Tuesday, May 27, 2014

As I Remember You




     There are doubtless many American families who would not find it surprising to be trotted out for a cameo in a Joan Didion best-seller but we are not among them. When the phone rang one evening in 2005 I was certainly not prepared for the news from a friend that nearly a chapter in “The Year of Magical Thinking” was devoted to my father and that Mom and the four of us were also mentioned by name.


 
   “Why on Earth?” I asked, trying desperately to imagine some connection between Dad and Joan Didion or John Gregory Dunne. Could they have been guests at those amazing “fancy dress” parties Dad put on regularly when we were kids? Would they have known each other from his Arts Council years? Had Joan perhaps been the girl who lived in the basement apartment on 61st street back in the day? And why the rest of us; why me?

   “ Something to do with a song your Dad wrote,” my friend replied “and his obituary.” This clarified nothing. At the bookstore early the next morning I found Ms Didion prominently displayed on an end-cap and, somewhat furtively, I power-skimmed my way through the slim volume once or twice before coming upon this:

   “For forty years this song had figured in a private joke between us and I could not remember its name, let alone the rest of its lyrics. Finding the lyrics became a matter of some urgency.”

   The song in question was a wee confection called “As I Remember You” that my father had written as a nineteen year old sophomore at Princeton for the Triangle Club. At the time he was torn between a career in architecture and the possibility of becoming an international bon-vivant and composer of popular show tunes. It was during a casual encounter with Leonard Bernstein – whom he went on to teach to play “Shine, Little Glow Worm” upside down from under the piano -  that he opted for the former, perhaps imagining that the income derived from architecture might allow him to pursue composing until Broadway called. This tune had apparently gone on to become a favorite of the Nassoons - the Princeton glee club - and was still in vogue when John Gregory Dunne came to Princeton a decade or so later. It seems that Mr Dunne was in the habit of mocking the Nassoons by way of vamping for Ms Didion the lock-jawed, swizzle-stick performance of the group singing “ As I Remember You”.

   Why Joan Didion found it urgent to recall the lyrics is unclear, but upon searching the Web she came upon mention of the tune in Dad's obituary from the “Princeton Alumni Weekly” and saw fit to include the entire obit in her book. Of course, we children are listed there, as is my mother, although the date given for her death is off by twenty years, 1977 instead of 1997. Perhaps it is this typo, declaring Mom dead before her time, that prompts Joan Didion to ask, “But how about the death of Mary-Esther?” A good question for which I at least have no better answer than Joan might have for the death of Mr Dunne.

   As an architect of brief and minor prominence in the field of Performing Arts Centers, Dad was accustomed to the slings and arrows of the Critics, I'm sure. Harder to stomach, had he lived to read it, might have been the quote above.

   “And how long ago was it when the life of any party last played 'Shine, Little Glow Worm' upside down from under the piano?” Didion asks. I can't speak for Mr Bernstein, but in Dad's case, probably sometime in the 1990's.

   “ What would I give to be able to discuss this with John?” she laments.

   She leaves the question of which John, my father or Mr Dunne, unanswered.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

An Accidental Education



      I admit that it took me over a week to even consider looking for “Personal Hygiene” class. I'd entered the battered, steel doors of Julia Richman High School on a warm Tuesday morning in late March, a month or more after insoluble disagreements with my former New England prep school prompted a hasty departure. It was the Spring of my junior year and after pretending for several weeks that further schooling was unlikely if not unnecessary, my parents and I agreed that absent that structure, things were unraveling fairly quickly. I'd spent a few afternoons a week at the Art Students League, enduring the humiliation of incompetence under the stern gaze of such old-world notables as Frank Mason and David Leffel, but most days found me hanging out at the Bethesda Fountain, searching through ads in the East Village Other and the Voice for anything I might be capable of doing other than returning to school. After a particularly dreadful week passing out bright pink fliers for a massage parlor called Pandora's Box - “Pandora Loves You and You'll Love Pandora's Box” - on the corner of 7th Avenue and West 57th , it was clear to all involved that the jig was up.


