A Thought for Your Penny

Memory is a funny thing and for pretty much all the reasons that everyone says. It’s selective and subjective, cherished and requisite for a good liar.

My father, a photographer, once or probably twice since he never thinks I listen the first time, told me that we remember colors in reverse. The color we remember an object being, is likely to have been its compliment. Which is to say we remember colors by their contrast. An interesting idea since it suggests that memory is as much about remembering what a thing is not, as much as by what it is.

I remember three of my father’s photo studios. The earliest was over an appliance store called Nate Ben’s Reliable. I was very young, no more than three or four years old, and as I recall the place had no ceiling. Every surface had been painted black for better light control. The walls seemed to rise on up and disappeared into the night sky; into outer space but without the stars. In that studio it was always nighttime. It was always a moment before the big bang. All potential.

A visit to my father’s studio meant play time in the prop racks; trying on clothes and looking for treasures. There was one prop, a giant horse-shoe magnet, that was too large for the prop area. The magnet, in reality just plywood and paint, was left over from a Smith-Kline Pharmaceuticals shot for a children’s iron supplement. This was back when vitamins were pitched to parents instead of directly to kids via cartoon character shaped pills. The giant magnet was always around but never in the same place twice. Slowly orbiting the studio it was, I imagine, a force of creation; emitting invisible fields of attraction and repulsion.

The studio was a place where time moved in uneven intervals. Eons would pass; nothing would happen. And then, without warning, all the lights would go out. You were suddenly alone, afloat in the blackness. The strobe lights would flash, POP, and you’d be blind for a moment from the whiteness of it all and that meant a new universe had been recorded on film.

After everyone’s vision cleared, my father would jockey people and props around; darkness and then, POP, another new universe would appear on film. He always said that being a photographer was a lot like being a salmon. You shoot frame after frame, roll after roll like a salmon laying it’s thousand eggs in the hope that one survives the jaws of the art director.

Things were always getting lost in my father’s studio. Lenses, props, bills, wardrobe items; nothing got lost as much as the prints themselves but nothing got lost forever. Eventually a finished print would show up, sometimes weeks later, and the key thing was that you had to grab it when you saw it. Even if you didn’t need it at that very moment. A mental note of its last known location was not enough. These sightings were random and fleeting. Like some rare and endangered sea mammal it would surface for a breath and then disappear. You captured it right then and right there or it would be gone again and for how long nobody could say, submerged as it was in the chaos and clutter of a busy studio and a creative mind.

My job in heavy construction shares some of those qualities. There is always a lot of old stuff where I work. When you are doing excavations and building foundations you necessarily have to dig up the past. Old building foundations, old piers and sea walls; a reminder of the shifting contours of this island and the evolution of land usage. In an old city like New York the past is always getting in the way of the future and while sometimes it can be worked around or even incorporated into new designs, more often than not it has to be removed and sent to the dump.

Not so long ago I was working in a hole in the ground burning a pipe pile. The pile, full of reinforced concrete, was for a new building foundation. It was a 48 inch wide pile with 3/4 inch thick steel walls. We were burning the last dozen feet off to bring it to proper grade for the pile cap; the part that ties the piles to the building itself. 48 inches might not sound like much but that’s the diameter. The circumference is near 13 feet so we work in pairs. My buddy Matt was burning from one side and I was burning from the other. Whenever I’m asked if I can burn I always say I’m adequate. In reality I am very competitive and proud of my burning. I’m not always the best but I’m always in the running.

Burning, like a lot of things, is actually several events encompassing a wide range of skills. You don’t always cut flat plate and you don’t always cut flat. You cut rust, which is not only time consuming but painful because rust doesn’t melt. The good steel melts and the rust causes the red-hot slag to spray back at you. In burning, as in working out of doors, it helps to know how to dress and also to have a fairly high tolerance for pain. But it’s okay. It reminds you that you’re alive.

There is also burning an object at or under the water line, which is either fun or incredibly irritating depending on tidal issues. And then there is burning a non-hollow object. In this case a steel pile full of reinforced concrete, as I’ve said. I’m pretty good at this type of cutting and was well ahead of Matt when I looked up to change positions. If you’re not comfortable, you aren’t going to burn well so you should be changing hand or body position almost constantly.

