ELECTRIC DAISY

I have an old plug-in electric wall clock.

It’s almost as old as I am, the two of us having settled comfortably into our vintage years.

It’s from a happier time for wall clocks;
a time when no time was told without a wall clock.

Every kitchen everywhere had one and our kitchen, like every other kitchen, was Mission Control. The clock was a prime mover; a second mother, both watcher and watched. Each second, the pointing hand tripped its advance; every jolting tick, another stroke of the scythe counting down the seconds to the day’s launch . . . 10 – 9 – 8 . . . . . . 3 – 2 – 1 . .

“Go to School”

There is a fractional pause when checking time; a pause between recognition and comprehension, between where the hands are and what they represent.

The face must be read, as with any encounter, be it lover or stranger.

And though it may be an easy read, honed through great familiarity,
still it wants the moment.

It is, in its way, a mild flirtation; the clock’s face coyly withholding.

There’s a certain intimacy to it all isn’t there.

Face to face, mutually attentive to the here and the now.
We grasp time as the clock gathers purpose.

This clock, my clock, looks like a bright plastic daisy; white petals surrounding a sunny yellow bloom, an electric cord acting as an impossibly long, impossibly fragile stem.

It does a pretty good job of telling time though I barely use it for that purpose anymore. And yet I still throw it the occasional look; there is an enduring attraction.

At one point I thought my clock had run its course; an uncomfortable hum having developed somewhere deep in its acrylic blossom, as if to complain of its labors; perpetually crossing the finish line of an uncontested race.

But a drop of oil quieted its complaint; a drop of oil and a little light surgery.

A toothpick to clear some dust and gunk from the gears and it’s as good as it’s going to get.

The fact is . . .
It was never perfect.
It was always a little slow; losing time as it accumulated the hours.

For a while, an imperfect mental note made up for the imperfect timekeeping.
But finally, as we approach separate time zones, I feel the need to act.
I can no longer tolerate the distance between us.

Behind its back, I gently roll the stem between my fingers, setting things right
for the time being.

For the time being, we are once again in unison; 1:1

I could pull the plug; put it to sleep; relieve it of its labors and its painful redundancy. But that seems unnecessarily cruel; to rob it of its raison d’etre.

It also seems manifestly unnecessary.
Time alone will accomplish the deed.

I suspect its wearing out has more to do with the accumulated corrections than with the actual keeping of time but either way this clock has never been a stickler for accuracy.

A Flower Power relic of the free spirited ’60s
perhaps this clock does not overvalue conformity.
Maybe it likes being a clock but doesn’t love it.
Or maybe, like time itself, it is simply indifferent.

There is something in its cheerful looks and laissez-faire attitude toward timekeeping that I find appealing.

Which may explain why I keep this plug-in electric daisy;
not because its function binds me to the present,
but because its charm ties me to the past.

Its delightful face, so familiar and so dear to me.
For us, keeping time has lost purpose.

It has been a slow reversal of form and function spanning decades;
seconds became hours,
years become days.

Someday,
when all the ticking stops,
what will remain?

This face,
perhaps in the background of a photograph
of a cat
or a dog
or a parent

No longer chasing time
but at long last
captured.

The City of Brotherly Love

Okay so I’m in Center City Philadelphia walking south on S.18th street. I’ve only just moved here after 35 years in NYC. It is very hot, very humid and very bright under the August sun.

I’d gone to lunch, arm in arm, with my 87 year old, 92 pound, intensely forgetful mother. We always travel arm in arm; partly for her stability but also because it’s kind of our thing.

My father’s very long glide path to his finale had prioritized his care and, at least from my own perspective, we are making up for time lost to our own relationship and her developing needs.

After lunch I’d taken her to the tailor to have a fitting for pants that she’s having made and then returned her safely to her apartment for her afternoon rest. 

Now I’m heading back to The Studio, formerly my father’s photography business and now my new residence.

Ordinarily I would turn east on Spruce Street because that is the shortest distance to The Studio but there is less shade and more mental illness on Spruce. I don’t know that there’s a connection there but I don’t know that there isn’t either.

I decide to go the extra block south to Pine Street; it’s quieter, it’s prettier, there is far less commercial activity and the older trees provide better shade.

I make the turn onto Pine and as I’m walking along at the casual pace suggested by the heat, a tall lean 20 something black guy on roller blades passes me on the sidewalk going in the opposite direction and moving at a pretty good clip. He’s smiling and sweating and deep into whatever groove he’s cultivating. He appears to be delivering a small pizza. 

The sidewalk is rough, unevenly laid brick, typical of residential streets in this colonial era city, but he is graceful and navigates it beautifully. His hair is multicolored but predominantly a bright acid yellow. He is topless with mid-length NBA basketball shorts, probably the Sixers but I’m sidestepping him so I miss that detail.

The sidewalk is narrow and his left skate is in danger of hitting the brick edge on a slightly raised tree pit. I cringe in anticipation of a fall but it effects him not at all. The wheel kisses the brick lightly as it rolls up and over and then he is gone.

I continue down Pine doing what a lot of other Philadelphians seem to be doing these days; scanning tree, ground and stoop looking for Spotted lanternflies, a recently arrived invasive and destructive species. Killing them is an activity that all Philadelphians appear to be united around.

Crushing a Spotted lanternfly is rarely successful on the first attempt. They are very fast but their flight path is equally short and they seem to tire easily. A few tries usually accomplishes the deed. The pursuit itself involves stamping and chasing and more stamping and no small amount of laughing and in that way the whole thing shares a lot in common with The Hokey Pokey. And in truth, it also represents one of life’s rare occasions in which to take unbound pleasure in slaughtering one of god’s creatures. Little wonder it’s such a popular diversion.

I walk and look, my predatory search for invasive species giving way to my A.D.D. and thence to the incremental details of life’s great pageant; taking note of a newly dead infant squirrel and the collection of masculine souvenirs littering an interesting barbershop window along with…….

What is this ?!?

It cannot be !!!

Under an old Sycamore, obscured by the deep shade and splayed out like a dead bird against the dark red fractured brick sidewalk is a bulging ziplock sandwich bag.

I lean over to look more closely and see that it is a bag of buds. I don’t need to smell it to know that it is strong but I do anyway.

It is very strong.

I look around. There is little foot traffic but there is some. I consider the options; leave it in hopes that it’s owner comes looking before someone else grabs it; take it into protective custody; possibly pass it along to a friend and I’m not sure what else but surely something.

In my mind I do the numbers and I’m now rewriting my understanding of the skater and I’m 75% sure he’s delivering more than pizza. Maybe 80%.

I don’t smoke so this bag has no value to me but it does have value to somebody. Somebody is going to miss it. The dramatic possibilities compound around worst case scenarios. Finally I decide to pocket the bag because there is drama surrounding it and I want to see what happens.

I look back up Pine Street in the direction the skater was heading. I wait for a few minutes to see if he returns but he does not. Either my instincts are wrong or he hasn’t figured it out yet. I’m holding out for door #2. I continue on my way home, turning occasionally to check and scoring a single kill of a Spotted lanternfly.

I come to Broad Street. It is a wide boulevard and a natural dividing line. If nothing happens now it feels like the story will end right here.

The light is against me so I turn around one last time and there he is, a long block behind. He’s skating more slowly and my estimation of the situation goes up to 100%.

He’s about a half block away when I point directly at him. As soon as he makes eye contact with me I wave him over. He’s still about 30’ away when I smile broadly and say:

“you lose something ?”

His face and body instantly reflect this sudden change to good fortune.

“yeah and I need it back.”

He does a sort of pirouette around me as I reach into my pocket and seamlessly make the handoff and he’s away without ever having stopped.

Between the expanding distance and the noise of traffic I barely hear him as he calls back:

“love you bro.”

