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Borrowed Time

Looking back after 65 years in this world.

| Mon Jul. 20, 2009 12:53 PM EDT

My own room would seem spare indeed today for a "middle class" family, even one like ours living deep in debt and beyond its means. My mother, the artist, painted its walls with sprightly Mother Goose scenes when I was tiny, and later with marching grenadiers, and there was a bed, a chair, at some point a small desk, a lamp, a giant wooden hand-me-down Philco radio, a few games, some books, my precious toy soldiers, a toy six-gun with holster (cowboys were the craze then), and by the end of that decade, a cheap record player for 45s (not that anyone now remembers what they were) — each limited and distinct purchase entering my life with its own special history, its own familial price tag attached.

That Philco was, for me, what we now call "the media," along with the newspapers which then seemed like the lifeblood of the city, and as in so many American houses, LIFE magazine. New York City was then a riot of daily reportage. After all, it still had at least eight or nine papers, and that already represented a loss in numbers. The very names of some like the Journal American (the New York American and the New York Evening Journal) or the World-Telegram & Sun (the New York World, the Evening Telegram, and the New York Sun) were amalgams of previously independent papers. And — the crucial thing in those childhood years — most of them had comics.

My favorite board game growing up was "Star Reporter." I still remember the little cards you picked that offered you, the potential star reporter, ordinary stories, but also "disasters" and "catastrophes." And then, having been assigned your story, with a role of the dice you left the city of "Urbania" to cover it. In my spare time, I dreamed of becoming a reporter — a dream that, these days, looks as outmoded as the desire to be an arctic explorer.

Here is what I grew up reading:

* Cereal boxes (I used to joke that I learned my ABCs off them — otherwise how could I send in the correct number of box tops and get the "atomic rings" and "secret decoders" they offered?)

* comic strips

* comic books (however, like many children in those years, I was forbidden from buying "horror comics")

* real books (from that radical resource, the library, where, if the librarian let you out of the children's section, you had access to anything in the adult world without having to invest a penny in it)

* MAD magazine (after the "bad" comics went down in a 1950s childhood version of an auto-da-fé)

* pulp sci-fi (the more mutants the merrier)

* foreign novels (in my later teens)

The first of those works of foreign fiction was Jorge Amado's Gabriella, Clove and Cinnamon, which I stumbled upon in a tiny neighborhood bookstore. I plunked down my money — no small thing then — not because it was intriguingly foreign and I had a yen to explore, but because each volume in its uniquely designed Avon Books paperback series had rounded corners. I bought it with one mission in mind — to ensure that my classmates and others, noting the strangely shaped book I was carrying around, would conclude that I was a far odder and more interesting character than, in those days, I felt I had any right to be, or was. So painfully straight, I desperately wanted others to think I was, if not "cool," then at least just a little "crazy" (a category gaining something of a cachet in those days as hip-ness came into style among the young).

No one, of course, ever noticed, but having that paperback in my hands, I naturally read it, which is why — since I kept on buying from the series — I've always said that it doesn't matter how you get to a book, as long as you get there.

This, then, was the way that, from the privacy of my relatively empty world, in the financial capital of the globe's great, throbbing superpower, I tried to sneak a few peeks, like that wonderful later children's fictional character, Harriet the Spy, at a mysterious adult world you couldn't access by clicking a remote to some "reality" show or Oprah.

The Screen and the Foreign Film

Perhaps the most dizzying story of our time is the story of the multiplying screen, which, when I was young, you still visited — a special moment — outside the house at the movies. New Yorker magazine film critic Pauline Kael once wrote a book entitled I Lost It at the Movies. I know just what she meant, but my own title would be the opposite. I found it — life — there. It helped that, in the 1950s, I was living on, cinematically speaking, the single strangest street in the United States. Within five blocks, there were four movie houses, including the RKO where, on any weekend day, you could see Merrill's Marauders, To Hell and Back, or The Long Grey Line, and regularly experience in all its glory the war my father wouldn't talk about.

Hollywood was, as it remains, the unchallenged imperial capital of the movie world, and yet the lives it displayed in its products, riveting as they were, seemed somehow to have nothing to do with mine. The other three movie houses — The Paris, The Plaza, and The Fine Arts — were, however, what made that street unique. At a time and in a country in which "foreign films" were essentially impossible to find for thousands of miles in any direction, all three theaters showed them. Subtitles, that was my life. I read at the movies, too.

The manager of The Plaza, who befriended me, used to let me sneak in. The Rose Tattoo, Last Year at Marienbad. I often had no idea what I was seeing — only that it invariably opened a window onto a world that was amazingly alive, and amazingly unlike anything anyone told me this world was, or should be, about. It was at the movies that I learned about Hiroshima as a human catastrophe (Hiroshima Mon Amour), the French War in Algeria (Sundays and Cybele), the fact that Germans (The Bridge), Japanese, and, above all, Red Rusky Commies (Ballad of a Soldier) were actually living, breathing, struggling human beings. Such a small, simple point that, at the time, seemed anything but.

Somehow, those films collectively reassured me that, beyond the empty vistas of childhood that left kids like me wondering when, if ever, our lives would actually begin, lay life itself, even if, in all its bizarre, pretentious, thrilling, moving everydayness, it seemed only to be lived by foreigners. Those movies were my escape. They saved my life. Plenty of other American kids weren't so lucky.

In those years, of course, the screen entered the house as something inescapable and would, in the decades to come, begin to multiply. If the TV had first landed on the lawn or (in my case) the street, it would have been clear enough that it was an invader. But that purveyor of all things commercial made a soft landing directly in the comfortable living room, only then heading for the bedroom, previously the most private of spaces, which would now be attached to the most public and visual of selling spectacles.

