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 81/2 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.

Man Child

llustration: Clayton Mednick

Hey Drew,

I don’t remember much about my puberty and I don’t recall a thing about yours, which is probably just as well, but maybe you can give me a hand here. A little advice to your little cousin to help me through this trying time.

We had a week of extreme and changeable weather around here. Very dramatic. The Weather Channel was an orgy of predictions. The meteorologist, April Shauer, was so excited she had a fine mist of sweat on her upper lip. It was like the atmospheric turbulence had moved into her panties.

Then, just when things seemed to have settled down, our middle guy Miles sprouted almost a foot overnight. None of his clothes fit in the morning. I had to take a day off from work so the wife could take him to the doctor. We thought it was gonna be a bigger deal than it was. Clothing wise he actually fits nicely into Clayton’s clothes even though Clay is 5 years older. I hope Clay doesn’t mind sharing with Miles for a few months until we see what happens but you know a whole wardrobe is a lot of money, particularly if he’s gonna outgrow it all in 36 hours. What do you think, is that unfair?

The doctor said it was the most extreme case of Precocious Puberty he’d seen in quite a while but apparently not so rare as one would imagine. Something to do with the Pituitary yadda yadda. Who can understand doctors anyway? I swear, I think they just make it up as they go. I know that’s what the rest of us do, so it’s a pretty fair assumption, right? Even so, it’s probably just as well I’m not a doctor.

My mother used to say that she could have been a doctor but she hates sick people. Know thyself, right? Well I’ll tell you something else I know; kids can make you feel old in a hurry. Especially this kid!

I mean the height is kind of shocking but not nearly so much as his change of voice. He went right down into the lower registers and is able to hit a low C on the piano. That probably doesn’t mean much to you but when he’s humming it actually moves a glass of water across the table by vibration. Weird, I know.

The other disconcerting thing is the beard and chest hair. Way more than me, which I know isn’t saying much, but for an 8 year old it’s pretty startling. And boy is he strong. Every time Butch, the neighbor’s Pit Bull, looks at him Miles snarls and Butch runs away in terror. I’m actually enjoying that but don’t tell anyone. I think Miles put a beating on him when no one was looking. Only room for one alpha male on this block, Buuutch!

Now don’t get me wrong, he’s still the same sweet kid he’s always been but he’s a little more insistent about things like cookies and bedtime. We’re trying to act as if it’s nothing out of the ordinary but you can tell he knows that a rule change may be coming his way. For the moment he’s still susceptible to the old bait and switch but that’s only gonna last for so long. The upshot is that either we can address it now, before he makes demands, kind of get the upper hand or we can take a wait and see approach, deal with it as an evolving situation. Proactive or reactive, that’s the question.

Ok, so I started this letter yesterday and never mind about the question of sharing Clay’s clothes. He must have had a hell of a night because this morning he’s looking pretty comfortable in my clothes. And he wants to borrow the car and get a job. I mean, I admire his drive but still, I’m a little conflicted. I wish you were here to help me on this. I know you could talk some sense into him. A parent’s authority is so greatly diminished as a child reaches the parent’s height, but there is something about a stranger that always commands a kid’s respect. I mean, the job thing might be ok but I don’t know. What do you think? Should he finish second grade first? What a dilemma!!

Where do I draw the line? Where would you? Anything taboo just becomes more desirable, right? For instance the Scotch. I had to hold the line there didn’t I?  I’m still the parent, right? But still there’s the need for flexibility. So the single malt is forbidden but I bent on the blended. Compromise, right? But with an eye towards the future. Right?

I don’t know, it’s so disorienting. I mean, it seems like only yesterday he was just a little kid. Or maybe it was the day before yesterday.

Anyway, I guess it’s true what everyone says. They really do grow up so fast.

Que Sera Sera

Hey Drew,

My wife had to work last Saturday and so did Charlotte, the neighbor across the street. Her husband Chris was left with their two girls Miranda, 5, and Kendal, 7. They are a mixed race couple, same as us. Chris had six tickets for a members only event at the Brooklyn Zoo that included free rides on the restored Brooklyn Carousel as well as snacks and events at The Lefferts Homestead, an 18th century farmhouse. Chris called with the invite for me and my little guys Cole, 7 and Miles, 8.

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

Two middle aged white guys with four kids of color in tow. Two boys, two girls, two men. Gay! Pretty much guarantees that you’ll be ignored by the single mom’s and all the dads. Couples are occupied so you become a magnet for married moms, alone with their kids, looking for a gay guy to girl talk with. I let Chris field the heifers while I kept a laissez faire eye on the chilluns and watched the neurotics. It’s always fun to watch today’s parents molding tomorrow’s psychopaths. I try to keep a positive spin on it.

There isn’t really much to tell about the event. The zoo had animals; the big hit was the baboon’s ass. Bright red for reasons that only another baboon could fully appreciate though the kids came in a highly vocal second. The homestead had old fashioned handmade toys for kids to try, like 6 inch wooden stilts. I mean, what is the point of stilts that don’t make you appreciably taller? I guess when you’re under 4 feet tall, 6 inches is a big deal.

“Look at me dad, look at me! I’m a giant!”

The boys had them pretty well mastered in a few minutes, the girls wouldn’t go near them without crying. The kids are too old for the storytelling circle and too young to appreciate the house, built either in 1777 or 1783 depending on your source. It has a sloping concave roof with wooden shingles. There is a photo of it being moved across Flatbush avenue into the park about 100 years ago. In the photo there is a slowly cresting wave of brick houses and low rise apartment buildings creeping up the blocks on all sides. Blocks that didn’t exist when the house was built. Blocks that aren’t even squared to the lot the house sits on. The house seems dropped into the scene like Dorothy’s house into Munchkin Land.

