Stumbling toward a vision of reality

Perhaps my most lasting experience during my term at Stanford in 1961 was attending a lecture on DNA by Arthur Kornberg, a 1959 Nobel Prize winner. I’d heard vague stirrings of DNA while at Penn but paid it almost no attention: The wretchedness of my chem and bio courses in high school (endless balancing of chemical equations in the first, tortured Latin nomenclature in the latter) had so completely blasted my interest in the study of the structured world that I managed to graduate from Penn without taking a single course in science or math.

That wasn’t easy to do in those days of heaped requirements, but I was a clever lad: In my freshman year I enrolled in symbolic logic, simply because it wasn’t mathematical. I skipped the rest of physical science by sidling through lots of anthropology.

Along with his lecture at Stanford, Kornberg brought out a big physical mockup of the helical DNA structure. I was riveted. So this was what biology is really about! I’d never realized that scientists actually did that sort of thing.

Though it took me a couple years after my return to Philly to get around to it, that awakening led directly to a summer (1964?) when I enrolled in catch-up courses at Penn: one term of biochem, two of organic chem (I was a disaster in the lab) and two of calculus. I aced them all with ease.

The realization of all this chemical stuff happening inside me affected my comprehension of my body. I could feel the blood coursing in my veins, listen in on what my neurons were muttering. 

At someone’s behest (probably my own), I toured the Richards towers at Penn, an architectural triumph by architect Louis Kahn, dedicated to biological research. Kahn had created a superb clutch of buildings but had shown little sense of the needs of experimenters. Technicians had to plaster the windows with aluminum foil to keep out the ravening sun, and much of the lab work overflowed into the hallways. It had the kind of chaotic, dynamic ethic I love.

At that time, I was working for little more than minimum wage as a reshelver at the Penn book store, and I schlepped from one place to another in ragged clothes. Yet, despite my wobbly-at-best background, I applied personally to Dr. Robert E. Davies, who headed the molecular biology department, for entry into his program.

To my everlasting amazement, based solely on my interest, he accepted me. Even in today’s looser academic times, that just doesn’t happen. Back then, it was close to inconceivable.

After a week of agonizing, I told him I had decided to stay at the bookstore (which I later came to run). On the surface, that’s inexplicable. Here was my one chance in life to become a nameable success, and I dumped it like a bowl of succotash. 

Maybe I realized that my mercurial and dilettantish approach to existence would not have worked in the structured environment of academic science. I have drive, yes, but a faulty gear shift. On the road of life, I’ve taken many rattling, unbanked turns.

But my interest in science has never flagged since; in fact, it’s expanded over time: I especially want to find out how my mind works (or doesn’t) and why. 

Some of the questions and observations that have come up along the way:

• If I wander ten feet off the main path in our limited Sullivan County woods – with which I have a 20-year daily acquaintance – then swivel perhaps 45 degrees, I become completely disoriented. Other folks I’ve known could be thrown in a padlocked gunny sack and still tell you which way was north.

• My eyes are crossed, which leaves me with double vision and little depth perception. I can’t lay a clean line of spackle or wallboard joint compound because it requires the ability to visually identify a 1/8 inch-thick applied layer. (I’ve watched Polish plasterers lay perfect surfaces for hours.)

• Preparing dinner in the kitchen, I reach for a knife on the magnetic holder and ram my hand into the wall. 

• I drop things I think I have a firm grip on and blunder into doorways.

What the hell is this all about?

Granted, none of it makes much difference in the broader context of life. For crap’s sake – some people have both legs shorter than the other! But for me, such personal oddities have two far-reaching consequences:

First, they send me into towering rages.

Second, they quiz me as to what combinations of physical traits and neural misalignments link all these errors and deficiencies?

Let’s consider the rages: As my family know all too well, the slightest impediment to achieving what I want to accomplish brings on a profanity-laced explosion. There’s usually no latency between cause and effect – not a tenth of a second lapse between asinine error and response – so no time to “control” myself; some inoffensive obstacle gets in my way and a Krakatoa of anger balloons like a mental airbag.

Our family doctor once suggested I may have Tourette syndrome. Listening to my repertoire of Anglo-Saxonisms and personalized bellows for annihilation, I might think so too – except that I don’t have the recurring facial tics or other physicalities that saddle Touretters. 

My wallpaper-peeling rants are almost never directed at someone else – it’s a magma of self-hatred overlaid by a lava-flow directed at the inanimate world: the hammer that mashed my thumb, the screwdriver that removed my knuckle-flesh, the awl that did it all.

And most of this biliousness is sung, a venomous litany set to patriotic tunes and old pop ditties, as though Lewis Carroll had burst into parodic vituperation while tumbling down a cliff.

So it’s become important to me to develop a profile of where and how my brain goes astray, in hopes that it might be helpful, not just to me, but to humanity in general – OK, not often “humanity in general.”

(Years ago, a young communal housemate on Baring St., one of the brightest people I’ve known, at age 13 described her even more brilliant younger brother as “physically stupid.” Yes. That identification fired all sorts of slumbering neurons in my head and has stuck with me.)

Most analyses of brain function have sprung from case studies of aberrant conditions, and with good reason: They’re like keys to the basement when you’re looking for a leak in the plumbing. Once you’ve found the leak, you can perhaps repair it, but more important, you’ve discovered where the pipes are, how they snake through the walls, and where they branch off. By the time you’ve turned off the flashlight, you’ve gained at least an understanding of your local water flow. In my case, I accumulated basic texts on neurophysiology and neuroanatomy and peripheral material on how the melded brain/mind/nervous system might work.

And when all that exhausts me, I liven myself up with forays into particle physics. Oh, I’m lousy at math (I could do that calculus, but I had not the least idea what it was good for), but I pretty much understand the abstractions.

I especially love the idea of infinite regression – one that most physicists and cosmologists seem to reject, if they consider it at all. The concept (well, my concept) is that there isno smallest particle or essential subdivision of existence.

Since the ancient Greeks, reality’s fundamental units has continually shrunk. Matter was first described as composed of four basic elements – earth, air, fire and water. Then Democritus added that there might be small, basic constituent units – which he termed “atoms.”

By the 19th century, as microscopes expanded the examination of the minute, cells were discovered and the equivalent of molecules posited.

But it wasn’t until the 20th century that we could seriously burrow into the “invisible,” breaking molecules into atoms, dividing atoms into a nucleus circled by electrons, splitting the nucleus into protons and neutrons, splintering the protons and neutrons into quarks.

String theorists go further, saying that all forms of physical stuff – from quarks on up – are manifestations of tiny vibrating filaments, threads so itty-bitty they make quarks look like King Kong. Do these strings really exist? That’s a long way from proof so far, but ain’t it amazing to us lay folk that anyone would think they might be the stop-the-presses groundwork of all physical reality?

But if we do suppose they exist, why should they be the smallest? The string theorists make reasoned arguments that their version of minutia lies at the final limit – just as did the champions of atoms, nuclei and quarks. What, if anything, is next?

One thing the particle physicists know for sure is that most of reality is… emptiness. Molecules consist of atoms looping around each other at a questioning distance. Atoms, often simplistically pictured as mini solar systems, feature itsy blips of electrons circling a nucleus way down there in 99.999999% empty space. 

Protons… Solid? Nope – three quarks, consorting. 

Quarks… Solid? You bet! – unless they’re higher manifestations of vibrating strings, sub-Barbie necklaces without necks to encircle.

Calculus developed within mathematics to manipulate the concept of the “limit,” an end-point that any numerical (or other) sequence tends toward but never quite grasps – just as numbers themselves or straight lines approach the end of the line but can’t reach the final station. (“Where’s your damned perspective going, Mr. Leonardo?”)

To me, the idea of ever-smaller smallness suggests that there may be no essential unit of construction, that every decreasing level of smallitude that we reach can be further re-smallified – again, and again, and again. Until it’s gone.

Looked at that way, the limit of “something” becomes… “nothing.” Which, philosophically, reframes the question of why there is something (the universe) rather than nothing (the unpopulated void). 

