So what's with the title? A bit of a downer for a wedding blog, no?
Well, Only the Dead Know Brooklyn happens to be the title of a short story by Thomas Wolfe, written in 1925 for the New Yorker, which begins, "Dere’s no guy livin’ dat knows Brooklyn t’roo an’ t’roo, because it’d take a guy a lifetime just to find his way aroun’ duh goddam town."
It's no secret I love Thomas Wolfe. Like George Gershwin, who died at the age of thirty-nine in 1937, Wolfe lived an equally short life, succumbing to tuberculosis of the brain when he was just 38, in 1938. In incredibly compacted life spans, both men left a legacy of pure genius, from Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F to Look Homeward, Angel and You Can't Go Home Again. Today, we regularly confer lifetime achievement awards—Kennedy Center Awards, Nobel Prizes—to men and women who are in their sixties and seventies and eighties. Think about this: Gershwin or Wolfe would have completed enough work for such an honor by his 40th birthday, had either lived that long.
I remember reading Only the Dead Know Brooklyn in college in 1980, where I was a literature major taking way too many photographs. Luckily, a professor named John Hagan, a nerdy man with horn-rimmed glasses, was there to save me. I wrote about Professor Hagan last year in a piece for the Binghamton University alumni magazine:
Moby Dick, Portrait of a Lady, Faulkner. We read all the important stuff, though mostly we alternated between nodding off and poking fun at professor Hagan's peculiar speech. Until, that is, the day we began reading Look Homeward, Angel. As it turned out, our teacher was an expert, a former editor of the Thomas Wolfe Quarterly. And when he began to recall his days of sitting on the porch of Wolfe's boyhood home, sipping iced tea with the author's then-surviving brother, the oddest of odd things happened, something my fresh-out-of-Plainview mind couldn't process. I looked up and saw a tear running down Hagan's cheek.
Hamlet famously asks, "What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her?"when he can't understand how an actor could work himself to tears just for a part in a play. I knew how he felt. But with one teardrop my life's orbit changed trajectory. I never slept in that class again, not a wink. And a year later, when another lit professor, Richard Pindell, slammed his copy of Absalom, Absalom! down on his desk and sighed, "My mamma always told me not to teach anything you love, 'cause your students won't love it as much as you and it'll break your heart," I already understood what he meant. Professor Hagan's unwitting lesson on dedication, sense of place, even memory itself, had already begun its meandering journey.
Earlier this year, I took a quick day trip up to Brooklyn, where the dead may well know a thing or two, but I'm guessing not enough to have invested in real estate in trendy Cobble Hill. That's where I met up with Sarah Robinson and Nils Lundblad, a couple living in Boston, getting married in Washington, but tethered firmly to the place they first fell in love.
Sara, Nils and I walked around their beloved neighborhood, from the coffee shop they once frequented to halfway across the Brooklyn Bridge. It was a great trip, and you could easily see how a southerner like Thomas Wolfe would become enamored of the place. Stoops, park benches, hustle and bustle.
Sarah and Nils are a wonderful couple, always laughing, always smiling. I grinned as much as Sarah did when she opened a letter from her soon-to-be husband in the hotel room early on her wedding day. Stuffed with the note were ticket stubs from all the concerts the two have seen together. What a sweet idea, I thought. In fact, the coolness factor was always in play, from getting ready at the still-hip Hotel Monaco to their reception at the newly-hip LongView Gallery.
It is in fact a small world, and that's why I leave you with the following gift, in the form of the second line of Thomas Wolfe's masterpiece, Look Homeward, Angel:
"Each of us is all the sums he has not counted: subtract us into the nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas." As I typed those words, I thought to myself, what picture should I put here at the end? And then I saw this one.
Look Homeward, Angel, indeed.