Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Car Stories

[For an open-mic performance of this essay, follow this link.]

My name is Van. I’m named after a car, the 1950s British racecar called the Vanwall. As you might guess, my father was a car nut. My younger brother is Cooper, but don’t call him Mini Cooper.

You’d think I’d be a car nut myself. But apart from primal male lusting after Corvette Stingrays and the Maserattis and Ferraris we see tooling around Katonah, I’m not. In fact, I’m a very cautious, even anxious driver, the old guy who never exceeds the speed limit on the Saw Mill Parkway.

Still, I need to get around. I was very happy with a 2004 Hyundai Elantra I bought in 2005 at the Hyundai dealership in Stamford. It was a corporate car, barely used and I happily drove it for over 13 years. That is, until the steering seized up and the engine started smoking a few weeks ago. Rather than get it repaired, I decided to put the money into a down payment for a new car. 

Me, a new car! The Elantra lasted longer than cameras, cell phones and computers. But for all my mooning over American muscle cars and curvy Euro roadsters, my practical turn of mind drove me in another direction. All my research, especially Consumer Reports, pointed to the Toyota Prius. Reliable, good for the environment, and I could get from a local dealer—a big issue since Hyundai dealerships kept closing on me.

So last week I bought a 2015 Prius at Rivera Toyota in Mt. Kisco. The leap in technology is amazing. Besides the battery power, the Prius has a CD player. Was I the last person in Bedford, NY, to drive a car with a tape deck? I drove around with boxes of tapes in my car so I could groove to Miles Davis and the Texas Tornados; now I’ve donated most of them to Goodwill. I even donated the Elantra to Goodwill.

I picked up the car on a Monday and faced my first test on Tuesday as a nervous driver. I had to go to Norwalk for a dental appointment, then to downtown Stamford to serve as the photographer at an event at my employer’s office. That’s not much mileage, but the day had pounding rain . . . and I was driving a new car . . . and I had to drive on I-95 . . .

Actually, for me, the anticipation is much worse than the reality of doing. That applies to all kinds of life activities. I steered the car to Norwalk, a good warmup. Then, true to form, I missed the convoluted entrance onto I-95 in South Norwalk, but finally found an entrance a few miles away in Rowayton. I immediately got the full I-95 fun ride: Rain, big trucks, meandering lanes.

But what happened? Knowledge kicked in. I’ve driven I-95 plenty of times before. I knew where I was going and the traffic patterns. I knew exactly what to expect when Exit 8 for Elm Street appeared. I found the company garage, parked and that was it. The car worked fine and I liked the windshield wipers that didn’t go “skree, skree” like a crazed raven when I used them.

Little waves of relief rolled over me when I packed up my camera to leave. All I had to do was get home. I hoped for blue skies that late afternoon. Instead, the police had blocked off Elm Street under I-95 because the downpour was flooding the roadway. Cars going north on Elm Street created waves like speedboats. Rather than risk stalling my shiny new wheels in the sudden pond, I exited on East Main – with traffic bumper to bumper, I couldn’t move over to turn left. The street carried me east, further from where I needed to go. Years ago I would have broken out in a cold sweat. This time, however, I drew on my reptilian memory of having lived in Stamford for seven years, so I knew the place.

I saw an intersection coming up for Glenbrook Road, which goes north to where I used to live in Stamford. I turned right, turned around in a parking lot, and headed north. The Prius crept north in the monsoon, wipers slamming back and forth. I felt calm in the situation, like I had threaded the needle of proper response. The GPS from my phone, cradled in my lap, told me where to turn. As long as I kept moving north, I’d eventually get return to the snug confines of Katonah, and I did. Once again, I learned that a little life experience goes a long way in coping with anxiety.

I’m still making the car my own. My sense of space is filling it in, that sensation when you and the car merge, like a hand in a glove. I’m still plowing through the instruction manual, which has about 25 pages on how to lock and unlock the doors. I’m putting it through the paces of the familiar ant trails I use to get around the area. For the first time in my life, I set up that Bluetooth function on my phone to connect it with the audio and map display of the car, although I haven’t figured out how to use it. But that’ll happen. As I have learned, experience on the roads counts for a lot.

I’m looking forward to selecting a stack of CDs to keep in the car. Which one will have the honor of being the first to spin in the CD player?

Maybe I don’t need to feel nostalgic for the Elantra’s tape deck after all.

