About “Duplex Planet”
In 1979, a year after graduating from art school in Boston, I took a job at the Duplex Nursing Home, where I worked for a couple of years as an activities director. On the day I first met the residents I abandoned painting. That is to say, I discarded the brushes and canvas, not the underlying desire to see something in the world around me and then communicate it to others. This was a turning point for me. Though the home closed almost twenty years ago, the bonds I made with residents who lived there have informed all of my subsequent work. As with any of my friendships, with the passing of time many of them show up in my dreams (especially if they’re no longer living).
The forty-five men who lived at the Duplex Nursing Home continue to nurture and surprise me as I reflect on them from the changing vantage point of my own aging. I continue to meet new people on a regular basis, and meaningful exchanges abound. What’s been the most remarkable to me is how much those original relationships continue to yield as time goes by.
From the start, I felt that oral history was unsuitable to my needs. When newcomers hear that I have regular conversations and interviews with elderly people, they assume I collect oral history. What that assumption implies is that when one grows old we become solely a repository of our past. From the start, my mission has been to offer a range of characters who are already old, so that we can get to know them as they are in the present, without celebrating or mourning the loss of who they were before. 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. I quote and write about them in order to address the larger world. The audience meets them and comes to feel the characters are familiar, people they want to spend time with. The men and women are not extraordinary. They are typical in their unique humanness.
Humor has always played a key role in my work, and this is for a most simple reason: humor is a step by which we get to know another person. Humor is the first socially acceptable level of emotional exchange. Assessing someone else’s sense of humor is a determining factor in whether or not a friendship is built. A great deal of information is being evaluated in those early stages of relating to another.
Since my quest is to show the vast variety of people in decline, I also need to include those who have lost the ability to maintain linear thought and orderly discourse. They’re not going to return to reality, so I need to follow wherever they may go. We’re most afraid of losing the clarity of our minds. No matter what the nature of their decline, I meet people as they are in the moment.
Oral history has a valuable place in our culture, but that isn’t what I’m looking for. No matter how much I’m told about events that predate my life, I’ll never be able to go there. On the other hand I do hope to grow old. I don’t see old people as merely windows on their past. Through friendship we come to recognize someone’s particular take on the world. It is revealed though the rich language of personal poetics, accidental utterances, and exuberant expressions that are the result of the brain working faster than the mouth. We already know the obvious things that old people have in common with each other; I want to know what makes them individuals.
About David Greenberger
David Greenberger graduated from Massachusetts College of Art with a BFA, and not certain what to do next, he took a job as an activities director at the Duplex Nursing Home, in Jamaica Plain, MA. In this unexpected setting he found a new medium. He started The Duplex Planet as a self-published magazine in 1979, which continues to this day. It has subsequently found larger audiences in other forms all of which are all derived from the original template.
There have been book collections, spoken-word recordings and several series of performances. Duplex Planet: Everybody’s Asking Who I Was, was published by Faber & Faber in 1994, which brought David’s work to a wider audience through a national book tour, and radio and television appearances. Arts at St. Ann’s presented a concert series with music composed by NRBQ’s Terry Adams, recorded for New York Public Radio broadcast as The Duplex Planet Radio Hour. There have been two documentary films made about the David’s work: Your Own True Self and Lighthearted Nation. A series of personal commentaries drawn from his experiences with this body of work have been aired on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.
A series of CD’s, featuring the poems of octogenarian poet and Duplex Nursing Home resident Ernest Brookings titled, Lyrics by Ernest Noyes Brookings, continue to be issued, featuring a wide variety of notable musical acts (XTC, Brave Combo, Morphine, Ben Vaughn, Young Fresh Fellows, Robyn Hitchcock, Dave Alvin, and over a hundred others) performing songs they wrote using the words to Ernie’s poems. Duplex Planet Illustrated is a comic book adaptation drawn by a variety of artists (including Peter Bagge, Drew Friedman, Dan Clowes, Jim Woodring, Chris Ware and James Kochalka) published by Fantagraphics Books which also published Greenberger’s book No More Shaves. An exhibit of drawings and sculptures by a few of the subjects in the magazine titled “An Exact Spectacular” has traveled to museums and colleges.
David continues to create new monologues for communities around the country. His latest works are the radio projects Growing Old In East LA and Voices From the Cape. 1001 Real Apes is his latest CD of monologues with music by Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, featuring stories from the Duplex Nursing Home.