Monday, June 07, 2021

After 15 Months, Back on the Train to Gotham City

After 15 months away, I recently boarded Metro-North in Katonah for the long ride to Grand Central and a day in the city. After talking earlier about the pandemic shutting down patterns in life, then the gradual reopening, how did I experience this major milestone of the gradual return to normality like?

First, it would never have happened without the Pfizer vaccine I got in April at the County Center. Have vaccine, will travel. My partner Naomi and I took vacation days, I bought a 10-pass of tickets and we were back on the train.

Riding the train from Katonah felt so natural, after decades of traveling back and forth on it. Wearing a mask on the train, not so natural. The hour and 22 minutes ride took longer than ever due to making more local stops, but it gave me more time to read.

Finally the train slipped into the tunnel at 96th Street for the subterranean last 10 minutes to Grand Central. The station was quieter than usual, with stores still shuttered. I didn’t see paper schedules in the information booth with the fabled clock on it, a meeting place for travelers for generations. Who needs paper schedules when everybody has a smart phone to thumb through

NYPD in front of Temple Emanuel on 5th Avenue.

5th Avenue on a Thursday morning, around 10:30 am.

A low-level anxiety seeped into me as we stepped out of Grand Central on to the short stretch of Vanderbilt Avenue east of Madison Avenue. After reading about the rising crime rate and Mayor de Blasio’s blas


 response to violence in the city, I had emptied my wallet of most credit and store cards before I left home, in case the worst happened. I hit the streets in full situational awareness mode, looking for any source of trouble.

Instead of instant menace, I first experienced a city in snooze mode. The honking, the traffic, the midtown crowds—mostly gone.

Heading for the Metropolitan Museum, we strolled up 5th Avenue. The streets felt eerily empty for a bright spring morning. The place felt more like a late summer Sunday, even on the most touristy stretches of 5th. But why expect otherwise? What tourists want to visit New York with the pandemic on and attractions like Broadway theaters still shuttered? Plus, hundreds of thousands of office workers—like I was for over 20 years until I started working remotely in 2018—are still pounding their laptops at home. We’re gone. How many are ever coming back? How many want to, anyway, after experiencing the lower costs and time savings of working at home?

But I'm glad I took the step out of my suburban comfort zone, since our museum visits were a treat. At the Met we viewed the retrospective of portrait painter Alice Neel, "People Come First." I’d never seen her work before. That was worth two hours of strolling and reading, followed by an iced coffee and caramel brownie in the cafeteria.

Next stop: a bus down 5th Avenue to reach the Morgan Library & Museum on Madison Avenue. We saw the amazing exhibit “David Hockney: Drawing from Life,” Its brilliant idea was to gather portraits Hockney did of four people over the course of decades, along with self-portraits. One of the subjects was Hockney’s mother. Hockney’s ability to capture the aging process over 50 years of relationships is striking. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Nothing happening in front of an ultra-high end jewelry store. 

Open later, maybe?

We had dinner at Jackson Hole, a burger place on 3rd Avenue, dining al fresco in a sturdy tent set up outside. From there we walked up Madison to Grand Central, on the train, back home.

Looking at the photos I took, they show a lonesome city of famous stores with nobody in front of them, wide open avenues, cops guarding a synagogue from the marauding Jew haters making their bones in the city these days. New stories paint a hellish vision of a city sliding backward; Mayor Nero fiddles while Rome burns. I’m reading about more attacks, more graffiti, more anti-semitism, more drug dealers recreating the “needle park” era, and even the return of the pestilential squeegee men. All we need now is to restore the 70s-80s urban collapse vibe is for CBGB & OMFUG to reopen, the Bronx to start burning again and the defunct Village Voice to start publishing again. To be fair, my narrow view from 5th Avenue was sunny and surprisingly hopeful, cleaner than I expected. Friends who live in the city sound happy enough, not crazed. One man, an essential worker who kept going in throughout the pandemic, said the situation is vastly better than a year ago, which is encouraging. Still, the feeling of light-hearted safety I enjoyed for decades has vanished until proven otherwise.

Next trip: Museum of Art and Design and the Museum of Modern Art. I’m sure we’ll have a great time. I’m pulling for New York, where I’ve lived or worked and visited for over 40 years, to bounce back. Maybe it will. I've lived in its gravitational pull since I left small-town Texas. The city clawed its way back in the 1990s, after 2,000 murders per year, after 9/11, after the financial crisis, after Superstorm Sandy. As corporations start prying workers back from their home offices and businesses open up, the critical mass of people could create more dynamism and get the tourists in to enjoy theater, museums, shopping and all the sights; if they crave a rancid taste of "Taxi Driver"-style grime, crime and decay, they're in for a real treat. Tough-minded leadership to replace the feckless Mayor de Blasio could also make a big difference. Rudy Giuliani may be way past his sell-by date, but a hard-edged facsimile could work. I don’t live in the city, so that’s not my call to make. 

I'll close with a look on the bright side. Remember my crack about the “defunct Village Voice?” I should retract that, since the Village Voice published its first print issue since 2017 in April. So, hope springs eternal.

5th Avenue at Central Park South. 


