"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Story Of Needles Lerner And How Socialism Got A Start And A Finish In A Small New England Town

Miss Olsson's Sixth Grade class put on Captain Martin, a play written by Herman Neville, a local playwright.  The playwright was a fan of Jack London, taken with the socialist sentiments and rhetoric of The Sea Wolf and decided to adapt it for the stage.  Admittedly, the New Brighton theater was not much and catered more to Polish plays about the old country than anything as provocative as Captain Martin, but it was a stage nonetheless; and although Herman had hoped for more than the Vance School Sixth Grade, it was still a premiere of sorts, and got some attention in the local press.

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The only reason Miss Olsson put on the play was because she was a Socialist and Herman Neville’s lover.  This was the early 50s, and she and Neville could only meet in musty basements with a few other disaffected, unhappy idealists; yet they all were animated and encouraged by their fellowship and felt a particular solidarity and camaraderie.

Needles Lerner got his nickname when he was in grade school because he was so thin and tiny; and no matter how his mother tempted him with brisket, deli, and latkes, he picked like a bird and never gave weight.  Eventually she gave in and began feeding him the sponge cakes and apple tarts - delicious, home-baked delights - that he loved.

Needles eventually grew out of his ‘problem’, but it took years of progression, graduating from cakes and vanilla pudding to sweet potato pie to sweet potatoes to regular potatoes to French fries, and eventually to a normal meal.  Yet despite his progress, Needles always had some kind of food tic.  He would only eat fried eggs and only if they were cooked until the yolk was hard and the white rubbery. Or he could not eat the crusts of bread.  He would bore out the soft innards of Kaiser rolls, peel bagels, and meticulously slice off the edges of Wonder Bread.

How all of this morphed into Socialism no one knew, except that perhaps his empathy for the poor and downtrodden had something to do with his exclusion from all social groups in New Brighton. He was so eccentric, so unlike anyone else in the school, and so marginalized by students and teachers alike, that it was no wonder that he ended up a Socialist if only temporarily.

The playwright, Miss Olsson, and Needles Lerner were perfectly suited for each other.  They came to Socialism via very different but personally needy paths.  Miss Olsson’s father was a Lutheran preacher with the rigidity and ironclad morality of a New England Calvinist. He was far worse than the the rock-ribbed granite preachers of Nathaniel Hawthorne; more wild and fanatical than Faulkner’s Reverend McEachern in Light in August

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After her father's death, she and her mother moved to Akron where Margaret went to Normal School, and then to Connecticut where she got a job with the New Brighton schools.

Socialism for Margaret Olsson was the secular religion that she was denied in her youth.  Her faith in the kindness, generosity, and equality of Socialism was as powerful a motivating force as the blinding and distorted religious passion of her father, just quieter, more temperate and measured.

The playwright, Herman Neville, was a different story altogether.  He was a mental drifter – a dreamer who thought that Socialism with its lofty ideals was romantic; that theatre was romantic in its ability to distill human passion on the stage; and that the two together represented an apotheosis, a grand fulfillment of an artistic and intellectual vision.  He had no clue about Socialism or any political theory for that matter.  His plays were unformed plots within a brushy and indistinct setting.

His characters were formless and without substance, really only mouthpieces for his endless monologues which he thought were impassioned pleas for justice, but were just impossibly boring.

So Herman wrote the first draft of Captain Martin, Needles - high school senior - edited, and Margaret Olsson produced it at the Vance School. She put as much energy in the play as a Broadway producer.  She was producer, director, set and costume designer, musical coordinator, and acting coach, all in one.

At the very least, the parents of the Sixth Grade would come, and because it was going to be performed on Parents' Night, many more would attend.  The message would, finally, get out to the reactionary Republicans of New Brighton, even if it was spoken by the dismal students of the East End.

Margaret Olsson loved Herman Neville.  When others saw in him a maddening imprecision, an illogic, and a total inability to make sense, she saw an ineffable spirit in touch with himself and the beauty of the poetic world of ideas and their theatrical expression.  Both Herman and Margaret were very unattractive, and unlike the true Socialists of the Thirties, eschewing fashion and style as bourgeois affectations, their frumpy, rummage sale look was unintentional.  Margaret’s hair, bound in a bun – one of the last holdovers from her trussed and corseted days – was never successful.  Grey straggles fell over her face.

Herman was no different and no better.  He didn’t exactly look derelict, although some of the passers-by  on Main Street often mistook him for one.  He just had a tattered and disheveled look even though there was not a thread dangling from his suit jacket, nor a shirttail hanging out over his trousers.

Margaret and he had their assignations in his dingy tenement apartment on Arch Street. She went up the back fire escape and entered through the small door to his kitchen.  Some days after their lovemaking, they sat out on the fire escape in the dusk, watching the silhouettes of old industrial buildings disappear into black shapes and listening to the new arrivals from Poland chat on their back porches and stoops. 

