Chameleon: An Interactive ExplorationPart VI -- Reminiscing Anecdotally
-- Clarence Shepard Day, Jr., once-reknowned author, poet, artist, and outspoken supporter of women's rights
"My love for you is like the ocean: vast, volatile, and potentially deadly."
"The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so."
"For you shall go out in joy/ and be led back in peace./ the mountains and hills before you/ shall burst into song./ and all the trees of the field shall/ clap their hands."
"In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside of you."
I, A Woman
Prelude (Abbreviated Synopsis of the Synopsis of Technology and Me) -- Strophe -- Growing Up Rich (To The Manner/Manor Born) -- Manhattan! -- Music and Hippiedom -- Settling Down and Yuppiedom -- Technology and Careerism -- Wilderness Basics (Beasts and Heathens Part 1) -- Art and the Internet (Beasts and Heathens Part 2) -- Epic Coitus Interruptus -- Town/Community Life -- Frivolities -- Beasts and Heathens (Finale) -- Recoveries -- Reprise -- Joie Plaisir Eibr -- NOW (New Original Word)
I can't thank you enough for sending on that excerpt from Chameleon, which I enjoyed immensely. Obviously, I especially loved the evocation of my mother, complete with our apartment at 25 E 63rd Street. I can see every detail to this day, including her perched on the edge of her easy chair, a cigarette between her fingers, talking vigorously about the latest book she read. Your early adventures in New York are charming: you really capture what life was like here back then. I recognize Gus Forrest in your account. I wonder what ever happened to him...do you know?
* * *"... Just about half-past ten/ For the first time in history/ It's gonna start raining men./ It's Raining Men! Hallelujah! - It's Raining Men! Amen!/ I'm gonna go out to run and let myself get/ Absolutely soaking wet!/ It's Raining Men! Hallelujah!/ It's Raining Men! Every Specimen!/ Tall, blonde, dark and lean/ Rough and tough and strong and mean...."
Eleanor Darnton was one of my first acquaintances in the City. She was in her early 60s at that time, living in a rent-controlled third-floor walk-up apartment on Madison Avenue between 63rd and 64th Streets. It had a long hallway lined in shelves to the right and crammed with books, a livingroom that overlooked the Avenue, an extraordinarily small kitchen, a largish bedroom and a standard-sized bathroom. She had created The Woman's Page for the New York Times and was then a free-lance writer, although seldom employed, with two sons: the older a Rhodes Scholar in Cambridge, England and the younger attending the University of Wisconsin. He is now a celebrated book author and regular columnist for the New York Times Magazine. She was a recovered alcoholic and drank coffee constantly as we played her favorite game, Scrabble, and talked about literature and history and people. Many of those she knew were famous, particularly in NYC, and she shared many interesting stories about those who had been harassed and blacklisted during the McCarthy era, sometimes known as The Red Scare. Eleanor dreamed of writing a perfect novel of the spectrum of humanity and human experience which would end, "And then...." The significance of that would be that there is no end really. Only traditional stories are neatly wrapped up with conclusions and resolutions of the question and dilemma of being human with other humans throughout life expectancies and happenings. Her one published book, And The Children Grew, chronicled her life as a single working mother raising young two sons to be well-educated and extraordinarily talented and successful individuals after her husband, a New York Times reporter, was killed covering Allied troop movements in Africa. She introduced me to good foreign films and the novelist Joyce Cary, among many others, along with an excellent employment agency which found me my first good job there. It was with a very successful mid-town advertising agency that gave all its employees two-hour lunch breaks with morning and afternoon time-outs where the Schraffts' lady came around with her cart loaded with French pastries along with coffee. They gave presents at Christmas and on our birthdays, and a two-week Christmas bonus. After I left the area, Eleanor and I corresponded by long letters in which she gave me advice from books to life. She moved somewhat later out to the suburbs of Connecticut where she died way too soon of ovarian cancer.