Friday, September 07, 2018

Fathers and Sons, Doors and Prisons

John S. McCain Jr. and George Stephen Morrison lived parallel lives of military service. Both graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy—McCain in 1931, Morrison in 1941. They served in the Pacific in World War II and had careers that lasted into the Vietnam War era. McCain was Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command (CINCPAC), commander of all U.S. forces in the Vietnam theater from 1968 to 1972. 

Morrison was the commander of the Carrier Division during the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin episode. He reached the rank of Rear Admiral in 1967 and retired in 1975. While they were 10 years apart in age, the two men were both admirals from 1967 to 1972.

Besides educational and career similarities, the men both had sons who had notable careers: John S. McCain III, Navy pilot, 2008 presidential candidate and Senator, and Jim Morrison, lead singer of the Doors.

The death in August of Sen. McCain at age 81 deserved attention, as he rose to the highest levels of American politics. I wouldn't ordinarily associate him with a musician who wallowed in the mire of the dissolute rock lifestyle and died at 27. Morrison died in Paris in 1971 while McCain languished in a North Vietnamese prison, wracked by torture and isolation but bolstered by an iron sense of loyalty to his fellow American prisoners. However, McCain and Morrison shared the personal history as sons of admirals, sons who chose different paths in life. Their fathers, too, had to deal with traumas involving their sons. How did those complex father-son relationships play out?

Jim Morrison and his father, George Morrison, on the bridge of the USS Bon Homme Richard, January 1964 (Photo: US Navy) 

Adm. Morrison, the youngest admiral in the history of the Navy, and his son had a tormented relationship that became no relationship. I winced to read about the primal clash between the boy and the Admiral:

Due to the admiral’s career, the Morrisons were always on the move. By age four, Jimmy had already lived in five different places, coast to coast. Since his father was gone for long periods, his mother Clara became the disciplinarian. Jimmy grew rebellious. Returning home from duty, his father, accustomed to thousands of men obeying his command promptly and without question, had no patience with his first son’s insubordination and backtalk. He spared no effort trying to get the boy on the straight and narrow.
In disciplining his eldest son, George Morrison used a military “dressing down” approach: he would humiliate the boy to submission and apology. When this became less effective with his precocious, increasingly rebellious son, Admiral Morrison got old-fashioned. According to one biographer, Stephen Davis, the father beat his son with a baseball bat. Jim also confided to his lawyer that his father had sexually assaulted him, and that he never forgave his mother for allowing it. Clara dismissed the charge as one of her son’s malicious lies. “In spite of his medals,” said Jim of his father, “he’s a weakling who let her [his wife] castrate him.”

Long after Jim’s death, Adm. Morrison and Jim's two siblings talked to writer Ben Fong-Torres for The Doors by the Doors, an authorized 2006 biography. From the comments, Adm. Morrison’s reflections sounded wistful, and, to my ears, emotionally jarring:

"We look back on him with great delight . . . The fact that he's dead is unfortunate but looking back on his life it's a very pleasant thought," George Morrison says in the book.

Jim Morrison, a difficult teen who rebelled against his father's military lifestyle, went on to become one of the most magnetic performers in rock 'n' roll. But he disowned his family, and once made a throwaway comment that they were dead. He also referenced his parents in the Oedipal rant “The End,” singing that he wanted to kill his father and sleep with his mother.

Yet, the Lizard King pose could have intertwined with familial yearnings. A December 6, 2013 article by Paul Beston in The American Conservative, “Remembering Jim Morrison: The Doors frontman and his admiralfather lived a generation’s turmoil,” explored the father-son relationship and found this story, which I found very touching and believable:

In fact, during Morrison’s time in Paris, the admiral had been on his mind. Alan Ronay, an old college friend, spent weeks with Jim there. “One night we had a conversation that was totally moving,” Ronay told Morrison biographers James Riordan and Jerry Prochnicky. “It was full of affection … Jim telling funny stories about his dad and so on. The stories were really tender and warm. I wish his parents could’ve heard it. I really felt that he’d totally reclaimed himself.” But a few months later, he was dead.

Adm. Morrison outlived his prodigal son by 37 years. Unable to work things out in life, the father did what he could in the decades that followed. The Morrison family paid for upkeep of Jim’s grave in Paris, and Adm. Morrison “traveled to Jim’s grave in Paris and installed a plaque of his own making. Translated from Greek, it reads: True to his own spirit.” The Greek said: ΚΑΤΑ ΤΟΝ ΔΑΙΜΟΝΑ ΕΑΥΤΟΥ.