Their lovemaking was tender and simple.  It wasn’t as though they wanted to get it out of the way so that they could talk about ideas; but it was quick and perfunctory.

Needles had no love life to speak of, but never expected any after the childhood he had had.  He had plenty of fantasies and tried to insert them in Captain Martin, but the playwright caught every innuendo, every oblique reference to sexual hi-jinks and erased them.  He accepted his lot, sublimated his passions to The Cause, and eagerly helped with the production.

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Billy Barnes, a particularly well-spoken, confident, communicative, but a slow and unimaginative boy had the lead in the play.  He liked Captain Martin, although he understood absolutely nothing of what he said.  Despite Needle’s editing and moderation, Barnes could only garble the carefully crafted, intellectually central, and most passionate lines in the play.

Herman, Needles, and Margaret Olsson made no concessions to the fact that these were Sixth Grade actors.  The performance was to introduce the philistines to great ideas.  The supposedly lyrical language talked of mountains, birth, bedsteads, jousting, pillories, and visions with no rhyme or reason.  Herman’s inner eyes saw a Socialist vision in a very particular poetic way.  Needles focused only on doing his job as a good lieutenant, and Margaret, smitten with love and with The Cause thought it all made perfect sense.

On the afternoon of the performance, Billy Barnes started off well, than hit some kind of hysterical wall.  He saw Herman’s image of a great carrion bird carrying the hand of a capitalist over the heads of the damned, and began to laugh.  The absurdity and absolute ridiculousness of the play appeared to him as surprisingly as if he had actually seen some awful bird overhead.  He repeated one line over and over again: “The bird of rotten flesh, dripping with carrion juices, flew over humanity, and dropped its decaying load”. 

He tried to control himself, but his giggles continued, and were infectious.  The entire cast started laughing.  They too, like a contact high, had seen what Billy had seen and not what poor Herman had written.  They started flapping their arms, crowing like roosters, and hopping around the stage. 

Miss Olsson, livid with rage, disappointment, and bitter shame grabbed Billy by the arm and roughly yanked him off the stage.  “Get up there”, she shouted to Art Michaels, the understudy.  She shoved a sheaf of papers at him and said, “Read these, you dummy”.  Art wasn’t a real understudy.  He was given the job of actually reading the play just in case, and he could fill in for anyone.  By this time even the most prim and composed matronly mother had cracked a smile.

For the Republican parents in the audience, the play was a metaphor for Socialism itself - overblown, overwrought, thick and gluey with metaphor and innuendo, ridiculous, and absurd.  The musty trysts of Miss Olsson and the playwright were exposed.  She was dismissed from the school system and he, a pharmacist's assistant, was let go.

She and Herman left New Brighton separately and alone.  Few people gave them a second thought.  There were enough current scandals to keep local interest, and the stuffy love affair of two Socialist amateurs and their one bad play was quickly forgotten.

Miss Olsson landed on her feet, got into retail, and gave up on Socialism. Her engagement in the cause had been, she realized, one less of political commitment than sexual adventure.  She felt good about her anti-establishment persona, the seedy Arch Street apartment, the smells of kielbasa and cabbage, and the shabby but romantic Herman Neville.  She worked her way up from store clerk to Assistant Manager and eventually to store manager of a clothing emporium in the West. Until her mid-forties she never felt comfortable with the idea of marriage - not so much because of any lingering romantic feelings for Herman but a general distaste of the whole idea of sharing.  She gave in finally, like many women.

Herman never recovered from the New Brighton fiasco.  It wasn't so much the failure of the play that bothered him - after all it was a sixth grade affair - but his exile.  He hadn't deserved such a summary dismissal.  New Brighton was just as bad as Salem.  He dawdled with Socialism for a time; but had neither the gumption nor intellect to pursue it seriously let alone be on its leading edge. 

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Needles Lerner was given a bye.  He was too young to know any better, and his unfortunate physical disability could not be overlooked.  Socialism indeed had been a dalliance, an emotional affair easily forgotten; and he never looked backed.  Although he never grew much beyond five feet, he did put on some weight and lost the spindly look he had as a child. He lost most of his tics, learned how to dress appropriately - a fuller look in suits - and was never looked at as any more than just a small person.

Of the three partners in the ill-fated play, Needles was the only one who actually had read not only Jack London but Marx, Hegel, Lenin, and the Euro-Socialists of the 70s.  His interest turned to criticism, and as senior staff writer and editor of well-known conservative journals turned his attention to the millennial neo-socialists who were as enamored with the discredited political philosophy as Miss Olsson and Herman Neville.  The Soviets had merely made a cock-up of a good thing, they said.

One never knows where insignificance may lead.  Who would have thought that Captain Martin, a silly grade school play would have so upset the apple cart? Or sent unwitting idealists on their way?

Socialism is pretty much dead.  Needles Lerner is now at the helm of a major American newspaper, Miss Olsson has a child, and Herman Neville works as librarian in Salem Massachusetts of all places.

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