Sunday, May 23, 2021

My Parents' Airmail, 1959-1960

A cousin in Texas recently sent me stacks of letters that my late mother saved. After she died in 1984, Mom’s sister Charlotte and other family members preserved them and now they’ve come to me. They are from 1959 and 1960, when my parents had separated. My father was in France, where my parents had moved after their 1955 wedding, while my mother had returned stateside with my brother and me to Tyler, Texas, where Charlotte and her family lived.

The letters come from the era of airmail, before email, texts and WhatsApp obliterated the need for elegant envelopes with multiple stamps. Most were from my father writing in longhand on his stationery. My mother typed her letters on carbon paper so she would have a copy for herself. Twenty years later, I would also make carbon copies of letters I typed to my mother; she taught me well the value of saving communications. 

These letters are a harrowing glimpse into what parents in conflict say to each other. In my father’s letters, I can hear the wheedling, browbeating tone that sounded so familiar from tense visits to him as a teen, when he lived in Manhattan. He alternated between trying to cadge money from Mom for his dubious car-related business projects, and berating my mother for her personality, her post-childbirth appearance and her baffling need to work to support herself. On December 4, 1959, he wrote, “Since you are still sulking in your shell I’ll say a few things, as you can see I am in no position to send you money. . . If you have confidence in me then do what you once proposed, sell everything and come back, or bring the stocks and some money or get a loan on the stocks.”

On January 12, 1960 he wrote, “I only remember before our marriage and that other girl I knew and loved, not the middle aged woman I lived with. So I wipe away the five years because I hardly remember anything happy or pleasant and unhappiness fades away. Now there’s only the boys to show for it and soon they too will lose their meaning to me because I can’t see them grow or help raise them. They are just a couple of boys who have my name.”

What a charmer! And he was true to his word. My brother and I saw him one weekend in 10 years, in 1970, when I would have had a bar mitzvah (I didn't). 

In March he wrote, “There was a lot you gave to your father, [who died in October 1959, six months after his wife died] where is the money from the estate? Anyway, I am super broke.” In other letters he told my mother to go to charm school and made snide comments about their sex life. Oh, and he ordered her to hock her wedding ring for cash.

My mother’s letters start in a wistful, even loving mood, but they soon turned to exasperation and her steely determination to move on with the life of a divorced working mom in Mission, Texas, the hometown she returned to from Tyler in 1960. She would not hock her wedding ring and return to France. 

On November 28 she wrote, “If all your troubles were just plain hard luck I could be sorry for you but I think you brought so much of this on yourself. The day I married you you didn’t have a dime and now you are broke again but badly in debt, this time you work it out alone. I am going on with the divorcethis life is going to get me if I don’t, you know a person can stand just so much.” Over 50 years later my partner Naomi, who met my father numerous times, aptly described him as a narcissist, and I've summarized him as a "naive con man" who, nevertheless, had a huge influence on me. 

These letters are grueling to read, knowing my brother and I were ensnared in them. Admitting he had made mistakes, my father returned to the U.S. in 1960, but my parents never lived together again. He lived near us in Texas, they divorced, he remarried and in 1962 moved to Michigan and then in 1967 to Manhattan. 

If my father skimped on the personal communications, my mother kept up a long family tradition of letters. I have scores of letters she wrote to me when I was in college and starting my career as a journalist in New York. They are much more enjoyable to read than the airmail collection. She remained a salty, engaged mother, sister, friend and letter writer until her death at 63, back in Tyler, where she lived with her sister. 

And my father? He never changed his tone, only his targets. When I was a teenager, he said I walked like a girl. He also waved a check for $100,000 in front of me and declared that would send me to college; he never paid a dime for my education. The worst insult he could throw at me was "you're just like your mother." In my 40s he told me to lose weight. In my 50s he hung up the phone on me when I told him my brother and I wouldn't bail him out of problems with the IRS. In 2017, he asked me to get a copy of my parents' divorce decree from Hidalgo County, Texas, to help him get an increase in his VA pension, and I did that. 

He lived into his 90s, long enough to become a great-grandfather. He showed as little interest in that role as he did in being a father and grandfather.  And why should he be interested? We were just boys who had his name. I know because he put that in writing.

In 2018 I spoke at his memorial service at the VA cemetery in Rockland County, NY. He left no personal effects for me, no summary of a relentlessly unreflective life, to the end a confounding enigma. The airmail collection told me more than I ever expected to learn. 

Sunday, May 02, 2021

The Pandemic: The End to a Beginning

I realized how deeply the pandemic has colored my behavior when I realized I didn’t have to wear a mask outside, in uncrowded areas. Since I’ve had my second vaccine, that CDC guidance applied to me. The shock of the new happened when I was walking toward Katonah’s main business street and I instinctively reached for my mask.

But my partner Naomi reminded me I didn’t have to wear a mask. With our second shots done, we’ve moved into a new status.

Evidence of that is growing. One big change: Naomi and I ate dinner inside at an Italian restaurant. Inside! We were amazed at the strange sensation of sitting across from each other, rather than fetching takeout on Fridays and munching at home as cats nosed around trying to get a bite of something tasty.

