Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Velma's Journal--September 19, 1931

Speaking Dutch is more of a challenge than I figured. Unlike English or French, the way Dutch words are spelt greatly affects their pronunciation. All their words altar their spellings significantly in order to make way for different endings. There is also the concept of vowel sounds being determined by closed and open syllables. For example "boom" which means tree drops an "o" and adds an "en" to form "bomen" and thus the plural, trees, is formed. It would be pronounced "bo-men" which is obviously much different from the original "boom." I believe this is why Dutch can sound like English, French, and German, all at once, in natural conversation.

Also on the matter of Dutch, I can't help but think of Professor Loockersmans as a proprietor of some vile speakeasy. Although his appearance is always clean and his stature is of the utmost intelligence, his demeanor seems rank with deception. He is so spare with his words.

Regardless, tonight will be the night I find out. Like some amateur gumshoe I am accompanying Dottie to her "spot." I do not intend to drink but to observe and if Professor Loockersmans is indeed heading the establishment I’m not sure what I’ll do. I don’t think I have the courage to confront him, nor will I have the respect to learn from a criminal. In which case, I will then drop Dutch and wait for German to return next semester.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Velma's Journal--September 15, 1931

I had two involved papers to work on over the past few days and have regretted not writing. The first paper was for my modern poetry class concerning Whitman’s stance on the Civil War as reflected in his later verse. The second involved the socio-political climate in Western Europe after the Great War. The research is rewarding but the topics are not my favorites.

After the unfortunate incident with Dottie a few nights ago, I decided to confront her on the Loockersmans comment she made in her stupor. She explained that Loockersmans owned the establishment where she found the music swinging and the hooch cheap. I explained to her that Loockersmans was also the name of my Dutch professor.

“Yeah, so?” Was her response.

“Don’t you find it irresponsible to educate young minds and break the law at the same time?”

“Christ with you and this (I shall omit her harsh expletive) law. It’s only a matter of time before they change it. The man’s making scratch (which means money apparently) hand over fist. Then she said if I was so curious as to why he was running a speakeasy, I should go see him there myself. I hesitated at the idea but then I thought it might be to my advantage. Leverage, as Dottie calls it.

I have to admit, I do like Dottie. She may be a bit gruff but I feel her heart and mind are sharp. She said she was going home next weekend and would bring me back a tray of her mother’s eggplant. A thoughtful gesture for sure. I’ve never tried eggplant or much Italian food for that matter and in times like these, it is rare that people share food.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Velma's Journal--September 10, 1931

Dottie came in at 4:30 this morning and vomited clear across our room. It, of course, brought me out of my pleasant sleep.

When I turned on my desk lamp I found her sitting on the floor, red-faced and sweating. She said she found this “swingin’ place” very close by. “The hooch is real cheap,” she said with a grin.

“I can smell that,” I said to her more annoyed than anything else.

“Ahhh lightin’ up, Velma,” she stumbled in her dense Brooklynese; a language all to itself, I assure you. “We’ve been here over a week and you haven’t gone out the once.”

“Drinking is illegal.” The conversation now took place over me cleaning the mess with some old towels from the laundry.

“Yeah, that’s why cops do it too,” she mumbled indignantly.

“Ridiculous!” I said.

“Velma, honey, how naive are you? No one believes in that bunk law.”

I do hate it when she calls me honey. It’s much too familiar.

“Don’t you want to practice law?” I said to her.

“Yeah and the first thing I’d do is fight to turn this stupid amendment over.” Then she fell forward on her face. She remained incoherent while I finished cleaning up. None of this was enjoyable, mind you, and I only did it because no one else would.

As I was putting her into bed, I heard her start to mumble nonsense. Then out of the clear blue she said, “Lookersmans.” She started laughing and saying things like, “Such a stupid name.” She laughed a little more then fell into a drunken sleep in which she snored louder than usual. Was it my Dutch professor? If so, how did she come in contact with him? She wasn’t taking the class. Actually, she poked fun at me for taking Dutch. I found the whole situation queer.

When I climbed back into bed, my mind was reeling with the possibilities. But as I fell asleep, I wasn’t sure what had really happened and what was my sleepy imagination.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Velma's Journal--On the Phone with Velma #1

“What?” I hear Velma’s voice yell out before she even brings the receiver to her ear.

“Velma? Hello?”

“What?” She seems to be breathing heavily into the phone.

“The blog is up.” I say triumphantly. Like it took years of work.

“Is that supposed to mean something?” Sometimes I think she plays this ignorant old lady thing on purpose.

“It means the general public will be reading your journals.”

“Yeah well,” she labors. “I hope it works,” She struggles to gain her breath.

“What works? Are you okay?”

A guttural cough right into the phone, “Yeah I’m fine.”

“What’s with the breathing?”