Over a thousand years ago, the Buddhists of India and Tibet crystalized a central tenet that translates roughly to “form is emptiness; emptiness is form” – active reality is the Janus-face of passive nothingness. These days, cosmology suggests that “something” exists because “nothing” can’t remain nothing; certain elementary particles pop out of nowhere, take a quick look around, then schlep back into non-existence, waiting for the next time.

Something is nothing; nothing is something… at the limit of infinity, one and the same.

Ain’t that somethin?

Leave a comment

Truth, consciousness and cats

I have an over-scrupulous outlook on truth: It should be absolute – with everyone, everywhere, everytime, especially between those you care about or most trust. 

But it can’t be. We’re all liars when we need to be, whatever the need may be – uplifting or repulsive, noble or degrading.

And necessarily so.

Think about what you would need to say – when, how and to whom – to be entirely, soul-baringly, unflinchingly honest at all times, in all situations. And think about the repercussions.

Most times we don’t want the truth, even when we think we do. We hold a candle to temporarily ward off the darkness we can’t name, and we think honesty will provide the absolving light.

Truth can seldom be formulated, far less articulated. There is no “truth”; so, no “reality.”

That can sound pretty negative, but it’s also a release. If there is no truth – no fully definable reality – we’re free to scratch our heads and decide that what we’re seeing today is as good as yesterday, as good as the often specious reasoning of Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Jesus, Buddha or your own personal religiopholosophic boogeyman.

Philosophy and religion have not found truth. So what will anything that I, you or today’s muckers proclaim look like tomorrow?

Yet, we have to start somewhere.

(Don’t we?)

*   *

Speaking of philosophy (which, for the  most part, I try not to do), I find the idea of “moral philosophy” so much hogwash. Morality is a concept which differs for each individual human being. I don’t see how you can define, codify or justify “morality” on a cosmic scale, and anything less is mind games. It’s easy enough to say “the psychopath (or the ex-president) has no morality,” but likely their unhinged obsessions occupy pretty much the same realm as “morality” does for the religious or the righteous.

*   *

I have a continuing feeling of personal waste and failure. I once thought I had immense potential, but its realization has peeked around the corner and glared at me.

*   *

Much of this segment goes back to a note I sent out months (years?) back, so if it sounds annoyingly repetitious, just toss it.

The study of consciousness is getting major play these days, especially in the area of neurophysiology. For some (most) researchers, it’s tightly, even inextricably, tied to the idea of “self.” In part that’s because they can’t agree on the exact definition of either term. But here’s a real-life experience that I think feeds into the discussion. 

Back at Baring St. in Philly, lying in the cuddling warmth of our marvelous clawfoot bathtub, I fell asleep. Some time later, something awoke. It presumable occupied my mind, but it was not me. It was pre-being devoid of all knowledge. It did not realize that it existed. It not only did not know what it was, it did not know that it was. It was raw consciousness having a fearing sense of wonder, but without a wonderer. 

Slowly, forms – feet, water, the faucets at the front of the tub – became, but they meant nothing because this pre-entity had no concept of meaning. In time it became a something, with separateness. Then knowledge, background and memory slowly crept in. In more time it became me.

In all of the science and literature that I’ve read, I’ve found no description close to what that pre-I experienced. It remains the only experience in my life that I see as unique to myself. Everything else I’ve felt, thought about, conceived of, has reference. This has none.

How can such a thing – such a non-thing – erupt… erasing, for a moment, all recognition of existence?  In its simplest outline, it was consciousness without a sense of self – which I otherwise think of as an impossibility.

*   *

I don’t personally believe in telepathy or other forms of mind-share. And I wish I did. In the ’60s I spent many months studying the writings of J.B. Rhine in the U.S. and Samuel Soal in the U.K., also some of the Russians who had been doing various forms of experiments to identify ESP (U.S.) or psi (U.K.) possibilities. It’s now usually lumped together as parapsychology. 

I wanted it all to be so. But by the end, I became convinced that it has no serious underpinnings. Rhine and his decks of patterned cards with symbols that his subjects were supposed to envision without seeing them seemed more silly that enlightening. And years later I read that Soal had so manipulated his data (much of it based on a single subject, Shackleton) that it verged on – or passed into – fraud.

But… (some of us have bigger buts than others) there’s Tigger, the world’s most wonderful cat. I call to him when he’s off wandering; he seldom answers or immediately appears, yet five minutes later I turn and find him standing a couple paces behind me. Nothing exceptional in that, really, by itself.

Yet, other times I’ll be thinking, for no good reason, “I wonder what Tigger is up to?” Again, a couple minutes later, he’s standing where he wasn’t. It happens often enough to seem eerie.

So, at least thee possible explanations:

1) he picks up a query from my mind and responds; 2) I pick up a query from his – I think about him because he was already thinking about me; 3) I ignore or discount the more numerous negative instances when he does not respond or appear.

I want the explanation to be one of the first two; I strongly suspect it’s the third. And it’s hard to do a statistical analysis based on the fluctuating maybes of the human and cat minds.

Leave a comment

A homage to (mostly) lost restaurants

The best part of car traveling for me is stopping at out-of-the-way restaurants. I like to eat most anything, most anywhere, and the more grease the better (though I’m fond of tofu too). 

But I actively dislike most fancy restaurants, maybe because they’re filled with fancy people I’d love to run over on a dark road where their BMW has broken down and their cell phone won’t work and that guy with the leather mask has started up his chainsaw …

The best for atmosphere are the tidy hometown counters where everybody knows who they are and what they’re doing, and top-of-the-grill American cooking is treated with the respect it deserves. The day my MacArthur genius grant rolls in, I’m going to buy me a halfass pickup and spend the rest of my allotted time dining at every last lunch counter in America.

The Tomte restaurant in Lindsborg, Kansas, didn’t quite qualify as offbeat. We found it in a book called Road Food that served as our unofficial guide on several summer trips. Lindsborg (which Linda remembers from her Kansas youth and is pronounced “Leensborg”) is a Swedish-themed town with “Välkommen” flags flapping off every signpost. But the Tomte (named after a Scandinavian elfish being) was a\the stamping ground for the home crowd – quiet, clean, walls tight with pictures of 2 or 3 generations of patrons.

Are you an oatmeal fiend? Me either. But when we ordered oatmeal at the Tomte we received a bowl with a side pitcher of cream. And cinnamon. When we ordered hash browns, they came as paper-thin, hand-grated potato slashes that descended directly from spud heaven. The Lindsborg website today indicates that the Tomte is no more. Disappointing – though thank god it didn’t live long enough to slump into a lesser incarnation.

Speaking of the best in breakfast potatoes, for home fries I nominate the Opera House in Dixfield, Maine. Originally an actual opera house built around 1905 by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (which I’ve always found a rather, well, odd name), it’s no longer a restaurant, but continues as a community rental space. Anyway, for the home fries, the spuds were boiled, diced and fried to fork tenderness without falling apart, along with paprika and I don’t know what else.

Reubens used to be a discovered treat, but nearly everybody serves them these days. A reuben is a sandwich of corned beef on rye with sauerkraut and (it better have) Russian dressing. I can’t recall when or why we stopped at Nick’s in North Adams, NY, off I-81. Likely we were on our way to visit Chris Hessert in Ontario. Nick’s reuben came open-faced, the rye grilled both sides and everything … perfect. No reflection on Sullivan County reubens – especially at the Barn, the Jolly Trolley or D&D’s – but some things just cannot be bettered. No sign of Nick’s continued existence.

Our first day on the road to our Bass Lake, Michigan, vacation one summer in the late ’80s or early ’90s, we struck it doubly rich: a good roadside lunch and a supper of major distinction. (As a nod to the latter – the Wrangler Restaurant – I should title this part of the recitation “Apologies to Ohio,” to make up for all the nasty things I’ve said about that flat, uninteresting, almost numbing state – whoops.)