Eleanor had steered me toward a private employment agency that in turn steered me toward the only employer with whom I had an interview, advertisers Young & Rubicam on Madison Avenue and 39th Street in the heart of mid-town Manhattan in every way. Within easy walking distance were the famed New York City Public Library, several world-reknowned museums and elegant departments stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdoff Goodman's. Altman's was my favorite though. Personally, I just liked the atmosphere better, and they had great sales. Lots of littler shops and restaurants cozied in between the teeming streets where I learned to walk with traffic on the sidewalks, since there is no survivable alternative. For me, it was a time to wear exactly what I chose without parental comment or interference. That tended to be very high heels, contour-clinging skirts and highly-teased, piled-up hair. Long false eyelashes were also de rigeur, although I did "dress down" with friends also and frequently.
Eleanor had also directed me toward the Salvation Army-run Hotel for Working Women in Gramercy Park, and it was an easy walk also from there to work and back. In the beginning I had four roommates, all of whom became good friends with whom we partied in differing collections. Ceci had earned an associate degree in couture marketing and worked as an assistant buyer at Saks Fifth Avenue. She was possibly my closest friend to begin with. Ceci always wore black skirts and white blouses, which she said were appropriate for any occasion. She had two of each, of the best design and fit. Although we had a lot of fun, we were a little strapped now and then for spending money. Another roommate had a similar background and also worked as an assistant buyer for a high-class Fifth Avenue shop. The third was color-blind and we had wonderful times together, as she was the most amenable to an on-the-spot, off-the-cuff urban hoedown anywhere or time in that "bustling little town." Our fourth roommate in the three-room furnished suite of friendly chaos and consultancy on matters of the world and individuality great and small was Jeanne, who later became my longest-lasting friend from those days and only room-mate the following year in our own upper Eastside apartment. For our weekly fee at the outset though of $18 (later $23 briefly for an interim private room), the hotel made our beds, cleaned our rooms, and provided two generously bountiful and delicious hot meals per day, breakfast and dinner, in a pleasant buffet and dining area. No men were allowed except in the living room downstairs parlor and hall areas, but other than that we had no strictures to our behaviors, could come and go as we pleased at any hours of the day or the night, or not at all if we chose that also. The Salvation Army personnel in charge and at service were very very kind and charming, not the least bit invasive in any way, including of promoting their organization and religion, although I've always contributed to it regularly ever since in admiration and gratitude.
Usually on foot, but sometimes by bus or subway or taxi, we explored together and individually movie theatres, inexpensively excellent ethnic restaurants, small lounges and bars in a city where the legal age for alcohol consumption was 18, another new freedom we reveled in with various colors and concoctions and excitingly alluring atmospheres from elegant to funky. We were warned variously of neighborhoods and streets to stay clear of in daytime and in dark and heeded those advices, except accidentally in the converse. Gramercy Park, in particular, with its locked and gated park for the attendance only of those like us with keys, is an old area that was secure and comforting in architecture also and history. Greenwich Village is relatively close by, hosts many festivals, and its lively and colorful streets, cafes, park and people enticed at least a few of us, especially on weekends. As a wanna be writer I was determined to soak up as much book-knowledge, experiential awareness and learning in places and people and events and happenings that going without much sleep in the city that doesn't, the greatest of them all, would allow as fodder for my eventual Great American Novel, acclaimed and rewarded during my lifetime or not. It was the achievement itself, materialized and immortal, that would matter after all.
An advantage of growing up and working in a megatropolis formed over the centuries by influxes, waves of immigrants -- as all but Native Americans are on this continent -- from all over the world, of all ethnicities, religions, subsects, cultures, languages, dialects and customs is the understanding and tolerance attendant on everyday matters of life and interaction. We share streets, sidewalks, public transportation and buildings, parks, museums and entertainments, escalators and elevators, vie for a taxicab or a better seat at the restaurant or theatre or sporting arena. In the cacaphony of conflictual personal interests and goals, we deal by necessity with the human being within each of its extraordinarily varied conformations and presentations. Whereas much of the south is somewhat neatly divided into simply black and white, with generally submerged variations within each, our great hubs -- most of them oceanside for obvious reasons, but including also Chicago and some others inland -- contain a withering diversity of backgrounds, accents, mores that must be accommodated just to get from the front door to the office or lounge, so it becomes the sea we live in with all its complexity and panoply and promise. Not too many stereotypes survive the necessary interaction of being thrown unexpectedly by a lurching trolley into the lap of a differently-colored and perhaps English language-deficient stranger peaceably reading his or her newspaper in the nearest seat, by which we've been standing and hanging precariously from an overhead strap or rail with feet barely touching the aisle. The differences become, not a frightening unknown to avoid and flee but, a buffet of possibilities from gastronomic to artistic to historic to enjoy, explore and learn from in understanding better our deepest nature and possibilities as a society and a species.
