Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Pope Knows Cuba (e Cani) Libre

    Pope Francis, bless his soul, has recently been reported to have instructed Saint Peter to begin allowing dogs through the Pearly Gates. Although this dogmatic shift may actually be attributed to Paul VI, and there's no sign yet as to whether the decree is retroactive, it's nice to think, assuming they predecease us – which, actually, may be something of an assumption indeed – that our current flock of Goldens will not only have a shot at finding their bliss but will be eagerly awaiting our arrival. Presumably this was not as thorny an issue as, say, women in the priesthood and the new rule doesn't seem too much of a reach given that God's Rottweiler, Pope Benedict, has yet to drop the bone and is waiting in the wings.

Having been raised a Presbyterian, I was unaware that dogs had thus far been barred and grew up with the notion that all God's creatures might gain entry based entirely on a bronze plaque commemorating the scene wherein Heinz, my parents' beloved first mutt, is negotiating with Peter just outside the heavenly portals. This plaque was made by my Godfather, the sculptor Berthold “Tex” Schiwetz, a pious enough man devoted to years of religiously sculptural epiphany in Rome, who went off to his own reward in 1971. Whether or not Heinz, or Tex, for that matter, is still waiting at the gates is something I suppose that only God knows. In perhaps a divinely inspired gesture from the family, the same plaque now adorns my mother's headstone and there's no question as to whether or not she got in.

   The fact that none of our pets have been going to Heaven for all these years does make one wonder how bad, in fact, the alternative can be. Apart from all the priests that have found their way to Hell in recent decades and are now busy making everyone down there miserable, if the place is primarily populated by non-Catholics and their pets - together, presumably, with all creatures great and small – maybe it's not much worse than Southern California in September. If Heaven is reserved for pious, petless fussbudgets and proselytizers, then I want no part of it and I'll go straight to Hell.

      As I write this Pope Francis is suddenly all over the news and I'd be the last one to have predicted the two of us would ever be so simpatico, even for a day. Apart from being the Holy Birthday, it turns out this progressive Pontiff has been up to his zucchetto in the sort of Geo-politics and international intrigue not seen since the House of Borgia installed one of their own. There's something deliciously ironic about Pope Francis helping to broker the end of our pointless policy towards Cuba, a policy that began at about the same time that our only Roman Catholic President was elected despite the clamor and conviction of the Right that Kennedy's first and last allegiance would be to Rome!

 Buon compleanno, Papa, e grazie mille!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Mail and Females


My nephew, Chris will be spending a part of the winter out here on the end of the Point in an uninsulated cabin with no running water and a wood-stove for heat. The cabin sits on pilings above the cove and in winter the seepage and run-off from the ledges above create a foot thick, yellow, rust colored ice floe just a few feet below the floor. For the most part, Chris will spend his days as I did years ago, splitting wood, hauling water from the bucket-well, stoking that stove and preparing for sun down. He's in it for the raw experience, of course, for the long days given over to self-reflection and solitude that can still be had out here in February, save for the occasional well intentioned “Yoohoo!” bellowed by some passing hiker. I'd like to think Chris may benefit from the catharsis of breaking through that unremitting loneliness to a place where it ceases to obsess and becomes something softer and more manageable, something you know you can always endure and find a certain comfort in. But Chris will have something I never could have dreamed of when I huddled in to the fireplace, wrapped with my dog in a nylon sleeping bag; he'll have a lap-top and the internet, his world will be just a click away. At least as long as the power stays on....

   In 1978, when autumn suddenly gave way to winter and I found myself hunkering down out there for the duration, I had a telephone, a television and a typewriter. The telephone was an original issue black rotary which rarely rang. The TV, a black and white Zenith, offered only two channels and on a good night you might have to make the difficult choice between Marcus Welby, MD and The Little Red Schoolhouse. Well swaddled and huddled within the maw of the fireplace, it was far too cold to get up and change the channel and the remote wand, like teleportation and jet-packs, had yet to be invented. The typewriter, my father's college Corona, sat proudly on the desk by the phone and, when the ribbon and white-out had thawed sufficiently, I would sit for hours writing long letters about silence and cold and nothing in particular to young women who's days were full of more exciting stuff than whether or not my wood was wet or who might have made fresh tracks in the snow. Of course, it would take days for my letters to reach their destination and, presuming erroneously that my intended would sit down to respond immediately, days more for their responses to reach me. The pull, then, the sheer, planetary gravity of that tiny Post Office with the pot-bellied stove ten miles down the road at the Center was as strong a force as nicotine, nutrition or heat and I had to stifle the urge to go check every day lest I embarrass myself before the kindly postmistress.

