American Eccentrics


By David Isay

and Harvey Wang

W. W. Norton & Co.

216 pp., $25

Eccentricity, whatever you might hear to the contrary, is not the exclusive province of the English. Being English myself, I find it refreshing to come across a book about "Dreamers, Visionaries, Eccentrics and Other American Heroes" - the subtitle of "Holding On" by David Isay and Harvey Wang (photographer). It is an all-American book of profiles and interviews, and it illustrates, often touchingly, that no-one is an oddball to themselves. Eccentricity is in the eye of the beholder.

"Some people think I'm a little crazy," says Charlie DeLeo.

DeLeo, Isay writes, "is the Statue of Liberty's caretaker.... since the early seventies [he] has been known as 'the keeper of the flame....' "

"It's a feeling of peace and solitude up here," DeLeo muses. "I like to sing songs up here (not when people are around - I got a horrible voice). I like to pray for America and for other countries.... I compose poems up here too." And he adds: "I don't look at it as me being a little crazy. I'm a true caretaker."

Arguably DeLeo is a deal saner and centered than most of us.

One of my brothers once called me eccentric. He did not mean it very seriously, I think. Possibly my interest in modern art stimulated his comment - to him an offbeat thing. So I investigated the word, and what sticks in mind is the image, among various orbital definitions of the word, of a wheel whose center is not exactly in the middle.

If that is what eccentric means, then I do not own to it. Nor does it apply to the characters in Isay's book.

They seem, in fact, to have found their centers - however oddball they might seem to the timidly conventional.

I prefer a pottery analogy. We have a few pots at home here which, in their firing, or perhaps even in their making on the wheel, settled into a very slightly off-center stance. They balance. But their almost tentative pulling away from the expected concentricity gives them great character. They are different.

Take Jim Searles, checker player. "The game [pool checkers]," Isay writes, "engenders an uncommon devotion from its players." His comment on Searles, president and founder of Brooklyn's Elite Checker Club (which today meets in the Salvation Army's library), is simply: " of the wisest men I have ever known."

Checkers for Searles is far more than a "toy." It is "a thinking man's game, see ... It keeps me thinking." And he says: "Checkers players is really a brotherhood - like family." The wives of the checkers players sound like checkers-widows. "To tell the truth, we put in more time at the club than we did at home. We didn't do nothing but play checkers."

One of the pleasures of this book is that Isay successfully retains, in his well-edited tapes, the real voices of his subjects.

Among other characters are Virginia Belle Brewer, curator of a bell museum at Canton, Texas. There is Dugout Dick Zimmerman, mountain cave dweller; Marie Coombs who puts out a weekly newspaper, one of the last hot-lead papers in the country, for the 700 inhabitants of Saguache, Colo., with help from her son Dean. There is Marta Becket, performer in Death Valley Junction, Calif. Not discouraged by small (or no) audiences when she started out in 1968, she even painted an audience on the blank white walls of her Amargosa Opera House.

"I was always kind of different," she told Isay.

"Holding On" is a good title. Many of Isay's subjects are "through thick and thin" types - more than survivors. They would make almost any sacrifice not to lose their grasp on the one thing to which they have dedicated their lives. But are they any odder, really, than people who more conventionally spend day and night working the money market, surfing the internet, gardening, making art, running marathons?

The people who most interest Isay (he is a collector of people) always have reasons for the vision that preoccupies them, and often in this compilation our prejudices are strongly challenged when we find that these reasons are not as off-the-wall as we would like to expect.

Take Hinkel Schillings and Shade Pate (such names!), "fox hunters." I did not at all want to read about this old stager and his nephew from Center, Texas. Fox hunting is surely an obscene pursuit. But these two have nothing in common with the English tradition. Schillings and Pate sit "around a fire from sunset until dawn, listening to their hounds bark. That's all there is to fox-hunting - listening. There's no kill." Hounds and fox run round in circles until the hounds, worn out, return to their cages.

Schillings recalls the first time he "heard the hounds" for himself, "That was 1911.... I guess I must have been a born lover of hounds, and still love it just as well as I ever did."

Isay spent "one of the finest nights I ever spent under the stars" with Schillings, Pate, and their hollering hounds. Perhaps even the fox had a good time.

This book is good for our sense of tolerance. Its deeper undercurrents run into questions of discrimination, injustice, indifference. Maybe it is a book about minorities. Not everyone in it has preoccupations (though Robert Shields, writer of the world's longest diary, does).

Some have just had lifelong occupations that are on the edge of dying out, like James "Jim Boy" Smith, grain scooper of Buffalo, N.Y., or Lawrence W. "Happy" Davis, Pullman porter (retired). Others have been made unwitting victims of society. Some have achieved a certain quaint success, but many more are facing out, in one way or another, failure.

You might almost say they have made a success of failure. They have, whether deliberately or not, sidestepped conventional ambitions - success, popularity, riches, and acceptance. They do not care what others think. They are what artists ought to be - utterly devoted to their particular light, without a thought of becoming great or even noticed. They do what they believe. They are not conciliatory people.

"Take us or leave us" seems their motto. But they hold on regardless. Most of them do.

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