Readings: when old-timers speak, David Greenberger listens | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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Readings: when old-timers speak, David Greenberger listens

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"Why don't you write that a person with a broken mind can be mended? And he can go on being useful like me. Broken minds can go on to being productive, like me."

That's Henry Turner speaking, senior citizen, possibly classifiable as senile, certainly dysfunctional in various aspects of mind and body--an old guy from a nursing home. He's talking to David Greenberger, a much younger man who finds in the musings of the elderly not only a usefulness, but art. Greenberger approaches old people with some more or less silly questions--"If a large statue were made of you, where would you have it displayed?"--and records their reactions. A selection of the answers, along with other random reflections and ruminations, are then published in the Duplex Planet, the little magazine that Greenberger founded in 1979 and edits.

"Would you swim in coffee if it wasn't too hot?" he asks in a recent issue mainly devoted to coffee questions. "Yessss, I would," responds Ed Poindexter, and asks, "You want to know my Social Security number?" John Lowthers replies, "Well, I don't know, it depends on if it was sweetened up enough." And Frank Kanslasky retorts: "You get in there first and then I'll follow you." Andy Legrice is also not about to have anything put over on him: "No, you don't swim in coffee, you drink it! Where do you live?! You put cream in it." But Ed Poindexter comes back with, "Yes, I'd swim in coffee if it wasn't too hot, but the trouble is, it's too hot. And expensive."

You get the idea. Such conversations easily move into associative flights of fancy--they almost always seem to embody a free-floating whimsy or a low-key colloquial humor of the kind you don't hear often in today's world. The old folks' responses are often funny enough, and you can't exactly say you're laughing with them but not at them, yet the affectionate way they're put together avoids any hint of condescension. (One can imagine what David Letterman would do with these folks and their answers.) In short, out of these old people--society's castoffs--Greenberger creates something that's both documentary and art. Which is quite possibly what Henry Turner meant in saying that broken minds can become productive.

The Duplex Planet started as a mimeographed newsletter-type thing at the Duplex Nursing Home, where Greenberger worked, in the Boston area. He started asking the patients questions, recorded their answers, and typed up the results as a form of entertainment for them. He found, though, that the subjects of his interviews weren't much interested in the results--they mostly threw away their copies of the publication--but friends of his found it fascinating and funny. So it naturally evolved into a magazine that presents its subjects, its characters, to an outside audience.

Greenberger sees his work on the magazine as serving two functions: "One is when I have the conversations with the people I interview--the value to them is right there, it's the conversation, it's not what I subsequently do with the material, which is of very little interest to most of them. . . . The value to them is really just jostling up their day a bit by asking them some unusual things, getting them to stop and think, getting some sort of banter back and forth going.

"Then the other function it serves is this audience of readers who aren't normally in touch with these people, to sort of sketch them in--which is why I ask the sorts of questions that I do, some of which are sort of overtly ridiculous or funny--to allow you glimpses of their senses of humor and horror and outrage and pathos and everything else. . . . And that's more how you get to know somebody--it's through their little asides and things."

Greenberger, who now works as a commercial graphic artist, sees his project as serving artistic as well as documentary and therapeutic functions: "The satisfaction for me is that it's my work, it's my art. I gave up painting to do this, and it satisfies a lot of the same interests and desires to communicate, and in fact satisfies them more directly, which is why this won out over painting."

David Hauptschein, who has arranged to bring Greenberger to Chicago, is most interested in the literary aspect of the Duplex Planet. A fiction writer, Hauptschein stumbled across the magazine a few years ago, searching for transcriptions of the language of people who are senile or who have some other brain dysfunction. All he'd been able to discover were a few lines here and there in psychology journals and textbooks--bits of rambling discourse that, in this clinical context, had a horrifying and depressing quality. Expecting the same characteristics in the Duplex Planet, Hauptschein was very pleasantly surprised: "It definitely had the dreamlike stream-of-consciousness kind of thinking that people who have brain dysfunctions or whatever you want to call it have, but what I didn't expect was the incredible richness of the personalities."

Hauptschein expected to use the magazine as source material for his own writing, and he's done that--in fact he's now writing a play based on the characters in the Duplex Planet--but he's also found in it a source of inspiration. Describing himself as coming out of the tradition of surrealism, Hauptschein is particularly interested in creations based on the unconscious, and he finds Greenberger's interviewees often "more able to deal with some philosophical or larger questions, in a weird sort of way, than most people, whose subconscious is not accessible to them."

The Duplex Planet did give birth to one conscious poet: Ernest Noyes Brookings, who died in 1987. Brooking's verses, which have been used as song lyrics by some alternative bands and published in book form (in We Did Not Plummet Into Space), have a charm all their own:

January first month of a year

Contains dates of many natal births.

Frequently enjoy a toxic Milwaukee beer

The Atlantic and all the oceans having a rolling surf

While in a many patron coffee shop

One male to female pal--would you like to dance?

She--yes, together did a shimmy bop

With a final snuggling tense prance . . .

Though the Duplex Nursing Home closed down a few years ago, Greenberger continued to see the people he'd known there, as well as other old people he sought out elsewhere. He'd quit working at the nursing home some years before it closed, not being really interested in either social work or administration. "I thought it better to just keep these people as my friends," he says.

Greenberger will read from the Duplex Planet on three occasions this week. At 8 PM on Sunday, April 29, he'll read at the Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway, for its Uptown Poetry Slam. Call 878-5552. On Tuesday, May 1, at 9 PM at Fitzgerald's, 6615 Roosevelt Road, Berwyn, he'll read at the Westside Poetry Slam; call (708) 788-2118 for info. And at 8:30 PM on Wednesday, May 2, he'll read at Club Lower Links, 954 W. Newport, and Prop Theatre will perform material from the Duplex Planet at 9. Call 248-5238.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marjo Hebert.

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