First, we had lunch at Gail & Tina’s Place in Burnham, PA, off Route 322, one of the state’s most glorious roads, switching between majestic mountain superhighway to get-lost-at-the-wrong-turn-from-Main-Street squiggles in a hopscotch, crazy-quilt pattern. (I’ve read that a lot of the fun part has now been ironed flat.)

We picked G & T’s for our usual three reasons: It wasn’t a fast-food hole, the parking strip was crowded with aging pickups – and gut reaction. A low-slung shack painted federal blue, it made a statement without caring too much. Inside, the tables and benches were put together from standard two-by-sixes, selectively scorched, then polyurethaned to a glassy sheen.

My large, excellent burger was a bit overcooked for my unAmerican tastes – when I bite, I like to hear the bull bellow. Linda’s hot roast beef and gravy with fries was tops. And Caitlin, thank god, ordered only half a hoagie. The whole thing could have relieved famine in Somalia. There wasn’t any single thing special about Gail & Tina’s, but all the aspects together – atmosphere, food, service, prices – reclined in sublime balance.

Later that day, we took Exit 14 (Rte. 5) from the Ohio Turnpike. A large motel, crouching behind the curve of the exit, looked abandoned in the middle of an acre of grass. Asked about where to get supper, the clerk suggested “the Wrangler, up by the Marathon gas station.” I zipped past the Marathon without seeing anything, but Linda spotted a movable-letter sign set way back from the road – “Home Cooking Restaurant Open 7 Days.” Nothing about any Wrangler.

We found an unadorned cube tacked onto the left rear corner of the station, made of those cinderblocks with hunks jutting out to provide “texture.” Inside, it was fiercely ugly, the ceiling 12 feet high and lost in shadows, the end wall grasping five small wooden shelves, some with uninteresting bits of pseudo-antiques, others empty.

I liked it immediately. There’s ugliness and ugliness: There’s the unforgivable corporate non-personality of a CVS or Toys R Us – bland hideousness ballooned into terminal insult. There’s also the  forgivable (if creepy) ugliness of places without a smidgen of aesthetic taste that accrue useless objects that hem them in as they grow old.

Finally – and rarely – there’s the coordinated ugliness of a place where the occupiers have refused to prettify a bad architectural deal, allowing the personality of its inhabitants to provide character and warmth. Character and warmth suffused the Wrangler. Greetings, cross-talk and well-wishing slithered from table to table in an anaconda of joyousness.

We sat at the counter, facing the grill. The gods of road food must have inspired our choice. Little things seemed so idiosyncratic that I thought we had wormholed sideways. My Lipton’s teabag was lifted from a form of dispenser I’d never seen before and can’t describe, and my tea was served with both a cup of hot water and one of those little metal pots holding scalding water for a second cup. Gallon pitchers of some dark liquid – coffee? syrup? – stood near one end of the counter, covered with shrink wrap.

And my god, the prices: $4.39 for two pork chops, green beans, home fries and a roll. How could anyone, even 35 years ago, make a profit on that? The chops were thin but grilled not five seconds over or under. (The beans were reduced to Midwestern moosh, as always. Ah well.) For dessert, Linda got a bodacious slice of supreme chocolate cream pie. But everything paled before the home fries: the largest quantity and the second-best I’ve ever eaten (next to the Dixfield Opera House).

The Wrangler’s cook, an overweight woman in shorts, kept to an almost metronomic personal rhythm. She plopped the home fries – pre-boiled and smashed into such tiny pieces I mistook them at first for onions – onto the grill and poured a dollop of oil directly into them. Then she stirred and turned them with the surety and concentration of a Zen master. She didn’t just slap the chops and grilled sandwiches like bad children, she levered them up and placed them precisely where they ought to be. I spent the whole meal smiling at her quiet, confident intensity.

Finally (for this episode of the Gustatory Roundup), there’s the Antler Bar in Pentwater, Michigan – the only place in that lovely little tourist town with food worth eating. I’d gotten the wet burrito in the past. This time, eating with our friends Nan and Will, we ordered chicken and steak fajitas. Caitlin got the nachos with cheese (hold the jalapeños).

If you like your Mexican mouth-singeing hot, you might be disappointed. But the balance of spicing was perfect, the proportions gigantic (Cait doggy-bagged her nachos and lived on them for the next two days), the prices around $6 for most platters. And the pool table: In my first round of 8-ball in ten years, if Cait hadn’t scratched the 8, she would have had me.

Best yet, as of today, July 10, 2022, the Antler still lives. Go there – now!

Leave a comment

Preparation Mania

Freelancing for the Penn Gazette (Penn’s alumni mag), in 1980 was my first paying writing job of any significance – almost 20 years after graduating from Penn in supposed journalism. I had tired of carpentry, of mashing various parts of my body with various tools while earning next to nothing. So why not earn next to nothing doing something I was actually good at?

One of my early Gazette assignments – I still wonder at being asked to do this, after only a couple articles turned in – was to interview Noam Chomsky at MIT, a Penn grad.

Chomsky was the world’s foremost linguist and an increasing presence in leftist polemics. The assignment scared the living shit out of me. I’d seldom spoken to anyone even marginally famous, much less interviewed one. So to prepare, I sat down and read every single one of Chomsky’s major works, on both linguistics and social commentary. I was even able to understand a fair amount of it.

Tony, the Gazette‘s editor – whom I knew well from his being editor of the Daily Pennsylvanian the year I graduated Penn – handed me a handheld tape recorder to take to Cambridge. I’d never before interviewed anyone by tape recorder – never even used a cassette recorder. What if it crapped out or I hit the wrong button? Jesus sideways Christ, you don’t want to misquote the world’s leading linguist.

Chomsky’s office hung out in an old engineering building, because MIT didn’t have a linguistics department back then. A low, massive wooden structure, it sported five parallel wings – the schematic of a hand. I liked Chomsky a lot – quiet, concerned and friendly. It was a good interview. I studiously transcribed the interview without noticeable screwup.

The following morning, back home on Baring St., I suffered the worst pain I’ve ever known – in retrospect, probably my first kidney stone. It didn’t seem a great omen – though I was proud of my daughters, getting ready for school, calmly stepping over my howling form as I rolled in agony on the bathroom floor: My histrionics would not undermine their quiet solidity.

Those were the days of cut-and-paste editing on a typewriter. I’d hammer out a rough draft, scissor it into paragraphs, then staple the bits in a new order on other sheets of paper, with new transitions penciled in. Retype and repeat until something approaching coherence appeared.

Later, when the article came out, Chomsky typed a two-sentence response. The second sentence read, “I was very pleased with the way he handled the material and found it in general an excellent piece of work.” No single comment has ever meant more to me.

That year the Gazette received the Sibley Award as the best alumni mag in the country. The following year I joined the staff in the new position of Assistant Editor, with my own spacious office overlooking the central block of the campus. 

Marshall, the Associate Editor, was officed next door. We became good friends. I’d heat tea water in my Poly Hot Pot (yes, it was actually called that!) and rap on the wall when the water was ready. Our chats were the high point of my day.

Priscilla, the thin, trepidatious secretary, had sexy heels. (If you find that incomprehensible, I later met a woman with sexy wrists.)

Editor Tony lived for the Gazette. The smallest factual or stylistic error registered as a smudge on his person. I got along with him fine, but he was known to verbally eviscerate some of the writers, especially women. His one ironclad, undeviating rule of journalistic integrity was to refuse to show an article to its subject in advance for approval. One professor in the ed school unreservedly insisted on seeing a draft I’d written; Tony dumped the article.

My obsession with Knowing All before writing an article would lead me into grotesque preparatory gymnastics. Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine giant of skewed short stories, then in his 80s, was visiting Camden, NJ, for some reason (no one voluntarily enters Camden without reason; it likely had to do with Walt Whitman’s residence there a century earlier). I was told to attend his visit and do a few paragraphs for the intro column. To prepare, I read virtually his entire fiction output in advance.

Did that help my one-column story? Damned if I know.

