Marc Estrin


As our observational techniques become more sophisticated, we seem to be discovering more and more new planets. But Pluto was a biggie. 1930. Because of Plutonium and the bomb, I had wanted to bring in a lot of material about the god of the underworld. This was the earlier, historical part of that story. 

One amazing coincidence: Donna and I went to visit Alamogordo for research, and had a hot afternoon to kill in this one-strip town. We couldn’t get into the test site, and so were desperate for something to do out in the middle of this (significant) nowhere. Ah — let’s check out the tiny New Mexico State University at Alamogordo, just outside of town. Tiny campus, 2,000 students. The most interesting and impressive building was the “planetarium” — the Clyde W. Tombaugh planetarium! As far as I know, he had no connection to the Manhattan Project. Were they making the same sardonic connection as I was? 


“A bagel. I want a bagel. I need a bagel.”

Gregor put on his new camel’s hair coat on this frosty Ides of March, and scuttled down two flights of stairs into the morning sunshine. Eighth and C. The fabled Lower East Side, more than its image, less than its myth.

Once he was a salaried employee again, the Roach About Town had decided to settle in, gather his belongings under one roof -- his own, and concentrate on building a life. True, the Wall St. crash had clouded things somewhat, but the mood at Ives & Myrick was upbeat, reflecting, perhaps, the sunny personality of Mike Myrick, and the hibernation of the confused and depressed Charles Ives. Gregor’s $35 a week was more than ample for room and food -- provided he live frugally in a low rent neighborhood.

The Lower East Side was the obvious choice. For a being so dedicated to life, L’chayem, this was the core and center, the bubbling ur-soup of real-life life, tenement canyons and courtyards hung with laundry, bedclothes, people up and down fire escapes, bodies, always bodies leaning out windows, talking, calling, yelling. Inside, outside, the rhythm continued, the streets always alive with pushcarts and junk bells, cats yowling and beggars singing, dogs whining and babies crying, men, women, children talking, talking, always talking up a storm. Even the parrots could curse, constantly -- in yiddish. Talk, talk, talk, Jewish talk, up and down the airshafts, semitic surf and symphony, untiring, counterpoint to the rattling of dishes, the squeaking of clotheslines, the plop and splat of peelings and fish heads tossed from above. On the street corners, soapboxed, seers and rebels, prophets and cranks, shouting God’s fire and America’s woes unto the sky. In yiddish! Yiddish! A language he could understand without translation, words he could speak without accent. The Old World in the middle of the New -- at last he belonged, truly belonged. 

He belonged among the children who owned the streets and every smallest corner of alley or lot, every found piece of twisted junk, every stick of lumber, wheels off rusty prams, old dead clothing, who rejoiced in even the find of a dead, half-rotting squirrel, somehow escaped from Tompkins Square. The children! How beautiful these children. Like little animals with yarmulkas and braids, scouring the world for the few pennies they needed for a hot dog, or a cup of chocolate, halavah, knishes, pickles, or fifty kinds of candy, playing tag and tops and kites and stickball, skelly and ringeleveo. Swarming.

The children and the aged. The nobility of these gaunt, gray-bearded men, shuffling in black coats and hats to schul and synagogue, the same as in Prague. The same clothing, the same bentness, the visible, invisible weight of learning and dedication. The peddlers, old timers -- and new ones forced from their stores by the crash, managing the streets, filling them with infinite variegations of the material world. The “I cash clothes” man, the old and dignified scissors grinder with his huge, wheeled, grindstone. Gregor loved to watch the sparks fly, fire from friction, swords into ploughshares. He loved hearing the names of angels and demons from every corner, seeing the babushkas and old fur hats, the riot of banana peels on grey pavement; he loved even the smell of urine. To a blattid, urine smells of life.

