Archive for May, 2021

One of those days, yesterday

And a damned good one, in this case.

We knew the rain was coming, and I was already pre-sogged. We did have something to look forward to, the “Last Friday Poetry Reading” at Winterland Winery, one of the last two Sullivan County wineries (so far as I know) still turning juice into alcohol. Maybe afterwards we’d have Friday dinner D&D Brew Works, a superbly friendly restaurant with a funny U-shaped counter where we always try to occupy the right-front corner.

We were sad that our friend Ben wouldn’t be making the reading – because he’d just had an eye injection (Jesus Christ, don’t tell me about such things!), but Alan, our frenetic librarian, said he come, and rumored that one of the local high school students would be there; if so, I was pretty sure who it would be, though I’d never met her.

As it turned out, I was right, and she brought along a friend who was living with her family this year. (I’m leaving the names out because there was a sense of necessary privacy to our little group.) 

The first girl read stunning bits of her own poetry, then her friend, a high school junior… poured out some of the most amazing and agonizing personal poetry I’ve heard in years. (Between Greta Thunberg, this girl, and some of the Parkland kids, I’m ready to hand the world over right now to the latest generation, especially its women. Our complacency is shot and should be buried.)

Linda and Alan and I read funny little bits (including some T.S. Eliot snickers and contemporary pieces). It was a fine time, the perfect setup for an evening at D&D’s – until Linda and I got there and found the dining-room door locked. What? What? But lots of cars out front, so maybe the bar was open. Ah, yes – and serving the full restaurant menu. The dining room was closed because they weren’t able to hire enough help to handle the Friday-night dining crowd.

The bar’s a huge room with a flattened oval bar counter (I don’t what to call such a figure – you know: two long parallel sides joined at each end by the arc of a circle – no, it is not an ellipse!), with behind it a smaller rectangular counter, plus a scatter of tables way down there.

I’ve never seen another bartop like this one. Maybe it’s part of some old tradition or taken from a famous hangout in NYC (I don’t know famous hangouts in NYC): The entire flattened-oval top is solidly covered with nickels set under glass or tough, clear plastic. Being compulsive about numbers, I figured that the entire sweep of the bar ran to maybe 30 feet, and counted each line of crosswise nickels: 22. Given that a nickel measures about 2.1 cm, there are roughly 9500 nickels snoozing there, coming to (again very roughly) $475. (And that doesn’t count the similar layout on the smaller bartop behind.)

Our order was taken by a kid standing behind us who looked about 12 but said he was 16. We decided (as so often) to share a Loyal-Sock-It-To-Ya pizza, a clever play on the Loyalsock Creek that defines the county’s water. This is a white pizza with chicken bits and a ranch dressing (does such a thing exist elsewhere?) that’s so good it makes your teeth wander.

We’d already ordered our drinks – Linda’s Blue Moon and my shot of Yukon Jack. Which is where it gets wonderful:

The barkeep is shortish, slightly bent – and never, never, never stops. He scurries like a harried force of nature, slapping down glasses, foaming drinks with his syphon, dashing out into the wider room and back. (When we’d eat as usual at the dining counter, we’d watch him flying past and wonder why the hell he had to personally pick up every dish from the kitchen and express it back to the bar.) Last night I stopped him just long enough to ask if he ever stood still. Not sure what he answered, but when Linda asked what he did at home: “Sleep.”

Listening to the bar regulars we finally found that his name is Bob. Well, of course its Bob. Though he looks nothing like the evil presence in the first Twin Peaks, he’s a Lynchian figure through-and-through. He’s probably the most perfect barkeep in the Western world – not just efficient but epitomizing the place where he works.

Which is not to say that the owners, Deb and Dennis, are slouches. Deb was also at full run, both behind the counter and as liaison to everywhere. Early on, when D&D was new, she seemed to take a cotton to us and would waste a bit of time in blather. Last night, as we were getting ready to leave, she screeched to a halt and chatted for maybe three minutes. It had an interesting effect: As we waved goodbye, everybody on the other side of the bar gave us a big shout. Deb had made us “known.”

So that was the night.

Uhn, wait, whoa. It wasn’t.

When I got home and sat at the computer, where I spend too much time, I was greeted with perhaps the most unlikely email I’ve ever received.

Alan, the frenetic librarian mentioned, has turned the Sullivan County Library into a social powerhouse. Not that it wasn’t always a special, friendly knowledge-center, but he, like Bob the barkeep, never stops.

One thing that got set up after he came (not sure whether it was his doing or the county commissioners) was creation of the Friends of the Sullivan County Library, a membership and fundraising body.

In the five or so years of its existence it’s not only wracked up a funding influx that would make your eyes cross, but established a wide range of adult programs, like GED guidance courses, Wednesday quilters, book discussion groups, that Last Friday Poetry reading, etc., etc.