So we’re transitioning to a new phase. I call it the end of a beginning. This hit home the two times I’ve been to the Westchester County Center in White Plains for my vaccines. Both times I marveled at the semi-religious nature of the moment. I joined hundreds of people streaming into the classical looking building dating to the 1920s. Whatever our backgrounds, we came with one act in mind, to get that Pfizer shot. Inside, the polite, well-trained volunteers kept the process moving smoothly. I didn’t have to guess where to go or what to do. One stage followed another, like a ritual leading to the climax of accepting the vaccine. I entered a small room where two priestesses of the pandemic gave me the shot and updated my vaccine card. I left the sanctum sanctorum and began the gradual return to the rest of the world.

Westchester County Center, White Plains

In White Plains, the return took place in the recovery room. It had dozens of chairs, well spaced apart. People sat, mostly absorbed in their phones. They looked up to check the clock that gave the time. We counted down the 15 minutes until we reached the exit time written on name tags we wore. And then we could leave, into a brighter day.

If the vaccine reminded me of a religious experience, something yesterday on Saturday really WAS a religious experience. I attended an outdoor service of my synagogue, Chabad of Bedford. For the first time, thanks to CDC guidance, we didn’t have to wear masks. I saw complete faces I hadn’t seen in over a year. As I arrived, I put on my tallis, prayer shawl, and instinctively kissed two parts of it. Without a mask, why not? But I thought, “Can I really do that?” Yeah, I could.

Monument of the exit name tags. 

And that was just the start. The service included the weekly reading of the Torah, or Bible, when congregants come to a table, or "bima," to read blessings in Hebrew before and after the reading of portions of the Torah. Going up to read the blessing is called an “aliyah.” In fact, aliyah in Hebrew means "going up." For a year we performed our aliyahs standing far away from the bima. But why was this service different from any other service (since March 2020)? Because at this service, people walked right up to the bima, touched the Torah scroll with the corner of our sprayer shawls, and recited the ancient Hebrew blessings. And I was honored to be one of congregants to have an aliyah. I’ll always remember this electrifying moment.

And there’s more! On the way back to my chair, I could shook hands with other congregants, just as I had with them after their aliyahs. We wished each other “Yasher koach.” Literally meaning "straight strength," the colloquial meanings are “good job” or “more power to you.”

Like I said, this is the end of a beginning. Other pandemic challenges remain. Mutations, booster shots, reopenings, setbacks, all mixed in with layers of social convulsions. Still, I’m looking forward to being on trains and subways, visiting museums and theatersgoing places. Where will we go, what will that be like? I don’t know, but I’d rather be in May 2021 than May 2020.

So, to all those tenacious visionaries who imagined and drove Operation Warp Speed and the vaccines: YASHER KOACH.

Leaving the County Center. 

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Mission Across the Tracks: Fotonovelas

The railroad tracks running east-west divided my home town of Mission, Texas. The north side was the “anglo” side, the south side was Mexiquita, the Mexican side. A drive down the main drag, South Conway Avenue, went past markets, cafes, hardware stores, a Spanish-language movie house, and a pool hall. That pool hall always stayed with me because for years it displayed a campaign poster from 1960, showing John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

One of my earliest and sharpest memories of South Mission is very tactile. This happened in the early 1960s. My mother, a native of Mission, liked to go to a beauty parlor on the other side of the tracks. When she went, she took my younger brother Cooper and me. I remember the tangy smell of the chemicals, the bulbous hair dryers, the pink decor. And I remember the reading material.

As a precocious kid, maybe 6 years old, I picked up any reading I could find, kid-friendly or not. And the beauty parlor had stacks of fotonovelas. Those are comic books illustrated with photographs, rather than drawings. They started in Italy after World War II with stills from movies, then they became an art form of their own. They especially caught on in Latin America, mostly on romantic themes.

I can’t remember any specific scenes. But the heady mix of the beauty parlor and the romantic fotonovelas stayed with me. Fast forward almost 60 years and I became intensely curious about fotonovelas. That’s more than a nostalgic yearning. Rather, as a language buff, I’m always looking for effective ways to learn.

Are fotonovelas a good way to practice Spanish? I wanted to get my pale gringo hands on a batch of them to find out, but that’s harder than I expected. An online search turned up no publishers. A high school pal back in Mission checked out some supermarkets and couldn’t find anything.

 A Latin American Collection in a library at the University of Texas in Austin has 22 available, mostly from Mexico, others from Brazil and one in French from Martinique. If I lived within 100 miles of Austin, I’d hightail it over there for a look.

A group called the Rural Women’s Health Project in Gainesville, Florida used fotonovelas for almost 30 years to deliver its messages on health and family issues. They used the format very well but they weren’t what I had in mind for my walk back on the south side of the tracks.

Etsy and eBay had some collections for sale, some in the horror or crime genre, some in romance. I especially warmed to a Mexican fotonovela series from 1981, Valle de Lagrimas, or Valley of Tears. The particular issue, El Secreto, had the cover line “Hay veces que el destino es implacable!” There are times when destiny is unforgiving!” Now that’s what I’m talking about! That sounds like just the right vocabulary level for a gringo like me.