The Angler or How to Tempt Fate Without Really Trying

I went fishing

I don’t know why
I had no talent for it
The wrong mindset
The wrong temperament

Nevertheless
I was drawn to the water
Like any common rover

I cast about
Having seen others do the same
But I, without skill or touch
Artlessly toying with the wrong bait
Relied on that least attractive of offerings
Luck

My pole lowered
Pointing at the water
I awaited a sign s

All senses bent Toward some slight change of gravity Some magnetic tremor Or electric spark

..

..

And then …..


A spastic shock
As my pole snapped upright
To set the hook

There was life
At a distance
Beyond sight but not beyond perception

She must be the big one I stupidly thought
My hands fumbled
I made haste in my panic

The line cut the water without parting it

Still, I managed the thing
Despite my inexperience

Perhaps the fish was inexperienced as well

I caught, I thought
I knew not what

Recovering a measure of calm
I tried to understand the Morse code of its struggle

It seemed
After all consideration
That it must be something small, even delicate

Reeling ‘er in
We closed on one another
She must have sensed the nearness of the surface and her ultimate exposure
For the fight in her increased

So much was communicated down and back the filament
Of our attachment

In a way, I feared that water

In a similar way, she must have feared this air

The two of us grappling
From our opposing oceans
Aroused by the unknown

I was excited
And
As I have said
Inexperienced

I pulled too hard

Of course she got away
The thread was intact
But the hook had never properly set

I looked at the water
For that was all there was to look at

Neither of us had anything of substance to show to our kin
But in my egotism I like to think
We each took a souvenir
Something
However intangible
To remember the other by

It is clearer to me now
That in her passionate flight
She was not indifferent
But it was I
I was the one that was hooked

The Pizza Connection

The Pizza Connection

I’m on the subway. 

It’s a few minutes after 5 in the morning. 

I’m catching a few snippets of conversation between a man and a woman sitting almost directly across from me. My guess is that they’re in their late twenties or early thirties. They are unusually attractive and well dressed for this time of morning. Between 4:30 and 6:00 AM is ordinarily reserved for the blue collar crowd of which I am a part. These two provide a pleasant diversion.

I have a good frontal view of him and a delicately beautiful profile of her. He looks confident and tolerably masculine; she is a wonderfully restrained and equally confident feminine. They look to be young professionals just hitting their stride.They are each dressed to a neat corporate stereotype and cloaked in camel fur coats. I don’t know how the camels feels about it but these two look marvelous.

They are not romantically involved. Sherlock that I am, I know this because they are sharing a 3 seat bench but the middle seat between them is empty; the unspoken distance. That said, they do appear to know each other. They both have beautifully clear, honey colored skin, thick shiny dark hair, slightly almond eyes; he with full beard and both with expressive hands. I’m thinking Queens by way of Central Asia.

I catch the word “pizza”.
It’s like magic. All at once, I’m all in.
If I hadn’t been listening before, they’ve got my full attention now.

~)(~

I can’t think of a time when I haven’t been happy to hear that word. Not simply because pizza is a gift and proof of a fundamentally jolly universe but also because of the near endless associations. 

After club hours at Mama Angelina’s Pizza in Philadelphia on Locust Street close to the NE corner of Broad Street. I haven’t been there in more than 30 years and I won’t be going back; it’s long gone, replaced by who cares what.

_

After violent, high decibel shows at The Ritz (formerly and subsequently Webster Hall) in New York City. 75 cent slices up and down 2nd Avenue to feed the hunger and calm the nerves.

_

A dozen pizzas delivered to a construction site where I was working at the southern tip of Manhattan. Not every good intention results in a successful conclusion and in this case the pies arrived only after the gang had all gone home for the night. All but myself and one other guy. An obsessive compulsive mental defective, he ate 3 full pies. I had 2 slices and just watched the carnage. He was taking a breather before the next onslaught, gulping air and swigging Diet Pepsi when I left him.

~)(~

Back on the subway, I’m building a story about these two good looking individuals. They are roughly the same age and with their apparent familiarity I would even hazard that they are related except for his next comment: 

 “When I was young…“

Uh oh. I don’t like the sound of this. We might have had the beginnings of a courtship; a budding romance. I like romance. These two early morning commuters, quite possibly from a neighborhood with a distinct cultural community may recognize in one another their common bonds and common interest. Their common commute has afforded a daily 30 minute window of relative privacy and intimacy as they thoughtlessly barrel headlong through tunnels to who knows what final destination. There’s a little magic in the air but he’s gonna blow it with a comment like:

“When I was young…“

He’s leading with a complaint and all but declaring that sooner or later he’s going to prove himself to be a stick in the mud. Given his relative youthfulness my money is on sooner.

In my mind I’m whispering to him to shut up and ask her about herself. He’s so self assured that his clumsiness is troubling. I feel like it exposes a paternalistic streak. Not that it’s any of my business of course but honestly, he’s ruining the latest fiction that I was so carefully constructing around them. I had all but put the child in the empty seat between them and now this?

When I was young? Are you kidding me?
You still are young sonny-boy so why don’t you just give it a rest.
And you may have noticed that she’s got eyes!!! I can see them from here!!! Just gaze into them adoringly; maybe ask her about her hopes and dreams for the future.
Let’s face facts young fella, it’s becoming obvious that you’re at your most eloquent when you’re not talking.

Obvious to me anyway. Who knows what she’s thinking. Women are a riddle, wrapped in a mystery and cloaked in lacy undergarments.

I think it’s fair to say that I dislike “When I was young…“ as a lead off to a story and not least because I know I’m guilty of using it. And not just me; everyone!! Inevitably these words are followed by a story whose details are sharply defined from the repetition of telling but whose colorful aspects are faded by their distant origins.

The story is going to be about how things used to be different; how things used to be better; how difficult it is to adapt to the changing landscape of the present; how slippery the future looks. What’s more; “When I was young…“  inevitably gives a tidied up view of the past. Cigarettes, candy and gasoline were cheap and good for you!!!

Dont get me started.

It is a given that only people over 50 should be starting a sentence with “When I was young…“ A half century is a real nice kickoff point for developing a tiresome, crotchety old age. If you are under 50 and using “When I was young…“ as a conversation starter you need to get on antidepressants and focus more on your listening skills.

For those of us that are well over 50 the flip side of “When I was young…“  is the obvious acknowledgment that we are not so young anymore. It’s not good being not young. This side of not young doesn’t look as good as it did when I was young and frankly it didn’t look that good to begin with. So I am secure in my person; so I am more or less in charge of my own destiny; big whoopee!

“When I was young…“
The horizon was a beckoning mystery.
The girl in the tight top was a provocative mystery. 
Young, Loud and Snotty was a fully formed ideology.

“When I was young…” is the beginning of a story no one wants to hear but everyone wants to tell.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that things aren’t more difficult now. I’m not saying that the world isn’t more complicated; that it isn’t more fractured; that relationships aren’t fraught with greater risks or that the arrow of time isn’t heading in the direction of chaos. 

What I am saying is that even though I am no longer young and even though I am no longer immortal and even though I am no longer the center, even of my own universe,  with a bit of age and a bit of luck and a little reminder from a chance encounter one does recall that where you look for offense you will find offense and where you look for meaning you may not find satisfaction but in the end, you will gladly settle for pizza.

Road Noise

Road Noise

Having left my home in Brooklyn, I am motoring north along Manhattan’s FDR Drive on my way upstate to Cherry Valley, NY. It’s a four hour journey from a restless city to a sleepy town that I may also one day call home. 

Home

At this point there are so many places I’ve called home that the word has lost any suggestion of  permanence that I may originally have attached to it. I now think that each has simply been a pause, a series of way stations between the first and the final. 

And while the great beyond may linger vast and empty on either end, in between there’s a lot of driving to be done and today is a driving day. 

In search of sound I toggle through the radio’s preset buttons with the foreknowledge that I haven’t preset any of them. It’s quite possible that they are random defaults from the dealership set back in 2013 when the car was new. There are 18 preset stations, none of which are worth settling into. 

Empty-handed my ear and I move on.

Hitting the radio’s SEEK button on the back side of the steering wheel I continue searching for something that will appeal to the moment. 

