Thursday, March 26, 2015

Doug, Actually

         When I met Doug's train that afternoon at Grand Central he'd just come from an  Actualization seminar wherein he'd been enlightened, presumably, on cutting-edge techniques for bolstering such irritating deficiencies as self-esteem, initiative and assertiveness. The finer points of this transformation may have been obscured by the distraction of the throngs milling about the vast rotunda; half again larger than a Saturday rush-hour might require, this horde, viewed from the Lexington Avenue balcony, was right out of a Capra film as thousands of commuters stood shoulder to shoulder scanning fresh newspapers hawked by newsboys darting in and out amongst the crowd. Everyone had a paper open and I caught fragments of the torrid headlines as I moved toward the stairs. It was November 18, 1978 and, as the new,  Actually assertive Doug stepped from the train, we were all just learning about the hundreds of members of the Peoples' Temple Agricultural Project who had just opted for an entirely different self-improvement plan in Jonestown, Guyana.

   “I guess I got out just in time,” Doug said with that classic deadpan of his. “I can see where you might take these sorts of things too far...” We were heading down to Tribeca to share a sublet for our first post-youth stab at New York City and, if either one of us had had the slightest initiative we might have made better use of those six weeks than sitting on the couch in the perpetual gloom of a Manhattan canyon wondering if our landlady had said to water or not to water her ficus. Keeping an eye on the crusty gentleman who lived in a cardboard box in the alley under our window and stalking Rudy, the cat who came with the place, took up a substantial part of most days. The man in the box – who served as an example of someone with even less ambition than we possessed - was harmless enough, I guess, but Rudy, it turned out, had shown remarkable stick-to-itiveness in absconding with our toothbrushes on a nearly daily basis. After losing half a dozen or so and applying ourselves diligently to the hunt, we'd finally discovered he'd been stuffing them into a hole in the bathroom pipe-riser.

   In a random stab at the listings in the back of the Voice, I applied for one of those sales jobs that promised vast wealth without the burden of experience and found myself in a seminar of my own that was so unfamiliar and creepy that I suffered a panic attack and bailed during the bit where we were to look one another in the eye and practice a firm handshake. 


      One day, having exhausted any leads offered up by the bulletin boards at the laundromat and diner, I was wandering aimlessly about mid-town in a cloud of loneliness and dejection when a lovely girl approached me on the corner of Third Avenue and Fifty-Ninth. “You look lost in thought,” she said, with a familiarity that made me wonder if we'd met before. “Would you like to have a coffee and meet some of my friends?” Her eyes literally sparkled as she said this and, though I'd learned to brush off such bizarre approaches in airports and train stations where the Krishnas and Moonies trolled for lost souls, I was completely disarmed and undone by this siren. “We're doing kind of a questionnaire,” she added as we walked together to a nearby set of stairs and down to a basement storefront. “It's kind of a thing my girlfriends and I are doing...Sort of like what people like and don't like. It will only take a few minutes; then we can go grab that coffee.” She held the door open; I would have followed her anywhere. I took my place at a long table amongst half a dozen others and was handed a suspiciously thick batch of sprocket-feed paper and a number two pencil by a scruffy young man in Jesus sandals and a pea-coat. Two hours and two hundred questions later I finally worked up the initiative to walk out on what I'd come to suspect was a personality test given under the auspices of the Church of Scientology. The girl of my dreams had vanished within moments of my arrival and was no doubt back on the streets pimping for Mr Hubbard.

   After six weeks the ficus had expired and Rudy had taken up a position beside the now plugged riser hole where he wailed in despair for hours on end. Doug had come down with an early-onset bout of shingles and the man in the box had vanished altogether. Our resolve and finances depleted, we threw in the towel and went our separate ways. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015


         The school I went to obliged us to attend a shop class where we made trivets, doorstops and boot-jacks but offered next to nothing by way of musical instruction. A private school for boys founded on the British Public School model, our teachers were ersatz, vaguely effete “Masters” imported from Canada who wore three-piece-suits, French cuffs and watch-chains, and referred to us as “Dear boy”. A brush-cut ex Marine, Mr. Beggs, conducted a music class from first through third grades where we were exposed to the rudiments of the language of music, at which point the far more important languages of Latin and French put an abrupt end to such trivial pursuits. The only instrument available or encouraged was the recorder, and we were forced to attend a weekly, command performance by a consort of half a dozen Masters noodling away on a deeply dreary repertoire of Elizabethan favorites. On rare occasions these gentlemen might be joined by one of the women who taught Lower School, adding a mandolin, dulcimer or guitar, in which case we would be compelled to sing round upon round of such lachrymose, Highland numbers as “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” or “Last Night There Were Four Marys (Tonight There Will Be But Three)”.