The sights and sounds, the tastes and smells of the Lower East Side were a continuous, multi-sensorial madeleine, bringing our six-legged Proust back to his bipedal youth in Prague in the decade before the “sanitization” of the Jewish quarter, Josefov. Though his upwardly mobile father had moved from ghetto to square several years before Gregor’s birth, still, the square backed right on to the ghetto, and young G spent much of his non-school day exploring the crooked alleyways, the dark tunnels with their “spittoons of light” as he called them, leading to interior courtyards of houses named “The Mouse Hole”, or “The Left Glove”, or “Death”. Like the Lower East Side of the thirties, Prague’s Jewish Quarter of the previous eighties had suffered an exodus of the well-to-do. The more prosperous families had moved out of Josefov, leaving only the poorest of poor Jews, soon joined by multicultural ranks of the underprivileged: gypsies, beggars, prostitutes and alcoholics. By the time Gregor’s father, he of the apple, moved out of the ghetto, only 20% of its inhabitants were Jewish in this, the most densely populated area of Prague. The malodorous Josefov was seen as a blight upon the city, in the words of Meyrink, “ a demonic underworld, a place of anguish, a beggarly and phantasmagorical quarter whose eeriness seemed to have spread and led to paralysis.” No wonder Herr Samsa wanted out. No wonder the city fathers wanted urban renewal. In 1893 they decided that Prague might become the jewel of the Empire, a beautiful, bourgeois world city like Paris. And so the old neighborhoods came down and were replaced with block upon block of opulent art-nouveau buildings, decorative murals, doorways and sculpture. With gypsies and prostitutes, the Jews, too, were cleared out: the end of a community which had existed in Prague for a thousand years. Given the Nazi occupation forty years later, we might expect there to be no trace at all of Josefov today. But truth is stranger than fiction: the remnants of the old Jewish quarter had their savior, one Adolf Hitler, who chose to preserve what little was left of the ghetto -- the Jewish Town Hall and the Altneu Synagogue wherein sleeps the golem, the Old Jewish Cemetery, eternal home of the great Rabbi Lowe who created him, and five other synagogues with their contents -- as the basic sites for an “Exotic Museum of an Extinct Race”. Jewish artifacts stolen from all over central Europe were stored in these buildings, and now constitute one of the great collections of Judaica in the world. With friends like these...

Sorry for the diversion. I was making the point that the situation in the ghetto of Gregor’s youth was much like that in New York fifty years later, and thus his new life had a deep and secret resonance which softened the edges of what someone more objective might see as desperation. For even the early days of the depression-to-come had led to many evictions, and forced ever greater numbers of families to crowd together in unheated quarters with aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, and friends.

Late October is no time for an economic crisis, for the winter comes hard upon, winter with its dripping walls and airborne diseases. Poverty in winter. Can you imagine the collective suffering of a hundred thousand tenements, grimy, windblown junkheaps of rotting lumber and cracked brick? And in them, thousands, tens of thousands of tuberculars and paralytics, hunger, fatigue, a world of rotting livers and breaking hearts, babies screaming until breath stopped, pneumonia, influenza, typhoid. Garbage trucks and hearses prowled the streets in ghastly competition. Multitudes were without work, and strikes, suicides, food riots pushed pious women to prostitution. The streets reeked with filthy slush, and the sun vanished in greyness behind the sky. Winter, 1930.

Yet Gregor, eternal optimist (at that time), was wont to see the beneficent Janus face of adversity. Its precious jewel was that spirit of community where everyone knew everyone, complained and kvetched (a word G taught me), but were there for one another when chips were down -- as they almost always were. If Schwartz summoned Goldberg to a call on the corner pay phone, he’d earn a penny or two. With any eviction notice came a collection from housewives up and down the block. Who could afford a physician? Yet people cared for one another, and the old witch doctor, Baba Schimmel, made her rounds, an old crone with huge varicosed calves, carrying philters in her knotted apron. That scene last week of children chasing the sightseeing bus, pelting it with rocks and garbage -- and a dead cat -- “Go home,” they yelled, “Go back uptown!”-- What else could G conclude but that there was some enormous vestige of neighborhood pride, a sense of strength among the surviving.