“Oh, you caught me doing yoga.” You see what I mean about the old lady act. “I was doing kundalini.”

“That’s crazy stuff.”

“It’s the reason I’m still alive.”

I lob a little pause in there. “So, what works?”

“What are you talking about, sweetheart?”

“You just said I hope it works.”

“The journals! It’ll make ‘em realize what’s going on.”

I chuckle, “Yeah, well, I think it’s an entertaining read.”

“I know you do, but there’s more to it.” At this juncture the reader might take note that Velma thinks some of the more fantastical elements of her journal aren't fiction. I can say with confidence that, I think, they are. We humor her. 

“So do you need more?”

“More what?”


“Velma, I’ve only posted three.”

“THREE? Whatta ya waiting for?”

“Do you know how long it takes to read your handwriting? I have a day job.”

“Oh Christ, I’ll be dead by time you type out ’35.”  It’s possible. “Work faster!”

Me changing the subject, “Look I called to see if there was anything you want to say about your journals? For the readership?”

“Yeah—” Suddenly I hear what sounds like a legion of cast iron skillets falling onto tile. “DAMMIT MIMI!” Then another crash and the squishing sound of the receiver under Velma’s ear as she moves about. “Never keep a peacock indoors. They get into everything.”

Knowing what I know now about Velma Graydon this statement does not strike me as odd as it may you.

Mimi in the other room! NOW,” she yells. “You see it’s supposed to rain and I don’t want them outside.” There are two of them. “They get so ornery when they’re wet.”

“Ah huuuuh,” I draw that out because I have no idea what to say.

“So the early journals,” she refocuses. “Yeah, they’re awful.”


“They’re so sophomoric. I was in love with my own brain. I thought I was the bees-knees for going to college. Now everyone goes to college.”

“That’s what you have to say about your journals?”

“Oh God, I cringe when I read them… Skip ahead. So much flower. The later ones get to the point.”

“Velma, I’m not skipping.”

A deep sigh, “No? Well, then I’ll just die before you get out of the 30’s.”

“Okay. Anything else you want me to relate.”

“Sure, let them know I don’t shit diamonds like I thought I did seventy-five years ago.”

“Right, okay.”

“And don’t say shit when you quote me. I want your civilized readership to think I’m intelligent.”

“Got it.” Little does she know that I’ve been transcribing our conversations word-for-word. She’d be fine with it, I’m sure. No use in telling her right this minute.

“You know I didn’t say my first curse until I was forty.”


“Yeah, now I can’t stop.”

Monday, October 22, 2007

Velma's Journal--September 5, 1931

I had my first Dutch class this morning. It was taught by this goliath of a man named Dr. Gerdi Loockermans who is obviously Dutch himself. He hails from the city of Utrecht and came to New York to study at Columbia. If I had to guess, I would say his is in his late forties. He is a quiet man with an extremely deep voice and I couldn’t help but feel that he was staring down each of his students throughout the session. His eyes are very large and dark; a rich brown. Perhaps he was trying to intimidate us with the staring or perhaps he can not help it. I will admit it was unsettling to say the least.

He didn’t start speaking in Dutch right away. His English is impeccable with very little trace of his native accent. But when he began to introduce the language the tenor of his voice completely changed. The pronunciations are so alien to me. The vowel combinations will be hard to master and there are words you have to literally change the shape of tongue to say things correctly. I’ve heard that this is also the case with German so perhaps Dutch will be a good precursor to my German studies. It seems that the Dutch sentence structure is virtually the same as English so, just paging through the two slim volumes required for the course, it seems that it’s all a matter of vocabulary and declension.

My roommate Dottie Cento, who is also here on full scholarship and who has left her family in Brooklyn to live “uptown” as she calls it seems to be very friendly, and quite a free spirit. We have been here barely three days and she’s gone out each night. She hasn’t said what she’s done but she does reek of liquor when she comes in. It doesn’t bother me, although I don’t fancy myself a drinker, I knew I would come in contact with it here at school. Even though it is illegal, I’ve heard the stories of the countless speakeasies here in the city. Sometimes I wonder if I’d have the courage to go to one.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Velma's Journal--September 4, 1931

With the amount of work that seems to be ahead of me, I will not be able to write in my diary every day as I would have liked. Yesterday was so crammed with little tasks like finding my classes and purchasing books. Then, of course there were the little social gatherings amongst the girls on my floor here in Hewitt Hall. With all that I scarcely had the time to remember my name. I will have at least one class everyday of the week. It would appear that my Wednesday schedule is the lightest, so I will take that time to roam the city and find my way around my new home. For the past two days I’ve seen nothing but the campus of Barnard and yesterday evening I was able to stroll through Columbia’s neighboring campus. It makes me anxious to think of the entire island of Manhattan that I am still yet to see. All in due time I keep telling myself.

