Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Grapes of Roth (looking for love in all the wrong places)

         The night I began devouring Steinbeck I set my bed afire with the smoldering plastic lampshade within the tent I'd made of blankets and bedposts. The rigging of a tent had been necessary to hide the lamplight, as my nine o'clock bed-time had long since come and gone. I'd been so absorbed with Tom Joad that I'd failed to notice the blankets settle down upon the lamp until the acrid stench and sparkly fulguration of the now molten shade caught my attention and sent me leaping from the bed.

         “Let's see,” my mother had said that afternoon, taking a book down from the shelf, opening it at random and briefly skimming.“ You might be old enough for this one.”  Its dust-jacket long gone, the dull green cover didn't inspire me much and the title, The Grapes of Wrath, etched in faded gold along the spine didn't seem like much fun, either. I had gone to the study, bored with Penrod or Homer Price or Archie and Mehitable or whatever I'd been reading and resolved to ask for something more grown-up, by which I meant written for adults, so I understood that anything offered would be challenging and have fewer pictures than what I'd been accustomed to. “Or this, maybe.” Mom continued, reaching for William Saroyan's The Human Comedy . “Or....Well, maybe not this quite yet. Dear...?” She asked of my father at his desk across the room, “ Do you think he'd be ready for Catcher In The Rye? Or, perhaps not yet....”  She'd already decided, slipping the thinner volume back into its place on the shelf and replacing it on my growing stack with something called “A Separate Peace”.  One thing was certain; adult books had odd, obscure titles, and I made a mental note of exactly where this one sat so that I'd be able to find it later and attempt to discover exactly what might make it too grown up for me.

         It took me a month or more to return to that spot, during which I read Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday and began my own epic novel about Okies in the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression. One day, finding little of the Steinbeck I'd come to know and love in a quick perusal of the cover of  Travels With Charlie, I remembered that bit of forbidden fruit a shelf or two away. After a quick check of the hallway to see that the coast was clear, I slid the Salinger from its place, hid it beneath the copy of A Separate Peace and made a furtive dash back to my room. As it happened, the two volumes were nearly identical in size and before I'd even ruffled a page I had an epiphany. Were I simply to switch the jackets, I could put the now ersatz Catcher back in its place on the shelf, openly carry the real thing about in mufti and no one would be the wiser. I still don't know what all the fuss was about. I loved the book, of course, but searched in vain for anything that might be considered titillating enough to make Catcher off limits.

         Around this time the boys at school began talking about select passages hidden within various volumes that might be found in any one of our homes. I breathlessly thumbed the pages of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lolita and even the painfully dull and dreary The Art of Loving without finding much to offend or instruct. I bludgeoned my way through Roth's Goodbye, Columbus. With utter futility I fanned through anything bearing the imprint of Grove Press. A tattered, paper-back version of Fanny Hill, way up on the top shelf, yielded some fairly racy stuff, but the eighteenth-century British idiom was such a chore to parse out in the context of my fifth-grade imagination that it was Greek to me. The Carpetbaggers and Candy were supposed to be the real deal -  there were rumored to be a few copies floating around the eighth grade lockers -  but these, too, left me unsatisfied, the one being so tedious it wasn't worth the effort and the other so silly as to render the naughty bits laughable and ridiculous. Which, at least in the case of Candy, might have been the point.

         No effort so monumental goes entirely unrewarded and all this research did yield some unexpected gems. Within a year or so of finding nothing particularly spicy in Is Sex Necessary?, I'd become a devoted fan of both James Thurber and E.B. White, who, in turn, helped lead me into a world of great reading well beyond a schoolboy's callow search.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Edge That Slopes Towards You

“ Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life, to get the feel of life...”  
                                                                  Billy Strayhorn

         Every aspiring artist ought to have a corner table or bar stool in some sweet dive where he can while away a decade, a Blue Period, perhaps, amongst the convivial yammering of his peers. Art schools and writers' workshops may introduce students to the art of loafing in coffee shops and tap rooms and lay a rather tame and coddled foundation for this sort of socializing, but the real thing lies just down that scarred and cobbled street, past the iron bulkheads and twisted trash cans, on the corner beneath that neon sign. While the hipsters were digging the scene at Puffy's, I had the good fortune to be introduced by a well seasoned regular to the wondrous cacophony of creative possibility that was Fanelli's, a warm and glowing haven where one could escape the loneliness of the studio and the often staggering blockage that came from forcing paint onto paper. Even then, in the winter of 1980, just before the hordes descended - long before the double-decker buses and boutiques -  I was a latecomer,  propping myself up at the waitress station, nursing a dollar-a-bottle, longneck Bud and absorbing the end of an era.

