130 Hastings Avenue

Why should that address loom so important to me?

Maybe because what happens to anyone during ages three to six is central to life. Psychologists seem to think so. Or maybe because it was the only place that felt like “home” to me until Linda and I came to Sullivan County in 2000.

In the mid-1940s, my family moved from the Long Island town of Port Washington (then a nothing-much, now a posh-something) to South Ardmore (now Havertown), a western suburb of Philly. After typing what Mom claimed was 350 letters to realtors in search of a place during World War II (why we needed to move was never clear), she secured rental of a two-story house on a quarter acre of land – a plot figure that’s always stuck with me for some reason. 

Nominally suburban, the neighborhood was closer to rural. Through an undeveloped block overwhelmed by blackberry bushes, my brothers and I would traipse to the end of Hastings Ave. and enter the woods leading to Cobbs Creek – which, of course, I considered the Most Important Stream in the World. (It was the only body of water in which I have ever attempted to fish. I caught nothing.)

130 was partially fronted by a porch that elled around the left side. The rest of the first floor was shingled in wood, painted or stained green. The second floor was stuccoed.

You entered a square hall, where, for whatever reason, the phone resided – one of those old models where the receiver hung separately from a hook. The stairs to the second floor ran along the left wall, turned at a landing, then scooted up the rear. 

The living room opened to the right, through a wide doorway (sliding doors? possibly). The radiators sat trapped inside rounded metal enclosures painted white; diagonal gridwork let the heat seep out. Bracketing the radiators, snakeplants speared their yellow-edged leaves from water-encrusted, white, chipped ceramic pots with a molded leaf design. You could sit on a red horsehair couch that assaulted your legs with pinprick stickers. White organdy curtains framed the windows; they stank of ancient dust.

The walls hosted the neatly framed drawings of flowers that followed us everywhere, drawings so sad and uninterested in themselves they might have been commenting on the death of a weed relative. They were simply What We Had – which is what I assumed everyone had.

Behind the living room, but reached directly from the hall, the dining room waited patiently through 90% of the day for someone to make use of it. From there, you entered the kitchen through a swinging door. Listen attentively: Anyone who has not enjoyed a swinging door has missed one of life’s grand pleasures. A swinging door opens in either direction at the gentle push of a hand – then returns to the neutral closed position of its own volition! If only the rest of existence worked so dependably.

Two bedrooms lined each side of the upstairs hallway. Mine was on the left front and shared with Rod when he was home from the Navy. Next to mine, looking over the side porch, was brother Vic’s room. Vic was then in high school.

Mom had the room across the hall from mine. Next to hers was what had to have been Dad’s room, though, like so many things of Dad’s, it’s largely a blank. He never slept in the same room with Mom. I don’t think he ever entered hers.

The attic, gloomy under unfinished rafters, sheltered Mom’s trunks and a pair of wall-mounted pull-weights for strengthening the arms, installed by the former owner, Mr. Quirk. It also held (in my mind) the ghost of Mr. Quirk, who had fallen to his death from a ladder mounted against the house. Strange, then, that I set up a chalkboard there, mounted on an easel, though I had no artistic ability and a shuddering fear of ghosts.

Of the basement I recall only the time Rod’s water snake pupped (or whatever snakes do to produce young), leaving the area overrun (overwiggled) with itty-bitty snakelets. Though frightened of almost everything in the human world, I was content, even serene, around snakes.

Why spend so much time on the layout of a house? Because Place has always, always been vitally important to me.

I slept under dark blue blankets with a top border of red lines and white stars. Today I realize they were threadbare – ancient or merely cheap. I suppose the room was cold; in winter, Dad would made up a hot water bottle for me – a half-gallon wine jug to rest my feet against.

My repulsive pre-sleep habit was to spit on the bottoms of my feet to liquefy the accumulated dirt, them stamp them against the striped wallpaper under the window next to my bed. It made a shitful mess. The day I learned that landlady Mrs. Quirk was coming to visit and presumably inspect the place, I shivered with panic that she would call me out for this abomination of her house. Of course, she said nothing; I never even met the woman.

*    *    *    *

Conspiracy theory of the day: Opening our latest vitamin bottle, I noted (as always) that it accounts for 6 pieces of trash, including both an inner and outer lid seal. Soooo… what if the Tylenol attack in Chicago that brought this on was planned not to kill some random back-pain sufferer, but was instead a clever ploy by the packaging industry?

Someone is making a killing on those billions of superfluous bits of plastic and foil.

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Waste is a terrible thing to mind

This is one of those pieces that will probably bore you silly, another of my obsessions.

Give it a chance.

Modern society is built on waste. It’s not an accidental byproduct of consumer life but deliberately inserted to assure that anything we buy – any process that we undertake – will include unnecessary elements designed to make their creators profit at your expense of time, energy and money. 

Waste has been endemic throughout history (look at the discovery of Troy, several levels down in a Turkish midden), but it’s mostly been a byproduct of time and circumstance. By contrast, today’s insertion of the worthless – stemming from the Industrial Revolution – has exploded into entire industries that provide only material for our external and internal landfills.

Some examples:

  • • You need hinges to hang your door. Once, you plucked them from a bin marked “hinges” at the hardware store. Now they come packaged in pairs, with cardboard backing, plastic front and a tightly folded piece of paper of minute, indecipherable instructions on how to install said hinge. If you’re putting up a heavy door, you need three hinges. So you’re forced to buy two packets of two; the fourth hinge lies in your junk drawer gathering dust and rust; the packaging goes in the trash.
  • • I ordered chicken with dirty rice and a soda at Popeyes (despite what follows, I’d suggest anyone do the same: This is some of the best fast food on earth). For the hell of it, I counted the number of trash items produced by that simple meal. Including the disposable tray doily, the paper cup, the straw, the straw wrapper, the plate, the fork, the spoon, and whateverthehell else: 13 bits of trash.
  • • Bottled water: You buy a free item (water), sequestered in a plastic bottle, which you heave. So you’ve paid $1+ for the privilege of disposing of a piece of trash. You’ve also wasted a resource (the hydrocarbons used to make the plastic), your money, and the time, energy and money spent to dispose of a piece of junk.
  • • No one repairs anything electronic today. Instead, your un-upgraded computer is sent to a Chinese village where it’s beaten with hammers and twisted with pliers to remove precious metals. The rest is lung-invading toxic dust.
  • • Register receipts. You can’t buy a bottle of dish detergent without getting a forearm’s length of curling paper that tells you a) how much you’ve saved by presenting the “discount” card that every single patron carries as wallet trash, and b) how much more you can save by buying items you don’t want on a specific day when you won’t be shopping in that store.
  • • While whole continents try to deal with starvation, we turn half our corn crop into ethanol to feed our cars. An astonishing waste of food – and intelligence.
  • • Medical forms. Before any procedure, you sign next to the X. In theory, these scribbles protect your rights, your privacy and your access to information. In fact, 99.9% of us never read a dammed one of these things or have the least idea what advantage they procure. Picking up a prescription, I once remarked to the pharmacy clerk, “I wonder if I just signed myself into slavery?”
  • • You buy a bottle of 100 aspirin. The bottle is crammed inside a cardboard container that you wrestle open so you can throw it away. The bottle has a plastic cap with both an external clear plastic seal and an internal cardboard seal. Inside the jar rattles a desiccant to keep dry a substance that will get wet only if your house floods – plus a wad of cotton to fill up the bottle that’s made double size to convince you you’ve bought twice as many aspirin as you receive. So, three relatively necessary waste items: bottle and cap and seal. Four unnecessary items: second seal, cotton, desiccant, outer box.
  • • The oil, gas and coal underlying our rolling hills and shifting deserts took roughly 65 million years to accumulate. We’ve blasted, tunneled, drilled and syphoned most of it in under 200 years. My home sits atop the Marcellus Shale, the largest deposit of natural gas yet uncovered in the U.S. These gas reserves give us a chance to stick our heads in the sand for another 50 years while we devour what’s left of dinosaur shit and decayed ferns from the Cretaceous.