While Jim Morrison pursued his muse, the future Sen. McCain was trying to stay alive. How did his parents react to his plane being shot down? Here is one story about it:

McCain's son, naval aviator Lieutenant Commander John S. McCain III, became a prisoner of war in North Vietnam in October 1967, after being shot down and badly injured during a bombing raid over Hanoi. McCain's prominence made the downing of his son front-page news. McCain and his wife Roberta treated the news stoically, attending a dinner party in London without indicating anything was wrong even though initial word indicated their son was unlikely to have survived the shoot-down. McCain would later say little about his son's captivity in public, other than that they had indications he was alive and "that is something to live for.”

Like Adm. Morrison, Adm. McCain did not let family issues override his military orientation. He ordered the April 1972 bombing of North Vietnam, including the Hanoi area where his son was held prisoner. Ultimately, after the Paris peace accords, Sen. McCain was released in 1973.

John McCain meets his father for the first time after his release from a North Vietnamese prison, March 31, 1973

A column in Forbes magazine from December 31, 2017, provides an extended look at Adm. McCain’s career and his response to his son’s capture. Titled “On Senator John McCain, Son of Admiral John McCain,” it deserves quoting at length. This passage shows his focus on military over family matters:

Admiral John McCain was named Commander in Chief of the Pacific during the time when his son, Lieutenant Commander John McCain, was held as a Prisoner of War by the North Vietnamese. His son’s captivity could have colored decisions that Admiral McCain might have made. Admiral McCain, Rowland believes, dutifully made a commitment that he would isolate the fact that his son was a POW so that it would never affect any of his decisions as Commander. Rowland:
 "Admiral McCain made it crystal clear that no one would mention Lt. Commander John McCain’s name in his presence. The day I signed in I was told in no uncertain terms that the quickest way to get fired and kicked out before sunset you would be to do so. My job was POWs,” recalled Rowland. 'I handled enemy prisoners. My duties also transferred over to the Geneva Convention and American POWs. I never, ever, briefed Admiral McCain but for one time on a very distantly related issue which I will share.”
“Many years later,” said Rowland, “when Senator John McCain was running for president his mother was interviewed on TV. It was revealing to me that when she was presented with the observation, ‘That must have been some experience for you to have your son released from captivity after Admiral McCain left the command.’ Roberta McCain said, ‘It was as if he had come back from the dead.’

And yet, as with Adm. Morrison laying a plaque at his son’s grave, Adm. McCain had deep human feelings for his son in captivity. How could he not? While these were men raised in a time where many emotions were reserved for the private sphere, they experienced love, regret, longing and happiness like all of us. In an article published in the Atlantic during the 2008 presidential campaign, “The Wars of John McCain,” Jeffrey Goldberg reports a telling anecdote from retired Army General John Nelson Abrams, son of Gen. Creighton Abrams, Commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. It says,
“You could see there was genuine fondness between them, and maybe in part because of the family commitment to the war, they were absolutely focused on winning,” John Abrams said, speaking of the relationship between his father and Admiral McCain. McCain, however, did not speak of his son’s captivity. “He would never show his emotions like that,” Abrams told me.
After John McCain was released, in 1973, he learned that on several Christmases during his captivity, his father had traveled to the northernmost reaches of American-held territory, to be as close to him as physically possible. And only in 1973 did Admiral McCain learn that John McCain III had been singled out by the North Vietnamese for especially rigorous torture because he was the son of an important admiral. The North Vietnamese, in fact, referred to Admiral McCain’s son as the “prince.”
I wonder how a meeting between John McCain, the Senator, and Jim Morrison, the Lizard King, would have gone; they never met in real life and for all I know never knew of each other's existence. Fate had other plans for both of them. But had the fates decided otherwise, I like to think of McCain and an older, sober Morrison getting together to talk about their naval upbringing, their hard-charging fathers, and their lives in public service and public entertainment. They'd share some laughs and reflections, argue about politics, maybe listen to Doors albums and then go sailing on the ocean blue.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Port Huron Statement, Up on the Shelf

One small pleasure in life: after I work out at the New York Sports Club in Baldwin Place, NY, I browse the book and CD section of the nearby Goodwill store. I'll scan books that catch my attention, buying some and noting others to get from the library.

Last Sunday my eye traveled to "The Port Huron Statement: The Visionary Call of the 1960s Revolution," written in 1962 by Tom Hayden (with contributors), then a 21 year-old student at the University of Michigan and a founder of the Students for a Democratic Society. This version of what's known as "PHS" dated from 2005 with a new introduction from Hayden, plus photos.