The stop and go of traffic is mimicked in this push button review of radio offerings but in this case there’s no end in sight as I cycle ‘round and ‘round the dial losing the promise of, or finally, any hope of a place to stay awhile.

There is nothing on. 
And you know what? 
There never is. 

It may be that the problem is New York radio. I don’t fault the medium or the market but somehow with over 200 stations in about 17 different languages it manages the neat trick of too many options with too few choices.

Or it may be ……………
That the problem …..
Is me ……………………….

Maybe I just don’t like driving to the all too familiar offerings of music, news and talk. Each in its way interferes with the pure, meditative experience of driving. 

And yet hope springs eternal that the ideal should manifest. 

By all rights the radio should be able to provide an audible veil to quiet the volatile mind. 

It is just another of life’s clever little ironies that the right sound is able to create its own kind of silence. 

However, the closest I will get to that immersive trance of listening today is the mixed medley of sound as I change stations without pause.

Sound en masse.

The radio doesn’t have good listening but the radio is good listening.

I often do this and find it makes an interesting auditory collage though the constant button pressing is bothersome. 

It makes me wonder why there isn’t a SEEK BUT DON’T STOP function on the radio. I believe it is a solid entertainment option and frankly I think it’s sound advice too; words to live by. I need to talk to Dodge about this obvious shortcoming in my vehicle.

I settle for a short while on a station bangin’ out some old time gospel, not only because it has a certain authentic sound appeal but equally because it is pleasantly rhythmic in a way that embraces the beat of my tires as they pulse over the expansion joints in the roadway.

But there’s only so much of that crap you can listen to so I start moving around the radio dial again and that is when I find a fellow saying “uh” every three seconds in a flat monotone, very much like a muffled mechanical process.

This would be the very same “uh” that acts as a placeholder in a sentence before the next clear thought gains traction.

Nothing else; no background of any kind that I could discern. Just “uh” followed by 3 seconds of dead silence. 

“I wonder where this is going” I think to myself. 

More compelling than the gospel music, it alternates with the dull percussion of the expansion joints  in a catchy syncopated rhythm.  

Both calming and disquieting; what could it mean? How had it come to be broadcast and how would it end? 

I’m hooked. 

The “uh”s continue across upper Manhattan; they continue across the George Washington Bridge; they continue through Fort Lee, NJ and onto Route 4. I listen through Teaneck and Paramus; Ho-Ho-Kus, Ramsey and Mahwah.

It was around Teaneck that I slowly become conscious of a heartbeat between the “uh”s. Had it been there the whole time and I’d simply missed it from road noise or was this an entirely new element? 

An “uh” following every heartbeat.
A heartbeat following every “uh”.

As if pausing…….to what…. reflect? 

Shall I commit to one more?

Why? 

To what end?

After about 40 minutes of listening I start losing the signal around mile 33 as I pass the Sloatsburg Service Area. It seems like the heartbeat is the first to fail. 

The “uh”s have become intermittent, arhythmic, the final echoes of a heart monitor, until finally it too is gone and I am left listening to the ssshhhh of smooth static.

I allow the radio to broadcast white noise for the next few minutes.

By mile 38 I have completely lost the signal but I continue to listen up until Harriman at about mile 44; just in case. 

I don’t want to move on. I don’t want to miss something that seems on the verge, on the very edge, of happening. 

I don’t know how it ends. 
I don’t know what it means. 
I have no answers; no explanation.
I have no guesses; educated or otherwise. 

I am left with nothing on the radio.
Which is how I started out. 

There was nothing. 
Then there was something.
Then there was nothing. 

The Last Drop

I got to work early today. Like every work day for the last 30 years. I gave a moment to the sunrise; like every day. Same sun, same sky, same time, same same. All that familiarity but with a nod to the obvious; with an infinity of variables, including me, no two sunrises are exactly the same.

I went into a coffee shop in Philadelphia not long ago; The Last Drop. Flurries were falling lightly and melting on contact; the last snow of the season. Each crystal unrepeatable and every crystal on its way to becoming an anonymous speck of water.

The barista at The Last Drop is a solid first tier hipster. Tall and at home in his geeky glasses with the dark rectangular frames, a thrift shop vest and a nerdy look we used to call mebst.

I order a cappuccino, same as every time I go in there. I love cappuccino. The flavor and textures of course but equally I love all the choreographed motions; the tamping, the jamming, the swirling, the pouring; the reassuring repetitive motion of it all.

The hipster barista steams the milk and swirls it in the little frothing pitcher before making the final pour. He does this stuttering little flourish at the end of the pour that creates a sepia image of a flowering plant embedded in the cappuccino foam; his signature.

My wife and I were at a party the other night. We’re too young to be hippies and too old to be hipsters. The party was a celebration of life, as all parties are but the more so as it came in the wake of two deaths; the husband of an elderly woman and the husband of a young woman.

Afterwards my wife and I were talking about life and death and how each one is different and utterly unique even as it shares in its description all of the same elements.

A snowflake or a fingerprint; a signature, a sunrise or the image at the top of my cappuccino; each is an individual composed of that peculiar unknowable moment that is infinitely repeatable and eternally unfamiliar.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

I have been reading Virginia Woolf in order to answer the obvious question of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but more specifically to discover what exactly there is to be so afraid of.

The book I have chosen is Mrs. Dalloway and right off the bat I would like it understood that when I say that I chose this book what I really mean is that I did not choose this book at all. I abdicated to the internet, as we do with so much of our decision making, and went with what is reported to be her most important work. I was doubly interested in that particular title when I was told that the book is the sum of two short stories having been sewn together by the needle of her intelligence.

I myself have written a few short stories and it gives me hope that someday I will cobble together some serviceable fiction with the mallet of my own indolent good intentions.

The story of Mrs. Dalloway goes something like this: Clarissa Dalloway is giving a party. It takes all day for her to get it together and she is having an existential crisis or would be but that term had not been coined yet. That said, I do think it is fair to say that Woolf is an important elucidator of the symptoms. As Clarissa crosses paths with other people the narrative is handed off to them and their crises and they in turn hand off to others and their internal monologues.

You can see how, even in a day, this can compound into a whole lot of hand wringing, psychotic chatter, imaginary intrigues and shallow musings depending on whose mind we are listening in on at the moment.

The book reminded me of Joyce’s Ulysses and Kerouac’s On the Road because those are two books I can recall reading that are stream of consciousness but given the publication date of 1925, Woolf must have been a pioneer working out on the frontiers of that style.

I would also like it understood that when I say that I read Ulysses what I really mean is that I did not actually read Ulysses cover to cover or anything like it but I have used that book to turn many a restless night into a deep coma sleep.

The really beautiful angle in all this is that Woolf was obviously educated and upper class and so her main character’s crises are primarily those of the upper classes and the tone of her writing and the content of her day and the formal language itself speaks from that of a late 19th early 20th century educated English woman with social status. And boy how it speaks. Even among stream of consciousness practitioners her run on sentences are impressive not only in length but in scope and clarity. I particularly like the following example because it is about a recurring character in the novel; Time

“Shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day, counseled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantages of a sense of proportion, until the mound of time was so far diminished that a commercial clock, suspended above a shop in Oxford Street, announced, genially and fraternally, as if it were a pleasure to Messrs. Rigby and Lowndes to give the information gratis, that it was half-past one.”

Woolf is writing in the years just after the First World War and trauma is another main character. Victorian concerns linger, both in the narrative and most definitely in Woolf’s floral language but it’s all going to pieces in parallel with Clarissa’s self-confidence. The elements that held the Empire and hope itself together; certainty of purpose, one’s place in the larger scheme of things, reward through conformity, the guarantee of a better tomorrow, all have taken a sound thrashing. The past is a constant intruder on the present, casting doubt across the illusions of both.

Woolf’s main characters are also aware that they are getting older. They are looking back on life-long assumptions and finding their guiding principals have left them in exactly the situations they had tried hardest to avoid. All are left to acknowledge the losses and all are ill equipped to process their feelings. Age has not brought understanding it has yielded only confusion and paralyzing indecision. Time, the great thief, has robbed them of self-confidence while introducing that most modern of all emotions: Anxiety.

