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.

A Man Out of Time

I used to know a guy named Jack VanSickle; Mr. Van we used to call him. The chatter around Blue Water Lake is he died a lonely and miserable drunk. So naturally, I’m looking for the punchline.

I met Mr. Van in 1971. He was my group leader at a backpacking camp in New Mexico called Cottonwood Gulch a.k.a. the Prairie Trek Expedition. We traveled around the four corners area, so called because of the the right angle joinery of the four states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. We were in search of good, off the beaten track backpacking and adventure. Mr Van was a bachelor science teacher from Rushville, Indiana and this was his summer gig.

I spent three summers with Mr.Van; my last two as his quartermaster. This promotion came with the perks of lower tuition, greater responsibility and while not exactly a councilor I was not exactly a camper either. An early step, if you will, in my long ascent to world domination. My job was to pack, unpack and generally keep organized, Mother. Mother was a motorized Conestoga wagon. A large, rumbling, slat sided truck with arched hoop roof covered in old fashioned oil canvas. She held our gear and food and water. Often times, while exploring the dessert, the water from her side tanks was the only water we would have for weeks. Strictly rationed. No washing. Her petcock was our nipple of life.

There were 16 campers as well as three other counselors including Kurt Vonnegut’s nephew, Ricky Vonnegut. We called Ricky, Choo Choo, because he was obsessed with taking pictures of freight trains as we drove in our van from one spot to another. Nobody would have noticed this, we were self obsessed teens after all, but Ricky had figured the best way to get a clear shot was to match the train’s speed, lean out the window, face glued to the viewfinder and ever so carefully focus and then wait for the engines to align with the mountainous background to form the perfect composition. The problem was that we were doing 70 miles an hour in an effort to overtake the train’s engines and get everything just so. Ricky was the only adult in the van and consequently the driver. Take it from me, regardless of claims to the contrary, teenage boys do scream like little girls.

There was a cook named Tom Hyde. Tom’s secret to perfected eating habits, which was no secret at all, was that whatever didn’t get eaten at dinner, was included in the next morning’s breakfast. This was before nouvelle cuisine so Beef Stew Pancakes and Barbecue Chicken Oatmeal were not considered delicacies.

The peculiarities of memory allow me to remember Ricky’s name because of his famous Uncle Kurt. I remember Tom’s name because of a single piece of junk mail. I was the quartermaster and therefore I called out the weekly mail from stops that were arranged before the beginning of the summer. Tom was a botanist and this was in the early days of automated mass mailings for credit card applications. One day Tom received a letter from a credit card company. Showing off their intelligence network capabilities of combing data for worthy credit card recipients the letter started out as follows.

T. Hyde Botany

We know who you are and We know what you do.

From then on he was known as T. Hyde Botany.

There was a third counselor but I don’t remember his name. No stories attached themselves to him therefore no memory cues. All I do remember is that he left at the end of camp and went directly to Amsterdam. At 13 that didn’t have any meaning for me. Now I understand that he was off on an adventure of his own.

We picked up mail along our travel route at these one room post offices; sometimes nothing more than a desk in a store or the front room of somebodies house, in towns that probably no longer exist. The southwest was full of ghost towns but there were an equal number of fringe communities. Clusters of old houses and shuttered businesses; wooden mausoleums that were waiting for their elderly inhabitants to die, so that the buildings too might finally rest in peace.

Most of these towns had grown up in the 1870’s and 80’s around mines and mills producing silver. Silver and gold, the so-called bi-metal standard, had been used in US coinage from the beginning. The use of gold and silver allowed for large and small denominations of coins, before the introduction of paper money in 1862, without resorting to gigantic and minuscule coins minted from a single metal. That sounds good. Exchange rates between the two metals were set by law. That sounds bad.  Laws are the kind of thing that markets are notorious for ignoring.

