Sunday, April 17, 2011
My Enigma Of Arrival
1950. I walked up the subway steps right into the four story brick building that would be something like my penal servitude for the next four years. Brooklyn College of Pharmacy, I'm told, is now a mosque. Rules, like bricks, upon rules.
A part of my body shut down from day one. It was my brain. If I were conscious I would have turned around. But I set aside my enthusiasm for language, history and geo-politics. Instead of following my bliss I walked into a Blitz. A bombardment of memorizations, structural formulas, botanical origins and pre-digested monographs most of which were soon to fall into disrepute.
Faraday's Law, Pythagorean theorems, Avogadro's number, the Krebs Cycle... all that's left are the names and scar tissue on that part of my cortex. We swallowed a compendium of obsolescence.
During those four years pharmacy would change from the rather mystical, arcane compounding of crude drugs into the dispensing of counted and poured pre-packaged preparations. It became deodorized. We were taught about elixirs, excrescences and exudates. The macerated leaves and dried roots, fluidextracts and decoctions, the substances and techniques of past centuries that were largely discarded by 1954.
My vocabulary expanded. I now had a set of exotic polysyllabic words to drop at a cocktail party but, alas, belonging to a universe gone by.
We learned how to role suppositories, the art of making emulsions from immiscible liquids, and the weights needed for the torsion scale to measure individual powders. During the subsequent 53 years I was never once called upon to use this knowledge. Minim by minim, scruple by scruple the old world gave way.
Even if I had been prepared for the real world of pharmacy I had only a passing interest in the subject. As if my mind had been pulverized in a mortar with a pestle, my imaginative life was ground into dust. Now I return as an archeologist might return to an excavation site piecing together shards from the rubble and blur.
Math and science came easily to me in high school. My preoccupation was politics. I was not an avid reader of literature. English composition was my poorest subject. The logic of my grades led me to pharmacy. I should add that my father was a pharmacist and his footsteps marked a path I might well follow.
Here is a case of the illogic of logic. What is not factored in is how little I knew of myself, my fears, and my buried passions. In those days one could major in the Humanities at a university. Had I done so I believe I would have found a more congruent place to be creative and open a few more doors in my mansion. At the time making a living was not far from the mind of my parents whose head was still haunted by the Depression years. Pharmacy as a profession would always give me something to fall back on. That it did. I fell back on it for over fifty years and paid a price.
Enigma of Arrival is the name of a V.S. Naipaul book taken from a painting by Chirico which depicts a mysterious, shadowy port city; the piece of a narrative perhaps. I've tried to capture my passage through a door not meant to be mine.