There was a pool of muddy water to my right and a wet embankment in my face. To my left was the pile. I had put a piece of lumber in the water and was leaning into the pile while balancing my toe on the slightly submerged scrap timber. When I looked up there was a disk on a little outcrop in the embankment. I picked it up and figured it was a washer but then there was no hole in the center so I slipped it into my pocket. As I was standing with the pipe drillers a short time later I took it out to have a closer look. It turns out to be a coin of some sort. I scratch it clean with my wet fingernail and it looks like it says…. let’s see.. ONE …uh..C*NT. ONE C*NT. Well how do you like that? It must be an old token from a Times Square peep show. Even so, that seems a little harsh.

Then I turn it over and there is a lady’s head with a banner on her brow, which reads LIBERTY. Wait a minute! That’s not ONE C*NT, it’s ONE CENT. ONE CENT and this thing is old! It’s scraped on one side where the back hoe bucket must have caught it but only three of the original thirteen stars are missing and it says 1883 or is that 33? My eyes are too gone to tell. But yes I’m sure it’s 1833. One of the crane operators says his brother collects coins and proceeds to call his brother who takes the info and says he’ll call back. He calls right back and tells us that it’s worth between 5 and 25 dollars depending on condition.

At home I get out a photographers magnifying loop, a souvenir of my father’s studio, and sure enough it’s 1833. When I showed Matt the next day, he said “Hey look! That head is the Statue of Liberty” which of course would not exist for another 50 years. I, of course, told him. It’s rare that I can correct Matt without his wanting to kill me but I know it’s all affection so I don’t normally worry too much. I just suffer the arm punches with as much good humor as I can muster and a very modest amount of internal bleeding. A couple of days later I showed the coin to my German friends. In 1833, Germany as a state would not exist for almost another forty years. My German friends didn’t think that was particularly amusing.

And here it lay, not only at the tip of Manhattan but in the landfill behind the crib wall that formed the southern seawall in the 19th century. Not only that but I found it in this triangular pit about 60 feet on a side. It is the confluence of the old 1/9 subway line turn-around, the FDR to West Side Highway tunnel and the N and R trains. And water mains. And gas lines. And air shafts. How had it not been found before? This tiny parcel of land has been turned over like a fertile field dozens if not hundreds of times. This is made land. Nothing of it exists except by the hand of men. And I do mean men. As the guys like to say “If it was easy they’d have the ladies doing it.” Sexist yes but fundamentally true. There are no girls out here although I have heard of some with the termites; the carpenters. The lone female is the sister of my foreman and on the job friend, Alex. Alex and I would never meet socially; he’s devout catholic with all that implies, and I am lost cause. Third generation Dockbuilders; she’s the exception that proves the rule. Or disproves it. Your call.

But anyway, you get the idea, it was old and here. Right here in the dirt. And always had been. Or had it? Was it picked up from somewhere else? Part of a ground up building or excavated soil recycled into landfill? The past becomes the present becomes the past. You know there is a market for landfill just as there is a market for land. What do you think landfill is? It’s land!

And how did it get here? At the end of a concrete pour you will often see a laborer toss some money into the wet mass. An offering to god. Thanks for not letting the form blow out. Was that it? Or did it fall out through a hole in someone’s pocket; the better part of an hourly wage, all that time ago. Who’s hand did it touch last? How did it get here?

How? I’ll tell you how. It was dumped by circumstance.

So, is that the meaning of it all? Is that all that it means? This penny?! This penny had evaded capture for over one hundred and seventy years to get to my hand. It is why I prefer used books. It seems like you don’t find them, they find you or better yet you find each other. Forces of attraction guiding small changes in direction toward an ultimate goal. Like all the history of the world has led up to this meeting. This utterly meaningless meeting.