Almost everyone feels like they are on the verge of being discovered an imposter. Misunderstanding poisons every interaction. The mad and the sane are not found to be so very different; each spinning a tale to explain a self-obsessed reality. The sane are wracked with doubt; the mad are wracked with certainty and between the two lurk the pious, the complacent, the oblivious and the fools.

Within the story the loss of feeling or too much feeling; perspective, scale and proportion are all out of whack. The word Proportion itself bubbles up frequently enough that it is clear Woolf struggled with keeping her own emotions in check. Woolf speaks of Proportion almost as if it were a common sense little house pet, its manicured curls barely containing the fangs of a bone deep bloodlust.

I don’t know if it’s possible to give a spoiler alert to a 100 year old book but in the end the only one to make his escape is the madman but the suggestion is that everyone’s internal life is a madhouse differing only by degrees.

Woolf is not shy in her portrayal of her characters struggles and shortcomings. She moves easily across the interior monologues of women of elevated status as well as women of other social classes. Woolf also boldly and impressively dissects the inner workings of men including a war veteran suffering from what we would now call PTSD; a colonial functionary torn between worlds and a host of other lesser characters. Woolf takes on the complex and mundane issues of men through their interior monologues in as critical and delicate an approach as she brings to her women.

I try to be as ignorant as possible when reading books and for me that is an easily attainable goal. I like to know the publishing date but beyond that I don’t want to be overly influenced by the author’s biography but clearly Wolff was an intellectual woman of the Victorian/ Edwardian era whose world, the world of the British Empire was coming unraveled and a thinking woman’s place in that world was insufferably stifling. In fact all of the characters are holding on, as best they can in a world that has radically changed direction and in that way the story is as relevant today as it was when Woolf wrote it almost a century ago. Woolf deeply felt the pull of entropy and evidently took it as an omen of endless despair.

Woolf is a thorough modern yet she presents all in the pretensions of the soon to be left over language of her class and station. It is an odd fit that becomes the moment in which it was written; a world obsessed with the present, barreling towards tomorrow, the light of a greater conflagration just beyond the crest of a hill.

In the end it would seem that with her relentless and microscopic detailing of the often sad, sordid and ultimately pointless mess of life, the answer to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf should likely have been Virginia Woolf herself.

Emo for Dave Groom

I waken to the sound of distant church bells peeling across dew sparkled meadows.
I tap my phone to quiet its alarm.

Monday
April 2nd
4:30 am

Shower.

Go down stairs to fetch work clothes from the dryer.

Coming back up stairs, I note the particular lightness of my own footsteps. I think to myself, I am unusually quiet this morning. No ….., I am unusually aware of my own quiet this morning. The softness of my footstep. The lightness of my breath. For a moment I seem foreign to myself. An object observed and observing; a satellite running a self diagnostic routine.

In the kitchen, I put on water for coffee.

I cut an everything bagel, put it in the toaster and brush my hand across the counter, sweeping seeds and crumbs into the sink.

I check my phone for today’s forecast to decide on how many layers to wear and I see that it is raining outside. I see the rain as an icon on my phone without even bothering to confirm it with a glance out the window.

I pack my lunch.

With paper cup coffee in hand I turn out the lights and head out the front door to work. It is 5:05 and still dark.

Everything about this morning is just about identical to every other morning. Every action, every motion, every consideration, as if preordained.

However

As I leave the house and lock the door, I turn around and it’s snowing.

It’s warm; almost 40 degrees but it’s snowing and for no discernible reason I feel upset. It is similar, I imagine, to a surprise meeting of an old sweetheart and the discovery that forgotten ties can still bind.

My expectations have been overturned and I am confronted by this scene which is not only unexpected but also, in its way, both melancholy and beautiful. Somehow I am better able to see it because I wasn’t expecting to see it.

I have my hat in hand but I don’t put it on; I want my head unprotected and immersed in the storm; all awake to the slow motion rioting of fat snowflakes gently falling through the sphere of a street light’s influence. It is a predawn panorama of snow and spring flowers, budding trees, parked cars and dark sleeping row homes.

There is no other sound but the ambient noise of the city. The muffling effect of the snow spreads in every direction. The light kiss of each flake as it lands on my cheeks and neck feels personal. I can hear the light crackle of the flakes as they land on last fall’s dried leaves; the ones that refused to let go, still clinging to their native branch.

Mingled with the snow is a very slight ozone perfume, the kind that comes with spring showers. The struggle of winter is all but over.

I walk to the subway with my head tipped skyward, intent on watching the snow as it passes through each consecutive orb of lamp light. The falling and swirling from a rising breeze lays an acid lace over all.

I am at the entry tunnel to my subway station and I dutifully enter …but no, it’s too abrupt. I’m not of a mind this morning to surrender so easily. I turn back into the storm. Outside again, I look over the wall that forms the trench of the Prospect Expressway. The breeze has diminished and the listless flakes are falling down, expending themselves on the pavement. A truck speeds by and the snow is drawn to the passing vacuum. Flakes race and swirl in a momentary attempt to give chase; evidence to the thickness of air. And I am left in the wake to wonder as the snow resumes its steady downfall.

I can hear my train arriving and once again I turn towards the station entry, fully aware that as I  cross this latest boundary another end is at hand. The subway takes me under the East River. Somewhere in this tunnel is a line; the border between Brooklyn and Manhattan; between then and now.

I step off the train, the doors close and the train rolls on without me. As I exit Whitehall Station I meet with my own forecast.

It’s almost dawn and rain is falling like a sad goodbye.

At The Same Moment

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It was a dark and stormy night.

Pulling into Slip 3 Manhattan, aboard the Staten Island Ferry, I cast my eyes north towards the Brooklyn Bridge. I have worked these waters as a Dockbuilder for almost 30 years, always aware that even as new projects are going up, there is always some small part that is being washed out to sea.

Just upriver of the Ferry is the Battery Maritime Building, home of the Governors Island Ferry. On the offshore end of the Governors Island Ferry slip, stenciled in large red block letters are the words:

“At The Same Moment”

Visitors often ask me what those words mean:

“At The Same Moment”

and I equally often think to myself that I must look like someone with an answer. Maybe it’s the hard weather squint of my eyes that gives me the look of a man with purpose and certain knowledge, when in fact it is the look of a man who needs glasses.

But the fact is, I do feel as though I have an answer, not only because I have given this question some thought but also because I am one of those people who always has an answer regardless of my familiarity with, or even an opinion on, the subject at hand.

Now the answer, as I see it, is that “At The Same Moment”, is simply an invitation to make a comparison. To look for that tingly romantic attraction between two seemingly unrelated events; unrelated except that they share a moment which, on second thought, may be among the most intimate of all relationships.

~:~

The call came that Aunt Clare’s time was drawing to a close. This would be the Aunt Clare who tried to enroll me in Hebrew School, allegedly as a gift; the same Aunt Clare who gave me The Joys of Yiddish (hardcover), again apparently as a gift; and the same Aunt Clare who, in a last attempt at converting a young Jew to Judaism and evidently as a gift, gave me the Encyclopedia of Jewish Humor (trade paperback).

I think she was trying to tell me something. Something about being a Jew, with all of the imaginary advantages that confers and the big head-start I already had if only………. if only……………… if only.

I of course was noncompliant and she of course was misguided.

Regarding the Hebrew school incident I recall the question being put to me as follows:

My Dad: Hey Art, would you like to go to Hebrew school? Aunt Clare said she would pay for it.
Me: What does it mean? (No!)

My Dad: Well Art, it means going to school an extra day a week
Me: Why would I want to do that? (No!)

My Dad: Well you see Art, yak yak yak yak heritage, yackety-yak yak yak.
Me: No thanks. (Hell no!)

I don’t think Aunt Clare was pleased by my colossal lack of interest, to say nothing of my father’s startling lack of salesmanship, yet paradoxically I count this as an endearing Aunt Clare moment.

