(Encino, CA: Delphinium 2020)
Joe Caldwell, a playwright, novelist, and script-writer for the soap opera Dark Shadows has published his first memoir, In the Shadow of the Bridge with Delphinium (2020). Because Caldwell’s roots are in the theater, it’s no surprise that this memoir is arranged as a three-act play of sorts, divided into three parts titled simply “The Beginning”, “The Middle”, and “The End”.
The story opens in 1950s New York City, on a street that no longer exists, that lies, quite literally, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. What is promised is a story of a bygone city, but by the time the book is over, it’s about something entirely more surprising, subtle, and wrenching.
In one sense, In the Shadow of the Bridge is a straightforward, yet charming view of 1950s New York City as seen through the eyes of a Midwestern transplant. It’s also the portrait of an artist as a young man (who, like many artists, is forced to take a variety of jobs, and who rubs elbows with nobodies-who-will-one-day-become-somebodies from “Jimmy” Baldwin to John Cheever). It’s also the story of a gay man who, despite the inherent tension, remains devoted to his Catholic faith, and perhaps most poignantly it’s one man’s story of the AIDS epidemic as seen from the front lines.
Caldwell’s first apartment (with a rent of twenty-four dollars a month) sat, quite literally in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. “[I]f you stood on the toilet seat and reached out the window, you could touch some of the great gray stones.” New York is peered at through the eyes of one of its most delighted newcomers, and the portrait painted by Caldwell of 1950s New York City as a kind of mist-enshrouded Camelot renders a place almost too magical to have been real.
As an artist, Caldwell battles with unfulfilling projects, an unreliable income, and his own idea of what kind of writer he ought to be. Finally, he realizes that, “My reluctance to show aggression was what lay at the source of my writer’s block.” He found that his inability to, “deal with the less attractive aspects” of his nature were leading him to write material that led nowhere. When he finally put writing for soap operas behind him, he says, “When I’m asked, “Do you still write soap operas, I answer, ‘Not intentionally.’” His charm is undeniable, and despite his setbacks and accomplishments, he is neither sorry for himself nor proud. He’s too busy palling around with the likes of “Jimmy” Baldwin, and blundering hilariously through conversations with John Cheever.
The way that Caldwell threads the needle of being both gay and Catholic is vulnerable and searching. He understood his sexuality as something that “disqualified me from inclusion in the human family,” and even tapped into that ethos when he co-created the wildly popular vampire on the soap opera Dark Shadows. “We would make him a reluctant vampire … Forever he would mourn his expulsion from the human family.”
Even so Caldwell didn’t back away from his religious convictions. “I am close to being a congenital Catholic. …It’s almost encoded in my genes to the same degree and with the same imperatives as my homosexuality.” It is through his struggle to square these two undeniable facts of his life that he finally reaches some kind of détente within himself. “I have come to see my homosexuality as a form of grace. Because of my outcast state I was forced to think for myself.”
The narrative voice that ultimately emerges is that of a devoted, witty, delightful human being. Caldwell remains loyal to his friends, to his causes, to his religion, to his art. During the AIDS epidemic, he volunteers at St. Vincent’s Hospital (another sadly disappeared detail of Old New York) to visit with a series of difficult, surly, complicated, chain-smoking, and heart-breaking patients with AIDS. No matter their circumstances, no matter the difficulties they throw in Caldwell’s way, he stands by them during their final days, weeks, and months. Through the many small, seemingly unrelated brush strokes a portrait emerges of a man of enduring faith, a man who continues to be there when needed, and for a lifetime, which is no small distinction.
In the Shadow of the Bridge is also a love story. In Act I, “The Beginning,” Caldwell meets a young man on the Brooklyn Bridge. “We exchanged what are called pleasantries. His name was Gale.” From that night on, the pair walked the city together, spending evenings back and forth between their apartments, one by the bridge, the other in Brooklyn. Their shared interest in music (classical versus contemporary), modern dance (Balanchine versus Martha Graham), and their mutual fascination with the bridge itself made them ideal for one another. By the end of “The Beginning”, however, Gale begins to pull away, and before it becomes clear to Caldwell that the relationship is over, he has the first in a series of what can best be labeled panic attacks.
Without revealing too much, the relationship between Gale and Caldwell turns out to be anything but over, and while there are long stretches between meetings (one stretch lasted a full fifteen years), the true familial nature of their friendship, and Caldwell’s abiding love of Gale never abates. One of the great pleasures of this book is the way that the relationship between these two men blossoms into something wholly unexpected over the course of their lifetimes.
The other more startling pleasure of the book is that it is almost impossible to read its pages without falling in love with Caldwell himself. His loveliness is revealed seemingly inadvertently in such humble doses that when it finally blossoms and the reader realizes that she is in the presence of a true man of faith (not simply because of his devotion to Catholicism, but to his art and to the people he encounters), it’s too late. Once Caldwell has loved someone, it turns out, his love never wavers. Perhaps that is the shadow he refers to, the shadow cast by the people Caldwell has chosen to never abandon. His story demonstrates that there is no escape from who we are, or from those we love, and thank God for that.
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N. West Moss is the author of the short story collection The Subway Stops at Bryant Park (Leapfrog 2017), and the forthcoming memoir Fruitless (Algonquin).