This singular moment, this pointless event, will probably not echo in eternity but it does remind me that the ball is rolling. That weak forces as well as strong ones are at work and that seemingly unrelated events tie it all together. And the penny? I don’t know where it is right at this moment but sooner or later it will surface, like a lost photo in my father’s studio.

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Sexy Shorts

It has been suggested to me that my oeuvre does not contain enough sex. I thought oeuvre was French for egg. I became concerned because I didn’t know how to fold that into an erotic situation. I suddenly became worried that everybody knew something about sex that had just completely got below my radar. Then I learned that oeuvre is French for work and it started to make a little more sense.

Prurient thoughts are not foreign to me. Or anyone else for that matter. Be that as it may, I wish the suggestion for sexier content had not come from my 77 year old mother. It’s a little awkward. Everyones parents are sexual creatures but who wants to dwell on that? Still, a person always wants to please their mom.

~~~~~o~~~~~

My maternal grandparents were married for more than fifty years. They met on the telephone. My grandfather was a telephone switchboard operator at City Hall in Philadelphia. This was way back when there were switchboards and operators. My grandmother was calling City Hall on some forgotten mission. This was way back when you could call City Hall. She liked the sound of his voice. They met, had premarital sex and married shortly before the birth of my uncle Gibby.

My grandmother once announced, half complaining, half teasing and entirely without discretion, that my grandfather couldn’t really do “it” anymore. She could be tactless. After his third or fourth heart attack I guess he just couldn’t manage the necessary blood pressure but he was an even tempered man, if you discount the life long gambling binges. His response was “I’ve been fucking for more than 50 years. You’ll see. When you get to be my age, it’s not that big a deal.”

~~~~~o~~~~~

Thirty years after the birth of my uncle, my father caught site of my mother wearing white short shorts, no bra and a tight t-shirt. They were married, after an unusually affectionate courtship, not long before my sister was born. Not long at all.