~:~

So now it’s after work; it has already been a long day. I am driving down the NJ turnpike in the driving rain, switching lanes and changing radio stations on my way to a room full of anxious Jews; as if there were some other kind.

My mind is in Staten Island thinking about the job. My mind is in Brooklyn thinking about my wife and younger sons; in Manhattan thinking about my eldest son; in Philadelphia thinking about my father and on my final destination, Jenkintown, PA.

I stop at the Molly Pitcher rest area for coffee. Molly, who fought in the Revolutionary war, would doubtless be pleased that her service to the country has paid off in the unrivaled selection of fast food joints at her rest area, beating out her rival rest areas that are named after famous writers and presidents and lesser knowns like Thomas Edison who invented something or other and Vince Lombardi who was famous for his gap-toothed smile and was apparently involved in sports.

Inside at the Starbucks the exhausted “Barista”, who looks less like an Italian coffee wizard and more like an outcast from a Bayonne asbestos factory points his finger skyward and asks “What kind?”, as if to remind me that God hears all and judges all. The chalkboard menu over his head has forty choices in sizes akin to small, medium, large, grande and obese. My blank expression somehow conveys large coffee, black. I turn to go and find myself in a chaotic, afterwork crowd of tired zombies. They recognize me as one of their own as they head towards the fast food flesh.

Back on the turnpike, the hum and monotony of the road has my mind wandering like Ulysses. My thoughts return to Brooklyn and settle for a moment on the family dog Jozey; an animal adored beyond words on one side of our front door and universally reviled on the other side. Logic dictates some cause and effect relationship. I can only account for it by concluding that something is dreadfully wrong with the front door and determine to have it replaced as soon as suitable door and contractor can be obtained.

Exit 6 seamlessly merges the NJ Turnpike with the PA Turnpike. I must have paid ten thousand dollars in tolls going back and forth over these roads to birthdays, weddings, holidays and funerals.

In my experience the only real difference between the four is that at a funeral, the one being celebrated doesn’t expect a gift. Oh and of course the one being celebrated also isn’t present. And in its own way, that’s great. You get to make crass comments and tell embarrassing stories about the deceased without the usual consequences. There’s always plenty to eat and drink and there are lots of laughs but maybe all of this says more about my relatives than it does about the actual occasion.

I exit the PA Turnpike onto Route 611, a four lane road with that meandering, non-grid directionality that marks it as a likely animal track, becoming a Native American path called the Naraticong trail, becoming a section of a colonial road known as the King’s Highway, a section of that becoming York Road in the early 18th century, the section of which I am now driving becoming Old York Road, later on becoming a route on the Swift Sure Stagecoach Line for those in a hurry to get out of Philadelphia.

It’s disconcerting how much becoming is involved in getting to a final destination which, in any event, never turns out to be final at all.

I’m driving through the long rolling hills of this local highway but secretly, simultaneously, I am driving through two landscapes. There is the scene in front of me and the one behind my eyes; past and present occupying my mind in place of nervous anticipation and a pressing need to take a leak.

Everything has changed since I was a kid but in a way everything is the same. My eyes see the full color of the moment but my memory sees in the washed out, nostalgic hues of old Life Magazine photographs; umbers, ochers and grays.

That shopping center used to be a farm. Fifty acres of corn; now fifty acres of parking. There used to be a Hot Shoppes restaurant over there but people stopped eating like that. Then it became a Barnes & Noble bookstore but people stopped reading like that. Now it’s a CVS pharmacy. That sprawling mixed use building used to be a single gigantic department store, Strawbridge & Clothier. That thrift shop was a slot car track and before that it was an appliance store; I guess it’s a bad location. Target used to be Sears. The stores are different but the buildings are mostly the same; the signs and surfaces are flashier but beneath it all basic commerce endures.

Willow Grove Park Mall, there off to the right, used to be Willow Grove Park (“Life is a lark, at Willow Grove Park”), an ancient amusement park with a roller coaster, amusements and kiddy rides; the kind of thing that belongs at the shore or out in the countryside to be discovered while out on a Sunday drive, popular music squeezing out of the AM radio, your dad wearing a hat and your mom a dress, every boy sporting a crew cut and every girl a ponytail. For years after Willow Grove Park closed it sat there idle behind a locked chain link fence, as if waiting, the roller coaster like some long-tailed caged dinosaur, too dumb to know that it was already extinct.

I have been looking through some census data because …..well… I don’t actually have an answer as to why I have been looking through census data. In fact, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know why because it’s likely to have my wife giving me that worried look or that other look she gives me which says “You are going on medication at the first sign of dementia or it’s off to the home with you mister!”

But what is clear from the census is that this suburban town has been losing population every decade since the 1970’s. I left in the 70’s. I’m pretty sure that my leaving didn’t ignite a white flight wave of migration away from suburbs and back to cities by the very children of those young families that migrated in a white flight wave of migration away from the cities to the suburbs but there is nothing like a big old serving of raw data to make you ruminate over the shifting patterns of life and for myself, the impending loss of one more local resident in the person of Aunt Clare.

I arrive in the dark, in this town of my youth, a northern suburb of Philadelphia, where I used to ride my bike, break into abandoned houses, bowl and play pinball at Thunderbird Lanes, see matinees at the Art Deco, Hiway Theater, eat at the sandwich counter at the Rexall drugs and shoplift from the Woolworths. It only now occurs to me that all of these places were old even when I was young.

I pull into the lot of Aunt Clare’s apartment building. The building is the sole residential structure in what some developer must have imagined was the first of many, surrounding a parking lot so expansive that it seems to have been paved in giddy anticipation of a coming boom that never materialized. Her building stands alone at one end of this asphalt carpet.

I park away from the building and sit for a few moments collecting my thoughts and consciously slowing down from 70 mph to 35 mph to motionless in this lamp lit landscape that is utterly still; inertia still pulling me forward. The present folds in, trying to catch up to the past.

I’m thinking to myself that this is a somewhat unfamiliar situation with somewhat unfamiliar people. I know them and I’m very fond of them but after all, I left town 30 years ago. I’ve been back but things are changing and the older I get the more accelerated those changes have become. I don’t know exactly where I stand or even what I’m expected to do. My caffeinated reptilian brain is sending messages and all I can think is that this just doesn’t seem like the kind of situation you want to walk into with a full bladder.

I step out of the car, into the dim light of the parking lot, into the rain and I pee on the asphalt. I wish I could say that in Yiddish. And though I’ve heard it said that Aunt Clare spoke Yiddish like it was French it’s too late to ask her for a translation. It’s also too late to ask her who all those people in all those sepia family photographs are. It is, altogether, just too late.

Between the blacktop below and the black sky above; between the spring rain outside and the deathwatch inside, I close the distance between my car and the lobby. I look up and note the sign; this place is called The Plaza. The name suggests to me that the developers were maybe a little less like giddy and a little more like inebriated.

Lobby, elevator, hallway, door, open, enter.

Sure enough, I arrive at what appears to be Aunt Clare taking her last breath. This wouldn’t be the Aunt Clare I know. The Aunt Clare I know is always late. Always. If you want Aunt Clare to come to dinner, you’d better invite her to lunch.

I know a lot of dead people but I know little about death and dying so when I am assured Aunt Clare has only hours to live I assume that we’re all on the same page about it. Everyone present, nurses, hospice care, relatives and friends are all in agreement with the notable exception of Aunt Clare, but we don’t know that yet and we take up positions.

A pod of whales protectively circles the vulnerable cows and pups and likewise we start ambling in and out of the bedroom where Aunt Clare, unconscious in the arms of her daughters, is toying with infinity.

Everyone is on edge. Aunt Clare is extremely frail; intervals of 30 seconds or more between clusters of heavy breathing has everyone holding their breath along with her. Like the breathing, our waiting is a state of hyperbolic anticipation but that’s not a state that can be maintained for long. Small talk breaks out, escalates into conversation with forays into nervous laughter and finally the all out assault of genuine laughter. Laughter makes everyone hungry; it’s time to feed the troops and as if on cue the food arrives. Since this is America it arrives in the form of high quality take-out. Reinforcements arrive in the persons of cousins and kids and spouses and significant others.