   Letters from young ladies responding to my relentless screeds were few and far between, often embarrassing in their brevity and non-committal style, but certainly better than the empty mailbox I'd find after four days of fighting the urge to check. On rare occasions – maybe one, anyway – I'd be chagrined by a pastel envelope steeped in reeking patchouli and bearing the initials SWAK on the back. Upon slipping this tender missive from the box, the clerk might be heard to mutter from within something along the lines of, “Thank God! It'll be good to get that thing out of here!” My mother would write to urge me to thank an aunt or ask perhaps what I'd like her to do with that letter from the Army; no doubt hoping for return mail as well, with the same paltry results I reaped from my own voluminous drivel. Or she'd send her famous CARE package, notorious in post offices across the East for being so ineptly boxed and wrapped that the contents – often Toll House Cookies – would have sifted out of that hole in the corner long before the package even cleared the State of New York, leaving a telltale wisp of wax paper protruding from a package now lighter than air.

   One day, just before the last of our little rural outposts closed and the internet changed the world of letters for ever, I drove down to check my mail with no particular expectations. There was a postcard depicting a happy, lounging otter from a girl I'd met at a wedding a few weeks earlier. She mentioned how nice it had been to meet me and wondered if we could do so again. This was exactly what the mail was for: a wonderful and surprising little letter, out of the blue, requiring an immediate response. After a few days of panic and research via mutual friends, I wrote back and we've been married now for twenty-two years.

   Last week I got a letter from my old friend, Fenno. I haven't gotten a real letter from anyone in years and Fen's was written by hand in blue ink, the final paragraphs curled up from the bottom of the page along the right hand margin from a lack of adequate space in which to complete his thought. While cleaning out his desk, Fen had found an old announcement from a show I'd had . The fact that he'd held on to this card for twenty-eight years prompted him to write, asking if I'd like it back and musing quite tenderly on our lives through those years. The sheer, unexpected pleasure of getting that letter nearly brought me to tears and I could barely read it aloud to Suzanne without choking up.

   I can't remember the last time an e-mail made me feel that way.....

Friday, November 28, 2014


   We've been boxing up the house these past few weeks in anticipation of putting ourselves in storage. Ironically, this involves – in the case of the boxes in the barn that were never opened after the last move – a certain amount of unpacking. If we are to downsize effectively, we have to know what's in there to determine what's worth keeping. Most of these boxes are full of our daughter, Zinzi's books and school work and, whereas I have only just finished purging my own books, I found a number of things I couldn't part with. Zinzi will forgive me, I hope, for getting lost in her American Girl diary, partially filled in when she was around eight, which is poignant and enlightening despite the fact that, if I am referred to at all, it is not with the bold brush of adoration I might have wished for, but simply to point out how grouchy I was.

    Among Zinzi's work is a Fifth Grade essay titled, “ History Hero Paper ” in which she defines the term, lists various examples of classical Heroes and then proffers three of her own: Claire Danes, Marilyn Monroe and my mother, her new grandmother, Mimi. Clair Danes because she was successful at eighteen, an age and stature that must have seemed within reach; Marilyn, apparently, because she'd become successful despite not having had Danes' advantage of being a child star, and my mother –  they'd only known each other for about five years before Mom died – because “...She led a really great life. She went to school in Paris, and lived there for many years. She was an artist, who painted on a regular basis and she made constant trips to all the world, especially Europe.”

   Word came through the blizzard and blackout last night -  news made somehow more poignant by candlelight – that yet another of our ladies had recently passed away. Our little community here on the coast of Maine has always been a matriarchy, ruled by strong, capable women, steeped in the lore and traditions of this place, who have often outlived their husbands by decades. Whether born to it or married in, they achieve through dignity, generosity and sheer longevity the status of royalty, and the good ones bear this responsibility with grace and charity that's sometimes hard for the rest of us to appreciate until we, too, have grown older. Many of these ladies are aunts or cousins or grandmothers; as many more are known to us as aunts even though they're no relation at all. This was the custom in our tiny world back in the day, and, as a kid, you would no more dream of addressing an Aunt as a Mrs. than you would of calling a Mrs. by her first name.

   These women have always known virtually everything there is to know about us. In my grandmother's time, when there were only a handful, they dished the dirt over endless nights of gin and cut-throat rummy, shopped in town together, buying the same plates, linens and trinkets that have been passed down through the many branches of a few families, all the while keeping a running tally of whose child or grandchild had been up to what. One Aunt Nancy, who I had the pleasure of working for a few years back, responded to my partner's introduction, “You remember William ...”, with the ominous retort, “Of course. How could I forget!” without further elaboration. I'm still obsessing over this, running through a lengthy catalog of failings and indiscretions, without, of course, considering that she may have meant it as a compliment.