Examples of self-selected waste:

  • • We’re invited to a dinner served on paper plates. Why? It takes no longer to wash real dishes than to bag and dispose of their po’ boy cousins – and food just tastes better on real plates. You know that. You’re served a packet with a plastic knife, fork and spoon incarcerated in a plastic wrapping. After you’ve used the fork and knife, you throw them and the unused spoon, along with the plastic wrapper, in the trash.
  • • Many folks buy a single item at the store and expect a useless plastic bag to put it in –even a gallon milk bottle with a built-in carrying handle. The cashier will look startled if you say no to the bag. Their hands grip  reflexively in that “stuff it in” motion. 
  • • If you own a dishwasher, you’ve bought an extra set of dishes because you never know what’s dirty, what’s clean or where most of your plates are hiding. (I don’t own a dish washer, can process my dishes in the sink faster than a dishwasher, and always know where my plates are – they’re either in the drainer or in the cabinet.)
  • • Peeling vegetables: How did this become a basic approach to food? Fear of dirt? Aesthetic assumptions – mashed potatoes must glow white and creamy? Much of vegetables nutrition lies in or just beneath their skin. Removing it tosses half your food value. I’ve made mashed potatoes with the skin on for 40 years. Haven’t skinned a carrot in a couple decades. Ginger? East Indians don’t scrape it. (No, I don’t eat shrimp with the shells on – c’mon.)

Another interesting (if absurd) statistic:

At home, we recycle our food garbage by heaving atop our garden. And, every evening, after washing the dishes, when the water drains, I dump the tiny collection of scraps from the sink drain collection basket into the counter-side compost tray – half an once, maybe.

Here it is: Collecting that half-once every day adds up to 182 ounces – 11.4 pounds – a year. Now… if every one of the country’s estimated 126 million households would salvage that almost minuscule amount of organic matter every day… it would amount to 718,00 tons annually.

No, I’m not plumping for everyone, everywhere to clean their sink drains. It’s just an extended example to exuberantly show that many a mickle makes a muckle. And, oh, are we muckled.

Americans, left or right, wonder why the country is going down the tubes. In part it’s because our collective mind is going down the tubes. We chug along our little tracks, social automatons in search of the perfect snack, perfectly preserved, perfectly reproducible, perfectly bland, perfectly wrapped in pure plastic for us to toss in the trash can.

Does life get any better than this?

Let’s hope so.

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City horses

This ramble started from reading an article on “Concrete Cowboy,” a Netflix movie about a Black urban horse-riding group in Philadelphia (starring Idris Elba, who’s always fun – which reminds me, if you ever get the chance, see “Beasts of No Nation” (2015), with Elba as supporting actor and the utterly stunning Abraham Attah, age 14, looking about 9, the star, about child soldiers in Africa).

Apparently, Black “urban cowboys” is a phenomenon in many American cities. That article, in turn, pointed me to a youtube short on the origin of the term “cowboy,” which started as a term for Black cowhands, then somehow spread wider. That story is fascinating. See it here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KkmD-vpQ4Qs

Part of what follows is a repeat from an earlier piece, but with copious additions to keep you awake.

I moved with my parents to Powelton Village in Philly in 1947, a Victorian enclave across the Schuylkill River from the Art Museum. At that time and into the early ’50s, a lot of stuff was delivered by horse and cart – including the mail to some of the narrow alleys down by the Delaware River.

Aristocrat Ice Cream had neat wagons. Can’t remember most of the other commercial outfits (maybe Abbott Dairy), but at least until the 1951 city charter broke the 64-year Republican stranglehold on city government that had led to slow strangulation, our West Philly trash was collected by horse and cart. 

A line of carts trotted along, each an open metal cube with stout rings sticking up from its four corners. Some form of recycling was still in effect from WWII: One cart would take cans, the next glass, etc. (No idea when or why that recycling ceased.) The last cart was followed by a shambling fellow with a shovel, who heaved the accumulated horse droppings up into the cart. Over on Lancaster Ave., a mobile crane would hook onto the corner rings to dump each cart into an open truck.

Food garbage was collected separately. You set your little can out by the curb, and a cart from one pig farmer or another who collect it for hog food. (Sounds like an excellent environmental cycle. It was, for the pigs, I suppose, but, unregulated, it was also a major source of the continuing bouts of trichinosis circulating through the nation’s pork supply.)

Today, I still delight to the smell of horseshit.

Another unlikelihood of the time was the Curtis Publishing electric trucks. Yes, electric – each fueled by 45 car batteries secreted under the truck’s floor planks.

Boxy but oddly elegant, they crawled along the downtown streets at a maximum 12 mph, hauling massive rolls of paper to print the Saturday Evening Post and the Ladies Home Journal, or taking the finished mags to the post office. These beasts, dating back to 1912, are still running here and there around the country, long after Curtis and the Post folded. Nice article on them at:

https://bringatrailer.com/2018/01/20/worked-for-52-years-still-running-1912-c-t-4wd-electric-truck/

Odd times to look back on, when philthy Philly died at 5 pm and had no restaurants worth the bother except in Chinatown, where they were also the only places you could get a meal out on a Sunday night.

*    *    *    *

Some total nonsense (set to the old spiritual, “Twelve Gates to the City”):

Oh, what a beautiful kitty

Oh, what a beautiful kitty

Oh, what a beautiful kitty

Four legs to the kitty

hallelujah.

There’s two legs in the front,

Two legs in the back,

Two legs to the left,

Two legs to the right,

Yet only

Four legs to the kitty

hallelujah.

*    *    *    *

Happy Easter! And remember to celebrate the resurrection of a Jew with a big ham.