Normalcy breaks out for a time but Aunt Clare, as the hostess, needs attending to and the cycle begins anew. Hours wear on and then days. My father, Aunt Clare’s 89 year old baby brother, is suffering greatly. He hates sad movies, scary movies, suspense, romance and dystopian movies and anything epic. He just doesn’t have the patience for epic and everything else is upsetting. Clearly this isn’t playing to his strengths which at this point are few and dwindling by the hour.

His anxiety is on the rise along with everyone else’s and as exhaustion sets in it invades the room; a poison gas that displaces oxygen and restraint which is not a great metaphor for a Jew. Too much fact, too little simile.

There is a question hovering in the stale air.

My father blurts out “What are we learning from this?” which is a close approximation of what he is trying to say. And then, “Isn’t there something we can do for her?” Loaded with pain meds and cradled in the loving arms of her daughters, caressed by friends, it’s hard to think of what more can be done except the obvious. It’s the obvious he’s talking about.

There. It’s been said. And in a way, it’s best that he said it. At 89 and soon to be the last of his generation, he’s the only one in the room that can say it. It absolves the rest of us of our own thoughts. Unfortunately the answer is no. Short of applying a pillow this is going to take as much time as it is going to take.

As remarkable, and I suppose as inevitable, as is my father’s plea for mercy is the response from my cousin, one of Aunt Clare’s daughters.

In an amazing show of grace, using only a few words but with excellent articulation, so there should be no misunderstanding, she gently but firmly explains that everything that can be done, is being done.

It’s the articulation that settles the matter and only a crazy person could misunderstand the message. I look to the old man and he is old, but he understands and now I understand too…..

My cousin and my dad are each the baby of the family. Aunt Clare and I are each the middle child. Aunt Clare is the middle child mother, being mothered by her daughter, the baby of her family. My father is the baby of the family being mothered by his son who is the middle child of his family.
In my meager way I am supporting my cousin who is supporting Aunt Clare who had supported my father as a child, who had supported me as a child, by taking the burden of support off of my cousin so she doesn’t have to mother her uncle.

This is making me queazy.

But support is popping up all over the room in opposition to the polar void of our bleak prospects. There is no hope but there is the matter of comfort to balance the antimatter of despair.

Support is a funny thing; if it’s there it will get used and it will be there so long as it is used, pretty much following the laws of supply and demand. And with so many people in the apartment there is plenty of supply to go around. So much so that in the ebb and flow of things, the supply of support in the room has, for the moment, so far exceeded demand that it has erupted into random acts of affection. I have just come from the kitchen and magnetically hugged my cousin’s adult daughter. It was wordless and mutually consented to. It may be the first time that I’ve hugged this person with such affection or even been able to properly acknowledge our attachment and I couldn’t be happier to be in this place at this moment. Furthermore, it is the first time I’ve really seen this person interacting with her loved one and I now see that while Aunt Clare is dying in the bedroom, there is something blossoming in the living room right in front of me

My other young cousin’s girlfriend is there. We’ve met before but I haven’t a clue who she is. Sometimes I feel like an outsider in this family but then I suppose she feels the same way. Something about this web of support where everyone is both holding up and being held up. Somehow the ice is broken and it turns out she’s totally great and now we’re fast friends. Fast friends but true friends.

The whole thing is like the food pyramid of emotional support. I better bring up a picture of that thing because I know for a fact that it’s changed a couple of times in the last 50 years and let’s face it I, like the rest of the world, never paid any attention to it anyway.

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I’m a low level player so I should probably be on the ground floor with breakfast cereal; sweet but not especially nourishing. And I’m not disputing it but I do feel that, with a little effort, I could step up to fresh produce though that’s probably just my pride at work. Don’t get me wrong, I’m okay being grouped in with tag lines like “Magically Delicious” or “Breakfast of Champions” and waffle is one of my favorite words; just so long as I’m not in with the kosher dills and gherkins or any of the health foods like dried fruit or cashews. I just don’t relish the idea of being thought of as pickled, shriveled or nuts.

What isn’t in dispute is that Aunt Clare is at the apex, the pointy end of the pyramid, the one being supported. Let’s see, potato chips, cookies, candy, soda and mayonnaise. That’s a food group? I mean, I kind of get the first four but doesn’t mayo belong in the condiment group or whatever group tuna salad and coleslaw belong to?

And what’s with chocolate being in with the candy? Sure candy is candy but chocolate is food.

Below Aunt Clare must be her daughters. They are the ones who are really doing the heavy lifting so it’s only proper that they should be in with the Surf n’ Turf. Then come spouse and adult children and the various significant others. The third generation, the adult grandchildren should probably be in with the salad or stir-fry. Everyone has a place and everyone has a food group. Okay, so far so good. But wait, that isn’t right because one of the kids is a medical person administering Aunt Clare’s meds and explaining what’s going on and why Aunt Clare’s breath holding is up over 50 seconds. In my mind he should be promoted to the smoked fish platter at the very least.

So we’ve covered a lot of food and a lot of people in their food group / supportive roles but ……. Hey!! Wait a second!! Where the hell is pizza? Or should I be saying, Who the hell is pizza? Now I’m getting confused. And not for nothing but why isn’t beer on this list? And the raw bar assortment. Where is the bourbon, fried chicken and John Coltrane? Doesn’t anyone over at Consolidated Food Pyramids LLC understand how dinner works? I can’t eat like this!! And I’ll bet you can’t either but that’s not the point. The point is that the food pyramid metaphor has completely fallen apart and I don’t have a plan B.

Okay so we’re nothing like the food pyramid. I can accept that but we are like something and the longer we mill around the more that something becomes apparent. Whether she is unwilling or unable to leave just yet, Aunt Clare has created this scene wherein all manner of people are hangin’ around and getting to know each other better.

I think we need some kind of Link Diagram (a phrase I may have just now coined) that will incorporate the system structure, pattern of behavior and events, to understand what’s going on here but I think it can be adequately defined by the shorthand term – Family.

And as a family we are relying on the basic tools that any Jews worth their schmaltz possess; We may not know where we are and we may not know where we are going but we know how to keep moving forward. We may be surrounded by tragedy and we may be in the midst of heartbreak, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a laugh to be had. And just because we’re not hungry doesn’t mean we’re not going to eat.

All in all, I think Aunt Clare would have been well pleased with that.

Cross Country

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The AAU Cross Country Nationals were held in Rock Hill, South Carolina this year. My little guy, Coleman, is 8 years old and he qualified in his age group, the Sub-Bantams. I think that means little chickens and I try not to read anything more into it than that. Cole runs Indoor Track, Outdoor Track and Cross Country. He’s always been fast and annoyingly energetic but track has given him confidence, discipline, a team he loves and a place to belong. He identifies with his group, which can be a two edged sword but the coaches are adamant about supporting the sport through respect for all runners regardless of team affiliation.

Cole has qualified for The Nationals before but we never went to anything beyond the Regional Championships. It isn’t the kind of thing we can really afford but at the same time, he’s been running track for about a year and a half and this is his last go ’round as a Little Chicken. He loves it and we’re very proud of him; we just felt like he deserved it and once he moves on to Bantam, being on the younger end of that group, he may not qualify again for some time. We booked the flight, a car rental and the hotel. The whole team has a block of rooms at the Rock Hill, Holiday Inn, and we’re all set to go.

Why is it that just when you think you’ve got things pretty well figured out, that’s just about the time when they fall apart?