    If you were to meet such a lady on one of our narrow, dirt roads, she might smile sweetly or glare with irritation through the windshield of her Crown Vic or Town Car, but she would never, ever back up. There are spots on these roads where one might have to reverse a hundred yards, up hills and around curves, to make way for Aunty. No amount of gesturing or waiting or waving would ever compel a lady to back into the driveway six feet to the rear of her left flank. They did not play tennis or lounge around on the beach; they coiffed, they dressed, they lunched on deviled-eggs and aspic. As kids we went to great lengths to avoid them, as twenty and thirty-somethings we began to get to know them and appreciate the richness of their lives, their memories and stories. As grown-ups, we miss them. And with each loss, as our wives and sisters and cousins ascend, comes the ever increasing realization that we have met the ladies, and they are us.

   Suzanne has already drawn a line in the sand and refuses to back up.....

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Born to Run


   I was surprised to discover that William Howard Taft and I shared, apart from a tendency toward a certain avoirdupois, the schoolboy nickname, “Big Bill”. In the President's case, this early sobriquet seems to have encouraged him towards an ever more prodigious girth that appeared to grow in direct proportion to his status on the national stage. The same monicker made me self-conscious that I may not be altogether “big boned”, as my mother insisted, but, compared to my ephemeral and nearly translucent classmates, downright fat. Not fat like the boy with the evident lard-rolls whom everyone poked and prodded until he giggled spittle from the corners of his mouth, but heading in that direction.

    In an era when the concept of fitness for boys was defined by the Charles Atlas ad in the back of a DC Comic or the grainy image of Jack LaLanne's contortions on the Zenith, any effort devoted to fitness at school was directed more at distracting us from self-abuse than sculpting six-packs. 

     And so, on inclement afternoons, we would don our tiny blue shorts and red T-shirts and march to the fetid gym for a torturous and humiliating round of rope climb or medicine ball. There, while some of us dangled, flailing and gasping from thick, coarse ropes, others would set upon one another with improbably heavy, leather covered bags of rocks while our teachers volubly questioned our budding manhood and rained insults down upon us. If it was a fine day, they would herd us out across Fifth Avenue and through Central Park for a run around the dreaded Reservoir. We might have just come off a nasty repast of fish-sticks or cod-balls and some of the weaker boys, with whom Big Bill invariably brought up the straggling rear, would drop like stones, skinning their knees on the cinder track while puking up their lunch. There seemed to be a tacit acceptance of my own pathetic running skills, as both the boys and the staff seemed to think that my size and presence might prevent the abject misfits from being culled out and ripped to pieces by the bandits and gangsters who lurked in the periphery like lions eying a herd of gazelle.

   One dusky, autumn afternoon the misconception of my prowess was played out as a group of us waited for the downtown bus at the stop on Fifth Avenue and 98th Street. We'd been there for a while and no bus had shown up, nor was there any sign of one as we stepped out into the street, craning to see as far uptown as possible. We were just discussing whether to wait or start walking when a gang of boys came over the Park wall like a boarding-party of pirates, armed with sticks and rocks, surrounding us in an instant and demanding our money and bus passes. One of my classmates spoke up, “ He's Big Bill. He'll protect us, won't you, Big Bill?” Before I could react, the biggest of the bandits calmly strolled over to a parked car, snapped the antenna off the fender, swished it about like a rapier and slashed me across the torso, leaving a three inch gash across the back of one hand. I dropped my bus pass, pivoted to the south and ran, leaving an astonished gaggle of little boys to fend for themselves in my wake. A few of the pirates lit out after me and I could hear their heavy breathing, interspersed with curses and threats, closing in. I ran across Fifth Avenue without looking, hoping that one of the doormen beneath the ubiquitous green awnings of the fancy building facing the Park might let me in.  One after another they barred their doors against me. I stumbled up the steps of The Church of the Heavenly Rest only to find the massive doors locked tight. By the time I passed the Metropolitan Museum I'd stopped looking over my shoulder altogether, afraid that would only slow me down with my pursuers right on my heels.

   Eventually, somewhere near the 72nd street entrance to the Park, I gave up and collapsed on a bench by the wall. There was no one chasing me. I wrapped my bleeding hand in my shirt tail and waited to catch my breath. I'd covered some twenty-six blocks – roughly the distance around the Reservoir – at a break-neck pace with apparently no straggling waifs left in my wake. I wondered briefly what might have become of them as I walked over to the Good Humor man, handed him the dollar I'd not given the gang of pirates and walked the rest of the way home chewing on a Candy Center Crunch.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Just Say Yes

“But what will you do?” My mother asked, “How will you live?” 

   We were on the way to Poughkeepsie, where I'd catch the train to the City to begin my post-youth period. I had secured a sublet, a dark and gloomy walk-up tucked into the cobbled canyons of Tribeca and, until my mother broached the subject of a livelihood, I hadn't given the whole scheme much more thought than that. Armed with a Fine Arts degree and a Gladstone bag containing more kitchen gear than clothing, I was heading for Grand Central without a plan, little practical experience and no prospects. 