The photo was taken at that moment when it wasn’t clear who the intruder was in the situation. Were the buildings overwhelming the pastoral scene or was the farmhouse getting in the way of progress? I guess the answer depended on whether you were standing on a porch or a stoop. Oddly enough the loser in that battle is the last one standing. Many of the new buildings in the photograph are gone now, replaced by apartment blocks only a generation later. The remaining ones have been stripped of what little dignity they originally possessed; glassed over and turned into cell phone stores, roti shops and cheap clothing outlets. Down the street, a few steps into Prospect Park, under the maples and sycamores, the homestead has its dignity and its porch intact.

And then there was the carousel. It’s an old beauty and as it is a device that goes round and round it’s purpose is to make you want to puke. Coleman was a little intimidated by it and wanted to sit on a bench instead of on the back of one of the horsies. As luck would have it the benches were few and taken so while the others rode, Cole and I sat out and watched. As luck would also have it the other kids wanted to ride again and Chris was looking a little green so we slipped into the cool vinyl couch of the beast, with brave faces and a nervous belly.

I never used to have this problem. When I was a lad I used to go on a ride called The Zipper. To my mind the reasons for calling it The Zipper aren’t entirely clear. I think it probably should have been called Vomit Now. This would have been the very early 70’s and the carnival was on the lower fields of Grey Nuns on Old York Road. The carnival was designed to take the small change from the kids and keep them busy while the adults played illegal slot machines up in the school. The slots were arranged in an oval with their backs open to the center where the operator could keep an eye on the innards. Whenever a machine was about to make a colossal payout a nun would come over to the machine, graciously ask to jump the line, take the handle away from the player and start jacking coins down the slot. Within a pull or two she would hit the jackpot, scoop up her winnings and walk away from the adoring parishioner she had just ripped off. And the adoring idiot would just marvel at the sister’s good luck. I swear it’s true. First hand knowledge. I was sitting cross legged under the table watching with my friend Richard as we were digging dropped quarters out from between the machines.

The Zipper was basically a dozen tipsy cages spinning on a pair of drive chains that were rotating around a parallel pair of 40 foot propellers that where spinning. Rated number 1 on any carnival ride shortlist, every description of it is priceless. I have only just now learned from Wikipedia that I was riding the pre safety improved model. Improvements came in ’77 after a hefty number of gruesome and litigable accidents. It is, in fact, hard to think of any description of this ride that would even remotely suggest that those injurious outcomes were anything but deliberate. I urge you to have a look at the Youtube clips of it and then consider this little gem of a fact. The stripped down model I rode turned about 40% faster.

Ordinarily I am loathe to use anyone else’s writing beyond the length of a short quote but this entry from another web site is just too precious to pass up.

# 1 Ride – The Zipper

Truly the most metal of all the amusements – the Zipper is King of Kings amongst carnival rides. No matter where you are, in any state, in any town, the Zipper ALWAYS guarantees you the following three things:

1) The most insane, scary, drunk and high ride operator in the entire fair

2) The largest line, consisting of more middle schoolers smoking cigarettes per capita than anywhere else in the nation

3) The ONLY ride that gives you both a 10 in Fun and a 10 in Likelihood of a Fatal Accident.

The Zipper rules all that comes before it – a 48 foot tall beast, where the only thing preventing you from meeting an untimely demise is a two inch long pin, that’s half an inch in diameter. The ultimate deathtrap, the Zipper rewards those brave enough to look past the squeaking, creaking, and falling of integral pieces with an incredibly intense riding experience that changes every time you go on. What’s that clicking noise? No time to think about it – you’re being hurled head first toward the pavement. Is that a screw that just hit me? Doesn’t matter, because we’re going BACKWARDS, baby.

Nice right? Not anymore. A 99 year old carousel is now an alarming prospect. I’m sure it’s partly mental but still, after I turned 40, everything that could make me dizzy did. After I turned 50 even the mirror became disorienting. Then again that may be another story.

So there I was, facing down the hellish, nauseating threat of the carousel. The platform spinning round and round. The horses going up and down. And only two padded benches for the cowards. The merry old gentleman operator, a clever disguise for the roaring soul eater. He whose name must not be spoken. For a reckless torpedo of a kid, Coleman can have extraordinary moments of fear over the most mundane events. In retrospect, it was less like fear and more like shyness. As if a formal introduction to the wooden horsies might be all it would have taken to dissipate his anxiety. “Coleman, this is Sea Biscuit. Sea Biscuit, this is Coleman. You two are gonna be great buddies”.

I know his anxiety must have been on my mind because as the carousel started turning and I began testing myself, successfully, as to whether I could make myself dizzy I started to look for stable points for us to focus on. I started by pointing out the music maker. A one man band, minus the man, called a Wurlitzer Band Organ, it sits on the blacktop, unmoving, in the central area along with the drive motor and operator, the carousel spinning around them. Opposite the Wurlitzer there is a bare breasted caryatid, her arms draped languidly over her softly quaffed hair. Her breasts are high and her nipples suggest that she was carved on a cold day. A surprising addition really to a ride that dates back to 1912, and yet it doesn’t look at all out of place. Personally I  think they should have one like her on every street corner in America.