      
     And so I found myself at Julia Richman faced with a course of study consisting entirely of those classes I'd thus far avoided which the State of New York deemed necessary for completion of the eleventh grade. Among these were American History 1, Algebra 2, Chemistry and, yes, Personal Hygiene. I actually rather liked history and had taken many varieties at prep school, from African to Asian, but had skipped American because I couldn't face it after all those silly books featuring majestic illustrations of Cortez or Sacajawea common in elementary school. Algebra and Chemistry were classes I had already started in the Fall so there was no avoiding them, and Personal Hygiene brought to mind such a wide range of unpleasant possibilities that even looking for the classroom was out of the question.

   As luck would have it, the movie, Love Story had come out the previous winter and the term “Preppy” had suddenly become a major part of the American lexicon. Needless to say, no one at Julia Richman had ever met a preppy and I stood cowering in the hall that first day as my “adviser” gleefully proclaimed me one before the masses. From that moment on I was likely to be addressed that way by both faculty and students.
    
     There were maybe thirty kids in my Honors English class and whereas the first two rows were attentive, even interested, the back of the room was given over to mayhem. A small, bird-like woman in her twenties, our teacher had long since given up any hope of controlling or inspiring more than a handful of her students and all she really asked was that we stand up in turn and read out loud a paragraph or two of The Great Gatsby. Never a fan, this was my third time around finding Christ-figures in Gatsby and I could barely contain myself as one classmate after another rose to stumble through a sentence: “ …. the, the, the trees that had ma-ma-made way for Ga-Ga-Gatsby's house had once pa-pa-pa-pandered in whip-whi-whispers...” This was excruciating and provoked in me an unfamiliar sympathy. In fact, whereas faculty in prep school were regarded as either harmless or dangerous and certainly not worthy of compassion, a few of my teachers at Julia Richman would throw themselves into this futile endeavor every day determined to gain ground and it was hard not to respect them for it.
    
     The entire three months I spent in American History were devoted to the dubious understanding of one article of the Constitution. After two days of this the teacher told me I wouldn't be required to attend if I would just write something – anything – for him twice a week. After the second week he said, “Hey, Preppy. I've got Scholastic Magazine coming tomorrow and they want to interview a few students from various classes. I have to produce someone and, I ask you, who can I send? Won't you please do it?” Of course, I was flattered and did the interview, despite the fact that I'd only been there for a week or two. I can't recall this man's name but I will always remember him as one of my finest teachers.
    
    
Most of what I knew of chemistry at the time was recreational. In the first half of the year, at boarding school, I had barely managed to memorize the Periodic Table. Imagine my delight, then, to discover that this feat was pretty much all that was required for passing Chemistry! There were no labs, no foaming beakers and no time, really, for any of that. Julia Richman was so huge -  its district encompassed the East Side from 14th street to Spanish Harlem – that we were only there from eight until noon, at which time an entirely different student body would take our place until four. The Chemistry teacher, Sheldon Leonard  (or Leonard Sheldon ) reminded me of the bald producer, Mel, from the Dick Van Dyke Show and took a particularly annoying delight in my pedigree. “Hey, Preppy,” he would ask, repeatedly, “Whaddaya want for a mark in Chemistry this year?” To which I would always answer, cringing between hope and despair, “ I'd like an A, Sir.”
  
      Eventually, fearing that something had to be done about Personal Hygiene, I set out to find Room A122-E. Working my way through the bedlam of the hallways to the main stairs, I started up. Ascending past levels B and C, I couldn't help but notice fewer and fewer students around; by the time I reached D the paint was peeling and the railing rusty. There was no E. There was a fire-door where E should have been and, well, having come all this way, I took a deep breath and pushed it open. The instant it took to realize I'd found the roof was punctuated by the nearly audible snapping of a dozen heads in my direction. “Yo, shit, Preppy, the fuck you want?” someone barked from within a haze of smoke. As far as I knew, I'd never met any of these gentlemen, but they appeared to know who I was. As they began to stand and move towards me I croaked, “Is this Personal Hygiene?” then turned and fled down the stairs amidst a chorus of curses and threats.
  