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Two recent reports

One: A study explaining that some rapidly moving objects in the skies, sighted by US pilots and others, cannot be adequately explained given our current knowledge of atmospheric objects and conditions.
Two: A report that recent studies of B-meson decay at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland (OK, I have to stop here and admit that I always read it as the Large Hardon Collider) show a breakdown rate of B mesons into muons and electrons that defies the bedrock standard model of particle physics.
My take on both reports is that they reflect a similar situation: that, along the outer edges of science, we don’t know enough to make even temporarily definitive statements – and that therefore we should stop making them.
Two other recent (and somewhat similar) examples:
One: That lightning may have created a phosphorus compound necessary to the beginnings of life on earth (specifically, to the forming of RNA). Previously, it had been assumed that this specific compound of phosphorus could only have resulted from a barrage of meteorites. Yet… previous to that (over 50 years back), it had been assumed that lighting was a determinate in creating planetary life.
Two: That a significant quantity of water is encapsulated in free-scooting solar-system rocks. Again, previously it had been thought it could only have been deposited on Earth by a barrage of icy comets.
Think about it (from both findings): Life on our wayward planet goes back billions of years. Whatever the level of scientific knowledge at the time – why would anyone assume that the most essential elements of life came from “out there”?
That never sat well with me, and I’d been waiting for such akilter ideas to be upset. It’s not that I believe there was no influence on the early solar system from outside, but that it seems absurd to downgrade the planet we live on – to assume we’re a form of uninteresting cosmic debris that got shat on by passing strangers.

  • * * *
    A side comment that has nothing whatsoever to do with the above – or anything else.
    Tonight I picked up one of Linda’s pottery pieces from the kitchen drying rack – one of her larger bowls that we use for salads, and one of my all-time favorites – to find two pieces broken from the rim.
    I’d been expecting this, because the same pieces had broken how many years ago, and I’d glued them back with Duco cement and hope. Every time I’ve picked that bowl up, whether to fill it or wash it, I’ve tried to grip it from from the far side, so as not to stress the break line.
    I’m ready to glue the pieces back again (found them lying quietly under the drying rack), but first I want to try to explain something I’m not sure I can put into comprehensible words.
    Linda does a kind of figurative pottery I’ve never seen anywhere else. There’s a lot I haven’t seen (and a lot more I don’t give a shit about), but it’s a delicate tracery of flowers and small animals, lizards and the like, that she inscribes with tiny brushes onto the surface of bisqued clay that she then coats with a clear glaze. They’re like a child’s imaginings grown tall.
    And here’s what came next in my thought: Linda and I were drawn together in part because of being different from the run of humanity. Yet there are a lot of people whom I see as “different” that I don’t give a damn about. So what is the real difference?
    I think it’s that we are different in the same way. I look at her pots and I look at my writing (especially, Evolution Unfolding in a Small Town in Western Pennsylvania), and I see them as somehow alike, but not what anyone else would consider doing.
    We’re also alike in not having promoted what we think we and our work is worth. How much art (or near art) goes into the planetary dustbin because no one sees it – or so few that it becomes a near-figment at the corner of the social eye. And much of that results from the lack of promotion its creators can’t be bothered with.
    Linda’s pottery should be on every dining table of the rich and powerful.
    Except… those fuckers don’t deserve it.

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People who died too young

in mostly roughly chronological order:

B. Kliban (death 1990, age 55), best known for his half-insane drawings of cats, but who also produced an array of fully insane cartoon drawings that make no sense whatsoever, but make it in such a way that they leave you shrieking with the kind of laughter that makes anyone listening think you’ve just been informed of the death of your worst enemy.

We’ve been getting Kliban’s recycled single panels every day (except Sunday), along with other cartoons from gocomics.com, for over a decade, and that time there has been only one repeat that I’m aware of – this, from a dead author.

I know he put out a few books, but there must also be a hidden treasure treasure-trove of his material that he churned out, day after day and probably chucked in various desk drawers, all of it formed by a mind that could juxtapose any two concepts, no matter how unlikely the match. Some of his stuff seems impossible that any human being could come up with, as though the unconscious of the entire universe has been tapped and put to use.

Judy Roderick (1992, age 49), the best white blues singer I’ve ever heard. Her early ’60s album, Woman Blue, is the closest thing to total musical perfection I own – each song perfectly realized, the entire record immaculately constructed. Her first album, Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues, is excellent also, and her much later albums of merged Western swing and blues are fine. But for any one of us to have produced a single artistic effort in our lives like Woman Blue – pretty damned unlikely.

[You can get it on CD or mp3, but with 4 songs added. Each of the additions is fine in and of itself, but it’s the usual mistake with CD reissues. It ignores the superb balance of the original. Don’t fuck with perfection, guys.]

Ralph Rinzler (1994, a few days short of age 60). Rinzler was the mandolinist in the iconic trio of the Greebriar Boys in the 1960s. Most of the attention paid to this marvelous bluegrass band went to lead-singer and guitarist John Herald or the prize-winning banjo work of Bob Yellin, but watching them live, I felt that Rinzler’s understated musical line may have been the cement that held it all together. And though he seldom sang, I loved his smothered-gravel voice. 

He left the band fairly early (before their last album) to follow his first love, folklore, by heading up the folk department at the Smithsonian, and the band disbanded in 1967, a fairly sort-lived but stunning stint.

John Herald (2005, age 65). I’m stepping out of the chronological order here because the Greenbriars’ Herald committed suicide after too many years of being unable to form another solid, working band. I only saw one of those groups, and only once. It was a good enough knock-together outfit, with nothing like the dynamics of the Greenbriars. 

Steven Holtzman (1999, age 43). Hard to imagine such a stunning, incisive mind gone at so early an age. I can’t recall how I came to buy his book, Digital Mantras, about music, sound and the call of the spiritual, but it left me happily wrung out (I don’t have a copy at the moment because I’ve twice given it away – that happens with all my favorite books).

He never sold himself as a Great Mind, but his offhand comment about being able to pick out the individual calls of crickets while sitting on a mountainside turned on my awe button right away. And I stink at musical theory, but his discussions of 12-tone and serial music almost made me understand that odd sound universe of the mid 20th century. He put out at least one other book which… I’ve been almost scared to pick up because what if it doesn’t have that same effect on me? (OK, I’ll buy it when I order my third copy of Digital Mantras).

Holtzman was also a composer. I wrote to him expressing an interest in his “tunes” that were determined by the internal racket of computer processing, and damned if he didn’t send me two of his CDs. He was that kind of mensch. Did I like the CDs? Well… not that much. But I treasure the fact of them.

Richard Thompson (2016, age 58), not the musician from Fairport Convention, but the creator of the comic strip “Cul de Sac,” still available online. Cul de Sac is the small-town home of the Otterloop family: rampaging 5-year-old Alice, who is half-loved but more feared by her classmates at Miss Bliss’s Blisshaven pre-school; 11-year-old Petey, who reads Little Neuro comics where nothing happens and reacts to adversity by trying to chew his arm off; father Peter, who sings duck songs; mother Madeline, who seems level-headed… until to listen to what she’s actually saying; the grandmother who covers the dining room table with old magazines and is owner of Big Shirley, the worlds largest dog (except for Clifford); and the half-insane kids at Blisshaven. Thompson died of Parkinson’s, having turned much of the last year’s production over to fellow cartoonists who tried to but couldn’t match his expressive yet minimalist style or the eruption of his volcanic mind.

