Thursday, August 20, 2009

The True, Sad Saga of the Prospect Street Society

The Prospect Street Society, a group dedicated to the pursuit of creativity and the higher arts and doomed to a very short life, met for the very first time on a Wednesday evening in May of 1996. It was the only time when all five members – Madeleine, B., Joe, Todd and I- were present. Despite the initial burst of enthusiasm we had for the idea, (inspired partly because I grew all excited by the film “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle” about the Algonquin Round Table which I then showed to Madeleine and B. and we decided wouldn’t it be fun if we had a little society of our own) each consecutive meeting would be missing one or two people. But at the very first gathering, we were all there, happy and hopeful, determined to be the next great movement of arts in this country, one that we could say started in the living room of Madeleine and B.’s place, and then we could relate the story of our humble beginnings to arts magazines and interviewers. Okay, to be fair I doubt anybody else in the group felt this way but my runaway imagination – always ten steps ahead- did get this far.

Four out of five of the Society members had met several years earlier while we were working together at a large bookstore near the Massachusetts/Connecticut border.I had started the job there after college, as part-time Christmas help that became permanent after the holiday. I was also working another job as an admissions clerk at a very quiet local museum complex, but it was the bookstore job that was the one I always looked forward to every night. There at the bookstore, I met several other disenchanted kindred souls who were working there because of the bad economy.While times were tough there was still optimism in the air as it was early into Bill Clinton’s first term – the ignominies of the Defense of Marriage Act and the Lewinsky scandal were still down the road - and after the previous twelve years of Republican rule, it felt like a new day. After we all left the bookstore, we remained friends and once Madeleine and B. moved back into the area after living on Nantucket for a time, we formed the group.

By this time in my life, I was looking for any escape from suburbia (where I lived with my partner) into Northampton, near where I had attended to college. To me, the area of the upper Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts was a fairyland in contrast to where I was living in Enfield, CT. I was secretly happy that the sojourn to Nantucket hadn’t worked out for Madeleine and B. I wasn't ready to cut them loose yet and I was glad that they were, for the time being, back in the area and back in my life. They moved into the handsome brick building, up the hill from downtown Northampton and directly behind Smith College campus. It was the only brick apartment building in the neighborhood. Memory has a strange way of making me think that their apartment was up several levels, like on the sixth floor but this can’t be possible as the place wasn't even six stories tall. The building was big but not tall.

Madeleine had decorated the living room with photographs and paintings she had created. The bookshelves were filled with all kids of different cookbooks; it was the first time that I had ever really considered cookbooks to be literature but Madeleine had them on the shelves with as much reverence as I used to place my first editions of modern novels. In Madeleine’s hands, even "Martha Stewart's Entertaining" looked perfectly in place next to her books on Gauguin, Josephine Baker and Pablo Picasso.

I can’t remember if there were drinks or food passed along at the first meeting, but I figured there had to be something. It was around dinnertime and I wouldn’t have had time to eat between my job as a bank teller in Springfield and then heading up to Northampton. I sat on the floor and Madeleine and B.’s cats, Punkin and Frida, came and went as they pleased in the room, not entirely thrilled by the strangers who had invaded their space and not willing to be affectionate. Since none of us were particularly sure as how to conduct a meeting, we went around one by one and shared what we had. Todd passed around some slides of paintings that he had made at college. We all would take a slide, hold it up to the light and try to discern what the image was in the acetate. Joe presented less of a short story than random thoughts of the state of the current literature and the real lack of anything exciting or new happening.

I had just recently read “Pride and Prejudice” for the first time and had been completely taken by it. Very few books before or since have held such a power for me, and it was one line in that book that I found both hilarious and worthy of seizing upon, the description of the temperament eldest Bennet daughter as “the super-excellent disposition of Jane.” I took that line and used it as the title of a short story I’d written in Jane Austen’s voice, but transported to the current world of Amherst, Massachusetts in the mid-1990s. I can no longer find any trace of my story and cannot even remember much of it, just that the heroine Jane (whose personality remains to me as some big blank, I was so busy trying to be witty that I forgot to give my character any personality) and where she lived that it must not have been a very impressive achievement. But when all we want to do is parody, what is impressive? (Embarrassingly, a year later a friend wanted us all to write short humorous essays on a theme and I again went to that Jane Austen parody well for inspiration. How lame!) Madeleine passed around some artwork, and B. presented some of his paintings.

The initial meeting got off to such a good start that we were all looking forward to the next week. We did gather, but Todd was unable to attend so we were already short one member on only our second meeting. I figured this would be a one time occurrence so we put things on hold and headed into town for dinner and walked around afterward. But the Prospect Street Society never got back on track. In subsequent weeks, there would always be somebody who couldn’t make it, or we’d be too distracted to get down to business. One night, there was a huge blowup between two members. It’s kind of hard to keep a meeting going after that. And so, only two months after the Prospect Street was formed, the Prospect Street Society mutually dissolved. Sometimes, when you try too hard to make something happen, it feels forced.

A couple of years after we ended the Society and I was leaving the area for graduate school, B. gave me a gift of an abstract landscape he’d painted that represented Northampton. It still hangs on my wall. Even though I am currently struggling and unemployed, I doubt I will one day have to sell it for food like Gertrude Stein did with some of her C├ęzannes during the Second World War and I don’t intend to ever get rid of it. But B. himself has faded from my life entirely; I don't expect I'll ever see him again.

I’m still friends with Madeleine and Todd and Joe and we sometimes reminisce about the Society and we laugh. It came to nothing, just like a lot of things have and will in our lives. And for the positive outcome - I have not written any more Jane Austen parodies in over a decade.

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