The Boston Phoenix
Issue Date: May 21 - 27, 2004
Dinosaurs and Lady Friends
Twenty-five years after the first edition of the Duplex Planet was published, David Greenberger is still discovering strange poetry in the words of the elderly
BY CHRIS WRIGHT
N, the fourteenth letter of the English lingo
Is the first letter of about five hundred words
Is contained in the word bingo
And is not compared to a buccaneer's slashing swords
Ernest Noyes Brookings
One wintry afternoon 25 years ago, a young man sat in his Brookline apartment stapling sheets of paper together. He couldn't have known it at the time, but this was important work, work that would change his life and the lives of dozens of others, people who thought they were beyond changing. Nor could he have known that these typed, mimeographed pages - one man's thoughts about mustaches, another's request for a smoke - would go on to inspire books, films, songs, paintings, comics, poems, sculptures, theatrical performances, and an R.E.M. album cover. The day David Greenberger produced the first issue of the Duplex Planet, he could've had no idea that he was, in a literal sense, making history.
It's difficult to say what, exactly, the Duplex Planet is. Today, a quarter-century after he toiled over that stapler in Brookline, even Greenberger has difficulty characterizing it. "I'm doing this thing that isn't quite one thing or another," he says. "It falls between the cracks." Stated simply, Greenberger conducts interviews with elderly people, writes them down, and puts them in a magazine. This, though, doesn't begin to capture the power of his work. "I've given a face and a character to aspects of decline," he says. "Everything in nature comes together, and everything comes apart."
If a crow would see my picture the crow would fly away.
GREENBERGER'S STORY begins in February 1979, at the Duplex nursing home, in Jamaica Plain. At the time, Greenberger, a college graduate in his mid 20s, was at loose ends about what to do with his life. He had an idea that he wanted to be involved with old people, though he didn't know how, or even why. He'd recently made friends with a man in his 70s named Herb, and this had had an impact on him. He'd been able to see beyond the wrinkles. They'd had fun together. So when he heard that the Duplex was looking for an activities director, Greenberger applied. "I thought I'd find more guys like Herb," he recalls. "I didn't know to what end. I didn't have a plan."
This might seem like an odd career choice for a 25-year-old man - particularly one with Greenberger's interests. A transplant to Boston from Erie, Pennsylvania, he was in a relatively successful band, called Men & Volts. A graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art, he was a budding painter. He liked to write. With thick-framed glasses and a mop of curly hair, he had that artsy-brainy-geeky look that women love. And yet, at a time when many of his peers were directing their energies toward more age-appropriate activities - getting laid, getting high - Greenberger was seeking out the company of people his grandparents' age. "They seemed a little exotic to me or something," he says.
Greenberger didn't really know what to expect when he arrived at the Duplex. A quirky, shambolic institution housing 45 men in various stages of decline, the place was part of a dying breed - the small, privately owned nursing home that favors intimacy over the bottom line. The owner of the Duplex, as Greenberger remembers him, was "a South Boston, skirt-chasing, hard-drinking, dirty-joke-telling guy who had a heart of gold." A few of the staff members had been there for decades. "Sometimes," says Ed Alessi, a social worker who had clients at the home, "you couldn't tell the staff from the patients."
Even at the Duplex, Greenberger stood out. Alessi recalls a dance he organized early on. "He had a band play, a rock band. One woman got up and started belting out this blues number. It was just dynamite. This, if you know about nursing homes, was out of the norm. This is not playing bingo or doing arts and crafts." Another unusual activity Greenberg encouraged was conversation. Men used to hearing little more than a hollered "How are you?!" from people were suddenly confronted with Greenberger's more probing questions: "What's the best thing that ever happened to you?" or "Why do people kiss?" And these: "Would you swim in coffee if it wasn't too hot?" "How close can you get to a penguin?"
David Greenberger: Who invented sitting down?
Bill Niemi: Probably the inventor of the first chair.
As soon as he started at the Duplex, Greenberger began carrying a little notebook around with him. "I'd write down everything - 'Can I get a cigarette?' - anything at all," he says. "I didn't know what it was for." One afternoon, he decided to type up, staple, and give copies of his notes to the men, many of whom were, at best, from blue-collar backgrounds. "They couldn't have been less interested. Basically, they were saying, 'Is this all we get? Isn't there cake?' They shuffled away, most of them." That night, Greenberger took the notes home with him. His roommates were considerably more enthusiastic, reading excerpts aloud to each other, passing copies on to their friends. The Duplex Planet was born.
