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.