Thursday, June 25, 2015

See Ya Real Soon


         As cute as a bug's ear, Suzanne was never a Mouseketeer, as far as I know, but could have played one on TV. Maybe not Annette – who could pull that off – but certainly Doreen, Sharon or Sherry. There's something so atavistic and perfectly nostalgic about her old school picture that I was drawn to it immediately and have kept the rumpled snapshot close to hand for twenty-five years. Perfectly coiffed and starched, beaming out from the bygone, every unseen seam is straight, each skirt-pleat sharp, each sandal polished, the snow-white Bobby socks turned down exactly half an inch. Only that iconic, black and bulbous tiara is missing, together with the casting call that might have brought her beyond my own devotion and into the hearts and imaginations of a generation of adoring fans.

   One long-gone Saturday afternoon my brother and I are prone before the Zenith, soaking up the last of the Mouse Club in the fading, filtered sunlight of my father's study. The ebullient Jimmie and the vaguely threatening Roy are leading the gang into the celebrated finale and we're singing along, belting out “See ya real soon” at the top of our lungs and ignoring Dad's demands from across the room that we pipe down and shut that damned thing off. He's on the phone with Pan Am, trying to book a flight above the din, and none of us is aware of the wrench old Mickey's thrown in the works in the madness of that moment as my father impatiently spells his name out for the agent on the other end of the line. “M. A.C”, he bellows, “F. A. D” - so far, so good -  “M.O.U.S.E!” He roars into the receiver as we reach the crescendo in a shrieking tangle of nuggies, knees and elbows on the study floor.

   “Makes no difference who you are,” the clerk at the airport might have said to my father some days later. “This seat is booked for a Mr. MacFadmouse and, unless you are Mr. MacFadmouse, Sir, this ticket is not for you.” We can only imagine the scene -  and by today's standards he'd have been hauled off and flown to Guantanamo instead of Cincinnati -  but no amount of apoplectic threat or patient explanation would budge the minor functionary at the desk. Was he forced to buy another ticket at the gate? Did he miss his flight? The details of the denouement are lost, but it's a safe bet that we were barred from the tube-glow for at least a week, a standard consequence for the times that had little effect as we were already banned from the box on weeknights.

   Recently I woke in the wee hours to the familiar, green and blinking glow of some electronic device at the far corner of the bedroom. As the fog of sleep abated I found myself counting the regulated intervals between flashes and slowly came to the realization that there were, in fact, no electronics in the room. Step out into the living room or kitchen and the place is lit up in the neon rainbow of electroluminescence we've all come to take for granted, but I had nothing charging in the bedroom, no phone or clock or screen in stand-by mode. Could I have plugged something in over there earlier in the day and completely forgotten? Whatever it was, it certainly hadn't been there the night before. I got out of bed and slowly crossed the room in the pitch dark, aided by the coruscating, chartreuse flicker. As I neared the corner the light went out; I groped about for a device, confused, and turned away, only to see the steady flash begin anew. I turned again and, standing stock-still, naked in the night, the glow appeared at the center of my chest now, just below the sternum, in perfect cadence with the beating of my heart. Turning on the overhead at last, the harsh light revealed a tiny firefly at rest in the hollow of my chest. I haven't seen a firefly in years.


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Safe & Lock

         If it hadn't been the odd feel of the key in the lock or the ten-inch, Sabatier carver out of place on a kitchen stool in my periphery, the sight of the florid and engorged, hot pink double dildo standing proudly out amidst the chaotic jumble of the ransacked living room would finally penetrate the veil of denial that had befallen me as soon as I'd turned the knob of the front door. I'd only been gone a few minutes; down the six flights, to the corner and back for a pack of smokes, and up again the endless stairs. Had I heard a scuff or shuffle from above as I passed the third or fourth landing?  Something was strange about the door – not quite closed, the lock cylinder rough to the key, a new divot or two in the battered metal sheathing. Had I left that knife there? Disoriented, I picked the blade up and moved slowly through the kitchen towards the studio, all the little hairs on my neck and scalp now atingle as I struggled to process the scurry I might have heard at the back of the loft, the sensation that everything was just a little off, a bit askew. The slam and bang of the back door, the feet pounding down the stairs broke the spell. Dropping the knife I stumbled for the gloomy bank of windows overlooking the canyon of 21st Street, tripped on an overturned credenza and landed in a tangle of Sapphic sex-toys the color and consistency of a heap of massive gummy-worms.