Possibly more bizarre was my warmup for a feature article on a dental school prof who was also a Proust enthusiast (say what?). I’d never read Proust, but I quickly devoured Swann’s Way, the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past. In the article I described Hammond using a long Proustian riff. What a lot of fun! (I still haven’t gone back to Proust.)

Even more fun was the Grace Kelly gala at Penn’s Annenberg Center (Linda at t hat time ran the Center’s box office). The Gazette sprang for tux rental, but none of the plastic shoes that come with would fit my Hobbit feet – and I owned no black shoes. Scuffling around our closet, I unearthed a slightly tight pair of suede loafers someone had given me.

One coat of flat black paint and two coats of polyurethane and voila! – I’d have dared you to tell them from their plastic cousins.

That gala was a gas. Plates of sliced fillet mignon slathered on tables all over the lobby, enough other edibles to feed Outer Mongolia, endless alcohol (including Boodles gin – 90 proof! – almost impossible to get in Pennsylvania). The wide stairs lined with upright Mylar mirrors: I bumped into someone walking up and apologized; turned out to be myself.

Jimmy Stewart and others delivered homilies about Kelly. Bob Hope read from huge illuminated cue cards set up in the side aisle (including parenthetical admonitions such as “cough”). He never had to see his “routine” in advance, confirming my longstanding belief that he was the biggest jackass ever to perform on stage. 

Kelly, a lovely presence, reminisced about Monaco and the “scary” drive leading to her mountaintop home. She died the following year when her car plunged off that drive.

I left the Gazette after a year and a half (during my second year, it again received the Sibley Award). Why? Weirdly enough, I think it had much to do with my private office.

Earlier, managing the UPenn book store, I had overseen a rambunctious gaggle of part-timers. Later, doing maintenance at Miquon, my kids delightful private school, I interacted daily with the kids and teachers in a rolling educational hootenanny. At the Gazette, except for the tea-klatches with Marshall and occasional forays to check out Priscilla’s heels, I felt crushingly isolated.

So I left to join the Welcomat weekly as Arts Editor. Along with the News Editor and a shifting band of interns (including Marshall’s 13-year-old wunderkind daughter Kate), I dealt with a non-stop parade of entertaining freelancers.

I stayed at the Welco for 12 years – my personal record.

Leave a comment

Penn-manship

I was still living at 3607 Baring St. – the home of the kitten with two broken legs – when I started at Penn in 1957. I almost didn’t end up at Penn and have no idea what would have become of me if I hadn’t. 

The only colleges I applied to were Penn and Harvard. I got on the Harvard waiting list, but also received something called the Philadelphia Mayor’s Scholarship that, at the time, paid full tuition to Penn (the lordly sum of $1,000 a year). So I should have been a shoo-in for Penn admission – and would have been but for the minor impediment of my high school failing to send my transcript.

Luck again: An amazingly concerned man in Penn admissions (I wish I could recall his name) took the trouble to phone and ask if I had decided to change my mind, since the transcript had not come through. He asked me to come in for a meeting, where he made it clear that he (and the university) were definitely interested in my attendance, so he hounded the high school until they finally produced my papers.

On one level, I owe this man my mental life. A square-faced presence with a deep baritone voice, he treated me like an equal and was caring-decency personified. Many years later, while a recovered alcoholic, he phoned me for reasons my memory can’t decipher (maybe he’d read one of my columns in the Welcomat?), and, like so many recovered alcoholics, could talk about nothing beyond being a recovered alcoholic. We had a couple good chats, but at heart I wish he hadn’t made those calls and shattered my idealistic (and unrealistic) mental portrait of him.

Did the failure to send my records reflect a simple oversight on the high school’s part, or was it more deliberate? I suspect the latter. St. Thomas More was a hidebound Catholic holding tank, where the sour-faced, sour-dispositioned principal had boomed his displeasure that I would dare apply only to secular colleges, rather than attending a local Catholic enclave. I have to credit my mother – an intelligent, independent soul – for insisting that I aim for the best. If only she had done so earlier and not propelled me through eight years of Papist mindpoop.

At Penn, besides side-stepping math and science (by sliding sideways into courses like symbolic logic), I tanked up on English, philosophy, anthropology, the social sciences and comparative religion – but majored in journalism.

Journalism was widely recognized as the most useless major on campus. Its anemic requirements suited me because they left room for more electives than any other major, at a time when limiting electives was a defining trait of Penn’s old-school outlook.

Most of the journalism classes were held in a condemned rowhouse that had once served as a magistrate’s court. The teacher would sit behind the old wooden railing, under weak, low-hung ceiling lights. Ancient wallpaper peeled in strips. 

The department chair, a small, withered man, would shake with suppressed rage as he verbally flayed former Penn president (and occasional U.S. presidential candidate) Harold Stassen. If he had once known the fundamentals of journalism, they had become lost in a mildewed haze. The summer after he retired, he shot himself. A year later, the department was disbanded.

What about the real classes? My tops was a lit course on drama taught by Gerald Weales, then in his first year at Penn. He’d published reviews here, there and elsewhere and was coming out with a book on off-off-Broadway. Wide-faced, wide-mouthed, goofy-grinned, he’d sit on his desk, legs crossed, looking like a giant frog. But god could that man dissect and analyze plays.

For The Chalk Garden, by Enid Bagnol, he read the article he’d written for a journal. Enlightening, riveting, complete. Twenty years later, Gerald wrote reviews for me at the Welcomat, an odd and humbling turnaround.

Froelich Rainey taught an introductory archaeology course in the bowels of the University Museum, of which he was then director. Rainey was also host of “What in the World?” the only TV quiz show ever devoted to anthropology and archaeology, in which experts (including Penn’s Carleton Coon) attempted to identify odd artifacts that had been retrieved.

In class, Rainey was folksy, approachable, with a meandering storytelling style that didn’t impart a lot of information but certainly entertained. The most fun was walking to the course through one of the most intriguing museums in the world.

I took a criminology course with Thorsten Sellin, then a major figure in criminology. He was also well into his 60s, with startlingly bad teeth and a lecturing style that could bore the siding off a clapboard house. The class was held in a sad old room on the second floor of College Hall, right after lunch when my digestion wanted none of it. To look minimally interested and keep myself awake I’d prop my eyelids open with my fingers.

I had scarfed up so many courses that by mid senior year I was one credit short of graduating a semester early – something I’d taken so little note of that I piled on five more courses. I ended up tenth in my class without putting out significant effort. 

Along the way, I went to an on-campus “performance” by Ayn Rand. A nasty, snarling lady, she grumbled on about the fundamental need to choose between “reason” and “whim.” During the concluding Q and A session, someone in the audience asked her, “How do you make the choice? Isn’t that choice itself based on whim?” an interesting question that deserved discussion. Rand’s response: “Humph!” and she stomped off stage. I’ve never since had the least respect for her or anything she might have promulgated (but then, I’d never had any respect for her before either).

I scouted a few of the fraternities during their annual sort-out-the-freshmen tour of the frat houses. Non-joiner that I’d always been, I should  have known better. I skirted the pre-Animal House ones where the inmates threw water on people who passed below their windows (at least you hoped it was water). A couple others seemed friendly, so though as ill at ease as ever, I settled on one that felt gentle and decent. With the gentlest and decentest of obliteration, they rejected me out of hand. I felt as much relieved as chagrined.

Where I failed most miserably was in phys ed. Passing swimming was a requirement for graduation at Penn. (Why, for shit’s sake? I wasn’t planning to live underwater!) I’ve never been fond of the ocean and had not felt the need to learn to swim (despite older-brother Rod having been a champion swimmer in New York City schools).

So once a week I struggled the length of the pool in the Hutchinson Gym, invariably getting great snorts of chlorinated water up by nose. At last I managed to agonize through the required 36 lengths, mostly using sidestroke and backstroke. To this day I haven’t figured how to coordinate my breathing to allow me to turn my head under water without incipient suffocation.

Leave a comment

More oddments

Initially, I was wondering why so many believers in absurd conspiracy theories are devout Christians.