Then along comes the California gold rush of 1849. So much gold gets introduced into the market that not only does it damp the value of gold it undermines the value of silver. The good news is that with more metal you can mint more coins. Instant prosperity. Simple! Silver mining remains profitable enough and towns here grow. That was good news.

However, as I understand it, which is just another way of saying that I don’t really understand it, the constant recalculation of value between the two metals by speculators  was becoming unmanageable. That was bad news. Hoarding and dumping were a constant strain on economies and in 1873 the US Congress, along with most of Europe, followed England’s half century lead and tipped towards a gold standard. If you were big into silver, a so-called Silverite, you would have called this The Crime of ’73.

Silver was still used in coinage (that was good news) and it would be, in ever more dilute amounts, until 1965 but a one to one correspondence between the metal value and coin denomination was on the wane. The demonetization of silver, along with the great silver strikes here in Colorado that flooded the market in the last quarter of the 19th century, further eroded prices. That was bad news.

The good news was that help was on the way in the form of The Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, whereby the government promised to buy silver. Lots and lots of it. 4.5 million ounces a month more than it was already buying for the purpose of coinage. That’s over 280,000 pounds! A Month! The miners took a moment to wet their pants, jack up the price and then dig like mad.

Of course for every profitable action there is an unprofitable reaction. All this government support for silver caused a flood of silver in the market that eventually undermined its value relative to gold. As they say, or more accurately as Gresham’s Law states, “Bad money drives out good” which means that overvalued money drives undervalued money out of circulation into hoards. Everyone ran to the bank to trade silver for gold. That was bad.

At the same time, all this unexpected federal support for silver undermined confidence in the promised gold standard and the Silver Purchase Act was repealed in 1893. The market was flooded with cheap silver and everyone holding Treasury Notes, which were redeemable in silver or gold, ran to the banks to get the gold. That was bad too. The resulting run on gold brought the United States to the brink of bankruptcy before the jolly joker himself, J.P. Morgan, and a syndicate of his pals stepped in with a loan of gold, on attractive terms naturally, that saved the nation from insolvency. Not a great guy to owe money and favors to. Nope, not a good situation to find yourself in and one I personally have tried my best to avoid by consolidating all my gold holdings into a single low karat ring on my left ring finger.

In 1900 the Gold Standard Act made the gold standard official but in these parts the steep decline had already taken hold. Mines and mills, banks and railroads throughout the region were shutting down. When the money left, the people left. Silver camps shut down all over and real estate values simply dissolved. Other metals of value, Lead, Zinc, Molybdenum for high strength steel, saved some towns and slowed the demise of others for awhile. But by the time of the Great Depression, when metals demand all but disappeared, many towns throughout the region had been abandoned. The days of mine camps and remote mountain towns was over.

But there are always those few souls who root easily and deeply; those who never leave, preferring to tend the graves of their loved ones while waiting to join them. Enter Mr. Van. It seemed to us that Mr. Van knew everyone in the southwest worth knowing. Tribal elders, shop owners, nomadic prospectors still panning for gold. He knew everybody that was nobody. Old old people; the children of boom and bust. These ancients had stories to tell about the mines, the ore crushing mills, the tribes, the rustic living homesteads, the tragic deaths of loved ones.

And then there was the backpacking. Caves and canyons, lava beds, rock formations, mesas and mountains; we covered them all. Mr. Van was our Wagonmaster; we were his pioneers; Mother and the two Ford Econoliners were our wagon train. For us, every road was a back road, every town, every pueblo, was in a state of ruin and every ruin was open for exploration. Hiking in the San Juan’s? Mr. Van knew people at the San Juan County Historical Society. Of course he did! So we went following the trail of a doomed 19th century expedition. Of course we did! We were looking for the remains of the definitely lost and probably cannibalized Fremont Expedition of 1848-49. It was all directly under foot; a finger touch away.