So far, nothing much to catch my attention. Then I looked at the inside cover. There, I saw that Hayden himself had signed the bookand signed it for somebody whose name I well recogized. The note said,

Katrinawho's to say—but without The Nation there might have been no Port Huron Statement. Thank you for embodying the radical reformist spirit! Tom

That wouldn't mean anything to most readers, but I knew it referred to Katrina vanden Heuvel, Princeton Class of 1981, and editor and publisher of The Nation, a magazine founded in 1865. Back in 1996 I had written a short profile of her for the Princeton Alumni Weekly (so I recalled, although I can't find the clip), so I always felt a certain connection to her, even if our politics differ. To hold a historical book signed by the author, addressed to somebody I met, packed a thrill that makes book hunting a passion for me.

I could only compare this to finding "Man's Quest for God," signed by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, for $1.

I bought this book for the inscription, but then I decided to see what all the excitement was about, given that the book outlined ideas that became part of the Great Society. After all, the PHS ignites media reflections whenever the anniversary of its publication rolls around. Hayden and co-author Dick Flacks wrote about it in The Nation in 2002. I had read about it in Kirkpatrick Sale's 1973 book "SDS: The Rise and Development of the Students for a Democratic Society."

The book's content ranges widely, from antique themes to startlingly familiar. Hayden mentions "in loco parentis" several times, referring to the idea that colleges act like students' parents. The prose reflects a prefeminist vocabulary: "We regards men as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love." That emphasis is in the original.

A bit later in the opening chapter on values:

Loneliness, estrangement, isolation describe the vast distance between man and man today. These dominant tendencies cannot be overcome by better personnel management, nor by improved gadgets, but only when a love of man overcomes the idolotrous worship of things by man.

Improved gadgetssociety didn't follow the PHS way of thinking on that topic.

PHS covers all the issues of the day, especially the global economy, civil rights and discrimination, colonialism, the Cold War, communism and foreign policy, domestic politics (with references to the "Dixiecrat-Republican alliance"), the search for meaning in life and the impact of automation on the workforce, and wraps up with a policy agenda. Some of the ideas are nothing if not ambitious: "We should undertake here and now a fifty-year effort to prepare for all nations the conditions of industrialization."

On the domestic side, PHS almost ventures into the realm of science fiction, and I mean that in a positive way. Examples:

Mechanisms of voluntary association must be created through which political information can be imparted and political participation encouraged.  That sounds a lot like the Internet to me, even if Hayden didn't have a technology solution in mind.

Institutions and practices which stifle dissent should be abolished, and the promotion of peaceful dissent should be actively promoted. PHS mentions here the House Un-American Activities Committee, loyalty oaths, and the Smith and McCarran Acts, adding, "The process of eliminating the blighting institutions is the process of restoring democratic participation." These are smart ideas, freshly applicable to the intolerance now found on college campuses and the threat of deplatforming of controversial thinkers by technology providers.

All told, PHS reads as a time capsule that captures a mood, and looks ahead to other generations of political and social tumult. It never ends

Finally, to circle back to the beginning, one more comment on that PAW profile of Katrina vanden Heuvel that I can't find. Owing to her outspoken political views and media visibility, the profile started circulating online, with my name attached to it. Most of the ruckus has died down, but the quotes can still be found on websites' archives, like this one.

But as the Port Huron Statement counseled, I'm all in favor of the promotion of peaceful dissent and analysis, whatever the source.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

A Sunday Morning Post about "The Saturday Evening Post"

As is my wont in a doctor's waiting room, on Friday I passed the time by flipping through magazines; I'll look at anything. What really caught my eye was a name from the distant past: "The Saturday Evening Post." Seeing that title startled me: The Saturday Evening Post still exists?

Many baby boomers may recall the Post as one of those staples of middle-class reading material. In the Wallach household in the 1960s and 1970s, we had subscriptions to the Post, Life, Look, National Geographic (I only read it for the articles), Boys' Life and Sports Illustrated, with my mother also getting Good Housekeeping and the Ladies Home Journal. With only two TV channels then serving the Rio Grande Valley of Texas (KGBT and KRGV), magazine subscriptions gave us a window into the turbulent world.

The current incarnation of the Post appears every two months, published by a nonprofit organization that also publishes children's magazines Humpty Dumpty and Jack and Jill. Its articles and advertising match what you see in AARP publications, trending toward an elderly demographic. As I waited for the nurse to call me in, I found the articles ranging from interesting to compelling, with some real food for thought: "A Second Chance for Ex-Cons" and "The New Nomads: Living Full-Time on the Road." The issue reprinted a short story from black author Zora Neale Hurston, one of the many top-level writers to contribute to the Post.