Now, to more personal deaths…

Dave Liberman (1990s, age 50s), a roommate in the house on 34th St. in Philly where I lived in the mid-‘60s [you’ll hear much more about this place later, or if you were on the original ruminations list, you’ve already heard tales of The House]. A math genius, he was in his senior year at Penn when me met, came in first in his class while spending much of his life on his back in bed staring at the ceiling (assembling new math proofs, I guess). I was best man at his wedding. (The marriage went sour.) Visited him later while he was living in Boston or thereabouts, driving a taxi.

About a decade ago, I tried to track him down online. What I found was his funeral notice. I didn’t copy it (fool) and now can’t drag him our out from the proliferation of other David Libermans, or even get access to the Penn alumni site without some sort of token I haven’t the foggiest how to obtain. Dave was a gentle, delightful human being with an underlayment of intense anger. He could have been, should have been, almost anything. He became Dorsal  in my novel No Bike.

Chris Hessert (2001, age 59?). I said enough about Chris earlier. He was equal amounts joy and cynicism. He was the only rich guy I know that I liked, because he really didn’t give a damn.

And finally, those who should never have died…

Joe and Mimi Colonna (Joe, 2016, age 74; Mimi, 2019, age 82). Yeah, they lived to decent ages, but once we came to know them we wanted them to stay forever. They owned the home down by the pond, and Joe was the best neighbor anyone could possibly have. He plowed up to our bridge when it snowed, invited us to all their barbecues with the old South Philly gang (he had taken over his father’s stone-mason outfit on Washington Ave. before himself retiring), and could be depended on for anything and everything that we might even hint at needing. Mimi was…South Philly to the core, which means loud, generous to a fault, funny, opinionated, with a bedrock sense of right and wrong. 

More (much more, likely) about them at a later date.

Roddy Davis (2001, age 41, of heart attack), my brother Rod’s only child and the center of every family gathering, especially the annual Thanksgiving and Christmas bashes. Funny as hell, with a way of weaving his threads of humor into tapestries, he turned the point of these meals from the food to waiting for his jokes and impressions (especially of the pig that provided a boneless ham). Like too many of our family, he was alcoholic, racked up at least three cars, joined a Jews-for-Jesus outfit but had no quarrel with anyone’s belief system. He had terrible taste in women, intent on finding the most hopeless and trying to help them salvage their lives when, so often, they had no desire for such salvation. He and his father and mother were the most tightly bound trio I’ve known. A sterling human being for the ages.

Rod Davis (2009, age 84), my big brother, the elder of two big brothers. To continue the “salvation” shtick, I think Rod was the salvation of my empty childhood – though he was in the Navy during much of WWII. That I couldn’t love my parents was more my fault than theirs (if any fault involved, which I decline to believe), but I loved Rod, just did. He shepherded and protected me in ways I wasn’t aware of, effectively the Good Uncle – someone it was always a personal joy to be near. His end was heart failure, which I think will be mine. Now it isn’t so much that I miss him (at his funeral I said that there was nothing to regret in his life) as that I have question I want to ask him that no one alive can answer.

But that’s the way of it. Maybe it’s the real reason I’ve continually championed the cache of oral histories that Sullivan County has the immense good fortune to possess. I know what it’s like to lose that voice, that knowledge.

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Life: the cosmic mistake?

Whatever your outlook on the reality of climate change, global warning or the general deterioration of people and the place we live in, it’s obvious that humanity is paddling rapidly up shit’s creek.

The question for me: Is it mostly our doing, a side effect of chance, or the fore-ordained endpoint of evolution? And secondarily, if evolution, what exactly do I mean by evolution in this context?

Through SETI and other efforts, we’ve been listening for the telltale evidence of  intelligent life for close to 60 years and have documented exactly zilch. The explanations for this empty-room resonance range from “We haven’t been looking long enough” to “We haven’t been looking widely enough” (only a tiny segment of the sky has been monitored) to “We might not recognize a truly alien broadcast” to “Maybe they’re intelligent enough to keep quiet” to “There just ain’t nobody there” (with its fundamentalist variant, “We’re all that matters; God just tacked up the rest of the universe for us to gaze at”).

I haven’t seen the following possibilities spelled out (though I’m sure they’re around).

First, maybe we’re just not properly aligned temporally. It took billions or years for the earth to coalesce, hundreds of millions to bring forth life. Our species has been around for only a couple hundred thousand years, has latched onto the electromagnetic spectrum only in the past two centuries, and has tried to reach the mythical others “out there” for the last half century. Maybe tomorrow (if we’re still around) we may a) give up the effort or b) discover a simpler, more direct method of contact.

So let’s turn that around and think about who might be broadcasting to us: First, they’d be doing so from thousands to billions of years in the past. What’s the chance that they would not only have  reached our level of discovery back then, but that they would be broadcasting during exactly the right narrow time frame to interact with us, today? Or that we’d be able to pick up a broadcast diffused to near spectral invisibility? Or that we’d recognize it for what it was? Or the opposite possibility: that we’re johnny-come-latelies who have already been passed by. Whichever way, to receive cosmic evidence of buddies we’d have to be damned lucky spatially and temporally – and we’d also have to be paying close attention, not watching Netflix.

That’s one kind of possibility for our apparent lonesomeness in the big, indifferent universe. But lately I’ve come to wonder: What if life just doesn’t work? Not that it was intended other than the way it turned out – since I don’t believe in the Great Intender – but that life is inherently subject to failure. (I’m talking about organic life here; Linda likes to posit the possibility of life so totally alien that we would have no way to characterize it outside science fiction – and who’s to say that’s less likely than our cobbled chemical stew?)

Evolution on earth has been a horridly beautiful mess. Each individual is the behavioral result of a singular collection of synapses that remains throughout its life at war with its next-door-neighbor’s mass of synapses. Both individuals and species mutate randomly, become diseased or fail in their environment. And die.

Every living thing above a single-celled organism depends on eating some other living thing. Now, that doesn’t seem nice. It’s also inefficient and incompetent. But… so is everything on the cosmic level. Quantum particles wink in and out of existence. Stars create planets – their children – then eat them. Black holes gobble their neighbors. Galaxies collide and unleash a billion years of chaotic aftermath. And unless the current math is wrong, the entire universe will expand forever, pissing off into nothing. 

Looked at this way, life is wholly consistent with physical law – and at the same time a rattle-trap, blundering sideshow. Like the rest of the universe as it races into oblivion, life will attenuate, diffuse, vanish. And with it, its absurd side-effect – our dithering sense of importance.

This week the snow is mystically gorgeous, the woodstove is providing joyous heat, the cat’s sleeping on the printer and has learned to forsake the litter box to shit outside, and we live in one of the last places on earth disaster is likely to strike. So I’m not meaning to complain. Just looking at the other side of the coin.

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Tinkertoys and Yukon Jack

Holidays meant everything to me as a kid; I didn’t have that much else to cheer about. So far as I remember, no playmate visited me until we moved to Powelton in Philly (1947 or ’48). Even there, I was more apt to visit the girl who lived upstairs (Mary?) to watch Howdy Dowdy (damned stupid show) they had a TV, we didn’t. Unlikely connection: My dad was J.R. Davis. Hers was J.R. Davisson. Must have driven the mailman bats.

