excerpt from The Easy Chain
Hello – that’s the persnickety part, he once said. Farewell is paradise in comparison.
—He likes to cite Colbert: the principal problem is How We Meet, and he says it in a way that you really hear those capital letters—
—Actually, what he says is—
—But that’s Lincoln’s gift, right there; superluminous in a way. He takes you in a shake, and at the first trespassing of the fingertips you’re instantaneous old friends.
—What a monster. I mean, you remember that time at Arun’s when he brought Angie Tessler back from all those break-up tears?
—Or like, or when, at the KGB reception, when Carl Kitherson started telling him about how he got his partner to buy him out of their Porsche dealership – three weeks before its front doors got splat with the eviction notice?
—Or when he—
—Or when that guy—!
—I like to dwell on the evening when Lincoln put in an appearance at the reception Hildy Waterson gave for Peter Hurler. Over at Wish You Would, in Hyde Park, of course the room downstairs. The One Hundred was pretty much all there, summer and splendor, open bar plus Bollinger circulating on glove-sprung trays. Some folks curled on the couches, but mostly it was the biz and the buzz, on the floor, chicly. The light purple and flickery, some girl with sprigs straggled in her extension…
It was Pete’s 26th, and Hildy decided to go thematic: She asked everyone to show dressed, or bearing, or making some kind of allusion to – you know Hildy – 1975, year of our Peter’s birth. No presents if you please, but still: Caesar Stalling sailed in as Barry Lyndon, Sharon Yields did Squeaky Fromme, red bandanna and all, and Thornton Davis found a miracle miracle mint pair of earth shoes. And that Rand guy, Rand Somethin’-or-’nother, the one who took Cynthia Mills to Belize, oh did he make a dashing Pol Pot. In the ears, acres of early Ronstadt (You’re No Good, When Will I Be Loved, Heat Wave), but also sideshows of Shining Star and Wildfire and Fame. You know, when it was breathing…
And so, you know, by nine-ish things were heading toward liftoff: I personally saw four cell-number swaps, waiters were swabbing a second slopped drink, the DJ had definitely slid a toggle from five to six, heat was happening and Peter, by then, Peter had become a testpad at a lipstick counter. Such a perfect image for Peter: around his smile a spectrum…
At one point, some girl in swingy pearls was singing an old torch song to Peter – curling around, looking unto, intoning Well, mend your heart and mind your soul – and Peter was already administering a hug, when I happened to see a hollow forming in the center of the dancefloor. Nothing dramatic, just people gently deferring, a dark spot spilling, the shades shifting, and then Lincoln, newly arrived at probably his third reception of the night – third?: fifth! – stepped into this hollow, in three-piece Brooks Brothers ecru-beige. In fact, I didn’t quite recognize him until I saw his hands, as he was wearing what I soon realized was a mask, a full-around-the-head mask made from a disco ball. Just a whole sparkly sphere brought down from ’70s heaven and lodged atop his shoulders. And there it, or he, was, a glitterspray in night sky, descended among us. Light-moths flitted the room, alighting on clothes, on faces, on vertical surfaces…
Granted, this was a rare surrender of Lincoln’s native subtlety, got up like the Residents’ geodesic sibling, and you’ve got to assume Auran came up with the idea. But folks laughed and loved it. Peter, smiling big, made a show of putting on dark glasses before hugging. Rand Whosis gagged by approaching Lincoln with a martini glass, making to pour it through one of the boy’s eyeholes then swigging the thing himself. And eventually Lincoln moved off the floor. But as he did, more Lincolnic fun: from my point of view, and presumably from others, the reflections pinging from Lincoln’s sphere, from its full-round ripply facets, made people’s eyes, the eyes of the people looking at him, or even caught in refraction, glow brightly – but red, apple-shine red, like in a bad photograph, before all that’s Photoshopped out. And it was sweet, you know, seeing it all over the room, this reflected forest of glowing coals. Some folks noticed and turned away; some folks noticed and didn’t. I just thought it was smokin’.