    This spectacular Chelsea beauty-loft, the latest in a string of short-term sublets, belonged to a pair of performance artists notable for daubing their otherwise naked bodies with mud and twigs and posing mutely for hours on the corner of Prince and West Broadway while the passing hordes affected jaded, downtown attitudes and steadfastly ignored them. I don't think we'd been there for two of our six weeks when the robbery occurred and had no way of knowing what the thieves may have made off with in that crazy, ten minute whirlwind of destruction and defilement other than the few items of our own that turned up missing: a tenor sax, a camera, a set of expensive studio lights. Book cases had been pulled down, closets tossed, cushions slashed; the very personal adornments of these two lives strewn about the place like so much flotsam at the wrack-line of a beach. And there in the middle of the mess, shining through the gloom like a beacon bearing witness to this creepy violation, a pile of perky, high-gloss erotica illuminating an intimacy we'd just as soon not have been forced to imagine.

    Two patrolmen arrived to survey the scene and fill out a report. We'd left the place ahoo for their appraisal and they were naturally drawn immediately to the turgid paraphernalia, indulging in a feast of ribald innuendo, hoisting some of the more complex examples aloft and asking for a demonstration. “Which of you guys is the pussy?” the fat one might have asked. Righting a few chairs and ottomans, we all sat at the coffee table to fill out the report as, still snorting and chortling at their own wit, the skinny cop distractedly swept away the pot seeds littering the table top which were popping chads in his paperwork. We took pictures of the scene and sent them off to our landladies together with the police report and a note begging their forgiveness should they return to find their stuff somewhat rearranged. The saxophone turned up at the pawnshop down on Seventh Avenue where the cops had said we'd likely find it, brought in that very day by the three kids the cops said had likely stolen it, according to the Shylock behind the bulletproof glass. Three kids who'd been hanging out on the street and watching my every move for the last two weeks.

    Years before, when I'd lived in Providence above the locksmith on North Main, I'd awoken one early winter morning to a trail of bootprints in the snow across the rooftop to the window by my pillow. Someone had been standing there, close as a lover - nothing more between us but a pane of glass - peering in at me for minutes, maybe hours in the night. Some days later I was at a pawnshop downtown with my friend John who was looking for an amplifier. The minute we walked in, John pointed to a shelf and said, “Hey, that's my clarinet!”

    “Can't be,” I said. “ You lent me your clarinet; it's back at the house....” The pawnbroker sidled over, “Nice horn, couple of kids brought it in this morning.” Confused, unable to imagine how John's clarinet had found its way downtown, I raced back to North Main and up the tiny alleyway beside the locksmith to find the door ajar, the rambling old house tossed from stem to stern. And the unsettling feeling of knowing someone had been watching my every move.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Chop Suey


     We lived around the corner from the Chop Suey joint on Third Avenue immortalized by Edward Hopper in 1929.  What it was still doing there in 1962 is a mystery, but as with the ice-man and knife-grinder who still plied the block by pushcart, change across those decades came at a snail's pace in most of the old neighborhoods. It's possible that the man in the black satin toque who served Mr Hopper that afternoon as he sketched from a corner table was the father of the man who served us, and it's safe to say that the meal itself hadn't changed a bit. American Chop Suey and Chow Mein, the house specialties, were bland interpretations of their namesakes, based on what was often referred to as “hamburg” and dressed up with spaghetti and a bit of flaccid bean-sprout. On special occasions – after selling a painting; before a matinee - my mother would take us up the gloomy staircase tucked between the shoe-man and the saloon for an exotic plateful of the stuff, slurped up with abandon beneath the floating dust-motes caught in the window-shafts of sunlight.

   Mediocre might just be too grand a term for this fare but we loved it nearly as much as what we'd find behind the complicated little doors at Mom's alternative haunt, the Horn and Hardart's across town on 57th. Pie was the thing at the Automat and although I'm sure we must have had other items from time to time – dry, curling bologna sandwich points, desiccated pickles and stale, rancid chips – it was the colloidal Boston Cream and glutinous berry pies, together with the complex mechanics of the coin-fed little cubbies that drew us in. The extra frisson served up by the ordinary, urban slice of life habituating this vast eatery seemed exciting and vaguely threatening, too, and it wasn't entirely unusual to find the seedy gentleman at the next table bent-up-double, dozing in his entre.

   At home, my mother began trying out some of the newer novelties: boxed, component pizza kits, Sara Lee cakes, pressurized cheese and cream and TV dinners. These were exciting if tasteless alternatives to the usual Sunday night, fast-food options of chipped beef or tuna fish, rice and peas and the fact that you had to push, pull or prod at the newfangled plastic packaging or process only added to the thrill. Often on these rushed and busy evenings Dad would order a pizza from Eduardo's over on Second Avenue by the bridge and there was nothing run-of-the-mill about these pies. Although I secretly preferred a Velveeta melt with a side of Sara Lee, walking through the dusky cacophony with my brother and father and waiting by the bar while Eduardo – a masterful, old-school fingersmith – deftly removed our belts, rings and wallets was pretty cool. That he'd present these purloined items, to our perpetual astonishment, together with the hot and steaming pizza was nearly as big a deal as a Swanson's.