Two days before the flight we get a message on our answering machine. The message is from Randy, the manager of the Rock Hill, Holiday Inn. Randy says our 99 dollar room was booked wrong and do we still want it for 227 dollars. This is not good. It was a stretch to go in the first place. The added expense makes the whole thing suddenly seem like a bad idea. And by the way, what do they mean it was booked wrong? We called Holiday Inn’s 800 number and booked it more than a month ago. They gave us the room! They told us the price! It’s not like we haggled over it and they reluctantly accepted our ridiculously low offer. And why, a single day after the booking deadline, after mind you, not before but after, has this become an issue? I call the hotel and what sounds like a female parakeet with a southern drawl answers. I explain the message and she says she’s sorry but the manager has gone home for the night but we can call back in the morning. I can see our hotel room, with it’s plush kingsize bed and free continental breakfast, dissolving in front of my eyes and I launch:

“Look lady, you need to call the manager and he needs to call me and explain why
I am holding an 8-1/2 x 11 sheet of paper, complete with confirmation number
and price, that you are about to sell to the highest bidder. Now listen to me!
I do not want to get down there and find my room gone.
Do you understand me?”

~

“Yes sir, I’ll call him! Thank you for calling the Rock Hill, Holiday Inn.”

~

I email the coach and he says he’ll follow up. The next day I get his email; the hotel manager is immovable and the booking agent is claiming ignorance of the whole thing.

One way or the other, I always believe a claim of ignorance.

I don’t hear from the hotel manager or anyone else before the flight and I have to say I’m worried. I feel like my only chance is to have a face to face with this guy but in my heart I know it will be useless. There is money on the line and I have no leverage whatsoever.

The night before leaving I have a dinner date in Philadelphia with The Fungi Social Club, about whom I may write at a later date. I make my way to Philly and stop at my mom’s. I don’t write much about my mom. What can a person say about their mom that won’t end up sounding schmaltzy or maudlin or get everyone at the bar crying in their beer. Better to acknowledge the lady respectfully and move on. Everyone, or at least every son, knows what I mean. But setting all that aside for a moment, it is worth mentioning that my mom has a better Scotch collection than your mom.

I was sampling some of that collection and recounting my Lilliputian woes because moms always like that kind of thing; they always take your side and occasionally they even have good advice. This wasn’t going to be one of those occasions. Her logic was that Southerners are well mannered people and therefore I should basically throw myself on the mercy of a court that still seems to be licking wounds suffered during the Civil War and its apparently endless aftermath.

I have often wondered about that; how The Civil War seems to be a defining part of Southern identity, especially when compared with The North. I’ve worked with a lot of guys from The South and invariably there is a Confederate flag somewhere in the mix, often tattooed directly upon their person. In The North it is a non issue on every level. It is not on anyone’s mind in the slightest. Except as an academic matter, it is a fully forgotten event. No grudge is borne, no resentment nursed, no offense taken. There is no gloating or self satisfaction regarding the war. There are no meaningful reminders; nothing to jog the collective memory but even if there were, nobody cares. It is not part of how Northerners define themselves for the very simple reason that Northerners don’t define themselves as Northerners. Only Southerners do that.

There are monuments of course; there are always monuments. But Civil War monuments are few and discreet and really kind of anonymous. Monuments are meant to evoke history but in fact they seem to isolate and entomb it. Stone is noble and there is stately grandeur in the Beaux Arts and NeoClassic architecture typical of the period but that’s all you get. On the actual subject at hand, The Civil War, the stone is mute; bloodless; amnesic even.

Just to go that extra mile, because I’m an extra mile kind of guy, I have returned to my old neighborhood. For a time, I lived on West 89th street. At the end of the block, in Riverside Park, is Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Every time I walked the dog I would go look at it; try to imagine a past when it was new. When the war was still a memory within easy reach. Nothing.

Now I’m here in Morningside Heights, 122nd and Riverside Drive, to stand in front of Grant’s Tomb, just to check for residual emotions and I’m getting nothing. It doesn’t help that in 1865 my people were busy being persecuted in Eastern Europe but still, I’m an empathetic person and I have a good understanding of history; I’ve done my reading. Also, I’m a middle child; I see everyone’s point of view and they are all equal before me. I have no trouble putting myself in your shoes or anyone else’s shoes; the more so if you’re sporting an 11 1/2 wide, in which case we’re as good as siblings. When confronted with history I can usually force an emotion but then, I get choked up over the pastoral section of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture too. But honestly, Grant’s Tomb elicits nothing. A total blank. I mean, who the hell is buried here anyway?

Ok, so back in Philly I wandered off to my dinner, which included a Scotch tasting, a wine sampling and an excellent bottle of Port. I shall forever be grateful that the last bus back to New York was a 9 o’clock. Had it been an 11 o’clock, I may well be there even to this very day. An evening like that can so easily slip down that slope that can only end in Tequila and regret. I made my farewells to my fellow club members and scooted back to the safety of Brooklyn and the promise of an afternoon flight into an uncertain set of accommodations.

I spent a mostly sleepless night rehearsing the coming confrontation with the front desk. I tapped around the internet looking for a Bed & Breakfast in the Rock Hill area figuring that this event alone would probably use up almost every available hotel room. I was encouraged to find some beautiful spots at a fraction of the cost of my anonymous room; if that room was still even mine. The only real advantage of staying at the hotel is mixing with the other kids and parents on the team. It may not seem like much but really it is a very rich part of the whole experience.

The next day Cole and I made it out to LaGuardia without running into traffic. The plane ride was smooth and uneventful and my hangover was well within the nausea control limits recommended by the F.A.A.

So far, so good.

With the ultra-friendly chatterbox Dean, at the wheel of the Dollar Rent a Car bus, we headed out to the aptly named Rental Car Road. As a person who gets lost almost every time I get behind the wheel, I appreciate that kind of simplicity. I would recommend a trip to the Charlotte Airport based solely on the chance of getting a ride from Dean. He is too good to pass up just because you have no reason to be there. Personable doesn’t even begin to describe this cat. With the looks of an aging Rock-a-Billy star and a kind of affable southern charm, he strikes me as a man who, in another time, would have been a riverboat gambler. And not just any old riverboat gambler. A real cardsharp. The kind they used to hang. He would have worked the Proud Mary or the Natchez or the Mississippi Queen. And you know what? I would have considered it an honor to lose my paycheck to him. Dean seems to me to be an inhabitant of the new south but a product of the old. Not only that but he’s super helpful and inquisitive beyond anything that can be covered in a 4 minute bus ride. I want to tip Dean just for being Dean. As I reread these last sentences I have to wonder if I have an unusually low threshold for what constitutes acceptable entertainment. Whatever the case, this trip is starting out well even as we are heading towards the OK Corral of booking conflicts. We step out of Dean’s chariot and into the Dollar Rent-a-Car office:

“Welcome to Dollar Rent-a-Car. How are you today?”

~

“I’m good. How you doin’ ?”

~

“I’m fantastic!”

~

And you know what? She is fantastic! Her name is Shelae and she is an attractive black woman in her early thirties with an attitude so positive, so genuinely upbeat, that she makes me feel ok about renting a compact car. As if it really isn’t a reflection on my personal prosperity, not to mention my manhood. But I have my son, my smile and my strong chin; I can get by on that.

“How can I help you today?”

~

“Yeah, me and my friend are here to pick up our rental.”

~

At first she’s confused; maybe she’s thinking I’m schizophrenic. Then she leans over the high counter and spends a few moments exchanging pleasantries with Cole. She makes a nice attempt to seduce me into some unneeded insurance and points us towards the area where the compacts are. I ask her to repeat the directions because without a doubt I am going to get lost in the parking lot. Shelae cheerfully escorts us out to the compacts. She’s a sweetheart. I feel bad about not buying the extra insurance. I don’t need it but I feel like it would have made her even happier, if that’s possible. I’m starting to sense a trend here. Something about southern hospitality and being pleasantly separated from one’s money.

We’re in the lot now and there are no compact cars:

“Oh well.” says Shelae. “Take any car you like.”

~

I’m really beginning to like it here.

So let’s see. There isn’t a lot of choice. I can either take a Nissan Something-or-Other or a Dodge muscle car. Come to think of it, I guess there’s really no choice at all. We exit the lot, I put the pedal to the metal, skid around a corner and off into the North Carolina afternoon with squeals of terror and delight coming from the back seat.