Then it hit me: Western monotheism is the purest of conspiracy theories — the entire universe is overseen and controlled by an invisible, omniscient, omnipotent spirit that communicates only with its closest followers, who cannot objectively prove this communication to anyone else.

 *    *    *    *

I just bought 10 thumb drives for a total of less than $30. Each drive holds 16GB of info, which is 16 times as much as the 3-foot-tall 1GB state-of-the-art hard drive unit our publisher crowed about at the Welcomat in 1990.

And each of these powerful objects that I can hide in the palm of my hand costs slightly less than a large green pepper at the grocery store.

Something is definitely amiss.

 *    *    *    *

Previously unrecognized benefactors of humanity:

Alexander Graham Cracker, inventor of the pre-assembled pie crust.

Edward R. Merrooww, early friend of abandoned house cats

Jacqueline Kennedy Agnostic, first woman to believe in absolutely nothing

James Fenugreek Cooper, chef who established East Indian cooking in America

Mother Tearassa, fastest nun ever to win a Formula One race.

Mary Queen of Scats, premier collector of fossilized coprolites.

Marquis de Sod, lord of 150,000 acres of removable turf.

*    *    *    *

9/11 seems to have had the same propulsive effect as Pearl Harbor (and with almost the same fatality figures). The difference was that with 9/11, unlike 1941, we have had no obvious enemy (the Japs!) to focus on, only shadowy figures who might be anybody, who might be mingling among us. So we came up with the PATRIOT Act and REAL ID, which achieves nothing but to make life more annoying and fearful (I haven’t gotten my REAL ID yet, hoping it will just fade away – the deadline has been pushed back at least twice). Even the name “9/11” is nebulous, not a descriptive pointer like “Pearl Harbor,” not something you can lay you hand or mind on, only a peculiar slashed numeral. 

A decade after Pearl Harbor, we had been through history’s most destructive war, conquered our major enemies and turned them into friends (or at least colleagues), our new enemy having changed name and description.

A decade after 9/11, we have botched all attempts to identify, meet, or defeat the enemy, instead turning the enemy internal, the “other guy” on the street – and developed myriad new ways to shriek at each other and toss blame like rice at a wedding. 

 *    *    *    *

Please sign a petition begging Mexico to take back Texas and renounce the U.S. “illegal and ill-conceived” steal of the region from its colonial home in the mid 19th century. In truth, the state was originally stolen from Native Americans, but at this point it’s difficult to pinpoint the tribes most affected. And anyway, they don’t want it.

 *    *    *    *

Latest suggested advances from Apple:

iLife: Your phone, watch, pad and computer can now do everything concerned with living, so that you no longer have to be present in your own life.

Smart Glasses: These have nothing to do with eyesight; they are digitized table glasses that automatically fill with Scotch and soda the moment the drinking level reaches below 10%. Excellent for sipping while reading 19th-century English novels.

 *    *    *    *

The latest Supreme Court decision, denying state-convicted persons the right to appeal in federal courts over convictions resulting from ineffective counsel, even in capital cases, strikes at the very concept of justice. It defies the Court’s own precedent.

Christ, we’re in for a hideous year.

Leave a comment

A sordid deed

On graduating UPenn (1961), I picked up a grant to study for a year at Stanford. Not sure, but I think it might have led me to an M.A. if I’d sat it out.

Ratcheting west across America by train, I assumed I’d never return to the east coast (not sure what that reasoning was either). I looked at my watch and thought, “I’ve gained three hours in my life!” 

I chose the longest rail route, a broad sweep down through the South and up along the west coast. That way, I thought, I’d see the largest swath of the country.

The travel agent warned against the itinerary I’d chosen. I hadn’t studied the geology, etc. of the area I’d be traversing, but Ha! Young college grad – who listens?

Rumbling through the South, the route doesn’t offer much. And starting half way across Texas, you dribble through 1200 miles of desert until you hit Los Angeles. And with only a couple hours layover, there’s no Los Angeles to see (is there, anyway?).

I switched lines going north toward Paolo Alto but don’t recall much of that trip, though it had to have been better than baking through the unchanging rubble of desert.

No major campus today could be like Stanford in the early ’60s, when it was still OK for a major educational institution to be untidy, and for college living to be inexpensive.

Us gradders lived in a (barely) converted WWII naval barracks on the edge of the main campus. We each had a single narrow room separated  from its neighbor by a wall with the acoustical thickness of a Kleenex.

My slapdash bureau was painted gray, “U.S. Navy” stamped on the drawers. I had brought little inessential with me, except – sent along by Railway Express – my collection of human bones, including a hinged skull (to be explained some other time), and a set of antlers. I formed these all into an altar atop the bureau. 

Ah, Railway Express … that long-time mainstay of train travel was in its final days. At the delivery station, hundreds of disconnected items lay spewed across a vast floor. I had shipped my record turntable and associated items tied together with twine, unwrapped. No one had the least idea where anything in this jumble might be. I blundered across the floor until I found my stuff – except for the turntable base. Gone. In the dorm, I elevated the turntable on a couple 2×4 castoffs.

I’d received a $2800 scholarship, which in those days would scoot you through a full year of grad school (tuition, dorm, plus cash stipend). It came through the journalism department, where, in a hazy way, I wanted to be. But the J courses in the catalog looked remarkably boring. I took only one. For the rest, I registered for communications, history of film, and a study of Eastern religions.

I remember absolutely nothing of the J course. It wasn’t bad, it just … wasn’t

Communications was “taught” by an effete older fart with a grotesque smile whose major pastime was letching after the female grad students. His course (based on such flummery as a study comparing overseas editions of Reader’s Digest) was a sinkhole. For my final paper, I said as much. Across the margin (in red), he wrote, “I guess I have to give you an A for your observations and myself an F, so let’s settle on a C.” Sonofabitch.

The film and religion courses, though, were eye-openers. The film instructor – young, vital – made me see film history in a new light and also inspired me to write movie reviews for the student newspaper. After watching a double feature of Gigi and North by Northwest, I wrote a paper for class about the differing use of color.

Hitchcock, in Northwest, chose subtle greyed shades and smooth blending, never intrusive. Gigi, under Vincente Minelli, was a chromatic disaster, a slather of clashing blares, including a scene in which amiable old shithead Maurice Chevalier, in a cream-colored suit, visually absorbs into an arbor of white roses. (Maybe that was deliberate?)

The Eastern religion class was taught by a German named Spiegelberg who had lived in India and somehow looked like a Brahmin. A beautiful course.

In our basic-living dorms, we machine-washed our clothes and hung them to dry on clotheslines between two arms (fingers?) of the barracks. You could iron your shirt on a beat-up ironing board. OK, younger people, I can’t explain the why of this: I wore a beard – as I have, uninterrupted, since age 20 – scuffed pants with holes in the knees, and weird short-sleeved checked shirts. So help me, I ironed the shirts. 

I developed more friends than I might have expected, but only one whose name I remember (but which I won’t unleash here). The nephew of a renowned editor, he had schooled at Harvard and aided Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert in conducting their early experiments with LSD. Friend Joe (I shall call him) introduced me not only to the hallucinogenic culture (without the hallucinogens), but to Lawrence Durrell’s deliriously opulent Alexandria Quartet. Joe was into things in a way I could never be and still am not.

(Years later, he visited Philadelphia and I tooled him around the local countryside. He seemed non-plussed. He called after he returned to California to ask that I mail his umbrella back to him. I did, inside a cardboard tube. We haven’t corresponded in the three decades since. What do such cloud-ringed passings say?)

I spent much time at Stanford walking the dry gulches outside Paolo Alto. After a bit, I bought a bicycle, my first. One weekend I decided to pump down to Monterey, about 85 miles, trying, wobblingly, to read a map as I went. Somewhere above San Jose I banged over a curb and wrecked a tire. But my stupid luck kicked in again: I found a bike shop open nearby that could fix it – on a Sunday!