   Just as the 1950's ushered in America's celebration of the ordinary, the 1960's, at least until we let our hair down, gave us all the opportunity to revel in mediocrity and save a bit of time in the kitchen that might better be devoted to sitting before the telly chortling at Jackie Gleason, Ed Sullivan and Topo Gigio between bites of processed cheese food, mock apple pie and turkey from a tube.

Friday, June 5, 2015

My Grand Tour


     “Neckties, ascots or cravats, gentlemen, as well as jackets, are required in the dining room of Brown's Hotel.” My brother and I, bringing up the rear of the family contingent passing into the dining room, had been stopped in mid stride by the maitre d'hotel with an index finger planted firmly in each sternum. Tastefully clad in Harris tweed jackets atop new Merino sweaters over crisp Oxford collars open at the throat, we'd somehow neglected neck-wear, assuming, as we might have the world over, that sweaters trumped the need for further cervical adornment. The family had been ushered off amidst much pomp and fuss to a far table by the kitchen where my father could be heard inquiring about the pedigree of the gin while our smarmy tormentor led us aside to a small alcove. There, at the epicenter of the land of the Liberty Print, he reached into a closet and produced two ties of such vibrant and chaotic polychrome as to be best described as Vintage Jackass. These we dutifully slipped on, and, centering the knots carefully, tucking the rest beneath our sweaters, we presented with just a touch of eye-roll. “ Just so,” he deftly slid a forefinger beneath each knot and flipped the ties back out atop our sweaters. Turning back towards his guests, he offered as a parting shot, “ … a pair of hairnets or barrettes, should you find it perhaps more comfortable to bind your flowing locks.”

   We were on the final three-day leg of the Grand Tour which had begun a week earlier at daVinci Airport under the watchful gaze of hundreds of Carabinieri armed to the teeth as a hedge against the current fashion for airline hijacking. Dad had pulled out all the stops for this trip and we were met by a man with a sign that might have read “ McFaggio” and whisked away at high speed to the Hotel d'Inghilterra. While my brother and I drifted about the Via del Corso hounded by three-note shepherd pipers and mimes, my father badgered room-service for such American staples as Scotch Tape and construction paper with which to assemble an elaborate Christmas tree he then taped to the vintage wallpaper of their suite. That night we dined at Alfredo where my father immediately asked to see Alfredo himself. The waiter produced an elderly gentleman who may or may not have been Alfredo but nonetheless made a fairly convincing show of remembering my father dining there while awaiting the birth of his eldest son some nineteen years earlier. It was at Ristorante Alfredo that we established the tortuous gustatory regimen that would follow us through three cities and render my father nearly apoplectic at every meal: I, as a vegetarian, would scan the menu for any entre that might be meatless – in this case the eponymous Fettuccine - entirely forgoing the specialties offered by Europe's finest eateries; my brother would inevitably order an assortment of the most expensive items and my sister would demand Ketchup, get three bites into her dinner and announce that she felt sick and needed to throw up. Between tremulous meals we stood beneath a balcony near the Tiber and gazed up at the apartment my parents lived in when my brother was born, hit the Colosseum and the Catacombs, went to St Peter's to catch the Pope, checked out the Duomi at Sienna and San Gimignano and, as quickly as we'd arrived, boarded the night train for Paris, pockets stuffed with palmieri and bitter oranges.

   I had every intention of enjoying Paris and particularly looked forward to locating Numero 10, Place d'Italie, the address I knew from years of French class belonged to Marie Thibaut, her Papa, Mamon, frère, chien and chat. Years later, on another trip, I did find the place – which turned out to be a dusty storefront devoted to the wholesaling of pin-ball machines and not the grand, fin-de-ciecle residence I'd imagined – but on this occasion I had the dubious good fortune to run into my old friend, Bumper, within hours of arriving at the hotel. Bumper swept me away on an empty stomach for an evening that started out on Burgundy but soon hit the harder stuff, progressing through warm Scotch, Absinthe and Algerian hash. There might have been an omelet in there somewhere, too. My three days in Paris were spent crawling back and forth from my fetid bed to the fetid toilet and weakly barring entry to the frustrated, daily maid service in a hotel room I'd have absolutely no recollection of returning to in the wee, wee hours following that initial, debauched ramble. Someone scooped me up eventually and put me on the Boat-train for London and the enduring memory of our humiliation at the hands of a petty tyrant.