Look at me, I’m a king! I have a red shirt, I live in Milwaukee!” come the words of octogenarian Tom Suminski over a playful background of organ, saxophones, percussion, and electric guitar. “I drink beer in Milwaukee, too. In heaven there is no beer—the angels, drinking all the beer. We can always drink beer. And men. Men like the Three Stooges. They’re crazy.”
Disoriented? Understandable. But, hey, no reason to worry. Sometimes it’s okay to be confused, if you’re in a safe a place. And right now you are. It’s called the Duplex Planet. So let those utterances hang in the air and just enjoy them for what they are. The lines are Suminski’s, but the voice delivering them belongs to David Greenberger, who has been chronicling his conversations with the elderly for 31 years in his zine The Duplex Planet, which over the decades has bloomed into a likewise-named multimedia cottage industry that encompasses regular appearances on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” a documentary film, books and graphic novels, lectures, live theatrical performances, and nine CDs thus far of his bite-sized, music-backed monologues. To gather his material, Greenberger travels around the country, visiting homes for the elderly and day centers and asking the residents thought-provoking questions like “Did the future turn out the way you thought it would?” (Sample answer: “No, I thought I’d be younger for a longer time.”) Or, “What can you tell me about snakes?” (Answer: “I don’t care for ’em at all! I’m glad I live on the fifth floor!”)
The above-quoted “A King in Milwaukee, Part 1” is one of the 38 short tracks that make up Greenberger’s newest album, Cherry Picking Apple Blossom Time (2009, Pel Pel Recordings), a collaboration with Milwaukee guitarist Paul Cebar. Image-rich, heart-tugging, and frequently funny—though never at the expense of his subjects—Greenberger’s charming vignettes appear and then dissolve like scrapbook snapshots, giving us fleeting glimpses of the lives of the sources while simultaneously revealing the emotionally redeeming nuggets hidden within the always difficult end-of-life phase. But the Duplex Planet is not built on nostalgia, he insists.
“A lot of people describe what I do as oral history, like Studs Terkel or something. But that’s not what it is,” Greenberger explains. “When I talk to these people who are nearing the ends of their lives—and dealing with
Alzheimer’s, memory loss, all that—I’m trying to get to know them for who they are now. Not who they were way back when, or what life was like for them then. If they decide to start talking about that stuff, that’s fine, but I’m more interested in the thoughts and observations they have and the things they say in the moment. Since the elderly are already thought of by what they have in common—that they’re all old—I try to recast them as individuals. My ‘art,’ I guess you could call it that, is in what questions I ask, what things the people say that jump out for me, and in how I arrange, edit, and present those things to the reader or listener. So it’s not really about the past. When I was growing up and some relative would show me some old photograph of an ancestor of mine, my eyes would just glaze over and I’d think, ‘This is just some guy in a hat that I never met. What does he have to do with me now?’ So I’ve never been that drawn to genealogy or whatever.”
Greenberger did his growing up and family-photo gazing in the rust-belt town of Erie, Pennsylvania, where he also discovered Captain Beefheart records and played bass in garage bands with names like Happy Scab and Scotland Yard Fantasy. After studying painting at Boston’s Massachusetts College of Art, he joined the cult band Men & Volts and took what would become a pivotal job: as activities director at the all-male Duplex Nursing Home, in the city’s low-income Jamaica Plain section. “Right away, I felt at home for some reason,” he recalls. “These were mostly guys that would be called losers by a lot of outside people—recovering alcoholics, guys with no family to speak of. But in talking to them there was an honesty of exchange there, even if a lot of what they were saying didn’t make a lot of sense because their minds were starting to decline. But I began to notice that there was a real poetry to it, and the urge to start writing it all down was incredible.”