Further on, I veered off the accepted route onto a deadend gravel roundabout where I skidded, fell and ripped the skin off the palm of my right hand. A taciturn guy drifted out of the only nearby building and looked at me without speaking. I held up my hand, bloody. He walked to a spigot on a pipe sticking out of the ground and turned it on. He (or I – one of us) spoke a single word, but I couldn’t tell you what that word was.  I washed my hand and biked back to Palo Alto.

A month later, as I prepared to pack up my sullied aspirations and escape my mother (an intertwined tale of explanation, to be told later), I entertained the fantasy of biking back across the country to the east coast, giving back those three hours.

Instead, I did something that still disturbs me, though not as much as it should. I stood in the myriad lines for winter registration in the Stanford gym, knowing I would leave, and signed up for courses, paid for room and board I would not use – and pocketed the living stipend, in cash. 

Then I caught a Greyhound bus and fled.

It’s the only time in my life I’ve stolen so much as a nickel. How much? Maybe $350, but the amount doesn’t matter. When I returned to Philly, I walked around the city with the cash in my pocket which I slowly eked out to keep me alive.

Years later, I wrote to Stanford and asked what I owed (without explaining clearly what I’d done). They said it was the amount of the journalism scholarship for that term, around $900. I didn’t have it then, so couldn’t pay it. And still haven’t. At today’s college rates, I’d probably owe them all our savings.

Leave a comment

Two broken legs, two brass balls

While a teen living at 3607 Baring St. in Philly’s Powelton Village, I had a lovely, frisky kitten. I couldn’t find it one day and worried myself sick. Finally I uncovered it rolled up in my bedding, unable to get loose. It had broken both front legs.

I knew it liked to skitter up the ailanthus tree out back and I’d seen it leap, at least once, head downward. I’m sure that practice had been the cause of its fractures.

In those days, the Penn vet school held an open clinic on Saturday mornings where it treated small animals for $2. Lots of institutions then believed in providing service (pretty much all I can say in praise of the ’50s, except for its diners and little motels). Setting the kitten’s legs didn’t take much time or effort: two tongue depressors, a wrap of gauze and tape, and a few weeks to heal.

The kitten adapted without missing a beat. It tap-tapped full speed around our first-floor apartment and across the concrete out back (but not up the ailanthus). When I returned to the clinic to have the “casts” removed, I expected a tentative relearning of the complications of walking. Not a bit. As soon as it hit the floor it was tear-assing around like the day before its tumble.

What became of that kitten later? Did it live a happy, extended life? Did I have to give it away? I can’t even recall its name. I hate losing that continuity of memory.

We lived on the first floor then, while the owners, Hillary and Gertrude, for some reason lived upstairs. Especially strange because Hil devoted most of his spare time to creating a radiant garden in the small strips available out front and alongside the concrete driveway (one of the few such driveways in Powelton).

My bedroom was in the front, facing onto Hil’s strip garden of salvia and other slim flowers. The room was probably the front half of the original parlor, graced by seven-foot-high windows. I could enter directly from a side door in the vestibule, pushing through what we’d made into a shallow closet. 

I loved that room at a time when I didn’t find much else in life to love (though I did have a mad crush on Dorothy Collins, the virginal singer on TV’s “Your Hit Parade”). I’d spend homework breaks banging a ping-pong ball against the wall, using an old sandal as paddle. Since the walls harbored sconces, doorways and those seven-foot windows, the carom was wholly unpredictable. I got pretty good at anticipating random rebound.

The kitchen and rear entryway were wainscoted in knotty pine that dead-ended half way up the wall, with no molding to finish it off. Down in the basement, I sawed four-inch-wide shelves with rounded corners that I stained to match the fluted boards and then nailed along their tops. Looked OK – friendly, like some of those little motels. The Minwax stain I used (Ipswich Pine) had an enticing odor. It’s my default wood stain to this day.

For a short time we had an Old English sheepdog, Brandy, an endearing beast who would back his rump up to the couch and watch TV with us. OE sheepdogs have long, curly hair everywhere. We had to trim around his eyes so he could see where he was going, and when I took him out for his daily crap, I used hair clips to divert strands from the neighborhood of his anus.

Brandy got distemper and died by his water bowl after a week of misery. We should have had the sense and compassion to have him put down sooner. Rod lifted the rigidifying body into the trunk of his car to take it in for cremation.

The 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings were held around the end of the school year, and I watched hour after hour of them, fascinated. Nearly all the personalities were bigger than life, unlike most pipsqueak, sound-bite politicians of recent years. Only Trump can match them in brazen disdain for reason and decency. 

(An update for the younger set: Sen. Joe McCarthy form Wisconsin was the central figure in the ruinous anti-Communist crusade of the early ’50s. Senate hearings dealing with accusations and counter-accusations between the Army and McCarthy became the first daytime political media event, with gavel-to-gavel coverage – pretty unimaginable on later network TV.

McCarthy had been mostly a distant noise on the news up till then, with the coverage confined to newspapers and radio, but those live hearings were his Armageddon. He came across as a smug, crude, bullying, half-crazed lout. It was all downhill for him from there. Score one for TV.

By then, Rod and Vic were both married and working for Sun Oil, Vic on the ships, Rod in research and development. Both spent their careers with Sun. Dad was a contract inspector for the Navy, working, as he had years earlier, in Upper Darby.

Sydney Boyle, the sister of Peter (Young Frankenstein), lived next door with her East Indian husband, whose name I can’t recall. The Boyles’ father was a local kids’-show personality, Chuckwagon Pete.

I have no idea why this couple spent time talking to me, a weird introvert teen. Both were funny as hell. Here’s my favorite limerick, which the husband whispered in my ear:

There was a young man of Madras

Whose balls were both made of brass.

In windy weather

They clanked together

And sparks came out of his ass.

From 3607 Baring, I often walked the mile and a half to my all-boys Catholic high school (we couldn’t afford the trolley on a regular basis), along Lancaster Ave., which angled northwest through the otherwise rigid gridwork of Philly’s residential layout.

The once prosperous Jewish business district between 40th and 44th Sts. on Lancaster  Ave. was in its death rattle, squeezed by a surrounding Black slum. Around the year 1900, that stretch of Lancaster Ave. had been the center of a poor black area with a great deal of vigor. The wheel of fate?

A distribution plant for Phillies Cigars – once a leading national brand – retained lovely stained glass transoms, and half-block-long stores still sold paints, wallpaper, and appliances in a sad, afterthoughtish way. During my high-school perambulating years (1953-57), into the fading storefronts moved used-furniture outfits, tiny takeout joints, and the redolently named seafood store, Porgy and Bass. Treegoob’s upscale furniture store (shortened from the immigrant Treegoobovich), a fixture for decades, lasted into the ’60s. 

I wonder what’s left now? But I don’t think I want to visit.

Leave a comment

A job less odd, though disconcerting

A story of demolition and leaky pipes.

In the early ’80s, Linda and I took on a contracting job together. The only time. With my temper (and even without it), I’m not much fun to work with. 

Bob, a social radical we knew from living in Powelton Village, bought a house in nearby University City (the area around Baltimore Ave. to the west of UPenn). In the ’30s, Bob would have been a leftist unionist. Still was, in spirit. 

At his place, Linda and I tore down walls and replaced them with… other walls. Bob wanted to install an apartment on his second floor, which would entail erecting a new staircase partitioned off from his living quarters, installing a kitchen and bathroom, and opening up spaces. It was the most ambitious reconstruction project (other than our own Baring St. house) I’d been involved in. I was delighted that Linda wanted to be part of it. It would be great to work together.

As we surveyed the work, we saw that Bob had done just about nothing to anticipate our intervention. He had removed nary a picture from the walls nor sequestered a single piece of furniture. Since we were being paid an hourly rate, it was no loss, but it rankled for lack of foresight.