But, I decided to hold off on El Secreto, as I did with Kaliman El Hombre Increible Coleccion, with drawings rather than photos. That one had an Aladdin adventure vibe to it. Then there was the English-language series Vixens, about the struggles and aspirations of an all-girl musical trio. The photographer has done some other photo novels. But I already speak English so I’ll save Vixens for another madcap reading adventure. 

My sleuthing finally paid off when I did a spin through Google Shopping, a service I’ve never used. I searched for fotonovelas and to my surprise Google Play had a massive 221 page fotonovela taken from a TV series. It has the irresistible name of Dulce AmorSweet Love. And I could download it to my computer, for instant gratification. As I translate the promo text, it’s about a humble boy from the barrio who wants to be a race car driver, and the beautiful intelligent woman who runs some kind of emporium. Not sure what she sells.

I’ve already flipped through the first 40 pages of Dulce Amor: fast cars, chauffeurs, nervous romantic encounters, bubble baths, male strippers, and the kind of dialogue that makes fotonovelas worth my while:

Woman: Nano no es tu hijo. (Nano isn’t your son.)

Man (clutching his head in agony): Decime que no es cierto, Dios! (Tell me you’re not certain, oh my God!)

Woman: Es hijo de Ernesto, que ahora se muriendo, en el carcel. (He is the child of Ernesto, who is now dying in prison.)

OK, so far so good!

So are fotonovelas a good way to learn any language? Absolutely! They deal with basic human conditions in any language. Love, work, family, friendship, hurt. I’ve got my dictionaries ready to plunge into Dulce Amor, ready to learn. And I yearn to be swept away by the wild side of life I first encountered at a beauty parlor in Mission across the tracks.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Я хочу научиться говорить по русски

A few days ago a friend sent me the newsletter of the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives/ NYU Special Collections. The mailing was about an event next week to commemorate the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Curious, I checked out the special collections and felt the shock of recognition. The archives contain the records of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship.

The Council was a communist front group that believed that the USSR and the United States should join together in their common fight against fascism in the 1940s. We all know how that worked out. In 1946, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated it and in 1947 the Council was indicted. It finally closed in 1991 just as the USSR itself was sliding into the dustbin of history. Of course, the Stalinist mindset is now the required worldview on U.S. college campuses and elsewhere. Perhaps that’s what Nikita Khrushchev had in mind when he said “We will bury you,” Мы вас похороним! These days, he might say, "We will give you the ideological tools and strategies so you can bury yourselves." So the flavor of the worst of the USSR is digging in to the current frenzy to unmask spies and wreckers who deviate from the ever-shifting Twitter/media party line. But that's another discussion. 

Anyway, the council helped me realize a long-term dreamto study Russian. I had always been curious about the USSR. I almost took Russian at Princeton, which had a great program, but I got cold feet and took Spanish. My curiosity intensified after I read all three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago in 1983. I finally got a Barnes & Noble book on Russian and I earnestly read it for years on the subways. But I always noticed the council’s classified ads on the back page of the Village Voice offering Russian classes. This tempted me, but the name of the group told me it was a front for the Reds. I didn’t want to get on any FBI watch list because of language study. My daring act was buying The English-language Moscow News at a newsstand on West 42nd Street.

My subway reading companion

But starting in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev brought more openness to the USSR, with glasnost and perestroika. The USSR was changing, so I threw caution to the wind and signed up for a beginners class, given at the Ukrainskaya Dom, or Ukrainian House, in the East Village. The teacher was the wife of a Soviet official at the UN.

The challenges were immediate. Russian written in the Cyrillic alphabet, akin to Greek, so I had to learn a lot of new letters. While Russian has some cognates with English, it’s nothing like German or Spanish. And the case structure! I still remember the declensions in this order: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental and prepositional. Perfective verbs, imperfective verbs, soft sounds, hard sounds, words with 30 letters. Pronunciation could be tough. Once I mispronounced the phrase for “crime and punishment," преступление и наказание. The teacher laughed merrily and revealed I had actually said, “Crime and execution!” That must be s a real knee-slapper in Russian.

But I learned something. I wanted to, because I went on a tour of the USSR in September 1987, the high tide of glasnost. I could at least read the street signs. I came back with lots of constructivist-style posters, an art form I greatly admire.

I went on to study Russian at NYU’s school of continuing education. Since then I’ve moved on to other languages. But Russian studies paid dividends. I still have my language books, including this dictionary I got before my 1987 tripI can pick up on words in Ukrainian, Polish, Czech and Serbo-Croatian based on their connection to Russian. I buy CDs in Russian at Goodwill when I see something that interests me, like the greatest hits of Anna Pugacheva. And when I get bored, I doodle in my loopy cyrillic script. Often I’ll write “ya nhe znayu,” я не знаю, which means I don’t know, or ”ya govaryu na-russkom,” я говорю на русском I speak Russian. If you're a James Bond fan, you'll recognize my scribbling of the phrase and organization called SMERSH from Смерть шпионам (SMERt' SHpionam, "Death to Spies.)" I’ve used simple phrases to banter with Russian barbers in New York and Katonah. They get a kick out of this.