I found that the German class I was hoping to sink my teeth into has been postponed till next semester seeing as the professor broke his leg in two places and has gone on medical leave. Needless to say I was extremely disappointed especially considering that they have placed me in a Dutch class as a remedy. I honestly have no interest in Dutch, but I was told it will be good practice for German next semester. I’m not even sure how Dutch functions as a language. My guess is that it’s an amalgam of English, German, and perhaps French thrown together in deep guttural sounds. I assume I’ll find out since the class is tomorrow.

I was able to telephone home and tell mom and dad that I had made it to New York. I assured them that my arrival occurred without incident. I arrived at Pennsylvania Station around 1:30. The marvel of the place really was a grand indication of the city I have chosen to live in during my education. The glass ceilings in the depot alone were a miracle of human engineering. Then walking into that waiting room my jaw dropped. What a breathtaking structure! It looked like a magnificent church or a Roman bath (which I believe it was modeled after). In all honesty I had never seen a structure that large before, inside or out and it pleases me that it is the first thing I saw on my entrance. It is truly a divine gateway on which to enter this city.

After stepping off the train, I went out and found the nearest cab. It was a Checker Cab driven by a very polite Italian man. I so wished I had taken Italian so I could converse with him. Although I’m sure Spanish would’ve sufficed in a pinch, of course I didn’t want to insult him by saying so. I told him the address in English and he brought me up to the campus taking Broadway all the way from 34th street. What a magnificent street, Broadway. It winds through the grid defiantly, as if it doesn’t care that it’s breaking all the rules, almost like a river cutting through the other streets.

Barnard’s campus is small, but since it is considered to be the sister school of Columbia, I also consider that to be my campus as well. It is quieter than I expected up here. The campuses have great trees dotting them, and the other students walk hurriedly around, not stopping to talk to one another. I did imagine a bit more noise and crowding. Perhaps I’ll need to go downtown for that.

I would think to write all this in a letter to my parents, but the mood doesn’t strike me. Besides, I promised to call once a week and they can hear it all then. Letters from my own hand bore me. I’d much rather read someone else’s written in a different language.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Velma's Journal--September 2, 1931

“There is a magic in the world and all you need do is open your eyes to it.” That’s what my elementary teacher, Mrs. Ham used to say every Monday morning before she called roll. Now that I’m older, I realize that everyone needs to recognize the possibility of something magical on something as awful as a Monday morning. Thinking back on it, Mrs. Ham probably did it to remind herself of the world’s enchantment as she stood bleary-eyed in front of the responsibility of twenty-six children. But as I climbed out of bed on this morning, some years after the days of Mrs. Ham, I saw a world full of magic. The late August morning I found outside my window had a fine mist covering it. The field outside that I have looked on for all eighteen years of my memory was a bright green, wet with the dew of late summer. Dad’s horses trotted by for the first run of the morning. Their nostrils expelled the vapor and the hooves kicked up the moisture. Mother’s coffee called from the kitchen downstairs and all was as it always had been.

My life has always been in Saratoga on my father’s ranch. The routines have been unbroken from grammar to high school where I unlocked the academic mysteries of my own small world. I spent my time working carefully on words until their meanings were revealed and their relationships established. Words are my greatest friend and constant companion. I want to make them my life’s work. My teachers have told me again and again that I have a gift for language seeing as I mastered French and Spanish before I was in high school. While in high school I conquered Greek, Latin, and I am now trying to master German. With recent events in world history, German may work to be useful. It seems that Americans are wary of anything associated with Germany, but I feel a need to understand them may arise.

It is also my ability to master languages that has given me the opportunity to start a new page in my life. This morning as I write in this diary, I am sitting in a nearly empty passenger car bound for New York City. Tomorrow morning I will begin my first class at Barnard University where I have received a full scholarship to study linguistics. I am the first person in the Graydon family to receive a college education. I’ve watched many of my friends leave school to marry or work for their families in these difficult times. I tried to convince them that leaving school would not help; their educations would lead them to prosperity. My own parents told me there would be no higher education because they couldn’t afford it. The tracks have suffered because of the Depression. My father has not seen as much business as in past years. He had to let most of his stable hands go, leaving most of the work to him and my brother Henry. My mother has taken to working up at the spas waiting on the rich women who come in for the baths. Yet even those patrons have become few and far between since those who had fortunes have lost them. My only comfort is that I will be one less charge for my family being out of the house and on my own.

When I came down the old wooden stairs this morning I had three green trunks packed with my most important possessions. One was clothing and two were books that I simply couldn’t part with. Mother was annoyed that I didn’t wait for Henry to help me with them. She told me a lady has no need for so many books or such heavy trunks. She’s so old-fashioned and has never been able to understand my independence. In her eyes I should be staying in Saratoga searching desperately for a husband to sweep me off my feet and knock some sense into me. But father believes in my education and encourages it. When I received word of my scholarship from Barnard, he was the first to say that I needed to go and then eventually insisted, much to my mother’s protest. Deep inside of my mother, I feel it is the regret of her own choices which raised her objections. She left school after the fifth grade to help on her family’s orchard, and at the age of seventeen met my father and was quickly married. Her life has been her husband and children. Mine will be words.