The first issue of the Duplex, available for $1, came out in 1979. Greenberger would sell it at local record stores or by subscription, relying on word of mouth and a few press reviews for publicity. In some ways, you could describe this odd little magazine as an early example of the offbeat chapbooks that exploded in the 1980s and '90s - a kind of proto-'zine. The size of a theater program, with a raw, Spartan design, the book would often feature photographs of Duplex residents or artwork they'd created. The real attraction, though, was the interviews, the fragments of thought recorded by Greenberger, which ranged from the astute to the mundane, the poetic to the muddled. Sometimes the Duplex's content was very funny. Sometimes it was terribly sad. Often it was both at the same time. What the magazine never was, though, was boring.
David Greenberger: What do you think George Washington's voice sounded like?
Frank Kanslasky: Like Jimmy Durante. Who can prove it? Can you prove it? No one can. Let it go. Jimmy Durante. Ever hear him talk? He didn't sound too bad. You don't want him to sound like Tarzan, do you?
David Brewer: It sounded like a dollar bill.
Greenberger knew immediately that he'd hit on something special with the Duplex Planet. Three years after he'd started at the home, he quit his job and devoted himself to producing the magazine - supplementing his income with the occasional graphic-design job. He stopped painting. The band fell apart. "I felt like I had found my voice with this," he says. "I felt that this was the thing I was meant to do - even if I didn't know what the this was." Greenberger did know what the this wasn't - it wasn't oral history, and it wasn't man-on-the-street stuff. "I didn't want to talk about issues," he says. "I wasn't trying to get stories of the time they saved a dog >from a burning building. It was anything they wanted to talk about, you know, 'What happened to your other shoe?'"
Whether he really understood what he was doing or not, Greenberger was clearly doing something right. Within a few months of the Duplex Planet's first issue, the magazine had gained a sizable crop of die-hard fans. Subscriptions shot up. Greenberger started to get what he calls an "inordinate" amount of media attention. "He's what people in the 'zine world call 'secretly famous,'" says local author Pagan Kennedy, who published a popular 'zine of her own. "He's famous in certain circles. He's definitely one of the big figures in that world."
This, actually, is something of an understatement.
On the back cover of a Duplex anthology, Everybody's Asking Who I Was (Faber and Faber, 1993), there are plaudits from Matt Groening, Michael Stipe, Penn and Teller, and George Carlin. The New York Times compared Greenberger to Chaucer. Actress Lili Taylor performed in a Duplex stage adaptation in New York. There have been Duplex comic books and Duplex spoken-word CDs. XTC, Morphine, and dozens of others have set Duplex residents' poetry to music. One resident created the cover art for R.E.M.'s Out of Time. Sculptures by another are currently on display at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, in Portland, Oregon. The late Allen Ginsberg was a Duplex fan. Lou Reed still is.
Another high-profile admirer of Duplex is director Jonathan Demme, a long-time subscriber. Then there's musician Robyn Hitchcock, who says he didn't discover the magazine so much as it discovered him. "We are all bound there, if we're lucky," Hitchcock writes in an e-mail. "David is gentle with his interviewees, and - a rare thing in America today - he listens. Reading the dialogues, you can't help but care about the voices."
I can't complain too much, I've been to California.
You don't get dirty in banks. You go home with neckties on and not
one piece of dirt on your clothes.
A quarter of a century since Greenberger took a job there, the Duplex nursing home is long gone, and so are most of its residents. The Duplex Planet, 169 issues later, is still going strong. Today, the 49-year-old Greenberger lives with his wife and daughter in a small town in upstate New York. He produces his magazine in a converted barn in his back yard, among stacks of papers, bags, and boxes. In his life as in his art, Greenberger is a collector; every available spot in his house is filled with bric-a-brac - toys, globes, kitschy statuettes. "He collects the little tags that go on bread bags, with the dates," says Paul Athanas, who befriended Greenberger after making a documentary about the Duplex nursing home in the mid '90s. "He wanted every date of the year, so we send them to him. He has a notebook with every movie he's ever seen in it."