   After a few days trolling for leads on lamp-posts and bulletin boards around SoHo and Tribeca, I ran into my friend Pete outside the lumber yard on Prince. Pete had been in the City for about a year and had fallen in with a guy named Larry, who called himself a designer  – an architect without the degree, he explained – and had provided Pete with pretty steady work doing odd jobs and minor renovations. “There's a woman uptown who needs a sink and dishwasher hooked up,” Pete offered, “if you can handle some simple plumbing.” I started to say that I didn't, in fact, know much about plumbing when Pete broke in, “Just say yes and figure it out. It's the only way to get work in this town.” He advised. “Just say yes and figure it out”. I bought a canvas tool bag, a couple of wrenches, a tube of Wonder Goop and a Time-Life book on basic plumbing and made an appointment to install the woman's sink. On the subway I pored over the section on hooking up sinks and dishwashers and by the time I reached the Upper West Side I was feeling pretty confident. My client stood in the tiny kitchen, chatting about how hard it was to find tradesmen who one could trust while I stuffed myself into her sink cabinet and poked about for any nut, sleeve or bushing that seemed even remotely familiar. I'd concealed the Time Life book, open to the appropriate section, in my tool bag and from time to time I'd get up and make a pretense of rummaging around for a wrench while having a surreptitious peek. After an hour or so, during which my employer kept up a constant patter, I'd managed, with the liberal application of Goop, to get everything up and running, collected ten dollars from my satisfied customer and headed downtown, feeling pretty cocky about my brand new skill set.

    One day I went to see a friend of my father's who owned a Gallery on West Broadway. She might need some extra help, she'd told him, and I showed up imagining that I'd hang paintings, Spackle holes, maybe even sit at the reception desk sporting a beret and world-weary expression like the girl who buzzed her boss on the intercom to announce my arrival. “Can you cook?” She asked, in lieu of small talk or pleasantries. And, in the same breath, “ I'm having a hundred and twenty-five for dinner Tuesday night. Black Tie. Can you handle that?”

    “Yes.” I said.

    “I'm thinking poached salmon and pate-en-croute,” She announced. “Can you handle that?” 

    “Yes.” I said, keeping the fact of my vegetarianism to myself. 

   I walked over to Cheap Jack's on Fourth Avenue and bought a vintage tux, stopped in at Thom Mcan on Second for a pair of black, Naugahyde pumps and headed west to Ottomanelli's, the elite butcher on Bleeker, to find out just exactly what melange of funky organ meats might comprise a pate-en-croute. At two o'clock Monday morning I was at the Fulton Fish Market purchasing a pair of massive, wild salmon and, with the help of my 1953 Joy of Cooking and several calls to my mother, had somehow managed to prepare most of this on a four-burner tenement stove by three o'clock Tuesday afternoon. I donned the tuxedo and pumps, painted my left knee beneath the most egregious moth holes with a bit of Mars Black, loaded a few cheeses and the pate into a backpack and headed for the F Train with three feet of poached salmon laid out on foil-wrapped bookshelves, one on each arm. The party was a huge success and my boss accepted compliments on the exquisite fare while offering my services to her friends at five dollars an hour. Stumbling home, exhausted, I realized I'd become a caterer.

   My friend John asked if I'd had any experience with Formica; would I like to help him install some new laminate for a couple of therapists on Central Park West? 

   “Yes.” I said. 

I'd mucked around with contact cement in art school; how hard could it be? An elderly couple met us at the door of their spacious apartment overlooking the park. As they led us in to the galley kitchen, they mentioned that they would be seeing patients in their offices while we worked, if we wouldn't mind trying to keep things as quiet as possible. We put some drop-cloths down, stripped off the old laminate and prepped the counters for the new stuff. By noon we were ready to start and I picked up the gallon of cement, looking for the directions. “It says here,” I read out loud, “that we're supposed to turn off all pilot lights and disconnect any power to lights or switches.”

  “Nah,” John said, “That's just bullshit. I've worked with this stuff a million times. They just say that, you don't really need to.”

   I poured out a tray full of contact cement and, leaning in between the stove top and the cabinets, began to roll on a layer of thick, unctuous goo. And then .... it was just an instant, just a glint, just a tiny shimmer in my periphery. The narrow room imploded in a solid sheet of ice-blue, hot-pink flame, turning orange and turquoise as it lapped the underside of the oak cabinets and rolled up the door faces to curl down from the ceiling like a giant, breaking wave of fire. I panicked, rubbing my arms over my head to keep my hair from igniting, dropping to my knees and shrieking a stream of invective at the top of my lungs while John flailed about like a dervish with the drop-cloth. 

   It was over as soon as it had begun. The walls and the underside of the cabinets had sustained only a singe, as had our arms and eye-brows. We were to paint the room and install stainless on the underside of the cabinets, so no damage would show there. The fire had burnt itself out so quickly that the cabinet doors would be fine after a wipe down. We sat catching our breath, waiting for the adrenaline to diminish, thanking our Gods. After a moment I got up on rubbery legs and opened the window. John found the fuse-box and threw the kitchen breaker. By mid-afternoon the laminate was on, the cabinets rubbed down with oil and I was priming the walls, covering over the faint, mahogany patina. Around three o'clock, one of the doctors poked her head in the door.

