Crimson Hexagons & the Meandering Mississippi

How vast the universe of storytelling when glimpsed through the prism of the library! How boundless that library when harnessed to television.

Imagine that the fabled sorcerer Jorge Luis Borges – author of “The Library of Babel” – was head honcho of his own network, able to fling moving pictures through all the cathode tubes of Earth for our enjoyment.

You might call that entertainment.

“I, who imagined paradise as a kind of library . . . ” declares Borges in a quote selected for the Argentinean postage stamp honoring him upon his death.

A fancied paradise marked by a crimson hexagon in which lies a book holding all the truths of all other books; the librarian capable of divining its contents on a par with the Divine.

[Borges, of course, would “broadcast,” in the original sense of the word, the farmer’s term for sowing seed – the kernel, the germ – over a wide area by scattering by hand.

Not in a line and not in a row. Here and there, everywhere.]

There was a time, in the golden age of television (how strange the honorific “golden” applied to a genre’s infancy), when literature was the primary ore mined for television, back before Hollywood was being run by the fourth generation of kids raised on the medium.

Way, way, way back . . .

Back when young people still dreamed of writing the Great American Novel.

[For my money, Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel is as close as anyone is likely to come to claiming the prize, especially now that the middle class no longer discusses books at their barbecues. God love you, Thomas, it’s the only book that ever made me cry.].

Consider an extraordinary episode of “The Outer Limits” from 1963 called “The Man Who Was Never Born.” (see feature photo publicity shot from the TV series)

Directed by Leonard Horn and wrapped in the soft lighting of Conrad Hall, the episode was written by Anthony Lawrence, who – in the potluck of potboilers so peculiar to Hollywood – would go on to write a TV movie about Liberace.

In the story, a very young and uber earnest Martin Landau gives a time traveling astronaut from Earth a short tour of the future, a 2148 A.D.  walk through what remains of the great human civilization.

“Come,” says Landau, human and monstrously deformed, his face a bloom of boils and blisters created by the same corrupted microbe that destroyed the race . “I will show you all that’s left of moments, men and places . . .”

And takes the astronaut to a deserted library where the architecture is futuristic and spare, the books old and leather bound. Had the show been filmed in Technicolor you might see a crimson hexagon shimmering at the end of the hall.

“Here lies the protected history of man,” says Landau before acting out the essence of each immortal tome. “The cherished words and pictures of all he has known and loved. The noble Hamlet; Anna Karenina putting on her gloves on a snowy evening; Gatsby in white flannels. Moby Dick and Mark Twain’s whole meandering Mississippi.”

The astronaut grabs Melville from a shelf, finds a random passage and reads aloud: “Hope proves a man deathless . . .”

“There is no hope here,” says the mutant Landau.

“There has to be.”

“There is no future,” insists Landau. “Only a safe and dear host of memories.”

Holy host, as my old editor Cardinal Keeler might say; host from the Latin hostia for victim. And memories like ghosts who sacrificed their lives to create them.

Whether a writer or waitress, we pay for our stories with our lives.

To this day I can see Gilbert Lukowski, a long dead stevedore from a long gone Baltimore, standing in front of the waterfront saloon where he grew up, just across the cobblestones from the pier where NBC filmed “Homicide” for seven seasons.

Lukowski, a tough guy with a strong sense of himself, called me up on the City Desk one day to say that he wanted to read his obituary before he died.

And to that end – to see the memories for which he’d given his life in nine point type across the daily paper – good ole Gilbert gave me a time machine tour of the once rough and now gilded neighborhood where he’d grown up during the Great Depression.

Staring at his mother’s house at 1718 Thames Street with tears in his eyes, Lukowski said, as though speaking to himself: “Nobody remembers.

“But I think about it every day . . .”

From Borges to the Outer Limits to tears in a longshoreman’s hardened eyes, every permutation of narrative: high, low and vast.

Read the first essay here.