The Essay in Vitro


Abandoned House


“Moments and places, despite physical limitation and narrow localization, are charged with accumulations of long-gathering energy. A return to a scene of childhood that was left long years before floods the spot with a release of pent-up memories and hopes. To meet in a strange country one who is a casual acquaintance at home may arouse a satisfaction so acute as to bring a thrill.”

–John Dewey



Start with a numerical arrangement—like Wallace Stevens with his blackbird. We’re flying over Connecticut in a glass coach.


My step-daughter said to me one night when she was in high school that she had to invent a brand name for a hypothetical drug that would cure cancer. She was sixteen and had been volunteering at the university hospital. While riding in one of the hospital’s elevators when she met a young woman who announced that she’d recently shot herself in the head. “On purpose!?” cried my step-daughter, uncomprehending. And there she was, doing her homework in a circle of lamplight, wanting a good name for the megatheric cure. She was flying over Columbus, Ohio in a glass coach.


When did schools figure that brand names and their creation should be part of a chemistry class? What if James Watson and Francis Crick had patented a name for the molecular structure of D.N.A.? What would the world be like if the double helix had a trademark? What if people had to pay a licensing fee to reproduce? Is this a Keynesian idea? Market driven expansion won’t exceed the means of production. There would be no overpopulation. The rain forest would still be intact. There’d be no global warming. The farmers of Jamaica could still grow their own food. There would be no international monetary fund.


Essays require free play. Atta boy! He sells widgets coast to coast. Ain’t got no bus here a long time. I want to visit the foot of old Chestnut Street. I want to play the guitar like Elizabeth Cotton.


In classical rhetoric there’s still this love of elasticity in the art of “assaying” the surround. Dionysius of Halicarnasus had the reggae and backbeat. Say what you will. The mind creates its crystal of divination. Analogy: anyone can carve a clump of shrubbery into the shape of a rabbit. Envisioning the shrub in the first place is more thrilling. Don’t underestimate delirium in the essay and remember that being somber is the topiary act, important but less important than you might think.


Deep winter. The boys skated on a pond on the back forty of an honest to god nunnery. I was one of them. We skated by night, glancing occasionally at the tall, dark house of the nuns.

They went to bed early, those nuns. They were frugal. Their house was completely black.


One of us had a bottle of whisky stolen from a father’s cabinet. Someone else had a box of miniature cigars. We were four boys, each in his sixteenth year, loose now under winter constellations, pretending at recklessness on a hidden pond.


Writing of Auden, Dylan Thomas said he favored the mature and religious poet over the “boy bushranger”. I suspect that if Thomas could have survived his alcoholism, he’d have seen that they are one and the same. Quickness is prayer for some boys. We skated hard. The pond was smooth as onyx. The stars were available for naming. The stars were absolutely side-splittingly funny.

J. R. said there was a “Crab Nebula” –but with a cigar he sounded like Edward G. Robinson: “Yeah, yeah, listen here, see, there’s a Crab Nebula see, and it’s getting bigger because the universe is expanding, see…” He paused, the red ember of his cigar appeared to widen. “A crab fucking nebula, see…”

This led to further speculation concerning the “Pubic Nebula” and the far antipodes of the “Big Anus”.

Jack suggested that Richard Nixon had landed on the earth having journeyed directly from the “Big Anus”.

Carl opined that Spiro Agnew was a “spirochete”.

I’d say we were generally apolitical, but like most boys in 1971 we knew we were cannon fodder. We also read a bit. I’d found these lines by Stephen Spender in the high school library:

Who live under the shadow of a war

What can I do that matters?

Such questions are answered hormonally. Teenagers dive headfirst into shallow pools or walk the railings of bridges. They know that human worth is achieved only through the glory of narrow escapes. The lads take up night skating without testing the ice.

I stood up and felt the pinch of my hockey skates—they were never comfortable, and scraped forward through bunched snow. Smooth ice was coming. And bourbon. The prose-song of hot blood and liquor. The canto puerisque as Horace called it. And yes, there’s more than a little of death whispering in your ears. The stars have never been so beautiful as they are just now. The Crab Fucking Nebula…


We drove the back roads with the headlights off and the heater turned up. The fields were sown with winter rye. Orchards glittered; a thousand apple trees stood covered with ice. There would be houses out here that we knew had been abandoned. In the years since World War II this part of Western New York had been forgotten. There were hundreds of farmhouses standing empty just waiting for us. We bounced and bumped the car down rutted paths until we found them, boarded up and mournful. Houses dark as artesian wells. We stared from the security of the car. Nothing stared back.


“On the whole I’d rather be in Philadelphia,” I said. We sat in the Oldsmobile with our cigars– “Swisher Sweets” –the tobacco cured with cherry brandy. The station wagon belonged to Jack’s father. I wondered if on Sunday mornings Mr. Nyquist noticed the stale odor of burnt socks while driving to church.

“Hey if there’s a radio in there it’s mine!” said Carl.

“Hey if there’s a trunk of money in there, it’s mine!” said Jack.

“Yeah, and if there’s a fuck you in there, it’s mine,” said J.R..

The house was a three-story 19th century frame affair. It had a mansard roof that sloped above tiny attic windows. Those black little windows looked like eyes. The porch was sagging beneath some invisible weight. Chokecherry trees and locusts leaned where the steps should have been. It was time to go in. We made our way over the frozen snow to a basement bulkhead. We’d decided to go in through the cellar. One of us said the basement would be the safest approach. That’s the way it is with boys, they display a kind of ersatz rationality while doing things the hard way. Faced with a sagging house we concluded the cellar was the best way in.