   Of course, we all wanted recorders; they came in little felt bags with bottle-brush accoutrements, and, in the absence of anything else, seemed pretty exciting for a day or two. When - in Middle School, perhaps - the rest of you thrilled at the chance to choose a band instrument from a giant pile on the gym floor, those of us who had shown even the slightest proficiency on the recorder might be selected for a go at The Bells. This was a pretty heady appointment; boys wore a single, white cotton glove on the right hand, the bells themselves came in felt-lined leather boxes and I was assigned, based on my size alone, a massive carillon, a B flat about two octaves below middle C, which I held aloft for hours on end but don't recall ever actually having to ring. Not once.

   Later, my younger brother, by then at a rural public school in Duchess County, dragged home the cello one afternoon as his improbable selection from the pile. His interest flagged quickly, overtaken by a mercifully brief dalliance with the bag-pipe and a somewhat longer affair in poultry. There must have been a lease or some other sort of encumbrance on his cello, as it was only a matter of moments before my mother adopted the thing, much the way she'd welcomed into the family any other stray that might have turned up at the door. Unlike the rest of us, Mom possessed a casual and effortless perseverance with these things; whether it was etching or bee-keeping, fly-fishing or needlepoint, she'd quietly plod forward in our periphery long after we'd ceased to notice. Her daily practice sessions, attended by an adoring menagerie of harmonizing house-pets, evolved over time from caterwaul to cadenza and, though she remained shy and self-conscious in the presence of her less than charitable children, she sought out other neophytes in the community with whom she formed string quartets, eventually securing a chair with such august assemblages as the Mid Hudson Community Pops and, years later, what must have been an absolutely terrifying flirtation with the Augusta Symphony.

   Mom would never have referred to herself as a cellist; after twenty years of hauling that buxom hardbody all over the Hudson Valley and beyond she was as mortified by the thought of someone listening in as she was at being caught speaking French to the dogs. She went beet red and flustered at finding me in the house after one practice. “Was that Borodin?” I asked, “ I thought you were listening to Casals.” I'd only recently learned who Borodin and Casals were myself, and whereas the latter may have been gilding Mom's lily a trifle, there was no mistaking the section of the String Quartet she'd been working on, even with the accompaniment of livestock.

   One day towards the end of her life – before we knew it was the end of her life – I happened to come by the house on a late summer afternoon. It was hot and still, the windows all thrown open to catch what little breeze the Sheepscot had to offer. I could hear her cello from across the Head Tide bridge and shut off the car, coasting into the driveway so as not to disrupt the session with the noise of my arrival. Reaching for the car door I paused, recognizing the almost painfully beautiful Barber Adagio, and slumped back into my seat. I listened for five perfectly flawless minutes with tears streaming down my cheeks: tears of pride and joy at what had been, at her achievement. Tears of loss and sorrow, perhaps, for what was yet to come.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Fishmonger's Esteem


     “Toilet trout,” my mother pronounced dismissively, shortly before we became separated and I spent the rest of the afternoon riding around on the “Lost Child” train at the 1964 World's Fair. The first trout I ever caught came from a long, murky concrete pool under a blazing sun. I'd quickly tired of the dark, endless procession past the Pieta and had begun clamoring for another Belgian waffle; my mother noticed this less than bucolic diversion on the way to the waffle stand and might have thought the change of pace would shut me up. For a dollar or two I was handed a rudimentary pole with a fixed length of line at one end, baited with a dab of rancid bacon. Directed by the carny in charge to take my place along one side of the pool, it was only a matter of moments before one tiny, stunned and torpid trout took the bait. I don't recall what happened to that specimen; I hope I didn't carry him around in a baggie on my lap as I rode about the Fair despairing of ever seeing my family again.