We shoot down I-77 and cross into South Carolina. Over the border, I-77 becomes The Billy Graham Parkway. For an urban sophisticate, that’s creepy. It’s creepy for me too. A quick station seek on the radio reveals about nine stations. Most of them are religious gobbledygook, one is political gobbledygook and the remainder are playing the top 7 songs of their respective genres in lightning fast rotation. It looks like the genteel hand of civility is fixed to a strong arm of conformity. This does not appear to be an environment of competing ideas. Lots of black and white; not a whole lotta grey.

Exit 79 off of I-77, a left, pass a giant shopping center, two lights and another left, to the back of another giant shopping center and there it is, the Holiday Inn. The hotel looks the same as the surrounding car dealerships, the Sears, the chain stores, the chain restaurants and every other retail outlet I’ve seen thus far. I know that as far as I may travel in this state, every town will be dominated by a shopping center and every shopping center will be identical. I believe they call this Low Risk Architecture; not because it can’t offend anyone, or inspire anyone for that matter, but because it is built so economically that even a total business failure isn’t going to cost anyone a whole lot of money. Pour a concrete slab, throw up the prefab stucco walls, fill it with cool stuff from China, man it with low wage workers, open the doors and complain about how your culture is disappearing. Or, as I like to say, “Aim Low.”

Ok, so we enter the lobby and I see a young guy at the reception desk. His name tag says Randy. Randy is the manager. From my perspective, Randy has been the point man for the hotel in this debacle. Everyone who has tried to correct this situation, the booking agent, the coach, whoever all else, have had to deal with Randy but I haven’t actually talked with him yet. Randy is just finishing talking with a very large and clearly irate black man. I can see the hopelessness of my situation but Cole is by my side and I have to both spare him any anxiety about this, his first big trip, and get him to the bathroom because he’s turning yellow.

I am all smiles and urgency. I ask where the bathroom is and ever so nonchalantly slide our reservation across the desk. Who knows, maybe we’ll slip through the corporate cracks.

When we return, there is a local cop standing by the desk. I think the big black guy rattled Randy and he’s decided to call in reinforcements; a little bit of cavalry. Better to have and not need, than need and not have. Turning to me, Randy says there’s a problem. So much for corporate cracks. The details of the conversation are not interesting but the bottom line is that he, as the local representative of Holiday Inn, can not honor this reservation which was made by them, the Corporate Holiday Inn.

I’m calm and make my case; he recounts the recorded conversation of my wife and the Holiday Inn 800 number operator. Our mistake was not booking through the local, graft approved, booking agent. How that bears on the 800 number folks I can’t say; either can Randy. He parses the language but his case is weak, or would be if he weren’t holding the magnetically encoded key card to my room. I ask him if I’m the only one who is having this problem and he says no; not by a long shot. He’s had cancellations and arguments all day and most of the guests have yet to arrive.

My assessment of the man and the situation is rolling over and in all fairness I need to adjust my expectations. He’s not a bad guy but he’s been put in a bad position by a system that doesn’t integrate the local booking process with the national booking process. Throw in a wildcard third party like the booking agent and it’s time to call the sheriff. Randy’s kind of been left holding the bag by an uncaring machine whose executives would never dream of staying in one of their own hotels. I see him as just another little guy. Unfortunately, I’m littler still. Our conversation has been cordial but has come to an impasse.

Randy offers me the room at $227 a night and assures me that this is the discounted price. For that kind of money I could have stayed on Times Square but then, we’re not on Times Square. When handed this defeat I turn to the only option I have left and wouldn’t you know, it’s my mom.

You see, I’ve lived in New York City for half my life and I have found that New Yorkers have a very fine sense of injustice and are hair trigger adamant about their rights. When you live in an eat or be eaten environment it only makes sense to bite first but it can be cause for misunderstanding. However today, with my mother’s gentle guidance, and the good manners and quiet nature borne of my native Philadelphia, I have not bitten. Dean and Shelae have prepared me for this:

“Would you still like the room?”

~

I do not let slip any anger or resentment. He has won the battle and it’s time to move on. My tone is all good humor; our conflict, no more than a game of checkers:

“Well, we’re not gonna chase all over town looking for a room. Sure, I’ll take it.”

~

Randy prints up the papers, I sign them and he hands me the key card. That’s when I make my move; after the surrender of Fort Sumter. But here’s the thing, it wasn’t premeditated; it just came out:

“Hey man, is there anything you can do for me so that I won’t feel so bad about this?”

~

Randy takes a moment and I can see he’s honestly reflecting. Then he says:

“You know, you’ve been so nice about this, how about dinner for both of you.
And drinks. As much as you want.”

~

He hands me his card with instructions to the restaurant staff. It reads:

:

—Dinners free. Drinks free. Everything free—

~

“Wow, that’s great! Thank you so much. Honestly. It makes a big difference.”

~

“And full breakfast too. As long as you’re here.”

~

“Wonderful! Thank you so much!”

~

“I’ll tell you what. Let me change the price of the room.”

~

He tears up the contract and I get a much more reasonable rate. Coupled with dinner, drinks and breakfast, I’m shaking his hand across the fortification of the the front desk and we’re pals. Truly and honestly.

Randy notes that we are in a room with a single king size bed and he offers to upgrade us at no charge.

I say:

“Look Randy, unless this is the honeymoon suite and you need it, you’ve already been really good to us.

Really, we’re fine. Thank you.”

~

So I sign the new contract, he hands me the keycard and the last thing he says is:

“I gave you free Internet too. The code is inside your key envelope.”

——

When we get to our room I have to laugh. It was all so easy. Like the song says:

As easy as

ABC123

Which, perhaps not coincidentally, happens to be the access code to the Internet.

~

A little while later Cole and I are sitting down to dinner and the influx of guests has begun. Arguments are breaking out even as a second cop arrives. I have a nice piece of fish with lightly sautéed vegetables. Cole has a hamburger as big as his head. I am sipping a craft beer and Cole is working on a lemonade. We have a low angle view of the devolving state of affairs at the desk. The booking agent, wherever he may be, has outdone himself. Rooms have been changed, without notice, to other cheaper hotels but the booked price remains the same. Rooms have been given away without warning; tensions are escalating.

“Overbooked?!”

The word is spat like an obscenity; an outrageous question; an inconceivable statement. Voices are being raised and fingers are being pointed. It’s a profit taking frenzy and poor Randy has been left to fend for himself. He’s doing his best but he’s been surrounded. I find myself witness to one individual’s capacity for stubbornness as he fights off one assault after another. I am reminded again of Southern pride and Southern sensitivities. His professionalism and dedication to the cause of hospitality, whose motto could easily be:

The Customer Is Always Right In All Matters That Don’t Concern Money

are the only things that can explain his not yielding to a demand for unconditional surrender. That and the fact that he’s probably the only one here who is actually armed. Bottom line: Corporate policy sucks and the booking agent has clearly screwed everyone; communication between the elements is non existent and the situation is simultaneously unraveling in both an ad hoc and post hoc manner, which I guess is kind of an accomplishment.

I feel bad about it and especially bad for Randy but the parties have engaged and there is no turning back. Fresh skirmishes are breaking out all over the lobby; North and South are locked in a struggle, the scope of which neither understands and the forces of which are out of either’s control. Forces at a distance, powerful and determined, have set events in motion. Once again the result is conflict, played out at a local level between individuals who don’t understand each other. One party cannot let go of the past and the other does not recognize the past even when it is staring him in the face, asking for a credit card.

Cole and I were the sole exception. We the meek, we the pacifists, we the noncombatants. The generosity of our host was not just our good fortune. It was a peace offering to god, before the onset of hostilities; our dinner, a sacrifice cast upon the waters in hopes that the inevitable conflict could somehow be avoided. Of course, nothing inevitable can be avoided.

Later, after the money is shed like blood, the rivals will retreat to the bar. There, they will nurse their wounds, have a nice snack and wonder at the conflicts unfolding on the wide screen TV and at the ever present possibility of man biting man.