I memorized the birthday of everyone in the family, anticipating a special aura attached to each one – and often finding it. For my brother Rod’s 21st birthday, Mom encased his present in 21 wrappings, including our bathmat. At the center lay a box (no, a sock!) containing 21 silver dollars.

Sickly little dollop that I was, my first healthy birthday came at age nine, when we hosted my only childhood party. I remember nothing of it but the fact that it existed.

Christmas was a big, big, big deal. Our indoor decoration was little short of insane. We hauled out innumerable boxes of 3/8-inch-thick, dark red, twisted-crepe-paper ropes, each with little foil-covered papier mache bells on the ends. (How old were they? One of them came with a note inside that read “Happy crossing, Moses.”)

After spending hours each year repairing broken twists, we thumbtacked or map-pinned the garlands in elegant swoops across the living-room and dining-room walls, one below the other in decreasing arcs. 

Brother Vic had been official decorator for many years. The title passed to me in my teens, and I took the idiocy to new heights. The longest paper rope, perhaps 20 feet, had previously been snaked, bell-less, around balustrades, but I attached a pair of those little silver bells to its ends and painstakingly multi-swooped it across the entire living room wall of our  court-end house off  37th St..

We set up the tree about a week in advance of Christmas and decorated it with an unending supply of bright but uninteresting glass ornaments. I obsessively placed each ornament so that it did not repeat a neighbor in either shape or color. I would check the tree on all sides, from every angle, before adding the heavy lead tinsel (losing a dozen brain cells for each ponderous strip). We had no lights on the tree. Probably couldn’t afford them. 

Finally, I set up my little metal figures on the library table under the tree. I took about a day and half to carefully position every farm and zoo beast, every last tradesman, train conductor, hobo and milkmaid. There was no such thing as enough.

The extended Davis family held Christmas dinner at Aunt Ruth and Uncle Frank’s in the suburbs. Aunt Ruth was a divorcee with three adult children from a previous marriage, all of them rather more pleasant than Aunt Ruth. She and Uncle Frank had one child together, Charles, a couple years older than me. 

As the youngest of my generation, I felt even more out of place than I normally did, sitting quietly, wishing myself elsewhere or spending time in the basement watching Charles, a pompous shit, operate his electric trains. Later, I’d sit at the end of the U-shaped dinner table, served last with cold vegetables and dry, saliva-sapping turkey.

But my Christmas presents at home were bodaciously cool. My stocking would be stuffed solid with individually tissue-wrapped metal animals, followed by a silver dollar in the toe. And over the course of the years, I was given or inherited from my bothers every known form of construction set: Tinkertoys, Erector Sets, odd slotted composite disks that fit (poorly) into colored plastic tubes, Lincoln Logs, pre-Lego lock-togethers, a set of massive maple blocks and boards, and I don’t remember what else. If one piece could be attached to or placed upon another, we had it.

Lincoln Logs pissed me off (I don’t know why – they still do). I cut my fingers trying to screw together the little nuts and bolts of the Erector Set but loved it nonetheless. Tinkertoys, though – they were king. I didn’t want or need the optional motor: From a bunch of simple rods and wooden circles with holes evenly spaced around the circumference you could construct a functioning steam shovel. Wouldn’t it be lovely if the rest of the world worked that well?

Yet the strongest construction images I retain are of my personally designed and constructed matchstick log cabins, usually made during the summer. I have no idea what got me started on them in my early teens, how long this contained mania lasted, or why I’ve never done anything remotely like them again. 

Each cabin grew atop a thin cardboard sheet taken from one of my father’s dress shirts. I lit each wooden kitchen match and blew it out (those were Smokey the Bear days), then severed its head with a small pocket knife. I glued alternating layers of matches in a square, framing windows and doorways as I went along, then forming a pitched roof. 

What glue did I use? Probably mucilage, the weak but universal adhesive of the day. The bottle had an inclined rubber top with an exit slit not unlike that of a penis. It always clogged when it dried.

I carved and glued individual floorboards from the matches, also tables and chairs and a chimney above the roofline (though not below – an igloo-like construction). Finally, I scissored shingles roughly 1/2 inch on a side from brown paper bags and glued them to the rafters. 

You can picture it, yes? No. Because, from laziness or personal peculiarity, I never notched the ends of the logs. I simply laid them one atop the other where they crossed at the corners, leaving a match-width open space between them on the sides. You could say I created log-cabin skeletons. I wish I had kept one, simply because they were so personal, so unlikely.

Years later, I got into making ever more elaborate Christmas presents for Julie and the kids. For awhile we had a ShopSmith, the only successful multi-use electric shop tool ever devised, serving equally well as table saw, lathe, sander, drill press and Swiss army knife.

After jig-sawing the outer rim off a circular oak dining table, I sanded its edges against the ShopSmith’s revolving disk, then set it on a vertical hexagonal plywood base painted alternately red and yellow around its six sides. (Not quite as kitsch as it might sound.)

I  also built an interlocking collapsible plywood playhouse and Finnish-birch chairs for the kids – clever projects from the back of Women’s Day in its glory years.

About then I became obsessed with form. Made two clocks, one circular, with the same red/yellow alternation in its quarters and the “numbers” – unnumbered  – etched as small circles with a sanding-disk drill bit. The other timepiece was a walnut plywood tetrahedron with the clockface on one side, the “numbers” simple painted triangles. None of my kids showed interest in either one.

Almost half a century after my kidhood, my lack of birthday parties was remedied seven-times over. Linda and Erin caught me out with surprise parties twice, on my 49th and 51st birthdays. The second was a particular doozy. Jim Knipfel and his friend the Grinch kept me occupied at Jim’s place for several hours with … well, pornography, then Jim walked innocent me back home. There I found damned near everyone I had ever known crowded into our friendly Baring St. kitchen. 

Erin had let out that I was a deep, committed fan of Yukon Jack, Canada’s overpowering 100-proof blast of citrused whisky. That day I received 18 bottles of Yukon Jack. There are probably more wonderful things in the word, but … 

No there aren’t.

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Up the fire escape to Albrecht

In the late summer of 1964-65, I moved, for the first time in my life, into a solo apartment. At Penn, I’d lived with my parents, at Stanford in WW II Navy barracks rechristened “dorm” with walls so thin you could be awakened by a sneeze three chambers down, then short-term apartments back in Philly, then the House (oh, much more about the House, later on). 

The solo apartment was on the third floor of a row house at the corner of 37th and Chestnut Sts. in West Philly, since replaced by almost featureless Penn grad dorms. Here, I was again no more than a mile from Powelton Village, where I’d grown up since age eight.

This was my Tolkien summer. I’d picked up the books early on, before they came out in paper, and walked the streets with The Hobbit hanging from my beltloop by a monstrous rubber band.

Since the building was on the corner, it had a loping fire escape that exited in a side area along 37th. I didn’t like the main entrance on Chestnut, which led through a vestibule (ridiculous word) and up a gloomy stairway. So my official ingress was up the fire escape, leading to the small concrete back porch with a single French door opening onto my bedroom/living room (this may be what the English call a bed-sit – I’ve never quite pictured one).