    I'd been fishing once before with Mom, from a rented rowboat on the lake in Central Park where I caught something primordial on a square of stale bread, some godforsaken chub or grunion. “Sewer salmon,” my mother had called it as we watched the thing expire in the bilge, neither willing to risk a touch. I'd missed a trip to Lake Kabetogama for walleye with my father and brother because I'd come down with chicken pox after spending a week at my stricken brother's bedside in an effort to contract the disease. This was the home remedy for vaccination in the dark ages; he got well and joined my Grandfather in Minnesota, I stayed home in bed with the pox. Neither of these fishing trips did much to instruct nor edify; I'd had the experience, found it wanting and remained entirely and blissfully ignorant of the sport's finer points for the next twenty years.

    My cousin,Ted, had two tackle boxes. One was stuffed with shiny lures designed to attract striped bass and bluefish, the other contained a variety of exotic inebriants sufficient to lure me into accompanying him on a hike around the Point as a sort of fish-caddy, toting what seemed an inordinate amount of poles, gaffs and gear on what I assumed would be a fruitless, if not entirely unpleasant adventure. Cresting the dunes that afternoon we came upon an unholy din, a sky full of screeching gulls and terns above rolling waves of boiling bass and bluefish. Quickly casting a line, Ted thrust the pole at me, “Reel it in! Reel it in!'re upside down,” he shouted, “your left hand! The handle thingy!” I managed a few awkward turns on the reel before the whole convoluted business stopped dead in the water. “I think I'm stuck, “ I yelled back at Ted, “on a rock....Or on the bottom. Help, I'm stuck!” Over the smoking shriek of the line peeling off his own reel, Ted screamed back, “That's no rock, you ignoramus; that's a fish!”

    This was no toilet trout, no small and soiled grunion. After maybe half an hour of trading line with the beast, during which Ted leaped about beside me calling out encouragement and instruction, the massive striper rolled up into view within the foam at the foot of the rocks. We gaffed her and killed her – we knew nothing of putting fish back in those days – and dragged her through the bayberry and rugosa to the antique, hooked hardware scale I'd never noticed on the porch. My first striper came in at thirty-seven pounds and, as every fish story must contain a potential lie, I'll offer this: each fish I caught for the remainder of that summer weighed in at thirty-seven pounds. It wasn't until the last huge cow, bigger than all the rest, that I hung a cinder-block from the scale and discovered it was broken. But I was hooked and I fished non-stop, rain or shine, learning a bit more on each outing, developing copious notes and theories concerning tides and times, nooks and crannies and the deeper instincts of big fish.

    My mother and I started fishing together again; she in search of a fillet for Champagne Sauce while I tried to satisfy a jones so monumental that I couldn't look at a storm-drain puddle in mid-town Manhattan without thinking I'd seen a rise. One calm and sunny afternoon we were fishing the Bluff, about a dozen yards apart, when I hooked and landed a small striper. We'd finally learned to release fish, and as I reached down to slip him off the hook, I noticed this little fellow had what appeared to be about four inches of chartreuse electrical wire protruding from the flesh around the gill. I carefully carried him over to Mom and she tried gently to work the wire free without success. Perhaps he ate the wire thinking it was some eel fry or other larval creature, we theorized, and the copper had slowly worked its way out as the flesh grew in around it. In any event, he seemed otherwise OK and, as I slipped him into the foam at my feet I remarked that we'd taught a young and not particularly bright fish a valuable lesson; he wouldn't be fooled by a lure again for quite a while. Ten minutes later Mom caught him. In the days and weeks that followed we caught that poor little fish a dozen times. My cousin caught him. My brother caught him. My father, who hadn't caught a fish since the trip to Kabetogama, caught him. Unaccustomed as we were to any bass this size – there had been some news about restoration efforts and tagging schoolies in the Chesapeake, but we'd never seen fish much smaller than a coffee table out here – we figured the babies might just be inordinately dumb, or so intent upon our lures as to be insensitive to the relentless pain of the treble-hook. By summer's end nearly everyone in town had heard about or caught and released what had become known as “our” fish, and anglers up and down the rocky coast of Maine were re-jiggering their tackle and re-figuring their time-tested theories.


     One afternoon in late September I got a call from my cousin Richard. He was on a pay-phone at the Baltimore Aquarium where he'd taken his kids while on a trip to the area. “ I had to call.” Richard said. “I'm standing here, as we speak, looking at a giant tank of striper schoolies. There must be a thousand fish in there,” he added, “ and every single one of them has a chartreuse wire tag hanging off its side.”