As the short story suggests, the Post can draw on an enormous library of material to fill issues, as you would expect for a magazine founded in 1821. Its time as a weekly came at the end of the 19th century:

It was published weekly under this title from 1897 until 1963, then every two weeks until 1969. From the 1920s to the 1960s, it was one of the most widely circulated and influential magazines for the American middle class, with fiction, non-fiction, cartoons and features that reached millions of homes every week. The magazine declined in readership through the 1960s, and in 1969 The Saturday Evening Post folded for two years before being revived as a quarterly publication in 1971.

The Post issue I read impressed me with the editorial content and also its adroit use of the Post's bottomless inkwell of illustrations. The Post showcased Norman Rockwell for decades, but the issue shows the talents and themes of other illustrators. One feature pulled together drawings about mothers, a time-capsule view into the interests, values and fashion styles of past generations. We're into Betty Draper territory here, where nostalgia switches over to cultural anthropology. 

The Post's deep library does get remarketed, such as a huge book of its covers. Norman Rockwell merits his own section in most (remaining) bookstores. Other books cover cars, Christmas and short stories and, showing a serious side, "Untold Stories of the Civil War." The Post hasn't gone in the direction of Life and the other Time Inc. magazines that festoon supermarket checkout lines with special issues, mostly on celebrity themes ("Elvis," "Princess Di," "The Kennedys Like You've Never Seen Them," etc.). 

The collection of motherhood illustrations is a good example of what I'd like to see more of; I could envision the Post pulling those together the way The New Yorker does collections of dog and lawyer cartoons. 

The Post already shows a sharp appreciation of its resources. The website has tabs for cover art, history, fiction and humor, each worth some clicking. Norman Rockwell rightly merits his own section. 

The fiction section is highlighting the story "Clever Women are Dangerous Too," complete with an illustration. A website blurb hyperventilates,

Summer is for steamy romance. Our new series of classic fiction from the 1940s and ’50s features sexy intrigue from the archives for all of your beach reading needs. In “Clever Women Are Dangerous Too,” Australian magazine editor Charlie looks to a young, new cover girl for love, but his longtime colleague with a sharp tongue won’t let him get away without a struggle.

Australian author Jon Cleary wrote romance and crime stories for the Post at the dawn of his prolific career as a novelist and screenwriter. Under his editor, Graham Greene, Cleary wrote fiction of all stripes, from war stories to political thrillers to his famous Scobie Malone detective series. His snappy dialogue and whip-smart prose made him a hit, selling about 8 million books in his lifetime.

Reading about the Post as it was and as it is, I thought about the point at which mild nostalgia trends into history and its meaning for current issues. Digging into the Post, I found the history resonating for me. There's the Civil War collection mentioned above, and the website now features its World War I blog, which I found riveting in showing the attitudes toward the conflict as it unfolded. A similar blog covers War War II.

Post archives director Jeff Nilsson did a great job making the archives relevant to today's issues with his online article, "When Freedom of Speech Hit an All-Time Low," about the restrictions on speech between 1917 and 1919, with a focus on socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, who was convicted and imprisoned for violating the Espionage Actthen met with President Warren Harding at the White House after his release in December 1921 after Harding granted him clemency. Nilsson looks at the social and legal issues of the Debs case, and includes a link to an October 17, 1908 profile of Debs in the magazine.

Socialism, violations of free speech, suspicion of dissenting opinionswhat could be more timely today? If journalism is the first draft of history, then curious readers can find history in the making over the past century and more at the Saturday Evening Post. I wish it continued success as it moves into its third century.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Eric Bogosian Does Double-Duty on Billions and Succession

I've been a fan of the business-oriented series  Billions (Showtime) and Succession (HBO) since they started. Both unfold in New York amidst the lifestyles of the incomprehensibly wealthy: hedge funds for Billions, a family-run (or mis-run) media empire Waystar Royco on Succession. Their worlds float on a soulless ocean of estates, fixers, lawyers, security goons (on an as-needed basis), lissome models, deal hustlers and mostly ignored children. In these circles, far too much is never enough.

In a flight of fancy, I imagine crossovers between the series, as in those CSI programs and Marvel superhero movies. I'd like to see Billions' Bobby Axelrod join the team making a hostile takeover bid for Logan Roy's faltering media empire. His irresistible Queens ruthlessness and resources perfectly match the immovable force of ailing Logan Roy. Their corporate helicopters could sprout Hellfire missiles as they engage in aerial combat over Westport and East Hampton.