I've also seen how learning some Russian, or any other language, can very quickly connect me with other people. It may be for only a few minutes, but acknowledging somebody in their native language can dent the isolation felt by people outside the dominant language culture. This happened when I visited Israel in 2017; many Russian-speaking immigrants work in jobs such as running the checkrooms of museums. At the Bauhaus Foundation in Tel Aviv, the woman who took my backpack appeared to be Russian, so I simply thanked her and said one or two other things I could manage. She was a human with her own language, perhaps she rarely felt recognized as such. She responded positively. I felt like we connected and that felt good. 

Doodles in Russian, meaning something like "The Party is our eternal work!"

So many thanks, National Council of American-Soviet Friendship. Am I on a list in your archives at NYU? I really should check that out. In the meantime,большое спасибо товарищ wherever you are.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

The Day Everything Changed (Musically Speaking)

I’m thinking back to the moment I realized the world had changed irrevocably. No, I’m not referring to the pandemic, which roared into our lives a year ago this month. I’m going further back, to the moment that shifted my musical tastes in a way that continues to this day.

That instant came in 2005 when I somehow landed on a Latin radio station and heard the 2002 song “Soy Mujer” (I am a Woman) by the Puerto Rico-born salsa singer La India (a/k/a Linda  Bell Viera Caballero). The pulsating music and La India’s blazing, passionate voice grabbed my attention. It also helped that my meager knowledge of Spanish enabled me to understand the title.

Her vocal performance was so dramatic and captivating that I had to go get the CD, probably at Tower Records or the Virgin Megastore. Her videos show a bold physical presence that fills the screen and demands attention. She knows how to belt ‘em out, sort of like a salsa version of French singer Edith Piaf. I loved the rest of her music and began checking out every Latin CD I could find at the Westport and Greenwich libraries in Connecticut.

I had already started moving toward being a big fan Latin music. I grew up on the Texas-Mexico border so I knew about that Tex-Mex genre, even if I didn’t pay attention to it at the time. It pulsed in the background, on the other side of the tracks of Mission, Texas. I had albums by El Chicano, Malo and Santana and liked them all (the Tijuana Brass probably doesn't count). A 2004 trip to São Paulo, Brazil supercharged my interest in all the music from there, so much that I started studying Brazilian Portuguese.

I still like other genres, of course: the Great American Songbook, classic jazz, blues, opera, Israeli and most recently a yen for the bewitching and sinuous sounds of Afro-pop. But Latin music now pulses in the background and foreground of my musical devotions.

So what happens when the world changes? We all know too well the impact of the pandemic. What about when La India rocked my music world in four minutes?

This turned my CD collection in a completely different direction. I had never been much for CDs, favoring vinyl. But given the chance to get Latin CDs, I did, starting in Brazil and never stopping. The Goodwill stores in the area provide me some great buys. I even took a Jewish humanitarian trip to Cuba in 2008, where I was excited about scooping up as many CD sets as possible (and I did). I find them always listenable and a great way to improve my Spanish listening skills.

Then, in the years BCbefore COVIDwas always looking for concerts. Gal Costa at Carnegie Hall to the Texas Tornadoes and also Lila Downs at Celebrate Brooklyn to Los Texmaniacs at Ridgefield’s Ballard Park, I’ve gone far and wide to hear Latin music. Lila Downs, from Mexico, has the big voice and commanding presence of La India, and a very political message. 

Lila Downs in Prospect Park, June 2017
Lila Downs in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, 2017

For my walks around Katonah, a favorite podcast is the Latin Alternative, just the right length at an hour for a lunch ramble.

Latin music often has a political and social edge. A documentary series on Netflix, Break It All: The History of Rock in Latin America, covered the musical aspect of political convulsions in Mexico, Chile and Argentina in the 60s to the 80s. A documentary I watched this week showed a concert by Los Tigres del Norte at Folsom Prison, 50 years after Johnny Cash’s epic performance there. I keep looking and learning. 

Los Texmaniacs, 2014

And finally, the music has a retrospective aspect. It connects me with where I grew up. I didn’t pay attention to the border music that surrounded me growing up, but now I do now. I enjoy the accordion-driven sounds of Tex-Mex music and I look forward to heading back to the Rio Grande Valley for a high school reunion and hearing some with old compadres (I call them Landsmen, they call me Carnal, a mashup of Yiddish and Spanish affections). 

Latin music even intersected with that other, more world-historic first moment, when the pandemic began. I had tickets for my partner Naomi and me to see Mariachi Los Camperos at the State University of New York at Purchaseon March 20, 2020. As you can guess, that concert never happened.

Maybe in 2022. If so, we'll be there.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

March 2020: Skating on Thinnest Ice

As the pandemic drags on, my mind keeps circling back to events in the first week of March. They marked the end of “normal” times and the louder rumbles of the avalanche that rolled over society a week later.

I spent the last weekend in February visiting my son in the Boston area. We enjoyed museums, attended a boisterous Bernie Sanders rally on Boston Common and ate Thai food. On Sunday, March 1, we attended the PAX East video game conference at the convention center near Amtrak’s South Station, where I would get the train back home that afternoon

The scene outside the convention center bustled with attendees streaming in. My son and I checked in, I stowed my suitcase and we hit the swirling, crowded floor. The place seemed chaotic, with attendees in costumes of their favorite characters jostling with booth workers from companies with their splashy displays, where gamers could try out games and see demonstrations. We wandered around and he stopped to play a game. Not a gamer myself, I studied the crowd and the sorts of games getting major visibility.