I can remember waking to the sounds of them talking and laughing. My room was down the hall from theirs. I couldn’t make out the conversation, muffled as it was by doors and blankets on both ends but laughter is laughter. It had all the sounds of happiness and intimacy. Needless to say the divorce, though many years later, came as a surprise but their laughter is still at my core. They lost it for a time but I will always carry it. I have long considered it my most important memory.

~~~~~o~~~~~

My wife is a beautiful, mixed-race black woman. As the kids like to say, “Dad, you’re the only white person in our family.” We kissed at a Halloween party when she was twelve. I had just turned fourteen. It didn’t go anywhere. Where was it going to go at that age? We met again when she was nineteen. It was immediate and overpowering but we were young. We struggled with commitment until marriage and have never turned back since that day. She has a lovely caboose that has grown a bit over the last few years. As love would have it my tastes have changed along with her contours.

We are in our middle years and one day is very much like the next.

It’s the end of the day. The boys are warm and quiet in their beds. A load of laundry is tumbling in the tropical heat of the dryer. Plates and cups are being soaked in the scalding waters of the dishwasher. I shower and get under the covers to read and warm the bed for her, propped up a little by soft pillows. She bathes long. A displaced marine mammal from somewhere near the equator, she is in repose, submerged in the placid, steaming lagoon of our bathtub; grateful for a reprieve from the thin air. She comes to bed, her skin still warm and damp. She lays on her side, her head resting on my chest, one leg entwined with mine. We sleep together and we depart for sleep together. The lights are out and our breathing falls into harmony. I rest my hand on her hip. We exchange a few words of love talk and my hand slips down and around to her lower back. I stroke her soft backside. It’s very quiet. Then the whisper, “I want to snuggle.” It’s not our code. It’s not a secret invitation. It’s our little guy. We didn’t hear his soft approach. He’s ready for love.

What the Dickens is going on here?

Hey Drew,

Is it me or has this gotten to be a really long century already? Barely a dozen years into it and I’m exhausted. Dispirited even. As a more modern Dickens might have said: “The season of light, this ain’t.”

The wars, the environmental catastrophes, the wild stallions of unbridled greed. The self righteous barf coming out of every self serving jackass for whatever the moronic cause of the moment happens to be. TV talking heads pushing divisiveness like it’s ice cream. The reactionaries. The holier than thou hypocrites. The willful ignorance. The lambs and their slaughter. The liars and their willing minions. China and Russia. Again! The Mideast which, by the way, I’ve been sick of at least since Raiders of the Lost Arc.

And then there’s genocide. I mean, you would think we’d of had about enough of genocide but it remains as popular as ever. It’s kind of the default bottom rung along with sexual slavery and kidnapping for body parts. You’ll be gratified to know that there is an official list of world problems (suitable for framing) and that those little gems all made the cut.

The list of the Top Ten Problems of Humanity for the Next 50 Years reads like a David Letterman top ten monologue of the apocalypse. The list is as follows:

Energy

Water

Food

Environment

Poverty

Terrorism & War

Disease

Education

Democracy

Population

Genocide

Other Atrocities (e.g., trade in women and children for sexual slavery, or kidnapping for body parts)

Weapon of mass destruction (nuclear proliferation, chemical weapon proliferation, biological weapon proliferation

Transnational organized crime

The single word entries are by qualified scientists unassociated with any partisan think-tanks or groups with a name that ends with the word “Institute.” The intensely verbose entries are by “The High Level Threat Panel of the United Nations.” Typical of decision making by consensus. Everybody in a group effort wants to get credit. Whatever is gained by overall consent (if not exactly agreement) and the resolution of objections, is bought at the expense of brevity.

Admittedly this list is more than ten and, ok, it’s a combination of a few “Lists of 10” but that just goes to show you how discombobulated we are as a species. No doubt, there are plenty of animals that foul their own nest but I’m pretty sure we’re the only ones that have a real good look at the pile and then sit back down on it.

And its not like I’m a big news hound. I’m informed to the point of worry but ignorant enough to avoid being paralyzed with fear. I like to think of it as a balanced approach that favors sanity. And, in any event, I don’t believe my hand wringing changes anything about the forces in play. Still, I resent the partial reporting of news and how it has become a way of leveraging offscreen private interests. It’s little wonder that people like their tranquilizers. I want to be tranquil too but I think drooling is unattractive.

Did you know that Americans eat about 25 million Percocets and Vicodins a day? Over 244 million narcotic prescriptions a year? Holy cow! No wonder we can’t get off the couch. It’s a testament to our boundless stamina that we can even operate the remote. But that doesn’t explain or excuse Ranch Dressing flavored Doritos. Caffeinated candy bars, Torture, Tilapia, Fried Twinkies, Corporate Hegemony or Low Carbohydrate Beer.