The two series already share one actor who plays two very different characters. That's Eric Bogosian, who appears as Lawrence Boyd, CEO of investment bank Spartan Ives on Billions; he's also liberal presidential candidate Gil Eaves on Succession, where he bitterly opposes Waystar Royco's influence and vows to hammer its expansion plans with the help of Logan Roy's insurrectionist daughter Siobhan (Shiv).

Bogosian brings a gravelly voiced weight to both rolesintelligent, scheming, weary, driven by ambition and haunted by his wife's suicide on Succession, wheeling and dealing out of a sense of self-preservation on Billions.

While I doubt HBO and Showtime would intermingle characters (does Macy's tell Gimbel's, as the phrase used to go), perhaps they could agree to take a page from 1961's The Parent Trap, a movie where Hayley Mills played identical twins Sharon McKendrick and Susan Evers, trying to get their parents back together again. Bogosian could play both Lawrence Boyd and Gil Eaves on both series. As Gil Eaves, he'd be especially useful on Billions as a possibly sympathetic character, with the moral center sorely lacking from most of the characters of Billions. As banker Lawrence Boyd, he'd be one of the scheming financiers on Succession, and he could teach the youngsters a thing or two about the investment strategies. Unlike Axelrod's in-house business psychiatrist, Wendy Rhoades, Boyd wouldn't be shown prancing around in bondage gear in his more intimate hours, although it couldn't hurt (maybe it would hurt a little, but he'd have an appropriate safe phrase, like "peso-denominated municipal bonds!").

Another snappy idea: since both series involve woefully strained family relations, especially Succession, why not bring in Hayley Mills as Sharon and Susan, now veteran family therapists tasked with bringing parents and children back together? Granted, Succession already pursued that plot line with a therapist who had an unfortunate pool accident, but now it's time to bring in a team therapy approach, and who better that Sharon and Susan interacting with Lawrence and Gil to get everybody on the straight and narrow golden road to peace and happiness?

Sunday, July 08, 2018

The Queen is Dead. Long Live the Queens.

I started thinking about contenders for the title of my personal Queen of Soul in late June, after I attended the American Roots Music Festival at the Caramoor Center for Music & the Arts in Katonah, NY. The day part of the festival wrapped up with an artist I’d never heard of, the Alexis P. Suter Band. I didn’t know what to expect.

Alexis Suter hits the stage at Caramoor. 

Alexis Suter set me straight very quickly. She hit the stage in her trademarked lime-green top hat and got to work. Her big voice and commanding presence grabbed me as she performed a program of original and classic blues songs, and some gospel numbers. I learned she came from a musical family—her mother was the first African-American to study voice at Julliard. Suter’s an award-winning staple on the blues and roots festival circuits, and I can see why she was a headliner at Caramoor. At one point in the show the Brooklyn native invited the ever-so-sedate Westchester County audience to come in closer to the stage, so I hauled my folding chair right up there to absorb more of Suter’s high energy. I sensed I was in the presence of a real Queen of Soul.

Alexis Suter, giving it her all.
But this story isn’t just about 2018. It’s about 2008, too, as Suter sent my memory spinning back a decade.

That’s when I first heard Sharon Jones on WFUV-FM. I didn’t know Jones was the singer, and I didn’t know the name of the song. The R&B sound and lyrics, however, with the unforgettable line “is this romance or circumstance?” burned into my mind and I had to track down every detail.

That required a lot of online searching, since the line isn’t the title, but I finally discovered the song was “Stranded in Your Love,” by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. From that moment I became a confirmed fan of Jones and her group. She was my Queen of Brooklyn Soul. The lyrics read in part:

Now I'm gonna let you in baby
But you don't take me wrong
Make me change my mind
I send you right back out this door, yeah
Well, use my phone to call your brother
And if you can't get a ride
I guess I'll make you a bed over here
And you can sleep on the floor, yeah

I don't mean to take advantage
But my brother is fast asleep
When I don't sleep on a bed
I get mighty sore
Oh my...

Well I guess there ain’t any reason
To be uncomfortable
And if it's just for one night
We might as well do it like we've done before

Is this romance or circumstance
Now I'm stranded... In your love

My enthusiasm reached its apogee when I took the F train to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park to hear her free concert on August 7, 2010, the finale of the Celebrate Brooklyn series. I arrived two hours early and found myself at the tail end of a line of thousands of people with the same idea. Not only did I not get seating in the theater, but I had to hike farther and farther back to find a space to even stand. I found myself on a road maybe 100 yards from the stage, sitting on the curb watching the Brooklyn humanity walk, bike and jog past me.