___ Throughout my still short life, I had had some close relationships with African-Americans of various ages and backgrounds and was totally in sympathy with the burgeoning civil rights movement, as well as being in opposition to our escalating involvement in Southeast Asia. As a result, I found myself one evening with a friend in a smoke-filled apartment on the near West Side with many other casually dressed, mostly young people attracted to the aims of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. The infusion of new ideas and faces, personalities and lifestyles left me in kind of a daze from the contrast with accepted everyday norms of what another friend called "the gray people." For the rest of my city stay, I drifted in and out of that milieu and outlook into the stratification of work and family.
An older friend was a man, the son of a painting buddy of my grandmother's, who had squired my mother around the highspots of Boston frequently. He was a homosexual at a time when people rarely admitted to that and moved to Central Park West where he lived with the son of a wealthy and well-known New York family. Their apartment was a few floors up with floor-to-ceiling shelves and books, and beautiful old rugs and furniture. The topics of their talk were colorful and diversely interesting. His companion owned a white convertible Rolls Royce in which we traveled occasionally around mid-town, waving at people on the streets and enjoying the sights and good weather. Everywhere else, I generally took buses and the subways which cost 15 cents one way, or taxis which weren't very expensive then and readily available.
When President John F. Kennedy Jr. was shot, we were all at work and our employers closed and sent us home, into the crowded, disbelieving and fazed streets with all their flags at half-mast, mumblings and whispers of what had happened and what was known echoing against stone. At the Hotel for Working Women, we all gathered around a television set in the large second-floor lounge and watched silently replays and explanations in the daze of what we'd never entertained as a possibility of happening. Our President -- young and beloved, handsome and well-wed, father of two charming and sometimes funny small children -- lay dead, his head blown off basically. In our country. We didn't know much about the history of assassinations in this nation, although all knew of course about Lincoln's famed demise at Ford Theatre so shortly after the close of our Civil War. But that, to us, was ancient history, something perhaps that less enlightened ages knew and experienced. Not us. Not now. Not him. It took us years to get over the shock and loss of it, if we ever did really, especially with all the questions and inquiries and speculations and hearings and even movies, as well as books and articles and interviews, that followed post-mortem. That the shooter was shot seemed somewhat insubstantial and immaterial as our world flip-flopped, reversed, sputtered and stopped, lurched and reeled through all the years to follow.
Having carefully chosen after assiduous browsing gifts I hoped might be appealing for friends and family, I boarded a then-commodious and pleasurably-attended airplane from cacaphonous LaGuardia for the annual visit to Fort Lauderdale -- still a small, somewhat disorganized and rural airport then -- and another ten-day stay in the sun and ocean salt, sea breeze and poolside amenities, Intracoastal elegances and sandland eccentricities with my grandparents, who provided me with roundtrip tickets as long as they lived for that occasion and paid all my expenses while there also. So, it was a real vacation also paid for in part by my unusually beneficent employer. My major goal was to return with a golden tan that would last me until the warmth of springtime renewal "up East." "Nana" and "Grandpa" were inordinately attentive to mealtimes, as all retirees there seemed to be, and ours generally entailed "Early Bird Specials" at favored nearby restaurants in the evenings. Around lunchtime, my grandmother and I went shopping here and there and then stopped most often at her favorite cafe, a beautifully elegant waterside building with a white and glassed facade and interior, antique French furnishings throughout, and a gift store offering shining jewels for limbs and tables, which it also sold, and she bought me a set of three tiered gold inlaid ones on one visit there along with a set of six slender white china and sterling silver demitasse cups in their own tray, which I still have. But not the tables.