Now we’re picking up speed; pushing I would guess 6 rpm maybe even 7. I need a strategy, a game-plan to get us through this. Or maybe just to get me through this. When you look towards the center of a spinning object, as we did with the fulsome caryatid, you are looking at the slowest moving part of that object. If you are seated on that spinning object it’s a pretty good tactic nausea avoidance-wise. Better yet is to look at something else on that object that is spinning with you. As a matter of relativity you are now standing still, centrifugal forces aside. But staring at my hands is only going to alarm Coleman so I look up and I see the very slowly turning crank. The horsies that go up and down are not pushed up from below they are pulled up from above by a driveshaft with offsets like a hand cranked drill laying on its side. As the shaft turns these offsets describe a small circle. The crank passes through a sleeve at the top of the pole that carries the horse up and down and the pole slips up and down in a guide mounted to the floor of the carousel. Cole is either very interested in how this simple mechanism works or he is too petrified to resist my guided tour. Either way the ride is soon over and as the last strains of Que Sera Sera played by organ, xylophone and drums fade away I can see he’s ready to ride again.

Saturday Morning Cartoons

Hey Drew,

Let’s Pretend that it’s story time

And I’ll tell a tale to you.

I’ll tell you a story of make believe

And all your dreams will come true.

And when the story’s over

And when we reach the end.

We’ll live happily ever after, Where?

In the land of Let’s Pretend.

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

That guy, Gene London, early 60’s, singing to us on the television on saturday mornings from Cartoon Corners General Store was telling us that there is a better place than where we are. And you know what kids? It’s in your mind, man. The part that is really impressive man, is how we will live happily ever after in the Land of Let’s Pretend, after the story is over man. After! We are goin’ out there man and we are not coming back man and it’s gonna rule man! I shit you not Drew, that guy was a stone cold freak. No wonder we loved him.

You know the story. In the not too distant past a kid joined the family business, was apprenticed to an acquaintance or simply sold to a stranger. Life was simpler then. Our generation was, to a greater degree than ever before, free of those constraints. Consequently, of course, we were also free of that iron fisted guidance. But television abhors a vacuum and guidance appeared in the form of televised animated role models. And if you take a second look at the messages we were getting man, they are a glorious trail mix of fruits, nuts and seedy characters. The old wicked was a new viable alternative lifestyle.

In the old days man, in the old days the old allegories hammered home the old values. You see, the message of fables and fairytales was that if you stepped out of line you were dead meat. Killed, cooked and cannibalized by an unforgiving natural order. And we remember those stories but it didn’t end there with us. We bridged the past perfect and the future shock. Fractured Fairytales was our New Testament and it revealed to us that the past wasn’t so perfect and the shock was more like a delightful buzz.

We were the link between the Brothers Grimm and Warner Brothers. From Mother Goose to Merry Melodies from Mothra to Hanna Barbera we watched it all. We were the passive aggressive receptors in a psych-o-social mind fuck.

Huckleberry Hound, Drew. Huckle fuckin’ Berry Hound! Need I say more? That dog had his paws deep in the shit, noooo doubt!

Underdog, man. When Sweet Polly’s in trouble I am not slow! The rest of you can go scratch yer ass cause Polly wants more than a cracker, you know what I mean man? Bird is the word man. Bird..is..the..word!

Casper the Friendly Ghost? Great. Really great. You tune in to turn on to a little scare me time, a little adrenaline rush and what have we here man? What a little apple polishing, boot licking, brown nosing, goody two-shoes! No wonder he’s a ghost. I’d pop a cap in his ass myself. And you know he’s such a transparent suckup. Really makes you think twice about being a good guy. I mean, if he’s a member of the crew your hangin’ with, you need to get yourself a wolf pack and go wilding.

Bugs Bunny, amigo! Come on!! Now there is a hometown homeboy! There isn’t a soul alive or dead who doesn’t love Bugs Bunny. Cross dressing, Fudd kissing, carrot obsessed, sarcastic flamboyant bitch. A role model for millions man. Undeniable!

Mickey Mouse? Nice guy. Kind of a chameleon. Trying to be all things to all people. Genial, with a castrato’s voice. I think I liked him best when he dressed like Bing Crosby. Cool yet wholesome. No undercurrents. Minnie was pleasant enough; a female without allure or any sexuality what-so-ever, which is saying something. They were like warm broth. A pair of role models we might choose for our parents but for ourselves? No way man! Ain’t happenin’!! They didn’t know how to have a good time. To them fun was exciting and a little scary. No man, for us it was Goofy, man. Fuckin Goofy! The dude didn’t know how to have anything but a good time. Goofy was the man, dog! He could have the best time ever just trying to figure out his own shadow. I can just hear my old man saying ” who would look up to a character named Goofy?” Silly question, right? The answer is “Me! You! Everyone”! When we were kids you had to have a nickname. To this day my three best friends are, Dink, Funk and Zonker. Say no more, por favor.

Road Runner? I don’t know man. Everyone I know would rather be Wile E. Coyote. Wile E. was the Don Quixote of murderous stalkers. I’m convinced he pointed the way for a generation of punk bands and paparazzi.

Popeye? Smoking, cursing, muttering, substance abusing, twisted freak of a snap case.  I’ve had all I can stands and I can’t stands no more. What’s not to love?

Foghorn Leghorn, Drew! Freakin’ Foghorn freakin’ Leghorn. Without a doubt among the most imitated of all characters. Drew, we were all emulating a chicken! And not just any chicken. A stuttering, conniving, lazy, shit stirring common domestic fowl (Gallus gallus) with delusions of grandeur. Who could resist?

Mr. Magoo? Forest Gump meets Foster Brooks. There’s a little Mr. Magoo in every stoner I ever met.

The Pink Panther? Pretty much self explanatory.

Woody Woodpecker. A name is like a picture without the image. Woody was playing in the same league as Beaver Cleaver, Peter Parker, Pat McGroin, Ashur du Smelbad, and I.P. Daly. Also the theme music was a big hit for Kay Kyser’s band in 1948. The band featured the cornetist comedian Merwyn Bogue whose stage name was Ish Kabibble. True fact, man.