—You know, Lincoln is a customer of mine, yes he is. A steady customer of Russell’s, located right here on Armitage Avenue. And has been for months. All through the moves, apartment after apartment, he calls on me to provide the flowers. When he was on Woodlawn Avenue, and then over on Huron, and now at the Penthouse on North State, I’ve been there with him, all the way. That’s right. He says he appreciates my quality. He says that all the time…
And the guy’s got taste, I’ll tell you that. Not just peonies and roses for this fellow. He wants to make the house warm. He has me bring in groundsel for the living room display, and hollyhock centerpieces, one for each table, and then ornaments of hyacinth – hyacinth ornaments! Good taste, Old World taste, that boy was bred better than – well, as well as – the blooms we bring in! And he always tips the delivery guys, without fail. My men look forward to going, yes they do. And every Friday, when the guys make that week’s delivery, Lincoln always asks for the prior flowers to be dropped off at an old age home. It’s an extra effort, but we do it, leave them in good shape for the old folks. How can I resist? Mr. Selwyn says my flowers deserve a proper retirement too…
He once said (OK, when I asked him) that I could use his name for publicity, you know just mention it when it might do some good. And it worked, I’ll tell you that – it’s how I came to provide the same service for Peter Hurler. It’s really made me into Chicago’s premier place for flowers, no question – Russell’s, right here on Armitage. The place in Chicago – that’s right.
—There’s elegance there, that’s for sure, what you might call—
—He’s attuned; he pays attention.
—He has like this really pronounced sense of what Bergson called Presentational Space.
—That boy knows his manners!
—And all the restaurants and clubs and… He’s our Zagat guy!
—It’s like he instinctively understands some law of participation—
—Might his acceptance here – I mean might it… Hell, can I just forget the P.C. business – which we all know means Pure Crap – I mean the guy’s European, northern European, and, I mean, Chicago—
—I mean yeah, Jordan, and yeah, Jesse, and yeah, Oprah, but before them, before all that it was Fermi in ’42 opening up the atom, it was Hef in ’53 opening up editorial content, it was Ray the K. in ’55 opening up the first McDonnie’s franchise in Des Plaines – those guys opened everything up!
—Big steps! No longer Cesspool of the world, or Stormy, husky, brawling—
—Goodbye guttersnipe of cities!
—I mean, somebody said it’s only Hollywood that people strive to be second.
—Unexpectedly, unanticipatably, in some small sense we’ve witnessed a retrieval. Lincoln lets those who meet him revisit some strand of experience, some echo of experience we all know, still rumbling in the marrow, immigrant experience—
—Unexpected, via Lincoln Selwyn: from Big Shoulders to handsome hands.
—Relight the White City!
—The City of Man!
—We’re Number One—!
—From Porkopolis to Tapenadia!
—And it just reminds you that like everything everyone says about Chicago is skonkic to the extreme—
—More hot air for the Windy City.
—Yes, there is elegance there. He’s the product of a very fine family.
—He’s from Holland. His parents are Dutch—
—His parents are British, though he grew up in the Netherlands.
—His father, he once let on, was descended from a run of Suffolk crofters, good East Anglicans clustered near Widdington and Lavenham who paid their taxes, poked fun at pretense, took moral pride in pinching footwear, and made Sunday excursions to the lost cities of Dunwich and Thorpeness, all but gone under centuries of North Sea surge. The father, Robinson, he said, was good at a local game called wingbill, which sent leather-covered handballs through striped stakes. Eventually, though, Robinson showed abilities in engineering, and went on to attend Cambridge as a Hayes scholar. Pembroke College, I believe…
By that time, Robinson had grown to become an abundantly chipper young man, known for his quick smile and ready praise. After spending a summer break in Canada, at Banff, where he put to rest an interest in playing the viola, though his performance of the Walton concerto did send bows rapping upon score-parts, Robinson returned to Cambridge and achieved the breakthrough that let him push past Bentley’s work to make significant advances in the field of tensile displacement, in particular Cavanian lateralizations across contiguous masses. This led, soon after graduation, to a job with Kantor in Portsmouth, and eventually to his offer from Shell, at what he once described, through down-held eyes, as an irresistible salary, which brought the family to Den Helder, in the Netherlands. At Shell, he worked, primarily, designing subaquatic support structures for rigs.
—Lincoln’s mom, Sarah, was just a bit older, and a bit more well-to-do, he told me. She was from St. Ives, and came from a close-knit family of cricklebats, which Lincoln said was local slang for people who live off rents. Sarah studied French and pedagogy at Cambridge – she wanted to be a teacher – but spent her afternoons in quiltmaking, and got quite good. Her specialty was intricately imbricated things, inspired by Herman Deen’s work, with stitches and textures intertwining to form abstract but expressive patterns. She used to give her quilts to a nearby hospital. At first the hospital used the quilts to warm patients, but then staff members began hanging them on dayroom walls, because they were so good. Helped heal more people that way, one chief resident said.