For awhile I dated, in the purest sense of the word, the son of a wealthy NYC family who escorted me everywhere in his family's black limousine with its distanced and discrete driver. Mostly we went to two key clubs: Playboy and Gaslight. The former was fairly new and funny actually -- the "bunnies" with tassles bouncing on their derrieres and low-cut and push-up-and-together black swimsuit-type wardrobes. And their ears hovering and waving overhead also, especially as they bent over to take orders from customers. It was a pretty decent atmosphere actually, with expensive drinks and fare of course at small round high tables crowded together in a noisesome and frolicky environment of mirrors and bottles of alcohols lined up behind the bar well-lit and crowded. The Gaslight, on the other hand and also on the upper East Side, was tres elegant, very elite and only known it seemed by word-of-mouth. Its walls were covered with originals and prints, gold-framed and huge, of odalisques -- reclining nudes as have been traditional for artists over many many centuries, millenia really. Opposite of raucous and rowdy, the service was very low-key, subtle, impeccable, genteel. The front door was beautiful wood, unmarked. Where there were lines to get into the Playboy Club, the Gaslight opened to its selectively elite and discrete clientele quietly with no farfare at all on the sidewalk or the street. No marquee blinked and beckoned colorfully from its public demeanor. It was as discrete and discerningly delimiting as the delegate's lounge and dining room of the United Nations a little further uptown.
Another date somewhat later was an ex-Marine who had been stationed in Turkey and made extra money by selling merchandise from the canteen on their black market. When I knew him, he supported himself by hustling pool with strangers in halls on the Lower East Side. After awhile, he finally talked me into playing a game with him, and I made the mistake of winning. The expression on his face became very stern as he walked over to me, grabbed my right arm, and slowly twisted it behind my back until it was on the verge of breaking. In those days, women were not supposed to beat men at sports, or anything else, even if they could, and I had broken a very important rule. It may be also that I "snookered" him, and he knew it.
My roommate in a one-bedroom third-floor walkup on the Upper East Side near Gracie Mansion moved from Ocala, Florida, to the City to become a professional dancer, as she had been trained to be. That was her dream, and Jeanne tried out for the Rockettes, among other companies and some Broadway and off-Broadway shows, but was not accepted to any of them. She supported herself by making up a kind of shorthand and securing a good job as a secretary on Wall Street. From a childhood bicycle accident, she had petit mal epilepsy, for which she took medicine daily, and would suddenly stare off now and then in the midst of doing or saying something, then snap back to reality again. Together, we explored museums and restaurants, particularly the ones in nearby Yorkville (German town), on the weekends, walking to most of them. We shared a tiger cat named Onion, along with household chores and expenses. The apartment building itself was really groovy by most standards -- unique, and in a great location only a block from the East River, with beautiful old, European-style architecture around a large central stone-inlaid plaza entered from an arched gateway to the side (73rd) street between First and Second Avenues. From that central expanse, outdoor spiral, stone, covered stairs at the four "corners" of that circular building led to doors of the apartments up to the fifth and top story. The Metropolitan Museum, a favored venue, was within fairly easy walking encounter on a good weather day. Our apartment windows looked out onto 73rd Street from the bedroom. There may also have been a small one at the end of our somewhat narrow and little-ish kitchen. It seems now that the rent was $45 a month, which seemed like a lot to us since -- having moved from the Hotel for Working Women -- we also had to buy our food and maintenance supplies and make our own beds again, do our home-cleaning and cooking, and pay for our utilities. In the immediate area, there were small restaurants, grocers and shops in an older neighborhood that was not "posh," although it was on the edge of "posh." "Posh" was within walking distance of it also. Saturdays and Sunday afternoons were devoted to our educational and cultural enlightenment and furtherance, in addition to homing obligations. Sundays we usually attended church services separately and together at an eclectic assortment of Christian pathways from Episcopal to Methodist to Catholic before settling in again.
Jeanne was a good cook, and I would beg her to fry her thin, crispy cornbread pancakes, for which she had no recipe. When I asked, she showed me instead with her hands how much of each ingredient should go into them. Once we flew to Ocala to visit her divorced mother and the Kennedy Space Center. Later, she married and moved to Chicago, having converted from Southern Baptist to her husband's Catholic religion following attending church classes and promising to bring up their children in that faith. We sat and knelt with handkerchief-covered heads during masses at St. Patrick's Cathedral a few times, paying for and lighting candles with our prayers to Mary and the saints. Still later, we visited together again at the rambling apartment on Staten Island with windows overlooking the water that she and her wealthy husband had rented.