My photos from the day are striking and ominous. They show the packed crowds, with signs posting asking attendees to not block the aisles for photos. I saw masks, both as parts of costumes and, in their plain forms, as a precaution against the virus forcing itself into our consciousness. 

I told my son, "I can't tell if the masks are for costumes or are serious." Whatever the motivation, the masks lent a real-world anxiety to PAX East.

Many games bore a violent, apocalyptic look, typical in the game industry but ironic in light of the events that followed in the coming days, and down to today. Some titles: Zombie Army: Dead War 4, Insurgency Sandstorm, Destroy All Humans!, Wasteland 3 (realized in major cities’ business districts over the summer), Iron Harvest 1920+, The Survivalists, Partisans, Kosmokrats (written in fake Cyrillic letters) and Disintegration (that should be adapted as a game about the economic impact of the pandemic). 

The Amtrak ride from South Station back to Stamford felt typical, quiet and smooth, with plenty of time for reading and no pandemic safety measures. I couldn't imagine it at the time, but this train trip would be the last time I used public transportation in 2020.

Only later did I learn that a superspreader event happened in Boston February 26-27, an international biotechnology conference that ultimately infected 300,000 people. I arrived on Feb. 26—how close did I pass by infected individuals in the days that followed? 

By the next Saturday, March 7, the pandemic demanded notice at a Stamford country club, where the local Jewish Community Center honored a couple I know. There, people talked about the pandemic and even nervously joked about it, favoring fist bumps rather than hand shakes or hugs. Still, by today’s standards, the gala felt normal. Groups posed for photos with Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, one of the night’s speakers, and sat together in tight groups. I bought a necklace for my partner Naomi at a silent auction. I was in a good mood.

I didn’t know that Covid-19 was already spreading fast all around Stamford, with New Rochelle, NY a hot spot. As CNN reported on March 24, “The first known case in New Rochelle was discovered March 2. By March 10, that number had shot up to 108 coronavirus cases, evidence of exponential growth. The containment zone was established two days later.”

Even closer to Stamford, a superspreader event took place on March 5 in Westport, Connecticut, being called “party zero.” A Fox News story on March 24 said the party took place when Connecticut had no cases, but “as of Tuesday, the state is now dealing with 415 cases, 270 of which are in Fairfield County, where Westport is located.”

Did anybody from New Rochelle or Westport attend the JCC gala? I don’t know. I never heard of anybody at the gala getting sick. But it could have easily happened. The place was packed with hundreds of people, many of them elderly. the presence of infection would have been a disaster. Hindsight is always 20/20 but, looking back, we were skating on very thin ice that night, and it’s a miracle the ice didn’t crack and plunge us into illness.

The next day, Sunday March 8, I had a gig at an open mic event at the Tompkins Corners Cultural Center in Putnam Valley, NY. The mood had darkened even from the night before. Ripples of anxiety ricocheted across the center as people kept their distance. We were glad to leave once the event ended.

And then came the week that overturned everything. You know what happened. You were there, you lived it, and we’re still tumbling in that viral avalanche as it leaves social, political and economic wreckage in its wake. 

Viewed from this last weekend of 2020, that first week in March in Boston and Stamford glimmers like a receding star in another dimension. How and when we recapture that freedom of thought, commerce and movement remains unknown. 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Walking Westchester County in the Pandemic

The monthly totals on my phone pedometer leapt forward last March as the pandemic hit. The February total was 164,800 steps, in March it rose to 227,300. The walking campaign peaked in August at a lofty 290,000, fueled by massive numbers on a vacation to New Hope, Pennsylvania, with its miles-long walking paths on the Pennsylvania and New Jersey sides of the Delaware River.

The great majority of my pandemic steps, now close to 2 million steps since March, came in Westchester County, NY. My partner Naomi and I have become relentless daily walkers. Over nine months, we have had ground-level view of the changing seasons, counting cars in driveways, dodging crashing tree limbs after storms, recognizing dogs more than their walkers (as in, oh, here comes Mr. Greyhounds), and watching with the delight the ongoing artistic magic of anonymous local artist, the Katonah Chalker.

We’ve gotten to the point where we use short hand to set our routes. Lakeside Loop, Valley Road to Memorial Park, Whitlockville to Anderson, Reservoir Road to the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts (while walking past Martha Stewart's estate with the perfectly stacked stone wall), Bedford Hills Metro-North Station, downtown to the Katonah Village Library and back. Our strides are so coordinated that we can estimate to within 100 steps how far we’ll walk in an hour at the rate of 100 steps per minute.

The godsend since the spring has been our membership at the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, with its 4,315 acres of well-marked trails. Over the summer we’d slather on bug spray for two-hour jaunts. We especially remember an early one where we confronted a boulder-strewn steep uphill climb that had us gasping for breath. The county-run Reservation has been a great place to meet friends for socially distanced tramping and I just renewed our annual membership.

The search for variety sent us cruising around Westchester. In a time that feels a lot like the endless repeating loop of the movie Groundhog Day, we enjoy the variety of the North County Trail, the Bronx River Parkway from White Plains to the Kensico Dam, and Sleepy Hollow with the vibrant riverfront mural.