   “Oh my,” she said. “ You two have done a wonderful job! It's going to look just fantastic, don't you think?”

   “Yes.” I said, “It'll be amazing!”

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Beer Money


Whenever we've had occasion to invite the auctioneer to come through the house, which seems to be at least twice a year these days, we find the value of our inherited antiques and china diminishing at about the same rate as our need for cash increases. “People just aren't buying this stuff any more”, he tells us dolefully, “furniture is tough these days.” He can move the Mid-Century, he says, meaning the Twentieth, but the mahogany, the painstakingly artisanal marquetry? Not so much. He never fails, though, to stop before my mother's paintings and add, “But these.......  These are fantastic. These I can sell all day long.” Then he'll ask again what my mother's name was; he'll frown and crinkle up his brow, try to place her in the pantheon within his mind's eye while I shuffle my feet and mutter about how she was just my Mom and he wouldn't have heard of her. I can't sell those, I tell him. How could I?

   I don't remember my mother having a gallery or showing her work anywhere other than the lobby of the Art Students' League. On those rare occasions when she actually sold something she would celebrate by taking my brother and me around the corner for and ice cream sundae, stopping at Old Smelly's, the butcher on Second Avenue, to bring home an extra helping of beef kidneys for Sue-me, her perpetually ancient Siamese and muse. I never heard her mention “making Art”, nor refer to herself as an Artist. She affected no schtick, no lavender mohawk, not even a beret and, when life and family rendered this indulgence superfluous, she put it aside without complaint. When, some years later, she returned to the studio, it was to be in voluntary service to an entity known as Recordings For The Blind, where she translated medical text-book illustrations into raised-line drawings. She never really craved the sort of validation that comes from a sale, finding satisfaction instead in being needed and turning her anonymous talents toward helping the sightless.

   One Saturday morning when I still thought my own paintings might have some prospect for changing the world, a few of us got together with easels we'd lifted from the College and set up an Art Sale on a windswept stretch of forlorn sidewalk outside the Fain Building on North Main Street. This was not a prime location, most denizens of the area were students engaged in sleeping off their Friday night, and the only activity in the first several hours came in the form of a stray dog who stopped just long enough to lift his leg and pee on one of my pictures. 

     Not long after the canine critic, a clearly inebriated street drunk came staggering along and stopped before a small painting of mine of a nude on a stool – the ubiquitous studio nude from any painting class the world over. He stood there peering at it for the longest time, eying the picture from a variety of angles and unsteady contortions before finally asking how much I wanted for it. Five dollars, I told him, picking the first number that came to mind, confident it would be more than he had and hoping he'd move along. “Hold it for me,” he said, “I'll be back.” Cash! I jeered after him as he reeled away down the street, hunched into the grit and wind.

   The afternoon wore on, the wind picked up. One of my pictures flew off its perch and careened, end over end, down the sidewalk and into the street where it was crushed by a truck. No one came by. At five o'clock we'd begun packing it in; no sales, no beer money, no validation, nothing to show for a day on the street. As I tucked what was left of my oeuvre under my arms and turned towards home, the drunk rounded the far corner and quickened his pace to a frenetic lope. “I was afraid you'd gone,” he croaked.  “It took me all day. I got your money.” I stood speechless as he counted out five dollars in nickels, dimes and pennies, tucked the little picture under his ratty coat and shambled off.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Lush Life

When Oscar Hammerstein suggested to my father that he might be better off pursuing a degree in architecture rather than chucking it all to become a composer and performer of popular song, it must have been quite a blow. Dad had come by this ambition honestly enough; his mother having worn away a divot with her elbow above the keyboard of the family piano, teaching neighborhood kids in Duluth over the span of sixty years. Whereas architecture was the field he chose, piano was something he absorbed from birth like language.

   My own piano lessons were provided by a withered harridan in a stuffy, over-heated, third-floor walk-up. Redolent of stale sweat and radiator steam, the tiny room contained only the piano and a bench, warmed by my tormentor's bony buttocks, upon which I was reluctant to sit. There she would lean in to me with her lavender, pancake foundation and tissue-stuffed cuffs, chewing on licorice pastilles and urging me to arch my fingers. Too lazy to become a proficient sight-reader, I learned to play most of our repertoire of etudes and minuets by ear, eventually frustrating my teacher to the point where she threw up her hands in a cloud of talc and sent me home.

   Over the next few years I prevailed upon my parents to start investing in a drum kit in rich, red sparkle. Beginning with a bass drum, upon which I immediately painted Johnny and the Rebs, even though I wasn't Johnny and there were no Rebs, my mother and I would take the subway down to Manny's Music twice a year to select another piece. By the time I lost interest in the drums altogether, I'd amassed a high-hat and crash symbol, a snare and two tom-toms. 