Another roommate off and on was a merchant marine named Gus, also a Massachusetts native and 13 years my senior who had a degree in Political Science from William and Mary College in Williamsburg, VA. He was frequently out to sea or port in Southeast Asia and during those times we wrote long, rambling, descriptive and theoretical/philosophical letters back and forth. When he was stateside, we stayed mainly in a wonderful, if slightly deteriorating, old hotel on 34th Street and Madison Avenue with a huge lobby that included a grand piano which residents were allowed to play and ate all of our meals out, mostly at interesting ethnic restaurants. Our favorite room there, after some samplings, was a large corner one with high old windows looking out on Madison where the livingroom-style upholstered chairs and their side table rested and on 34th where a smallish dining/game table with chairs afforded a cozy view also. All had high ceilings including the cavernously rambling main floor of public rooms opening onto other randomly furnished rooms with old-fashioned shelves and crannies and nooks of mysterious purpose. He was addicted to Cribbage, which we played every evening, and to reading, mostly books of history and political theory. Once, after we separated permanently because I declined to marry him and share an apartment in Greenwich Village, I got lost on the Manhattan subways and ended up in a very, very rough and scary part of town. I called him to come and get me, describing as best I could where I was, which he did, with warnings and proscriptions for me to be more careful in the future about where I was going.
Nearly twice my age, Gus was a supervisor of some kind on freight ships. He never talked at all about his work except to say that some of it was classified. The war in Vietnam was just building up then with "advisors" and military supplies, and the Merchant Marine Corp men and materiel, as legally the civilian arm of the Navy, are pressed into service on orders at the discretion of the Defense Department and Pentagon. There's a stereotype of merchant marines as someone large, burly, rough and rowdy, and maybe thick-headed, but Gus was slim, around 5'7", wiry and muscle-y, perceptive and sensible, serious and sensitive, well-mannered, soft-spoken and widely knowledgeable -- most particularly in history, politics, literature, culture, philosophy and humanity, about all of which he loved encounter, conversation, articles, essays and books. Although I expect he could "hold his own" physically if necessary, people from all walks of life and background generally liked him so he didn't have to demonstrate that ever in my presence or recounting from him either. Once we went by train and boat for vacation to a small old hotel on Block Island, an early European settlement and famed in northeastern forecasts as "The weather today from Maine to Block Island...." It was an enchanting place with gravestones in its cemetery dating back to the 1700s including -- what struck me most -- many, many infants and children with their diminutive, etched stones standing askew in family groupings.
By mutual agreement, during the two-week to two-month more or less times when Gus was at sea, and later after we separated romantically, I explored the wonderful worlds of men on display on the streets and in the inviting architectures of Our Large Fruit. At one time this involved a foray into living within the squirrely sidestreets of the East Village somewhat briefly with a young Yugoslav who'd defected from his country and their Army as a political refugee and was acclimating to America and Manhattan. We both worked days, he cooked fairly well, and we attended a few poetry readings as his English was pretty passable, fluent. He had friends who stopped in to chat and share problems of orientation and successful life and employment as well as politics, which centered on the actualities of Communism as practiced, as well as in theory most particularly. A fair number of individuals I encountered recreatively there and elsewhere during that time espoused either that in a form as yet not provided palatably or Socialism, a socialist state. Discussions, mental excursions and imaged possibilities, could go on for hours within residences and cafes, or even impromptu encounters in a park or on the streets. Poets, as ever, sang the praises of a new consciousness and world, a dirge for the old and now, a hymn for what might soon be. Songsters, musicians, also as ever, kept the tune and the beat.
This young man's street-level apartment stretched deeply back toward the alleyway behind. Narrow and high-ceilinged, it was really just one room with a bath off to the back right and an open kitchen area along the right front. There were no formal furnishings that I recall now, just covered mattresses with large pillows pushed against the walls for seating and sleeping and some posters tacked up of heroes and street happenings. I believe he was somewhat enamored of "The American Dream," its "Streets Paved of Gold," and had hoped for something better fairly immediately after arriving on our shores before realizing some of the hard truths of the matter, to his discomfort and some lingering sorrow. He missed his country as it had been at one time and wasn't quite settled into this one. On occasion, we dined at closeby ethnic restaurants although his budget didn't allow for that very often. Although his given name escapes me, I can see him in my mind's eye -- kind of dark-haired and skinned, swarthy but not at all fat, and fit, a little short maybe. He was totally a nice guy but not really happy, having nothing at all to do with me or his friends there, but just exigencies and events in his life that he hadn't really the control over he'd have liked, including being drafted into an army of a regime he detested, an experience shared off and on by young people particularly throughout the world and throughout history.