The one thing we can’t easily reach in Westchester is a beach. For that, we’ve driven back to where I lived before KatonahWestport, Connecticut. We’ve been to Sherwood Island State Park and Compo Beach, where the endlessly pounding surf is thrilling and relaxing. We typically combine the walk with a late lunch in Westport and a stroll around downtown on the shores of the Saugatuck River. I lived there for 17 years, so the place packs a lot of memories. 

The quest for steps has led us through many towns south of KatonahMt. Kisco, Chappaqua (looking for the Clintons all over), Pleasantville, Valhalla and the mighty Kensico Dam, and White Plains, and then on to posh Larchmont and its waterfront, and Hartsdale. As a camera buff, I find all of these locations highly photogenic.

What have we learned? Mask usage in the pandemic varies widely. The Bronx River Parkway in the summer felt iffy, with unmasked bikers and narrow trails that squished people together. In the Reservation we stood by as lean shirtless young men pounded by on the rocky trails. We feared they were spraying sweat and breath droplets as they whizzed by. These days, we gotta think about that. 

Naomi and I keep looking for new parks, riverside paths along the Hudson, sites like the Glacial Erratic boulder in Rockefeller State Park, historical sites, anything to get us out of the house. With my trusty backpack loaded with water bottles, trail mix, masks, maps, cough drops and a camera, we’re ready for anything. I recommend this walking approach for anybody looking for a way to keep fit and avoid going stir crazy while stuck at home.

And when the pandemic ends? We’ll keep right on walking. Maybe we can even ditch the masks. 

Monday, November 09, 2020

John Coltrane, Miles David and ZZ Top: Restless Artists Deserving a Fresh Listen

Several years ago I attended a lecture at the Katonah Museum of Art that completely changed the way I look at art. A curator spoke about how abstract expressionism developed. That is, artists moved from representations of things we recognize to more abstract forms. Ultimately the curator reached the far end of abstraction, with art of pure colors and pure shapes. 

[An open-mic version of this post can be found on YouTube, here.]

As somebody whose taste leans to the Rembrandt and Norman Rockwell schools of realism, I had looked askance at extreme abstractions. I could take the art in at a glance, I could see nothing much to ponder in it. But you know what? The lecture made me think again. For the first time, I got what the artists were up to. What had been a mystery became something I could understand from the artist’s point of view. What seemed a little jive now looked more complex, holding a story of shades and shapes and their emotional meaning.

The seeming simplicity and randomness of impressionism reminded me of an imagined conversation between an unimpressed observer and an artist. The observer scoffs, “Oh, I could have done that.” The artist responded, “You could have, but I DID.”

These thoughts came to me after I recently watched three documentaries on Amazon, about jazz musicians John Coltrane (Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary) and Miles Davis (Miles Davis: The Mile Davis Story) and the Texas blues-rock trio ZZ Top ( ZZ Top, That Little Ol’ Band from Texas). I’m a huge fan of all of them and have plenty of their albums. I got my first Miles Davis album, The Complete Birth of the Cool, in December 1975 in McAllen, Texas, soon after I turned 18. ZZ Top’s first three albums--ZZ Top’s First Album, Rio Grande Mud and Tres Hombres--were in heavy rotation on my record player when I was in high school.

Since I got a Victrola 8-in-1 cabinet player, I’ve been exploring my long-unheard vinyl collection. Lately I’m working through the massive 12-record set Miles Davis Chronicles: The Complete Prestige Recordings, 1951-1956. The second disk practically tells a brooding romantic story in the arc of the songs:
  • Out of the Blue
  • Denial
  • My Old Flame
  • It’s Only a Paper Moon
  • Compulsion
  • The Serpent’s Tooth
  • ‘Round About Midnight
Davis’s music especially drills deep into my cortex, provoking all kinds of moody images of misty nights at the Rainbow Room and then, well, 'round about midnight. I could write a novel with those compositions as the chapter titles. The only song missing is Lush Life.

My albums collection shows a sharp break in my interest in their music. Their earlier works appealed to me more than what came later. Coltrane and Davis did landmark work in the 1950s and early 1960s; they were lyrical, emotional, inventive. Those are the albums I gobbled up at places like St. Marks Sounds in New York.

Those phases segued into other sounds. The documentaries made the point that Coltrane and Davis reached a stage in their careers where they went in new directions. Coltrane expressed his spirituality after getting off drugs, Davis an interest in trends like electronic music, Indian sounds, rock, funk.

Those later periods left me cold. I wasn’t the only one. The Coltrane documentary talked about people walking out on his concerts because they expected Lush Life and My Favorite Things and he wanted to perform new material. Davis, who I heard in concert in 1975, ditched his traditional jazz sound for a totally new approach (and even a new way of dressing). My intense attachment to his works ends with works recorded after 1970. Bitches Brew and On the Corner just weren’t my cup of tea.