Thankfully there is an explanation. My dad is presently a day older than god. But back when he was in his sixties and between marriages he had a girlfriend. She was a prominent doctor at an important teaching hospital in Philadelphia. She was super smart, attractive, caring, worldly, affectionate and willing. Unfortunately she also reminded him of his own mother so the relationship was doomed. Nevertheless, she had a wealth of clinical experience and she understood all these trends. Her insight was as follows: “95% of everyone is an asshole.” Assuming for the moment that I am in the 5%, who am I to argue?

I don’t watch television and I haven’t in many years but it is almost all anyone talks about anymore. Maybe that’s not true where you work but it certainly applies to the pudding-heads I’m mixed up with. Don’t get me wrong, they’re a great bunch of guys but they think that TV is real. They think watching television is an activity. Like playing tennis or reading or going for a walk. And I suppose it is an activity if you take out the active part. From their conversations, it sounds to me like going to your job and having some network air the results is now cause for celebrity. Hell, you don’t even have to go to work. I’ve heard them talking about celebrity video gamers, celebrity card players, celebrity eaters, celebrity adulterers, celebrity driving, shopping, dieting and dancing. Those last two, you can have separate or in combination. Aren’t those things we already do ourselves? You know, except for the adultery. That’s always someone else. Just ask the moralists.

For many people, life has become a spectator event. Safe at home, life has been outsourced to onscreen professionals. But to hear tell it, they don’t do any better of a job than we do. Often times not even that good; and that’s saying something.

Add it all up and it just seems like this is the worst of times.

And you know what? We already know what’s going to happen for the rest of the century. Do we really have to slog through the particulars? Way hotter, lots of extinctions, rising sea levels, mass displacements, environmental degradation, overpopulation, famine and wars. Lots of wars. Wars for resources, civil wars, culture wars, holy wars. Pretty much wars for war’s sake.

I guess you can see where I’m heading with this.

I say no!

Let’s not bother. I’m ready to move on to the 22nd century right now. Who’s with me?

History only looks linear because we’re standing at the end of the line. I say let’s break the line. Let’s put an end to the tyranny of chronology. The narrative is ours to arrange, or rearrange, as the case may be. Historians and pundits do it all the time. Let’s take the present and just push it into the past. Let’s allow the glorious past to become the future. And let’s take hold of that shining future and make it our magnificent splendiferous present.

Genius right?

Ok, so let’s take a look at some long term predictions about the 22nd century and see what “far, far better things” we have to look forward to.

……Oh my! That’s not good.

You know, I was talking on the phone with my mom today. She has a new hip and its working out great. And as I sit here on my sofa, writing on my iPad, drinking fair trade coffee with the smell of bread baking in the oven, the kids evolving around me and my wife tossing me a wink, I suddenly realize what they mean by the duality of life. Yes, spring came a month early this year. It is worrisome! But the flowers are lovely.

I guess when Dickens said “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” he had a good reason for putting it at the beginning of the story. It’s the beginning of every story! It is the human condition. Every moment in history can be characterized that way. There are surprises in store but there are no endings. And as the cheat sheets remind us:

There is a constant tendency toward violence and oppression.

There is always the necessity of sacrifice.

There is the ever-present possibility of renewal and redemption.

Palm Reading

Palm Beach is not a place that invites comparison. It is not a place that makes you think of other places.

It might be a place that other places makes you think of, but no place comes to mind.

The basic components are the same as any beach; sun, surf and sand, but here, even those few elements mess with your expectations.

The sun is sharp, the way it is at high altitudes where the air is thin. But of course the air here is heavy with water and the essence of plants. Like a character in a movie it seems to be more itself than it is in reality.

The sand is not so much pulverized stone as it is finely crushed coral and shell; ground down so fine that it fools your toes. It takes me four days to realize this and only after having built multiple sand castles with my three little guys and digging countless holes looking for sand crabs for them. I don’t find any but on the fourth day a fellow walks by with a five gallon bucket half full of them. Like in their hurry to avoid me they all jumped into his pail. It feels a little personal.

I have also been digging up dozens of Burrowing Crab holes that have not once yielded a crab. On our last day, I run into Mr. Sand Crab again. It is he who actually tells me the holes I’ve been digging up are Burrowing Crabs and he says he sees them all the time. He’s starting to get on my nerves. I’m also beginning to think this beach is deliberately toying with me.

And then there’s the water. I give up on the water. Twenty years working on the water; high water, low water, slack water, up and down twice a day but this tide is a mystery to me. Each day the ocean seems to choose a tide it likes and it stays at that level all day. I’ve never seen anything like it.

We are three families on vacation with five children among us; guests of old and dear friends. The kind of friends that cannot be made after a certain age. I don’t know if it’s the shared battles of youth or the constraints of adulthood but the depth of feeling, of trust, is not possible after a certain age. Once you know who you are it isn’t possible to know other people in the same way.