Living in NY was like living in an earthquake-prone zone. You just learned to take it in stride that you might suddenly and inexplicably die, so you might as well be having as good a time as possible this very minute. Just as today, you might be unpleasantly accosted or assaulted, especially in an unfamiliar area but really anywhere at all. There were survival techniques that included walking on the outer edges of sidewalks so as not to be easily grabbable and pulled into an alleyway or through a hostile door. (Car-napping hadn't asserted itself yet as an alternative way of snatching somebody off a street.) Stay at night in well-lit areas. I believe another was not to look around but keep one's eyes to one's self and on the ground; however I never did that because... why be there if you can't enjoy the diverse display of humanity and architecture most particularly and how it all interacts, or doesn't. And there were certain areas that weren't considered safe to be, especially for a lone woman. They included Harlem, Hell's Kitchen, The Bowery, most of the West Side except parts of mid-town such as the theatre district and alongside Central Park West.
The Battery area was also included in that but my best friend amongst roommates at Gramercy Park and I enjoyed several days there one week we took off from our usual employments and courtesy of a financial gift from my grandmother, at least on my part. We entertained ourselves by acquainting with historic buildings and restaurants and bars, stayed up all night there one evening or at least until 4 a.m. when all the lounges were required to stop serving alcohol for at least two hours. The truly committed a little before that time absconded from the City for New Jersey shoreside, which stayed open and flowing and mixing possibly 24 hours. I don't recall that it ever closed. Taxis, with affordable rates set by governance for all, at night were the only conveyance of caution and readily available in safer sections of that or any borough.
On another occasion, I ended up unknowingly in Hell's Kitchen having decided spontaneously to meet Gus returning again from the Far East, predictably between Hong Kong and Thailand, at the docks of 12th Avenue and 55th Street. From Gramercy Park I took the MTA to Penn Station, a very busy and somewhat run-down old building full of characters of all descriptions, at Seventh Avenue and walked from there to the bustling and colorful confusion of freighters and cruise liners, tugboats and other smaller vessels, dock workers, folks leaving by ship and those seeing them off, and the reverse. On a map, this looks like a good idea. In reality, it was somewhat scary. It's important though to convey a sense of self-assurance and direction when confronted unawares with a dicey situation, if only so one can tell the story in good humor some time later.
Despite my best efforts to appear older and mature, I've always looked younger than my actual years -- sometimes a boon and others a curse. In Manhattan, I'd be safe to bet the usual reaction was probably along the lines of, "Possible Jail Bait! Beware!" Included in my repertoire for grown-up presentation were very very high heels, clinging dresses and skirts, and highly teased bouffant hair piled atop my head adorned with long curling false eyelashes and studiously applied and colorful couture makeups. A day without eye shadow and heavy black liner just wasn't worth living unless it was entirely indoors. Or in The Village. There's a balance to be sought and attained between worthwhile risk and unsurvivable danger and somehow I managed to find it, although not without occasional bruising, actual and metaphoric.
Moving finally to Fort Lauderdale FL, partly to care for my grandfather who was dying of pancreatic cancer and partly just for clean pure air, a respite from the City's swarming summer heat, I met and married my first husband, Ronnie Marion, a lifeguard at their condominium pool. He became a salesman and we lived there and in many towns in Georgia and North Carolina, as well as Newton MA, before he returned to East Tennessee State University, Johnson City TN, on a golf scholarship to complete his degree in Coaching. After a year or so, I also enrolled in classes there part-time while continuing to work days in their Admissions Office. Subsequently we divorced, with him returning to Florida after graduating and my attending university courses full-time.
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-- Lydia M. Child (1802-1880), abolishionist, activitist, novelist, journalist, and poet who wrote extensively on justice issues for Native Americans, African Americans, and women
"Our life is frittered away by detail.... Simplify, simplify."
Meditations/prayers from Silent Unity's 2008 On Sacred Ground calendar:
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