     There followed a long flirtation with the flute, which I chose primarily because it was not a guitar, and upon which I learned to play a Bolero by ear and not much else. Around this time – tenth or eleventh grade – the saxophone began to tempt me and by the middle of my freshman year in college I'd rented a tenor and taught myself the simple riffs and obbligatos behind the Supremes and Temptations. As it happened, Providence at that time was a mecca for young guys my age in wing-tips and zoot suits who really could play the sax; every bar and coffee shop had a resident quartet or big band and it wasn't long before I bought a vintage suit and began torturing ballads like Body and Soul and Polka Dots and Moonbeams while imagining the soft, dissipated, lush life I'd someday spend in some small dive.

   One fine day, well into my post-youth period in Brooklyn, a call came in from a friend who was putting together a photo-shoot for GQ. The shoot was all about tuxedos and the theme was to be a sort of retro, ballroom scene based loosely on a story by John O'Hara. My friend had called me because her boyfriend played double bass in a bluegrass band and she knew I owned a saxophone. Together with a few other ne’er-do-wells – a rock drummer and a couple of friends who just looked good in black tie – she was trying to fashion an ersatz, prop orchestra to take the bandstand for the shoot. Flattered at the prospect of being seen even peripherally in the pages of GQ and attracted by the princely sum offered for spending a Saturday dressed to the nines in an historic mid-town Club drinking beer and posing with my horn, I had just one caveat. We would not, under any circumstances, I made clear, be asked or expected to actually play anything. No, she assured me, we were just props. As she chuckled at the thought of us - a rock drummer, a blue-grass bassist, a tone-deaf pianist and guy who'd confined his saxophone playing quite literally to the closet – I felt a faint chill at the back of my neck.....

   On the appointed day we were fitted into our tuxedos, fussed about with hair gel and set loose upon the catering tables and beer tubs to await the call. After several hours of noshing, swilling and sinking ever deeper into the soft, leather club chairs, the band was finally summoned to take our places. And Boy, did we look sharp! With a hundred men and women in evening-wear milling around before us, the spot-lights picking us out upon the stage and the undeniable power imparted by good hair, a fine buzz and a fabulous suit, I was momentarily lulled into the belief that we could do this; we could actually pull this off. I looked around for our producer but couldn't spot her in the crowd. A man with a clip-board directed the photographers toward the stage; I gripped my horn, assumed my best Lester Young pose, eyes rolled up towards the lights, and held it, fingering the keys, mutely, for effect. Someone on the dance floor shouted, “Come on, guys, play something!”. A cacophony of requests floated up from the crowd as I turned, confused and mortified, to look at my friend Doug on bass. “OK, fellas...” shouted the man with the clip-board, “ Hit it!” 

     I could hear the soft brushes on the snare behind me as Doug plucked a string, beginning a long, slow intro into Polka Dots and Moonbeams.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Too Fat To Fly

 Long before I was shamed by the comely Peacock sisters into doing the Hokey Pokey -  to put my backside in and shake it all about -  I'd developed an almost pathological aversion to dancing. When the lights go down and the band strikes up I've been known to break out in a cold sweat, regarding the gleaming floor with the dread of the aquaphobic dragged out reluctantly for a day at the beach. I'm at a loss to explain this; perhaps it was an early exposure to dancing lessons, where bossy girls wore white, cotton gloves and the atmosphere of fetid air and good families hadn't changed since Edith Wharton's day. Maybe it was the Eighth Grade dance in the winter of 1968, where just showing up with a date at all after eight years in a boys' school was an achievement in itself. I managed to convince a girl named Gordon to come with me; she lived next door to the school and was notorious for raining sodden rolls of water-logged toilet paper down upon us as we waited for the bus. At a basement dance-party festooned with black-lights and Peter Max posters some months before, I'd had my first official slow-dance with Gordon to the dulcet strains of “Inagodadavida”, which I remember pulling off without discredit – despite that tricky bit during the drum solo - and actually enjoying. My school's choice of what must by then have been the very bitter dregs of the Lester Lanin Orchestra to get us up and dancing that night may have contributed to my future reluctance; they opened with “Tuxedo Junction” and went south from there. If there were opportunities to dance during the following four years spent incarcerated in all-boys boarding schools, I've blocked them, save for the one made memorable by the Headmaster's address the next day to the full student body which began, “Sex, it appears, has reared it's ugly head once again....” , a titillating but thoroughly improbable notion, given that the girls were complete strangers, had been bussed in and spent the evening lining the walls in tight, aloof clusters.