On our last morning, looking out on the Atlantic, there was a low water calm and no breeze to speak of. I went about gathering mask and snorkel and boogie board and set out upon the quiet sea to discover… whatever.

As I wade into the surf my feet press down on the mortal remains of countless sea animals deposited over tens of millions of years. I walk out about ten yards, lie on the boogie board face down and paddle. The bottom gives way to nothing but rippling sand for a long while.

The optical properties of mask and water make it appear that I am in just a few feet of water but putting feet down to test for depth I am unable to find the bottom. I let go of the boogie board and plunge headlong into this other atmosphere. The bottom is a foot or a yard or a mile away. However near or far, it is beyond my reach. I return to the boogie board and resume my effort. I paddle for what seems like quite a while but time, like distance, is difficult to gauge on the water where no reference points exist.

All of a sudden I see a silver fish and then many and within a few minutes I am floating over thousands of them. Big and small but all appearing to be the same. Herring I’m told; slowly swimming and as calm as the rippling sand. I look down on them the way aliens must look down on us, with detached amusement.

My mask, pink and perfectly fitted to a ten year old girl, is slowly taking on water. I lift my head to clear the water and have a look around. Calm sea. No indication of what lies beneath the surface, beneath my dangling feet. Hidden yet totally exposed. Head down and there they are completely out in the open. Head up, gone. Down, up, down, up. These two worlds spanned by my body and by my attention. My head in the clouds the earth far below my feet and me suspended like a hopelessly undereducated astronaut.

Tomorrow I will be back in New York at work and I will open the paper and find a picture of a twelve year old boy smiling next to the carcass of a 551 pound Bull Shark caught at Palm Beach. It will be declared a state record besting the previous carcass by more than 30 pounds. But that is tomorrow.

Today I am far out in the water off the beach. It seems probable that one of the boats that I can see from my low position in the water is the one carrying the boy to his inevitable destiny. He doesn’t know that he is heading toward the shark. The shark doesn’t know that he is heading toward the boy. And I certainly don’t know that I am likely swimming between them.

Each of us has a date with death. This boy will be the agent, the proud agent of this sharks demise. It makes me think how odd it is that we picture the grim reaper as a tall, cloaked and hooded figure, quiet as the grave. It is not so. Each of us is the agent of death for each of the other. Sometimes it is in one great struggle. A struggle that may be going on even as I am afloat in the warm waters, face down, immersed as I am in this cradle, swimming with the fishes. But more often I think that we are each, incremental slayers of each other. It is no one great battle but a thousand skirmishes that does us in. As the father of three boys I say this with a lot of confidence; the devil isn’t in the details, he’s in the other room fighting with his brothers.

Returning to the house, the villa, involves a transition from the beach through green gardens that surround it. Gardens that include a private nature trail. A description of its lushness seems pointless. I’m not that articulate. Take my word for it, it’s lush. Really, really, lush. The owner, father of our hostess, is a self described “frustrated architect.” He is also an accomplished amateur landscape architect and collector of exotic plants. The house, private apartments arranged around a sliced coral courtyard and fountain is all white columns and tuscan terra cotta roof tiles. The rest is greenery.

It’s on the beach but nestled in among the palms and aloes and whatever else you call these shady cool bushy broad leafed things and in this it is unusual. You might say that its most prominent feature is that it’s concealed.

I’ve been up and down this beach and every house, great or grand, palatial or simply extravagant, is fully exposed. Some beyond great incongruous lawns, others right on the beach but all with a pornographic full frontal quality; “Hi. my name’s Lance. What’s yours?”

But this house, this restrained house wrapped in its protective gardens appeals to the blend in, assimilate, stay below the radar jew in me that has I’m sure, to some extent, made me uncomfortable with aggressively promoting myself. On the other hand I haven’t had my village burned recently so survival-wise it seems like the way to go.

That of course is not a problem that the owner of this place suffers from. Yet the place definitely says something about the man. He has carefully and shrewdly guided his legacy, the family business. He has made it into a giant, privately held corporation that you very likely never heard of.

In this house we are not so much guests as we are a group mingling around food and drink, pool and beach, reading, music, talk and quiet.

There is no timeline and no schedule. Nothing seems imminent. We are each moved as movement dictates. We are somewhat amoebic in our integrations and disintegrations.

We are all, in our middle age, bonded in our common sense of leisure. There is no other agenda and nobody has anything to prove. We are each ourselves within our capacity to be ourselves. We are all comfortable with quiet. The lack of entertainment affords unlimited opportunities to notice the minute details of pleasure; small scenes, textural contrasts, atmosphere.

The young are, as ever, immune to pleasure confusing it as they do with excitement. But I have no old man’s lament about youth being wasted on the young. For although I was young once, and wasted, now I see it as each according to his ability.