—It was at Cambridge that Robinson and Sarah met – where, as Lincoln says, they were not introduced by friends. It was April 1962. One evening, Robinson was enlisted to accompany a friend to Carr’s pub, where – niggle, niggle – the friend had been set up on a blind date. Now these were timidish just-pre-Beatles countrypeople, so when a blind date happened the set-up parties needed moral support – support just to get in the door and, while we’re at it, to provide backup if the whole thing came down in a heap. So Robinson toddled his friend into the pub, plied him with one, and, the yellow dress sighted, prodded him forth. Then, as per agreement, Robinson turned around and sat at the bar. And there he stayed, hoping that he wouldn’t receive a tap on the shoulder in too-few minutes…
After about a quarter of an hour – a quarter of an hour of grizzling impatience – Robinson couldn’t resist a pivot. So he began – slowly, slowly – to turn back. And while doing this he saw, right next to him, a fair-haired girl in a position just like his, sitting at the bar and facing resolutely away from pub center. As it turned out, this girl was also accompanying a friend who was on a blind date – and it was not the same blind date as Robinson’s friend’s, and this was Sarah. All this came out in short order. They laughed like crazy. They called it the blind leading the blind.
—But Lincoln – Lincoln – he called it a double-blind experiment—
—Only way to get reliable results, he said—
—Always quick with a comeback.
—He has a certain confidence, you see, an unmissable assurance.
—Yes, our young man is richly endowed with amour propre—
—The guy knows what he’s doing!
—I always felt he’s so confident because he doesn’t own stocks. He told me he’s in derivatives. Listen – this isn’t entirely a joke. He showed up at precisely the same time as everyone else was getting Nasdaq’d down.
—He arrived just after the ’90s had reached the kind of conclusion that marks the end of all good comedies: one both surprising and inevitable—
—He’s immune to the gloom, and that goes down just fine. We all thought we were different, that we would outwit the comeuppance. And he did.
—Ah, yes: What are the saddest words on Wall Street?: It’s different this time.
—There was tetchiness here.
—All the IT businesses were not at all it anymore, they were the future that had become the past, blundering and burning left and right—
—Rows of boutiques along West Ontario were closing, the For Sale signs were fluttering like flags of surrender up and down North Halsted—
—People weren’t quite so interested in what region of Thailand their dinner came from—
—It was, it was like Wall Street was going to bomb us back into the Industrial Age!
—Rust thou were’t, and unto Rust shalt thou re—
—Man that sucked.
—That really fucking sucked.
—Arthur Andersen and all that shit—
—Kenny Boy and all that mofo—
—And now there’s China—
—And now, they say, India—
—And so, you’re like expected to work way overtime.
—Because if you don’t—
—If you don’t—
—And don’t think you’re gonna get paid for it, eith—!
—And, like, health insurance…? Man—
—It’s forward into the past!
—Charlie Dickens where are you?
—And now Lincoln—
—You know, he just—
—Haven’t felt it since—
—It’s like the boom years—
—The pinnacle years!
—Those really pinnacle times in, in the mid late ’90s—
—Remember them days—?
—Listen, Lincoln got here just a few months before Florida—
—Before the miracle of our system, our great system of checks and—
—Delivered the Dade County Coup.
—At a difficult juncture, lawfulness prevailed—
—Venerable democracy won out!
—In a perversion of justice and electoral politics—
—Where the best man, certainly the best man—
—Held out as an antidote to moral weakness the promise of upstanding plutocracy.
—Yes, I was glad to see this good and bold and down-to-earth—
—This optimistic, really upright guy become—
—A puppet President dancing upon pursestrings—
—Who’d finally, finally bring about fiscal discipline!
—Yes, this good man, of deep Christian conviction – of humility, of moderation, of accountability – went ahead and baptized his entire nation, generation after generation, in red ink.
—It was rewarding; it was reassuring. In what other country could such hotly contested circumstances be resolved through a peaceful and orderly process—
—Whose outcome was presented from the get-go by the GOP as a fait accompli. That was their strategy: from the second the dispute arose, they made it seem as if the matter had already been resolved, that the outcome was determined, inevitable, that it was already over—
—A process that reached all the way to the Supreme Court!
—And then, when they made their ruling, when the Court deliberated and decided and sealed their truth forever, it was a beautiful moment.
—And it was true what they said: every vote counted—
—Yep, you know, don’t feel that way—
—Lincoln didn’t pay much mind to all the election stuff. It’s not that he didn’t care… Well, maybe he didn’t. When his family moved to Holland, he told me, he never listened to a word about politics and would always stay home on Queen’s Day – he didn’t want to participate in the parades and floats and everywhere sales. He never fully landed in his new Dutch homeland, he once said. His parents continued to speak English, it accounted for every word around the house, and he was sent to English-language elementary and secondary schools. In fact, he used to say that the BBC was his home. And that suited him just fine.