         My friend Phil first brought me in, introduced me to Larry, the bartender and a string of regulars occupying the stools in what I would come to know was a fairly precise order: Phil, closest to the waitresses and pay phone, then Kenny, Charlie, sibilant, turtlenecked Tom who reminded me of Liberace, Stewart, who looked like James Dean, and so on down the line. This order rarely varied and woe be to the neophyte who might mistake an empty stool for a vacant stool; who, upon feeling a sudden congestion and loss of personal space together with a blast of hot, rancid keg-breath to the back of the neck might move sheepishly down towards the window end of the bar where the stools had less propriety. Places were marked by cigarette packs and stacks of tens, fives, and ones from which Larry would draw, pouring a round without having to be asked. More often than not, this crowd enjoyed the largesse of the House, drinking free for hours and leaving the stack behind for tips.

         In those few years before he sold the place, Mike Fanelli, in a floor-length, baker's apron rolled high above his waist, often worked the bar himself into the early afternoon. A simple lunch, maybe a bowl of Bolognese or Minestrone with a basket of bread, was served at the five or six, checkered-cloth tables along the wall opposite the bar, or in the “Ladies & Gents Sitting Room” beyond the waitress station at the back. Mercifully forgoing any temptation to hang the patrons' work, the walls were hung, salon-style, with action shots of bygone boxers, framed and autographed by the likes of Rocky Marciano and Jake Lamotta. It was rarely crowded at lunchtime; neighborhood workmen still ate there, mixing with gallery staff, like Phil, a few career inebriates at the dark end of the old, mahogany bar and a handful of old timers, friends of the Fanelli's who'd been regulars since they took over the place in 1922. In these soft and quiet daylight hours, filtered through smoke and dust motes, the bar took on a timeless quality, every detail unchanged and available as a Hopper painting: the pressed tin ceiling, once lead-white, now, like the 1930's rubber duck behind the bar, a satin-rich, pale mahogany, smoked like a ham in fifty years of nicotine. The waitress station at the back of the room had it's own, smaller version of the carved bar behind which one girl usually handled lunch, brewing coffee, slicing cake or pie and setting up her service.  Across the tiny-tiled, mosaic floor, beneath the TV, was a phone booth where regular patrons avoided taking personal calls informing them it was time to go home, and the men's-room, notable for such memorable graffiti as, “ The tundra is frozen and the caribou are running...”, a snippet of esoterica virtually guaranteed to free any creative soul from whatever mental block might ail him.

         The back room, the “Ladies & Gents Sitting Room” had been added at some stage when the idea of serving something other than pickled eggs and pigs' feet to workmen from the adjacent Pinking Sheers Building took hold as a way of expanding business to a broader clientele. Ladies of the day, who would not have set foot in a bar, needed a place to sit and dine, removed from the spittoons and reeking urinals their men had been enjoying for generations. Another six or eight tables filled the room, the ladies-room had been carved out of an alcove to the right where a bathroom sink was only partially hidden by a curtain - rarely drawn – and the kitchen had been added beyond the sitting room. In the crowded, bustling evenings, I'd stake my perch at the waitress bar together with one or two others who favored that spot. Beneath the sobering, Reagan-era blather of MacNeil and Lehrer one of them might suddenly slap a dollar down and nod towards the curtained sink at the entrance to the ladies room. For years, maybe decades, these guys had been betting on the likelihood of whoever had gone in there washing their hands on the way out. It was a sucker's bet; I always wagered that they would, and I always lost.