Speaking with Greenberger, it's easy to see why he's managed to gain the confidence of so many people over the years. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, he has a way of putting you at ease, of making you want to tell him things. His appearance, too, is remarkably soothing. The thick-framed glasses are still there (a little squarer now), as is the curly hair (a little grayer), but the artsy-brainy-geeky thing has given way to what might be described as a kind of inclusive intellectualism. He'll lean forward in his chair as you speak, nodding with a generosity that you don't necessarily deserve. Sometimes, he'll do an impersonation of the people he's discussing: "Ah, okay" - he waves his hand dismissively - "Do you want anything to eat?"
David Greenberger: What's a word processor?
Ed Poindexter: Obviously I don't know at the present. Is everything all right? Can I have a cigarette?
David Greenberger: What's the difference between addition and multiplication?
Tom Lavin: Three letters.
These days, Greenberger's subjects tend to be people from the area where he lives. "When new issues come out, I go and give it to them, and they look to see where they are and chuckle over what each other has to say. They enjoy it, this guy coming by asking these crazy questions. 'I don't know what it means, but he's a nice guy.'" Occasionally, he'll get an invitation from a cultural institution somewhere, and he'll spend a couple of weeks visiting nursing homes and bingo halls in other states. While he's no longer "giddy and running around, bumping off walls," Greenberger's enthusiasm hasn't waned over the past 25 years, even if his energy has. Certainly, his ability to connect with people is still intact.
"I think he's a very friendly person, very curious - I guess he'd have to be to ask those questions," says Florence Perry, 77, who lives in the same town as Greenberger. "He asks very unusual questions. I think David's one of a kind." When asked how old she is, Carolyn Hartwell, another Greenberger subject, says, "Oh! Ha ha ha! I'm 39. No, I'm 73." Hartwell, who lives in "a senior-housing center," lost her husband a few years ago, and she seems pleased with the attention she gets from Greenberger. "David works for this company that puts out a little magazine," she says. "He always has a question for all of us to answer. It's a lot of laughs. He's a nice young man. We all like him here, anyway. So write a good article."
Bill Clark: I'm talking to myself!
Frank Wisnewski: I'm talking to myself too. I'll be goosing flies pretty soon, if this keeps up.
On the surface, it seems strange that these sweet old ladies and funny old men should have found themselves being celebrated by the likes of Lou Reed and Allen Ginsberg. Indeed, it seems strange that these sweet old ladies and funny old men are being celebrated at all. "Old people have literally been put away," says Pagan Kennedy, "out of sight and out of hearing. I think there's something profoundly humane about [Greenberger's] project, about restoring the humanity of old people."
Kennedy can still recall the first time she encountered the Duplex. "When I did my own 'zine," she says. "I said, 'I won't be calling this Eating Jesus's Snot.' There's a lack of kindness in a lot of 'zines. One thing that made Duplex Planet so fresh and immediately appealing was the generosity and kindness of the project. There was such a whimsy to it. You got to know the different people. Ernest, who wrote these incredibly labored poems. Ken, who did record reviews and liked everything. [Greenberger] struck a good balance, respecting people but not being a pushover and not being boring about it."
David Greenberger: What's the best way to sell something?
John Hodorowski: The best way - the easiest way - is, "Hey, bub, you got some money? You want to buy this? If you don't, then so long." You don't even have to say goodbye, just go.
Some notable exceptions to the ignore-old-people rule have emerged of late. But there's been nothing like the Duplex Planet. Unlike the motivational gnomes of books like Tuesdays with Morrie or the anecdotal heroics of The Greatest Generation, the words that fill the Duplex's pages do not conjure easily digested images - the elderly as receptacles of acquired wisdom, or people whose lives amount to an aggregate of their pasts. "Usually, the elderly are drained of any life in the moment," Greenberger says. "They're giving you a story they've told over and over. I'm trying to bring the character to the front. They've got to be in the present, they've got to be in the now."
The Duplex offers very little in the way of background on its characters, and almost nothing in the way of commentary. What Greenberger does with his interviews is step back and let people speak for themselves, thereby offering us a glimpse into the way the elderly mind works, with all its glitches and obsessions and strange insights. It is from this standpoint, Greenberger believes, that "accidental moments of remarkable poetry" are achieved. As his friend Paul Athanas puts it, "There are quotes in there that are amazing, things you repeat. He's finding those."