Mr. Van had nothing but contempt for what he called GAT’s; Great American Tourists, enveloped as they were, in the fatness of their luxury. He hated their crass ignorance of this holy land; a land they ignored in favor of cheesy roadside attractions offering cheap imitation mementos of the vanished and vanishing cultures he held in such high regard. For Mr. Van, and therefore us, authenticity was the law. He was right but he was also a man out of his time.

After setting up a base camp in a new location we, the boys, would break out the topographical maps, plan a trip and pass it by the counselors. The counselors would point out that we had the map upside down and were planning a trip over a cliff. After a brief lesson in topo map reading we would plan again, get approval and the following morning set out with tents, sleeping bags, food, water, stove and toilet paper. Everything but a counselor. We were on our own, unsupervised for a few days. We’d walk through deep waterless canyons, along high desert cliffs and over windswept mountaintops thousands of feet above tree line. Not for a moment did this strike anyone as unwise or unusual. Up until this moment I never gave it a second thought at all. But I will say this; Every bit of self confidence I have springs directly from those formative times, the responsibility that Mr. Van put on us and the prize of winning his trust.

And it’s not like we didn’t get lost once in awhile. But when we did, we figured it out. Poured over the maps, checked compasses and backtracked or set out on a new route. It was a thinking man’s game entrusted to a bunch of 13 year olds. Genius really, when you think about it.

Mr. Van would stay back and drink scotch while the other counselors did the same or borrowed the Ford van and went in search of a town with a bar and a girl or set out with a group of the boys who hadn’t proven themselves. The name of the game was Wingin’ it and nobody did it better than us.

One afternoon, after I was done setting up camp and supervising the digging of the pit toilet, Mr. Van called me over. “Art, do me a favor. Go get me some snow for my drink.” We were camped beyond Mayday, a ghost town in the San Juan Mountains of south western Colorado. Our base camp was at about 9,000 feet. The snow pack was directly up the almost vertical mountainside at about 10,000 feet. I never would have thought to question Mr. Van. I was happy to do it for him. Things are different now aren’t they; the expectations of children and grown ups. But I’ll tell you what; if he asked me to do it again tomorrow, I wouldn’t hesitate.

The second to last time I saw Mr Van was 1973. It was my third year; my second year as quartermaster. I was already being groomed as a counselor although I never did become one. We did the desert loop. Keet Seel ruin in Navajo National Monument, the Gila Wilderness, Canyonlands, Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced Shay), El Malpais Lava Flows, Arches and more. We saw ancient Native American cave paintings deep underground in a cavern on a reservation ranch that nobody saw but us because these were Mr. Van’s people. He was like a white medicine man who held respect wherever he went because he valued that which every other human had passed by. He was not so much the story teller but he knew where every story was hidden.

He took us to see very old people, sitting in dusty yards or on the rough porches of their tiny desiccated towns. Our job was to listen. The land, the houses, these shuffling relics were all equally dry. The people and their stories would soon disappear but not the towns. The buildings, in this arid environment, will last for another century at least. I have stood, at a steep angle, in a miners boardinghouse, half slid down a talus slope, that had not slept a soul in any living persons memory. And of course the land. The land would remain; little different than when these people’s grandparents had arrived a century ago.

Dust devils, cholla cactus, dead grass, tumbleweeds, open sky and light. So much light that an Easterner’s eyes become thirsty for color. Touching down in Philadelphia at summers end, the lushness was an ocular plunge into cool waters.

It would be 20 years before I saw Mr. Van again; it was also the last time I would see him. I took my wife to visit the camp when we were backpacking in the area. I was in my mid-thirties. We pulled up and he was sitting on the porch of the log cabin mess hall. Camp had ended for the summer. Hummingbirds were whizzing around; all else was quiet. We got out of the car and approached him. “Hello Mr. Van. It’s Arthur Mednick. I was your quartermaster back in the early seventies.”

“I know Art. I’ve been expecting you.”

Tick Tock Diner

Time, so they say, is irreversible. The Past, so they say, is different from the future.

