Old folks at home
David Greenberger's tales from the Duplex Planet
BY CINDY McGLYNN
1001 REAL APES
featuring David Greenberger and Birdsongs of the Mesozoic with John
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
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
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
and "What do you need to know to rule the world?" The answers
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."
took a different tack: "Hey! Hey! Don't be worrying about
goddamned international politics. Go down and tell Mary I want a whiskey!"
Those are just some of the characters who filled the pages of
Greenberger's newsletter and made it popular far beyond the confines
Through Greenberger's enthusiasm and the residents' charisma, the Planet
off into an ongoing comic book series, a book, recordings, a CD and
films.There's the four-album set of Ernest Noyes Brookings' poetry to
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.
the project is popular with artists because they are
responding primarily to the purity and diversity of his cast of characters.
got their attention, Greenberger hopes his work will gently lead his
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
people that they are, not the people that they were. "If you are
loss of who someone used to be, that obscures a clear view of who they
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
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
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
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
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."