Writers and the City: Susan Daitch & Washington D.C.

from Paper Conspiracies

The job posting was the stamp on my ticket: Library of Congress Film Restoration Project, Paid Internship.

I was charmed by the idea of working in film, but intensely camera shy and happy to work as a kind of handmaiden to “the industry.” All right, I thought, at least I have a hand or an eye in something. Here, 1 wouldn’t be a target, wouldn’t be stared at, few questions asked, go on “with your business, please. The process of learning how to put a brush to aged celluloid gave me a sense of professional identity, saved me from the night shift at a movie-rental shop with a large independent section, answering urgent questions about matrixchopsockeystarwarsdirectorscut. Now I had a hood I could pull over my head, a burrow, a bunker, a fallout shelter with a periscope.

I left for Washington at the end of the summer so my departure could be confused with going off to school, and it was still hot, but in a last gasp kind of way. Department store windows displayed artificial leaves while children on our street still ran through hoses and hydrants in brilliant fuchsia and purple bathing suits. My mother said good-bye at the house; seeing me wave from the window of a train was not possible for her. I kept looking out the car window all the way to the station, armoring myself against her resentment and despair, her sense of betrayal that chased me no matter how much my father, imitating Peter Lorre, said full steam ahead, Frances. Since we were early my father and I stopped at a Dunkin’ Donuts near the station.

“What do you think about Cuba?” he asked, stirring and staring into the parking lot.

“What do you mean, what do I think about Cuba?” My father, who was a very calm man, was making me nervous.

“They’re looking for science teachers.”

“You can’t go to Cuba. You’re a United States citizen. If you moved to Havana you’d never be able to come back.”

“I’ve left a lot of places that I can’t and don’t want to return to.”

“You’ve lived in Israel. You won’t be let in.”

“That was a long time ago. Maybe they won’t notice.”

“What about Mom?” The point I feared was that she occupied one of the places he didn’t want to return to.

“I need to get away from here. Between the creationists who guarantee me a life in everlasting hell, who think petri dishes are something you hang from a Christmas tree, and your mother, who mistakes family photographs for expired discount coupons and tosses them out, I think for me, personally, it’s time for a change.”

There was no arguing with him. I didn’t know if he would apply for Cuban citizenship or not, but I knew now that I was leaving, he would as well.

“I want to give you something before your mother makes a clean sweep of everything in the house.” He handed me a faded sepia photograph of a small girl, about four years old. I turned it over. On the back was written F. Baum, 1940. This was my father’s sister.

“So keep this in a safe place.”

Our conversation dwindled in the minutes remaining. Finally he dropped me at the station then went back to his machines. I didn’t want to get on the train, didn’t want to see him return to his mammoth computers, coverless radios, old turntables spinning wildly on the cluttered floor. By giving me this photograph I’d never seen, he was tearing some part of me away, as if to say, you’ll never be able to come back here, and you’ll never be able to leave. The train pulled out of the station, and the red brick apartment buildings, the flyblown variety stores already giving way to Kmarts and then Walmarts moved out to the horizon as if they were on conveyor belts, parts of changing sets.

In Washington in a cheap, hastily rented studio apartment I put my tiny aunt’s picture in a frame made in China and set out to learn the art of conserving film.

This kind of resuscitation required a steady hand and a life in dark rooms. When beads from a sweater bought in a thrift shop, for example, fell onto an editing table, jamming a reel, it was, for the actors, akin to an avalanche of glass. Every thread, hair, drop of coffee had to be kept out of the danger zone. In my position as assistant to a film archivist at the Library of Congress I wasn’t paid much, but I soon became a skilled surgeon of lost performances, an ambulance driver for long-dead actors.

What about my own ghosts? They lived and died in a town I never saw; they drank coffee in bare provincial cafes, had lives circumscribed by rituals and holidays whose meanings organized each year like shifting but predictable constellations. Yet when I watched movies and cartoons made before 1939 I couldn’t help but pretend to inhabit those faces known only through photographs, wondering if they had watched these too, and in that projection back, the ghostly clusters took on a mixture of strange and familiar features. Also, and this makes their summoning even more troublesome, they appeared horrifyingly modern, not part of someone’s acute but aged set of memories. The murdered live next door, or almost. You can’t say: look at their clothes, they belong in another time, because with their fairly well-cut suits and dresses in geometric prints they look as if they could live in the same cities I have lived in, travel in what are essentially the same kinds of cars, respond to the same news of elections and atrocities, although this is impossible. What I mean is they have become personalities I’m capable of trying on although I never met a single one of them. They died before I was born. If this sounds arrogant it’s only because they’ve been at my door persistently, despite my family’s need to look the other way.

The new city engulfed me, and I plunged into my job with intensity. Taking on the role of the animating but anonymous power that revitalized Buster Keaton as his eyes grew sadder and (I thought) more disillusioned, or pumping up a flimsy, shorthaired Myrna Loy revealed an odd kind of romance I sometimes had with these images. Or maybe it was a case of antiromance, the romance of solitary, imaginary pleasures. I used to notice old men and sullen boys in movie houses and “wonder how far removed I really was from them. What kinds of illusions did I labor under? It’s a job, I kept telling myself, one I felt fortunate to have. . . .

One of the most sensational incidents in the history of France, the Dreyfus Affair was a landmark case involving treason and antisemitism. Paper Conspiracies is a novel about tangential players far from the trial’s main stage: petty forgers, cross-dressers and lovers, actors in an early silent film by Georges Méliès that documents the trial, and a film restorer who’s trying to save that crumbling movie nearly a hundred years later — all of them caught in a web of intrigue, menace and betrayal that reaches through space and time. 

 Susan Daitch is the author of two novels, L.C. (Lannan Foundation Selection and NEA Heritage Award) and The Colorist, and a collection of short stories, Storytown. Her work has appeared in numerous publications and literary venues, and has been the subject of various critical studies. She has taught at Barnard College, Colombia University, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She currently lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Hunter College. 

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