When I was a kid I had a best friend. So did you and everyone else. The same held true for cartoons, right? It was match.com with a no divorce guarantee. Chip ‘n Dale, Heckle and Jeckle, Tom and Jerry, Beany and Cecil, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Fred and Barney, Sylvester and Tweety, Sherman and Mr. Peabody. Secret Squirrel and Morocco Mole, Tennessee Tuxedo and Chumly, Augie Doggie and Doggie Daddy (“Auggie my son, my son”! was that Jimmy Durante?) Libby the Lion and Hardy Har Har. Yogi and Boo Boo, Touché Turtle and Dum Dum, and the legendary Quick Draw McGraw and Baba Looey. I’ll do the thinnin’  around here Baba and don’t! you! for! get! it! Nobody ever loved a dim bulb better than we did.

Who’s to say who we’d be without the likes of Clutch Cargo (featuring real lips), the weirdo marionettes of Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds and the final morph to H.R. Pufnstuf and The Banana Splits. These last two may have been live action shows fronting B grade toons but they were hosted by fully costumed, foam filled, fun furred, day-glow stoners. Gene London on acid. Two hits! By this time the kiddy gloves were off and the smoking jacket was on. I mean really man, H.R. Pufnstuf? That is, without a doubt, the name of a head shop somewhere!

Refocus man, refocus. What was the question? That always happens man. I get off, on these tangents, and the next thing you know I’m at the refrigerator door looking for a snack and, oh yeah, Saturday Morning Cartoons. So look, there are big issues here man. Big issues. Like was Crazy Cat really that crazy or was he just a product of his environment? For that matter was Felix the Cat really happy or was he just putting on a brave face. The facts of fiction are inscrutable man. And why so many cats and dogs? And mice too. Speedy Gonzalez had a totally positive mental attitude sure but I think it was the amphetamines. When he comes down he’s gonna be a high speed train wreck.

Top Cat; lazy, scheming, fancy-pants hoodlum. Gang leader of a ragtag band of miscreants. As if all that wasn’t enviable enough he had an awesome theme song. When I was growing up you had to have your own sound track because every character had their own sound track. And T.C. had street style. So we needed street style. In my school that meant you had to have your own walk. And a walk sticks. All these influences stuck. People I know can tell it’s me walking down the street before they can identify my face. The walk is so distinctive that it arrives before I do. I am aware that’s probably not a good thing.

Obviously Mighty Mouse was mightier than the Mighty Manfred, sidekick to Tom Terrific but Manfred was the man that Fred wasn’t. Fred, sidekick to Super Chicken, who wasn’t all that super but did take his Super Sauce Elixir in a martini glass, had to be reminded that he knew the job was dangerous when he took it. But then, that’s why we all picked up the martini glass in the first place, right?

Look, I could go on and on but all I’m trying to say is that George Jetson’s dog is Astro and Astro Boy is a robot who wants to be a real boy and Pinnochio is a wooden toy who wants to be a real boy too. Not a big issue for Pinnochio because he lives in a world with magic which is really a bullshit plot device. There is no magic in the future so Astro boy, who can live forever, will be disappointed forever. Dude needs to adjust his expectations. Meanwhile, Tobor the 8th Man was just Robot the 8th Man spelled backwards but he had no desire to move beyond his station in life. He was basically Iron Man without the man, man. Lacking desire maybe he should have been Tobor the 8th. Done! Give him the benefit of the doubt? I don’t think so. Takes us into murky territory. Makes the connection to Henry the 8th, I am, I am, as in I am Sam. Sam I am.

I Am. Two words. Three letters. The most powerful statement in any language. Self determining. Self referential. Bottom line? Deputy Dawg was not a real officer of the law, bro. You know, that’s all I’m trying to say.

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.

The Piano Lesson

 

 

Hey Drew,

I’m trying to remember, did you guys have a piano growing up?

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

Music lessons. Did you ever take music lessons when you were a kid? I’m trying to walk through the rooms of your row house at 8091 Fayette Street in Mt. Airy and I can’t find a piano.

Up the many steps to your front door, the entry leads directly into the living room followed by the narrow dining room. The uncommonly narrow kitchen is off to the left of the dining room. The kitchen and dining room are actually in the same space. A thin wall with an entry at the far end divides them.

The living room is where a piano would have been. To my right is the long couch with the uncomfortable fabric. Pet proof, child proof and husband proof as they used to say in the ads. I don’t know, that seems like a tall order. There’s a pair of end tables and a dog sitting on the backrest. Mittens. Black and white and dead all over these many years now. I’m blanking on the wall opposite the couch. A TV console maybe? Very sketchy but definitely no piano. A piano is not the kind of thing you forget about in a room.

The dining room is barely wide enough for the dining room furniture. No piano here. I’m ten years old and when people are seated I can’t squeeze by to get to the kitchen to see my mom. She’s in there with your mom doing what they do best. Solving world hunger within a twenty foot radius. They’ve made enough food to choke a swarm of locusts. The dining room furniture is mock colonial but the meals are genuine overkill.

A quick stop back into the kitchen for a mental snack (wow, it really is tight in here) and a look at the window thermometer. These things are kind of fascinating. It’s on the outside of the window looking in. It makes you wonder if a thermometer, looking in like that, a voyeur, occasionally registers the temperature of its family’s life. You know, just to flex it’s muscles and break up the monotony. I’ll bet those little fuckers can be pretty astute and you know they’re sneaky. A thermometer may not know what time it is but you better believe it knows how hot things can get in the kitchen. Especially this kitchen. It’s so pinched intimacy seems unavoidable.