         In the afternoon I might sit up at the head of the bar, at the oddly short and beveled length by the front window, the better to see the goings on at the corner of Prince and Mercer. Because the edge of that bit had been inexplicably eased and beveled, you had to be careful about setting your drink down lest it fall in your lap or worse, shatter on the tile, bringing the attention of the entire congregation down upon you in the form of hoots and cat-calls.

          One day, after leaving the studio early, defeated by whatever I'd been working on and unable to find a way around it, I stopped in and took a seat there by the window. Larry was already popping the top off my long-neck as I settled in and, setting the bottle down atop my short stack of singles to indicate that it was on the house he said, “ You know about the edge that slopes toward you, so beware.” In the two or three minutes it took to parse this profound and meaty morsel, my creative block evaporated. I chugged the beer, left my money on the table and bolted out the door. Heading back to the studio, I could hear Larry calling after me, “Wait! Was it something I said.......?”


Thursday, February 12, 2015

Wind Clouds


         When Earl came silently around the corner of the cottage, we were sitting in the late September sun on the lee side of the porch, out of the wind, our backs against the warm, desiccated cedar shakes and a view of white-capped, rolling waves before us stretching all the way to Spain. “ Looks like wind clouds a'comin'”, Earl said, catching us by surprise, following our gaze out past Seguin.  A man of very few words, unhampered by context or elaboration, nearly everything Earl said seemed profound and pithy, though most people probably never heard him say anything at all. “Ayuh,” he continued, “she'll blow up good by tonight.” These two sentences concerning the forecast may have taken a good minute and a half to deliver and, because of this protracted style, I never really knew if he'd said his piece or if there might be more to come. We looked up at him expectantly as he stood there, back-lit by the fierce, low Autumn sun, sporting his customary ensemble of rolled watch-cap, plaid Woolrich shirt and suspenders tugging up the soiled Dickies tucked into his tall, rubber boots. His prognosis on the weather apparently complete, Earl stood mute, bristled, pink face turned toward the sea, one massive, swollen and spotted hand tucked into his galluse, the other at his side, covered, oddly, by a long, winter-wool sock. “Did you hurt your hand, there, Earl?” I asked, committing to the challenge of making conversation. “Or have you got a gun in there?”  This half in jest, but anything was possible. With a slow grin he peeled back the sock, revealing an improbably long revolver. “ Bad blood from Winnegance...” he offered cryptically, by way of explanation.

          Earl was born and raised, together with his brothers Phil and Don, in a tiny shoe-box of a house out here on the end of the Point, sometime around the first decade of the last century. For the most part, the family fished from open boats and dories moored in the cove behind the house, so there was little call for Earl to “get out much” and it showed in his charming, nearly paralytic shyness and an almost agonizing loss for words, traits no doubt exacerbated by not having occasion to speak for six months out of the year. Battered by wind, sea and solitude, Earl had always appeared old to me, living alone in the house long after his brothers had moved away and started families. Reticent as he was, I never heard a single word pass from the lips of his brother Phil, yet Don, the baby of the family, who passed away a few years ago at ninety, was a veritable chatter-box, always ready to sit for a spell and tell one apocryphal yarn after another. Because he was there – had always been there – as the last living soul on the way out to our place, Earl was the keeper of the keys and generally had an eye out for such things as “bad blood from Winnegance” in the off-season.

         In college, in the 70's, we'd load a car up with beer and spaghetti and show up unannounced on a late November evening at Earl's house. Earl had a phone; The Ladies had insisted on providing one, although I'm sure he never used it and I wouldn't have dreamed of calling him, given the conversational challenges inherent in that. I mean, how would you ever know when to hang up? So I'd stop at his place and let the engine rev a few times in order to let him pull himself together in the face of unexpected visitors. He'd probably heard the car a mile away when we'd turned in off the main road, but I always waited till the outside light went on before heading up the steps to his porch, rolling my eyes smugly at my friends to indicate the oddness of the interchange they were about to witness. In those years, as a callow kid, I couldn't begin to think of anything to say to Earl by way of small talk – wasn't much interested, actually - and he doubtless felt the same way about me. I'd leave the car running, maybe feign a shiver or two in the headlight glare in a futile effort to hurry things along. He'd invariably come to the door without the old ring of keys, crack the storm a few inches and invite me in.