Time does not stand still.

I went to college for seven years. Even so, I am at least a couple of years away from a Bachelor’s Degree. My freshman year was three of the best years of my life. The same could be said of my sophomore year. So much for the vaunted rules of time.

One of those sophomore years was spent at the University of New Hampshire. I lived in a house with 15 other people. We each had our own room of a divided up old Victorian. We shared three bathrooms and two kitchens; one on the ground floor and one on the third floor.

The ground floor kitchen had several refrigerators. We each had a section of refrigerator but my friend Dave likes to tell it that when I was hungry I would, in his words, forage through them all. Forage is his word now. I can’t think it or say it without making a mental note of him.

For the record and in the interest of fairness my friend Dave disputes many, if not most, of the facts in this story. However, since I am the writer, I would like it known that Dave is a notoriously unreliable, not to mention uncooperative, witness. Furthermore, during this time, Dave was a degenerate drunk, an unrepentant sybarite and a known communist sympathizer. And it is This Reporter’s Opinion that he also practiced….. WITCH-CRAFT!

That said, I don’t recall if I treated all those refrigerators as my savannah but it’s entirely possible. I still eat that way when left to my own devices. I’m less of a hunter-gatherer and more of a scavenger. An opportunistic eater one might say.

Apparently I was able to avoid drawing predators, in the form of angry housemates, by employing a survival mechanism that I like to call Nibble and Move. Pretty self explanatory and altogether successful when coupled with the track covering behavior of fluffing the refrigerated leftovers to camouflage my covert snacking.

The upper kitchen was outside of my natural habitat but not outside of my interest. I used that kitchen to boil road kill that my Anthropology Professor had buried for a season. You know, to get the last furry bits off. He was making a skeleton collection of local fauna. I don’t know what I was thinking but I’m afraid I thought it was a good idea. His name was Howard Hecker.

When Howard and I first met he said ”Mednick eh. Are you related to the poet Mednick?” I answered that I thought it was possible but probably not. Then he asked if I knew Hecker flour and of course I did. Even back then, barely nineteen, I occasionally baked bread. “Yeah” he would say, “I’m not related to them either.”

One of the fellows who lived in the house was named Robert Armstrong. “All American Boy”, my mother would always say when hearing his name. Surprisingly, his was not the most memorable name. That belonged to the birdlike and serious Cat Sleep. A definite top floor turret dweller, she lived in the round room. She was serious, industrious and motivated. A genuinely diligent student, she would make any professor proud. We shared nothing in common.

Over Christmas break, Robert Armstrong, “All American Boy”, had moved out and now lived at another house out in the boonies between Dover, where I lived and Durham, the town where the University was and I presume still is. That house was called Shaky Acres and every full moon was occasioned by a Full Moon Boogie, after the song of the same name by Jeff Beck. I can no longer remember how many of those Full Moon Boogies I attended but whatever the number I can only recall one. And of that one I remember nothing. I don’t think it was because I’d had too much to drink, although chances are pretty good that I was drunk, but only that so much time has passed.

Everyone thinks about time. The great distance between then and now. Where does it go? Whatever happened to my dearest what’s her name that I loved so well? How did I become here? How did I get here is a question of time as much as circumstance but adds the fleshy dimension of history and the question of free will.

History is the accumulation of events. Events exert pressure on subsequent events.

Pressure subverts free will.

My friend Mike is a city planner or would be if he weren’t working for the MTA. There was no work in city planning and after years of trying he settled for the MTA and a steady meal ticket. Mike’s family came from Ireland in the 1840’s, driven by the potato famine. After passing through New York harbor they joined the push west to Ohio and opportunity. And then on to Illinois. Failed farmers they joined the California gold rush. And then north. And then back east to Chicago. Finally settling down in New York, the very place they had departed more than one hundred years earlier. A trip of generations in search of a bite to eat.

