Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Improbable Dr. Canter Museum


I've seen only one photo of my father as a young man, a black-and-white snapshot: he’s 15, thick black hair and bad acne, leaning against a big elm, cradling three or four thick books under his arm.
I like the photo because it puts his bibliomania into perspective. At an age when other boys in Baltimore were getting into stickball, sandlot football and trouble, Nathan Canter was getting into Kierkegaard, Melville and The Origin of Species.
In his late 20s, as a bookish, Jewish surgeon in an Army captain’s uniform, he met my mother, a ward clerk at the Perry Point, Maryland, veteran’s hospital. Soon after my father discovered that Bette Lou Miller enjoyed reading Dorothy Parker, they were married. Twelve years and three sons later, they divorced. Without a wife and kids there was no longer a check on my father’s craving for books. He was free to marry his true mistress and devote himself as faithful husband to his ever-expanding library.
Naturally, his collection only began with books. Soon my father accumulated anything that grabbed his peculiar intellect. The mass of books, antiques, art and curios rapidly metastasized to invade every cell and nook of his Rochester, New York home, until the old house was densely packed with objects beautiful and monstrous. It was not so much a museum as it was a museum warehouse, for there was scarcely enough space for a person to squeeze from one room to the next, and only the initiates, the inner circle, were invited into his live-in athenaeum and gallery, by way of the back door.
Inside, one found sunless rooms with floor-to-ceiling bookcases jammed shoulder-to-shoulder, stuffed with antiquarian volumes, reeking with the dark breath of crackled leather. Plus thousands of books in cardboard boxes, stacked to form head-tall canyon walls through which human traffic was forced to scuttle sideways. Boxes stacked high in the hallways and perched on the stairs down to the cellar and up to the bedrooms; my father’s antique Pennsylvania Dutch bed always heaped with books—fifty or more—which he shoved aside to make space to sleep. Boxes piled to the ceiling in the walk-in pantry, loaded atop and under and around the kitchen table, mounded in the bathroom. Solid walls of boxes sealing off unused rooms like ancient building blocks; so that to enter the lost spaces one had to mine a tunnel through the block walls, like an archaeologist excavating Solomon’s Temple.
The sheer weight of my father’s archives overwhelmed the wood-frame house. Both the upper and lower floors squeaked loudly and sagged from their heavy cargoes, like decks of a clipper ship with overloaded holds, coming apart at her beams. Ceilings bulged; plaster shattered and fell like hail.
In addition to books, so much other stuff added to the tonnage. A human skull was not out of place in the strange mix—browse around and you’d come across several—male and female—also human femurs, tibias, fibulas, a specimen box with the complete skeleton of a Seneca Indian child; a death mask made of wax poured over the face of an ax murderer’s victim; a Union Army surgeon’s field bag with tools a carpenter would feel at home with: saws, drills, pliers, hammers, punches.
A squid, a human brain and other vague, fleshy things floated in formaldehyde in glass jars—relics from an extinct 1920s scientific supply company; yellowed posters from the world wars, one warning Londoners to watch out for Zeppelins, another advertising the luxuries of a trans-Atlantic crossing aboard the Lusitania; a hand-painted bill announcing a minstrel in blackface “To perform on the Delta Queen,” one summer night in 1863.
A huge moose head stared dumbly from the living room wall alongside a 12-point stag, mighty elk, big-horned ram, spotted lynx, a gruesome boar and a giant garfish. In the center of the room, dozens of Amazonian hummingbird species perched lifelessly on a tree inside a glass display case bigger than a refrigerator.
Scale-model ships in lead from every navy of WWII. Metal signs, a vaudeville marquee. Apothecary jars with herbs and powders. More than 400 African masks from the collection of George Eastman, founder of Kodak. Tin toys, campaign buttons, ephemera, surprises.
Somehow, embedded among his books and endless stuff, my father managed to sleep, eat, read, bathe, read, go to work, read—that is: to live. On one Chanukah visit, my brother Bram—whom our father named after Bram Stoker, the Irish author of Dracula (a novel he’d admired when he was eight)—heard footsteps approaching, crunching on the crusty snow.
“Oh, here comes Mrs. Rifkowitz,” my father said. “She buys any book that has pictures of roses. Listen, if she mentions me not living here just go along with it.”
            “She thinks you don't live here?”
“Well the first time she came into the house she looked around and said, ‘Dr. Canter, you don’t live here, do you?’ And I told her, ‘Nooooo! How could anyone live here?’”
I hadn’t seen my father for six years when I arrived in June 1968—the Summer of Love—to spend my high school senior year sharing a few cubic feet of free space with him and the paper dust in his museum/warehouse, shifting boxes from one section of a cardboard canyon to another.
I said, “Dad, you don't even know what you’ve got in your collection.”