         If demurring seemed impossible - despite my friends in the car, the engine running - I'd venture in to the snug, overheated parlor off the tiny kitchen and stand by the pot-bellied stove awaiting the keys. Earl didn't have running water in those days, so there may not have been a proper bathroom. In fact, other than the kitchen and that parlor, I don't remember seeing any other rooms at all. There must have been a bedroom, but even if there was, it's hard to imagine how Irving and Julia and their three boys managed. As it was, the couch and chairs in the parlor were stacked with the accoutrements of the mild bachelor-hoarder: stacks of old newspapers, shotguns and boxes of shells, coffee cans, axes and hatchets, empty glass carboys, the short-wave, buoys, nets, bits and pieces of deer. Where there might have been a faucet, a massive, ancient hand-pump loomed above the kitchen sink, presumably tapped directly into an original surface well beneath the house itself. Empty cans of Dinty Moore, partial sleeves of Ritz Crackers and crumbs of strong Cheddar with cotton cheese-cloth still intact lay about the counter top.

         Earl would begin, then, with something like, “Your Mother.........came by.....last month.....”, which might have taken a few minutes to deliver - such were the lengths of his pauses - while reaching behind the twelve-gauge for the ring of keys and slowly extending them towards me. I'd nod and smile and back towards the door, unsure if that was it or if there might be more to come. “Brought me..... some jam.....she did.....”; I'd have my hand on the old, pitted brass knob, one foot out the door. I'd stand there for another ten seconds and finally bolt before the next installment, sucking in lungfuls of crisp, fresh air and leaping the porch for the car, leaving Earl in the doorway to finish his thought.

         One day, some years later, my brother and I were fishing for stripers from a rowboat near Earl's Cove. Earl and Phil had been out pulling traps nearby and waved when they saw us, indicating we ought to come alongside. As we approached, the two men, smiling broadly, began tossing lobsters in to our boat, maybe ten or a dozen, altogether. “Woah! Hey, you guys! What the...?” we shouted across the water. Earl and Phil, looking a bit like Dopey and Sneezey Dwarf, simply motored off without a word. Maybe they did this because we always brought Earl the fish heads from our catch; he'd save the cheeks for himself and throw the rest in a huge barrel to ferment for bait. Maybe it was because Earl loved and was devoted to our mother, but we never learned the reason for this sudden generosity. We couldn't have deserved it; that's certainly safe to say.

         The last time I saw Earl he was standing on his porch in his Sunday suit and rubber boots. Some say it was those boots that did him in; that, in never, ever taking them off except to replace them with a new pair every few years, Earl had done some grievous, circulatory damage to his legs. By this time I'd grown up a bit and stopped to say hello and ask about his town clothes. Earl was waiting for Don to show up and take him to the hospital, he told me. One of his legs had gone funny and he guessed they wanted to do some tests on it, he said. Trouble was, he said, that once they get you into those places, you never come out. Or so he'd heard. He'd never actually been in a hospital before. And he was right.      

Earl's long gone now, even the house that had been there all those years is gone; the tiny house past which square-riggers and barks and schooners had cluttered the horizon when he was a boy and upon whose modest patch of flinty lawn he'd once played with sea otter pups under the watchful gaze of their mother. Wouldn't it be worth all the bass-cheeks in the sea to sit by that stove today and listen, however patiently, to Uncle Earl finish a sentence!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Bird Lives


      Even now, decades later, there's some confusion as to whether Eva had told us to leave the cage door open or shut. Doug heard open; I'm pretty sure I heard shut. Doug thinks I left it open Friday afternoon when we left; I'm pretty sure I never touched it. In any event, when we showed up to resume wallpapering the kitchen that Saturday morning we didn't give the bird a second thought and went about our business moving furniture, putting plastic down, setting up the paper-table and tuning in to Phil Schapp's daily offering of Charlie Parker on the radio. Most of the morning was devoted to cleaning and sizing the walls, measuring out the room and cutting paper lengths to have on hand once the hanging began. It may not have been until lunchtime, in fact, that one of us walked past the cage with its door ajar and noticed the bird was gone. It didn't take long to realize the budgerigar had flown the coop and the open kitchen window, unfettered portal to avian adventure on the Upper West Side, gaped back at us with ominous reproach.