Were they really making choices or were they pushed along by the force of history? Is it free will to follow a trail of survival? Are any of us exercising anything more meaningful than the choice between low fat and skim, caf and decaf? It’s the past. The past propels us forward. Again and again we steer blind but experienced, into the headwinds of the oncoming present, looking for calm and a cessation of hunger.

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.

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.

Salt Peanuts

Hey Drew,

Did you ever use a flavored ChapStick and it reminded you of grape soda when you were a kid and that got you thinking about reaching up into the old soda machine in front of the gas station on Old York Road to liberate a bottle without the bother of paying, how much was it, 35¢? All because Eddie, the bad kid down the block, thought it was a good idea and you didn’t know how or even why to say no. It was a small thrill on a hot and humid suburban summer night; right up until the cops skidded to a halt. We bolted but I couldn’t make it over the wall so I slid under a parked car, gravel buried in my skin and held my breath so tightly that my chest hurts just telling about it.

Memory is peculiar isn’t it. And the more remote the memory the more peculiar it gets. The things that surface from distant memories are the things that didn’t even bear mentioning back when the dormant past was the urgent present. The subject of Monday morning’s meeting will be lost forever by Thursday afternoon but something about Miss Dulcet’s lipgloss, her perfume and the way she looked, reflected upside down in the polished surface of the conference room table, those details will revisit you on your deathbed.

And in every instance we are reminded that memory is the echo of five senses. The smell of roasting peanuts can trip trap doors to anywhere. A bus ride can abruptly transport you decades. Every song triggers a memory and the quality of light, at any given moment, can let loose a snowfall of associations. Memories are such tangled and sentimental creatures. The point is, we are constantly reminded that not only is the distant past not so distant, it hasn’t even passed.

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

When I was a kid my mom would stick me on the Greyhound Bus to Atlantic City to spend a few days with my grandparents. I went during Easter Vacation, well before the summer season started, so the place was pretty much abandoned. I barely recall a thing about my grandfather except that he loved to play Solitaire. Solitaire isn’t the kind of card game that invites a lot of company. My grandmother, my Bobba, didn’t like to do anything as much as she liked to walk. She also liked to watch soap operas in her birthday suit but again, not an activity that benefits from company. They lived on the boardwalk at the Vermont Arms in an apartment overlooking the ocean a generation after Atlantic City’s heyday and a generation before gambling arrived.

What I did there on my visits was walk the boardwalk with my grandmother. And I don’t mean stroll. We walked with the purpose of refugees fleeing an active volcano. We would go from Captain Starn’s Seafood Restaurant with its giant curio shop at the north end by Absecon Inlet, to as far south as we could go before running out of boardwalk or daylight. Even then she would take a moment to look further south; consider her options. I don’t know what was calling to her but she always listened to it before we turned back. Perhaps it was some inner voice urging her on to conquest and adventure. Whatever the case, I have no doubt whatsoever that if the boardwalk extended to Cuba we would have attempted breakfast in Havana.

The Atlantic City of the 60’s was an open air museum. A run down version of the Atlantic City of the 40’s, 30’s and 20’s. Those marches took us through a landscape of oddities and a near endless stream of my grandmother’s memories. My grandmother was deeply self centered but, to my memory, her reminiscence were not about herself so much as they were about the landscape. What pier used to be here and what entertainments used to be there. It may have been through her that I learned that every place has a story and every object in that place also has a story. There were rolling chairs. An oversized one or two passenger wheeled high-back chair made of wicker and pushed by a hired hand. As a child I remember that it was not at all clear which direction was forward or even what their function was. There were hundreds of them lined up, sometimes stacked up as though ready for a bonfire but I never once saw a person ride in one.

We would stop at Steel Pier and Steeplechase Pier which were open but just barely. They weren’t so much open as they were simply unlocked. Mr. Peanut would be wandering around like a movie extra outside the store at the formerly world famous Haddon Hall Hotel. Everything was moldy, faded, and decrepit. Everyone I saw was old. Of course when you’re eight almost everyone really is old but that feeling remains stuck to the memory even after I have joined the ranks of the walking dead.