You know while we’re here we might just as well have a look around upstairs. Your room is, Holy Jumping Jesus Christ Drew don’t you ever clean this place up? Dude, I think you’ve set some new standard here. I’m in awe. Huh?! Look man it may be my memory but it’s still your room. By the way, nice blacklight posters, you should save those. They’ll be collector’s items someday. What’s a collector’s item? You dopey teen, a collector’s item is something you throw away because it’s trash and then pay big money for later because it’s nostalgic, unless it’s a porcelain figurine. In that case you pay big money for it because it’s nostalgic and then throw it away later because it’s trash. Hmm? No, I don’t make the rules.

Ok, back out into the hall, test the wall to wall carpet. Pluuuuush. Seven steps and it’s Bonnie and Lissa’s room. Let’s see, Oh! Oh my gosh! Oh sorry, sorry Lis! Really, honest I didn’t mean, yeah yeah no no I won’t tell. Bye. Wow! This place is like a mine field.

Then the master bedroom, made neat for our visit so I’m looking in on some kind of standard template of 60’s domesticity. It looks like a textiles or home furnishings ad and you know that’s probably what it is. An ad fixed in my mind, interchangeable with reality. A default memory when the real thing is inaccessible. Look magazine June 1968. Avocado Green bedspread. Burnt Orange lamp base with frosted glass globe. Formica furniture. Some kind of two layer curtain blocking the light and damping the sound from the street. That’s all I got. I guess we never played in here. Let’s head back down to the basement.

Well, would you look at that! Here I am, thinking you didn’t have a piano and there it is, under some laundry, in the last place I look. Dear Abby used to say that everything you find is in the last place you look because after you find it you stop looking. Call it what you will, I call that genius. The piano is a pale wood upright but still it must have been a bitch getting down here. Oh wait! Now I see. This is the back space of the garage entry which is at the back of the house. The garages are sub-grade, exposed right to the foundation, along the entire length of row houses. Entry is from a central driveway that cuts across the backs of all the houses. No backyards. So getting the piano into the house was easy, the real bitch would have been bringing it upstairs. But nobody did. The piano never actually made it all the way into the house did it. Into the living room. It never really became a family member. It was left in its stillness to gather laundry, it’s strings vibrating in sympathy with the passing rumble of trucks. More of a listener than a singer.

Pianos do not make easy partners. A piano is demanding of space. It is physically large. It is visually heavy. Its sound expands to fill whatever space it occupies. Its quiet does the same. When a piano is not embraced by a family it becomes an awkward guest, its very presence a constant reminder of an unrealized hope. A piano won’t be ignored, it can’t be put away and forcing it to leave involves a certain amount of cruelty. Getting rid of a piano involves a rejection of ones own positive potential. It is an admission of failure. A small death perhaps, were it not attached to great expectations.

A piano is obviously a singular instrument. The number of strings varies with size and style but I’ve just counted the tuning pegs on our 1942 Knabe Butterfly Baby Grand and it has 215 strings. My brother’s 1937 Gulbransen Upright has 220 strings. A concert grand piano has 230 or more and that’s just on 88 keys. Stuart and Sons, of Australia, make a 102 key piano. That seems like the kind of thing you’d see in a Dr. Seuss illustration tipping precariously from the top of a feathered tree. To put a little perspective on this a full-size Grand Concert Harp (the kind used in an orchestra) has 47 strings. No other instrument comes close to the piano.

A little subsurface exploration and we find that except for the highest and lowest tones each key on a piano has two or three strings. The strings of a single key are called Unisons because they are identically tuned. The multiple strings even out the volume across the keyboard. Very thoughtful. The piano covers the full spectrum of any instrument in the orchestra from below the lowest note of the double bassoon to above the top note of the piccolo. That and the fact that it’s able to produce melody and accompaniment at the same time is what makes it such a great instrument to compose with. But it isn’t just the strings. According to the Steinway web site there are 12,116 parts in a Steinway piano. I’m thinking there are probably a couple of thousand parts in that number that are just there for numerical superiority but even so it’s a pretty astounding figure. And you know what? None of them would be worth a frogs fart without the bridge, a narrow ledge of hardwood that transfers the string vibrations to the soundboard. Isn’t that how it always goes? It doesn’t matter how powerful my computer hardware is and it makes no difference how sophisticated my software is; if I can’t plug it in, it’s just junk. The bridge is the plug that activates the piano. A terrible metaphor and more than likely inaccurate but hey, it can’t all be poetry.

I’m sure you’ve turned the crank on one of those little music box contraptions. It’s a tiny metal barrel with little nicks in it. As the barrel rotates the nicks pluck at a tiny metal comb; the fingers of the comb corresponding to an octave of notes. Plink, plink plink, plink plink and we have “Send in the Clowns” or, as with my grandparents favorite music box, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”, a big hit from 1910. The point is the little bastard didn’t make much sound until you cranked it while it was sitting on a table. The table was a soundboard through which the sound could amplify because, as we all know, sound travels better through the densely packed molecules of solids than through the widely spaced molecules of air. The same holds true for a piano. The wooden soundboard accounts for the volume of sound. Such a great word in this context, Volume. Volume is the degree of loudness or intensity of sound but Volume is also the amount of space occupied by a three dimensional object. The way sound occupies a space is three dimensional. So that makes sound an object, right? Sounds good to me.

We had a piano too; a Kurtzmann. I asked my father how we came to own a piano and if he charged it off to his business. My father’s explanation goes precisely like this.

“There was a man who had a shop on Germantown Ave. where he restored and sold pianos. Our oldest child played flute and our middle child was a layabout and our idea was to get him off his ass and the piano might uncover some latent gift buried who knows where. So we invested in the piano and the child and the rest of the story has yet to be writ. Alas I didn’t think to charge it to the studio and that’s why I remain a free man despite my parole officer’s protests.”