            “Sure I do,” he said. “I'm just not certain where everything is to be found.”
            “Why don't you catalog the stuff?” I suggested. “Draw a locator map.”
His lips curled back like he’d tasted a rotten ball of gifilte fish. “That's the Nazi mentality,” he said. “That's the kind of task an S.S. officer would enjoy.”
My teen-age friends thought the house was a blast. "Bitchin’!" they’d say when they saw the wax death mask, or "Far out, man!" as they examined the 18th-Century Japanese pillow book of erotic woodblock prints. I personally remember that year for a particular moonlit night, the last time I was afraid of the dark. Home alone, my father sewing up gunshot wounds in the ER at St. Mary’s; me, going solo with the oil paintings subtly alive in their ornate frames, and that damned wooden monkey with glass eyeballs I had to squeeze past to get to my wedge-shaped attic bedroom.
I got mad at my fear. "Dammit, I'm 16," I said aloud to my father’s house. "You’re a deadly, creepy place—but I'm not a baby anymore." The anger worked. I sprawled on my folding metal cot under the converging ceiling and walls with the bare tree limbs scritch-scritching at the panes in the gable, and I fell asleep. It would be another decade before Stephen King became a household name, and this helped.
In my thirties I returned to Rochester for a Thanksgiving visit from my home in St. Petersburg, Florida. I found my father sitting in his reading chair beneath the glazed eyes of the bull moose, the old man wrapped in a heavy winter coat, wool with fake fur collar, balding head tucked in a wool cap pulled low over huge ears. As we spoke the condensation from our breath formed comic-strip balloons in the dusty air.
"Dad, it’s cold in here."
"I keep the thermostat at 48," he said.
            "I'm not gonna give the damn utility company more money that it deserves!"
"But I can't take this,” I said, “I'm a Southerner, remember?"
            He sighed. “All right. We’ll have to make our way back to the thermostat."
The room with the thermostat was stacked within inches of its 10-foot ceiling with boxes of books. The excavation took a couple hours. We found a lot of interesting things—items he had forgotten about—I mean, besides the petrified Chihuahua turds. My father kept an old Chihuahua named Cocoa that had not been trained to relieve itself outdoors. I once carried the clickety little she-dog outside and her bulging brown eyes rolled upward at the cloudless winter sky and Cocoa nearly had an existential breakdown—fear and trembling and gnashing of teeth—her limits smithereened.
In his latter days, Nathan Canter, M.D.—that's what my brothers and I call him, because that's how he signed his four or five letters to us over the decades (one handwritten letter, plus two photocopies for his three sons)—"Your loving father, Nathan Canter, M.D."—my dad was severely stricken with a disease named after another doctor, Parkinson. We moved him from Rochester into a Tallahassee nursing home. I built him a small bookcase and stuffed it with books from my den.
For half a year Dr. Canter sat in diapers in a wheelchair, reading books with a philatelist’s magnifying glass, while his 93-year-old roommate mumbled over and over, “Hurry up, let’s go!” or in another thought-train, “I don’t wanna play baseball.” My father fed on his standard diet of literature; his roommate, a former Florida legislator, ate tepid oatmeal: The body of one had given out as had the mind of the other.
My parting image of my father: He’s in his wheelchair, magnifying glass in one trembling hand, reading a book of limericks and laughing out loud at the raunchy rhymes. Two days later, at age 77, he was done reading—that is to say, dead.
He wanted as his epitaph: Ars longa, vita brevis. Art is long, life is short. My brothers and I scattered his ashes like so many tiny pages—ex libris: Nathan Canter, M.D.
Jonathan, Bram and I will never again visit the Rochester house and share its available oxygen with the musty essence of a set of Encyclopedia Britannica, first edition. The hodgepodge temple to my father’s eccentric psyche, built of tomes and treasures in unmarked cardboard boxes has been emptied—its contents sold at auction. An art collector bought the wooden monkey with the glass eyes (a Revolutionary War-era advertising prop) for $8,000. My father had paid $25 for it. The auction’s biggest item, a tin toy German ocean liner with an alcohol-burning steam engine, fetched $49,000. For that my father had paid $20. Even the house itself was sold, after a structural engineer figured out how to brace up the sagging floors.
Only after we’d dumped 60 cubic feet of trash, did we learn of the unframed Albrecht Durer oil-on-canvas: Missing. All you trash hounds, be on the lookout for it, somewhere at the Monroe County, N.Y., dump. I tease you not.
I've brought back a few beautiful and bizarre curios to my home. As I sit typing this, a ceremonial mask from Ghana glares at me from my office wall: it’s another wooden monkey—this one clenching a snake in its teeth as it straddles the head of a bearded demon.
Bitchin,’ man. Far out.

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