I ripped off the tattered screening that enclosed the porch. Above the railing between the head of the stairs and the door, I mounted a rough-framed self-portrait of Albrecht Durer – the one where he does himself up to look like Christ (though with an oddly lopsided mouth). I shone a small spotlight on it when I went out at night so Al was there to greet me when I rolled home.

The place had, at times, a magical aura. The day I moved in I set my turntable on the floor and put on Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, Helma Elsner on harpsichord. Never before or since has any single record sounded so fulfilling.

The apartment soon became home to the Gluttons Club. Joe from Tennessee and Dave were regulars; a few others drifted in an out. Dave was a Goldwaterite with a remarkable sense of humor for a rightist. We’d cook up fatty delights, eat until we moaned, toss the bones off the porch into the trash cans below, then lie in piles reading comic books.

Across 37th stood a gothic Presbyterian Church (complete with small cloister), since converted into a theater. We’d compete to see how far up the roof we could toss a penny from my window, which was open even in winter because of an excess of heat delivered by the thumping radiator. I’d often spend a quarter hour out on the porch looking down at its beautiful, peaceful architecture that seemed wonderfully removed from people. But back inside, alone, watching the sun set slowly behind the stern rigdeline of its roof often pushed me into deep despair. Another day gone, irretrievable.

The kitchen housed a 1917 Roper gas stove, white and green enamel, that rode proudly on three-foot legs. It had an early ignition system that I’ve never seen elsewhere: You pressed a round brass button on the front, between the burner knobs, and foot-long spears of flame shot out of a central pilot light toward each burner. It never failed.

The bathroom was strange – I’m not sure what function it may have had in its youth: long, narrow, high, with multi-paned windows near the ceiling between it and the kitchen. Its main redeeming feature (a feature that could redeem a whirlpool in Hell) was a clawfoot bathtub. Ahhhh. For some reason I painted the woodwork a deep slate blue. Mistake: The room hovered and glowered at me whenever I bathed and made it plain that it wanted to be left alone. 

That bathtub, however, was home to my introduction to Russian liturgical music. Nonesuch Records in those days put out an astonishing range of world music – cheap too, albums usually a buck each. In a little downtown record shop I picked up Balinese gamelan, music from the Bahamas, Japanese koto and other then-oddities that became some of my all-time favorites. 

I had no idea what to expect from Russian Orthodox music when I slipped it on the turntable and started my bath. Solid, thrumming harmonies. Ahhhh. I was attacking my upper back when suddenly the turntable went berserk. The speed slowed and the pitch dropped to a rumble like the death agonies of a mammoth.

It took me a couple minutes to realize that this was one of the famous Russian basses. The voice is deeper than a well, and as resonant; mournful, rocks complaining of their captivity. Michael Trubetzkoi sings the Epistle to the Romans with God’s own admonition, rising a full octave in half tones yet still ending a meter and half beneath your feet.

I’ve seldom had such an instructive bath.

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Down to the sea in ships (or, summers on the not-so-high seas)

Vic was the only one of us three brethren to realize his childhood dream. He loved the ocean and wanted to sail the seas. After graduating from Kings Point Merchant Marine Academy in the late ’40s, he got a job with Sun Oil as an advanced deckhand, called an able-bodied seaman (universally known as an AB), rose steadily through the ranks to become, finally, Captain of the Fleet. He retired as the company’s top sea dog.

As his brother, I had an in with Sun Oil, so I sailed two college summers on the ships as various types of dogsbody. 

The normal complement of bottom-rung deckhands, called ordinary seaman (universally known as, yes, ordinaries), was augmented in summer by temps to repair the damage resulting from the winds of winter. These extra-ordinaries removed rust and repainted every exposed surface on the deck.

I was hired on at a time when the family-owned company hired no Blacks or known non-Christians. I sailed initially on Vic’s ship, the Eastern Sun, where he was the regular first mate but was then on vacation. Over those summers, on several ships, I never sailed with my brother.

Graceful, ambidextrous, athletic, Vic was yet dogged by physical misfortune. He broke several fingers, a leg and an arm (while clumsy me, I’ve never broken a bone… well, I did cut off parts of a couple fingers). For example, he slipped on an oil slick while carrying a glass sample phial and deeply cut a finger. The tendon retracted before it could be attended to and he was left with a permanently curled digit.

Example two: Each ship carried an “anchor buoy” – a piece of wood attached to a rope which was attached to the anchor chain. Why? Because (snort, chortle, GUFFAW) they’d once lost an anchor in the river! Now, if one dropped along with its chain, you’d know where the poor thing had gone! Vic was standing near when the anchor was released one time and the buoy rope whipped around his arm, smashed it against the rail. His shattered bones were patched with screws and borrowings from other parts of his body.

The worst disaster did not hit him, personally (except spiritually). Whether he was first mate or captain at the time, he was in charge of a three-man crew sent down to check an empty toluene tank. A spark, probably electrical, caused an instantaneous explosion. All three died of oxygen deprivation or seared lungs. The bosun leading that crew was tall, blond, magnificent, a near perfect physical specimen. Almost unimaginable to think of him dead. Vic’s conscience was in shreds for months.

The Eastern Sun‘s captain was an ass. Stupid, superstitious, fearful, he killed the ship’s engines the moment we entered the Delaware River channel lest he might lumber into something while chugging north. It took four hours to drift up the river to the docks at Marcus Hook (once a hangout of Blackbeard the Pirate). One time his tardiness missed high tide and he tried to cinch the ship to the dock by over-tightening the three-inch polypropylene lines fastened to the mooring capstans. One snapped. Under massive tension, the broken line moved faster than the eye could register. It could have cut a man in half.

By contrast, Capt. Brown, the “relief captain” who filled in on vacations (to the entire crew’s relief), would zip upriver in under two hours, screech to a stop mid-stream, then slap the ship home against the dock like parking a motor scooter.

Between full-timers and us summer ordinaries, the Eastern had a varied load of seamen.

Blackie was bosun (foreman of the deck crew). A short, growly taskmaster, he was an OK guy if you enjoy tough love while doing boobic jobs.

Smitty, probably in his mid 30s, was imperturbable, amiable but quietly cynical. 

Tiger, in his late teens, a fundamentalist or born-again, boasted incessantly of his sexual conquests. When he left, I inherited his cabin. The top dresser drawer was stuffed with those little green and-purple-inked religious tracts.

Bell, another spare ordinary, could fart on command. He introduced me to the six categories of farts: fizz, fuzz, fizz-fuzz, pooh, tearass and rattler.  He had little trouble producing on request, though he could not always guarantee a pure category – a fizz-fuzz, apparently, is especially taxing. 

I can’t recall the name of the AB who bestowed the best advice ever given a fellow worker: “Walk fast in the open spaces.” He would barrel along the deck at full-throttle, arms pumping, to midships, where he would enter the paint locker, heave himself up onto a wide shelf, and fall asleep.