He had hired a Powelton architect we knew to sketch the renovations. She came up with a neat plan that included puzzling details. What was this full-height wallboard zigzag down by the corner of the stairs? It would require a multitude of additional 2x4s, narrow wallboard strips, corner beads, plus hours of taping and sanding. I estimated the extra cost of this artsy doodad as at least $300 – a non-negligible sum back then. We talked to the architect. She was not delighted by our reservations but graciously cancelled the zigzags in favor of a simple 90-degree corner.

Upstairs, ripping out the wall between the hallway and what would become the kitchen – in order to create an unimpeded visual flow – we encountered a nest of rather important gas and waste piping. Back to the architect. Could we, perhaps, interrupt the visual flow with a two-foot-deep drop, rather than relocate half the world’s plumbing?

Grumble. Granted.

For the plumbing work, we relied on Morris, who’d spent many hours working on and swearing at the Baring St. house. Morris was 80 years old, ill-tempered, ham-fisted and terminally addled by 60 years of inhaling lead fumes. He scattered his tools like the after-effects of Hiroshima, then, lying flat on his back under a basin, bellowed expletive vexation when he could not locate a particular wrench.

Morris was cheap, though, even in those cheap days, and the work he did was decent if not top-drawer. And since he never brought an assistant (who could work with the man?), I earned carpentorial wages for ferreting out his hacksaws and pipe dope.

Morris installed the copper tubing by notching into the joists beneath the floorboards: It’s true if it works. The next day, Bob called to say that “the place is a zoo,” with a slow leak dribbling through the ceiling. Up came the floorboards, revealing a nail penetrating a copper feed. Patch, test, replace the floorboard, moving the nail location two inches to the right.

The next day, same complaint from Bob. Unlikely as it seemed, my replacement nail had hit a knot, turned almost 90 degrees to the left and gone through the pipe. Again. 

Among other lessons at Bob’s, I learned one way not to erect a flight of stairs. Once I’d cut through the joists and properly reinforced the opening (skills I had almost perfected from re-aligning our segment of the Baring St. house), we’d had the stringers fascinated at a lumber yard, a great time-saver. (“Stringers,” for the uninitiated, are the inclined supports, with notched cutouts, that nestle the stair treads.)

I decided it would be simpler to assemble the whole shebang on the first floor, then raise it into place as a unit. From this decision emerged another excellent, if limited, learning experience.

I tied a rope around the upper end of the assembly, stood on the second floor, at the receiving end of the opening and heaved. Up the assembled staircase came – a good six inches. A full set of steps weighs a sizable amount. 

This heaving and hauling went on for awhile, with Linda propping from below. Changing my approach, I looped the rope over my shoulders and used my full body for the last haul. I did get it up there but suffered an extensive rope burn from the weight expanding the rope across my back.

UPenn’s radio station, WXPN, operated in those days as a continuing musical experiment. I found most of their off-the-cuff (if not off-the-musical-radar) programming exhilarating, but “Diaspar,” which came one around 3 pm, drove me to distraction, in large part because of the snot-nosed duo who ran it.

But while you and your wife are demolishing walls, you’re not in a comfortable position to change the station. Day after day, as our bodies were starting to tire, ”Diaspar” blared all manner of insane shit while I roiled and muttered at them. But along the way, I began to get a feeling that slowly blossomed into appreciation. There were aural things out there I needed to know more about. I doubt anyone’s had a less intentional music lesson.

Linda had one scary encounter. Standing on a milk crate upstairs, she flipped back and slammed her head into a brick wall. For a moment she was not only stunned but lost her power of speech. She couldn’t call out to me, and I had no idea anything had happened. Yet, as usual, the gods of chance smiled on us. Her only after-effect is that she can no longer pronounce “Schenectady” without a stutter.

As often noted, when I perform physical labor, I lash into torrential rages directed at my own blundering incompetence. That depresses Linda, which I think was the major reason our interior-terraforming partnership dissolved. She went home to work on her pottery; I stayed on to complete the detail work.

Hers was the better idea.

Leave a comment

Odd jobs

Some odder than others.

In my high school summers I did some actual work. I can’t get the sequence quite straight, but I spent one summer selling souvenirs at Independence Hall in Philly. In those days, no one expected terrorists to come in to blow up an old building. I don’t know when or why anyone decided they might want to do that, but after 9/11 the whole area was cordoned off, and the park director suggested putting an eight-foot fence around the complex to keep out the baddies. What a wonderful example of fearlessness to shake in the face of terrorists! 

In the earlier days, you could walk right into Independence Hall, unaccompanied, pat the Liberty Bell like an old friend and press a button that would play a bit of resonant patriotism recorded by Edward R. Murrow.

The souvenir shop was located in a wing to the west, separated from the main hall by an open arcade. When the complex had been city offices, before the erection of Philly’s monumental City Hall at the end of the 19th century, the east and west wings had housed “row offices” – various city departments. That term is still used to identify support departments, but few know where it comes from.

The souvenir concession was overseen by the local park-service office. My boss, Bob, was a funny, cynical guy in his 30s with some sort of health problem. We worked in an enclosed oval of counters in the center of the room. It also fenced in a park-service employee who dispensed information. The first dispenser was a quiet, unemotive woman with the most sensual walk I’ve ever encountered. Her successor, a redhead, was a sexual firecracker, without trying. But I was hung on fellow employee Pat, who of course had no idea I gave a damn. She had one of those mouths …

Two other things I remember from that time: First, a short, pinch-lipped fellow teen was caught stealing from the till after Bob arranged a clever sting. Second, when busloads of Boy Scouts came in, every single one would buy a small, boxed replica of the Liberty Bell that sold for $1 plus four cents tax – and every single one would hand me two filthy dollar bills. I got so I could pull up 96 cents in change with one quick swoop of my right hand. Today, my right hand, missing parts of two fingers, can’t successfully pick my nose.

*   *   *   *

The summer after (or before?) Independence Hall, I worked in the Mayor’s Office for Information and Complaints. But, as introduction, it’s good to know something about the local politics of the time. 

In 1951, a reformist Democratic ticket swept into power following the establishment of a new city charter, breaking 67 continuous years of Republican mayors. (At the time of this writing, the Democratic machine has been in power for 71 continuous years.) 

Joseph Clark was the first reform mayor, followed by Richardson Dilworth, perhaps the only politician I truly revere. Oh, he and his decent cohorts made mistakes: They led the way in the construction of high-rise housing projects that later became social bedsores; their Redevelopment Authority extended the concept of eminent domain to the destruction of long-established, primarily Black neighborhoods; they championed construction of the Schuylkill Expressway, which effectively cut parts of the riverbank off from Fairmount Park. They believed in Progress without side effects.

But Clark and Dilworth also resurrected the most moribund big city in the U.S., cleaned foot-thick pigeon shit off City Hall, dragging Center City, at last, into the 20th century; encouraged new retail stores and restaurants (with few exceptions, the only place to find a passable meal had been Chinatown); replaced a century-old squalid wholesale produce outlet with a modern food distribution center; and, far more important, established good government that traded in an all-pervading patronage system for merit-tested civil servants.

The Mayor’s Office for Information and Complaints was typical of the Dilworth era. Set into one of the immense, gloomy open-air archway corridors leading to the central courtyard of the world’s largest City Hall, it was open to any citizen strolling by and manned by an array of bright, informed functionaries hired for their willingness to serve the public.

I don’t know if any other American city had such an office (or indeed if any does today). In summer, when foot traffic was heaviest, the staff was expanded to include a couple part timers like me. We all worked in an uncubicled space clearly visible through the pedestrian glass door.

A pol named Farrell was nominally in charge, the only one with his own office. He did nothing obviously useful but had enough sense not to interfere with those who did. Second in command – in the big room – was Sullivan, a superbly irascible older man who would slam his desk drawers in rage and frustration which, amazingly enough, never seemed to be directed against either his co-workers or the public.

Next in line was Hansen, known to everyone as Swede. Chunky, slick, slightly florid, Swede could easily have been mistaken for a self-aggrandizing do-nothing – except that he was totally dedicated to the public good. In his top desk drawer resided the business card of anyone of significance who had ever existed, and he was on the phone to any dozen of them for much of the day, straightening out citizen problems. 