On this sunny, cold March morning, Gregor put on his camel’s hair coat to go buy a dozen bagels. He loved bagels -- he always did. His mother used to make them, soft and warm and chewy. He would watch them rise from the dead in the boiling pot and float, triumphant, carving out a tesselate honeycomb of circles on the bubbling surface. Now that he was older, he recognized in bagels the great symbol of Buddhist Nothingness, and the joyous O of O say can you see and O what a beautiful morning. And having recently studied Sir D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form, a copy of which he had inexplicably found in a trash can outside Tammany Hall, he was now aware of his brotherhood with the bagel, toroid to toroid, a solid mass surrounding a hole. 

Perhaps even more than bagels, he loved going into Paddy’s Bagel Bakery on Sixth St., off Avenue B. The name was improbable enough, but the large brown bagel hanging out front, growing out its intensely green four-leaf clover broke the bounds of all rational construction. And the sign was just the beginning of the outlandish Paddy experience. Gregor descended a short flight of stairs to a basement level areaway piled with years of tossed-in trash, a genuine archeological dig site. There was a narrow, almost clear path toward a door which over the years had carved a radial swing space in the mass of miscellany, and as G headed for his goal he thought -- as we do today concerning four wheel drive -- how lucky he was to have six legs, in case he needed them. He pulled open the door and was hit, full body, with a caressing blast of steam which felt um-um-good on this freezing Sunday. He closed the door behind him.

Once inside, he could see, as usual, absolutely nothing. The steam was thick, almost impenetrable, and the two 15 watt bulbs hanging from the ceiling served only to make it opaque as well. Remember, bagels have to be boiled before baking, and here in this low-ceilinged basement storefront sans ventilation, it was the steam from two great vats that took front and center -- and above and below. And behind. Gregor knew that others were in the shop, but he assumed he was the only customer since all he heard was continuous nattering back and forth in a language of gibberish. It could have been a whole hoard of Niebelungen dwarves, or more likely a large cohort of leprechauns jabbering away in Gaelic. Shadows flitted and projected through the thick, atmospheric fog, but shadows of what -- no one could tell.

“A dozen plain bagels, please,” he shouted into the hubbub. He didn’t know if he had been heard. He repeated his order, and waited, antennae alert, mosaic eyes moist with cloud. A hand appeared out of the mist, holding a brown paper bag. Whose hand this was, he’d never know, but he took the bag from it and replaced it with twenty five cents. The hand withdrew into the mist without so much as a thank you. He turned to grope his way back into the street when the door swung open in front of him, and G made out the form of a newsboy, silhouetted against the light, waving a paper. Or was he simply fanning away the steam? 

“Whuxstree, whuxstree, read all about it, new planet called Pluto! Pluto the new planet!...”

Perhaps it was the shock of sudden light or the dizzying high of steam in the spiracles. More likely it was the stroke of that word: Pluto. Gregor sank down to the ground, and crawled, invisible, until he hit a wall, and pressed up against it. The newsboy, eliciting no customers, backed out, slammed the door shut, and G was left in the misty darkness. 

“Pluto. Pluto. I come from Pluto.” The voice echoed deep inside him, reverberating off the inner surfaces of his chitinous shell. “I come from Pluto.” Perhaps his earliest complex thought, trailing darkest clouds of glory. He would tell his parents, over and over, “I come from Pluto.” His mother would say, “Don’t be silly, mein Schatz,” while his father would refuse to understand. And indeed, how could his parents understand, for the planet, with its chthonian name lay still in the darkness, outside the known reaches of the solar system. But not for child Gregor with his clear memories of long periods of overwhelmingly beautiful night, the sky half filled with a huge moon, looming through swirls of greenish gas. The strange, pale glow of a vastly distant sunrise. His movement lithe, half-floating in near-weightlessness. Cold. The cold. He remembered the cold, an intimate dwelling place among barely shivering atoms. 