Brian taught tap-dancing in the loft next to ours above the porno store on Snow Street. Three or four afternoons a week, without warning, all Hell would break loose when Brian dropped the tone-arm down on an old 78 of “Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries” and his ten or twenty students would commence an attempt at synchronized tap. This ponderous gavotte might go on for hours and sooner or later I'd find myself trying to follow his prompts, at which display my roommate would invariably pipe up, “You should dance tonight in the Tap Room....”. The utter anarchy of trying to dance to the rhythms of Patti Smith or David Byrne kept me off the floor in college and the onslaught of Disco and The Bump pretty much sealed the deal. But on those evenings at the Tap Room given over to live music, when Scott Hamilton's Quintet or Roomful of Blues were swinging in the cramped corner, when the thoroughly eccentric piano-man known only as Sweet Pea would play piano for wine, Brian and April would show up, dressed to the nines and clear the dance floor. Like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, these two would slide out among the peanut shells to hold the floor all night without breaking a sweat or rumpling a perfect crease. From where I stood, exhilarated and envious, it seemed they must have been born to this as I, clearly, had not.

   My daughter, Zinzi, got married last year. While Suzanne spent much of the time leading up to this event immersed in details, I quietly agonized over how I might handle the inevitably required ritual dances. Whereas the very idea of a tango with the groom's mother left me breathlessly chagrined and mortified for months in advance, even the prospect of staggering about with my long suffering bride seemed impossible. In my rich imagination, though, in day after day of exquisite fantasy, I pictured myself holding my beautiful, radiant daughter as we danced perfectly, effortlessly to “The Way You Look Tonight” while the assembled guests looked on, hushed and envious of our amazing footwork. 

   But that was just my imagination. The DJ surprised both of us with Blossom Dearie's “Rhode Island Is Famous For You”, a tune so up-tempo, so thoroughly devoid of dance-ability that even Brian and April might have sat it out. In fact, that three minutes of flailing about seems, in retrospect, so ridiculous, so akin to trying to herd a group of tyros through a tap dance that it's almost faded away, edged out by the fantastic image of the two of us swaying slowly to Sinatra that I'll treasure forever.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Down To The Corner

Carmen came to us, visibly malnourished and just a bit bonkers, at the end of a day that had begun with my father-in-law suggesting at the breakfast table that he was “getting rid of the God-damned dog today.” Suzanne, who'd been out visiting her parents, called me from the road to ask how I might feel about getting another Golden. I suppose I hesitated for a second before saying that a new puppy, another Golden boy, might be good fun and that Atticus, then nearly four, would probably love the company. What if it wasn't precisely a puppy, she asked, and not exactly a boy? Nearly two years old, skinny and skittish with a strange, neglected growth protruding from her lower jaw like a fleshy tusk, Carmen had spent most of her short life behind a child barrier in the gloss-pink, mildewed basement bathroom of a ranch house in Rhode Island. My father-in-law, who had been secretly perusing puppy ads in the Journal for weeks, snuck off one day and bought her from a guy named Pedro in Central Falls.

   Within a few days Carmen completely overwhelmed my in-laws and was relegated to the bathroom, where she spent most of the next year and a half curled up around the toilet base, eating only when someone recalled she was there and remembered to feed her. Starved for nourishment and affection, having to make due with admonitions to settle down and hush, her boisterous displays of enthusiasm at their rare endearments served only to seal her fate and extend her solitary confinement. Other dogs might get downright giddy at the onset of a belly-rub or butt-scratch; Carmen grew to be reserved and aloof, content in her daydreams, her deep bond with Atticus and surprised by our human attentions, accepting them as though she felt undeserving of a fleeting gesture that might be withdrawn at any minute. 

   Despite all that, for the rest of her life Carmen would greet my mother-in-law with such lavish displays, such paroxysms of joy that you'd have thought we were the abusers and that deliverance from our torments had finally arrived. I confess that I always resented this love-fest and have been humbled more than once by a remarkable capacity for forgiveness so pure and profound that it shames my own pathetic efforts and might instruct a Pope.

   One sunny, spring morning I sat with my mother on our front stoop admiring the gleam and sparkle of my first real bicycle. I'd just been given the bike for my birthday and it stood, maroon and cream, belled and tasseled at the curb below us as I negotiated the boundaries of my first ride: just down to the corner and back or all the way around the block? My brother's bike had three speeds and a raccoon tail and he'd been riding wherever he liked for some time. I'd been limited to training-wheels and the stretch of sidewalk from here to Third Avenue that my mother could keep an eye on from her perch on the steps. A full circumnavigation would require close attention to a host of perils offered up by the long, busy blocks of both Second and Third Avenues: open iron bulkheads, the patch of sand and sawdust outside the saloon doors at Daley's on the corner, the barrels of beer being rolled in and out of those doors, the bottleneck at the pizza joint on 60th Street between the trash can and the counter where men stood and ate their dripping slices. And the group of tough kids who hung around the candy store pitching pennies or Spaldeens, waiting for someone like me to come along.