For a time it got a reasonable amount of use but mostly by me which was not going to be a good sign for any instrument. At one point I thought it would increase my non-existent cool factor if I learned to play guitar. Thank goodness I broke my wrist after the first lesson. It saved me from having to admit another failure. Our piano, like many, was never really embraced by the family as a musical instrument but we all recall it fondly as being a stellar piece of furniture.

It seems like everyone had a piano in the sixties. Factories must have been cranking them out like confetti. Pianos must have been a status symbol from the very beginning but mass production must have made it a more affordable postwar symbol of affluence. Like all such symbols it was subject to a hierarchy. A grading system. From huge, ornate, hand carved cases to little more than functionality and packing crate simplicity. From old to new, from concert grand to grand to baby grand to upright. From Steinway to what, Kenmore? Kmart? Edsel? World wide there have been thousands of brands.

Naturally you would expect that all those pianos must have degraded the symbolic value of the instrument. But there is always a lag time between the end of an objects perceived desirability and actual market saturation, between exclusivity and the realization that all a piano bought you was a piano. There’s nothing like owning a piano to help you draw that conclusion for yourself but by then of course it’s too late. I’ve been told by people who know about this stuff that exclusivity can end with a market penetration of 30% while saturation is more like 80%. You can see that the lag time between message degradation and image degeneration can be significant but that’s not going to be an issue here. With 10 million pianos in this country and well over 110 million households, the piano’s strong image and message are still well aligned. So what does it all mean? It means there is something about a piano. Something that vastly exceeds the sum of its parts. Maybe the piano maintains its regal position based on the simple hope that some of that high grade something will rub off on us second rate owners.

My family, living in a large house, opted for a used baby grand. It filled the space nicely and made my parents, a couple of ghetto Jews, feel like they had, if not arrived, at least departed the want of their depression era childhoods. My sister suffered a year of piano before making a break to the flute. I went through years of lessons and though I resented having to practice, I don’t recall hating the instrument. Or loving it for that matter. I don’t think I liked it or even disliked it. I was not a passionate child. Not enraged like my elder sister or uncontrollably exuberant like my younger brother. I am, after all, a middle child. I see all sides of an argument and they are all equal before me.

All of that time, all that parental hope and expectation culminated in my final lesson. It was the end of the school year. I was 13 years old. Before going away on summer vacation I asked my teacher if he thought I should continue my lessons in the fall. He said, “Technically you play pretty well but you have absolutely no feel for the instrument.” I don’t believe this came as any surprise to me. It was a relief really. My father warned me for years after, that I would eventually regret not finishing my piano studies and becoming somehow competent at this instrument. As if there is ever an end to the study of an instrument. My father didn’t see my potential as clearly as my piano teacher. I had learned Für Elize, and Russian Folk Dance. I had gently gutted Beethoven, Bartôk and Mozart, purging them of any passion, emotion or sentiment. I had dutifully learned how to read music. My potential was met. There may have been more to learn but there was nothing more for me to learn. Without any regrets I would not touch a keyboard again for another 35 years.

Our middle guy, Miles, takes piano now. Early on it became apparent that Miles had language and word processing problems. He stuttered and couldn’t retrieve words that he knew. We tried to get him help and he was evaluated but he exhibited little of those problems while being interviewed. Then one evening at dinner I took out my cell phone, put it on video and asked Miles what he was holding in his hand. I don’t know how I knew beforehand but I knew he wouldn’t be able to answer. I just felt it the way an experienced mountaineer can feel an avalanche before it happens. There is a tension in the surrounding air before the snow lets go, breaking the bonds of traction, the snow slipping away along a submerged layer of instability like a final kiss goodbye.

Miles couldn’t answer. He was holding an orange. He stuttered and struggled continuously until the video memory was exhausted. He qualified for help after that. What is interesting is that the problems of retrieval were not problems of memory but of processing. Kind of like hand eye coordination but between reasoning, language and mouth. The particulars of the strategies he learned have, for the most part, slipped away from me except for one element. He was to concentrate on the musicality of speech.

There is a slew of evidence supporting the claim that people who study music have higher IQ’s. Instruction in music greatly improves children’s performance in reading and math. College bound students score over 50 points higher on the verbal portion of their SAT’s and over 35 points higher on the math portion. Studying music improves abstract reasoning skills. Piano is the most complicated instrument and, to my mind, promised to offer the greatest degree of benefit. As luck would have it we already owned a piano that we inherited from my wife’s Aunt Bert, a life long piano teacher. The bulging contents of her music bench prove her to have been an avid player of classical music, show tunes and early to mid-century popular music. The real Tin Pan Alley stuff from the likes of:

Boosey & Company, Inc. -The House of Song Fame- New York (And London)

Sole Selling Agents: Boosey-Hawkes-Belwin, Inc. 43-47 W. 23rd St.

New York City.

There are addresses of major publishers in the RKO and the RCA Buildings at Rockefeller Center as well, offering sheet music from the likes of Aaron Copland, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rogers & Hammerstein, Noël Coward, Lerner & Loewe, and the ever popular writing team of Al Hoffman and Dick Manning, represented here by a song called Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom). Distressing right? Powerful people were deciding this was a good idea. I guess it was big; there’s a picture of Perry Como on the cover. There’s a tune called Flirty Gertie from Bizertie. I wont even attempt to explain this stuff except to say that it is proof positive that we all grow up on a different planet then our parents did.