—He wasn’t unhappy there, he said. But his time was marked by alternating streaks of stubbornness and drift. After a few weeks in a Sloterdijk hotel, the three Selwyns moved into a quite large – for Amsterdam – two-bedroom apartment, spread over three floors at Lauriergracht 37. A tree-lined canal, easy walk to the Leidseplein, not so easy walk to Centraal Station. But comfy and expansive, generously chosen by Shell for an appreciated employee. On a first-floor porch overlooking the ruffly rear yard, the family would sit and sip cups of oolong tea, or play the hands of canasta that could keep them engaged for hours.
—Because he didn’t speak Dutch – well, no more than inescapables like Prima! and Jan Lul and Kut!, and wonders like waar, which means both where and true – Lincoln didn’t tune in to Netherlands radio and TV. In fact, he said he developed a mistrust for Dutch media: they seemed to be speaking more than one language that was not his. So he would divert himself playing taggers and football in the Amstelveldt, or visiting the unadvertised not-quite-zoo toward the rear of Vondelpark: an unkempt, ratty-grassed, fenced-in enclave where an odd ark of animals – roosters, bison, even llamas – would be deposited for a few weeks, then silently withdrawn. He would just have given a colt a name, he said, and come to recognize its markings, when the grazer would not be there any more…
By his first December in Amsterdam, Lincoln had learned to skate, and it quickly became his soul’s sparkler. As many as four afternoons a week, he would make his way to a cavernous rink in a converted municipal-pool building a quick step from the Museumplein, where he would lace up his ankle-immobilizing Bally Patiners and start to oval, usually to piped-in Lehár waltzes. He would continue until eighteen minutes before his family’s 6:30 dinner, milking every moment, adoring the overdriving, hellbent forward mobility that came from reducing his resistance to one narrowest line of contact. And the side-benefits!: the whistling air chilling the middle of his lips, the intense timelessness, the finespray of snow as he rounded turns or changed gears…
But his greatest fun in Holland, he said, was the Elfstedentocht, a midwinter ice-skating marathon that ran for over 200 kilometers up north in Friesland. Starting in Leeuwarden, the course cut through frozen canals and rivers and lakes, past hundreds of thousands of vapor-seeping spectators in Sneek and Stavoren and Hindeloopen and Dokkum and other Friesian villages, before looping back to Leeuwarden. It was, he said, stunning fun: Lincoln and his folks, bundled in down and woolen hats and unending grins, would pack into their car and runabout from town to town, catching blurry glimpses. Maybe 17,000 bladers would slit by, every one skittering into checkpoints to have passcards stamped – in each town! And by hand! And along the way: brass bands, and thousand-voiced singalongs, and frostbite doctors ready to treat fingers – and worse – tested by the unrelenting twenty below…
The strongest skaters clocked in at around seven or eight hours, but the event didn’t offer much of a prize – beyond finding your correct shoes among the mountain of 34,000 at finish – and many people did it just to do it, not in competition. It had always been like that: the race had its origins, Lincoln learned, in a centuries-old local tradition of the journey. It began to be codified in the 1890s, and the first official Elfstedentocht was run in 1909, in a contest won by the daughter of the country’s largest manufacturer of skates. Thrillingly, the race took place during the first two Februaries that Lincoln spent in the Netherlands – hail van Benthem, victor eternal! And then it stopped. The race disappeared. The reward of the winter was gone. There were no trips up north. The rumble car stayed in its slot. The regional council said the ice wasn’t thick enough. Someone had determined that, for safety reasons, the course had to maintain a minimum thickness of fifteen cm throughout, and for year after year it just didn’t. Some folks tried filling the holes in the ice, others even performed what they called ice transplants. And while a regionful of people waited week after week for good news, winter after winter, Lincoln worked on his own skating at an indoor rink in Amsterdam.
—Lincoln says the Dutch are not a people who complain.
—Y’know, I mean, Lincoln – he says he likes, he really appreciates something about the Dutch – y’know he speaks freely about this stuff, about his background, it’s like nostalgic, it’s like he’s living it all over again, for the first time – and one thing he says he likes is Dutch directness, this like no-beating-around-the-mulberry-bush quality they have. Like he says when he wanted to ask a girl out, like when he’d meet someone on a grocery line or at a bar or something, and he’d ask her out, he’d smooth up with the usual gloop about a drink or a record or a movie, he’d like sweat and gulp and work up the nerve to launch the question, and the girl’d just go:
is an American writer living in France.
is grateful to Aurora, Inc.
and Mr. Dara for permission to publish this excerpt from The Easy Chain
. (Copyright © 2008 by Evan Dara.)