The world came to Brooklyn to hear Sharon Jones.

What was the attendance that night—20,000, or 40,000, or 50,000? Whatever the headcount, Jones and the Dap-Kings put on an epochal show that became a New York legend. I pushed my camera to its limits to photograph the concert; the blurred results at least show that, yes, I was there on that August night. For once in my life, I was at the right place at the right time.

Sharon Jones at left in blue dress, Binky Griptite playing guitar, in center.

I looked forward to more concerts by Jones, whose music career didn’t start jelling until 1996, when she was 40 years old. We were almost exact contemporaries and had both lived in Brooklyn in the 1980s; maybe we rode the subway together. I was sure I’d hear more of her. Indeed, I had tickets to see her at the Clearwater Festival on the banks of the Hudson River in June 2013. She would have torn the place apart.

Our paths never again crossed. She cancelled the Clearwater gig as a result of a diagnosis of bile duct cancer. Her struggle and seeming recovery from cancer, with a 2014 world tour, framed a 2015 documentary directed by Oscar winner Barbara Kopple, Miss Sharon Jones! The documentary ended on a hopeful note, but Jones suffered a heart attack on Election Night in November 2016 and passed away on November 18.

The Queen was dead.

Jones’ passing hit me hard. Entertainers’ death are a sad reality; we adore their work and feel we know them from a stream of received images (I can still remember exactly where I was and who I was with when I learned that Marvin Gaye had been shot and killed by his father on April 1, 1984.) Maybe we see our own end in their passing. The loss of young performers, like Amy Winehouse, hurts because we always wonder what might have grown from their astounding potential.

With Sharon Jones, I grieved because I really connected with her style of music, so redolent of the sounds I heard growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. That we were within a year of each other in age reminded me of time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near.

I'd think about Jones at those times when I found performers who struck a vibrating chord in me. That could come from any genre: Latin, Texas red-dirt singers along the lines of Phil Pritchett, indie groups like Chastity Belt, with its haunting song "Black Sail." You've already been introduced to the latest, Alexis Suter. Another, Ruby Velle & the Soulphonics, hit me like that first Sharon Jones song: I just stumbled across her. On a whim I listened to the soundtrack of the cable show “Suits,” which I’ve even never watched, and I sure didn’t know that the future Duchess of Sussex, then known as Meghan Markle, appeared on the show. The sheer randomness of listening to music from an unknown source often gets exciting new sounds in front of me. 

The Suits soundtrack stopped me in my tracks with a song called “It’s About Time.” Clicking around took me to an album of the same title. “It’s About Time” uncannily captured the passionate, horn-driven sound of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Even the cover of a pensive Ruby Velle in a shiny yellow raincoat, standing with a suitcase next to a train, made me wonder if I had discovered a hidden gem from 45 years ago, with Velle on that midnight train to somewhere.

A pensive Ruby Velle, waiting for the midnight train.

But no, the album debuted in 2012 with a fresh take on Southern soul. I liked what I heard and now follow Velle on Facebook and Instagram. Velle, an Indian-Canadian born in Toronto and now based in Atlanta, has been out there building a fan base for over a decade. I’m now part of it. “It’s About Time” continues to resonate for me as both a romantic and social statement:

Where have we been?
What have we done?
Will the story of our future
Be a new tune? Or the same old song?
Because who we are
Only history knows
But where we are going
Oh it hasn't fully, fully been told
And it’s about time
That we got together

Thanks to Caramoor and Suits, I’ve added Suter and Velle to my regular music rotation. They both say something to me with their urgency, honesty and messages. I’m going to look into Suter’s newest project, Alexis P. Suter and the Ministers of Sound (AMOS). Hearing Suter and Velle, I remember what attracted me to Sharon Jones, and that’s the highest musical accolade I can imagine.

The Queen is dead. Long live the Queens.

Coda: Around the time of Caramoor I was driving on a Saturday night and I heard a WFUV program new to me, “The Boogie Down,” a “Saturday night dance party” featuring classic soul and funk hosted by the delightfully named Binky Griptite. The name didn’t mean anything to me. That is, it didn’t until I watched Miss Sharon Jones!, where I realized that Griptite was a guitarist and longtime member of the Dap-Kings (take another look at the photo from the 2010 concert). I’m now a devotee of the show. Thanks to Griptite’s inspired platter-spinning, I get a little bit of the spirit of Sharon Jones every Saturday night.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

On the Job But Not on the Railroad

Monday is the big transition day for me. After riding Metro-North to New York for over 22 years, I’m becoming a telecommuter, at least for the next two months. This is happening due to an office relocation from Sixth Avenue a few blocks to 42nd Street. The move is complex and my floor is closing on June 15 to prepare space for the new tenants; who will get my view of the News Corp. building across West 47th Street? I’ll never know. Rather than use the “free seating” option on other still-open floors, I opted to cancel my $369/month ticket and work at home.