While I appreciate the forces that were in play that turned Atlantic City into a gambling Mecca I think it’s a shame that no one seems to have given any thought to turning the entire place into a Zombie Theme Park. Where were the big thinkers, the visionaries, when such an opportunity knocked? They were there of course, just like they always are but nobody listened. Money replaced memory. History and therefore meaning were the casualties.

Though my grandmother and I traveled miles in both directions, the place I liked best was the pinball arcade right next door to their building. It was an arcade out of The Twilight Zone. A genuine time warp where you got to kill an enemy that was already dead. Every machine was a relic of the second world war. At least one would hope so with names like Zap the Jap and Kill the Kraut. Every kid could contribute to the war effort by dropping a coin, looking through the periscope, knocking over the drop target destroyer and sending a thousand men to a watery grave. Preferably with sharks.

Those machines and their murderous innocence are gone now, along with the ramshackle structure that housed them and along with my grandparents who lived next door at the Vermont Arms.

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.

A Day in the Life, Part 2

To say the police took a keen interest in the skull would be a mild exaggeration. I would say it was more like a professional interest but I like the sound and grab of keen so lets go with that.

The police took a keen interest in the skull. Everyone in construction knows that if you find a body, no matter how old, there is an agency somewhere that will want to shut the job down and put you out of work for a week while the paperwork clears. In an extreme incident downtown an entire office-building project was cancelled because the archeologists determined that the site had been, and in all fairness I suppose it still was, an old “Negro Cemetery”, as the sign said. Which is to say that the cemetery was old and had what were then known as Negroes buried in it and not that the cemetery was exclusively the final resting place of old Negroes. Language is funny that way.

My own brother was on a water job that saw several floaters come in. The job was only a mile or two downriver from a bridge that was popular with jumpers of the suicidal type. When the first one floated in they called the cops. The job was shut down for several hours while they investigated the “flounder” as I’ve heard the coroners call them. The same thing happened a few weeks later. Now, this business is no different from any other; time is money. The idea that the tides could somehow offer up a clue is so far fetched that even the boss must have noticed. From that point on, any body that came sailing onto the job was pushed back out into the current.

I myself found a foot on the job one day. It was so unlikely looking, so gray, that I thought it was a manikin foot until one of the guys picked it up, turned it over in his hands and stated, very matter-of-factly, “yup, it’s a real foot.” My foreman and I took the foot to the office trailer. His name was Robbie but he died and so he’s now referred to as Dead Robbie. When we walked into the super’s trailer Dead Robbie told the super that he couldn’t lend him a hand but he could give him a foot and tossed it on the desk. The super told us to get rid of it before the cops found out and shut us down. Robbie tossed it back in the drink but it got caught up in an eddy next to the pier and spun around in slow circles for the rest of the day. Take a moment to picture that in your mind; the water, the foot, the slow turning. It’s more than just the foot separated from the body above. It’s also the foot separated from the earth below. Isolated from the two things it must have thought were a given and yet still wandering in endless circles. It makes you think that although a foot can do what it does in a hundred different ways, still it can only be a foot.

I exit the subway at 5:32, same as every morning, to connect to the cross-town bus that would take me to work except that it departed about 90 seconds ago. Same as every morning. I can walk the mile or more before the next bus will come and so I do. As soon as I made it up to the street from the subway my cell phone chirped at me like my brothers childhood pet guinea pig, Spot. We called him Spotchalism for short. A sweeter more pleasant natured animal you’d be hard pressed to find but like many of the pets of our youth, short lived. Too soon consigned to a shoebox in the back yard.