The bulkhead door fell away revealing broken stairs that led straight into utter blackness.

“The black hole of Calcutta,”” said J.R.

“Jesus, that’s really fucking sinister,” said Carl.

We tied a rope to the Oldsmobile’s bumper and clambered down the stairwell one by one.

Abandoned houses have a smell unlike your average neglected quarters. The latter are mildewed and smell of soaked wool. A house long empty smells like the earth. I had a college roommate who worked as a gravedigger for a time because he’d tired of studying economics. He said that there’s a change in the fragrance of the earth when you dig below five feet. “It’s a lithic odor,” he said, “the smell of the earth that doesn’t need us.”

Deserted farmhouses have that scent. I’m guessing that a house needs to stand empty and largely unvisited for at least thirty years before it acquires a smell that says human affairs have been forgotten. Find an old house still floating alone on its forsaken river and you’
ll find this scent.


The houses I liked best were those that seemed like the Marie Celeste, a ship found adrift without any sign of its crew, yet with every object aboard still in its place and hinting of normalcy. Our flashlights scoured the basement walls and floor. A dressmaker’s dummy froze us in place, a headless, dun colored torso wearing a white button down shirt, a shirt ready for Monday, its owner still upstairs and stepping from the shower. Caught in the circle of a flashlight’s beam the mannequin appeared to stand.

It’s good to have whisky in those circumstances. We passed the Old Granddad. We could hear the house swaying above us, its timbers adjusting in the wind.

Looking back on it I see now that we were each persuaded in his way that the dead matter. One believed in an afterlife of Georgian architecture; one believed that we are returned to a mineral blank; one hoped that there might be a place for conversation, a kind of limbo, where sorrows are ameliorated. One believed with moderation in the transmigration of souls. We scarcely talked about any of this. Boys who collect things have no time to talk.


We climbed broken stairs and stood in the ruined, moonlit kitchens and fingered dishes and spoons, a woman’s turban with black feathers…a Life magazine with Claudette Colbert…a cardboard box of phonograph records… a red wig, apparently made of human hair… A tin canister labeled “Parisian Depilatory” distributed by the Sears, Roebuck Company, “Cheapest Supply House on Earth, Chicago, Illinois”.

“What’s a depilatory?” said Carl,

We passed the tin and held it before our flashlights.

“It’s a laxative,” said Jack.

“O shit! Here, you take it,” said J.R. He thrust the can into my hand. I held it up to my nose since my vision wasn’t good, and saw the highly stylized face of a Victorian girl with luxuriant, raven tresses. There was corrosion where her nose should have been.

“I think it’s some sort of woman thing,” I said, putting the can gently on the windowsill where the moon could shine on her rusting face.

Carl had discovered a tall, steel bound wooden steamer trunk and was busily fidgeting with the hasps.

Inside, folded neatly were infant’s dresses, a small pearl handled brush and comb. A hat draped with poppies and foliage…a man’s brier pipe with a tiny egg-shaped bowl…And embroidery, white lace and black. Carl raised the embroidery before his pink face and spoke the signature line of A Streetcar Named Desire: “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers!”


During the Second World War the military bought land throughout the Finger Lakes region of western New York. Then they gave the farm families just a few days to get out. The army air corps built an air base in the bean fields overlooking Seneca Lake. In the meantime the abandoned houses stood just as they’d been left, far back from the roads, surrounded by trees.

By the early 1970’s the air base was also abandoned. Weeds grew in the concrete barracks. Boys drove from neighboring towns, often with nothing more on their minds than breaking windows.

But the old houses had to be sought after. They required forethought and research.

“Do you remember a farm house up this way?” we’d say to a woman at a roadside corn stand. “My grandparents used to live up there.”

We looked nice enough. Four boys.

When we found a lost house we’d make plans to come back after skating by starlight.

C.S. Lewis said, “When I was ten I read fairy tales in secret, and would have been ashamed of being found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

We worked our way through kitchens, and bedrooms, sewing

rooms, the old front parlors. Jack hoisted a huge, nickel-plated deep blue accordion and squeezed out weighty groans. We laughed like mad. The fear of childishness was upon us. The fear of outfitting ourselves as men was upon us. The fear of foreign wars was upon us. In one parlor we found “The Billhorn Telescope Organ” –a portable church organ that could be folded into a trunk. It was popular with the “circuit riders” –ministers who drove across rural counties during the Great Depression. J.R. sat at the dusty keys and worked the pedals with oversized shoes and played Bach, serviceably, with a dead man’s cap tilted on his head.


Dana paramita is the Sanskrit phrase for the perfection of charity. Even teenage boys have it in their oversized, half awake hearts. We left the house that night, and drove by moonlight to our own homes, and we hadn’t taken a single thing. We had respect for those missing people. There’s more to the souls of boys than we commonly suppose.


I wanted to write an essay but feared I had nothing to say. My step-daughter is is a serious girl. She wants to be a scientist. I’m happy about this. She doesn’t like to skate—doesn’t care for the cold. Belongs to a church group. I think she has things figured out. But I fear for her orderliness. And she hates writing. Begin with numbers, I tell her. Imagine each numerical paragraph as a mysterious house…



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