My difficulty, as in many (if not most) physical situations, was trying to comprehend what was going on. When first told to help stow the lines after casting off, I shuffled sideways, grabbed something, backed away, looked panicked – and froze. The first mate (Vic’s vacation replacement) asked why I was “standing around while everybody else is doing something.” Because I don’t have the least friggin’ idea what to do.

(Recently I’ve realized that, for all the times I would stumble and bumble through some simple task, most fellow workers ended up liking me. I find that unnerving.)

For entertainment… well, there wasn’t much. The lounge – what the hell was it called? can’t remember – sported an ancient shortwave radio that could being in countries from across the waves. It was also where we did our laundry in a massive washer, using a super-powered detergent called sougie (sp?) kept to clean the decks. It could incidentally dissolve the accumulated oil in our clothing (and probably our faces if we dared apply it).

While a deckhand, I numbed the nerves of two fingers using a handheld pneumatic paint chipper for hours on end. It took six months for full feeling to return. Later, working on a small Sun barge along the southern New England coast, the idiots in charge insisted I steer the thing into a canal – me, who had never driven a car, who had fallen off bikes at five years old and refused to ride again. Two years later, the barge was cleft in twain by a larger ship. I wonder why.

My next bottom-feeder job was “wiper.” Wipers toiled in 110-degree heat and 90% humidity down in the engine room, sopping up grease, servicing machinery, crawling through bilgewater. To offset the gloom, we painted the handrails bright yellow, the steel flooring kelly green. (Later, on an older ship run by pistons, I sat in inch-deep puddles of oil trying, with two others, to loosen steel nuts half the size of my head that held a gargantuan piston in place.)

For a trip or two I even worked in the galley (kitchen), serving meals and cleaning officers’ cabins. The steward – the galley boss – was mid-40s, heavy, bald, profane, likable enough. He ran a constant game of cribbage, a card game where scores are tallied by moving pegs along holes in a wooden board (an English game, of course).

The steward nearly always won; here’s why: The cards were old, greasy, nearly rotting. The galley crew was usually half drunk and about as bright as pewter. They’d shuffle the cards two or three times, which left them adhering in clumps. After half a dozen cards had been played, it wasn’t hard for the steward to determine who was holding which sticky wad. I watched, never played.

Most Sun tankers seldom went anywhere interesting (though over many years Vic ended up in Egypt, Japan and India). The standard run was to Port Arthur, Texas. Tooling up the Sabine River, you passed lush houses along the banks, but when you got to P.A. proper, you had the choice of a couple dive bars, where the crew blew enough money to need to draw against their next paycheck by the end of the run.

I did get to Puerto Rico once, and hired a taxi up a switchback hillside road to the local town, where I was greeted with some amusement. I don’t speak Spanish and, in my shorts, verging-on-albino hair and dead-white skin, I looked as Latin as a border collie. I grinned, nodded and found my way to a liquor store where I bought a couple bottles of rum. Then I shagged up into the hills, sat down, and read. Later, I skittered down at full run, holding my bagged liquor and thinking Hemingwayesque thoughts. 

On every voyage, I hauled along my battered Underwood portable typewriter. I’d buy government-issue postcards – no pix, just an outlined green lozenge on the front above the address space. I’d type across the entire back and front, right around the address, which I’d circle in pen: not a millimeter wasted. Many of the cards I sent to a lovely young lady in Providence, RI. She had gorgeous legs but did not in any other way excite me. The cards were just a mark of friendship.

One who did excite me:

Between trips, I had just enough time to take the commuter train from Marcus Hook to Philly and spend a few hours at our house on Mole St. in Philly. Why, I can’t recall, but this time I was sitting in the small, quiet, concreted back yard, talking to a very bright, belligerent 17-year-old and his mother. The mother was slim and wondrously sexy. At one point she sat in my lap – some sort of comment to her antagonistic son? What effect it had on him I don’t know. The effect it had on me ….

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Of tigers, horses and primates

Big brother Rod loved all of nature, so while he was studying engineering at Penn when we were living in Powelton, we spent a lot of time at the Philly zoo, with his main concentration (of course) on the Reptile House. We lived about half a mile from the zoo, which had free admission on certain days.

The zoo then was fairly primitive and rattle-trap: heavily barred cages set on concrete bases outside, not that much different inside. No matter how recently we’d visited, Rod would stop to read each descriptive sign top to bottom. I’d be worn down like an old watchspring by the end of the day, my feet whining despite my love of the big cats and the Small Mammal House. Rod, as sturdy as an English oak, would carry me home on his shoulders.

One of the zoo’s stars was Bamboo, the oldest gorilla then in captivity. He had two unfortunate habits: One was luring unwary gawkers to his enclosure, then rearing back and pelting them with a fistfull of shit. The other was ripping the arms off keepers. He was not a happy captive. 

Next to him, Massa was just a couple years younger and went on to outlive Bamboo by quite a spate before choking to death on a cake presented to him on his last birthday: “It’s my party, and I’ll die if I want to…”

When I joined the Welcomat as arts editor in 1981 or ’82, I picked up side work writing features for the Philly zoo’s membership quarterly. It took me behind the scenes for long interview-chats with the curators at a time when the zoo was continually modernizing. The mag’s editor was a freelance designer who also forged guns in his garage machine shop. I found him genuinely crazy. We got along fine.

The zoo’s director, Donaldson, was a bearded, fatherly type with an endearing charisma. But he harbored a… strange undercurrent. Talking to him in his office, we drifted onto the subject of raising teenagers. His approach: “When they reach 16, I break their plate and tell them they’re on their own.” He illustrated the comment with a sharp, plate-shattering gesture. 

As one of my perks, Donaldson invited Linda, me and my daughter Erin to an evening members party at the Cat House (as I thought of it). Forty or fifty people jostled in front the the tiger cages, where Monty, a large tiger (son of Kundar, a momentous tiger) stopped dead in his tracks, staring at Erin. As she moved, he followed her, first with his eyes, then with his pacing. This kept up the whole time she was in sight of his cage. I took perverse delight that a tiger would want to eat my daughter. 

When Donaldson died a few years later, I wrote an article for the Welcomat extolling his work at the zoo but suggesting that his divide-and-conquer approach with the staff had set them dueling. I also referred to one of the staff as Snake Woman – and not for her love of legless reptiles. The next day the zoo mag’s nutty editor called Dan, the Welco editor, and demanded that I be fired for anti-zoological heresy. Then Snake Woman called me directly – uh oh, I do not like confrontation – to tell me my comments had been spot on. Ya never know.

Linda had a more direct encounter with a tiger at the Cape May Zoo in New Jersey (a remarkable small zoo). We were standing close to the outdoor enclosure. The cat nonchalantly backed up to the fence and I yanked Linda aside as it let loose a firehose of piss in her direction. And some people think animals don’t have a sense of humor.

The saddest day in the history of the Philly zoo involved a fire in the primate house that killed most of the gorillas. The biggest loss was the alpha male, John. Snake Woman had always been adamant that no one should anthropomorphize an animal. With John, I found it unavoidable. He would sit with majestic, commanding indifference, unperturbed by gawking humanity.