   I'd just begun to have second thoughts about going all the way when an older boy I didn't recognize came ambling along toward us. He stopped by the bike, patted the tan, leather seat and asked if he could take it for a spin, just down to the corner and back. Unsure how to respond – the bike was brand, spanking new and I hadn't even ridden it yet - I deferred to my mother's judgment. Of course you may, she told the boy cheerfully, just to the corner and back. We waited for ten minutes. We waited for half an hour, craning our necks to see down the block. We sat on those steps for most of the afternoon hoping the boy would return. Finally my mother turned to me with tears in her eyes and said that the boy must have stolen the bike. Would I ever be able to forgive her, she asked, and we were both crying now. I remember my heart breaking, or opening, or unfolding in that instant.

 “I forgive you, Mom.” I said, as we walked slowly up the steps, hand in hand.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Dem Bones

 It might have been a moose bone protruding from the woods onto the road shoulder. It was too big for a deer and there hadn't been a cow or an ox anywhere near here in a hundred years. Human enough, then, to get my attention in the first place and just bizarre enough in a landscape littered with bones to make me pull over for a closer look. Odder even than finding a human femur on a remote stretch of roadside, this turned out to be a plastic legbone of the sort you'd find dangling from the pelvis of a skeleton in high-school biology class. Of course, I'm not sure what I would have done with a human femur, but had it turned out to be the bitter end of some massive denizen of the Maine woods I would have brought it back to my wife to arrange within the ossuary that's transformed our cottage by the sea.

      We set aside the wishbone from last week's pullet in the faint hope that it may bring at least one of us some luck one day, although last Thanksgiving's wishbone still hangs from the kitchen sconce and, to tell the truth, at this point in our lives the consequences of not having a wish come true can take most of the fun out of the pulling. After all, in wishbones, some gotta win and some gotta lose, and if you're both wishing for more or less the same thing, well, what's the point? On the other hand, to ignore this little fetish, to willfully discard it with the Pope's Nose seems reckless, so we rinse them and dry them and put them up to cure and await that moment when we need an edge.

   Where we live the rocks and woods are littered with bones and if whales and seals had wishbones, someone would have dragged one home by now. There would be some powerful mojo indeed in these talismans, but the skulls and bones we gather along the littoral seem to contain their own, irresistible magic that often compels us to great and terrible lengths. Years ago a dead Minke washed ashore on the western side of the Point and slowly festered and fell apart within the jagged rocks over the course of the summer. By October most of his bits and pieces had been tumble-washed, crab-picked  and strewn about the crags and fissures, leaving only the massive head as testament to the creature's size. Disregarding the intense stench, we scrambled down the weed and barnacles, hooked our arms through the eye sockets and began the slow, nasty work of hauling nearly a hundred pounds of blubbery, slime- coated skull up onto the rocks above high water. Four or five feet of tapered “eye-of-round” proboscis bobbed about like a dowser's rod, throwing us off balance and requiring in the end a full-body embrace of the fetid trophy. Reeking of aged decay, harassed by our own delirious dogs and coated with a sort of putrid Crisco we stumbled home to discover that nothing short of gasoline would even begin to remove the carious gel. Nonetheless, exhilarated by our prize and efforts, with the vast skull now safe atop the highest rocks at the tree-line, it all seemed somehow worthwhile and we looked forward to retrieving the cranium the following Spring. By Christmas our hopes were dashed. Even a winter storm could not have washed the skull from its perch, but someone under the Leviathan’s spell had come along with a truck and hauled it off.

   We had better luck a few years later when a hump-back carcass came to rest on the rocks. By the time we arrived, the community at large had picked up most of the further-flung bits and what remained of the bone structure was still firmly embedded in rotting flesh. Not to be deterred, my bride crawled right into the rib-cage and, with her pocket knife, began sawing at the cartilage holding the ribs in place, actually retrieving a few before near asphyxiation forced her to back off. As if possessed, she was back the following morning only to find the skull had absconded in the night. As no one could possibly have carried that rotting, leathery mess very far, it didn't take long to discover the head high up in the gorse, partially covered by the stove-in hull of wrecked dory. Ignoring wild rose thorns and poison ivy, three of us hauled the skull a hundred yards or so further down the tree-line to our own hiding place where it wintered over safely. 

     A nasty jab from a bone shard finally dampened my wife's enthusiasm for the more surgical approach to collecting. A trip to the emergency-room and her subsequent inability to explain exactly what she thought she'd been doing inside that whale has at least tempered her bonelust. And we've come to learn that collecting the remains of marine mammals is against the law, despite the fact that folks around here have been doing it for generations. Maybe the wound was pay-back for losing sight of the dignity of that whale, of being perhaps too greedy in pursuit of whatever magic these old bones contain. Still, we will never be entirely cured of this obsession; we'll keep our eyes peeled for that bit of vertebrae, that perfect seal or gull skull, that fragmentary scrap of mojo. Wish us luck.