A heavyset, Mafia-looking figure had one of the middle desks, usually brimming with laughter over some obscene tale. He may have been a police lieutenant. Two or three others sat at the remaining desks (including one woman?), but I couldn’t now say who they were or what they did. 

I was seated in one of three or four bank-teller cubbies up front, facing the entry. Other rotating staffers who sat by me or waited inside the door when things were slow included a short, intense yet friendly law student whose name escapes me, and two young cops. One, King, was almost obscenely handsome, to the point that he left a certain kind of female week-kneed.

Beside each cubby hung two telephones. One communicated with the outside world. The other was part of a relic system set up by a defunct AT&T competitor, Keystone Telephone, that had become a dialup intercom between city departments. The two systems did not connect. If I received a call from outside, I needed to dial up the appropriate city department on the Keystone line and perform as an information shunt. My favorite contact was a woman named Love in the marriage license bureau who invariably answered her phone with a cheery, “Love in the marriage office!”

*   *   *   *

Five or six years later, back from my abortive grad-school career at Stanford, I needed to find a full-time job. At least, that was the implication. But I had no earthly idea what I wanted to do or how. Responsibility terrified me. But then, so did most aspects of “real” life. You’d think, having majored in journalism I would naturally gravitate to newspaper work. Truthfully, I don’t naturally gravitate to work – of any kind.

A classified ad landed me at a small architectural engineering firm in an aging downtown highrise across from the Academy of Music They wanted someone to do publicity, and I must have looked good on paper. Unfortunately, I had no conception of how to do publicity and less interest. They sat me down with a pile of newspaper clippings which I dutifully ingested for a couple weeks while wondering what came next. 

What came was a contested case to establish the sale value of a bus company in New York. Our firm represented one side – the buyer, I guess, because our job was to undervalue every single item inventoried (including “trash piled in corner”), while the other side overvalued same.

I was diverted from my lonesome seat at a table piled with clippings to a room with five other schleps to add up penciled figures jotted on page after page after page, then call figures off from an adding-machine tape to double check. One of the part-timers was a disturbed young guy who wrote poems about buckets of blood.

That January, while the temperature hovered around zero, the transport-workers union called a strike. As I trudged the two miles downtown from 34th St., the wind along the Schuylkill River at the Market Street bridge zipped between the buttons of my wool overcoat, my ears turned brittle and my nose dripped icicles. 

Two relative high points: a glimpse of Chubby Checker in the elevator; he recorded somewhere in the building. And I was sent by train to New York to deliver paperwork to a pleasant fellow on the 54th floor of a glass tower. Together, we happily watched a helicopter flying 100 feet below us.

I quit in early summer to take my only European trip. Later, when I asked for a reference, I received a supportive one that listed my job as “Economist.” I’ve often wondered what economists do. 

*   *   *   *

Next (or soon after) I ran rats in a psych lab at Drexel University during the lat of the stimulus-response, Skinnerian days, when you shocked rodents’ feet with different response delays to see how they would react. (Hint: They didn’t like it.) I fed and watered about 100 rats in tiny single cages and “trained” them with food-plus-shock.

If a rat exhibited anything approaching aggression it got a little “X” marked on its number tag. One X-rat bit me and damned near removed the end of my finger. But I grew fond of #413. His X resulted from friendliness. He’d prop his paws on the front of the cage and glance around with a “Well, my golly-gosh” look. I’d pat his head.

I had the hots for the head lab tech, a very attractive young lady with the odd habit of standing with her hands and forearms raised while she talked, like a rat on its hind legs asking for a pellet. (I met her briefly some months later. She’d had a nervous breakdown and her personality had morphed from distanced reserve to controlled manic.)

When the experimental run was over, she stuffed the rats, about a dozen at a time, into a 5-gallon bucket and gassed them with chloroform. In case you weren’t aware, once a rat has learned anything it becomes useless to science. 

I could have snuck 413 out under my shirt. Damn me that I didn’t.

*   *   *   *

Somewhere along the line, in desperation, I answered an ad to attend a free “course” in salesmanship. Turned out we were being set up to hawk, door to door, Britannica Junior, the poor offspring of Encyclopedia Britannica. Never heard of it? I suspect it didn’t last long. 

A few of us ill-abled goofs sat in a room in the Suburban Station Building where we were exhorted by a burly pitchman who said he used to peddle vacuum cleaners. He delivered a stream of loud, upbeat bullshit detailing how to confuse and overwhelm innocent housewives.

He then explained the “questionnaire” we would present at each stop, a list of seemingly innocuous queries about education that ballooned into a wedge to get your foot in the door so you could present your sales pitch. He made it sound like fun. I hate the underhanded, in myself or others, and this weasel-concoction combined smoke, mirrors and snake oil. 

I should have become terminally suspicious when he drove us to our assignments in his over-the-hill, suspensionless car – this was the vehicle of a successful salesman? But hell, it was all going to be a hoot – selling “knowledge” to easy marks.

I have a vague memory of being chased by a dog, but that’s likely conflation with elsewhere else. I did tear the bottom six inches of my pants on a gate, and I had trousers few enough to spare. I was amazed that no one threatened to hurl me down the front steps when they realized the “questionnaire” was a gussied-up sales pitch.

I did wangle myself into a single living room following the prescribed regimen; in a second instance, just to amass the required number of “presentations,” I honestly told a pleasant lady, “Look, I need to go through this to make the day’s quota.” To her everlasting glory, she invited me in to fill out my meaningless form.

I called next morning and resigned my one and only attempt at salesmanship. That is, until I came up here and started plugging for ads to fill our theater program – something I actually cared about.

You want a half page? I could cut you a deal (but I won’t).

*   *   *   *

And this, copied from a disintegrating bit of yellowing AP Telex paper, a carton of which I’d heisted from the Daily Pennsylvanian newspaper office. It’s self-conscious and snippy, but it represents something real from that weird and wonderful period (1962-64) when I lived in the House on 34th St. (Of that, more later – or earlier, since I think I’ve already sent it out.)

“A typical rainy day, one of five (I have found that it always rains for five days in our city), the atmosphere like a damp washcloth, daring me to rouse myself from under the covers. I take the dare not by choice, but because I have that horror of my disordered youth, a job. I am to apply a razor to my face, bemonkey myself in clean white shirt and jacket, ride a school-girl-clogged trolley into the middle of our most populous suburban county and there meet a man who will instruct me in the stacking of cleanser and detergent. The job, I muse, fighting back the irrational terror which so often heralds the transition from sleeping to the almost awakeness of my daily life, is temporary, lasting only until each and every shopping center supermarket has been heaped with cleanliness and signs proclaiming the advent of half a million dollars worth of genuine U.S. currency to be spewed into the hands of the bedraggled, curler-haired women who hold the lucky numbers.

“My (temporary) boss is a very quiet man to be in the promotion racket. He is, in fact, so quiet that he unsettles me. He has the bad habit of leaving me beside several unopened cases of cleanser without instruction while he wanders through the far reaches of the storerooms. Should I open the cases and stack them or should I peer behind the Campbell’s soup to have my role clarified? No matter how small a step I take on my own it turns out to be contrary to his wishes and, again without speaking more than three words, he undoes my misdemeanor. If only he would get angry. But, like most men without chins, he does not get angry.

“I don’t think I could ever like a man without a chin. One of my housemates has this affliction. He is a southern aristocrat who typifies the degenerate – chinless, washed out blue eyes, washed out blond hair (thinning), washed out posture, the basic beginnings of a pot. His father is a successful surgeon and he, with a fearful intensity, must also be a successful surgeon. He passes you in the hall without a word, eyes straight ahead, in dead ernest haste to, probably, the library. Yet, largely because of the region where his chin should be, he looks as though he might at any moment melt down into his basic protoplasm, an amorphous jelly surmounted by the same intense head and gaze, ready to slither and ooze at obscene flow to its destination.”

Leave a comment