      I'd learned my lesson. I knew I couldn't stay at Julia Richman. As June dragged on to its final, excruciating week I reapplied to private school for my senior year. My family left the City for summer vacation, leaving me behind to take the New York State Regent Exams in Math and Chemistry on a Saturday in July. Convinced that there wasn't much point in my taking the Regents, I spent that Saturday in the Park, hanging out at the Fountain. Some weeks later my report card arrived. My father asked me to explain what N/A meant under the “Regents” heading.

     “Never again” I told him.

     I never did find Personal Hygiene.

     I got an A in Chemistry.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Vaughn But Not Forgotten




      At a time when popular culture demanded that everyone south of 14th street wear black, I was typically out of step in blue jeans, work boots and plaid, woolen shirt. I often thought about updating my wardrobe - buying some black jeans, for instance – I just never quite got around to it. There were times, though, when that outfit came in handy: I might be turning the corner off Broadway on to Prince of a Sunday morning to find the street closed down with police barricades, soot-white box-trucks and swarms of burly gaffers, key-grips and roadies dragging coils of cables and lights around in a chaotic street ballet. These guys were dressed just as I was and I soon found I could slip in amongst them and belly up to the groaning board of free bagels, cream cheese and the cornucopia of tasty delights provided on movie sets throughout the City. More often than not these shoots tended to happen in gritty, atmospheric locations - SoHo, Tribeca and the Brooklyn waterfront - which, of course, were the neighborhoods where most of us lived. And were it not for the occasional complimentary schmear, the whole movie-set thing was a royal pain, blocking the way home or, in the case of our building in Dumbo, actually preventing me for hours from going through my own doorway. That was  the “Once Upon a Time in Old New York” shoot, I think, or maybe it was that dark Robin Williams thing about a taxi driver. 

 
    
      It's no wonder that those of us in America's major cities become jaded by and immune to the proximity of that sort of celebrity; they are invariably more trouble than they're worth. Tourists gawk at the barricades, hoping for a sighting of some lesser star; urbanistas elbow through, hurried and disgruntled. In New York and LA, there is simply no avoiding celebrity. My own daughter, while a student at Occidental College, came downstairs one morning to find Vince Vaughn sitting on her couch, which would be enough to disgruntle anyone! The more often you find yourself warming a bar stool next to Vince Vaughn or Miley Cyrus or Owen Wilson, well, the less radiant their luster.

   In the mid 70's I worked a summer in a small boutique in Providence called Spectrum India. I was really there as a male presence to provide the illusion of security for the two sales-girls as the place had begun staying open late. The store reeked of patchouli and incense and we sold, in addition to Indian inspired clothing, lots of silver and turquoise jewelry, trade beads and other imported trinkets common at the time. One afternoon I took a call from a woman who identified herself as Gregg Allman's road manager. She asked if we would close early so that Gregg could come in for some personal shopping. The Allman Brothers were at the Civic Center that night, so it was possible this wasn't a hoax perpetrated by one of our friends but not very likely. “Sure. You bet! We'll close early for Gregg.” I told her facetiously.
   
     
Sure enough, about 5 o'clock a limo pulled up and out popped Gregg. As she shut the door behind him, one of my stunned co-workers flipped the sign to “Closed”.  After passing out warm quarts of Ballantine Ale, Gregg, already dripping with turquoise and silver, proceeded over the course of the next two hours to purchase virtually everything in the place. This largess was punctuated by several trips to the basement with one or the other of my colleagues for recreational interludes the nature of which I can only imagine. Oddly, perhaps by way of consolation, he scrawled his phone number down on a paper napkin and handed it to me. “ If you're ever in Macon,” he told me,“give me a call.” As he left, Gregg took our names and invited us to come down to the stage door of the Civic Center that night where he'd leave us back-stage passes. We each ran home after closing to get ready and regrouped to go downtown together. We worked our way through the throngs and mayhem to the backstage area, assuring the cops and bouncers along the way that we were on the list. Only to find, of course, that we weren't on any list and neither were the hundreds of bus-boys and waiters and room-service wallas clamoring at the barricades. It appears that my new best friend had invited half the service sector of Providence to this event without actually putting any of us on the list. Convinced that this slight was somehow a minor oversight in our case, we stood there for hours – long past the point when the Allman Brothers actually arrived and started their set –  futilely expecting to be ushered in as Gregg's buddies. This early brush with celebrity, enhanced by a rancid combination of warm Ballantine and anxious dry-mouth, left me with a bitter taste for that sort of glam and tinsel. Not that I didn't hold on to Gregg's number for years.....just in case.