Remembering the exact moment it entered my house — April 1953 — I once wanted to write an essay called "Thank God for Senator McCarthy!" In that spring, my mother was doing political caricatures for the New York Post, then a liberal tabloid, which assigned her to draw the Army-McCarthy Hearings, about to be shown in the afternoons on ABC.

So, we finally got the TV for which I had been begging fruitlessly all the previous year. It was a major moment in my young life and the Senator's iconic face was — so less-than-reliable memory assures me — the first image I saw on a TV screen in my own house. The truth was I found him unsurprising. With those jowls and that pugnacious, in-your-face face, he looked to me like half the fathers I knew, including my own. Me? I wanted to raise a cheer for the infamous senator, who got me off the TV blacklist. After all, he brought me Disney ("When you wish upon a star..."), and Lucy, and Ed Sullivan.

Soon enough, he was gone, but TV was forever.

Conspiracies Large and Small

As in the original meaning of the word "conspire" — to breathe the same air — we conspire in the realities we breathe in. No wonder we so often can't see them for what they turn out to be.

Until recently, our world looked so easy, so stable. A two-party world. No one imagined that the world my father and mother lived through, that of the Great Depression, could sneak back on stage for another bow. A year ago, had I told you that a former Clinton-era secretary of labor was going to write a piece headlined "When Will the Economic Recovery Begin? Never.," you would have laughed.

Now, we know. Our reality, like that of our last president, was distinctly inside the bubble, while the world out there was so much fiercer, so much less tame than we imagined.

Let's face it. It's been a dizzying journey, these last hundred years, so much odder than we imagine. We don't have a picture of it yet. Not really. We're still waiting for the face of the past — the actual face — to appear in a mirror, or on one of those many screens of our lives, to tell us where we've really been, and where we may really be going.

Surprises abound. For 65 years, my face lacked my father, at least when I looked, anyway. Now, entering my 66th year, he's back to take another bow and that — you'll have to take my word for it — is fierce.

And here I am, well beyond any point I was capable of imagining when young. That's fierce too, especially when your life, no matter how you look at it, is so much closer to death than is truly comfortable.

It's been a dizzying trip so far. Screens are now everywhere you turn — in bars, airports, taxis, on gas pumps, in restaurants, hair salons, your new car, your doctor's office, in your pocket, in the street, and in your home in multiple ways — and you're often attached to them, not them to you. People check their screens and then take phone calls at your dinner table. The young, while sitting in restaurants not talking to each other, text friends in distant places.

In the meantime, the newspaper, that lifeline of my childhood, is in the media ER on life support. It's amazing to think that the print newspaper-reading habit, passed down from parent to child, is now following the typewriter out the door and into oblivion. Meanwhile, for the first time in our world, a new reading habit, the online one, is being passed upward from child to parent.

We grew up imagining the newspaper as primarily a purveyor of the news, and pundits still write about it that way, regularly bemoaning the potential "loss" of a pillar of the American democratic system. But looked at in a fiercer way, everything about the present moment tells us that was never the real story.

It's clearer now that the newspaper as we knew it was, first and foremost, a purveyor of ads. That, not the news, was what actually mattered, which should be apparent to anyone who bothers, for instance, to glance at the anorexic Sunday New York Times Magazine. Like the Incredible Shrinking Man of 1950s sci-fi, it's disappearing right before our eyes. Ads fleeing the premises take journalists, bureaus, meaning, the news itself, the paper, everything, with them.

It was a small flap, the recent one at the Washington Post, in which publisher Katharine Weymouth was to host "salons" at her house, offering corporations and lobbyists off-the-record, non-confrontational "access" to Post reporters, Obama administration officials, and Congressional representatives. At $25,000 a pop, corporations could get a seat at these friendly soirées, $250,000 for a package of 11. The stern, tsk-tsking discussions of this attempt to pull a little extra dough into a dying brand have all focused on newspaper "ethics" — the Post's own ombudsman referred to the to-do as "an ethical lapse of monumental proportions."

In the meantime, a striking aspect of the brouhaha has gone uncommented upon. Weymouth (or, at least, the sales side of the paper) was offering full-frontal access at only $25,000 per salon. That's chump change for a big health corporation, or Exxon, or a major lobbyist. It would be like tossing a few coins to a beggar. If her grandmother, Post publisher Katherine Graham, had offered a similar deal — and that, of course, would have been inconceivable in an era when the ads in the pages of the paper were still thick as thieves — imagine the value she might have put on a night of her time and the Post's influence. Not $25,000, you can be sure of that.

The world reveals itself to us in its own sweet time, just as my father waited all these years after his death on Pearl Harbor Day 1983 to remind me that I'm his child — as indeed I am — and that I was shaped by his world — as indeed I was. A world of war and suffering, of wonder and ashes. It's also a reminder that our pictures of how life works can develop late indeed.

Who knows when you'll glance into a mirror and meet a past you hadn't expected and weren't ready for. Or a future for that matter. After all, that can happen, too. You're passing, as usual, through our land of screens and war, driven by ads and companies that were so sure until yesterday that the arms race and the good life could be melded in them forever and a day, when suddenly the planes appear, the skyscrapers begin to tumble, everything that's ordinary and accepted begins to unravel. As it could. All those screens, all connected, and all the texts that go with them, everything we count on. It could go.

If you care to look, you can see the outlines, the shorelines, of our world changing even as I write this. For the future, "dizzying" might hardly be the word.

Look in the mirror and tell me what you see.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing

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