Because I really like the library and really like Alan, I chose to sit in on one of the Friends’ “board” meetings (not restricted to their board). Oh man… that two and a half hour wander into digressionland near to fused my bureaucratic brain-wires.

Yet because it’s the kind of thing I like to do, I said I’d put out their quarterly newsletter after the first editor left. But this last year – trying to back off local duties to get myself focused on fiction writing – I passed it on to a wonderful woman who, frankly, has much done a better job of it. 

So anyway… coming home for D&D’s, more than slightly sozzled from three slugs of Yukon Jack, I sat down to download and mangle whatever email came in. And there it was – the lead note asking me if I’d like to become president of the Friends of the Library.

What? Which? How? Why would they do that, where did this come from, I’m just the little guy in the corner hunched over his keyboard.

It felt like if I’d walked into Hurley’s, the local grocery, and someone had siddled up to me and whispered, “Sayyyy, you come in here every week – would you like to manage the store, heh, heh?”

This sounds exaggerated, but really, it felt like it fell from the sky. I still can’t figure it… and still don’t know what my response is. I have failed to raise enough to live on for most of my life, don’t promote my own books, have as little sense of how the funding world works as my cat. 

Well, I have a hell of a sense of humor. Is that enough?

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Mole Street

Who would think there could be such a name, outside an English novel? But I lived there for the last two or three years of my undergrad days at Penn.

It’s a tiny back street of narrow brick rowhouses only a block and a half north from Philly’s City Hall. “Kelly’s on Mole St.” notably graced the separated  South Mole – a seafood restaurant where you sat at long, seaman-like tables, while nautical plates rested on a ledge above your head.

Our North Mole extended no more than a block and a half. The old rowhouses on our (east) side of the street were part of an estate administered by a downtown bank that charged the even-then ridiculous rent of $125 a month – which was why we could afford to live there. I have no idea how Mom discovered this place, but she had an unerring homing device for decent downscale living.

Two or three doors up the street lived the daughter of an Inquirer sports staffer. I wept for this wondrous teen female, whose name I can’t recall. Never spoke to her, of course, since I was still petrified of approaching a girl, but I could dream. Oh, I did dream.

Halfway through college I’d never had a date – yes, it (I) was that bad. At that point, Mom levered me together with Barbie (she actively called herself that), an overweight blonde who was volunteering for Mom, then secretary at Christ Church on Second St. Barbie was my first kiss and my first delicious grope, in the living room of Mole St. 

A few home-dates later, she resisted said grope (all above the waist). I kept at it – should I have? Christ, I don’t know – until she gave way. As she buttoned up, she asked, “Do you love me or was I just easy?” “Neither, I think,” I answered, which was truthful but about as insensitive as one can get. But I didn’t love her, and 15 minutes of getting access to those last two buttons was anything but easy. “I love you,” she said (or that’s what it sounded like, spoken low). Later, she lost both weight and interest in me. Can’t blame her.

No other house I’ve lived in so well reflected what it should be. The living room was the epitome of Mom’s superb sense of interior decoration. She covered three walls in yellow wallpaper with moss-green accents; the front wall and woodwork she painted a deep teal that sang of the tropics. Gorgeous, warm, settling.

The bathroom, too. Bathrooms should be as large as your living space will permit (where do you think the term “commodious” comes from?). On Mole St. there was room for a potted tree in the center and a free-standing wooden cabinet that held washcloths and towels (a Hoosier design, I later found out). A clawfoot tub, of course. You could shit, wallow, recline without restraint.

We traveled from floor to floor by piecrust stairway. I lived in the garret that enveloped the top floor, a long room with slanted ceiling and small windows front and back. A simple horizontal rail protected me from lurching down the stairs. It was a perfect, personal space, despite continual peeling of the thin outer layer of plaster. 

Dad, as usual, chose the tiniest room, a narrow bedroom next to the bath, and placed in it his chifferobe, a cheesy armoire-y thing whose undersized hinges continually worked loose. Every few months he re-invigorated the screwholes with matchsticks and Plastic Wood. If you ever encounter Plastic Wood, run; that item this worthless is still sold is a mark against the free enterprise system. 

Mom took the large second-floor bedroom that faced the street. 

I remember nothing of the kitchen except the semi-automatic Thor washing machine (you flipped a lever to advance cycles), our first non-wringer washer – odd to have purchased an appliance named for a god who threw hammers. 

The house backed up to the Philadelphia Friends Center on 15th St. The Quakers are quiet by nature, and we heard never a sound beyond the 6-foot-high, textured brick wall terminating our small back yard. We might have been sequestered in an ancient countryside village, inside that English novel.

The yard was a small, square space floored in concrete, with one raised flower bed against the Friends’ wall. During the first summer I trebled the size of the bed and built a low brick wall between us and our left-hand neighbor, topping it with a wooden gridwork to support vines. Next to the kitchen wall I sledged a hole through the concrete, on which we sat an unbottomed pot holding a wisteria to grow over the fence. 