   Here in Maine we don't really have any celebrities. There are a few, like Martha Stewart, tucked away here and there in the summertime, but not so's you'd run into them at the Puffin Stop, not like the Vineyard or the Hamptons. Paul Newman summered in our little community some years back while shooting nearby. I'm told he spent his evenings drinking canned Budweiser and playing nickel-ante poker with our friends, although I wasn't there and can't vouch for that. Everyone says he was a regular guy and that he brought the beer. 


    
     Stephen King may be the closest thing we have to an indigenous celebrity and most people who purport to have met him say he's a regular guy, too. I've been told for years that I look like Stephen King, though I certainly can't see much resemblance, at least not from perusing the dust jackets of his books. Once or twice a month, though, when I'm wandering through the supermarket or down to the landfill – it's never a glamorous location – I'll notice a few people in my periphery looking my way, maybe nudging, pointing and whispering to each other, and I'll know.... Maybe it's because they're just starved for a sighting but eventually they'll approach, timidly and ask, “Are you Stephen King...?”
   
      One day I'll get up the gumption to say yes.

  

Monday, May 5, 2014

Meat Me At The Plaza




  

Suzanne served me sauteed kale and veal cutlets for my birthday dinner last month. It's hard to imagine two dishes further apart on the gastro-political spectrum and it's a sign of the times that, whereas veal was available everywhere, I had to travel some thirty miles to three markets to find a bunch of kale. Not because Mainers are averse to kale or haven't kept au-currant but because the kale kraze has boosted demand way beyond supply. Recently, kale has been lauded with such beneficial attributes – from oxidants or anti-oxidants to epidermal unguents – that it's beginning to threaten the standing of the Chia and Quinoa seed. There's probably an all kale, cleansing diet out there by now, replacing the all cabbage diet of yore.
    
   
Harper, my four year old Golden, loves kale, too. He comes by it honestly, though, as a result of growing up in the garden and taking an epicurean interest in everything that sprouts as a result of our handiwork. Oddly, whereas he loves the string bean or carrot, his passion is for kale. Actually, when you consider his kibble, Harper is pretty much a vegetarian and is delighted to supplement his diet with the stumps of lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and kale, all of which he can distinguish the sound of my preparing from three rooms away.
  
    
I spent nearly nineteen years as a vegetarian; from 1971, when as a young hippie it seemed a good tool, together with a Jackson Browne record, say, to have in ones dating arsenal, to roughly 1990, when traveling in Indonesia and Australia it finally just became too complicated. There wasn't much of a vegetable culture Down Under in those days and in Bali, well, if one were to ask if there's meat in some dish or other, the waiter would invariably respond with whichever answer he thought you might want to hear. I never had any particular moral or salubrious reasons for going green, but tried it for a few weeks as an experiment, kept going and eventually bought into the myth that I had lost digestive enzymes due to lack of use and would become ill should I return, as it were, to the flesh. Which I'm here to say is nonsense.
    
    
Along the way I had to juggle the ubiquitous social issues inherent in vegetarianism: putting hostesses to extra trouble on my behalf while saying something like, “ Please don't bother; I'll just have crackers...”, enduring the evident scorn of countless waiters and enraging my father at every restaurant he ever took us to. One particularly humiliating event actually involved a friend's father who had been Hemingway's personal physician and was cut entirely from the same cloth. White-bearded, burly, and quintessentially Western, Doc Saviers, father of my old friend Georgia, invited me to lunch one day when they were both passing through New York. We dined in the venerable Oak Room at the Plaza, which I suspected just from the d├ęcor would prove to be problematic. Sure enough, faced with a choice of such delicacies as Loin of Mutton Tartar and Lamb Kidney Provencal, I spent way too much time hiding helplessly behind the menu, forcing Georgia to eventually lean in to have a quiet word or two concerning my dilemma. As the minutes ticked by the good doctor offered some suggestions and the jig was clearly up. “You're not one of those God-damned bird-seed eaters, are you?” He demanded in the tenebrous hush of the Oak Room, and, to the hovering waiter, “ Have you any trout? He'll have the trout. You'll have the trout, won't you?” So I had the trout. And picked at it.
    