   Walter and Eva, as most of our clients did in those days, had picked up their kids at Montessori on Friday afternoon and hightailed it for The Hamptons. Eva had mentioned something about the budgie on their way out – “we always leave the cage closed”, maybe – which neither Doug nor I had paid the slightest attention to, busy as we were at the time filling holes, painting baseboards and mixing up a big vat of wheat-paste for the job ahead.

   Once the initial, stomach-churning panic had subsided we sat upon a pair of compound buckets to weigh our options. This was an early experience in house-painting cum pet-sitting for us and, whereas it wouldn't reach the traumatic level achieved by inadvertently poaching a tankful of guppies on our very next job, it had all the earmarks of a disaster of significant proportion. As this was the family pet, and there being two young kids involved, it seemed we had either to find the bird or replace him. Failing that, one of us would, at the very least, need to muster the courage to call our clients in order to inform them of the loss so that they'd have time to prepare the children before returning Sunday night. Asking the doorman to keep an eye out for the budgie in question amongst the Ginkgos that lined the street seemed improbable at best, but there was bound to be a pet store nearby; these parakeets all looked alike and seemed fairly ubiquitous. We could simply run around the corner to the Pets Are Us, we imagined, pick up a replacement for a couple of bucks, install him in the birdcage with the door firmly shut and no one would be the wiser. Better yet, our last client, clear across town in Park Slope, had an identical bird and we still had a key to his place. For the cost of a couple of tokens, I could make a run to Brooklyn, purloin that budgerigar and be back before Doug had finished the job. With viable options before us we went back to work, confident we'd have the paper hung and a bird in hand by the following afternoon.

   And that's when we found him, aswim in the paste bucket, coated from crusty crest to tiny talons in a thick, gelatinous goo. Barely alive, emitting a faint, occasional croak, the wee beasty had presumably spent the night in there and had been trying to get our attention all morning over the pyrotechnic noodlings of the Yardbird himself. Doug reacted first, reaching gingerly in with fingers spread, carefully extracting the amorphous lump from the long, clinging strands, lifting him towards his lips    for just a second here I thought he might try a bit of mouth-to-mouth –  and blowing a few warm, restorative breaths over the barely conscious cageling. The bird reacted with a slow, laborious blink of one pasty eye and a long, low chirp. Quickly fashioning something of a bird-bath from the sink strainer and testing the water temperature on his wrists, Doug began to scrub the budgie with a fingertip and a tenderness he might have reserved for his own child. Any thought of getting back to work in the face of this unfolding drama was out of the question and we spent the next hour or so taking turns at the sink, scrubbing the limp little bugger to within an inch of his life. Finally satisfied that we could do no more, that, apart from a thin sheen of adhesive residue we'd managed to get him back to the point where one could discern color and make out an articulated feather or two, Doug gently placed the now Punk parakeet, plumage permed all spiky and ahoo, back on the tin foil lining of the birdcage floor.  Aware that he might die at any moment from the trauma, the damp or cold, we reluctantly returned to work, the radio off and our ears tuned to whatever the death-rattle of a budgie might be.

   Given the grim prognosis it still seemed prudent to try to reach the Hamptons, as returning to a dead if somewhat sticky budgie may have proven more traumatic for a child than a bird gone missing altogether. With the persistence afforded by the few remaining hours of this long afternoon, Doug, invoking phrases such as “dire emergency” and “matter of life and death”, managed to extract the private, unlisted number from some irritable functionary at the phone company and got Eva on the line. Sponging the glue from the last of the wallpaper seems, I overheard him defending the call and use of the private number, patiently explaining the situation and outlining our concerns for the budgerigar and their children's tender psyches. 

   “Oh. That damned bird! “ Eva had apparently responded. “That damned bird once spent three weeks stuck in a dust-bunny behind the refrigerator. You can't kill that damned bird. The kids hate that bird!”