There’s a sheet for a Jerome Kern tune, The Last Time I Saw Paris, apparently sung by a star named Hildegarde. Just Hildegarde. Actually that’s not entirely true. She was also dubbed The Incomparable Hildegarde by Walter Winchell and The First Lady of the Supper Clubs by no less a fashionista than Eleanor Roosevelt herself. Whether that was a high compliment or a vicious insult is anybodies guess. So, Hildegarde. Really trips lightly off the tongue doesn’t it? I wonder if it ever occurred to anyone to have her change her name. For that matter I wonder if Hildegarde, to a mid-century ear, sounded like Fergie or J-Lo or Prince. On the cover of the sheet music is a photo. Hildegarde from the waist up, looking over her shoulder, unsmiling, no backdrop. Plain as an unsalted cracker. I don’t know how we’re supposed to be having a good time with this when she clearly isn’t. Hildegarde is a platinum blonde with a face reminiscent of Madonna but her hands look like they belong to Mike Tyson. Clearly the industry hadn’t perfected the art of image making.

The pre-war sheets are heavy paper stock printed with an abundance of scrollwork and unrestrained self promotion. The cover was the sales pitch.

WILFRID SANDERSON:-

OUR MOST CONSISTENT COMPOSER OF GOOD SONGS

GIVES MUSIC LOVERS ANOTHER GEM IN

REMEMBERING YOU

The Beloved JOHN MCCORMACK

HIGHLY ENTHUSED OVER THIS FINE BALLAD

INTRODUCED IT AT HIS FIRST CONCERT OF 1933-34 AND HAS REPEATED IT

WITH SIGNAL SUCCESS ON SEVERAL OCCASIONS INCLUDING, TWO BROADCASTS

Words by Music By

DENA TEMPEST WILFRID SANDERSON

.35¢

Composed for the home entertainment market before that market was finished being steamrolled by radio, this “Gem” is a duet for three hands; two hands playing chords one hand playing an ultra simple melody. The chords can be managed by any piano student. The student can easily coach the one hand melody. The melody player wouldn’t even need to read music. The key strokes can be memorized in a matter of minutes. With music like this anyone who had a piano could play a piano. And you know what? With songs like “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” I’ll bet the sing alongs were a blast.

Let me call you “Sweetheart,” I’m in love with you.

Let me hear you whisper that you love me too.

Keep the love-light glowing in your eyes so true.

Let me call you “Sweetheart,” I’m in love with you.

Sure we think of those as simpler times but that’s us, not them. Every era is somewhat more complicated than the rabble can cope with. Ergo politics. And sure people weren’t too bright back then but really, how different could it have been than it is now. Not too different, rest assured. Within their own timeframes, how different are pianos and video games. Less different than one might think. While they utilize different technologies it is by no means a given that a game is more complicated then a piano. The possible combinations of gameplay are limited. When you include composition and improvisation, a piano becomes the true machine of unlimited possibilities.

By the post war period the cover art on Aunt Bert’s sheet music, when there is any, consists of awkward one tone publicity photos and discount illustrations. In fact the whole package, from cheap paper to poor printing seems to lack any decidedly divine inspiration. Until you get to the songs. There are some clinkers in here but for the most part we’re looking at the American Songbook. Standards that seem to defy the certain death that stalks most popular music. It turns out Aunt Bert’s piano lessons were also lessons in good taste.

Miles started lessons through school when he was five, in one of those group keyboard classes. When he was six we started lessons at home with Gabe, the teacher from the public school outreach program of The Piano School Of New York. A great program and a great teacher. For the final lesson all the kids in the program were required to play to the gathered families on a Steinway Concert Grand in a recital room at Jazz at Lincoln Center in the Time Warner Building on Columbus Circle. Miles, cool, calm and confident to a fault, played his piece, then jammed a bit with his teacher and after all that, leveraged the occasion to get a Pineapple Sunday from the Mister Softee truck parked on the corner.

During this time I started pulling free sheet music off the internet that we could work on together. I would play a piece and if he liked it I would show him where to put his fingers. He watched, memorized and repeated in a way that I never could. He continued in school lessons when he was seven but the music was not interesting to him. These school lessons tend to present the instrument as a fun thing to do but it didn’t seem like Miles wanted it to be fun. Fun wasn’t going to hold his attention. We had noticed that the part of his home lessons that he liked best were when he and Gabe would jam to some simple blues progressions. At these moments his concentration level was at its height. With all this in mind I went in search of a jazz teacher who would work with him.

Throughout this period his language and reading skills really started to gel. He was getting help at school and he was playing piano at home. But it wasn’t until we landed Sonelius Smith that it all came together. Sonelius is an old school jazz man with a reality check on business. He’s played with some of the greats including Lionel Hampton and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He talks to Miles about the diversity of styles he’ll need to play in order to make a living. This to an eight year old. Sonelius has no time for fun and games. Piano is a serious pursuit. He’ll start and stop Miles over and over again trying to make a point. There’s no tickling the ivories with Sonelius. It’s about mastering the instrument through mastering yourself. At eight years old I wouldn’t have lasted a single lesson. I’d have curled up inside and refused to go back again. Miles is amazing and unshakeable. Sonelius’s critical tone rolls off him with no effect. Miles has made remarkable progress and in the process learned how to ignore Sonelius at particular moments, apparently for the sole joy of getting under his skin. Miles is thriving on the discipline. He’s playing Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Mongo SantaMaria, some classical works as well as improvisation. His reading has improved dramatically and his math homework is painless. More than that, as the white father of a beloved mixed race son, I believe Sonelius is the black man that Miles needs in his life. He’s like another grandfather. The one who you respect because he’ll whoop you upside the head if you sass him.