I spent some of the happiest single hours of my life in that silent, isolated yard, reading, listening to our tiny radio, sometimes thinking. I wish there had been more of them.

Those years (1959-61) were a cultural in-between: Men stopped wearing hats, and no one noticed or commented on it. Women’s skirts grew shorter (thank you, Jehovah).

Tired of my childhood years of being sickly, miserable and cold every day of winter, I walked the two miles to Penn each morning wearing as little as I could without freezing to the sidewalk. 

Released from the formalism of my Catholic high school suit, I did not, as stereotypes of the time might suggest, become immediately cruddy and scruffy. Instead, I chameleonized, retaining the general societal form but radically changing color and content.

I wore one or another brightly colored shirt with black-and-white checks, fastened at the color with a contrasting, equally colorful, equally checked clip-on bow tie. Against the cold I slipped on a sleeveless, eye-searing-red V-neck sweater, overlaid by a plaid, not-quite-Spike Jones sports jacket. I didn’t own an outer coat.

I looked ludicrous and knew it, but for the first time in my life I not only didn’t care, I gloried in my bird-of-paradise absurdity.

Those were my last days of nuclear family, of being protected from and denied access to the world. Later came hell and high (intellectual) water. All-in-all, the change was a liberating one. But for every gain, they say, comes a loss.

Or maybe that’s just a statistical approximation.

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Stuffed Animals

My childhood fear of the dark was monumental. Before the lights went out, I would carefully straighten my blankets, perfectly align the fold of the top sheet, place both arms under the covers and, from inside, tuck the top sheet tight under my neck so nothing could find a looseness to intrude.

What did I think would get in? I never pictured anything… it was just idea, which probably made it worse. 

Some nights I would realize I had forgotten to sequester my stuffed animal in with me. In my zeal to clang shut the fortress of my sheet, I had left it alone on the blanket. For minutes I would screw up my courage, then lash out with octopus tentacle, grab the mock beastie and pull it in. 

My stuffed animals were part friend, part comfort, part talisman, protecting me from the unnamed “other” that must not enter. I had started with four or five, maybe half a dozen. By the time I relinquished their protection, some time in my early teens, I had accumulated 15 or more.

The originals included a dirty and tactilely uncomfortable giraffe, a stuffed beige  horse with a printed-on brown saddle and stirrups, a small teddy bear missing patches of fur, a real stuffed koala (I had no environmental pity in those days), and a cracked, flaking rubber pig – not stuffed but hollow – with painted blue shorts and red top. Brother Rod named the pig “The Boohoo” because when you squeezed it, it expelled a rubbery stink of air through a tiny whistle in its foot that sounded much like a baby’s cry. 

The horse met a sad fate. About age six, the whole family, myself included, decided that horsey was beyond salvation; it was time for the last roundup. Dad was burning leaves in the back yard at Hastings Ave. and he (or I) added the horse to the tiny conflagration. That was OK – it worked for Vikings. But Dad poked the fire with a stick, hit the horse, and it broke just forward of the painted saddle. Some little thing in me broke too – I had allowed a terminally maimed friend to be broken like a  heretic after serving me without complaint.

Rod was gifter of most of the more interesting additions to my stuffed collection. The ones I remember most fondly are a grizzly bear and a platypus with one webbed foot sewed on upsidedown. 

Mom hand-sewed at least one – a snake, brown on top, yellow on the bottom with green sequin eyes. It was tightly stuffed and shouldn’t have been that pleasant to hold, but it was weirdly comforting nestled between my bent forearm and my neck. Either she or Rod gave me a penguin with moveable arms (flippers, wings – what should they be called?). 

I slept with each of these animals in rotation. I would search through the big floppy bag beside my bed to find the night’s designated attendant to join me on the road to sleep. When I would forget who had graced my bed the previous night, I would veer close to panic. Were I to pick the wrong companion for the night, how would the overlooked rightful evening-owner feel? 

What made me feel I was betraying a simulacrum? I suppose children do that, and I shouldn’t look back with such disdain on my small, quailing self. But the encapsulated child in me (probably in many of you) still worries that I have slighted the dog when parceling out pan lickings. 

(What? You don’t let your dogs lick pans? What the hell’s wrong with you?)

*    *    *    *

An aside: Daughter Caitlin, now living in upstate New York, where she’s constructing a “tiny house” studio (12 x 12 feet) for her burgeoning stop-motion animation business, has started a fundraising campaign to buy solar panels to provide electricity in her off-the-grid woodland site, along with batteries to keep it operative on cloudy or otherwise uncooperative days (of which there are many that far north). Should you find yourself inclined to support such an obviously environmentally sound and artistic endeavor, you can drop a penny or two in her jar:

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