Scene: Ray Donovan’s Place, New York City, 1961
At Ray Donovan’s place an assortment of hipsters are gathered. Some wear smart clothes and are clean cut, some are Rock ‘n’ Rollers. Some are sailors or n’er do wells crawled in off the street. Some look like they came from the circus.
The hippy vogue for tie-dyes and paisley won’t come into style for a few years yet. A victorian-looking gentleman in tweeds consults a very ornate timepiece. He looks about as out-of-place here as the rest of them.
As we sashayed into the party I recognised from the print arm of the Octopus-like Columbia Corporation one Maslow McLuhan, who was busy lecturing all the young dudes on just why it was the printed word would never go out of style in the age of the television, computers, and whatever else may be invented.
“The printed word is technology,” McLuhan was saying, “but on a human scale – we can make it with a printing press with moveable type or with a computer – that will become the norm, one day. Thanks to technology, everyone can read and write. But if we want to make a book, or an issue of Time magazine, only you or I will have the technology to be able to do that. We remain gate-keepers to the wisdom of the techno-elite.”
“Gimme a break, Maslow,” called Carl Paradise, the communist infiltrator, blowing smoke from a pipe: “technology needs to be available to the masses. That’s the only way it has any value. That’s the way we’ll universally raise consciousness in the new age.
“Yeah man,” Dylan put in, grabbing a bottle of wine: “as soon as we all have compute-taters, journalists like you are gonna be out of business!” Everyone laughed. But McLuhan didn’t see the funny side.
“Oh, and you think people like you who sing into a can and sell it on a record will still be relevant??”
“I say bring on the brave new world! Sounds great to me.”
“Ha-HA, Dylan. Let’s say they drop the bomb tomorrow – no more records. Boom. No more record company! But people will still need stories – words, Dylan! In the beginning there was the word!!”
I ducked out of the argument in the kitchen into the hallway, following a girl I knew from the Village. Her name was Janey S., and she was a singer. She was wearing a summer dress, talking to her friend Julia, and although the thing was far from seasonal for the New York weather, she didn’t seem affected by human things such as cold and dampness. There were people smoking funny smelling things at the party, and somebody must have slipped me something, or maybe it was just all the booze, but I was already feeling dizzy and sick. As I followed, I could hear their conversation:
“In the future, everything you need to do will be automated for you by machines. And then nothing will be very much fun any more. Where will it end?
“Don’t you find that lately when you look at things, they’re not quite the same as you remember them? Like lately, when I look up at the sky – it’s like I’m not really looking at it. Like it’s not really the same blue as it used to be. Do you know what I mean??
“The century is getting old. It’s losing its poetry and its passion. But it’s not quite gone yet. And some of us even remember. That’s the real tragedy of it.”
As we’d gone in to Donovan’s room a dark eyed young woman barred the way – maybe she was Donovan’s girlfriend, but who really knew? Of Donovan there was no sign, at his own party – quite typical.
“That’s not yours, Maslow,” she said.
“It used to belong to me. I lost it in a poker game. Old Ray won’t mind if these fellas take a look at it. OK, Aphrodite?”
“My name’s Deborah,” said the dark-eyed girl, sullenly: “I’ve changed it back.”
She sloped off to look for her dealer.
Donovan’s room was tobacco-brown on the walls with nothing but a radio and some clothes and a grimey bedspread. The wardrobe was a built-in one, and McLuhan had to disapper in back of it to reach out what he was looking for. Bare floorboards complained under the strain of the interested parties pililng into the room – this old place hadn’t seen as much excitement since Paul Revere.
“There it is,” he announced proudly.
The thing sat half wrapped in brown paper in the middle of the floor, miss-shapen, perhaps half turned to stone. There was a kind of a musty smell, too – but that coulda been the damp.
“What is it?” asked Dylan, fixedly.
“It’s very rare, and very valuable – but you could never sell it.”
“What it this, a riddle?”
“The man I got it from was a drifter. He’d held on to it for years riding the rails with a gunny sack. But one time he had worked in a museum – a big one, too. The Smithsonian, maybe. He said that it came out of a mine in Mexico. He said others like this used to turn up all across the Americas, but less so now. Someone doesn’t want them to be found.
“Whatever it is, they were here before us, but folks don’t want you to know that, seeing as it would spoil the whole story they’ve got laid out all nice in the history books about evolution, and everything else.
“The man who gave this to me said men came and threatened him – from the government, maybe. That’s when he figured out this thing was bad news. So he took it and went to try to find out what he could. That’s when he learned about the others. Then the depression hit, and maybe that’s why they never caught up to him, or maybe he just got lucky. He’d been on the run for thirty years maybe, just drifting. When I asked him what he wanted for it he just said ‘son, it’s already cost me most of my life – pray it don’t cost you as much.’ Then he gave it to me and walked off into the sunset. A few days later, I heard that he’d turned up dead. That’s the truth, gentlemen.”
“You’re full of shit, Maslow.”
“I’m just telling you what I know. I think these things were here, in America, maybe thousands of years ago… Maybe they were people just like us, with technology, and a civilisation… I think some kind of catastrophe hit, and maybe life had to start over again. All that’s left is what was written in stone. And the bones. Yeah, maybe some bones…”
“That thing is creepy,” said Janey S. “Come on, Lenny. Let’s get out of here.”
Everyone trooped out down the fire escape, and the party officially came to a halt.
“Hey, I was just bullshitting you,” McLuhan called, apologetically, after us: “It’s just a stupid prop from a movie. Come back here and you can poke your fingers in the eye holes.”
Steam came up from a basement tenement and blew up and down the nighttime street. It really did look like a movie: Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Except the only body getting snatched away here was that of poor old Janey S – and maybe that crazy alien skull, as I would hear a few months later.
It was just another regular New York evening.
A while later I heard that the skull, or whatever it was, had got stolen from Ray Donovan’s house. The prime suspect was a guy called Sterling, or maybe Starling – a guy Dylan used to hang around with, who had been at the party. I never got the full story out of him, but I often wonder if Dylan had something to do with it.
McLuhan had said the thing was only a hoax, a movie prop, but I wasn’t so sure myself. I searched for many years, and although I heard rumours, I never saw another one like it.
I kinda lost touch with Dylan after that, what with the fame and the constant touring and all, but I’ve often wondered how a boy from the midwest who couldn’t sing, couldn’t play the guitar well and wasn’t particularly handsome became the world’s greatest rock star. Maybe all the drugs had something to do with it. Maybe you have to believe in impossible things to be able to do something like that. And maybe the thing we saw that day had some kind of influence on the fact, like an ill omen.
And maybe it didn’t.
As for Ray Donovan, he said he was glad to be rid of the thing. He said it was nothing but bad news: “There’s some things it’s better not to mess with,” he told everyone who would listen. As far as I know he is still living somewhere in New York.
Maslow McLuhan headed back to Canada, the land of our fathers, where I heard he passed away a few years ago. There were no suspicious circumstances.
That old house by the Hudson river is gone now, just like the spirit of those times – that feeling of innocence, I mean.
New York City,