The whole scene came crashing back on him now, again swaddled in darkness and faint mist, but this of the warmest, wettest kind. He lay on the floor under a dark shelf above, antennae quivering with a faint, paresthetic scent of sulfur. Where was it last he sensed that smell? Sulfur, oxygen’s downstairs neighbor in Mendeleyev’s great table, aggressively sniffing out the world with its two electrons, and being sniffed, in turn. That smell...

If a doddering old History of Science professor may be allowed yet another intrusion, even into Gregor’s interplanetary swoon... 

The discovery of Pluto was one of the more remarkable stories in a science replete with same. When Herbert Hoover was sworn in as our thirty-first president on the 4th of March, 1929, he would have told you, if asked, that there were eight planets in our solar system, and being an ex-mining engineer, could have listed them, in order: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Yet at that very moment, there were two earthlings who could have assured him otherwise: Vesto Melvin Slipher, the world-renowned director of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, and Clyde W. Tombaugh, a 23 year old farmboy from Kansas.

The story begins even before there was a Kansas, back in 1781 -- March 13th to be exact -- when the British astronomer, William Herschel, became the first person in modern times to discover a planet unknown to the ancients. He called it Uranus after the personification of heaven, and like that personification of heaven, it proved to be a bit erratic, straying tens of thousands of miles off its mathematically predicted course. Some unknown force must have been distorting its path, and in 1845 (sixteen years before the state of Kansas) the French astronomer, Urbain Leverrier, worked out the likely mass and orbit of a hypothetical planet beyond Uranus. Given that roadmap, it was located in the following year -- but again seemed to pull away from a purely mathematical dance. And worse, its mass was too small to account for Uranus’s meanderings. There was still something out there, invisible, sucking on those two huge spheres. But given the reach of contemporary telescopes, nothing else could be found. And as the resolutions gradually increased, so did the number of points of light. How many 17th magnitude dots can one analyze? 

In the early part of our century, two Americans once again took up the search, an occasion for two of those extraordinary coincidences which seemed to decorate G’s life like mysterious jewels. Percival Lowell, the literary, world-travelling scion of the distinguished Lowell family of Massachusetts, had been inspired by the discovery of “canals” on Mars to devote his life and personal fortune to studying the red planet. Because of the stillness of the air above, and the rarity of cloud cover, he had built a private observatory outside Flagstaff, Arizona and equipped it, at great expense, with the most advanced equipment available. At this site, he developed a theory, published in 1906 (Mars and Its Canals -- still interesting reading), of intelligent life forms on Mars cultivating long rows of vegetation, using irrigation from annually melting ice caps. You may laugh at a theory which seems more appropriate to the The National Enquirer than to the Annals of Astronomy, but it was not until Mariner 4’s 1965 fly-by that it was conclusively disproved.

Lowell moved on from Mars to an elaborate mathematical study of the orbit of Uranus. He attributed its irregularities to the gravitational pull of some unseen planet beyond Neptune, calculated its probable position, and organized a systematic search by his observatory staff, directed, after 1916, by Vesto Melvin Slipher. Fourteen years after his death, “Lowell’s Planet” was discovered.

Coincidence number one: Percival Lowell was the brother of A. Lawrence Lowell, the president of Harvard, whose hidebound review put Sacco and Vanzetti to death.

Coincidence number two: How is one supposed to compare field photographs of half a million stars? Lowell, whose plates over the years surely contained a faint image of his planet couldn’t make out its slight traverse through the zodiac. 

Do you remember Hans Lindauer, Zeiss designer of the planetarium projector and donor of lenses for Gregor’s reading glasses? Hans Lindauer. Here he is again in our story -- the inventor of the Zeiss Blink Comparator. Vesto Melvin Slipher was wise enough to purchase the new device shortly after it appeared, and using it, Clyde Tombaugh “blinked” Planet X (as it was then called) into visible existence.