I see that sometime during my subway ride of 21 minutes my foreman has called me. Usually this would mean that I am being redirected to another job. In this company redirection, not to mention misdirection, is a common occurrence and in the past I have spent hours being redirected multiple times before ever making it to work. My foreman is a great guy, talented in his work and amiable in his demeanor though subject to momentary bursts of uncontrollable rage. His three great loves are his wife, model railroading and marijuana.

As with many in this business you wouldn’t necessarily know from the way he talks that he loves his wife but when she suddenly took ill one day he looked ashen, hung up his cell phone, said “I’m gone” got in his van and left. Not a word to the super or any of the gang. If I hadn’t been there we would have gone looking for him at lunch and assumed he fell in the river.

The model-railroading thing is purely a sickness. I was warned by a mutual friend not to bring it up so of course I had to. He was so excited that I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was only teasing. I had to draw the line when he brought me an article about how to create realistic looking miniature pond scum. I think I’ll leave it at that.

The marijuana thing is of no surprise except as a matter of frequency. Half a joint on the way in, at coffee and lunch if the opportunity arises and it almost always does, and one on the way home. I say it’s of no surprise because if you took away the smokers, the drinkers and the jesus freaks who are, to a man, former substance abusers, you would seriously depopulate the industry. Let me retract that part about former substance abusers. Once an addict, always an addict. It’s a personality thing. They are as obsessive with their Christ, as they were with drink or drugs or women or food or whatever else it is that they claim to be cleansed of. The only difference is that with religion they lose their sense of humor. I’m ok with that though because they’re fun to torture.

As far as the substance abuse thing goes, I am absolutely sure that it is no different with us than it is in any other industry and it explains the whole margin of error factor in building projects. They say that if everything was built exactly to spec a two hundred story building would be viable notwithstanding that no one in their right mind would want to live or work that high. The point is that we over-design buildings because there is a factor that can only be counted on to degrade the best-laid plans. And that factor is human nature.

So my foreman called and the call went roughly like this:

Me: Hey, you rang?

Foreman: Good morning, where’s the skull?

Me: Why?

F: The police are here. I couldn’t find it. I told them that you may have taken it home or it may still be here somewhere.

Me: Who told them? Is the boss trying to relocate us? He is isn’t he.

F: Is it here?

Me: Maybe. What do they want with it?

F: They want to see if this is a crime scene.

Me: Tell them it isn’t and I want the damn thing back when they’re done with it.

F: I don’t know man, they seem pretty serious.

Me: Oh for christ sake. It’s on the shelf under the bag with my spare socks. I’ll be there in 15 minutes.

When I arrived I put on my tool belt and hardhat and made my way down to the work area. It had been raining and snowing off and on for two weeks and the mud is shin high. It’s still dark out. Everyone is standing around waiting for me and I get a little surge of celebrity. I’m smiling and shaking hands like a game show host. There are four cops, three male and a female. The detective looking one is in his early forties, the rest are fresh faced. He seems a bit serious, the other three are a little goofy and all are tired. It’s the end of their shift and they ask me to show them where I found the skull. Damn it! The game is over already and I’ve barely begun to turn the screws.

I walk them between a dump truck and an excavator through some deep mud. Let’s see how serious they really are. We get about twenty feet when the detective says “You know what? Just tell my about where you found it”. That was way too easy. Where’s the sport? I tell him I found it after we removed five feet of old concrete and 8 feet of mud. He says he isn’t interested in solving a murder from 1932. I point out the saw marks on the skull and suggest that it was an autopsy. He says “Look, if I call this in the archeologists will come and it’ll be a week before the paperwork clears and you’ll be out of work for a week. You don’t want that and we don’t want that for you. You know what this is and so do we, so why don’t we all pretend that this didn’t happen. You guys go back to work and we’ll go home. Just one thing. If this gets out we’ll be in a lot of trouble so keep this to yourselves and get rid of this thing. Get it off the site.” Then he tossed me the skull cap and said” Keep it for a souvenir.” That’s French for “I don’t want it and so I make a gift of it to you.”