David Greenberger: Can you tell me what a compact disc is?
Frank Kanslasky: Who the hell knows! Write this down: Where do you get all these stupid questions? What's a compact disc?! Where do you think we went to school anyway? That's like asking why doesn't snow fall up instead of down. If you look at it long enough it does fall up.
Hey Mary! Hurry up with the whiskey? My blood's getting cold!
There are some who are made uneasy by the Duplex Planet, who equate it with so-called outsider art - work created by people with no artistic training, or maybe even talent, who often blunder across aesthetic value in spite of themselves. Often, those who enjoy a work of outsider art do so in ways that are vastly different from the spirit in which it was created, and there is something a little too knowing about this, something that smacks of elitism. While the Duplex Planet - which, as Greenberger points out, is created by an insider - has little in common with outsider art, there is at least a question about the propriety of laughing at people who may not realize they're being humorous.
"That is an uncomfortable aspect to what David does," says Ken Field, a member of the Boston-based ensemble Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, who collaborated with Greenberger on the yet-to-be-released CD 1001 Real Apes. "There is a risk involved in laughing at what these people say. They're revealing this inner reality that's kinda funny but that may not be funny to them. I think David handles it very well, but it's still there, riding on the edge of that." Even so, Field counts himself among the Duplex Planet's admirers. "It's important to talk about aging, to talk about emotions, to talk about the nature of reality," he says. "What David's doing is archiving people's lives. He's found regular people who haven't done anything of note and gathered their thoughts and made them immortal in a way."
Greenberger, for his part, stresses over and over that the people in his magazine aren't only subjects, they're friends. "I really care for these guys," he says. "And the kinds of things I'm doing is fitting with what a friend should do. They're living in this really static environment. The world stops at their front door. By asking these ridiculous questions - 'Hey, Larry, will you grow a mustache?' - that's good for Larry, because it's a chance for him to say, 'Why is he asking everybody that? What's he doing?' In this environment, where they are defined by their losses, for them to wonder about something outside of themselves - 'What's with him?' - that's a healthy thing." He shakes his head and chuckles, in character again. "'I don't know, David, I don't know.' That's a good thing."
Ed Alessi, who did some work at the Duplex home back in the late '70s, would certainly not call Greenberger's work exploitive. "David had a unique ability to see things - the only way I can put it is that he saw into the very soul of people," Alessi says. "Here's me, a social worker, and I'm looking at schizophrenics and alcoholics and people with dementia, and he's looking at this and seeing a creative spirit. I guess sometimes one's professionalism gets in the way. He just had a remarkable vision. Nobody saw what David saw. He really is a one-person show."
David Greenberger: What do you know about dinosaurs?
Fergie: If they want to be mean, they can be; if they want to be sweet, they can be. It all depends on how you treat them. If you treat them kindly, they'll treat you kindly. But if you give them any trouble, they sure as Christ will give you trouble. You treat a dinosaur with courtesy and they'll treat you with courtesy. We got along with the dinosaurs very well and we treat them very well and they treat us very well. Their lady friends will tell you we treat them very well.
I can speak five languages and I can also blabber.
Recently, David Greenberger walked into a yarn store near his home and asked the woman behind the counter a question. "I asked her if all the yarn in the store was tied together, how far would it go?" he says. "Would it go to Albany? Beyond Albany? So we started to talk about it, how much is in a skein and how many skeins there are here, how many miles of yarn there were." Greenberger wasn't working that day; he just wanted to know. "I'm interested in this stuff." For this reason alone, it seems unlikely that he'll ever willingly stop producing the Duplex Planet. "It's part of who I am," he says. "It's what anchors me to the earth."
As far as the possibility that others may carry on the work that Greenberger has started, well, he doesn't like that idea at all. "This is very much my creation," he says. "It's not like it's a franchise. People say, 'Oh, we've got to do something like this in a nursing home!' I sort of feel like, well, you go ahead and do that, but this whole thing is about me. Really. This is a portrait of my relationship with these people. I don't come out and say it, but it's the journal I've never kept. It chronicles my life, too."
Chris Wright: What's the most important word in the world?
David Greenberger: There are so many. I don't think I could ... I mean, it would be a sad place with only one word in it.
The Duplex Planet can be found online at www.duplexplanet.com. Chris Wright can be reached at email@example.com