The Zeiss Blink Comparator was an ingeniously simple device. Photographic plates of identical sky fields from two different nights were put into the machine, which focused them into the same eyepiece. They were then “blinked”, quickly alternated, into the eyepiece, and any celestial object which had changed place over several days would appear to jump back and forth, thus calling attention to itself. Hans Lindauer -- a clever mind. Needless to say, there were technical difficulties to be overcome -- precisely matching up star fields, allowing for slight atmospheric differences in visibility night to night, identifying defects in photographic plates, and so forth. But a determined perfectionist like Clyde went through three quarters of the zodiac using the highest standards of patient, technical precision, and on February 18th, 1930, less than a year after he was hired to do this scut-work, the 23 year old tow-head with thick glasses and callused hands loaded the Blink Comparator with plates taken January 23rd and 29th, and out jumped Planet X from the star-dense constellation of Gemini, smack in the middle of the Milky Way, a 15th magnitude dim “star” that changed its position against a fixed background.

Clyde Tombaugh. Did he jump around like the star, and rush to announce his decision? Not Clyde. He put in two more weeks of patient work, searching for the image in intermediate and outlying positions, and only after he had proved its existence to himself, seen it’s slow, continuous inching through a 248 year course around the sun, did he go up to the director’s office to nonchalantly announce, “Dr. Slipher, I’ve found your Planet X.” 

For the next few nights, Slipher, Clyde, and other lab staff checked and rechecked, and the director was ready to put his reputation on the line by announcing the discovery to the world. But when? With an astronomer’s love of the calendar, Slipher chose March 13th, 149 years to the day from Herschel’s discovery of Uranus, and, coincidentally, Percy Lowell’s birthday, a date which the wily director knew would much please Lowell’s widow -- the observatory’s continuing benefactress.

Announced on a Friday, along with a request for name suggestions , the news provoked a flood of telegrams to Flagstaff, one from the grandfather of eleven year old Venetia Burney, of Oxford, England. Venetia was studying mythology in school and over breakfast suggested that Pluto, king of the underworld, might share his name with the new planet because it was “so distant, dark and gloomy”.

After much sifting through suggestions, this was the one that stood out, partly because of its aptness, but largely because the astrological sign for Pluto is (print special character) P/L, the initials of Mrs. Lowell’s beloved husband, and therefore provocative of more continued funding. The largest objection to be overcome was the name’s possible association with “Pluto Water”, a widely advertised laxative.

So “Pluto” it was, announced in the Sunday papers, the headline screamed out by the newsboy into the darkness of Paddy’s Bagel Bakery.

One more word about Clyde W. Tombaugh. Through a mutual friend, I came to know him quite well in his later years. He became a quiet, sweet old man, twisted by kyphosis, one of the astronomical world’s great punsters. I remember him talking about finding Pluto in his hay day: “It was like a coaxing a wheedle out of a naystack.” He never learned to use a word processor, or even a typewriter. I received one of his detailed, long-hand letters early this year, just before his death. He spoke about the irony of his life spent working in cold and darkness in a world of blazing sun. It reminded me of Gregor.

Gregor, whom we last left pressed against the wall under the shelf, under the ground, in Paddy’s wet darkness. Why had the mention of Pluto affected him so strongly? 

I had never understood his original, terse story until one day he and I were getting ready for a soak at the Jemez Hot Springs, a favorite haunt of the Los Alamos community, where many new ideas have erupted during late night discussions ringed with the stink of sulfur. I had already sunk down in the blissfully warm water: G was putting on his dry suit when suddenly he sank to the ground. I thought he had lost his balance trying to put his hind legs through the tiny holes in the garment. But no: he had actually become faint. I helped him into the pool thinking the healing waters would bring him around. He kept muttering “Smell, smell...”, by which he could only have meant the sulphurous vapor. As he wasn’t doing well, I bundled him into the truck and took him home. After a cup of camomile tea, he related a very strange story, harking back fourteen years to the experience at Paddy’s.

