Fear of a senile planet

by

In American media, there isn’t much space given to getting old. So it’s from both an intriguing and refreshingly unique perspective that David Greenberger has made his explorations of the subject an art form.

In 1979, he began interviewing residents of a Boston nursing home where he was an activities director. Transcripts of those sessions were printed alongside black-and-white photos in the Duplex Planet, a deft little zine that, decades later, continues to enchant readers and win new fans.

They’ve also inspired some interesting collaborations and made crossovers into other media, including books (Tell Me If I’ve Stopped, Duplex Planet: Everybody’s Asking Who I Was, Trees Breathe Out People Breathe In), CDs and radio.

And even though Greenberger’s latest book, No More Shaves, is primarily archival text, seeing its all-geezer cast inked-up in underground comic book fashion is simply beyond cool. Some of the author’s favorite whiskered interviewees — Fergie, Bill Niemi, Larry Green et al. — are immortalized on these pages.

Caricatures of their aging faces stare out from pictures they might have dreamed themselves: Bill floating in space, another man swallowed entirely by a snake, another on an adventure in a gorilla suit, and busty girls in togas after a rained-out beach party.

But music, sex, culture, baseball, politics and sports might have been dull subjects without all the free-associative observations and senile dream talk — not to mention thoughts too abstract or fleeting to put labels on. After all, how does one classify Ken Eglin’s insights about lettuce and the future of interplanetary geography?

 

I’ve always been against lettuce for a long, long time — even before I lost my teeth.

 

Mars will probably be a state someday.

 

Even if the wordplay is involuntary, it’s no less unique and no less poetic. It may even give readers a feeling of having stumbled onto untraveled territory or some lost world akin to Grandpa’s cedar chest brimming with dusty secrets and old photos of people who looked just like us once, a long time ago.

The comics in No More Shaves were created by a diverse group of more than 20 illustrators. In Gary Lieb’s truly bizarre comic, “Abe and the Witches” (pictured), Abe Surgecoff splices a story about witches with memories of a KKK lynching. The blurred association between public hangings of African-Americans and the Salem witches burned at the stake makes a strange, sobering collage of memories.

 

After they find the witches, they hang them on the trapeze — it’s up on a stage with a noose. They’d kill ’em on a platform with a noose over a plank.

Well, there was in that time, they didn’t have no medicine. They used to haunt these people at their homes, the witches. And they used to carry around a torch to burn the house, or the farm.

 

Some of this is in the American History book.

 

From No More Shaves, expect a full spectrum of human experience reshuffled by the biology of the aging mind. It’s a sort of mirror, even for our youth-oriented culture, showing us what has been and what will be, maybe even shifting our views of what is.

The details are a bit scattered, but somehow, nothing seems to be missing. As George Burns once said, “By the time you’re 80 years old, you’ve learned everything. You only have to remember it.”

Norene Cashen writes about books for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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