “attacks” struck her fancy the most. “At 70 an unearthly richness attacks our elders.” I wish I could tell Lawrence. He was still alive when I was born. I’m clicking away. It’s a new age, heading for the open seize, in publishing.

©Jill Johnston 2005; originally published on www.jilljohnston.com. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here.

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