During my trip to Europe as a proper young bum-around with my friends Marcia and Steve, I spent time along the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslavia, back when there was still a Yugoslavia (someone had carved “Tito” into a watermelon left sitting by the roadway). 

The tight, peninsular city of Split, now in Croatia, harbored a small zoo with a wide range of exotic animals, including a stunningly gorgeous Indian pheasant. I stopped by a cage holding a large monkey – not a baboon, I’m pretty sure, but definitely male, as it made plain by humping at me through the bars. That was the only time I’ve been propositioned in public.

Zoos enthralled me, but I never much liked circuses as a kid. Every year, when the granddaddy of all, the Ringling, would set up its monstrous tent in the lot at the end of my Aunt Beck’s street in Upper Darby, Rod would buy a couple tickets and take me. We didn’t have much money, so we ended up near the top at one end, where it was about 105 degrees. With my wretched eyesight I couldn’t see half of what was going on – and it was all going on at once, in all three rings. The third ring, down at the other end, was a misty supposition, while the main act, in the center ring, was  mostly obscured by the always-lesser antics directly below us.

These were great seats for the aerial acts, but somehow they never caught my fancy. I admired the trapezers coordination, since I had none, but I couldn’t see the point to all these spangled people spinning around and catching each other. I wanted them to drop. Most of them had nets, so they’d just bounce anyway. Worse were the choreographed spangle-fests with over-muscled men and women sliding down wires while twirling to insipid music.

I did like several individual acts, like the guy who could balance on one finger on a spinning globe… though I wondered how anyone came to choose such a life’s work. Did he wake up one morning, thunderstruck: “I shall commit my existence to balancing upon one finger on a spinning globe”? Or did a ringmaster, hoping to shoo off a would-be roustabout, tell him, ”get outa here, ya friggin’ idiot – go spin on your finger”?

Still, the only thing I really cared about was the cat act. In those days it was almost always lions – tigers were a rarity. Lions are lazy and dumb. Tigers think too much; they’re wired and they yearn for action. They don’t want to be part of the act, they want to be the act, and they don’t take shit. Lions want to eat. Tigers just want.

In those days, when the Ringling big top was the world’s largest portable structure that didn’t fly, when freaks like the Monkey Woman and her husband the Alligator Man held forth with strange dignity in the wondrous sideshow tent, lion trainers fired blanks and made pointless lunges at their beasts with stools and chairs. The Ringling trainers did it better than the others. I always flinched at loud sounds, and those  ringing shots had me hanging onto the bench ten feet from the sloping top of the tent. It was more hype than grace – just what I needed. 

Years later, Julie and I took Morgan and Erin to the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus. It too set up in tents – long after Ringling had folded theirs and moved to arenas – at a race track north of Philly. It was a more intimate affair than Ringling, maybe because the lure of the circus was dying by the early ’70s. We could get front row seats near the center of the action and be bothered by the clowns, who hated children. They “pretended” to chase kids or stomped them or loomed over them like falling asteroids. One grabbed a cotton candy from a five-year-old, then shoved it in the kid’s face.

We went to the Cole Bros. show three years running. My eyesight had improved somewhat, and I was close enough to see what was going on. Even the aerial acts began to intrigue me. Alas, the lion tamer was a rank idiot who stormed into the big cage shooting his blanks, cracking his whip and waving his chair like a vaudeville act. The lions looked like they’d just been prodded awake from a two-hour nap – because they had. Outside, I’d watched the keeper jabbing them with a pole in their portable cages, trying to get them to stand up straight; they just snorted “piss off” roarlets at him. So the cats generated slightly less tension than tainted mayonnaise at a church picnic.

During a dozen years of reviewing the annual International Theatre Festival for Children at Penn’s Annenberg Center, I saw six or eight small-scale circuses, three- and four-person outfits that could fit on a mainstage – acts from Canada, Moscow, England, China, all the hell over the world. Most were amazing in their dexterity, tilted humor and ability to master every kind of circus act known to man. They could put the Ringling to shame in virtually every area but one – no cat acts. You don’t want lions and tigers and bears, oh my, roaming the audience of a major cultural center.

I never fully understood circuses until one of the trips Linda and I and Caitlin took to Pentwater, MI, in the early ’90s. We saw advance signs for the Franzen Bros. Circus, inviting people to the school ballfield to watch them set up their tent. I looked at those signs with a visceral turn of wonder… Will they do it? Will they really do it?

They did. They used elephants to put up the tent, like in every circus fairytale you’ve ever read. The pachyderms wrapped their trunks around ropes big enough to knot two semis together, and up went the tent; then roustabouts whacked pins into the ground with sledges and cinched the ropes. A sight I’d long hoped for but never expected to see.

If the Cole Bros. was intimate, the Franzen Bros. was like crawling into a friend’s glove. We roamed the trailers, petting poodles that would later perform like canine sufis, bought balloons from frowsy peddlers who later performed double somersaults that almost brushed the canvas top, paid a buck to a guy who looked like one of Linda’s Kansas relatives so Caitlin could ride a pony that slogged around in a circle, like Arnold Schwarzenneger in Conan; later, that could-be Kansan turned into the circus owner and most incredible animal trainer.

I’d watched Gunther Gebel-Williams at Ringling, and he was spectacular, especially when he stood in the middle of a monstrous arena and bellowed commands to half a dozen elephants dispersed to the far corners. But Gebel-Williams was in spangle mode, bleached hair in waves, Vegas-Elvis leotard poured onto him by the Ringling illusion machine. He was, technically, maybe the best ever – but he’s what you could (and did) see on TV. You could admire Gebel-Williams comfortably while munching potato chips.

But when Wayne Franzen waved his hand and half a dozen tigers – tigers, not wimpy lions – rolled over in unison like pussy cats, I couldn’t eat a thing because my mouth was hanging open.

He was just as good with horses, not only getting the steed to count and spell (like any horse counts and spells in public), but holding a back-forty conversation with the animal, gently chastising “errors,” sharing horsey jokes. And I couldn’t figure out his signaling mechanism. At the Land of Little Horses, near Gettysburg, PA, the woman did it with a slight waver of her left knee, but I haven’t the least idea how Franzen clued the beast. Maybe the horse really could count.

But those tigers… the ease, the lack of hype. No guns, no dickhead props, just a quiet man and his friends, the cats. It created the kind of awe that should surround a circus – a great mystery almost revealed.

Another decade later, in Chambersburg, PA (not that far from the Land of Little Horses), Wayne Franzen was killed by one of his tigers, Lucca, in front of 200 kids at a benefit show, hooked clean through on one of its claws and dragged around the ring like Hector at Troy. Sadness, horror and a strangely personal sense of loss: This man was killed by one of his friends.

Some expouser suggested that Franzen’s new “bright costume,” used only once before, had set the tiger off. I don’t buy it. No, I think brother tiger just woke up pissed off at the world that morning: “Who the fuck’s Wayne to tell me what to do?”

When you look at it, Franzen had a damned near perfect death. From drudgery as a 26-year-old shop teacher he’d gone on to realize a quintessential American fantasy – not just to run away to the circus, but to create one of his own. 24 years later, he ended his career with one of the greatest circus acts of all time.

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