EYE 4.30.98
Old folks at home David Greenberger's tales from the Duplex Planet

PREVIEW- 1001 REAL APES featuring David Greenberger and Birdsongs of the Mesozoic with John Millard Thursday, April 30. Bar Code, 549 College. $10 at door.

Kids aren't the only ones who say the darnedest things. Folks at the other end of the age spectrum - fearless seniors who won't blink while they tell you exactly what's what - have got a thing or two to say if you'll bother to listen. Just ask David Greenberger.

While working as an activities director at Boston's Duplex Nursing Home in 1979, Greenberger launched the Duplex Planet newsletter and unknowingly set foot on the path he still follows almost two decades later. Greenberger started the Planet - filled with residents' answers to his wonky questions - figuring the regular arts-and-crafts drill wasn't stimulus enough for anybody, himself included.

He'd ask stuff like, "How close can you get to a penguin?" (probably about five feet, according to Duplex resident George Vrooman), "What is sleep?" and "What do you need to know to rule the world?" The answers are sometimes profound, sometimes off-the-wall, often curious, mundane, whimsical and completely unrelated to the question asked. Resident Ernest Noyes Brookings answered that last question in a practical way: "All the information and a list of all the countries."

Arthur Wallace took a different tack: "Hey! Hey! Don't be worrying about goddamned international politics. Go down and tell Mary I want a whiskey!"

Yahoo, Grandpa! Those are just some of the characters who filled the pages of Greenberger's newsletter and made it popular far beyond the confines of Duplex. Through Greenberger's enthusiasm and the residents' charisma, the Planet spun off into an ongoing comic book series, a book, recordings, a CD and two films.There's the four-album set of Ernest Noyes Brookings' poetry to which members of XTC and Yo La Tengo contributed music. Michael Stipe hired Duplex resident Ed Rogers to do the lettering for Out of Time. NRBQ keyboardist Terry Adams is an old friend of Greenberger's who performed music for The Duplex Planet Hour CD, released in 1993.

Greenberger figures the project is popular with artists because they are responding primarily to the purity and diversity of his cast of characters. Once he's got their attention, Greenberger hopes his work will gently lead his audience one step further - to consider that which all his characters have in common (they're reeeal old) and what that might feel like. "That's really been my aim, to offer a name and a face of a character who was going through the process of aging and show them as they are now."

He takes the path of least resistance when it comes to presenting his stories, preferring to read them exactly as told to him and use music sparingly, to enhance the emotion perhaps, but not to embellish the character. Currently, he's touring a show called 1001 Real Apes, with Duplex Planet stories performed by Greenberger and music performed by Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, a new music chamber quartet from Boston.

The point of it all, Greenberger says, is not to simply record oral history. Greenberger keeps his characters in the here and now, showing the people that they are, not the people that they were. "If you are mourning a loss of who someone used to be, that obscures a clear view of who they are now," Greenberger says.

Becoming who we once were is something he figures starts happening pretty early in life. "I was at a party recently, hearing people complaining about pop music and the pop culture landscape and saying, 'This stuff's changing. It's not the same as it was.' And they were barely 30. I mean, it's pop music and you'd be hard-pressed to argue that it's any better or worse at any time than at any other time. That attitude is one of the building blocks for this very same attitude, of aging and becoming set apart from your culture and society, and I'm sure people are not aware of the subtext of what they're saying."

That's part of Greenberger's protest. It moves in tandem with his desire for all of us to look aging in the face, realize we spend most of our life doing it and that while it ain't easy, it also doesn't have to strip you of your vitality.

The Duplex Nursing Home closed in 1987, but Greenberger still regularly hunts down old folks for conversation. Still, he says he is most moved by relationships forged with original Duplex residents from 20 years ago and increasingly likes to work with the material gleaned from years-old interviews. "What I've gotten from this, really, is friendships. Herbie, Dorothy, Ken, Bernie. They have moved me. That's always the case when you know somebody. You don't think of them as old. You think of them as your friends."