We have three boys and it goes without saying that one on one time is at a premium around here. Miles will go to the piano on his own to practice or just to experiment but when it comes time to really concentrate I am at his right hand. We talk about the notes, intervals and fingering. I read the music as he plays and I point out weak spots and mistakes. He corrects me when I’m wrong. Recently he’s started to ask me if I think I can do better and of course the answer is no. He loves to hear that. He enjoys letting me know that he is better than me at this thing. I enjoy letting him know that he is better than me at this thing. I am able to function and teach and be supportive without being masterful. And at this point I am reminded that a long time ago I learned as much as I was able, that it has exceeded in value any worth I have ever assigned to it and that it was just enough for me to help my little boy.

Call Me Irresponsible

Illustration by Clayton Mednick

Hey Drew,

Are you an Eccentric? A Rugged Individualist? A Sententious Crank? How about a nut job. Are you a nut job? Maybe a Whacko? A Fruitcake? A Head Case? An Oddball? I’m none of those things but it seems to me that everyone else is. I mean, think about it. Children appear to be a bunch of lunatics. Teenagers are incomprehensibly deranged. Old people are chronically demented and everyone else is non compos mentis. It’s a little strange how nobody notices their own peculiarities and hypocrisies. And absolutely nobody wants to take responsibility for their actions. We often describe people as suffering from delusions but the reality is quite the opposite. It’s not them, it’s us. We’re all suffering from each other’s delusions. From one another’s common, yet persistent, disorderly editing of reality.

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

I’m sitting here on the front stoop watching the kids pick on each other. It’s like a microcosm of every regional conflict in the world.

Me against my brother.

Me and my brother against my neighbor.

Me, my brother and my neighbor against that kid over yonder.

If they were old enough to cross the street, I fear they would make a foray into the next block (after waiting for the light and looking both ways) in search of plunder. A half pint raiding party with plastic light sabers picking up conscripts and kicking over the Lego castles of the weak along the way to pillaging the local candy shop. When the parents show up there’s going to be a lot of finger pointing.

And of course that behavior doesn’t really abate when people get older. The grabbing and the bickering, the cheating and the name calling. The only difference with grown- ups is the scope of the undertaking and often times not even that. Adults are just big children. And you know what that means?  It means that when the lawyers show up there’s going to be a lot of finger pointing.

The nice thing about kids is that while kids are as averse as adults to taking responsibility for their actions, at least kids aren’t pretending to be doing you any favors. As cruel as kids can be, their convictions are as short as their attention spans. With kids you can see the knife coming. And the knife is flimsy and plastic with a glow in the dark blade. Not so with adults.

It’s been said that every possible universe is possible and so I imagine there must be a universe where everyone takes responsibility. And not just responsibility for themselves but for everything. The cheese goes bad on the plate and the person standing closest points it out and apologizes. All the other people in the room say ” That’s ok Mork, it wasn’t you, it was me.” or ” Nope, nope, I did it!” or “Ok, if you think so but still, I feel just awful about it.” Then everyone chimes in together “We’ll try better next time.”

Neurotic? Sure! Unbelievable? Not so fast!

I worked in an environment like that once; where everyone was happy to take responsibility. It was my first job in heavy construction and it was a pier renovation. A dive job. I learned the responsibility ploy from my mentor, a commercial diver and whacked out Vietnam vet named Scotty. Scotty used to say “I’m the second best diver in the business. Everyone else is the best; just ask them.” Whenever something fell overboard, and on water jobs things fall overboard all the time, Scotty would say he lost it. No one bothered with recriminations because it was widely understood that this kind of thing happens and that Scotty could kill you with less effort than it takes to blink and in about as much time. Also, Scotty hadn’t lost anything. Everybody knew that Scotty was just happy to take the blame. And everyone else, when not eagerly grabbing the blame for themselves, was glad to have such a convenient place to put it. Scotty understood that assigning blame doesn’t move the job forward, it’s just divisive. But almost everyone else on this particular job was of the same mind. When asked where a missing tool was, guys would generously offer up a  “Gee, the last time I saw it, it was in my garage” or “Yeah, I think I sold that to my brother-in-law.”

Neurotic? Sure! But these are the tradeoffs we make. And there are advantages.

Everyone taking responsibility creates a rock bottom level of tension between people. And it takes the time consuming task of assigning blame right off the table. Assigning blame is so rarely of any benefit. I’ve listened to so many stories of love gone wrong. He was mean, she was demanding. I always give the same advice. Assigning blame is pointless. You didn’t get along. You weren’t compatible. That’s all.

All that time listening to the lovelorn, lost to me because of my own willingness and because I guess I look like the kind of person people can trust. Alas, they’re wrong. When people ask me if I can keep a secret I always say “No.” That kind of honesty inevitably has people telling me things I have no business knowing. Counterintuitive I know but that’s practically a definition of human nature. The truth is I can’t keep a secret any better than I can keep a cookie. If I have it, it’s a goner. It might be me or it might be hereditary; it’s hard to say. For generations our family motto has been,

 “Your Secret Will Die With Me.”

 

A nice double entendre, no? It’s on our family crest in the original Norwegian.

 

Din Hemmelige Vil Dø Med Meg.”

And while I do understand that we are Ukrainian peasants without land, title or crest, I also understand that the reason my clan has blonde hair and blue eyes is that footloose Viking dandies were galavanting around the Ukrainian countryside looking for soul food and a little snuggle. Therefore we claim our birthright as Vikings. And Jews too. We’re not trying to dodge an investigation regarding our whereabouts on the morning of 1 day B.C. Plain and simple we are Viking Jews. Yes we pillage. Yes we destroy. Yes we leave our dirty clothes on the floor and empty milk containers in the fridge. But our ambitions are fueled by good intentions. We’re genuinely sorry about any inconvenience our ransacking may have caused. We feel just awful about it. Honest, we’ll try better next time.