But after the documentaries, I’m ready to at least give them both another listen. They were artists pushing into new territory, what they wanted to play, not what the public wanted from them. Teen age musicians, unusual instruments, electronic squalls--why not? Neither of them was going to become an oldies act ready to skate for decades on a certain repertoire. That’s not a bad way to manage a career, if you can keep an audience interested in your older material (Chicago, the Beach Boys and other groups often seen on PBS documentaries during Pledge Week). For Coltrane and Davis, their accomplishments gave them the right to play what interested them.

Same for ZZ Top. The trio had pride of place in my record collection in high school, with their first self-named album, then Rio Grande Mud, then Tres Hombres. Songs like “Brown Sugar,” “Somebody Else Been Shakin’ Your Tree” and “La Grange” were in heavy rotation. Then I left for college and sort of lost interest. The documentary talks about how the band moved into new sounds, away from what worked so well in the beginning (although the film says almost nothing about the last three decades of the group's output). People didn’t know what to make of it. I liked their MTV videos like Legs and Gimme All Your Lovin’, but my musical tastes evolved from rock in general.

However, the documentary rekindled my interest. They were like Coltrane and Davis. ZZ Top wasn’t going to rest on their laurels. Different tunings, other influences came into the mix. With 15 studio albums, only some of which I’m familiar with, ZZ Top left a lot of platters for me to spin.

So from Coltrane’s A Love Supreme to Davis’s Bitches Brew to ZZ Top’s Mescalero, I’ve got some listening to do. Will my ears perk up, my cortex tingle? I don’t know. But like I learned from the lecture on abstract expressionism, some art deserves a second listen.

Saturday, October 03, 2020

Re: Re-Reading

I have favorite books, but I’m not a fan of re-reading them, at least not novels. Some historical books I’ll thumb through for the writing about the gripping events they describe. They typically are about the Soviet Union in the 1930s and the convulsions of World War II. Those include The Great Terror by Robert Conquest, The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Sozhenitsyn and The Second World Wars by Victor Davis Hanson.

With fiction, I’m a one-and-done reader. I know the book and how it ends, what else can I get from it? One rare exception had been Dubliners by James Joyce, with its tales of Ireland, such as “The Dead,” by a native who left his childhood home for college and then Europe. That’s something I can increasingly identify with as a writer who moved from Texas and now feels compelled to write stories set in the place.

[An open mic presentation of this essay can be found here.]

Lately, however, my attention is returning to novels that made a deep impression on me. Some of them I read so long ago that I can’t remember exactly what I liked about them. None are particularly long but all cast long shadows over my sense of what makes literature work.

I want to re-read them both to refresh my memories of them and see what they mean the second time around. I also want to compare them to novels I’ve read recently. A lot of current fiction just doesn’t click with me. I decided to do a test to contrast what I liked then with what I haven’t liked so much now.

The re-reading project ignited when I found a book in a giveaway box left in front of a house down the street from the library. It’s The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas, published in 1981. It’s about the imagined life of a patient of Sigmund Freud, a troubled opera singer. Its tapestry of dreams, fantasies, reality and tragedy gripped me when I read it in my 20s. Some parts of it lodged in my memory and I wanted to see if what I recalled was there. Those passages were indeed there. Given the nature of the passages that impressed me, I won’t quote any of them here. Read for yourself.

The White Hotel is intelligent and powerful without being self-consciously difficult to read. DM Thomas doesn’t write needlessly convoluted sentences that dare you to excavate his obscure meaning. I try to bring that clarity to my writing.

The next book up hurls me even further back in time, to boyhood. That’s Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, published in 1883. Do kids even read Treasure Island these days? In any case, this adventure story made a major impression on me back in the late 1960s, along with Tom Sawyer. I looked through it online and Stevenson’s prose has a self-assurance and verve that greatly appeals to me.

While written for wildly different audiences, Treasure Island and The White Hotel have surprising overlaps. Both books feature hotels and deal with dreams. A book with Dr. Freud as a character, of course, will be riddled with spicy dreams and their interpretation. Treasure Island both begins and ends with references to dreams. Is that what struck me as a boy, on the edge of a dawning awareness of life’s complexities? I don’t know, that would take an analyst of Freudian powers to unpack. And what is psychoanalysis, if not the quest for the hidden treasures buried on the island of the human unconscious?

Anyway, consider the first page of Treasure Island, where narrator Jim Hawkins writes ominously of “the seafaring man with one leg:"
How that personage haunted my dreams, I need scarcely tell you. On stormy nights, when the wind shook the four corners of the house and the surf roared along the cove and up the cliffs, I would see him in a thousand forms, and with a thousand diabolical expressions.
And the very last paragraph:
The bar silver and the arms still lie, for all that I know, where Flint buried them; and certainly they shall lie there for me. Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island; and the worst dreams that ever I have are when I hear the surf booming about its coasts or start upright in bed with the sharp voice of Captain Flint still ringing in my ears: "Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!"
Now that’s writing of the highest order. Let’s read it again: “Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island.” The passage sounds like my reluctance to take Metro-North into Manhattan these days.

So that’s my first take on re-reading. I have others in mind. I’ll talk about them later. For now, I’ll update my reservation list here at the library and get back to reading.

After 15 Months, Back on the Train to Gotham City

After 15 months away, I recently boarded Metro-North in Katonah for the long ride to Grand Central and a day in the city. After talking earl...