Papa, Plimpton, and Capote Crash Fidel’s Shin-Dig

19 Dec

It’s not good what becomes of great men; physically and otherwise: they turn into gloomy, arthritic pensioners in drab, dark clothing with large ears and hair follicles growing out of hidden orifices…once I literally ran into Hugh Sidey on 18th and K Street, just a block or two from the World Bank. I barely recognized the man: shivering, wearing a black, wool overcoat, fragile high cheeks, and bony hands. Hugh Sidey. And I bumped into him coming around a corner. Two pounds of Kenya AA ground for Turkish in my hand went spilling all over the sidewalk. I nearly broke the man’s sternum with the concussion.

Red Auerbach was the same, the night I held open the door so he could come into the warm lobby. This decimated, somewhat overweight, bald man with the remnants of a wet cigar, still puffing. Still huffing. My friend had to tell me who he was, even though I had been a Celtics fan all my life. This is what happens. They shrivel up and go kicking or screaming into obscurity, eviscerated by time and cold weather and whisky.

We shrivel up.

Plimpton went like that too, only he had the advantage of being tall, so that helped with the visual. The altitude smoothed over the process. Plimpton was upper-class, east side intelligentsia but for some reason he was a chameleon and could charm you even if you were crass and barbaric and into Bukowski and Fante and Jeffers, and even if you did only listen to Mahler but eschewed Mozart and Bach and Vivaldi…you know, the other geniuses.

Plimpton could tell the stories, too. Even at that age, you could still see the boy leak out of his eyes when he told them. He had the stories. And he loved the stories. All I could think of was that famous black and white photo of one of his parties in his east side apartment with dozens of writers milling about in the great room, gin and tonics in their hands. I recognize them all, but the one I like the most is Mario Puzo standing there alone, sort of half-smiling. Alone. I like him like that.

Plimpton once told about the time he and Hemingway and Capote were in Havana in ’58 while Fidel’s Barbudos were trickling down from the hills. The three of them had been drinking at Papa’s favorite joint, The Floridita Bar, and were running on reserve fuel sometime around three in the morning, when some kid came busting through the doors, gesticulating wildly and screaming that three of Batista’s ministers had been caught, put up against the wall, and were going to be shot by Camilo Cienfuegos himself. So the three lions went stumbling out head first into the humid night to try to catch this repulsive by-product of Revolution. Along the way Capote was too tight to keep pace with his compadres and twisted his ankle, so Papa hoisted the little tub on his back and hauled him the rest of the way. When they finally hobbled into the scene, the ugly deed had already been done. The blindfolded men were collapsed into a bloody pile of bones and flesh and Cienfuegos was long gone. Papa got mad and in a tequila-fueled rage immediately accused Capote of weird mutiny, slowing them down and making them miss the ceremonies. Plimpton had to intervene and restrain the big, angry monkey from Michigan as he was about to flip Capote upside down and pile drive him into the cobbled street.

And that was it. Plimpton stopped it right there. I thought it was perfect. No need to expound on the hero’s after burn. I thought, that’s how you end a good story, true or not true. It’s like chopping wood. When you’re done splitting the last log, you put down the axe and go inside to start the fire. You don’t muck about straightening up, collecting the splinters into a neat pile.

It’s not good what becomes of great men. But their stories don’t follow them over the cliff. The great ones, the stories. They float around waiting to be picked up and added to, or subtracted from without really being compromised. Great stories live.


4 Responses to “Papa, Plimpton, and Capote Crash Fidel’s Shin-Dig”

  1. Geoff 19/12/2008 at 4:23 PM #

    “It’s not good what becomes of great men. But their stories don’t follow them over the cliff. The great ones, the stories. They float around waiting to be picked up and added to, or subtracted from without really being compromised. Great stories live,” writes Alex.

    I love this analysis — this ending. One could say the same about great writers. We often forget the writers, but we continue to read the stories.

    “Great stories live.” I just love that. (too much “love” in this comment? but I mean these words, about your words, sincerely)

  2. Slyboots 20/12/2008 at 12:15 AM #

    Reminds me of authors I have seen, who have a few years under their belts (and between the ears). There is a polish to their prattle. They know they have an audience, and are therefore “on”. Regardless of whether or not there is an actual audience. I would find that no doubt unsettling. I can totally understand Pynchon.

  3. (S)wine 22/12/2008 at 11:04 AM #

    Papa went totally downhill with “Garden of Eden” and HST long mis-placed his fire and iron with his ESPN columns and Fitzgerald literally lost it in the Crack-Up, and Bukowski struck out many times even during his peak years and Faulkner sold his soul for Hollywood and…so on and so on. But goddamn if some of their stuff isn’t alive and well now into the 21st century.

  4. Piobastesse 14/01/2009 at 12:36 AM #

    I think you are thinking like sukrat, but I think you should cover the other side of the topic in the post too…

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