While I’ve had the option of working remotely for years, I always liked going into New York for 3-4 days a week and working at home 1-2 days. Despite the time and expense, I liked the sense of belonging, of resources, of a place to WORK that I left at day's end. And I always enjoyed being in the city—walking through Times Square with my camera, the parades, the demonstrations, the museums, the splashy marketing promos, Broadway music in Bryant Park in the summers, the cops and crowds around Trump Tower, the sirens, the sense of something always about to happen, the sense of history happening. And, as Irwin Shaw titled his 1939 short story, I noticed the girls in their summer dresses.

The monthly ticket’s absence is disorienting. I had temporarily cancelled it before, while between jobs and after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, but I always felt relieved when I hit the rails again. The ticket gave me freedom, like a pass to Disneyland. I’ve even used it like a subway pass, getting from Katonah to Pleasantville or White Plains, or running into the city on a whim to buy halvah on the Lower East Side or go to an event. When I lived in Westport, Connecticut, I used it to ride from Grand Central to Katonah, on the Harlem rather than the New Haven line, because they are in the same ticket zones.

I estimate I spent $66,000 on tickets and traveled at least 200,000 miles, Over the 22 years, I forgot jackets, gym bags and tuna-salad lunches in Tupperware on the train. I found and returned other people’s wallets and cell phones, although I never lost my own. I’ve stood on platforms in weather so cold I thought I would get frostbite; that only happened this winter when I spent 15 minutes shoveling the snow and ice off my car so I could drive to the station. I put money into a boot carried by a fireman as a donation after 9/11. I’ve heard voices raised but have never seen a fight on a train, or an arrest. Chatty or dotty people will start conversations with me, even when I’ve got my nose in a book. Usually I’ll listen, at least for a while. One snowy Saturday night something seemed off on the train—then I realized the moving train’s doors were open and snow was blowing in.

I’ve slept through my station only once, when I sailed past Greens Farms in Connecticut and barely got out in time at Fairfield. I could have easily gone all the way to New Haven.

I’ve pondered what’s worse: riding in a car without heat in the winter, or without air conditioning in the summer. No AC is definitely far more uncomfortable. I felt like I was suffocating.

Then there was the train ride I didn’t get to take. That was in August 2003, when I was in the city when the blackout struck. I went to Grand Central with a vain hope of getting a train to Stamford, but that wasn’t happening. I wound up walking five miles, over the Brooklyn Bridge to the Carroll Gardens neighborhood and spending the night with friends. The next day I got to Grand Central and hung out until I stormed on to the first train back to Stamford.

So now—no monthly ticket. I’ll need to find things to get me out of the home office so I don't turn into a hermit; you may see me more often at the Katonah Village Library for lunchtime bridge lessons and chair yoga.

I’ve brought files home from work, tossed unneeded papers, moved books to the basement and will try not to raid the fridge too often. I’ll save $369 a month, although I may get a 10-pass ticket and I’ll check out the new office when it opens at the end of July. I’m going to visit my company’s Stamford office. I may do morning workouts at the New York Sports Club in Baldwin Place, where I now go on the weekends. Or I’ll switch to a closer gym.

And what have I gained: Time! I’ll have endless vistas of time. I spent close to four hours commuting daily, and lately I’ve been passing out once the train reaches Chappaqua or North White Plains; I just can’t keep my eyes open. I can now go back to bed after feeding the cats at 6 a.m., and start working at 7 a.m. if the spirit moves me or keep working until 7 p.m. I can blast bossa nova and Texas swing without putting on ear buds as a courtesy to my officemates. I’ll have to swat the cats away when they want to walk on my keyboard and “accidently” step on the on-off switch on my laptop.

And now I have no excuses for not writing the Great American novel at 6 a.m. I’ve made outlines, thought about material, and even tried writing short stories involving a commuter. If anything results, I’ll make sure the Katonah Village Library gets a signed first edition.

Car Stories

[For an open-mic performance of this essay, follow this link .] My name is Van. I’m named after a car, the 1950s British racecar called ...