A cockroach’s antennae -- his organs of smell -- are very long -- a third again his total body length. Smell is an intense stimulant of the blattid sensorium. Were one to draw a distorted facial map on the sensory part of a cockroach brain, it would have a very big nose. The ghostly newsboy’s cries had brought back an overwhelming olfactory incident from several winters ago, the memory of which had thrown him into a swoon similar to the last. 

It was on day four of the five day blizzard of ‘27, and G had gone out in the blinding snow to forage for dinner. The wind-chill was intense, I imagine, though they didn’t measure wind-chill in those days. What I do know is that after wandering around for half an hour in conditions of poor visibility, G had stumbled into a large dumpster in the alley behind Blinder’s Cutrate Bakery. His legs were starting to slow, and his thoughts were taking on an expansive quality that comes with intimations of crystallinity. Lowering himself into the offal -- more to partake of its bacterial warmth than to forage -- he was overwhelmed with the smell of hydrogen sulfide from a case of rotting eggs deep in the dumpster’s south-east corner, now disturbed and venting.

Hydrogen sulfide is quite poisonous to humans, rapidly corroding and destroying lung tissue. But lungless, cockroaches react entirely in the depths of their ganglionic webs, and being so close to the edge of this life, the combination of smell and toxin sent Gregor -- he concluded -- into a swirl of past life memories and chaotic impressions, astrological, astronomical, mythological, tragi-comical, intra-specific.

Even as he told me about them later, in the warmth of his chicken coop, a comforter over his abdomen, a cup of steaming tea in his lap, he went off into a kind of tangled rambling which I will try to reproduce from the deep impression it made upon me. If I don’t get it exactly right, little matter: the connections seemed so loose as to be fluid and interchangeable. 

“Sulfur,” he intoned, “sulfur is breath of the underworld, Plutorealm, Plutospirit. I come from Pluto. I am born on Pluto -- under the light of the great moon.”

(Let me remind the reader that all this happened more than a year before the discovery or naming of Pluto. And Pluto’s huge moon, Charon, 40% Pluto’s size, was not found until 1976, thirty one years after G’s death!)

“Horror-rich wealth of the invisible,” he continued, “storehouse of things dragged from, never seen, void of day, descent. Down unto death. Entrance to Pluto smells like this. I’m coming, I promise. I change. If no death, I do not transformation. Sulfur-turtle down, hidden under shell me. Caught in dark and cold Persephone, violate from below. I can’t see. I can’t see the materials. I see other. Sulfur sounds in emptyspace. Ohhhh, is beautiful, full, full. Spilling-over fruit. Nature now no more -- is psyche, deformation, I understand, now I understand metamorphosinvisible. This mold and I have much in common. Oben, geräuschlos, die Fahrenden: Geier und Stern. I could be born in winter and never live till spring. On Pluto. Don’t resist, mein Herr, change is good-for friend. Hot springs. Yes. Enter again. Hot smell? Breath of monsters in dark regions of the setting sun. Abendland. West. Oooo-west. [I don’t know if he was referring here to his original vision or to the recent experience at Jemez.] A Universe of Death where Nature breeds, perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things, abominable, inutterable and worse. [This I recognized from Milton. I hadn’t realized G was involved with Paradise Lost.] Transformed, regenerate, reincarn-carn-carnival. Secrets bursts into being. Ruler, Pluto, of mysteries. Es sind noch Lieder zu singen jenseits der Menschen.

And here he began to half-sing , half-speak the last of Schubert’s Winterreise, the song about the inscrutable hurdy-gurdy man, impervious to life’s woes. He fell asleep, muttering, singing. I took the cup out of his hand, wrapped him more securely in his patchwork comforter, and left. To this day, I puzzle out that thought-web in the dark light of Gregor’s destiny.