Just an hour ago, as I stood on the platform, looking on my home town and seeing my family sending me off, I could not help but think that I never belonged there. That was never my life. For eighteen years I was only marking time for this moment; to leave for a much bigger world. Of course, I will miss my family and look forward to returning for holidays, but my life will now be in the city. This diary will be a record of the events that soon mark that life. On this very morning as I ride through these green valleys, I am speeding toward the wonder of New York City.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Velma's Journal--Introduction by JR

Doing research at the Museum of the Native American on Bowling Green, I came across the strangest old woman. Courtney was off making photocopies of Lenape longhouse sketches and I was looking for a book on the the Lenape language. Said old woman was sitting at one of the round reference tables poring over a Lenape linguistics guide. It was likely the only one written and that, most likely, the only copy in print. I couldn't help but notice how furiously she was writing in her black leather-bound notebook. I was completely amazed by the look of her. She had pure white hair in a perfect bob and thick round-framed black glasses. For a second I thought Lee Krasner was before me taking an interest in the impossibility of the Lenape language.

Without even looking up she said, "Can't take your eyes off me, huh?" Her voice was gravelly but not so deep that it would frighten but there was just enough season to know she was a life-long New Yorker.

"No, I actually need that book," I said smiling wide (it worked with all the old ladies).

"You do?"  There was genuine surprise. "What the hell for?" She liked me already. I could tell.

Many have asked that question, "I'm working on a graphic novel."

"And it's in Lenape?"

"Parts of it," I said sheepishly. I usually lose people at that point in the conversation, but her face turned rosy and warm.

"What's it about?"

I expel a regretful sigh, "The history of New York City."

She lit up further. Her posture even improved, "What's the story?"

I was confused. I thought that was pretty self-explanatory. "Umm, well, the Dutch settle New Amsterdam after Henry Hudson discovers the island of..." I lost her.

"You mean it's straight history?"

"Ah, sure," I said with no confidence.

She grimaced, like only a New Yorker can, then motioned for me to come closer. Naturally I had been keeping my distance. Anyone interested in Lenape shouldn't be trusted.

But I moved slowly toward her despite my better judgment. I figured she was going to hit me with the book for my apparent audacity. "Do you wanna hear a real story?"

I'm not sure I had a choice, "Sure?"

Two and half hours later (Courtney had gone to have lunch without me) she was talking about Coney Island in 1942 and a giant sperm whale out to take revenge for her dead calf (put on display outside of Nathan's). From the content of what I heard before, I was pretty sure this lady was a loon.

"What? You don't believe me about the whale?"

It wasn't only the whale. I was dumbfounded by the time I had invested in this woman. "Well I-"

"Check it out. Makes for a better story than straight-up history." And she continued on for forty-five minutes filling in the decades after, which were even stranger than the centuries prior.

"Then the story's not over?" I ask cautiously.

"No, but I bet it'll be one helluva finish," she said with a grin.

"I'm sure."

She knew I was humoring her. "You should read my journals if you don't believe me. I'll tell you what. You wanna good graphic's novel?"


"Read the journals. Come back next week and meet me in Bowling Green. I'll give you all of 'em."

"I don't think that's nece-"

"Come on! Whatta ya gotta lose? Besides, they start in '31. Real slice-a-history." She did have a point. I was a sucker for history. Her face crumpled, "What the hell is a graphic's novel anyway?"

That was almost two years ago. Last May I met her again to return all 19 volumes of her journals. What she recorded from 1931 to present is at once fascinating, thrilling, and frightening. When I saw her I said, "You should publish these."

"Nah. You use them."

"I think I might."

"Really?" Her 90 something year-old face smiled back the wrinkles.

"It's fascinating stuff."

"Isn't it though."

"But it's your property-"

"No, no. I'll be gone soon and this crazy story is gonna end. I need your youth to get it out there," she smiled and lightly smacked me on the cheek.

"Courtney and I have decided to use some of this in the graphic novel. If that's ok with you?" I asked.

"Wonderful. And the resolution is coming. You just need to stay tuned sweetheart," said like a real old-salt New Yorker. Crazy as sin and full of heart. 

"But why me?" I asked.

"You had a nice smile." With that, Velma Graydon, a spry 90 years young walked off. This blog contains her journal entries transcribed. When I last spoke to her she said she was pleased that more people would be able to read them, but she had no clue how to access a "glob" to see if I was doing them justice.

I told her I was doing my best.