    
In retrospect it's probably safe to say that those years without meat have done my health some sort of foundational, if not lasting good. It remains to be seen what benefit will accrue to Harper; he's out in the garden with Suzanne even as we speak this morning. I'm pretty sure vegetarianism did little to advance my case with the ladies, certainly not, it must be said, with Georgia. I do know that in all those long years – my salad days – nobody ever ate kale.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

CAN'T TRUST THAT DAY




Most Sundays I would get up early, grab the Times magazine and a soft, black pen and sit down to the puzzle over coffee. After years of doing this, the puzzle was less of a challenge than a ritual and might take an hour or two to complete, after which I might go into the studio for a few hours. If it was Spring or Summer and lovely out, I'd leave the apartment at around eleven and walk through the Heights, across the Brooklyn Bridge, shopping a bit for supper on Canal or north into Little Italy. Cut back west on Grand and up West Broadway through SoHo for a look at the Bridge-and-Tunnel crowd and Euro-trash. Through the mimes and shell-gamers at Washington Square, east again on Bleeker or 4th street for a look at St Mark's and Clown Alley before heading back down to settle in on my stool at Fanelli's in the early afternoon. In sunlight softly filtered through the dusty plate glass, the bartender and one or two of the waitresses might be working together on the Times puzzle and, after my first Rolling Rock, I would ask how they were doing; were they through with it, had they had enough, might I have a crack? They'd slide it over, I'd take the pen from behind my ear and fill in the grid in a few minutes, the answers still fresh in my mind. This feat never failed to amaze the patrons and staff and I never came clean. 



   One wintery Sunday I took the train to the plane and wound up in a formidably gated villa in the hills above Port of Spain, Trinidad. The villa came with a few young men about our age who's job seemed to be skimming the pool and generally tidying up. They could spend all day doing this, moving at a languid, torpid pace, skimming, sweeping, arranging the deck chairs and generally trying to look occupied. By mid afternoon of our second day they had found us to be less demanding, perhaps, than the sort of guests they'd grown accustomed to and it wasn't long before most of their friends and relatives had more or less moved in and joined us loafing around the pool. It was Carnival so we spent evenings with our new friends down in the City, drinking warm rum, jumping up to raging Soka and steel drum Calypso in a sweaty sea of writhing flesh packed so tightly into the narrow streets that you'd literally be lifted up and swept away. Days were spent around the pool in recovery, smoking, drinking Shandy, eating a bit of grilled king fish and generally limin'. This was in the early 80's and Trinidad wasn't yet much of a destination, even at Carnival. Our head-man, Psych, and his friends kept a watchful, protective eye out for us at night in the City. I asked him how they would ever find us in those crowds if we ever got separated. “ No problem,” Psych said, “we just look for Whitey!”. It was that simple; David Byrne and Paul Simon hadn't shown up yet.

     I used to imagine that one day I'd have a wife and she and I would lounge about the place in our bathrobes on Sunday mornings, reading the paper, sipping the froth off our cappuccinos and idly discussing where we should head for brunch or dim-sum. I think this image must have come from an advertisement, probably from the Times Magazine. We were never really able to achieve that, though, what with all the chores and projects deferred during the week that just naturally overtake a young family. Early on, during a brief period of real employment and salary, I tried, of a leisurely Sunday mid-morning, laying about on the sun-dappled couch with my Patrick O'Brien. It did not go well and I've not attempted that since.

     Most weekends nowadays are spent catching up with the plowing or shoveling or raking or mowing. We've put the house on the market so there's always another corner to fluff or room to clean. We're thinking that if we can sell this place and downsize to, say, a station wagon, we can pack up the dogs and head out for some brunch. If our realtor ever comes back from vacation.